Escaping Xinjiang

Posted on 2019-10-23

It's currently not a good time to visit the province of Xinjiang, in the northwest of China. The conflict between Han and Uyghur people in the region has been going on for centuries, but in recent years, China has drastically tightened the "security" in the province. Both sides claim ancient heritage in the region, but the truth is very complicated, with the original natives having been completely absorbed or replaced. China conquered the region roughly 2000 years ago, but their rule was intermittent, with various nomadic tribes and local states taking over in between Chinese re-conquests, and before the Uyghurs arrived from modern-day Mongolia in the 8th and 9th centuries. The ensuing Uyghur state itself was then still mostly ruled by foreign powers, and finally submitted as vassals to the Chinese Qing Dynasty after seeking their help to free them from the Dzhungars in the 17th and 18th centuries. Han and Hui Chinese moved into northern Xinjiang after the Dzhungars there were massacred, and later, the Qing also resettled Uyghurs throughout the province from their original home cities in southern Xinjiang.

Following turbulent years under the rule of the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and two brief independent republics, the People's Republic of China took control. Opposition of Uyghurs towards Chinese rule had always been present, but increased in the 1970s due to uneven economic development between the predominantly Han northern Xinjiang and mostly Uyghur south, state-sponsored mass migration of Han Chinese into the province, and policies promoting Chinese cultural unity. From the 1990s on, terror attacks by an Uyghur separatist movement provoked heavy-handed responses by state police, both contributing to further tensions between Uyghurs and Hans. Currently, Uyghurs claim that the government aims to eradicate their cultural identity through surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity. Unlike other Muslim groups in China, Uyghurs are not allowed to fast during Ramadan, wear a veil, or bring their children to mosques. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are currently held in extrajudicial political "re-education camps". Hans in Xinjiang meanwhile complain about affirmative action for Uyghurs (such as preferential admission to universities) and accuse them of harbouring separatist aspirations. Now, the Chinese government has established an extensive surveillance state, with cameras, license plate scanners, and police posts at almost every corner.

Most of what we heard from other cyclists and read online told about frequent, time-consuming police checkpoints along roads and within cities. People had cooking fuel and knives confiscated, spyware installed on their phones, and trick questions asked at the border. Wild camping is generally forbidden in China, but in Xinjiang, this is strictly enforced. At the same time, in this vast and sparsely populated province, hotels that are licensed to accept foreigners are too few and far between to reach by bicycle alone. All these factors led to our decision to cross this province as fast as possible by train.

Our visit began, of course, at the border crossing from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang at the city of Khorgas. We were surprised to find half of the Singaporean convoy (that had given us a ride to Zharkent the day before) still stuck on the Kazakh side of the border when we reached them three hours later, the first of many unexpected delays for them crossing by car. With our bicycles though, we had almost no delay on the Kazakh side and quickly continued on to the Chinese side. Immigration and customs checks there took a lot longer than in Kazakhstan, of course, but was still much shorter than the two or three hours we expected. Hannah more or less breezed through immigration, but Heiko's passports were inspected with utmost diligence (several officers, magnifying glasses, UV light, etc.) and afterwards, he was asked into a separate room, where his phone and camera were searched (though they somehow managed to log themselves into a completely blank guest account of his phone). At customs checks, they were looking for books and knives (every family in Xinjiang is allowed only one knife that must be registered to and engraved with their name), but after finding nothing (we hid our camping knife in our saddle bag) they finally let us in. We were surprised that they didn't see or confiscate our tools and gas bottle from us, as this happened to other cyclists who crossed before.

Welcome to China! A massive building greets us as we leave the immigration building at Khorgas

Welcome to China! A massive building greets us as we leave the immigration building at Khorgas

Bicycles are not allowed on Chinese trains, but have to be consigned as cargo instead. There are cargo carriages on most regular trains, but not on high-speed trains. However, one does not need to take the same train as one's cargo, and the price difference between two sleepers on a regular overnight train and two seats on a high-speed day train is generally enough to pay for a room in a hotel. So our plan was to consign our bicycles and most of our luggage immediately at the Khorgas train station, to be transported on the next regular train to Urumqi, while we'd rest in a hotel and take a high-speed train the next morning to catch up with our cargo. We'd then repeat the same thing from Urumqi to Jiayuguan, already in the next province Gansu.

