Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Uyghur region of China: curfews, checkpoints, tank barriers, and hospitality of Xinjiang people. Hitchhiking through the oppressed Muslim province

The driver who gave us a ride–let’s call him Mansur–is on his way back from a business meeting. Even though he looks way younger than us, he seems to be quite a successful businessman. He doesn’t understand very well why anybody would deliberately hitchhike to another continent just to see what it looks like. To helping us, though, he doesn’t seem to necessarily need understanding our motivations.  

How to make friends the very first day

Where exactly are you going?” he asks us.
‟Any place on the way to Urumqi is fine.”
Are you sure? Where are you staying tonight?”
We will camp at the place we get to.”
‟Oh, but
it must be tiring.”
It’s fine, we are used to it. We always camp.”
‟Listen, come for dinner tonight. You can stay in my family’s home for a couple of days, take a rest and then you can continue to Urumqi.”

Suddenly, it is easy to forget we are in Xinjiang, the most surveyed and oppressed region of China; the Chinese province the least known in the west, as not many westerners come here. The Chinese authorities describe it as dangerous, with Islamic riots and attacks going on. Critics say that this mostly is the government’s propaganda and excuse to bully the local Uyghur people who technically are Muslim and probably are not obedient enough to the party.

From what my cousin told me after hitchhiking through China a few years back, I expected people to be suspicious, mostly reserved, cold and indifferent compared to those in Middle East and Central Asia. No conversations with strangers turned into friendships, no random invitations to people’s homes, no lunches turned into week-long visits. So I was mentally prepared for long waiting and being on our own. I expected police checks, haggling and hardships. I totally didn’t expect being invited for a visit after 3 hours we spent in the region, by the very first person we happen to talk to. I think I must readjust my preconceptions about this country’s people a bit.

Mansur is warm, fluent in English, and–given the circumstances–fairly talkative.

A specimen of the local flora.

Little annoyances of Xinjiang

He slows down to stop at a gas station. Or at least I think it’s a gas station. It looks like a fortress expecting a zombie attack. The place is enclosed with a high fence wrapped in razor wire. There is a barrier across every access road, at the entrance there is a booth with a guard, and the gates are surrounded by massive tank barricades that look like something from a WWII movie.

I’m afraid they won’t let all of us in”, Mansur says, maybe a bit embarrassed.
Are we not supposed to be in your car? We can get out. Can we just walk in there?”
‟I’m not sure. I’d better just go there alone as a driver with the car. Can you wait for me outside?”

We are waiting at the exit and I’m wondering whether this place is so special or whether all
gas stations in China look as if they were ready for war. Normally, we go to petrol stations to get drinking water and to use bathrooms. It seems, though, that we must find another way in China. Later, we find out it’s not like this in the entire country; it only is one of the specialties of Xinjiang.

As the journey continues, we are talking with Mansur about his studies in another province, about our trip and about the Chinese language. It reveals that our new friend actually is Uyghur–member of the Muslim minority–even though he is not religious himself.

Somewhere in Xinjiang

Visiting an Uyghur family

At the entrance to his town, there is a police checkpoint. All of us must show our IDs but we pass smoothly. The city is bigger than the one at the border but Mansur says it actually is very small. It also is very clean, full of flowers and quieter than I imagined Chinese towns would be. At the gate leading to the block of flats Mansur lives in, there is a reception with guards that check people going in. We are wondering whether the reception is there just to protect the inhabitants, or to survey them. In any case, we suppose that hosting people from abroad isn’t exactly on the list of things Mansur is allowed to do. (Camping is not allowed either to foreigners, but that would be our own problem.)

Are you sure you won’t get into troubles because of us?” we ask.
‟Don’t worry.”
The guards write down we are entering but let us pass.

We arrive to a big cozy flat full of carpets. Everybody is smiling and saying hi. A family dinner is being prepared. Nobody seems surprised we showed up unexpected. Mansur introduces us to a friendly lady, a smiley girl a bit younger than us and the father of the family.

As usually, we ask if we can help them with the preparations, and as usually, we are not allowed to do so. We get seated on the carpet at a long low table. We are served loads of delicious vegetables with rice and meat. Everything seems so nicely familiar, like back in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan.

I also realize that the language the family is speaking is not Chinese. I don’t know anything at all in Uyghur either but it sounds a bit like what we heard in Central Asia, so I try saying thank you in Kazakh. The lady smiles even more than before and answers something. The following hours and days, I just keep saying rakhmat to everybody. We also keep getting food, tea and everything we could think of, so there always is something to thank for.

