Xinjiang, Xinjiang. Where to start with this absurd place. Xinjiang shares much with the oppressive political situation in Tibet, but doesn’t get nearly the coverage. And the Chinese Government has a vested interest in keeping it that way. Geographically, it is a vast province spanning most of Western China. That fact alone should raise red flags on its own about potential political troubles in the region. The province is sandwiched between China and the predominantly Muslim Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and this creates an obvious conflict. The Uygur minority is kept under constant surveillance, with “abnormal” (real term!) beards and head scarves banned. It’s known to be a nightmare to cycle through, but I think I’ve found a very good way to do it and I want to share that information. So this is a writing-heavy post. But first, back to the last few days of riding in Kazakhstan. The long days riding in Kazakhstan are so crucial to understanding why eventually entering China felt a little like getting hit with a bag of bricks.
Along the stretch from Usharal to the border, nothing much happened. The last three days or so of riding in Kazakhstan were basically the same as the last blog post. Long days riding through a vast, hot steppe, through small, one-mosque Kazakh towns. The people are polite, nice, the shops are plentiful if basic. The horses and cattle roam freely through a fenceless world. Sometimes I’d take refuge from the burning sun in bus stops by the side of the road, but sometimes those bus stops would be occupied by said horses and cattle. Running on my large bucket of electrolyte powder, I was able to cover some major distance. There were enough trees to set up some nice hammock campsites, even though the bugs got to be a bit of a nuisance. I had switched to shorts a day or two before Usharal, and my main concern on a day-to-day basis basically became some light sunburns on my pasty calves.
On my last night in Kazakhstan, I camped about 20km from the Chinese border. There are a few pleasant little towns leading up to the border, Urzhar being a little bigger than Makanchi, and both being quite a bit larger than Bakhty. Outside of Bakhty, however, is where the fun began. On the day of the border crossing, I made my way quickly to the border, knowing that the Chinese border runs on Beijing time, which is actually two hours ahead of Kazakh time. I specify that the Chinese border runs on Beijing time, because, being Xinjiang, the very concept of time invites ethnic conflict. Because Beijing is so far away from Xinjiang, the time zone just doesn’t fit Xinjiang very well. Sometimes you’ll have the sun rise or set at absurd hours. So the Turkic Uygur ethnic minority tends to follow a different, Xinjiang-specific time that matches Kazakhstan’s. And now you have one ethnicity running on one time, and one on another time two hours different. Such is Xinjiang.
Kazakh customs made me empty my bags and lay everything out before they’d stamp me out of the country. The border was what I’d come to expect from Central Asian borders. A room with an x-ray scanner or two, some bored looking young dudes, an older dude watching over everything. That went fine, but then I made my way to the Chinese side, and was confronted with the full-fledged modern-day security check obstacle course. I call it an obstacle course because that’s really what it is. A large hall of zig-zag taped lines, x-ray scanners, body scanners, waiting areas, fingerprint scanners, cameras, and policemen. A long string of exhausting tasks to complete in order to reach a specific goal, enter China. A grey, sterile, industrial obstacle course. I was poked, prodded, scanned, phone looked through, bags unpacked and repacked, passport photographed, Bryan photographed for both official and unofficial purposes.
And everyone was so polite, almost bashful about what they were doing. Carrying out the orders of the security state with a careful efficiency. But it’s so hard to hide curiosity. Here I am, an American, on my bike, alone, entering Xinjiang at a remote border post, from the Great Kazakh Unknown. At the entrance to the customs hall, I had been having a nice stilted conversation in a mix of mandarin and english with one of the nice young border ladies, when eventually her boss came over and made her look through my phone. After she was done, we moved on to the part where I show her all the stuff in my bags. She literally said, unprompted, as I was unpacking my stuff, “I’m sorry, but it’s my job to do this.”
It’s an integral part of Chinese culture to save ‘face’, but I do find it kind of funny when stern police faces turn to utter delight when I turn my back. Like, the whole ethos of a Xinjiang police officer is ‘man, I can’t wait for you to go away and get your passport checked at that booth so I can drop this act and look at your bike for a bit and joke with my police friends’.
Poked, prodded, photographed and fingerprinted some more, I finally made my way outside, amazed that it had only taken around two hours (effectively four with the time change) to get through the border. There were some young gentlemen who worked at the border who offered to take me into town, but I said I’d prefer to ride. So after one more ‘passport registration’, that’s what I did. Until 5km down the road, where I hit a toll booth, with some military guys and some more poking and prodding. I unloaded my belongings again and walked them through the contents of my bike. Showed my passport and had it photographed. All the guys had riot shields, and the toll booth was surrounded by razor wire. They called the border, to make sure they had let through an American on a bike, called ahead to tell the next police that an American on a bike was coming through.
I’ve been carrying a lengthy message in Mandarin, translated graciously by a former colleague of mine, which explains the trip and why I’m cycling here. I usually give this message, along with my passport, to any police officers I meet. It actually goes a long way towards lowering their guard, and if you’re traveling through this region and are not very confident in your Mandarin, I highly recommend getting a message like it. You can skip the whole shaky explanation bit and get straight on to the more important registration-related issues and thumbs-up pictures taken.
