Stories from my diary is a series of articles from my cycling journey from Rotterdam to Singapore. In this series I share stories from my diary that I kept daily. I was on the road for a year from 2 February 2015 to 30 January 2016. In addition to stories from this diary, I also share a bit of personal awareness of the impact that this cycling journey have had on me. Today #2 of the series in which I will take you to the Far East into the desert in Xingjaing in Western China.
September 2 – 79km (9472km)
A large jeep turns left from the site of a local police station. I’m in this jeep. The driver pushes the accelerator a little extra, the tires slip and behind the jeep a large dust cloud is created. On the dashboard in the car is a small screen on which a videoclip of Westlife is playing. “Didn’t we came from the right?” I ask Thorsten. Thorsten, who is a cycle traveler from Germany, sits next to me in the back seat. I feel increasingly uncomfortable in the situation where Thorsten and I are in. Thorsten seems less tensed. An hour ago we cycled along sandy roads here in the Xinjiang province in western China. I met Thorsten a few days ago in Kashgar. Together we started the more than 2,000-kilometer bike ride from Kasghar to Golmud, straight through the Taklamakan desert and straight through the Uyghur culture.
“Didn’t we came from the right?” I ask the driver now. He doesn’t seem to understand. Just like that, we were taken from the road a few hours ago. For me it feels like we have absolutely no control over what is happening to us right now. That worries me. What if they think we are spies on bicycles? Western journalists who come to take a look at the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs? There are not much tourist here, Thorsten and I are probably the only one. Most cyclists do not venture a month long journey of 2000 kilometers through only sand and a couple of small towns.
We were taken to the local police station a few hours ago. And our bikes? They are in good faith somewhere along the road with the person who stopped us and alerted the police.
When we arrive at the police station, two seats are placed in front of us. A boy nervously walks back and forth with a somewhat tight facial expression. It also makes me nervous. What do they want from us? And nobody speaks a word of English. After a long uncomfortable silence, a lady with a Han Chinese appearance approaches us. “Are you journalists?” Is the first question we are asked in English. Thorsten, who remains admirably calm under it, explains that we are silly cyclists. “But what are you doing here?” Thorsten further explains that we cycled from Europe to China and we do it for the sake of enjoyment. I emphasize Thorsten’s story by showing photos on my camera. Photos of mountains, desert, camping, cycling and every now and then a portrait of a local person.
The lady starts to smile unexpectedly. That breaks the tension. The atmosphere is starting to become a bit looser. After a few other questions we end up in a photo session with the other officers who suddenly want to be photographed with us. When we propose to take a picture of this historic moment with our camera, the atmosphere becomes more tensed again. Unfortunately that is not possible, the lady explains to us.
And so we end up in the back of the jeep. And where are we actually going? I imagine a bad movie situation where spies are killed somewhere in a remote pasture. I don’t want to think about it, I correct myself, but I panic for a moment. Until the phone rings from the driver. He shouts a little in the Chinese language and then swings at the steer of the jeep. The jeep makes a violent u-turn and I give a deep sigh of relief. No forest, no killing, we really are going back to our bicycles.
We drive back to the place where our bikes are, which fortunately are still there, together with the person who keeps an eye on them. Thorsten’s bicycle is loaded into a small police van which followed us from the station. A van that looks like a Volkswagen hippie van but with police flashing lights on it. The van is just a little too small for the bike. The officers are annoyed by this, they mutter to each other. Suddenly the van drives fast away with the bike from Thorsten still half hanging out of the back. Thorsten is furious and start to talk against the officers next to us. He even starts to shout: “What are you doing!?” What if my bike falls out? And where do you take my bike?”
In the distance the van stops next to a cart with a donkey. The officer of the van has a chat with the person on the cart, who turns around and comes to us. It all looks like a theater performance to us but strangely enough it’s reality. We load my bike and bags in the farmer’s cart, and Thorsten’s bike also leaves the van and goes into the cart. Thorsten and I are asked to go in the police van. We have no idea what is happening. I leave all my anxious and angry emotions for what they are. Here it works different than I’m used to, very different. After about 15 kilometers we stop at what appears to be a border post. We get off the van and wait for our bikes that arrive a bit later with the cart and the donkey at what looks like a regional border post. When our bikes are unloaded again, we receive some important advice from the main officer. “You have to go to the next town and find a hotel there because you guys really need to take a shower.”
We say goodbye to the officers who greet us as if we have just built a close friendship. We drive past the border post waving to the officers who watch and wave us good bye. We pay close attention that we are not followed and after three kilometers we turn left into some farmers fields. While we pitch our tents, we look at each other with a somewhat tensed smile. What just happened to us?
This was my first experience of traveling in China. My frame of reference is the Netherlands and here I learned to have certain rights. In China I was subject to an authority that shapes society in a different, to me an unkown way. In most countries I was received as a very hospitable guest because of cultural, religious or materialistic values. In the west of China the hospitality came from the Uighur people. Contact with the Uyghurs was something the authorities tried to prevent. So I started to have many questions.
The Chinese government is investing heavily in the development of western China. Including facilities in housing, education and agriculture. In my opinion, some Uyghurs benefit from this, others feel that their identity is being taken away. Thorsten and I had many conversations about what freedom really is. Thorsten did not feel free in Germany, everything is driven by a money-oriented system, he explained to me. The high level of individualism is a consequence of that. We both agreed that traveling by bicycle feels like the most pure freedom we know about.