Big annoyances of Xinjiang

After dinner, we go for a walk with Mansur. The weather is still sultry. The streets are mostly empty. We walk a few blocks, to a place under trees, with a food stand and some tables. Mansur buys some soda. We are almost the only visitors.

This is my favorite place”, Mansur says. ‟Normally, there are more people.”
So where is everybody?” I’m wondering.
‟It’s because of the curfew.”
‟Oh... so we are not supposed to be out at all?”
‟No, we can be out. Just not too much.”
‟Why is there a curfew, actually?”
Because of security. There have been some troubles,” Mansur says vaguely.
‟Big troubles? What happened?”
‟No, not big. I think. But it’s OK now,” he says, avoiding details again. I am wondering whether he wants to present a positive picture of his country, or whether he is afraid to speak about these things.
I see. How long has there been a curfew?
‟This one not too long. But before that there was another one. It sometimes happens. Then it is revoked. And then there is a new one.”
He also tells us that Vojta is not supposed to have the beard that has grown on his face over the last week.

It’s actually illegal to have a beard”, Mansur smiles. ‟Or, it is allowed only to old men. Not to young ones. Because one then looks dangerous. You will probably be fine, though, as you’re a foreigner”, he adds.

We then talk about Mansur’s life. As his business is doing well, he can afford studying in a different region at a university in which is better than universities in Xinjiang. That’s where he learned English. Now he is home for holiday. Except for that, he hasn’t traveled much.

Is it because you are not interested in other countries, or because traveling is too difficult?”

‟I would like to see some other countries, but I don’t have a passport.”
‟Is it so expensive
and hard to get one?” I am wondering.
‟It’s that we are not allowed to have passports.”
Oh... sorry, I didn’t realize...”

It seems quite difficult not to stumble across delicate topics. Mansur never gets offended, though, and patiently explains us everything–without going too much into details, being negative or judging anything, though.

He is happy, despite the security issues and security measures. He has worked hard and has been lucky, he says, so his family is now quite well-off. He is glad he can help people now. He also says the countryside in the region is beautiful and he even offers to take us to a lake in the mountains on one of the following days.

The less touristy part of China

First days in the Uyghur province

We spend the following days with Mansur and his family. Vojta shaves his illegal beard. Mansur helps us a lot: he goes shopping with us for some equipment we need, shows us the right stores and as we can‘ t read labels in Chinese, he even finds the products for us (such as glue for my broken shoes). It takes some effort to talk him out of paying for the things too.

We went to a bookstore to buy a roadmap of China, and we found this gem

We decide not to buy a Chinese SIM card here–Mansur is not sure if there are prepaid cards at all in Xinjiang, and buying a plan is very hard or impossible for foreigners. We will have to do without internet until we get to the next region.

We also ask Mansur what software he uses to access blocked content on the web, and are surprised to find that he doesn’t use any. He just doesn’t try to circumvent the ban. We find it quite interesting because in Iran–our previous dictatorship with filtered internet–literally everybody used VPN. Maybe there is just no need for people to use other than Chinese apps. He indicates–in his usual minimalist way–that his phone undergoes checks. He doesn’t say clearly whether it is because it is a company phone, or whether there is something more to it. I prefer not to ask him any more questions.

In the morning, Mansur leaves to work, and comes back several hours later. We stay with his family and prefer not to leave the neighborhood at all, so that we don’t have to go through the reception and attract more attention than necessary. Also, we genuinely enjoy staying with these people. We already learned not to be shocked by the fact that in these parts of the world, people don’t mind hosting complete strangers who don’t even speak their language. We are aware, though, that if you are a Chinese Uyghur, it might require even more warmth and bravery.

Eventually, we find a way to communicate a bit–through music. I take my flute and play some songs I know. In Europe, this flute is the simplest and most unimpressive instrument ever; every schoolkid learns to play it. Here, though, it is exotic and our hosts seem genuinely interested in it. Then, the father of the family brings his string instrument and plays some of his tunes for us. Later on, as I start playing another song, he joins me and reproduces my tune, and we play together. It is a Czech song talking about the Altay sky as something dreamy and distant, and here we are less than 1000 km far from the Altay Mountains, playing the song together with an elderly Uyghur man. It is a moment of connection even though we don’t share a language.

