The not so gunless police in Urumqi

China, October 2016

We spent a few days exploring Xi’an, before we continued our journey along the Silk Route towards Urumqi. We had decided to travel the 3000km distance by train and were looking forward to the relaxing train ride. We had booked our tickets in advance, as we would be traveling during X week, where all Chinese have a holiday in which they go home to visit their families. It’s one of the two largest yearly collective movements of people in the world. The other one is by the end of the week, when they go back…

The train station was packed with people and when we saw the first lines doom up, we got a little scared. Luckily, those were just for a security check and didn’t take us very long. Then at the ticket booths, we were amazed at the efficiency. The station had a massive amount of employees working that day, labor is still cheap in China, and we got our tickets within 10-15 minutes. Inside the train we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t as comfy as the Russian trains, but the sweet family that shared the other beds with us in our compartment more than made up for it. They had lots of fruits and nuts with them, which they happily shared with us. The father spoke English fluently, though it was hard to hold much of a conversation due to the continuous interruptions of service announcements and loud music SCHALLEND through the speakers. In a country like China you can’t help but think they do it on purpose, to prevent people from having any meaningful conversations, about unproductive things like basic human rights and all. The Chinese seem to like it though, whenever there would be a sudden lull in noise, it wouldn’t take long for someone to play the same kind of ear screeching tunes through a phone or portable speaker. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard to us, but if you check out our “China Song and Dance video in our film section, you can see for yourself 🙂

After 2 days and nights we arrived at the Urumqi train station at 6am in the morning. A little dazed from our journey and our less than perfect night’s sleep, we stumbled around the dark train station, until a Chinese guy in a bullet proof vest and a machinegun aggressively told us to quickly move towards the exit. So much for the no gun policy, we thought. Coming out of the station, there were a lot more of the same police guys with guns. It felt like stepping into a new country. And in a way we were, according to the Uyghur at least, who are the native inhabitants of the eastern province in Xinjiang and who are denied their independence by the Chinese government. The guys in front of us at the security check for the bus entrance were being hustled and shouted at for having a bottle of Sprite with them, to the point we felt intimidated by it ourselves. But it got worse when we entered the city. We saw police patrolling everywhere and not just in ordinary police cars, they were rolling around in amphibious tank-like vehicles with their machine guns pointing out. Apparently, Urumqi turned into a police state after riots broke out in 2010, where a group of radical Uyghur separatists started slaying Han Chinese in the streets, after which the Han retaliated the following days by doing the same to the Uyghur. Since that day, the city is controlled by a massive amount of police and all Uyghur are now more or less confined to one region inside the city. It’s so extreme, that to this day you are not allowed to buy a single kitchen knife in a store in Urumqi, regardless whether you are Han or Uyghur, or Dutch or German for that matter.

We didn’t have much of a plan, so we decided to simply go around and explore the city. We found our way to a park, walled and heavily guarded by SWAT style police, carrying rifles, where we were asked to push our backpacks through too small of a scanner. When we pointed out that our bags wouldn’t fit, we saw some rather terrifying looks on the security guards’ faces. What to do…? We explained they could simply take a look inside our bags, which seemed to calm them down enough to allow us to enter. Inside the park we saw a wonderful spectacle of mostly elderly Han Chinese doing their early morning slow moving Chi Qong routines, some solo, some in groups. It’s a beautiful sight and it must be wonderful for the mind and the body to come together in groups to start your day in the early morning with a healthy dose of physical exercise.

Our Couchsurfing host Mark then came to meet us. He was an incredible host, freeing up lots of his time to show us around the city, and a wonderful open character, sharing many of his life stories and plans with us. Mark took us to the Uyghur part of Urumqi, where he was noticeably not at ease as a Han Chines amidst the Uyghur. There were many heavily guarded policemen stationed around this part of town and probably many more patrolling around undercover. The city might now be safe, but it sure as hell didn’t feel that way.

