The sun drew out my shadow long in front, across the barren landscape, and the moon did the same only an hour later. The vista was something otherworldly. No trees, barely any plants. I felt at peace. This had been my life for about a month, as I crossed the crap roads and epic views of Tajikistan. Now at 3,300m (10,826ft) altitude on a wide plateau, I was about to climb the Kulma pass, the final hurdle before drifting down the famous Karakoram Highway, leaving these massive mountains and cycling into the vast Taklamakan Desert of western China.
In the morning, the sun came earlier than usual as the sheer breadth of the high plateau allowed it to creep over the jagged peaks in the distance. Some were still snow capped from the previous winter. The ground was now illuminated, all yellowy sand and pebbles as far as the eye can see. Nobody’s here except, every so often, the drivers of those big ugly trucks. At not more than 25km/h, they rumble along with metallic cargo smashing together, echoing off the mountains in the distance.
A few hours of tough climbing later, at 4,365m (14,320ft), I was in China. I had cycled to China.
A pile of police riot shields sat neatly against one wall of the room. On another were nine, huge plasma TVs, each displaying a different camera angle of the compound. And dotted around were tens of desks holding shiny black computers all quietly humming. Things I literally hadn’t seen in months. A man dressed in all-black was slouched, sleeping on a chair with a balaclava masking his face and a strange high-tech machine gun resting precariously on his lap. The other busy-bodies around were in military uniform. There were no other tourists or travellers crossing the border, just truckers. But even though the traffic was very light, the border staff seemed always to be doing something in immense hurry, yet simultaneously doing nothing at all. For some reason, in only those few feet from Tajikistan to China, time had suddenly become a massive problem for everybody.
Things were different now. It was hard not to notice the insane amount of security cameras around. Every inch was being obsessively watched, or at least appeared to be. Outside, satellite dishes and aerials sprung out everywhere like the antennae of a technological beast, stretching beyond this futuristic complex behind a mesh of fences into a cold, snowy, inhospitable land. I honestly don’t remember the Tajik side having a single camera. I’m not even sure they had electricity.
My bags now needed checking. At first I was ordered to put my whole bicycle through the x-ray, until I had to explain there was no way it would fit. After a short discussion, the guard settled for the panniers. Throughout this process, I was confronted by everyone’s utter desperation to find my mobile, repeatedly asking me. Don’t have one, I would shrug. When one guard double checked the x-ray and told me to get my phone, I produced a power bank from the same bag, which satisfied him. I had planned for this, since I had been told the guards would try to install spyware on it.
I was under no circumstance to be allowed to cycle. I was now ordered to put my bicycle on the back of a passing flatbed lorry, without discussion. As the driver of the selected lorry was busy changing his licence plates to Chinese ones, I hurriedly tied my bicycle to the back with ropes in hope it wouldn’t fly off mid-ride, then joined him in the cabin along with a Tajik who was crossing the border on foot.
We rolled down on perfectly smooth tarmac, clinky trinkets chiming from the ceiling, some words muttered by the Chinese and the Tajik trying to talk with each other; neither could understand the other’s language. It was the most high-security zone I’ve ever been through, despite the total remoteness of it. For all of the roughly 12km, white poles were leaning across the road, three security cameras on each one. There was also a high barbed-wire fence on each side the full way. It was an odd contrast, being both in a prison and surrounded by snowy mountains, so high and so far from anything. It did make me think of how pointless it was. But if there’s one thing I learnt from my time in China, it’s that nothing makes sense. It was the first time in over 30,000km and over 40 border crossings which I wasn’t allowed to cycle.
The driver pulled left and right as we swerved a dead dog on the road. We had reached the bottom. So had my morale. I had to get out and remove my bags from the truck for yet another passport check, only to return them again, this time on the back. We then proceeded to drive through a disinfectant spray, which soaked them and my bicycle. Then before I could get my bearings a policewoman holding a shotgun told me to carry my wet, chemically-drenched bags immediately to a building by walking the least obvious and most impractical route possible. And I had to do it ASAP. I was cold now, and tired. I was still at 4000m (13,213ft) altitude, feeling like an inconvenience to everybody, or a prisoner. It was in brutal contrast to the freedom I had experienced in Tajikistan only an hour or so ago.
