A Holiday in Xinjiang
  • Tue, 02/05/2019 - 21:08

By Ruth Ingram
February 04, 2019

We survived the metal detector and emerged with ourselves and our bags intact on the other side of the X-ray machine. Yet an alarm somewhere must have sounded within a couple of seconds of us entering the bus station. Out of nowhere the home guard surrounded us, their medieval pole-arms at the ready. Scary though this was, the idea that 21st century China was protecting its people with relics from the 10th century was, once my heart beat had returned to normal, somewhat comical. One of the guards surreally brandished his boat-hook-tipped staff with a broad smile on his face. The others were made of sterner stuff; they glared at us, brandishing variously a body restrainer, a metal pole decorated with two feet of jagged nails at right angles to each other, a red-tipped spear, and the usual clubs and riot shields. We were surrounded and trapped.

This was week two of our holiday to Xinjiang, the Muslim Uyghur region of northwest China. With every day of our journey, the Orwellian proportions of the clampdown in the area became increasingly surreal. Since Chen Quanguo, fresh from success in Tibet, took over as Party secretary in 2016, more than 1 million Uyghur people from every walk of life have been extrajudicially detained for re-education or worse. Their “crimes”? Wearing a headscarf, turning up late for a compulsory Monday morning flag raising ceremony, lackluster or “unpatriotic” rendering of the national anthem, or growing an “unusual” beard, to list a few of the many “misdemeanors” that can get a Uyghur taken away these days.

We had inadvertently stumbled into a no-go region for foreigners. We learned that this bus terminal, at which we had to change to travel to a particularly interesting local bazar, was one of the most heavily militarized areas in the region and strictly off limits. We were told to sit down and “rest a while” while our passports were taken.