Mark was recruited as an assistant for his cousin’s pre-wedding photo shoot the following day. We knew from our experience in Qingdao that these shoots are a full day’s event, so we took the time to meet up with Alim and his friend Frank whom we had gotten in contact with through Couchsurfing as well. They were part of the Uyghur minority, so it was interesting to hear their perspective as well, though they were very hesitant to say anything that might be interpreted as being critical. They would hush one another from time to time, while explaining to us that there were some things they couldn’t openly discuss. They didn’t feel as uneasy in the Han part of town, as Mark did in the Uyghur part of town, but they definitely were far more relaxed in their own area. Alim and Frank were studying to become English teachers and asked Linda if she could teach the students in their school a few things about Germany. We decided to stay in Urumqi an extra day to do a short lecture, which turned out to be one of our most memorable nights in China…

We spent a delicious hotpot brunch with Mark and his friend the following morning, after which we said our goodbyes and turned to some shopping for a warm jacket. Our plan was to hitchhike our way from Urumqi into Pakistan and we figured it would probably get colder the more we would move up in altitude. Time flies when you get lost in impossibly big shopping malls and since Jeroen had messed up “local time” and “Beijing time”, we had to rush to our appointment with Alim and Frank. China only has one time zone (to compare, Russia has eight!), so for practical reasons, Xinjiang has an unofficial local time that is 2 hours behind Beijing time. It seems to be mostly in use amongst the Uyghur though. Either way, we were 2 hours early, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the evening sun on the steps of a university building, looking out on a square filled with students rolling around on rollerblades.

Alim and Frank came to pick us up early and introduced us to some of their fellow students, with whom we shared an Uyghur-type of lentil soup. When we entered the classroom, it was already packed with students waiting for us. We started by asking the group what they knew about Germany, to which one of the kids yelled out: “Hitler”. Another asked us what we think of Hitler, to which we replied: “what do you think of Hitler”. The answer was rather chilling, as his reply was that he thinks Hitler is great. We asked whether the others agreed and they all enthusiastically cried “yes”. It turned into an interesting discussion, where we mostly asked them why they thought Hitler is so awesome. They seemed to like his ideas of nationalism and viewed him as a strong leader, they even mentioned how they love his speeches. When we asked them about it, we learned that they circulate videos of Hitler’s speeches in social media with Uyghur subtitles. They didn’t mention the obvious elephant in the room: Uyghur being Muslim and Hitler having killed 6 million Jews. The weird thing is, they didn’t feel any shame whatsoever in their love for Hitler. It felt to us as if they were giving Linda a compliment for her genocidal mass murdering former countryman, in their eyes a great German leader.

They seemed mostly interested to learn about the possibilities to study in Germany though, as they had learned it’s possible to study in Germany for free. So we spent most of our time talking about the German educational system, thinking it probably would be a good idea if some of these kids would come over to Germany. It would probably be the best way for them to learn what Hitler was really all about and it would be a good thing if they would bring that message back home.

The evening had a nice end to it when one of the students, Merzhat, jumped up and offered to sing us a Helene Fischer song (a German folk singer, not someone you would expect any young person to be excited about). His singing resonated well with the audience, as you can see in the small clip we uploaded in our film section. The class then morphed into a wild Uyghur music dance arena, after which the self-appointed class representative gave us an elaborate thank you speech, a favor Jeroen replied by expressing our gratitude for their wonderful hospitality. We followed Merzhat home, where we would be able to spend our last night in Urumqi, but not before Merzhat broke out his keyboard and another one of his favorite Helene Fischer songs to have us dancing again in his living room. Tired, from the dancing and the many impressions we had that day, we fell sound asleep. We would be venturing deeper into Uyghur territory the next day, hitchhiking our way southwest towards the Tajik and Pakistan border.

No spitting sign Urumqi
No spitting sign in Urumqi
Urumqi skyline
Urumqi skyline
Alim and Frank in Urumqi
Alim and Kevin in Urumqi

Hovering babies and the gunless police

China, October 2016

After we said our goodbyes to Sisi and Huiwen, thanking them for their incredible hospitality and their help in getting our visa for Pakistan, we were waving down cars outside of Jiaozhou on a highway exit towards Rizhao. It didn’t take long for a tow truck to stop just far enough behind us in the bend, smack down in the middle of the road in a blind spot to any cars racing up from behind. As we were anxiously running towards the truck, as fast as our backpacks would allow us, we found the Chinese driver staring at us with a dumbfounded look on his face, oblivious of his impossible parking spot, curiously but ever so friendly looking us up and down. While we were frantically gesticulating our intentions, hoping to put a quick end to our rather dangerous collective predicament, the driver leisurely asked us in the most polite and care free way what it was he could help us with. At least so we thought, as our Mandarin was still ever as non-existent as his English. All we could think was: “yep, we’re still definitely in China”.

