I woke up at -10°C in a culvert of frozen shit under a road at 4,000m (13,000 ft). It was the beginning of my first full day in China, and if I weren’t so pessimistic, I would have supposed things could only get better. But given what I went through the day before, my hopes weren’t particularly high.
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Sadly this is the life of the travelling cyclist in Xinjiang province, China—a province more than 3 times the size of Germany. Whether it's over 4000m in the mountains or 1500m in the desert, you eat and sleep in tunnels under the road unknown to the traffic rolling by above. There are so few other places to hide and if you're found the police will force you into an overpriced hotel, if there is one. Caught only once along with @notesfromabiketrip in the Taklamakan desert and had to spend a night in the police station!
One would think that crossing from one side of a mountain to the other wouldn’t uncover too many differences. But it actually felt like I was now on a different planet, or rather, an alternative version of reality. The most immediate difference was that I was on a road made of perfectly smooth tarmac instead of boulders and landslides and rivers and sand. There was a safety barrier on both sides, which I found unusual since I couldn’t really see any danger, and there were signs, gigantic road signs, in two languages: Chinese and Uyghur, neither of which helped me where I was going. All these things had been absent for the previous three months of cycling.
The people were mainly minding their own business, which too was a first in a long time—a vast change from the friendly hellos and curiosity of Tajikistan; the camels and yaks gave me more attention. (Why there were camels at 3000m I do not know.) It felt colder on this side of the fence, even though the temperature was higher. Oddly everyone seemed to be wearing camo, as if in fashion, and meant I couldn’t tell the military from ordinary Joes. The only people notably different were domestic tourists, in true Chinese style taking pictures of everything from those signs and barriers to the massive mountains around. The scenery is beautiful. But I’m leaving. Down I go from 4000m to only 1300m in the city of Kashgar. I need food, a wash, Chinese money and a cold beer.
I met a cyclist coming the other way, a young Chinese woman, and was very happy she stopped to chat. We couldn’t communicate verbally at all, but somehow interacted and she gave me a bag of fruit she was carrying on her handlebars. This gesture was a gift of light in what felt a terribly gloomy day.
The sights on the way were no way indicative of the diversity of this country, but did reveal to me certain things which you can only see in China. The first was a set of huge bridges spanning unceremoniously for several miles. I was sort of gliding down this massive rocky valley suspended a hundred metres above it. Everything is made of concrete and somehow feels totally normal despite the altitude and remoteness. The Chinese have a knack for making rather distant and inhospitable places have the same convenient atmosphere as anywhere else.
The second was a more sinister environment. As I fought a headwind into the first proper town, all the shops had bars over their windows and cages over the doors. I was quite thirsty but couldn’t distinguish anywhere to fill up on water since all the contents of the stores were obscured (and the signs in Chinese and Uyghur). The only things I could safely identify were petrol stations. They are surrounded by huge brick walls with barbed wire on top. A triple gate system, a one-foot-thick steel bar and tyre traps. All this is in turn guarded by either police or security or both, who log you into their computer systems with your ID card. You are monitored as you enter and only one person can go in each car, other passengers must wait outside—and it must be a car; motorbikes and other vehicles are forbidden. Consequently they are not particularly busy places, and I have absolutely no chance of getting inside to get fuel for my stove.
The people on the street here, perhaps not surprisingly, look like zombies, somewhat dispirited, drugged hamsters or robots, drones—something willing to obey commands. Anything but human. Only the kids resemble a spirit which is familiar. In the end I asked a rinkly woman from a house nearby for water, and she looked quite scared of me. But she kindly filled up my bottles and after cleaned them too. For that I gave her the bag of fruit the cyclist gave me since it was all I had. But a valuable trade because now I could eat my super noodles for dinner and replenish some carbs for tomorrow.
The local people make extremely good use of cultivating every inch of land, and thus finding a suitable place to pitch a tent that night was difficult. I ended up in a field surrounded by trees occasionally patrolled by men on scooters. And because of that I couldn’t use my torch and did a lot of sitting around in the dark.
It turns out that I had camped right next to a police checkpoint. Nobody properly checks the fields around though because who would be dumb enough to camp right next to a police checkpoint. (me) When I got there the following morning, all the police in this checkpoint, the second of several to come, were of Uyghur ethnicity (except the boss, who is always ethnic Han) and therefore the checks were very light and half-hearted. At least that is the impression I got.