However, our plans quickly went bust when we arrived at the train station and were told that the nearest consignment facility was in the regional capital Yining, some 90km away. With the long distance, police checkpoints, and bad weather forecast, we were not keen on cycling there the next day, so we asked our Singaporean friends if we could hitch a ride with them again. They were happy to help, but given the security situation, they offered to transport our bicycles only, so we could still take the train. Furthermore, by the first night, all of their cars were still waiting for customs clearance, so we also had some time the next morning to try another option: taking a bus to Yining.

What struck us immediately in Khorgas was the grandiosity of the place. We were only expecting a small border town, but what we found was a large city, with more skyscrapers than any Central Asian capital, a skyline that could already be seen several kilometres before the border. Security was everywhere, with frequent road blocks, police checkpoints, and security cameras throughout the city. Every hotel had a metal detector security gate and X-ray baggage scanner at the entrance, and every shop or restaurant had a set of helmets, stab-proof vests, and shields. The food was definitely different from Central Asia and surprisingly spicy. Two hours of time difference with Kazakhstan and too much time planning for our onward travel meant that we slept quite late on our first night.

The skyline of Khorgas as seen from a few kilometres before the border in Kazakhstan

The skyline of Khorgas as seen from a few kilometres before the border in Kazakhstan

The next morning, we arrived at the bus station only to be rejected again, as we were told that our bicycles were too big to fit on the bus to Yining. Having run out of options, we rushed to the hotel where our Singaporean friends were staying, only to find out that their cars still hadn't made it through customs and that, after more waiting and having lunch together, they would have to stay yet another night in Khorgas. We decided to try our luck again at the bus station, where this time, we managed to find a bus driver willing to take us and our bicycles to Yining (to be fair, the bus was small and when we saw it, we didn't think our bicycles would fit either - but they did!). When crossing the city limits of Khorgas and Yining, we had to get off the bus and into big checkpoint buildings to have our passports registered and photos taken by multiple officers who couldn't read English (they had trouble reading the months on Hannah's passport). Our checks may have been faster as Hannah speaks some Chinese and we could answer the officers' questions quickly, but we can imagine how these checks can be much longer and more draining for other foreigners.

Our bus from Khorgas to Yining - no wonder the bus station staff didn't think our bicycles would fit (but they did!)

Our bus from Khorgas to Yining - no wonder the bus station staff didn't think our bicycles would fit (but they did!)

Finally in Yining, we cycled to the train station immediately to consign our bicycles. Train station security is very tight too, and we, our bicycles, and all our luggage had to pass through security checks designed for pedestrians only. Here, they confiscated our gas bottle and tire puncture repair glue, and broke off the knife of our multitool, only for us to enter the train station and find out that the consignment office was already closed. When we finally reached the consignment office the next day (after passing through security again), they even wanted our bicycles to go through the X-ray scanner, for which we had to take the front wheels off. However, thankfully from here onwards things finally started moving more quickly, as we found out that we were able to consign our bicycles and luggage directly to Jiayuguan, saving us the trouble of collecting and reconsigning everything in Urumqi. After seeing our bicycles off, we finally took an overnight train to Urumqi, where we immediately changed onto a fast train to Jiayuguan, speeding out of Xinjiang province at over 200km/h. Even at this speed, the barren landscape between the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts seemed to drag on for ages, so we were quite glad about not having to cycle there for weeks.

Night view of Yining city from the train station. The large "screen" on the left is actually composed from lights on a building facade, and continuously scrolls the text "I love you China".

Night view of Yining city from the train station. The large "screen" on the left is actually composed from lights on a building facade, and continuously scrolls the text "I love you China".

One of the many wind farms we passed on the train through Xinjiang, often stretching out as far as the eye can see. China is really putting the vast, barren steppe to good use.

One of the many wind farms we passed on the train through Xinjiang, often stretching out as far as the eye can see. China is really putting the vast, barren steppe to good use.