When the time comes to leave, we ask Mansur whether he will go with us up to the mountain lake he mentioned.
‟I’m sorry but I can’t. We are not allowed to go up there now.”
‟How come?”
‟We cannot leave the town without a permit. Because of the curfew, you know? It is a new rule now.”
‟I’m sorry for that... Do you know until when?”
‟No. It happens every now and then.”
‟Does that mean that nobody can leave the town?”
‟No, no. Chinese people can. You will be fine too, I think. It’s just us.”

I don’t really know what to say. I am wondering what is it like to face things like that every day of your life. Mansur doesn’t seemed bothered, though. He is probably used to that. Or, he just doesn’t show any negative emotions.

Before we leave, Mansur translates a letter for cops into Chinese for us, explaining what we are doing and asking them to let us go on. We hope it will help us at checkpoints. Mansur’s mum prepares some packages with food for us and insists that we take them. We are saying goodbye to each other like old acquaintances. They wish us luck but I can’t help thinking it’s them who need it most.
Tea in a guard's booth

Sayran lake: a hidden beauty. Also, no checkpoints

Mansur drives us to the end of the town. When he leaves, we realize we were stupid not to have him translate our hitchhiking letter into Uyghur too: the first person who stops for us drives us back to the town, despite our protests, because he doesn’t read Mandarin. We don’t have Uyghur in our phone translation app either. This will be fun.

So we walk through the entire town again to an eastbound road. The heat is suffocating and soon we are bathing in sweat. Luckily, there are lawn sprinklers everywhere, so I sometimes shower with them with all my clothes to make the heat a bit more bearable.

At the end of the town, we need to go through a checkpoint: our letter helps and the guards let us pass. The motorway is smooth, solid, with guardrails, like in Europe. We are still not used to that; it is almost scary to hitchhike on it. It is quieter than in Europe, though, because of all the electric cars. Soon, a driver of a small truck gives us a ride. We are on the road again.

The crew of the next car that stops–probably a father with sons–don’t trust us. They seem to be afraid of us. They read our letter, have a discussion together and want to see our passports. After looking at our visa, they take us in. We drive for a long time and start climbing up the hill. Coniferous trees replace parched fields.

Then, the Sayran lake appears. It is huge, dark blue, surrounded by distant mountains, and deserted. Our drivers leave us on the shore; it seems they came here, to the middle of nowhere, just to take a few pictures and go back again. The weather is fresh and it makes me absolutely happy. There is just a house at the lake and a couple of yurts in the distance. When we are putting up our tent on a nearby pasture, watching marmots (or whatever that is), it feels as if we were somewhere in Central Asia again and as if checkpoints and curfews belonged to a different universe.

The Sayran Lake

In the morning, we find out that the lake shore actually is a favorite tourist spot: tourists park their cars on the emergency line of the motorway, climb under the fence, go to the beach, take a few pictures and sometimes make a picnic. Young guys from nearby yurts try to sell them horse rides. Every half an hour, cops come and tell the tourists to go away. The tourists leave, the cops leave, and immediately new cars stop in the emergency line and everything repeats. 

We have a lot of time to watch the scene happen over and over: after having a breakfast and taking a swim in the lake (we are the only ones to do so), we get stuck for several hours. Tourists ask us to take pictures of them, they smile a lot, read our hitchhiking letter, say ‟oooooh” an ‟aaaah”, and leave. The young local horsemen try to tell us something in English; I try to tell them something in Mandarin. Both of us fail. Anyway, the weather here is so nicely fresh that I don’t even mind being stuck.

Then we get lucky: a father and a son give us a ride, and they are going all the way up to Urumqi.  

Vojta's bag and the horsemen of Sayran

Urumqi: how to get overwhelmed by hospitality

They might be Chinese, not Uyghur, but I actually can’t tell the difference very well. Anyway, they speak Chinese to each other. The young guy has an online translation app; although the rendition usually is poor, we manage to communicate a bit. The way is long; we see many more plateaus, fields and fortified gas stations. Our hosts take us to a small diner for lunch–we get a mountain of delicious food again and we are not allowed to pay for it. Vojta warned me it was impolite to finish your meal in China as the host might think they have not prepared enough food; the portions are so huge, though, that there is no way of finishing them anyway.

Urumqi is big–the biggest city in Xinjiang–and that scares me. A big city will mean a lot of crowds, a lot of traffic, a lot of surveillance and a lot of effort to find a camping spot and a way out. But we are extremely lucky: our drivers are passing less then 5 kilometers from the junction we need to get to. 