Outside the building was a soldier already waiting for me.
Well what a warm welcome! I followed him inside with my computer and camera, claiming I still didn’t own a phone. Inside there were all the usual border-tech things: more x-rays, lots of security cameras, scanners etc. etc.. My computer and camera went into a room and then the door closed. I was told by another to sit in the waiting area. This didn’t last long. After a minute, I was told to also go into the room. There were six guys all in military gear, a couple of them in front of computers. The problem was they couldn’t find the on switch for my laptop, which might give some indication of their professionalism. Once they had found it, they asked me to enter the password. Naturally, I refused. This made most of the people in the room extremely angry. One even shouted, in all seriousness, “ARE YOU A SPIDER??!!!” The piece of sticky tape covering the webcam didn’t help my case that I wasn’t. The soldiers were not used to disagreement. After much shouting, mainly at me, and quarrelling amongst themselves, they told me that it was the law, and I must obey. Okay they never said obey, but that was their message. Even if it wasn’t the law, they wouldn’t have let me into China otherwise. So, reluctantly, I yielded, but only on condition that I could stay in the room to watch them, to see they don’t mess around with anything.
They could have easily said no, but actually they didn’t care I was there. Thankfully they didn’t plug anything in, and clearly didn’t really know what they were doing. Two of the guys were now bored and playing shooty games on their phones with each other. For the others, they couldn’t read English very well and so the procedure involved systematically opening nearly every folder on my laptop. They missed programs on my desktop, such as VPNs and networking tools that probably could have gotten me in trouble. But they found pictures I didn’t know I had, like covers of e-books. Black Mirror episodes came up a couple of times. They were digging deep. Probably the biggest mistake I made was forgetting to delete the photos on my screensaver, a photoreel of about 250 pictures, a few from my time in Greece of demonstrations and fiery riots. They found this very suspicious (especially since China has almost zero tolerance to even the most timid of protests). The one of a refugee at a demonstration holding a cardboard sign, they all spent ages on that one trying to get what it said…
And then one border guard, reading over someone’s shoulder in a heavy Chinese accent, said “Open… the… fuck…ing… borders”.
Watching the whole thing drowning in irony made me want to laugh. But actually I think it’s looking back that makes it funny. At the time I thought I was fucked. Long questioning followed, where my stomach was wrenching from both lack of food and lack of hope of getting into China. I thought I was going to be at the border for eternity. Four hours was enough, it seemed. In this time my bags were once again checked, and my mobile phone was finally found. They plugged a tablet into it and scanned it. It’s not clear to me if anything was installed on my phone, but strange things that happened later in China supported this theory. I later got rid of it. All the questions, checks, then fingerprints, face scans etc. naturally came to an end around the time their shift finished and they wanted to go home. Once I left they closed the whole building down. Exhausted and digitally raped, I was free to go. Free in the sense that I was now in a restricted border area for at least the next 100km, and in a province, Xinjiang, which some compare to an open-air prison.
But at least I could ride my bicycle. Most of the time anyway.
What confuses me to this day is the absurdity of it all. The guards are primarily concerned with two things: pictures—supposedly searching for signs of “terrorism”—and journalism. But all their behaviour was indeed bizarrely weighted to the possibility that I might in fact be a spy. Like a spy would cross a militarised border at 4,300m on a bicycle and not just fly in, without a computer. All modern spies must be women anyway; they are better at lying and are less suspicious.
If all this sounds rather dystopian to you, I suggest you don’t bother visiting the province of Xinjiang. Because, for me at least, this was only the beginning of a protracted nightmare where I was witness to mass surveillance, censorship and oppression.
Lovely tales for other days.