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Back in the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region)

January 10, 2009

19/11/08 Yining/Gulja, Xinjiang, China 

A year has passed, and I find myself back in the most westernly province of China, known to the Chinese as Xinjiang, or ‘western frontier’, but referred to as ‘Eastern Turkistan’ by the Uighurs, the historical ethnic inhabitants of the area. My return to the region has to do precisely with this distinction, as J is fascinated by the Han Chinese expansion, control, and veritable colonialism in this region, and the corollary movement for Uighur national independence. Consequently, he has decided to return here to learn more about it, and I, for the second time, have chosen to follow him.

 I suppose that at this point, it is necessary to mention that our three friends with whom we began our journey from Beirut across the Asian continent have all left us, following their own paths. Di and Caro said their goodbyes in Tashkent, both returning to jobs and loves back in Lebanon, while Jeevs decided to brave the harsh winter climate and discover Kyrgyzstan.  I admire his drive for discovery, as I myself decided not to venture there because of my fear of sub-zero temperatures (which I am encountering here in Yining anyways and are no doubt unavoidable from here on out), and hope that the harsh conditions do not hinder his path and engagement with the place.

 I ask myself to what extent their absence has changed our travelling experience. On hone hand, it does change the way that we do things, in many ways. Now that we are only two people with largely the same direction (I really am tagging along to wherever/whatever J feels he needs to go/see) and desires, which reduces the decision-making processes and the conflicts. But despite these conflicts, there was a sense of comfort and security in the group which, perhaps, at times, made us more insular, but, at others, definitely gave us more strength to confront difficult situations. The prime example of this was when Di fell very ill in Yazd, Iran, and was place on an IV drip. Our combined efforts managed to get her the medical attention she needed, and also make sure that there was always someone by her bedside to help her get to the toilet or hold up a plastic bag when she felt a wave of nausea. I believe, therefore, that their absence, both in terms of a lack of bickering and a lack of companionship, is akin to a separation of siblings. 

 On the other hand, more than the presence or absence of our friends, I think the biggest factor that will alter the way that we will travel in Xinjiang is that we are no longer on a ‘voyage of discovery’ in the same sense as we were in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in that those were all countries that we were visiting for the first time. We were there on a much more touristic basis, in which we sought out the iconic attractions of those places, be they ancient desert cities, magnificent mosques and madrassas or the self-congratulatory monuments of megalomaniac dictators. Our previous visit to Xinjiang followed a similar pattern, in that we visited many touristic locations: Turpan, Tian Shi Lake, Kasghar and other southern Silk Road cities including Yarkan and Karglik. This time, however, we are explicitly seeking out those places off the beaten track, and, perhaps most importantly, hose not contained in the traveller’s bible, the Lonely Planet Guide.

 * * *

 Out of the seven land borders that we have so far crossed during this journey, the Kazakhstan-China one unexpectedly proved to be the most eventful. We had had some preliminary worries about whether or not our crossing into Xinjiang would be problematic, due to the travel restrictions placed on the area in the wake of the attacks here in the run-up to the Olympics in August, but our concerns proved unfounded. In fact, the reality proved completely the opposite.

 On the Kazakh side of the border, the customs and immigration offices were housed in  simple, clean buildings with effective but unassuming facilities, namely computers. Even upon entering Kazakhstan, I remembered being impressed at the presence of computers in the control booths; the first appearance of such advanced machinery in all our travels. But these could not compare with the set-up on the Chinese side of the border: a brand spanking new building, with automatic doors, shiny floors in which the neon ceiling lights glowed and a host of smiling, uniformed Han Chinese to welcome you to the motherland. My jaw probably dropped upon entry, to stark was the contrast between this office and all of the others that I have ever encountered in my life. Obviously revamped for the Olympics, the building completely resembled the most modern airport, complete with wide, multi-lingual signs hanging from the ceilings, designating the various queues and counters in the style of airline check-in desks.

 And the personnel were so pleasant as well! Their behaviour was in complete accordance with supposed traditional Chinese docility and compliance, which seems to be a stereotype that the government is keen on fostering. Apart from one brief inquiry as to our eventual destination (Beijing, we duly replied), we were not given a second (overt) thought.

 Upon exiting he building, we were faced by a more daunting sight: about 100 metres away stood a black metal gate with two soldiers on one side checking visa stamps, and a huge mass of people on the other side, clinging to the iron bars, staring in. Past experiences told us that these blokes would consist of taxi drivers, money exchangers and hotel touts, waiting to pounce upon us and reap the affluence assumed by virtue of our white skin and (fake) North Face jackets.

 We stood in line, waiting for our turn for our passports to be checked for the last time before leaving the border compound. The two officials were young, perhaps not even 20 yet, but their personas were inflated by the prestige of their uniforms, khaki green jacked and trousers with bright red trimmings, topped off by a high, broad hat. They had a slight build, and their bodies seemed to shrink beneath the magnitude and significance of their attire.  Even though we were last in line, we had been identified by the men beyond the gate, and they proceeded to voice their offerings to us: ‘Taxi! Taxi Yining! Taxi Wulumuqi (Urumqi)!’