Case in point. I met the next policemen at the entrance to town, another 5km later. They waved me over. I gave them my passport, and the message. When prompted, I unloaded my bags again, much to their growing delight rather than sternness. Now, since they’re aware of the basic facts, the first 2-3 minutes of a security check are an actual security check, and the rest is sort of an ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ check, to see what gear I was packing for a trip like this. All my bag checks have basically eventually turned into presentations, complete with laughter, back-slapping, and cheerful pictures taken. As I was packing to go, these guys stopped me for a few more minutes while one went and got me a bottle of water for free.
I continued on into town, looking for a hotel. The one I stopped at didn’t accept foreigners, but the policemen outside (There are always policemen here. Everywhere.) saw me come out and took care of that for me. They called another hotel and asked if THEY accepted foreigners, and took me there. They gave me a literal escort, lights blaring, as I cycled my way to the new hotel. They waited outside while I went through another bag check at the police checkpoint to enter the hotel, organized a money exchange for me, and helped get me checked in. It was slightly more expensive than I was used to paying, but I was tired and hungry, so I settled in for a well-needed rest day.
If this all sounds overbearing, it is. It’s exhausting. There are police checkpoints everywhere here. Want to go onto a side road? Barbed wire and police checkpoint. Want to hop off the road and sit in the shade? Nope, barbed wire fence. Want to go to a shopping mall? Body scanner. Want to go to a street with shops? Passport check. And they’re all staffed by military guys with riot shields and helmets and guns and bully sticks. I was cycling along into town and came across a line of soldiers in lock step marching down the side of the road with their riot gear on. Their officer was hanging out the window of a car, taking a video with his iPhone. He waved with a grin as I went past, and gave me a thumbs up. Too busy to check my bags at that moment, I guess.
And what are they guarding against? A Turkic Muslim ethnic minority that has carried out a few terrorist attacks around Xinjiang. A group of people very similar to the ones in Kazakhstan. Similar to many other groups in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. All the groups that I had just spent the last three plus months with in Central Asia. Xinjiang is the Chinese Government’s big, huge, armed buffer against… that. But in the end, it just feels like the Government is just repeating over and over to the Han majority in the region ‘You should be afraid. These people are barbaric Muslims. Look how much money we’re spending on defending you. Always remember that you should be afraid.’
My first day in Xinjiang ended with three policemen barging into my hotel room at 11pm with a phone that said, in translated Mandarin, ‘What are you doing here?’ Fortunately, I had come prepared. I showed my explanatory message on my phone, and this put their minds at ease. They photographed me, poked and prodded a bit more, and eventually left me alone. All the while, carrying this distinctly Chinese face-saving sternness that I can so obviously see cracks in. It’s fine, Xinjiang. Keep tabs on me. Track my location. Make sure you know where I am, and where I’m going. Run me through the wringer. I’m prepared. I’ve dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s. But I can see through to your curiosity, and it’s kind of adorable.
Over the next two days of riding to Karamay, the choice to ride in Kazakhstan for longer paid off. Those first 15km after the border turned out to be just a border thing, as I ended up only going through a handful more passport checks. And no more bag checks, which was good. The road was also in great condition. It is forbidden to ride a bike on the main Chinese expressways, but most times there is a local older (and still maintained) access road that runs parallel to the main expressway. I was riding on the S201, which was in great shape, had absolutely no traffic (most had gone to the G3015 expressway) and was actually quite scenic. The expressway has toll booths, which are a recipe for getting picked up by the police. S201 does not, save for a few police checkpoints outside towns. Your stops are Tacheng, Emin, Tiechanggouzhen, and Karamay. Few good English maps exist for these towns, so you’re sort of on your own to look for restaurants, shops, etc. My Mandarin is not good, but it’s better than my Russian, so I’m actually getting by pretty well.
Even though I didn’t have many formal passport checks after Tacheng, you still can feel the crushing weight of the security measures in place in Xinjiang wherever you go. All shop owners and restaurants have riot shields, helmets, and big heavy wooden sticks propped by the door. My hotel owner in Karamay checked me in while wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet. Men who I’ve taken to calling ‘brawlers’ in my head roam the streets in every town wearing riot gear and wielding large sticks. The checkpoints are still everywhere, with barricades and razor wire still being common sights wherever you go. There are thousands of road cameras that flash at me as I go by. I’ve probably already had my (official) picture taken more than a hundred times here.
In Karamay, the Police again picked me up at the entrance to town, and didn’t want me going and looking for a hotel on my own. So after poking and prodding a bit, checking my passport, asking why I was there, how long I intended to stay, etc., they called around, found a hotel in my budget, and escorted me there. I’m resting for a day in Karamay, before heading north to Altai, and then on to Mongolia. I guess the takeaway from these police interactions in Northern Xinjiang (It’s probably not like this in Southern Xinjiang down near Pakistan, in fact I know from other cycle tourists that it isn’t.) is that they just like to know where I am. That’s not a bad thing. I get it. Security’s tight. However, if you’re looking to cross Xinjiang and don’t want to deal with too many checkpoints, you could do worse than take this route. Just come prepared and have patience. Expect the unexpected, like policemen showing up at your room at 11pm.