Please take your shotgun out of my face before we take this picture.
If I sneak around this truck then the toll booth won’t see me and I’ll have better luck camping tonight.
It’s 1am and an unknown number is calling me at my campsite. Must be the police. Well, whatever they have to say can wait until tomorrow.
I wish she had interrogated me a little longer. It was really nice to speak English for a bit.
I feel like the sheer absurdity of Xinjiang will be something that I will look back on more fondly in the future than I do now. In the end, I don’t think I had quite the crazily exhausting experience that some others may have had in the southern parts of the province. Instead, the police I met were sort of just half-heartedly following procedures. For example: A police officer asks me to open my bags, and the rest of the assembled policemen sort of laugh that he’s making me do this. Officers wave around guns and riot gear that they’ll never have to use. One guy not-quite-explicitly points his shotgun at me as I take my mandatory new-friend-thumbs-up photo as I’m leaving the checkpoint, and the photographer laughs. Hotels and security checks that people just sort of ignore. Metal detectors that go off constantly but are never paid attention to. X-ray machines are used, but the pictures are hardly ever examined. When a police checkpoint sees me arrive, the attitude isn’t stern, the officers get sort of excited because suddenly they have something to do. The police state in Northern Xinjiang is the epitome of ‘going through the motions’.
Until it’s not. And that’s what I’m going to focus on in this post. Those times, where procedure is followed to the ‘T’, are the ones that better serve to build this ridiculous narrative I’m trying to create of me fleeing through Xinjiang with the cops just right on my tail.
To put it bluntly, my various arrivals into Xinjiang towns were complete crapshoots. Given the diverse ethnic and economic nature of the region, most towns have looked absolutely nothing alike. In Central Asia, you could generally know what to expect. Cyclists have ridden those routes, Google Maps works, and even without these there’s a generally reliable homogeneity to the composition of each town. Markets look alike. People look alike. A farming town is a farming town is a farming town. Rich towns are capitals and major cities. Everything else is sort of pastoral. In China, all that went out the window. There have been very few cyclists that have come through here and written about their experiences (to be honest, I haven’t really found a single reliable blog). My maps have all grown incredibly unreliable. I can usually see a cluster of streets, a name, and maybe a few smudges on a satellite map, but that’s really it. So as I approach a town, I’ll have to quickly assess the situation and determine what I should expect from the markets, from the residents, and most importantly, from the police that evening.
Will there be a passport check at the entrance to town? If so, how intense will it be? Will I be shoved roughly into a back room and interrogated, or will I be waved through without a second glance? Should I budget time in my day so that I can make it through the checkpoint? Many hotels are restricted from hosting foreigners, so how much time should I budget for the hotel search? Is the town a poor Uygur settlement, and thus won’t even have hotels? Is this a hotel-will-probably-just-fudge-things sort of town, or is it a hotel-will-probably-alert-the-police-to-my-presence sort of town? Is the town oil-rich enough that I should just go directly to the Police at the start and turn myself in so they don’t have to go through the trouble of tracking me down in my room?
Chinese industrial investment, done at a scale the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries can only dream of, can transform a poor city into the wealthiest in China. That is Karamay, whose name comes from the Uygur name for ‘black oil’. Statistically, Karamay is the wealthiest city in China, and this wealth is generated in the vast oil drilling fields just outside the city. Upon my arrival in town, I was picked up on the street and taken to a hotel with a police escort, as I’ve mentioned. I took that advice whenever I’d arrive in a town that was similarly wealthy.
Fuhai and Beitun, further to the north, are also wealthy like Karamay. For the last few kilometers into the city, I rode with a Chinese man about my age on a nice Giant bike. He was very eager to invite me to have some watermelon and help me find a hotel. Usually, this is great! He seemed like a good guy, and you’d think he would have some good suggestions on hotels. And that watermelon sounded delicious. But as we rode into town, I realized quickly that this was a town where the hotels would definitely be following the rules, and that many probably wouldn’t host westerners. I started looking around anxiously, waiting to get picked up by the police. They didn’t come immediately, and my new friend started looking confused at why, upon arriving in town, I had just drawn my hat low over my face.
‘I’m a good person, don’t worry’, he said through his phone.
‘Let’s just get me into a hotel’, was my response.
It was getting late in the day, I’d ridden 150km, and was very tired. At that point I knew I’d rather do the whole run-around with the police in the comfort of my room rather than out on the hot afternoon street. So I decided to try a few hotels in the hope that I could find a room before getting picked up. We tried one hotel, and got denied immediately. My new friend was further confused. Nothing against him, he just wasn’t aware of the lengths that Americans have to go to get by in Xinjiang. Outside, he called a friend who knew more, and our following conversation went like this:
‘You go to Bairui Express Hotel, but first you need to see the Police’ he said.
‘I know these regulations. It is hard for me to travel here.’ I said.
