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
‟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.”
|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.
‟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.
|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.)
The guards write down we are entering but let us pass.
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.
‟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.
‟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...”
|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.
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.
‟I’m sorry but I can’t. We are not allowed to go up there now.”
‟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.”
|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.
|The Sayran Lake|
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.
|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.
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.
|At a Buddhist shrine|
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 bridge–at least we are in the shade–and 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 picnic–but the lady insists.
|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.|
|On our way east|
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|