My way home
Part IV: Xinjiang (2285-2681 km)
Part IV: Playing cat-and-mouse with the police in Xinjiang
Xinjiang is China’s largest province and of vital economic and geopolitical importance for China. Historically, the region is dominated by the Muslim Uyghur, an ethnic group with an own Turkic language, as well as their own traditions and cultural practices that resemble Central Asia much more than the rest of China. The Uyghur people had once accounted for the vast majority of Xinjiang, but after extensive settling projects since the 1950s that brought more and more Han Chinese in, now only make up about 45 % of Xinjiang’s population (see here).
In an attempt to undermine every teaching and movement under the ideology of the Communist Party of China, Muslim minorities in China are facing a crackdown on their traditions, institutions and human rights. The most targetted group has been the Uyghurs, who have experienced a rising level of persecution by the government. Since 2014, an estimated number of one million (10 percent of all Uyghur) or more Uyghur people is detained in so called “reeducation camps”, where they are forced to study the ideology of the communist party of China, swear loyalty to president Xi Jinping, renounce their identity and faith etc. Reports from former detainees point to forced labor, torture and even forced sterilisation of Uyghur women.
black: car (hitch-hiking)
green: car (police)
Please take a moment and read about the situation of Uyghur people in Xinjiang:
- Overview in this article by “The Diplomat”
- Pictures and videos from inside camps here and here.
- Satellite imagery of camps and testimony of former detainees, click here.
- Report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, click here.
- Seizure of qurans and prayer mats in a Xinjiang city, click here.
- Drone footage from a train station in the Xinjiang city Ku’erle, click here.
I had already gotten used to the control and censoring of internet content and the fine-meshed network of surveillance camera systems using cutting-edge artificial intelligence algorithms (that provide data for the social credit system) which are reality for whole China. Xinjiang however, in the course of the aformentioned cultural and religious persecution, has been transformed into a modern police surveillance state with an unprecedented invasion into people’s privacy and freedom, the total control over everyone and everything. The system is backed by an incredible density of police men, police stations and checkpoints.
Cycling in Xinjiang felt accordingly. I was subject to a ridiculous number of police controls every day on the bike – regular ones and special ones due to racial profiling, some of them causing me to be stuck several hours. Policemen were constantly lying to me, following me in both official as well as unmarked cars, stopping me, preventing me from cycling, forcing me to get on their cars, not allowing me to sleep in the night, eventually locking me in camera-surveilled rooms. Cycling became impossible eventually and I had to hitchhike to Urumqi and later take a bus to reach the Kazakh border.
Neither have I seen the secret internment camps nor experienced mistreatment by the police that compares to what the Uyghur people are facing. However, I have felt how the police gives a damn about the well-being and rights of individuals, how privacy rights, freedom of speech, freedom of movement and the rule of law are systematically violated. I have read the propaganda banners everywhere that help in brainwashing the majority of the people and have felt the political tension, that fears the others to speak their mind. Altogether, it felt like massive internment camps could appear very conceivable, if not even the next logical step in the minds of people a system out of control.
I have documented all police incidents in this thread (long).
As always, kindness and hospitability of people I met on my way through Xinjiang, tell a completely different tale. The guy who’s car I hitchhiked on to Urumqi was a 23 year old car mechanic on his way back home. I had some great time with his friends going to a Karaoke bar and hanging around in Urumqi the following days . One friend of him took me to 南湖绿色广场, a central park with a big lake and a square with direct view on the city government. The park is closed by the police every night at 10 p.m., so that around 9.55 p.m. heavily armed police started to yell at those who had not yet started running towards the exits.
In Urumqi, I decided to try cycling again. In the beginning, I was surprised it went so well, but on the second day I learned that the mountain road I was cycling on was covered in deep snow further up the mountains, which was the only reason that there was no police on this road to stop me. I had to cycle back for a good part and it lasted only one more night and day until I was caught in a police checkpoint in the middle of nowhere again. Landscapes in that region Southwest of Urumqi were beautiful. Basically a red moonscape with stunning rock formations all over the place. I was invited to homes of Uzbek and Kazakh minorities to warm my hands and have tea with them and they were all so amazing.
Tour part IV data:
- distance cycling: 396 km
- time riding: 24 hours / 6 days
- distance hitchhiking / by bus / in police cars: ca. 1300 km