The Han, who make up over 90% of the Chinese demographic, have slowly been populating this entire region, in some cases pushing the ethnic Uyghurs out and locking them up in what is the biggest ethnic incarceration since the Second World War. But that is not part of this story. Just be aware that no Uyghur holds a position of power here. Quite the opposite.
I once was cycling to twinkling glimmers of light shining off rocks and now it’s the flashes of overhead security cameras catching my eye. I’m entering civilisation, so they call it. It’s getting busy and trees are becoming buildings. People drive to work like the sheep I saw in the mountains, herded by a clock of invented importance, in 4x4s that will never leave tarmac.
That tarmac now leads to checkpoints. This next one, at the entry into Kashgar, is manned by Han police with shotguns, one guy looking down from a 25m platform. Not just a couple of police in a booth, but a complex—a technologically advanced, digital powerhouse. A factory of information designed to collect, monitor and analyse anything about you. (The previous week a checkpoint in Tajikistan consisted of 3 teenagers with Kalashnikovs, a fold-out table and a piece of paper.) It is fortunate, for me alone, that the data they collect is limited to a passport check and a face scan. For one can witness the wealth of other technology used on the Uyghurs who occasionally pass through—x-ray machines, body scanners, fingerprint checks, DNA samplers, computers, video cameras, mobile phone checks etc. etc.
Han are not checked.
Once past this brief insanity bomb, the extent of Big Brother becomes apparent.
Kashgar is an ancient city, lying on the old Silk Road. People have lived here in the oasis next to the desert for millennia, and it’s been a trading city with the Middle East and Europe for at least 2000 years.
The Chinese government have now almost finished completely destroying it. Flattened the whole thing.
In only a few years, China managed to wipe out both history and culture in one fell swoop, leaving only memories and stories to fade away.
You can, of course, still visit Kashgar today, but now it’s Disneygar, or what the Chinese call Kashi. Crushed by Chinese boots and drowned in Chinese flags. Now with widened streets to allow easier surveillance, it’s all wired up with security cameras. Previously impossible in the narrow alley-like streets, some without electricity.
Since the understandable uprisings which follow such drastic oppression of a minority it is also full of police. Riot vans are stationed every 200m. In fact the riot police are so permanent they have built them little outdoor gazebos. In the most densely populated areas there is at least one police station on every street, and sometimes three. Roads leading to parking facilities and the gates to schools are somewhat like the petrol stations I mentioned before.
As one walks around the real annoyance is the mini pedestrian checkpoints everywhere. Some are serious, many are half-arsed (depends on the season, the day, the weather). But the sad reality is Uyghurs are checked whilst Han are not, and foreigners somewhere in between. This is all done exclusively on appearance: racial profiling in plain public view, and nobody seems to give the slightest shit about it. The Uyghurs can’t speak out because they will and do end up in internment camps. The Han don’t say anything because they either fear the government or support it, or simply don’t care. The foreigners are the only people who can really complain, and their voices are simply mute to the Chinese government and the Chinese public elsewhere since—and this is the interesting part—the Chinese public do not believe them. They have been told by the Communist Party that foreigners lie about all kinds of things from the millions who died of famine under Mao to the students killed in Tienanmen Square to the unrest in Hong Kong. All the bad things that happened in China actually never happened and is instead propaganda spread by Western media. With this kind of mindset more or less ubiquitous across the population of China, the vast majority of which live some 2000 miles away from this remote region, managing this kind of oppressive atmosphere in Xinjiang is a piece of cake.
The Uyghur’s freedom is limited to a few hundred metres of street between checks, bag scans and pat downs, all the while monitored on infra-red facial recognition cameras of increasingly miraculous capability. It’s a painful thing to witness. Though when I returned to Kashgar more recently, things at least seemed a little better. But maybe that’s just because more Uyghurs are in jail and there are not any “dissidents” left.
Getting to a hostel was a relief. (The one I went to is now closed to foreigners, like so many others.) I was thankful to meet some other tourists who were also in some state of shock and could chat about things over a beer. Although not related to the problems in Xinjiang but to the proximity to the border, the fighter jets flying overhead certainly gave more depth to the Orwellian character. And it was hard to shake the feeling that I was always being watched.