 Eventually, the person in front of me was waved through, and I stepped up to the young man and, with an emphatic ‘Ni hao’ and a broad smile, I handed him my passport. From the black gate that now stood only a few metres away, the shouts were increasing in frequency and volume, so I put on my best bored, disinterested face, in the hope that obviously ignoring them would encourage the furor to subside.

 And then, before I realised what was happening, two of the young men from the crowd had run through the gate and slapped me on the arm, the way you do if you’re tagging someone in a game. My immediate reaction was to grab my handbag, in the fear that that was their target. But no, they were laughing as they pulled back as quickly as they had came, snickering and satisfied at their meagre accomplishment. After the initial surprise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought: a bit of cheekiness for shits and giggles, one round of ‘tag the foreigner’ to pass the time…

 But the young soldier beside me was not so passive, and he immediately jumped forward at the perpetrators, who huddled back into the crowd. The soldier took a few swift, intimidating steps past the gate, threatening those assembled with both sharp words and steely body-language. The men in the crowd all stepped back, creating a semi-circle of pavement around the soldier. It was only then that I realised how physically small he was: in the space that had opened up around him, he looked like a little child about to be bullied by a group of  burly adolescents; although in the current scene, the roles of domination had been inversed. He took an extra few seconds to give them all am icy look as if to say ‘Don’t try me, I’m not messing around here’, and then calmly came back to where we were waiting, slightly disorientated at everything that was unraveling so quickly before us. The soldier flipped through my passport, then handed it back to me, and I walked over towards the gate.

 The following scene happened so quickly that i don’t remember exactly how it begun. I do remember some sort of tussle as I got beyond the gate, someone grabbed me and the shouting was amplified. But I didn’t even have time to think about what I would do to evade the crowd when the young soldier had, once again, leaped out beyond the gate and begun to hit one of the man who had moved forward. My body stiffened, and I was afraid to move because I didn’t want to get caught up in the fight if others joined in. So I just stood there, feet stuck to the ground, hiding my face in my hands like an ostrich hides its head in the sand. 

 The next time I looked up I saw that the soldier was now kicking the same man over and over again in the ass. The  soldier was holding the man by the arm as he repeatedly and roughly shoved the tip of his polished black boot up the man’s backside. Again, like some dumb animal stuck in headlights, I just stood there and stared. And then I realised that everybody else in the crowd and in the line behind the gate was doing the exact same thing. There was no movement on the behalf of any of the other men to come to the aid of their colleague, nor did any other soldiers attempt to restrain the one who was kicking. And just as the soldier dished out the end of his beating, I realised again how small he was compared to his victim: the man was at least a whole head taller than him, not to mention well-built. I have no doubt that he could have knocked the adolescent soldier unconscious with a single blow. but he did nothing, just stood there and took it without a single utterance piercing his lips.

 After the soldier had finished delivering the punishment, he returned to his initial post and handed J back to passport which he had been holding. J immediately came up to me and asked if I was ok, which of course I was, and we hastened our pace to escape to harassers, but to no avail: perhaps 10 metres away from the gate they descended upon us again. But at this point I was so eager to get the hell out of there that i shouted ‘Piss off! Piss off!’ over and over again, as J and I  moved with linked arms farther from the crowd. My shouting seemed to take effect, and after about 50 metres, there were only 3 highly persistent touts surrounding us anymore, and they too eventually dissipated.

* * *

 Since the incident, J and I have been replaying it over and over again in our heads, trying to dissect the motivations behind the actions of the persons involved and attempting to identify the power relations therein.

 Was this a random incident, in which the taxi drivers’ reactions to our presence was impulsive, misplaced and confronted with disproportionate aggression? Or was it a deliberate act of provocation, in which we were merely provided an opportunity for the threshold to be crossed and the soldier’s authority to be challenged? Does that sort of thing happen often? Was it an isolated event, or can it be seen as part of a larger, more systematic challenge to imperial forces? Those are questions that we can only deliberate and pontificate, without yet having enough experience to arrive at any definitive conclusions.

 I found it particularly intriguing to attempt to analyse the significance of the soldier’s show of force: was his aggressive reaction an attempt to set an example, a form of public punishment that would serve as a deterrent? Or did his use of violence betray an underlying lack of control, in the sense that the necessity of resorting to violence may mean that the other mechanisms of instilling obedience and fear are not functioning properly?

 Alongside the quest for answers, I think it’s also important to be aware of how loaded  the questions themselves are, and how they betray our own agendas. It is imperative that we acknowledge the extent to which what we are looking for will strongly influence what we come to see. We have come here with much curiosity and with many questions, and therefore we must be wary to not let those permeate every single experience we have, lest we lead ourselves to read too much into every situation…

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