The Liuyuan high speed rail station consists of a lonely and quiet pair of platforms in the Gobi Desert. A quick look at the map on my phone shows me I’m not far from Mongolia. Military policemen handle oversized guns, the first firearms I’ve seen in months. My documents are pored over by women who bark commands at the queue of passengers awaiting entry into the station, while the guards stare at me: the only foreigner.
Rail stations in the more populous East, where the vast majority of the 1.4 billion Chinese live, are chaotic affairs. Vendors hawk skewers of roast duck and steamed dumplings, while in the megacities trains arrive and depart every few seconds. But this rail link to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, or Chinese Turkestan, is mostly silent.
In the 18th century, warring factions of indigenous Turkic peoples, called the Uyghur (wee-ur), invited the Qing dynasty to invade and restore order. The fighting consequently stopped, but as of 2018 the Chinese still haven’t left. Renaming the area Xinjiang, which means New Frontier in Chinese, the resource rich and strategically important region was annexed into the empire.
The comfortable and air conditioned bullet train to Urumqi, the provincial capital and world’s farthest city from the ocean, zips through the cold, rocky Gobi Desert at around 200mph. Journeys in the verdant plains of China proper east of the Gobi traverse through villages and cities surrounded by farmland, but this corner of the Middle Kingdom is brown and desolate.
At Urumqi Station, the western end of the Chinese high speed rail network, I disembark to go through security and processing. My belongings pass through a large scanner, and a woman surrounded by heavily armed military police tells me to look at a camera. Identity confirmed, entry authorized flashes across the screen. A green light accompanies the opening of the gate in front of me, which slams shuts before the person behind me can cross.
My friends back in the West say my stories of life in China are reminiscent of a dystopia a la 1984. After a short while you get used to knowing all text messages, purchases, and movement are being recorded by the government. There are certain topics you can’t discuss, but you learn how to avoid bringing them up and/or find out appropriate ways of saying one thing while meaning something else.
In Xinjiang the “security situation” is more in your face. Heavily armed police patrol the streets, the cameras that track everyone via gait and facial recognition software are more ubiquitous, and there are police stations every few hundred meters. Western news media have lately been paying increased attention to “re-education camps” housing hundreds of thousands of local Muslims, who are forced to eat pork and give lavish praise to the President and Communist Party.
The exit from the Urumqi train station spits you out in a small, busy plaza with Han Chinese and Turkic locals milling about. The ambiance has made an abrupt shift from East to Central Asia, with a dose of military-grade security paranoia thrown in the mix. Chinese and Arabic script plaster buildings and billboards. Back in eastern China, the security looks bored and my obviously foreign looks draw curious stares from passersby. Here, the armed security stare at me with hostile suspicion. I’ve dealt with this before in obscure corners of Eastern Europe, and I head confidently in what I hope is the direction of the bus stop. Luckily, it is.
The Urumqi Rapid Bus Network links the train station to my hotel, one of the few in the city authorized to accept foreigners. I drop a one yuan note (14 cents) into the fare box and disembark when I reach my station, with announcements in Mandarin and Turkic Uyghur. Though the indigenous Uyghurs ply the streets hawking wares it’s largely a Han colony in a somewhat remote corner of Central Asia. Because of Han immigration, the Uyghurs are now a minority in their ancestral home.
I translate back and forth between Chinese and English to help another American, who arrives as I’m being handed my key. He brags about how the receptionist offered a rate lower than that listed on the wall, but I don’t tell him I paid even less. He quickly comes across as kind of a jerk, so I make an excuse to leave. My room is comfortable, though the bathroom is bizarrely enclosed in a transparent glass wall. There’s no exposed electrical wiring in the shower, and it’s quiet at night, so I can’t complain much.
I’d hoped to visit the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in southwest Xinjiang, but I’ve heard the security there is even more intense than here. I’m worried about my hiking equipment being confiscated, and I’ve read online that the government has recently demolished much of Kashgar’s older architecture. The former governor of Tibet now runs Xinjiang, and many of his practices seem to have followed him. Plus, I’ve heard that guards have been turning back foreigners that try to cross from Kashgar into nearby Kyrgyzstan. So I instead travel by train to Yining, 6 hours from Urumqi.
Yining is a small town of half a million near Kazakhstan and home to a decent hostel, the former being the main reason people visit. An older woman with her daughter and infant granddaughter ask me to lift their luggage onto the overhang rack because of my height. Although I’m only 164cm (5’4”), and short amongst my age group in Shanghai, I tower over many of the locals this far from the wealthy coast.