By now, the first cars had been stacking up behind the truck. Luckily the drivers had been quick enough to find their brakes in time. To our astonishment, they were all waiting patiently while the three of us were chatting away on the national highway. It felt like ages before the driver waved us in, but the whole thing lasted probably less than a minute. By now, we had gotten pretty good at explaining where we wanted to go. We’d start with: “wǒmen” (we), while pointing at us, followed by the name of the next biggest city we would be traveling towards, while pointing at our map. We would often repeat it a few times, because our intonations are always way off (vowels have four different intonations in Mandarin, potentially giving the same word four very different meanings). Then we would ask: “nǐ” (you), while pointing at the driver. Our driver nicked and smiled, indicating he understood we wanted to go south and that he could take us there. Ten minutes later, we exited the highway going northwest…

Our driver was quick enough to reassure us though, waving his arm in a circular way to let us know he would be coming back to the same point. It turned out he needed to tow a small truck that stalled on the highway, unfortunately not quite small enough to fit onto his tow truck. So after a lot of hemming, hawing and hammering, but not a lot of lifting or driving, darkness set in. Tired from a day’s worth of passport chasing in Jiaozhou, we decided to take our chances and wait it out. Eventually our driver threw in the towel, left the broken-down truck behind, and drove us back to the highway going south. The driver let us out in an equally dangerous spot as where he let us in, only this time in the pitch dark night.

We thanked our Chinese friend and quickly jumped the guardrail. Plowing our way through the bushes up a steepish small climb, we slipped through what (as we learned the next morning) was the only hole in a long metal fence, to pitch our tent on top of the hill.

We hadn’t gotten very far that day, but we were up nice and early the next morning with a full new day of hitchhiking ahead of us. We made our way back down to the highway and did our best to find the safest possible spot to stop cars, which is of course an impossible thing to do on a highway. We decided that this kind of hitchhiking is too dangerous and that from hereon we would stop entering or exiting cars on the actual highway. Luckily for us, we safely found our way into the car of a middle aged couple and as we did our “wǒmen Rizhao”…”nǐ?” thing, followed by their nick and a smile, we figured we were off to a good start. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for us to exit the highway and make our way back to Qingdao, the place we started two days before. As we kept repeating “Rizhao” and pointing at our map, they kept nicking and smiling, but they also kept driving in the wrong direction. The woman then handed us her phone, with a friend or relative on the line who spoke some English. It turned out the couple wanted to drive us to the bus station, to find a bus to Rizhao. A wonderful gesture, but not what we were after. At this point we wholeheartedly thanked our escorts, yet convinced them to let us out nonetheless. By now we were in an outer suburb of Qingdao, too far from the highway to walk back. So we simply hopped in the first bus that went in the right direction and somehow managed to explain ourselves. From where we left the bus, we started walking and waving down cars, to which the most extraordinary couple stopped. They were about our age, she looked and played the part a real-life mannequin, while he was a flamboyant character with a knack for dramatic facial expressions. They drove us to their barbershop, where we yet again got lost in translation, though eventually they dropped us off at the entrance of the highway to Rizhao.

From here we decided to stick to our plan to stay safe. It required some more walking on our part, but as soon as we made it around the bend at Rizhao, west to Qufu, we managed to stick with highway service areas. We had some amazing drivers who went to great lengths to find us a new ride, driving into different service areas and asking around for us whether anyone could take us further west. It became obvious we had left the tourist hotspots, because at these service areas we were continuously being stared at. We were even offered a free lunch in one of these places, just for being foreign. So when it got dark, we figured it would be best to pitch our tent far enough out of sight to not be noticed. We realized a little too late that we had pitched our tent down-wind from a rather fragrant outside toilet building, but were too tired to crawl back out of our sleeping bags to move our tent.

