The road into Afghanistan was right where I thought it would be. The unmarked, one lane dirt track was in the only gap between the two ridges of 16,000ft-glaciated peaks that I could see. Getting there was easy. Just an hours walk from the small town across a desolate, rocky field. But the three locals that I met on the way either gestured or told me I couldn’t go that direction. I remember about 50 words of Turkish from my semester in Ankara and their Chinese was worse than mine, so I was only half lying when I smiled, told them I didn’t understand and kept walking.
Two kilometers down the road that led to the world’s war-torn capital of opium production one of them caught up with me on his 3-wheeler. He had lost the good humor I had seen in his eyes before. He insisted I come back with him. Closely following him was another man. This one riding a motorcycle with his young son on the back. Since there were now three of them, and this boy spoke perfect Chinese, I gave up feigning ignorance and got on the 3-wheeler.
The head cop was a local. He tilted his dark head back gravely, looking down his aquiline nose at me sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor. We were in the owner of the 3-wheeler’s mud hut. The two Han officers flanking him crossed their arms over their body-armored chests. No one was smiling.
“Why are you here?” The Tajik-Chinese officer demanded in broken English.
My path to this moment began two years ago, when I spent the better part of six months learning as much as I could about this remote corner of the world. Xinjiang, the northwestern frontier of China, on whose packed earth I now sat, is home to the Uighurs; an oppressed Turkic-Muslim minority and the subject of my undergraduate thesis.
During my last semester at Beloit Xinjiang and the Uighurs became something of an obsession. The more I learned the more I wanted to know. How could the Chinese justify their discrimination, arbitrary arrests, torture and executions? Why would the government make such obviously false claims of common ancestry and two millennia of ‘subtle administrative control’ over the Uighurs? How could a population who were being forcibly made a minority in their own homeland, whose culture was being systematically destroyed even more blatantly than Tibet’s, be so unknown to much of the rest of the world?
I learned a great deal writing those 42 pages, but all my information was second hand. And though only about 10 people ever read my thesis, it felt a bit disingenuous to make such sweeping statements and claims when I had never even met a Uighur, let alone been to Xinjiang. I had never seen the Silk Road stretching into the rocky wastes of the Taklinakan Desert. Never seen for myself of segregated the cities were or what a Uighur slum looked like. And I knew my curiosity would never be sated until I did.
And now I have finally seen all of these. When I crossed the border into Xinjiang there was no celebration, no visible line we went over, but seeing the desolation of the Tarmin Basin out of the train window when I climbed down from my bunk at sunrise felt a little bit like waking up on Christmas morning (that is if you wanted to see scorching deserts and oppressed minorities on December 25).
After 30 more hours on that train we arrived in Kashgar, at the far western edge of Xinjiang. The far edge of the Chinese frontier. It is the farthest city from the sea on earth and an even more intense version of what I had imagined for the last two years. The segregation and socio-economic disparity between the Han and the Uighurs is visible in every corner and on every street. The enforced destruction of traditional dwellings in favor of massive ugly, completely generic concrete blocks can be seen on nearly every street corner. What for centuries had been the cultural melting pot and trading hub of Central Asia now in most places looks exactly like every other Chinese city.
But despite all this the Uighurs seem far from broken. Though I haven’t been able to find any who will openly talk about politics with me, their day-to-day life seems to be filled with minor rebellions. Only a handful of the many Uighurs I have encountered will even speak Mandarin, and then only when they absolutely have to. The few Han I have seen at Uighur shops usually pay even more than I do. And, despite the massive military and police presence, and the fact that registering as Muslim puts you on a government watch list, the city's central mosque is still packed for evening prayer.
After a few days in Kashgar we continued along the Karakoram Highway out of the desert and into the sheer canyons of the Khunjerab, the ‘Valley of Blood.’ This rugged country got its name from the brutal bandits who for centuries had used the areas rugged terrain to ambush Silk Road merchants, slaughtering them and taking their cargo.
The ribbon of a road hugged the contours of a roaring stream as it wound its way up into glacial valleys, passing stunning mirrors of lakes, sand dunes and the hulking Kongur Mountain, a 24,000ft mass of ice and rock. After six spectacular hours we arrived in the last Chinese town before the Pakistani border, Kashkurgan.
After two days of wandering the five streets of the small town and the surrounding yurt-covered hillsides I decided it was time to venture a bit farther. After all, how could I forgive myself for being within 15km of Afghanistan and not trying to get a look?
“I got lost. I didn’t know I couldn’t walk here.” I told the aquiline nosed officer.
“Road… closed… not OK.” One of the Han heavies informed me.
“So I see.” I replied.
The Tajik officer said something to the other two and they promptly set about standing me up and positioning the three-wheeler and motorcycle drivers around me for photos; proof of their contribution to my arrest. The rest of the family, not wanting to be left out, insisted on also being in the shot.
When we finished a series of candid Tajik family and Travis photos, the police and I stepped outside. One of the Han officers spent a few more moments arranging me, with my bag and jacket, into a relaxed, carefree, and what I though was a bit guilty looking position. I was instructed to sit against the wall and look out towards the road I had been walking along. When he was satisfied with the composition he snapped a few more shots. China apparently subscribes to a more artistic conception of evidence than the West.
“OK! Well, so sorry for the trouble guys. I didn’t realize I couldn’t be here but I certainly know now! I’ll just be on my way.” I said with a smile and a wave, fervently hoping that the photos were all that they wanted.
