Our final section of China brought us from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to the massively vital trade hub of Khorgos, the port between China and Kazakhstan. When I say, “brought us from Urumqi to Khorgos,” it’s not that much of a stretch considering the number of times we were detained by police. This section of our walk has had a very distinct wash, rinse, repeat feel to it; we’d walk, the police would stop us, they’d drive us to the next town and force us to stay in an expensive hotel. Taking full advantage of our situation, we’d crush out work using copious amounts of WiFi, then start walking again until the police picked us up to start the cycle over. This was the routine of our lives for the last forty days.
Given our renewed pace from Hami to Urumqi, this last section continued this burst of energy as we completed our fastest border run to date. We set a blistering average of 30 km/day on the days we walked, and one day, we even set a new record of 52 km! From Urumqi, we headed west by northwest through farmland and villages. It wasn’t surprising to learn that tourists, both Chinese and foreigners alike, don’t come here. So when we experienced daily interventions—sometimes multiple per day—from the local police, we shouldn’t have been surprised that they didn’t know what to do with us or really how to deal with passports at all. What was surprising was the myriad of consequences that came from the various police interactions. We were not allowed to camp…except for the two times we were, for no discernible reason, but those other times we were driven to a hotel in the nearest town. Walking was fine…as long as it wasn’t in the jurisdiction that we were currently in, which resulted in us being driven to the edge of their jurisdiction and dropped off to continue walking. This was sometimes a checkpoint but most of the time was just the middle of nowhere as they told us, “this is for your safety.” One time, while sleeping in a tunnel, some cops came to tell us it was unsafe here because of wolves and bugs. They then moved us to a different tunnel a very short distance down the road and told us, “you’re safe now.” The city of Wūsū refused us entry all together at three different checkpoints (at least that was consistent)! Their reason was that the Border Defense Minister was out of town, which apparently meant no foreigners were allowed. Another time, we were approached by police, who were okay with us camping, and after they left, a different set of officers came, telling us that the previous police had no authority in this jurisdiction. These new cops were also okay with us camping and left us alone just as the first group had. There was even a three-day stretch where we were escorted by police. They would drive a little ways down the road and wait for us as we walked then leap-frog ahead again to wait some more. This would continue until they handed us off to more police in the next jurisdiction. One of these officers was young and drove his scooter with us all day. At one point, he even pushed his scooter and walked with us for a while until he thought we should switch—so he could push a trailer and Timb could take his scooter for a spin. This series of police hand-offs came in very handy more than once, when our escort officers would come and deal with other police that didn’t know what to do but were definitely going to do something. If you are confused reading this, don’t worry, we have been confused this whole time.
Also, if you’re asking yourself what the deal is with all the police presence and the frequent checkpoints, here’s the quick and dirty scoop on the Xinjiang Situation to help all of this make a lot more sense. Back in 1949, China claimed this region, then known as Eastern Turkestan, similar to the way they claimed Tibet, and named it the New Frontier, or 新疆 (Xīnjiāng). However, Tibetans have used non-violent protesting where Xinjiang has experienced radical pushback. China has furthered its grip on the region by adding infrastructural developments with a state-sponsored influx of Han Chinese to lead these developments as well as to fill the jobs created in the wake. Some of this has affected the local minorities along with the impact that modern development has on traditional ways. This unrest goes back long before 1949 and has had consequences for many in the region, in particular, a group of people called Uygur--an ethnic minority of Xinjiang and the Central Asian region. In recent years, there have been extremist attacks in Xinjiang (the riot of Urumqi, 2009) as well as around China (the train station stabbing of Kunming, 2014) committed by Uygur people, mainly targeting Han Chinese. This has lead China to take equally radical steps to combat radical extremists. If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, you have probably seen or heard about Xinjiang’s re-education camps. While these “camps” are among the most extreme actions being taken, there are many other regulations being put in place that restrict movement within Xinjiang as well as entering and exiting the region. And because the Uygur people are Muslim, and terrorist attacks in recent years worldwide have had Muslim ties, China is also regulating religious practices, even taking a stance on locals' appearances such as not allowing men to grow beards nor allowing women to wear long dress-shirts.
