My encounters with the police in Xinjiang

My encounters with the police in Xinjiang

I am a police magnet. I have been in trouble in a few foreign countries so far. Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia and I had some of the most unpleasant experiences in China. More specifically in the autonomous province of Xinjiang. There is heavy police presence because China wants to avoid conflict and acts of terrorism, and eventually separation of the province. So there are security check at numerous places such as shopping malls and railway stations and also police checkpoints on roads.

This blog post comprises my Facebook journal entries where I describe all the events that happened on a particular day when I was also confronted by the police. They all make for a fun travel story now but back then I did mind what was happening. I actually wanted to leave China, so unpleasant I felt.

25.9.

The most important thing I learnt in the last 24 hours: When you are in China and you meet people who (seem to) speak a language you can speak, strike up a conversation and make friends with them. You never know how much they will help you later.

So I befriended the receptionist in the Astana hotel I stayed at as she could speak Russian and also the security guy. The wanted to take a picture with me when I was leaving. Rarely does it happen that an English teacher from Slovakia stays in the town of Alashankou.

Then I started talking to a guy on a minibus going to Bortala as soon as I found out he could speak English. Although not very open at first he ended up helping me go through two security checks during the 80km long trip (this seems to be very common in the Xinjiang province), finding a hotel, going to the police to get a paper for the hotel which in fact wasn’t necessary (some hotels cannot accept foreigners – I was turned down in two hotels yesterday) and we eventually became roommates. And he also invited me to join him to have dinner with him and his friend whom he met in person for the first time today.

And so I had my first hot pot in China today. And met super friendly and helpful people.

What an unexpected day. I had no idea last night what I would do today. Go to Urumqi or go to Sayram Lake or just rest in Alashankou after the long train journey. The last option seemed the most likely when I woke up. But things change quickly and when I found out there was a bus to Bortala from where it is possible to go to the lake I went for it.

Sayram lake has a different name in  Chinese so it took a while to get some info. I started going around with a piece of paper with the name of the lake in Chinese. So let’s get to the lake tomorrow. I expect it to be the most off the beaten track place I will have been to. I just hope there won’t be more of the security checks, they make me feel kind of uncomfortable.

27.9.

Confronted by the police again? Yes! It’s getting more unpleasant day by day.

I was walking along a street and was stopped by a policeman. I was taken to a police station and asked the same questions all over again. I try to prepare more for every new situation with the police but they are always ahead and my answers are not enough. ‘What do you want?’ ‘Where is your translator?’ ‘Where is your tour guide?’ were the new questions. Old questions were ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘When are you going home?’ And more. Yet again I wasn’t able to help myself. So I took the policeman to the hotel I had already checked out of and contacted one of my newly made friends and asked for help. The policeman fetched some youngsters who could speak broken English and all of them talked to my friend before they accompanied me to the bus station to buy a ticket. Before that the policeman wanted me to completely empty my backpack. All stuff out on the reception table. The only good thing was that he gave me his name and contact number when I asked for it as I expected more police checks on my way to another town.

Although I expected two checks, there was just one, and surprisingly enough I managed by myself. I was so relieved to finally reach Alashankou while expecting no more checks that I almost screamed when a policeman asked for my passport and started asking questions at a hotel reception while I was waiting for my night train. He didn’t seem to be on duty as he wasn’t wearing a uniform. Anyway, he called a translator to ask me all the questions again. Enough!

I knew the security was tight in Xinjiang before coming here but I didn’t expect they give such a hard time to foreigners.

The police is omnipresent here. You walk a kilometre along a street and see two or three police stations. They are at many street corners. I saw some sort of police training or maybe just marching today. At first I just noticed people lining the streets standing 30-50 apart facing away from the street. I had no idea what it meant. Then I noticed different kinds of police cars arriving. Must have been more than 30. They suddenly came to a halt on the bridge I was walking across and hundreds of policemen got out. They lined up and shouted. Everything as if stood still. Very few people were moving. I felt like in the movie, I don’t remember the name, where everything stops and only the main character is moving. The police cars went on, followed by a couple of fire brigade cars and the policemen started marching. And then I was stopped by a policeman.

Never before have I had so much to do with the police. I am tempted to move on more quickly from here than I wanted.

26.9.

So I made it to Sayram lake today, or Sailimuhu in Chinese.