Hungry, I decided to get some food. Immediately outside the relative tranquillity of the hostel were five policemen, more or less permanently stationed there until late at night. It was only a short walk until I witnessed a riot policeman dragging two school kids down the street by their little red neck-ties. They were only about 8 years old, and looked terrified. They were just playing on the street, climbing a little stone wall. It wasn’t the only time I saw such things. Many schools in Xinjiang have one or two policemen stationed inside. Why?—I do not know.
The kids everywhere in this city play on streets between security cameras. For them it’s normal, they grew up around this. But that old man sitting dejected on a bench, wearing a Muslim prayer cap and surrounded by tens of Chinese flags, what was he thinking? What kind of world has he lived through? Watching his culture swallowed, a few friends or family members disappear here and there. Everything he knows replaced with this. Fake paved roads, concrete and flags. There are more Chinese flags here than anywhere else in China, and it’s the least Chinese place. Kashgar is closer to at least 31 other countries than it is to the capital of China.
Whilst waiting for my food, looking through to the back of the little restaurant I noticed the kitchen knife the woman was using to cut up the noodles was chained to the worktop. Cameras were also pointing inside leaving almost nowhere unwatched. Many shops and restaurants had metal detectors at the doors too. At least the food is good. It’s a cross of Chinese and Middle Eastern dishes, a sort of oriental spicy mix. It may be the food is the last real culture left in Xinjiang.
The food available in supermarkets is wildly different. I badly needed to do some shopping and stock up on supplies, and of course being in a Chinese city, there are several supermarkets around. I hadn’t been to a supermarket in several months, so what I saw was both amazing and unsettling. Chinese supermarkets are not like the ones we know back home. They are some of the biggest places I’ve ever seen. Like a Tesco Superstore and a Debenhams combined.
The aisles are endless. Full of vacuum packed unidentifiable animal objects in jelly. Packets in packets. Rows of sausages in plastic tubes. Seaweed cake. A single shrink-wrapped prawn in a bag. Every type of egg sealed individually. A full aisle of every type of soy sauce. Another, every kind of flask in the world. Pre-peeled oranges. Fake wines you’ve never heard of. Grapes the size of plums and plums the size of apples. Full-contrast technicolor Monsanto on steroids. Terrible music. And fruit that is more perfect than in Plato’s dreams and probably even glows in the dark. I spent a fortune but the experience itself was almost worth paying for. There were also riot police patrolling the aisles.
Back at the hostel, some other cyclists turn up. They tell me stories of the rest of China, how it’s different from here, how I need to give it a chance. None of them cycled across the desert, instead taking the train. I wanted to cycle. I wanted to see the vast region of Xinjiang, an area roughly the size of the UK, France, Spain and Germany combined. And after a while, two more cyclists arrived with the same idea. We left a few days later to tackle the Taklamakan desert.
Overall I spent a week in Kashgar in September 2018 and went back for a week in September 2019 after almost a year in China. Kashgar is still changing, and soon there will be little left in the way of evidence of any wrongdoing. Outsiders will only be shocked at the (diminishing) police presence and the surveillance, the latter being rolled out across China. But elsewhere in Xinjiang already more and more travellers are being escorted out of cities and being refused entry to cities altogether. Chinese visas are becoming notoriously more difficult to obtain abroad and the nearby border crossings from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have become two of the strictest in the world.
The atmosphere created in Xinjiang has become the new normal for the locals. But coming from a liberal background it’s easy to be horrified at what’s happening here. Not many nations can get away with this blatant level of control (or putting one million innocent people in jail). I’m aware that Western governments chanting democracy are also spying on and monitoring their citizens, but here is another level.
Though for me the hardest part about cycling through Kashgar, and the rest of Xinjiang, is knowing that there’s practically nothing I can do about it. The only thing is to call on our governments to make a stand against this atrocity. Even without factoring in the million or so Uyghurs that are locked up, the blatant evidence on the street is that there is some degree of Apartheid here. Many Western governments have already called this out, but still continue doing business with China because they can’t face losing the trade links of its cheap market and growing economy. And that’s the way it is. You like cheap stuff? This is one of the many by-products. That’s the real atrocity.