For the sake of moving this regional summary along, please understand that what is happening here in Xinjiang is an immensely complex situation and that this is a brief synopsis to explain the heavy police presence. However, for a larger window into the depths of the Xinjiang Situation, check out more here. (<-Link coming sooooon!)
Now, where was I…us trying to walk…police not letting us (unless they did)…Ok, got it! I was talking about what it’s been like to travel through a police-state where there is an over-abundance of police patrolling everywhere. And although the local authorities know what their jobs are, not all of them know what to do when three foreigners (two with massive beards) come strolling through, each with his own dad-in-training stroller packed with who knows what. They did know that doing nothing was not correct. This caused lots of confusion for them and us dealing with lots of their random actions. All in all, we made great time walking this section (all the rides didn’t hurt), and we crushed out lots of work to keep ourselves aligned with our mission along the way, too. Similar to this repetitive stop and go travel pace, was the ebb and flow of landscape characteristics as we went from rural to urban and back to rural.
The landscape we walked through from Urumqi to Khorgos was a mix of farm fields, basins of grassland prairies and rolling grassy foothills. Mountains were always visible to one side of the road or both, rivers meandered their way from the mountains to follow the road for a while or pass under it, lakes were here and there as well as the massive Saylim (Sayram) Lake. Even some stretches of arid gobi that sported nothing but power lines. There were only four or five cities while the rest of the population was comprised of farming villages and communities of Kazakh herdsmen living in yurts at the edges of cities, villages, and way out in the boonies alike. I suppose that’s the beauty of a nomadic lifestyle though, isn’t it, setting up shop anywhere you want. The landscapes changed regularly. Every few days it would complete its transition from farmland to rolling grasslands, nipped short from the multitudes of sheep, goats, horses, and cows. And a few days after that, it would become arid and devoid of most things pleasant, but before long it would become pastoral lands again, then farmland, and before we knew it we’d be back in a large city. From time to time, Xinjiang has reminded us of Minnesota a lot. Farms, fields, flatness, large farm equipment driving down the road. The illusion, however, would burst the moment we spotted the mountains looming in the distance or when we spotted a group of yurts dotting the plains and hillsides.
The other obvious part of our surroundings that told us we weren’t in Kansas anymore was the factories that filled the out-lands of every single city. It took us about a day to walk through the factory-lands and another day to get into the city, which meant it was about 30 km of factory-land and another 30 km between these satellite factory towns and the hub-city itself. These satellite cities supported a large enough migrant workforce that entire towns devoted to housing, feeding, and entertaining the workers would spring up around and between the factories, which provided these weird little outpost-like truck-stops we hadn’t counted on nor saw on our phones’ maps. The plus side was we could get a hot meal and resupply on water. The downside was the smog that choked the landscape and the truck traffic that churned dust and coated everything, including us, in a drab monochromatic brown as far as you could see, which wasn’t very far some of the time. Also, nothing really snaps you out of a reminiscent daze of home like when someone comes up to you and starts speaking in either Chinese, Kazakh, Russian, Uygur, or a combination of them!
Speaking of language, Xinjiang has felt like a salad bowl of diversity, but as we drew closer to the border, it felt more like a melting pot of Central Asia with a trace resemblance of China. Speaking Chinese for Paul and I has become less and less useful since the Chinese being spoken near the border is more supplemental than anything. As we moved through Xinjiang, speaking Chinese was oft with someone also speaking Chinese as a second language and thus was at a similar level to Paul’s and mine (Patrick). This was nice. Other times, such as in Khorgos, people are speaking a mix of Russian and Kazakh with random Chinese words supplemented in to create this new border-town lingo. When we try to respond in Chinese they return a stare of utter confusion or straight up tell us that they do not speak Chinese, even though they are using several Chinese words in their conversations. Their conversations, by the way, flow flawlessly from one language to the next. Similarly, when Timb has been talking with people throughout Xinjiang, they will either assume we are Russian, and start the conversation that way, or use a mix of Russian, Kazakh, Uygur, Chinese, and English in an attempt to figure out which language is going to be easiest to use. Mostly, these conversations don’t last long before resorting to either Russian or Chinese. Either way, it has been an absolute trip juggling languages before we can even start communicating, or, ya know, realizing we can’t. It makes me wonder about the language barriers of the ancient Silk Road and how commonplace this kind of language mixing and melding has been throughout history. With so many branches of Turkic language spreading from Mongolia, through Central Asia, all the way to Istanbul while existing side-by-side with Russian, Chinese, Farsi, and who knows how many Latin- and Germanic-based languages sprinkled in from the west. We have witnessed locals having difficulties dealing with each other because of the language barriers still present today. That’s not to say these barriers hold everyone back. We’ve met more people that know three or four languages without batting an eye that it has made our heads spin. Meeting people using this little language dance before settling on one or two has been an incredible way to make acquaintances and learn about the people and this area. It’s pretty crazy how different the reactions are when we use the local Uygur or Kazakh language in greetings or thanks, too! Locals beam with excitement as they either launch into a conversation or tell everyone around that we’re speaking the local dialect. Sometimes they would even look confused as they scanned us with their eyes and asked us if we were Kazakh or Tajik, which was always mind-blowing as we were commonly thought to be Russian or from some Central Asian country and were rarely thought to be Americans or British.