They are pretty surprised we want to get off at night in the middle of nowhere, on a suburban bypass with not even a place to stop. But they agree to stop anyway. We walk across a rusty bridge with no sidewalk, go down the embankment and climb over some railings and fences. The air is stifling again. We are in a dull industrial neighborhood. But we quite easily find a small hidden field to camp on. Also, we will be able to walk to our next hitchhiking spot without having to use public transport–an amazing coincidence in a city of 3.5 million. 

In the morning, we try to find some drinking water on our way to the hitchhiking spot. It is more difficult than we expected–not that people were unhelpful, though. 

It is quite hard to find any people whatsoever in this suburb. Eventually, we get to a small shabby square with a lot of shops and little restaurants. In front of one of them, there is a water pump. I address an elderly man nearby, show him our phrase sheet with the sentence ‟Is this water OK for drinking?” and point at the pump. He answers something vague which I interpret as yes, so we try to use the pump. Some ladies come out of a store, making grimaces and pointing at their stomachs. So the water is not good, then. Before we manage to say anything, they take us in the store. We try asking them for water and they take the entire phrase sheet from us and start reading it all. 

Besides the request for water, some basic words and sentences explaining that we are from Czechia and we are hitchhiking to Mongolia, there are things such as: ‟Can we put up a tent here, please?”, ‟I don’t eat chili”, ‟I don’t eat offal” and ‟I have a diarrhea”.
Our Chinese phrasebook. It would make Monty Python jealous.

While we are trying to explain them we just need to fill our water bottles, we get tea and two huge plates of noodles and veggies. I suspect they are without chili and offal. We manage to take the phrase sheet back before our hosts get to the phrase: ‟I have been bitten by a snake”. We eventually manage to understand that there is no drinking water here. But we eat the noodles–delicious again–, drink the tea, show the shopkeepers some photos, give them some postcards of Prague and let them take some selfies with us. They also let us use their bathroom and wash our T-shirts in there. Some of their neighbors come to see us too. Our hosts won’t hear about us paying for the noodles, and they also boil some eggs for us and give us a big dumpling.

We are leaving overeaten, with clean T-shirts, plenty of new supplies, and some new pictures. The only thing we don’t have is water. We don’t dare asking for it again in this neighborhood.

The advantage of having privileged passports and living outside the system (or are we just lucky?)

We spend several hours urban hiking: we cross some brownfields and construction sites, walk along some roads not meant for walking, find out the intended hitchhiking spot is not good enough and end up taking a long stroll along a motorway. The initial 5 kilometers turn into 10. It is sultry, the traffic is heavy and noisy and we are covered in sweat and dust. 

We realize we got through Urumqi without seeing a single checkpoint. It’s almost surprising. I’m wondering whether the surveillance is automated here, or whether we avoided all of it simply by traveling in a way the system might not be built for.

In the afternoon, we finally head east again. We get a ride by a Chinese-American family visiting their home country. Then a truck driver. Then another truck driver. He is Uyghur. He drives us to his town. His wife and he take us to a restaurant and invite us for a huge, delicious dinner.

We ended up in Qitai, nowadays a little unimportant town. In history, though, it used to be a major trade point. China is still called ‟Kitai” in some languages after this town. It looks completely ordinary. We find an ATM that works with our Mastercard and withdraw money for the first time. I am surprised it works and doesn’t involve passports. We meet a young guy who speaks Russian; he plans to go to Russia for his studies. He tells us Xinjang has bad reputation and is economically weak because of the violence going on here. He thinks the region deserves better. It reminds me that Xinjiang actually is considered poor and backwards–compared to Central Asia, though, it looks neither poor nor backwards, roads are better quality than in Central Europe, and the ubiquitous irrigation systems for flowers look pretty sophisticated and expensive.

We are walking out of the town at night, looking for a camping spot. The broad streets lined with blooming bushes and flowers are almost completely empty, and on every major intersection there is a police booth. Sometimes it has a flashing blue light on the roof. It looks almost surreal. We take minor streets to avoid the booths and end up camping in a pretty dense artificial wood interwoven by an irrigation system. (All flowers and trees in most parts of the region seem to be artificially planted and watered; without that, there would probably just be a huge desert).

