On the 23rd of July 2018 I wrote
“I’m doing it! I’ve been cycling since 10 am. Its now 3 pm. Four scorching hours on the highways are starting to get to me but I’m listening to Eye in The Sky by Radio Lab and that helps. I still have 45 km to go today but this break in the shade of a bus stop is more than needed. I’m going to let my phone charge but then I’ll be ready to go again. My feelings are overall great toward my first riding day solo since partnering up with Jerry a few months ago. Hopefully, I can find a nice camp somewhere tonight. I’m feeling up for it, for sure. I only have a bit of petrol but these veggies need cooking! Ah, I wish it wasn’t so damn hot on this highway.”
Life was moving along and all of my fears about continuing without Jerry were starting to roll off of me with each turn of the wheel. “I can do this. I am doing this. Everything is fine- more than fine!”
Little did I expect that by the time the day was done, I’d be taken to two different police stations and escorted in two police cars to unknown destinations, sans passport nor any idea of what in the world was going on.
My happy-sweaty-full-face rode off from my slice of shade on the side of the highway for about 20 kilometers before I arrived at my very first police checkpoint. These checkpoints, as far as I was aware, were set up to monitor movement and “control” the Uygher people, an ethnic minority primarily living in XinJiang Autonomous region of China. They wouldn’t care about a random American cycle tourist, I ignorantly thought as I strode in to give my passport to the desk clerk. She looked at my face, and then at my passport and then at my face again and starting rattling off a multitude of sentences in Chinese. “So sorry” I said. “I don’t actually speak Chinese!” With a subtle look of confusion she turned to her partner who barked “Where from?”
“Wo she Meguo ren” I replied in crumpled Chinese before repeating it in English. “I’m American.”
Both faces lit up “AH! MEGUO!” they exclaimed with great surprise. “Tu-rump-uh!” The two began discussing with each other at length about, what I assume, was what to do about me. They spoke, sent some messages on WeChat and told me to sit down. Happy to be inside a semi-cool and shaded building, I sat and accepted the hang up as a chance to relax and cool down before continuing the ride. I waited for one hour, and then two, being fed watermelons and gifted ice cold bottles of water the entire time, when eventually the desk clerk said “come.” I stood up, thanking everyone for their generosity and headed out the back door. A big police van was outside with the back door slid open.
“Oh no..” I thought to myself.
I unpacked my bags from my bike. Sweat started beading all over my face both from the heat and a new pang of nervousness. “Where are we going?” “Why would it be a problem for an American cycle tourer to pass these parts?” “Is this for my safety or for theirs?” Questions began circling around my brain. My VPN wasn’t working in this region which meant Google was off limits, as was Facebook, Instagram or any other western apps that filled my color coordinated iphones folders. I was left to my imagination.
“Come” They said, mostly expressionless. Two men got in the front and my bike, my bags and I were put in the back behind a barred gate— not the most comforting ride I’ve ever taken. We drove for a few minutes in silence and then they pulled off at a shop. The driver got out and in a couple minutes returned with an ice cream and two bottles of water for me. “Okay? They wouldn’t give me ice cream and all of these gifts if I were in any real trouble.” I thought, delighted with my new coconut flavored ice cream. I sat in peace for the rest of the ride to, what turned out to be, the second police station. I was held there for three hours, ate 5 more slices of free watermelon and practiced English with one of the officers. They looked at my passport again, called some people, asked me questions and eventually ushered me into another police van.
“Carry you to Hotel” were the words on the screen of the Chinese version of Google Translate. Finally, some answers. “They’re taking me to a hotel! Great!” I got into the front seat of this police car. The driver was an older man– much more stern then the two Chinese officers who escorted me on the last ride. He was intimidating but kind. We didn’t speak much. Until, we stopped… on the side of the highway… at around 8 pm. He got out of the car. I stayed in. When he motioned me to get out, I was quite confused. “They said you were taking me to a hotel!” I wrote in a translator. “Bu ren” he replied. I was to get out and cycle as the sun was setting. On a highway. And I had no idea where I was. I quickly checked my map and saw there was a city about 8 km away. If I really rushed, I would make it before sundown. So, not so cheerfully, I repacked my bike, got on and pedaled hard in the golden light of the day toward a city.
I found a hotel that accepted foreigners, which was a big surprise and success, as most do not, took a glorious shower and fell asleep chuckling. “What a day… what a life…”
This day was to be repeated throughout my time in Xinjiang Province of China. I would cycle in the morning, feeling strong and empowered until about midday were I would be “escorted”, sometimes by 5 different police cars in one day, to checkpoint after checkpoint, foreign hotel after foreign hotel. A 10 day ride turned into 3 as they ushered me toward the border as quickly as possible. But why?
Since 2016, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been subjected to imprisonment, torture and death. Xinjiangs “reeducation camps” or rather internment camps operate secretly and outside the law and can detain anyone without any trial. The United Nations and other human rights organizations claim that there are an estimated 1 million people in these camps being “reeducated” as a means of stopping extremism and terrorism.
The Uyghurs who are not imprisoned, essentially live in an open air prison, as well. They are monitored severely and have had their passports taken from them. They are not allowed to leave their province, let alone the country. What does this have to do with a young American girl cycling through? I’m not entirely sure, but I assume that the Chinese government would be very displeased if a foreigner were to see these camps or converse with locals and spreading “Western Ideologies.” Just an assumption.
When traveling slow through the world, you pick up on the subtleties. You see things you shouldn’t see, go to places that the government doesn’t necessarily want you to go. On a bicycle you are kind of free. You get to see things as they are– really are, in that present moment in time and space, instead of being ushered in tourist buses to the pretty faces of a country. After two months and a half cycling in various parts of China, I have seen many faces of the country. Some so beautiful you feel like its otherworldly and an example to other nations, some that confuse me, and some that make my stomach turn.
My experience in Xin Jiang Province was a bit of a mix. At a time where I was finally alone again, feeling free and empowered, I had the juxtaposition of being controlled and man-handled by Big Brother China. I was experiencing great kindness from the police officers who were just doing their job but also feeling contempt for the same structure that was responsible for oppressing so many people. However many contradictions I felt leaving China, I am grateful that I have the option to move fluidly from country to country and to continue to learn and unlearn through experience. Onwards to Kazakhstan.