“No! You come with us.” The Tajik officer commanded.
I felt my stomach drop away. The Chinese police, especially in Xinjiang, are not known for their strict adherence to human rights law, let alone civil liberties.
I rode back to the station in the middle of the back seat, a body-armed Han on either side. I did my best to swallow the fear and think. Acting as ditzy as possible, and making my Chinese even worse and more American than it already is, I tried to make small talk and play up the stupid American traveler role as best I could. It wasn’t much of a stretch.
My companions, however, were unresponsive. Only grunting or giving one word answers to my questions about how little they liked getting wet when it was cold out and whether they were on team Edward or team Jacob.
When we got back to the Karakoram Highway we turned left. The blood drained from my face. Tashgurkan was the opposite direction. I asked where they were taking me. They just smiled darkly and said nothing.
Ten more minutes and we were pulling through the high, guarded gate of a walled-in police compound. The inside of the compound was square and about a half acre. A 5-story, imposing white building stood fortress-like in its center with a large, half-finished parking lot in front of it.
I was hustled out the car then made to empty the contents of my backpack onto the ground. The Tajik watched with approval as the camera toting Han officer took photos of my trail mix, raincoat, hat and gloves from no less than 6 angles.
My passport was then taken inside and I was left on the courtyard’s steps. The police were taking no chances though. The Tajik officer told the five loitering, assault shotgun-totting officers to watch me closely. I sat down on the steps and waited, trying not to remember the Uighur interrogation accounts I had read with such vivid clarity.
After about an hour an immaculate, white Suzuki SUV pulled up. A small, rotund and self-important looking Kazak and his assistant stepped out. It seems an almost universal truth that the suit outranks the uniform, and this round Kazak, with his shiny silver suit and pink open-collar shirt, was no exception.
The Takij officer with the aquiline nose ran out, enthusiastically clasping his superior’s indifferent hand. He gestured at me and they spoke in hushed tones. I didn’t know what to make of their interaction and how it boded for me. The Kazak looked rather bored and uninterested in what his subordinate was telling him, but whenever he looked at me it was with narrow, suspicious eyes.
After a few minutes of this the Kazak seemed to have heard enough. He waved the Tajik officer away with the kind of dismissive gesture most people reserve for insects. He walked over and stood looking down at me. Taking a deep breath, he narrowed his eyes and put one wrist on his hip. Then, lifting his free hand, he began waging a pudgy pointer finger at me and yelling in the most heavily accented Chinese I have ever heard.
I didn’t understand a thing he said. When he stopped for air I quickly interjected, with as much civility as my fear and annoyance would allow, the same story I had told the other officers.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t know I couldn’t be there. I was just going for walk for an hour or two. I’m sorry. I didn’t even know the road went to Afghanistan. I know now and it won’t happen again. Sorry.”
The Kazak considered this for a moment. Not convinced, he made me empty out my bag again and show him the pictures on my camera. Though I hadn’t taken any photos that day, he insisted that I delete all of the pictures I had taken since arriving in Tashkurgan. Incredulous, I asked him why. His face got red and he started yelling again so I shook my head and started, as slowly as possible, deleting my photos. Luckily, he lost interest after a few seconds. Wandering over to where my stuff lay, he absently buttoned his shiny silver blazer and stared at the decidedly unsuspicious contents of my bag.
After a moment his expression changed. He looked suddenly tired and disappointed. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the career making CIA spy/opium smuggler arrest he had hoped for when he first got the call. He gave me back my passport then motioned for me to pack my things and get into his car.
The Tajik who had originally brought me inwasn’t so easily convinced. He leapt forward and tugged plaintively at his boss’s sleeve, begging him to leave me at the station. If I left and turned out to be Jason Bourne then he might not get the credit he deserved! The plump Kazak was unimpressed. He shook him off while I quickly grabbed my things and got in the back seat.
The Tajik, however, wasn’t going to give up easily. He reached through the open drivers window and kept pulling on the shiny silver sleeve and pleading with increasing desperation as the Kazak started the engine and began driving away. He seemed completely oblivious to his minion’s continued protests. I watched the Tajik’s aquiline nose bob next to my window for 50 meters as he ran along side us before finally gave up. I couldn’t help but smile, but only a little. I wasn't sure if I was out of the woods yet.
We drove the 15 minutes back into town to the main police station. I was brought through the back door and introduced to a distinguished Chinese officer at a desk. The Kazak’s abrupt change in behavior said that this new guy seriously outranked him. The two men spoke for a moment then the man behind the desk asked me, in perfect English, to repeat my story. When I had finished he looked satisfied. The Kazak left, shooting me a dirty look as he went towards the door.
The Chinese officer took me down stairs so he could make a copy of my passport, just in case. While the scanner was working a group of three very big, very serious looking men in civilian clothes walked in. They looked from me to the officer, not saying word. My host looked up from the scanner absently.
“Oh, we won’t need you anymore. He just got lost. Not a big problem.” He said in Mandarin.
Looking a bit disappointed the three men looked once more at me, then turned and left. I felt a deep shudder crawl up my spine as I watched them go.
The Chinese officer handed me back my passport. I apologized and thanked him again, then turned to go.
“No problem.” He said in his perfect English, “But it might be best if you were on tomorrow mornings bus back to Kashgar.”