The hospitality has only grown as we approached the border. Everyone wants to offer us a place to stay, or a meal, or, at the very least, it would seem gifts are a necessary gesture of the area. We have been given an unbelievable amount of melons, several tomatoes, even offered straight cash at times (that we kindly refused) while they tell us that we need local money to be able to stay at local places and buy local food. The food is meat heavy with a side of bread. Chinese food can still be found in cities, but mainly the cuisine is Central Asian meat skewers, flatbread, hand-made noodles, fruit for dessert, and very few veggies. The culture shift is almost complete, just in time, too.
I’m writing this in our little, very cluttered, hotel room in Khorgos as we wait for a few packages (different tents, Paul’s winter sleeping bag, and a few other things) to arrive from Paul’s dad and Vivian. After that, we can get a move on again.
While we’ve been here in Khorgos, we’ve ventured out a bit and seen some of the city, but mostly we’ve sought out our fun-need by relaxing in the room, playing games, and watching movies. However, as I mentioned before, Khorgos is a massively vital trade hub for China. In 2006, China and Kazakhstan started a cooperation project here at the border where both countries gave up a little bit of land to make an international commerce area. We spent two days walking around this 5.28 sq. km or about 3.3 sq. miles of shopping area checking out all the duty-free merchandise (oh yeah, it’s 100% duty-free!), people watching, and, of course, doing a bit of shopping for ourselves. Five-square-kilometers is a lot of area for a shopping district, so much space in fact that there were products from all over the world, like the building named Germany, or other buildings that were simply named after the country whose products could be found inside. Although only half of the area is finished and half is still under construction, there are already hotels and restaurants. Most people were shopping in bulk by what we saw. At one point, trying to find a roof-top view, but finding a large window near the top of a building instead, I could see down on the warehouses and alleys behind the shopping centers, and they were bustling and filled with bales of wrapped products and trucks being loaded for delivery. This kind of trade hub is just one of many that China and the other countries partnering with the One Belt One Road Initiative hope to build all over Asia and Europe. It was neat seeing the behind-the-scenes of this scale of shipping and receiving as well as the potential for what it will be when it's finished.
Whether we’re walking, being a source of confusion for local authorities, chilling with our feet up, or shopping in massive trade hubs, we seem to have found our stride in this adventure. But of course, all that is about to change as we say goodbye to China, stepping across the border that marks the one-third mark of our trip. From here, we’ll be heading into smaller countries with similar 60-day visa stays or shorter and will have to deal with many new things, but I think we’re in a good place to take on some new challenges. As a group, we are doing well. Traveling with a partner or a group is really like being roommates, maybe on an even more intimate level than roommates. Traveling together means we have to all agree on where we are going, what we are doing, how long we want it to take, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It definitely wears on you. I feel we are at the point where most things that were tolerated or shrugged off, in the beginning, have come to the surface and been addressed at the very least, if not resolved. The plus side of these frictional issues is that we know they are healthy for a group to experience and work through them. We know that it takes work to keep dealing with them and allows us to practice acceptance and compassion as well as detachment in those moments when we realize the source of the tension is from within instead of from without. As of now, I feel like we are in a very good place as a group and have come through a great deal of shifts in our group dynamics. The fact that we are all still here and happy on the other side of so much makes me positive about continuing this cycle of clash and growth as the trip goes on.
Written by Patrick Exe