Day 4 – Monday 7th October 2019
Day 4 – Monday 7th October 2019
Got up early compared to the last few days as I had to catch that all illusive bus to Sost, Pakistan. Repacked my belongings with a view from of trying to condense what I have so can fit my gear adequately in my pannier bags.
I forgot to mention on the write-up for Day 1, the O-Ring on the pannier bag (which complements the hooks at the top broke even before I set off)! It’s not really caused me major issues as yet.
I didn’t really have time for a proper breakfast, coffee sachets get me by in the morning, so I made my way to the Bus Station at 0900 as advised a few days earlier. It was waiting around until 0930 until we were able to purchase tickets. Whilst in the queue met a few others going to Sost, Pakistan. A couple of Pakistani guys, and a couple from China going across to Hunza for a trekking tour. Got talking to Mao Mao and it’s his first time going to Pakistan and they were a really lovely couple. He showed me some photo of his travels and expeditions, and I was wowed! He recommended I visit Sichuan Province – after looking at those photos, I wish I could stay another week in China such was the beauty and culture on show. His photos were breathtaking – then he again they had two top quality cameras with zoom lenses as big as my forearm!
Anyways, after securing my ticket I cycled to Khunjerab Port to complete the Immigration & Customs checks. They didn’t officially open till 1100 hrs but got talking to some of the other passengers. Got some really helpful information and tips. I was told by a Pakistani trucker that once I get to Gilgit/Dasu the road is impassable on a bike for 60-80 km and I’m better off using alternative transport. From there, the road is paved and good for cycling again. Local information always comes in handy.
To fair, I thought immigration would be a lot worse. I put my pannier bags, frame bags and rucksack through and no dramas whatsoever. The Immigration officers did have a hard time understanding why I didn’t have a Pakistani Passport. I had to explain that I was a British Citizen born and raised in England and I have an authorised Chinese Visa. I then explained I also have a Pakistani Identity Card (for foreigners) which allows for free visa entry into Pakistan. After a couple of times gently explaining this, they completely understood and were very respectful. Think they were pleased to see a cyclist and my various flags (the Chinese flag did the trick loll).
After getting almost through.....I was stopped by a real nice Police Officer who asked me if I had any electronic devices. This is usually what gets folks in trouble as they search/store inappropriate content. What may be appropriate in one country may be extremely inappropriate in another – an example of this would be had I searched for things like Xinjiang Muslim Detention Camps I most certainly would have been detained. However, prior to travelling, I completely understood this was a very sensitive region and was expecting to be stopped and have my devices interrogated. Both my laptop and phone were checked in detail – searches made of my folders/documents/photos/videos – the whole lot. Took them about 45 minutes but I was completely relaxed as I genuinely had nothing to hide. In the end, the Police Officers were almost apologetic towards me but again, I understand the situation in Xinjiang and usually at Immigration checkpoints this is no different to some other parts of the world.
Having said goodbye to the Province of Xinjiang I must say my stay was a complete mixed bag. I've had the strangest experience and will try and help people understand what is occurring in this Province. I would say Xinjiang is a very unique place and can be only described as a Police State. I was in Kashgar for a day and happened to go to Id Kah Mosque and asked if Muslims needed to pay? A Muslim should never have to pay to enter a mosque, nor should anyone else for that matter. I was told prayers were a couple of hours away and when I questioned the timing the tourist officials had no clue whatsoever! I reluctantly paid to enter but got to see this historical site. Whilst inside, the tour guides were all Chinese nationals – not local Uighurs who would have been better served as they know the mosque, religion and environment. I asked the tour guide how old the mosque was and how old the two Quran’s at the front and he had no idea! A lady intervened and explained he didn’t know but would endeavour to find out. I then asked what time I could return to pray and was taken to a Police Station situated 50 metres away. I enquired about prayers and was given the phone – a chap introduced himself in English as Police Officer and it was a 20 second one way conversation which went along the lines of 'no foreigner or tourist is allowed to pray okay, I will not give any further explanation, bye!’. For those that know about the history of Xinjiang, it was and still is a Muslim Autonomous Region in China, but from what I can see the Government have deprived the Xinjiang population of their religious rights. How is it a Muslim can go somewhere and be told in no uncertain terms that they are NOT allowed to pray or practice their religion? There is serious Humans Rights violations occurring here.
When I say Kashgar and Tashkurgan (both within Xinjiang) are in a Police state I make no exaggeration whatsoever. On every street corner there is a Police Officer, around 100-200 metres apart. There are Police vehicles and vans parked everywhere and police vehicles with red and blue lights driving around at 20 mph. In a square mile, I would estimate around 150-200 police officers. Crossing the roads, there are individuals who wear Police Armour and assist with the program to monitor and control the local Xinjiang population. You will notice I don’t have photos of any Uighurs or any Police as it was uncomfortable to do.
When I cycled from Kashgar toward Tashkurgan, about 40 miles in, I stopped for some snacks. The shop keeper (small roadside store) was wearing a Police body armour, as was the female owner of the shop next door. It certainly got me thinking, what has driven people to wear body armour in their daily way of life. I later realised not all people wearing Police Uniform and insignia are the actual Police. They can’t even be described as our version of Specials either I don’t think! It appears to me that once in the past, the population of Xinjiang was around 80-90% whereas now it is closer to 50%. This is because the Chinese Government has sponsored millions of Mainland Chinese citizens to take on trade and businesses and go and live in Xinjiang to redress the balance between Muslims and Chinese.
