Through East Turkestan
24 hours in a surveillance state
To East Turkestan
Perhaps only the Kurds can lay claim to similar misfortune in the shaping of our modern world. As the largest nation without a state, the Kurds maintain a life in limbo, unrecognised and placed under three historically animus sovereigns.
But the injustice dealt to the Uighurs of East Turkestan - much of which sits in China’s westernmost Xinjiang province - is equally atrocious.
After close to a month in Mongolia, I was to pass through Xinjiang on my way to Kazakhstan. Everyone who ploughs this route is aware of the headaches when re-entering Chinese territory: the burdensome border, the police scrutiny when in the province. I'd heard it was in no way threatening though. Touring around China always involves intense scrutiny, but rarely intimidation at the hand of authorities.
So, with headaches expected, I plodded ever westward.
Exiting Mongolia replicated the ease of entering it. Its a poor country. The border security feels no more than a facade - just ticking the box. As I placed the my packs on the x-ray, I looked over at the fresh faced, sloppily dressed soldier manning the machine. He was engrossed in some shoot-em-up style video game, his attention couldn’t have been further from my pack or anyone elses.
The Chinese side is, of course, another story.
Ryszard Kapuscinski wet his quill in a bygone era. One of my favourite writers, the Polish journalist cut his teeth traipsing around the dying Soviet Union - the Imperium - reporting on a the final days of that fragile artifice of which he was a reluctant subject.
He at times mused philosophically about the nuisances of states; the silliness that accompanies all bureaucratic entities that seem so at odds with human nature. It was his meditation on borders themselves that stuck with me when first reading him:
“At the approach of every border”, he once wrote, “tensions rise within us; emotions heighten. People are not made to live in borderline situations, they avoid them or try to flee from them as quickly as possible. Yet man encounters them everywhere, sees and feels them everywhere.”
In Kapuscinski’s day, borders were truly unbecoming; colossal burdens rarely explored by a population who rarely traveled, manned by those on perpetual war footings. It was era of Cold War suspicions, where all were viewed with scepticism, even those most strident Russophiles.
Today, borders seem trivial. During this project, I ‘see and feel borders everywhere’ in a entirely literal way. But I hadn’t experienced the trepidation or the fear that Kapuscinski constantly alludes to as he nears one frontier after another throughout his storied career.
I’d always wondered what travel in Kapuscinski’s earlier-lifetime would have looked like. Crossing the Mongolia-China border, I felt I’d been warped back in time and place: I was a fly on the wall, enveloped in the pages a gripping Kapuscinski paperback.
The methodical examination of every one of my possessions was highly professional. I was forced to show the authorities all my SD cards, my external hard drive, laptop and even my kindle. All of these devices were thoroughly examined by the guards, with me politely answering questions about certain photos I’d taken from earlier in my trip.
One of the guards was incredibly polite - even apologetic. He spoke English well, and knew I was harmless. His other guards were certainly more abrasive, but none were outright rude or aggressive. They were, as they say, following orders. For me, this was a minor inconvenience, lasting an hour or so. For others that plough this route frequently, it must an unimaginable nightmare.
By the end of the ordeal, the guards and I had actually developed a rapport of some kind. One even gave me a ‘bro’ handshake on the way out, complete with the semi-hug you’d never expect from someone that had just trawled through your every possession.
A Fleeting Glimpse At A Security State
Xinjiang is the prototypical police state: a heavily surveilled entity in which no one citizen is immune to oversight, the evidence of which is conspicuous. The heavy-handed nature of the state, though, is firmly directed towards the Uighurs. As someone passing through, it was inconvenient: layers upon layers of security govern your every movement. Want to enter a restaurant? Prepare for a security scan and pat down. Want to go to a public bathroom? Expect the same.
But for those on the receiving end of the state’s suspicion, the security presence is far more corrosive. Xinjiang is a land of horrid abuses: forced labour, forced marriages, and a whole host of other practices that relegate many of the Uighurs to a third-class status.
After arriving at 3am in Urumqi and finding a hostel to get a few hours sleep, I quickly endeavoured to make my way out. My bus to the border would depart at 8pm, I’d soon establish, giving me at least a full day to walk the streets of this city. By now, I’d felt I’d had enough of China. Its mega-cities are just so repetitive. I didn’t give Urumqi the time to shine through, but I was happy to get out of there and press onwards to Kazakhstan.
The security at the border town, Khorgas, was unlike anything I’d seen. It felt as if China was on war-footing, with paramilitary on every corner. Armoured police vehicles - tanks, essentially, outnumbered many other vehicles. It was an utterly depressing town, albeit a pretty one, complete with brand new hotels, wide streets and green, flowered parks.
I navigated the border, establishing a good relationship with the Kazakh minibus driver who spoke a bit of English and helped me with my Russian. He was one of the few people in all of China I’d actually conversed with, and was my first contact with Kazakhstan. Soon, I was to cross the border, and to enter the heartland of Central Asia.