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Notes from the road between Beijing and Kashgar


As soon as one enters Xinjiang, particularly given recent events in the province, you are left in no doubt whatsoever who is in control. Driving in and out of every town you are confronted by checkpoints where one must present one’s identity papers, even the smallest of towns houses a vast police station and is regularly patrolled by police as well as PLA (People’s Liberation Army) convoys, and everywhere there are billboards and signs proclaiming the need to build a ‘harmonious society’ and to ‘confront criminality’.

This feeling of almost being besieged is multiplied hundreds of times over when you realise that the province, for all intents and purposes, actually IS under siege. In Xinjiang at the moment there is no internet, there are no international phone calls out of the province, there are no text messages except the propaganda messages the government sends you, and there are no phone calls to mobile phones outside of the province. Xinjiang is, in terms of communications at least, largely cut off from the rest of the world. This is justified by claiming that much of the unrest was instigated from abroad, but a more likely explanation would seem to be that they are in place to try and prevent the news of the Chinese government crackdown reaching the outside world. It is also, I believe, a kind of punishment for bad behaviour not dissimilar to those tactics used all over the world by parents when faced with misbehaving children: ‘behave or I’ll turn off your internet’. It may seem a little far-fetched to present the hugely powerful Chinese state in this way but they do much the same in the rest of China, all be it in a watered down way. Look up something on Google which the Chinese government doesn’t like and that search will be blocked, you will also be prevented from using Google for ten minutes, a cyber slap-on-the-wrist.

This control of the communications’ network is, as mentioned above, coupled with very real control on the ground. Conveys of PLA trucks make routine drives around the city. In each truck there are approximately forty soldiers dressed in riot gear. Most hold batons and riot shields, but in every truck there is at least one soldier with a machine gun and another with a grenade launcher. A GRENADE LAUNCHER? What are they expecting? If there is another riot will they use grenade launchers on crowds of their own citizens? I’m not sure I want to hear the answer to that question. Much of this must simply be a show of force, but if this is true then the show has a very specific audience, the soldiers certainly did not take kindly to us taking photographs of them.

It is also certainly not all for show. We met a guy who had been held by the Chinese for a week following the riots. They let him sleep for one night in the week and for the rest they kept him up for the whole night asking the same question. Seeing he was a tour guide, they were worried that he had told the French people he was showing around the city what was going on. He was understandably more than a little bitter about the whole affair.

We had not been held in a Chinese prison for a week but by the end of our time in Xinjiang, and after a number of encounters with the ‘powers-that-be’, we were beginning to become extremely frustrated with the amount of control the Chinese authorities believed it was legitimate to have over our lives.

The first such encounter we had was during one of the first nights we spent in Xinjiang. We arrived in a small town and went up to the first hotel we saw and checked in, the room was fine and the owners of the hotel were absolutely delightful. However, we arrived back to the hotel that night to find an off duty police officer in the lobby buying a drink. The owner’s face sank and the, rather surprised looking, policeman asked us if we were staying there. We said we were. “I’m afraid, I will have to ask you to come with me to another hotel for your own safety.” Well, we felt perfectly safe there, and we made this point clear with the policeman. There was, however, no arguing with him, it seems that once again there was only one hotel in town in which foreigners were allowed to stay. It also seemed that normally this rule is not that stringently adhered to but, as the owner of our hotel explained, the police department and the hotel into which we were being moved were ‘linked’, I will leave you to interpret from that what you will.

Needless to say we were less than happy at being turfed out of our room at 10.30 at night ‘for our own safety’. So we resolved to make this policeman’s night as difficult as possible. First we brought down all our things from our room one at a time, including single shoes. That took half an hour. Then it occurred to me that we had never actually seen any official identification from this so-called police officer. It turned out he didn’t have it on him. He insisted that it was fine, but we likewise insisted that ‘for our safety’ we could not leave with someone if we did not know who they were. He rang the police department but no one was available to bring it over, so he had to go back and fetch it, to the poorly suppressed joy of the hotel staff. Upon his return we had just loaded our things into his van, one at a time, when he said that we needed to bring the bikes. In which case, we added, ‘for our safety’ we had to put on all our gear. I could feel the frustration welling up inside him as we put on trousers, jackets, gloves, boots and helmets. Just when we had put all our kit on, Pryd had a stroke of genius: we couldn’t ride the bikes as we had been drinking. The policeman insisted that this was ok as it was such a short distance, but we likewise insisted that ‘for our safety’ we could not drive.

“Alright,” he said “I’ll ring up the police station and get some guys to drive them over to the hotel.” That wouldn’t do either, what would our insurance companies say if the bikes were involved in a crash and we weren’t driving? In the end two police officers had to come and push them the kilometre and a half to the new hotel. We had managed to string the whole event out for more than two and half hours.

Such behaviour in many ways seems inordinately petty, but when you consider that very few Chinese citizens would dare do such a thing for fear of the repercussions, both official and unofficial, it seems worth it. It seems worth showing these policemen the expectations that a genuine human rights culture involves, and to show them that they are not, in fact, kings of the universe.

This is not, it must be admitted however, the most effective way of dealing with the security apparatus in China. It is fun, but it does not often get achieved what one wants to get achieved, as we found out when we were in Kashgar and trying to get to Karakul Lake near the border with Pakistan. There are a number of checkpoints on the way, as one might expect when heading towards an area which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but none of the officials there care much about what you do as long as you have your passport and the right documentation. That is, except for the woman on the checkpoint immediately out of Kashgar who seems to think that she is protecting a Chinese state secret. She would not let us pass.

“‘For your safety’ you need a guide.”

“But we’ve driven 6,000km from Beijing without a guide I don’t think we need one.”

She then proceeded to explain to us that we needed to go into town, find a guide and a car and then come back. We, however, really wanted to take the motorcycles, it seemed such a fitting end to the trip and a last hurrah for the bikes. Eventually she got annoyed with our arguing:

“Don’t you have travel agents in America?”

“We’re not from America.”

“Well, don’t you have travel agents in England then?”

“Yes, we have them, but we don’t have to use them to get around because we live in a free country.”

After that there was no chance of us getting through.

The next day when we came back with a guide and a car she wasn’t there and her replacement gave a cursory look at our passports, didn’t note down any details and didn’t even look at our guide’s credentials.

Such experiences forced me to remember that, however free, cosmopolitan and vibrant cities like Beiing and Shanghai may seem, China is still a one party state in the true sense of the word. The lack of trust China displays in its own people, as well as people of other countries, holds it back from becoming a truly modern state, a goal which it is so desperate to achieve.

More about Duncan McCombe’s motorbike epic at http://thruthemiddle.blogspot.com/

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