The workers at the gate didn’t know what I wanted and I thought they wouldn’t let me in without a car. But it seemed like they thought I wanted to rent a car which I didn’t and they let me walk. But as I was walking a driver from a tourist bus waved at me and a girl who could speak English got off and said I could go with them. They had been told at the gate they didn’t understand me and asked to take me. The girl was from Shanghai, probably like other people and they were on a 13 day tour of Xinjiang. I didn’t go too far as I had no idea how to get back. But it was nice of them.

The lake is beautiful and so are the mountains surrounding the lake. But the beauty is not left untouched. I didn’t like the shore. The nature can’t take its course, the shore is being adjusted, reinforced kind of, I assume it might be in order to protect the wooden pathways stretching a few kilometres along the lake.

There is a road around the lake which is being repaved. And the shore is also lined with old irrigation system which doesn’t seem to be in use. The south and west might be different but the works in this part seem to be paving way for mass tourism.

The feel is definitely different from the lakes in Central Asia.

If you go there one day try going south or west (not easy by public transport though). And go in May, I read it’s really beautiful around, green and in bloom.

There was only one police check today as opposed to yesterday but they kept me there around 15 minutes as there was no local to help me out at first. A local goes through the check in 15 seconds, but a foreigner… The bus driver was more patient today and he fetched someone who was on the bus and could speak English and help out. Otherwise I would have been there longer. I don’t think I will get used to this. Unfortunately, I expect two checks tomorrow, but hopefully once on the train, it will be ok. Xinjiang, Xinjiang…

28.9.

I finally made it to Urumqi today. An important checkpoint on my Marco Polo Slovakia Vietnam train journey and Slovakia Singapore overland journey.

No trouble with the police today. Such a relief. I mean: SUCH! A! RELIEF! The day was so much more enjoyable. Although I prefer nature to cities, after having been mostly in the mountains for a month I enjoyed sightseeing in the first big Chinese city on this trip.

I went to People’s park. Such a nice oasis in the heart of the city. Security check included 🙂 Elderly men playing games, children enjoying fun fair rides, middle aged couples playing ping pong, elderly people doing exercise using outdoor fitness equipment and people of all ages dancing to music something I saw in Shanghai last year, too. No need to be a good dancer. I loved the improvisation and smiling faces. HAPPINESS! All around.

I also went to Hongshan, the Red Mountain, which is equally a nice park with great views of the city.

Security checks are at many places. Hotels, shopping malls, banks, bus stations, train stations, even when going to a park or an underpass. I experienced the most thorough check last night. At the Alashankou railway station. A thorough body check first. Also my wallet was opened and I answered questions about creams in my backpack. No idea what the problem with creams is. It felt like being at an airport. Also arriving at the Urumqi railway station was like arriving at an airport.

1.10.

Career break reloaded: RTW trip – Two months on the road today 🙂

I went to Tianshan Tian Chi lake today. It was beautiful also thanks to the weather at noon, I was lucky. It must have snowed because the paths were sprinkled with snow and the trees were dressed in white. But just when I came the sun appeared. Yay!

The surrounding scenery was stunning. Only the man-made things spoilt the beauty. In the late afternoon the lake disappeared in thick fog. The price would have been too high just to see the fog.

It’s too high anyway. Almost 30 euros, 40% of which is a bus fee. But without a bus it would have been too far to walk in a day. I’ve found out today that all major tourist attractions in China are expensive.

I walked around the lake, there is a wooden or paved path all around, however, a little bit further from the main tourist scenic area, as the tourist hotspots are called here, the path is in a poor condition, not maintained. Where does the money go? There must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of tourists today, just look at the loads of buses lined up to take tourists from the entrance gate all the way up to the lake sitting at the altitude of 1900m. It could have been a great hike up, but not today. Today I took a bus.

After three police free days, three police checks today. I went to the lake with two Chinese companions, a girl and a boy, from the hostel so I was saved. The girl even helped a woman from South Korea who also had a hard time explaining her presence here to the police.

4.10.

Goodbye Xinjiang and your police 🙂 Let’s move 2300 km further. 24 hour train journey ahead.

On my last day I went to check out the ancient city ruins of Jiaohe. Going there, I stopped a vehicle which turned out to be some sort of public transport to places with no buses. So much fun.

Going back, a local stopped and gave me a lift. Without me asking. Just wow. And he took me all the way downtown which was unexpected. And so I got my first free lift in China and my first ride on a motorbike.

And my last day went without any police checks. Yay!

*End of police related journal entries*

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