‘I did not know. You are a wanted man.’
‘Thank you for your help.’
I tried a few more hotels on my own, rejected each time, before I finally decided to just turn myself into the police and see what they could do. I was poked and prodded, and finally taken to the tourism hotel in the city. There is usually one of these in the larger cities, but they are expensive. Fortunately, seeing my police escort, so late in the day, the hotel gave me a steep discount on the room down to a price that I deemed reasonable. I settled in, just totally done with that particular day.
Out here in the Northern part of the province, there are large distances between towns, which present a challenge for cyclists. Along this stretch, camping became a no-go, after one sort of worrying almost fuck-up. One night I got a surprise call from the police demanding to know which hotel I was staying in. Fortunately, I was in a hotel in Wer’ho, but earlier in the day I had been considering a campsite before continuing on to town. How would I, in very broken mandarin, have explained that? A few minutes later, the police showed up at my door. They demanded to know my entire itinerary, which cities and hotels I’d stayed at, and where I was going. I had to lie about the one night I had camped, quickly remember the name of a town that I had gone through that day, and say I’d slept there.
In Xinjiang, you just have to be aware of things. Aware of distances between towns, aware of the names of towns you’re heading through, how to say them confidently, and know where you’ve been. My days have to be planned well, or else I’ll get stuck in the middle of nowhere with the police calling asking where I am. And when you do arrive in a town, I recall the ‘obstacle course’ metaphor I used in the last blog post. One evening arriving in Heshituoluguan (or something like that, I think), there was a small hill running down into the city and a long main street. Along the street from afar, I could see no less than 25 independent sets of flashing red and blue lights along the main street, on patrol. The city was on the lower end of the development spectrum, which probably prompted the heightened (and very visible) police presence. An obstacle course of police, waiting for something unexpected to happen. Like an American riding into town on a bike.
Traffic out here has been very Silk Road-y, which is to say that it is very visibly emblematic of modern-day Asian trade networks. I spent a few days crunching through coal pebbles that had accumulated along the shoulder. I’m also passed often by laden coal and other mining trucks. Trade between Mongolia and China involves a lot of mined materials. The heavy industry I see along the side of the road is clearly mining infrastructure as well. Oil, as I’ve also mentioned, is a huge industry out here, and I spent a day riding through miles and miles of oil drills. The last time I saw this many Chinese businessmen in expensive 4×4’s was in Eastern Cambodia with its hardwoods. On my bike, I mostly see locals, sort of shabbily dressed riding motorbikes. Then I’ll see a big 4×4 parked, with a few Chinese businessmen lighting up cigarettes and laughing. I imagine I will continue to see these trucks and business folks as I make my way into Mongolia. This border I’m at is open primarily for commercial trade, after all.
I rolled my way up to Fuyun and Beitun, and then headed East to the border crossing at Takshiken/Bulgan. On this road, the police checkpoints were sparse, because the towns were sparse. There are a lot of yurts that I’m sure would have water if you need it, but otherwise there is just a long stretch of desert with few services. Knowing this, I also knew that I would probably be camping for a night or two between Beitun and the border. I studied up on the towns and was prepared to give these names as potential places I had stayed. I was right to worry. I ended up only camping one night, but that night an unidentified phone number called at 1am. Only one person calls at 1am, the police. I ignored the call, worrying that they might be in a town somewhere looking for me. Whatever they wanted to talk about could wait until the morning when I was back on my bike.
They did call that next morning, as I was repairing a flat. The policewoman that I spoke to spoke perfect English, and it was my first in-person English conversation in about a month. When she finally told me that she was done with her questions, my immediate reaction as ‘so soon?’. Over the last week or so I was so embarrassingly desperate to find someone else out here I could communicate with in more than a few words that I’d taken to opening Tinder at night to see if I could detect any other westerners within 100 miles of me. No luck yet. One morning I came to realize I had taken a wrong turn when I saw 10+ iPhones out taking pictures of me as I rode through a town rather than the maybe 1-2 on the main highway. In the end, The officer didn’t ask about locations I’d slept, and was clearly glad to hear that I was on my way out of the country.
As I approached the border, the scenery grew more stark, and more rugged. Jagged mountains started to rise out of the desert, and after two long days where I covered 300km, Mongolia was in my sights. The first day out of Beitun, I set a personal record for distance, 206km in just about 8.5 hours of riding. I had a tailwind most of the day, but I still gained about 700m of elevation with a lot of rolling hills, so I still consider it a legitimate effort. I limped into the border town of Tashiken the next day, a day earlier than anticipated. Unfortunately, this led to me arriving at the border on a Saturday, and it was closed for the weekend. So after a rest day I rode to the border and made my exit from Xinjiang. And I swear, the police were this close to catching me before I dramatically slipped over the border.
As a final note, some Chinese readers of this blog need to do a little more research on Abraham Lincoln before they make the assertions they are making in my comments.