We slept great regardless and were in luck the following morning, because we met the two friendliest guys, Leiluo and Shandong, who took us all the way out of Qufa into Zhengzhou where they even took us out to lunch for some of the most amazing Chinese food. They proceeded to tour us around this mega city, which looked like it had only recently been stamped out of the ground. There were new high rises everywhere, with half-empty eight to ten lane streets cutting across. Then Leiluo took us all the way out of the city, back on the highway to Xi’an, to drop us at a service area from where we hitched our way to Sanmenxia. As it had gotten already dark again, we started exploring the area around the highway exit for a good camping spot and found our way to a dark road under a flyover, where we heard loud music coming towards us. Half-worried about local youngsters (gangsters?) hanging around in the shadows we moved forward, into a brightly lit schoolyard where the only “youngsters” we could see were the middle-aged women of the village dancing to the loud music we had heard before. Relieved, we continued to look for a place to camp, when al of a sudden a little girl came up to us, asking us where we were from. She had learnt a few phrases of English in school and followed us along our way. When we asked her for her help, she quickly ran off to get her mother who pointed us at a vacant garage next to their house. They brought us a small candle so we would have some light and tried to communicate with us with a translator app on their phone, which unfortunately didn’t work that well. The only thing we could understand was that this place was called “town under the bridge”, which made sense, as the half-built village they had probably stopped building at least 5 years before, considering the overgrown skeletons of cement and steel, was mostly located underneath a rather noisy railroad-bridge. The next morning our other side neighbor kept popping up. Curious and friendly as he was, he first brought us some hot water (the health-staple of every Chinese diet), then some kakis, some moon cakes, then he came back with some bread rolls, after which he showed up with a pomegranate. Always smiling, always looking at us curiously in the most friendly way. More people came by to have a look, an attempt at a chat or to bring us food. We figured we were probably the first foreigners they had ever laid their eyes on.

From here we could easily manage it to Xi’an in a few hours. Some of our funniest moments were at yet another service area where we sat down to eat the last of our provisions. Everyone was staring at us again, but we had plenty to look at ourselves as well. On our right, we spotted a Chinese girl in a bus intently looking at us, while grabbing her phone. As soon as she noticed us looking back, she quickly hid behind her window curtain, after which, very slowly, her phone appeared in the window from behind the curtain. We couldn’t help but laugh and friendly waved at her, to accommodate her in snapping our picture. Soon after, on our left, we witnessed a typical custom we have only seen in China so far. It was a father toilet training his kid over a garbage can, peeing down through a hole in his pants. In China, small kids don’t wear diapers. They have regular pants with a hole in the back and when they need to go, they squat down and go, no matter whether they are on the street, inside a supermarket, or in this case, hovering in mid-air over a garbage can.

Two rides later, we made it to Xi’an, the former capital of many ancient dynasties and one of the oldest cities in China. Here we met up with policeman and communist party member Kai through Couchsurfing. Kai showed us around and shared some great stories about the police in China. One of which was that the police in China carry nothing but their nightstick. When in need of a gun, “they would first have to find the keys to the cabinet where the guns are locked up, after which they would have to find the keys to open up the cabinet where the bullets are stored”. Perhaps they don’t need guns due to the high morale of their law-abiding citizens, it might also have something to do with the potential terror you face form the communist party when you get arrested. As it happened, Kai was a party member and was adamant in defending his party and all of Marx’ ideologies present in it. We forgave him for not being able to name any one of them.

Xi’an provided us with a deep-dive in its crazily chaotic street food courts (see our Chinese Food video) and gave us our first real taste of the infamous Chinese air pollution. It also formed our starting point on the ancient Silk Road we were to follow in our journey going further west. A road we decided to take by train…

Linda with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen with Leiluo and Shandong in Zhengzhou
Jeroen sitting in the typical Chinese squatting position in the “village under the bridge” near Sanmenxia
Park in Xi’an
Our first taste of the infamous Chinese smog in Xi’an
Xi’an streetfood
Xi’an by night