We leave the motorway and continue by country roads for several days. We are passing across a green fresh plateau, through villages and small towns. Sometimes there are yurts again. The towns are spacious, colorful, clean and lively and they are small enough to be walked through. There are green plains around and even the heat is more bearable.

At every entrance to or exit from a town, even on country roads, there are checkpoints. Our passports in Latin alphabet usually confuse the guards. They probably don’t know how to read them, so they just stare at them, try copying something from the visa or scan them and let us pass. Sometimes they ask our drivers questions but they never give any of us hard time.  

At a Buddhist shrine

Eventually, we need to cross mountains. We are traveling with two young guys who probably aren’t in a hurry, so they stop every now and then to take pictures of the stunning views. There are also yurts and swift creeks and everything is beautiful, except for heaps of garbage in the water. After more than an hour of an uphill drive, we go to a Buddhist shrine together. It’s the first time I see one. The colorful prayer flags flutter in the wind, the decorated columns and upturned roofs look like in a fairytale and remind me how far from home we are. Then, we cross the top of the mountain chain and start going down. Except for a town under us, the view is scary. We are at the edge of the Gobi desert that we will need to partially cross. As far as the eye can see, nothing but flat land with rocks. It seems like going to Mordor.

Encounter with the police

When we get dropped off at the motorway near the town, it feels like Mordor, too. The heat is suffocating, the sun beats down on our heads and the temperature of the wind must be way over 40°C. The mountains we’ve been in less than half an hour ago feel like an unreal paradise.

We start hitchhiking under a bridgeat least we are in the shadeand we get stuck. It’s hardly surprising: ahead of us, there are just a few towns, and 1000 km of Gobi. It seems nobody is going there except trucks, and trucks are not stopping for us. A few foreign rally cars pass us by. The water in our bottles is getting hot. I’m wondering how long it can take to run out of the 6 liters we have. It shows that it might take quite long: every now and then, people stop, telling us they are not going our way and asking whether we are OK. A family gives us a 5 l can of water. Their trunk is full of picnic baskets; I’m wondering what they will drink at the picnicbut the lady insists.  

Then, we see a police micro-bus slowly pulling over on the rocks under the bridge. Some cops get out and stare at us for a while. Then they crawl through a hole in the fence and go towards us. It seems we are in trouble.

Anyway, we greet them politely and show them all our letters meant for cops. They also check our passports and suggest us through a translation app they will take us downtown. It sounds better than taking us to jail but we don’t want to give up anyway. We explain them again that we prefer to stay right here. For a moment, it seems it will work: they go back to the car. Too bad, their commander is probably firm, so they come back. We are negotiating through the translation app; eventually it seems we managed to convince them to only take us to a better hitchhiking spot. They just won’t let us stay here, so we go with them.

Their car is pretty full already, so we are crammed in like sardines. I end up holding the cops’ weapon, as it was lying on my seat. It is a metallic bar with some claws at the end. I’m wondering whether it’s meant for catching aggressive dogs, or people. Since I have it on my lap without the cops protesting, I hope it’s for dogs. 

A letter for cops and what it's supposed to say. We aren't sure it actually says that, but we weren't once arrested, so it worked.

They drop us off in front of a hotel on a parking lot. There are also some of the rally cars we saw on the motorway and we meet one of the crews: they are European. It shows that the place actually is near the easternmost road going towards the motorwayso the cops held their promise.

After several hours of walking, a sultry night in an orchard and an offered watermelon, we get picked up by one of the trucks crossing Gobi.

Overnight, we get teleported more than thousand kilometers east, to a different province with ordinary gas stations, fewer barriers and fewer guards. 

On our way east

After the week in Xinjiang, it feels almost strange not to show your ID twice a day. I am surprised how smooth our crossing was, though. I am wondering whether we were extremely lucky, extremely unimportant or whether the region actually is easy to cross for foreigners. And I am wondering how difficult it would have been to do anything considered ordinary in Xinjianganything people usually dosuch as buying petrol, using hotels or buying tickets. Not to mention things necessary for a permanent life. Also, I am acutely aware of how unfairly privileged I am just because I happened to be born in a country that respects people’s rights and is rich enough to have the right treaties. A short trip across Xinjiang teaches a universal truth: the value of a human being’s existence is determined by their passport.

Note: this story happened in summer 2017. The situation might have changed considerably since then. For updates about traveling through Xinjiang, please see the Caravanistan forum.

The meal in this restaurant was actually delicious