All I do in Yining is eat dinner and withdraw from the ATM some Chinese yuan, which I’ve heard I can exchange for Kazakh money at the border. While walking to the bus station to catch one of the hourly departures to the border town of Khorgos, I pass by a bunch of construction workers who look Kazakh. Construction immediately halts and the two dozen men just stare at me wordlessly.
It’s two hours in a cramped minivan to the border, and shortly before arriving in town we arrive at a checkpoint. Every 50km or so in Xinjiang there’s a checkpoint where foreigners must disembark, have all luggage scanned, and explain to the Chinese police what you’re doing. I’m crouched low in my seat, trying to look inconspicuous, and the officer is about to wave us through when he sees me. I’m shown into the checkpoint terminal, a drab one story building where I smile like an idiot and pretend not to speak Chinese in the hopes of speeding things up.
“We need an English translator,” I hear the guard say into the phone. I wait 10 minutes for this translator, but when it turns out the only English word he knows is bicycle and that my “dumb ghost man” act isn’t going to work I provide my government issued credentials, explain in Mandarin that I’m a university employee on summer vacation heading to Kazakhstan, and upon hearing I’m leaving the country they wave me through.
The Chinese in the van don’t seem bothered that we had to wait an extra 15 minutes because of me. “He speaks Chinese!” the driver tells them, and then they pepper me with the usual questions re where I’m from, what I think of Chinese food, why I’m 27 but still not married, how much I earn each month, etc. “Wow, meeting an American all the way out here!” a few of them exclaim to each other.
Two things I’d read online are true: it’s hard to figure out where to cross the border, and the money changers will find you. The rates aren’t bad, and I exchange about $60 of yuan to Kazakh tenge. I walk 20 minutes to the physical border, where a driver says, “I take you my country, get in truck.” I decline and keep walking to immigration control, where I get turned away and told I can only cross via bus. I’d heard I could cross the border and hitchhike 30km to Kazakhstan immigration control where buses headed toward Almaty, a European city in the heart of Asia. But after confirming with a second set of guards that I can only go by bus, I flag down a taxi that agrees to take me the 2km back to the bus station for 90 cents.
The big goal is to cross the border into Kazakhstan. Once I’m there I can figure out a way to Almaty, whether it’s standing by the highway with my thumb out or flagging down a bus. The Chinese ticket vendor sells me passage to Zharkent, Kazakhstan for about $11.
Leaving China is simple, but I hit a snag when a border guard looks with a confused look at the array of Chinese stamps in my passport.
“How’d you most recently enter China?” he asks in Mandarin, studying my entry stamp following my recent ferry trip to Taiwan.
“By boat,” I say, leaving it at that.
“How would you enter China by boat? How does that work? Where would you even come from in Fujian province?” My eyes go a bit wide. Oh God, am I seriously going to have to explain to this true believer that the People’s Republic doesn’t have control of Taiwan? TAIWAN IS PART OF CHINA is what diehard nationalists will often screech if you mention the “province in rebellion,” but this is the first time I’ve met a flat out denier of the existence of Taiwan. I’d heard they exist, but to meet one in the flesh…
“Give me the foreigner’s passport,” his supervisor barks, having overheard the conversation. She’s pleasant and easy to deal with after I explain that I’m not in Xinjiang to foment rebellion, but rather as a university teacher on vacation.
Crossing into Kazakhstan is easy, minus the hour delay for the guards to finish lunch.
“Kazakhstan tourism?” the guard asks in disbelief after reading the entry slip I’d handed him.
“Really? Tourism?” And I am once again back traveling through countries that can’t believe a westerner would visit willingly.
“Kazakhstan great country, tell friends,” he says, stamping my passport and sending me on my way.
The ride to Zharkent passes through arid desert along a well maintained Kazakh highway, and there are many drivers looking for passengers onward to Almaty. There’s really nowhere else out here in the middle of Asia, and Almaty is the only place the highway travels.
At a highway rest stop, complete with chickens roaming about, my driver chats with some middle aged Russian women. One speaks a little English, and tells me to get on their bus with them. I have no idea what’s going on, but the Russian lady manages to convey that her bus is closer to my hostel than where my original driver is heading.
The lush mountain backdrop of Almaty, nestled at the base of the massive Tianshan Range, slowly rises as we approach the city.