Although I don’t know the full history of the region, Muslims must take small amount of culpability as prior to 2013 there were no restrictions against Muslims in Xinjiang. The issue has been is the Xinjiang elected officials wanted an independent state but the Chinese won’t allow this as they see it as an important part of China – mainly down to the Old Silk Road Route (Karakoram Highway) trade route which will give China access to trade markets in Asia and Europe. If Xinjiang becomes an autocratic state, the Chinese lose an extremelu productive and valuable Province which clearly they will not allow. Unfortunately, to make a point, some locals Uighurs in Xinjiang killed 20 Chinese nationals and demonstrated for independent rule. This was in 2013. Since then, the Chinese army and Police have effectively locked down Xinjiang to a point where there is no freedom of religion. There are Muslims who are not allowed to speak about Islam whatsoever! They are not allowed to pray – even in their homes! They are not allowed to congregate with groups of Muslims.
I haven’t yet mentioned the amount of CCTV on display here in Xinjiang. There are cameras everywhere from roads, buildings, restaurants, public toilets and the rest! The Police and State monitor your movements – I had to go through a metal detector arch a couple of occasions. I also never mentioned there are barriers and police everywhere else as well – including all hotels, schools, banks, some business institutions. In all the hotels I have stayed in Kashgar and Tashkurgan I was met with a Police Officer opening the doors and telling me to put my bag through the x-ray machine and walk through the detector arch!
I never entertained in conversations with locals too much as I came to realise being seen talking to a foreigner could get them into trouble. I would never put people in this position – though I am still very curious and wanted to know first hand from local Uighurs how this situation is affecting them. I did establish that locals cannot be seen with foreigners as the authorities are always watching and their mobile phones are monitored and they cannot practice their religion in any way. To speak and engage in prayers would be a recipe for disaster. I was finding this extremely difficult to comprehend but what will stay with me forever is this person said “the Lord will forever be in our hearts”. I was bought to tears as I truly understood the discrimination, pain and suffering Uighurs are going through. Not only this, but their culture and heritage is also being eradicated – in Kashgar the Chinese have destroyed historical old cities and made way for modern buildings which are certainly not conducive to the usual designs of the local people. There is not one Mosque in Tashkurgan would you believe! It’s an unusually extraordinary place.
It does seem as though the actions of so few Uighurs killing Chinese nationals in protest of wanting their own Autonomous Region has led to this unusual conflict. My argument is why not round up and detain the offender’s under rule of law – Islam forbids murder! What I can’t understand and accept is how the Chinese Police have now turned this into a Police State where every Uighur is monitored. There is no freedom, there is no right to pray, there is no freedom of expression. Where I stayed, both places look devoid of any real character and culture as people are not free.
I normally don’t involved in politics, but when you see something first hand, it certainly gives you perspective. I had read about Uighurs being detained and placed in camps, which the Chinese call Educational Centres. These so called Educational Centres are miles away and anyone breaking local rules regarding religious freedom gets sent away. It’s anticipated Uighurs in their hundreds of thousands have been sent to re-educate themselves into Chinese way of life and have been brainwashed. They have to denounce Islam and instead forced to accept Chinese life and culture. To us in the West, this will sound absurd but this is what’s happening. I think the Chinese blame the extremist Muslims but in my opinion, the state has taken its approach to the extreme in banning religion altogether in Xinjiang.
Again, I am not an expert in the region but clearly this is an abhorrent way of treating an important and valuable Province and it’s people’s. I can only pray and do dua's for the locals. As the individual said earlier, 'the Lord will forever be in our hearts'. I also believe the big issue is trust in the region amongst locals. Friends will spy on friends and report them to the police if they discuss any aspect of religion. To live in this fear and anxiety is something I can only empathise with.
Xinjiang has has been an interesting and eye opening experience.
Having passed immigration, I managed to board that all illusive bus to Sost, Pakistan. Met so many nice folks already including a Pakistani guy who lives in Hunza valley. Met a Japanese tourist, namely Waheru heading into Pakistan for a few days to Hunza Valley. He’s as young as me but seen the world as a solo traveller – its truly amazing when you hear about other people’s experiences. Did also meet a few dodgy Pakistani guys who asked me to take their luggage as they had too much – firmly declined of course. I mean they could see I had a bike which was fully laden but still the cheek to ask. They sat behind me on the bus and haven’t spoken to me since loll. I’m glad though – don’t need idiots like that trying to ruin my trip!
Anyways, having commenced our journey, the scenery is jaw dropping and absolutely better than what I ever expected. How blessed am I to witness such beauty first hand.
(Accept my apologies with any poor spelling/grammar – wrote most of this on my phone during the bus journey to Sost). I will add, as soon as I arrived in Sost, the whole complexion of the tour changed for the better. People were happier, friendlier, talkative and eager to help. Visited the local mosque and I just felt free and alive again.
I know this post is substantially longer than the others but it was highlight my experiences in Xinjiang with the local people and their current plight and hardships.