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This Photo Got Me Arrested in Xinjiang

An off-hand snapshot landed the author in a police interrogation room in remote Xinjiang. Discover the tactics he used to break free.

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It must have been day two or three of my bus journey across the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert in western China. I was traveling overland from Beijing to Central Asia. It is truly hard to grasp the size and scale of China until you are actually sitting in a bus somewhere and plowing through on an 18 hour journey. After the bumpy rides, the shitty food, and the nappieless babies shitting in the makeshift bin next to your seat, you find yourself off the bus, stretching and eating only to find you have gone about 1cm on the map.

I had mistakenly assumed that from Xining in Qinghai, a simple overnight or 24 hour bus ride would take me all the way to Kashgar where there would be warm tea and dumplings awaiting my arrival. Little did I know with bus connections and the vast distances of the desert, that I was in for a five day journey across one of the splintered roots of the southern Silk Road. Though it was not without its rewards or its struggles.

Around the second or third day of the trip, after a horrifying experience passing a town covered in asbestos and kilometer after kilometer of passing through what seemed like an endless sea of sand and shrub, several bus to mini-bus transfers, and one flat tire we made it to a town called Cherchen.

I was stunned, while I wouldn’t call myself a China expert by any means, it seemed universal in my experience that the majority of roadside towns were by most standards…filthy. Usually rubbish strewn, smelling of petrol, loud and busy.

This was my expectation of what Cherchen would be like as the mini-bus started to pull in. To my surprise, however, I found a town with wide streets, modern buildings, and the whole town was lit up in neon flashing lights; a bit of Reno in Xinjiang. I was impressed and mildly elated. Part of the joy of travel is coming upon the unknown and completely random. The unexpected places that only five minutes ago you didn’t know existed.

I exited the bus stand not knowing where I would find a hotel or if I would end up sleeping on a bench somewhere. I walked to the brightly lit neon streets and snapped a photo of a hospital….mistake #1

From behind me a guy in an orange shirt and khaki pants starts berating me like a teenager and telling me to “come here” and literally following me, his manner is extremely aggressive and as he screams at the top of his lungs and attempts to lunge for my camera. His arm straightened up above his head and his fist shaking violently as if he was repeating the collected works of Mao at full volume or giving directions on how to give a hand-job to a ten foot tall man.

Throughout his ranting in Mandarin I feel like I can make out some words, from “Get over here” to “Fuck.” It is hard to tell if that is what he is actually saying or if it is just what my brain is making me hear. Maybe the mind is trying to normalize this strange scenario out in the Chinese hinterland. I needed to get the hell off the street.

A slight twinge of fear rode up my back as I realized I was in a whole other sensitive part of China. The Uyghur autonomous region. Something about the words China and the words autonomous regions seems to invoke paranoia in officialdom and any traveler trying to skirt through. I had already had one headache earlier in Huatugu as I technically needed a permit to transfer through. I resolved that scenario by promising not to leave the bus station.

Ducking into a hotel I saw near the bus station, I was hoping for a beer and maybe an NBA game on the TV, if I was lucky. It appeared through gestures and some gyrations that this hotel could not or would not take foreigners and that I should try to go up the road some distance where I could find one that could. I tried to explain that there was a psychopath outside who was trying to either steal my camera or beat my head in. I pointed out the window to show the man stalking up and down the carpark. It appeared he was muttering to himself.

The hotel proprietor gestured for me to follow him and I could tell that he was going to lead me to the licensed hotel. As we went outside the psychopath was still there and started up the yelling and screaming again.

An exchange occurred with my ‘guide’ and the crazy guy and I was quickly ushered down the block to the hotel. I felt a bit secure. The new foreign friendly hotel wrote up a receipt and I balked at the price of the room…roughly 21 Australian dollars. My backpacking instincts kicked in, surely there would be something cheaper somewhere….Mistake #2.

I walked back out of the hotel and the psycopath now seemed enraged, but instead of yelling at me was yelling and gesticulating wildly and barking into his mobile phone. I looked down the empty streets and had no idea which way to go or where to even start looking.

A Uyghur security guard appeared and started to hear out what the psychopath was yelling. Time for action. I put my hands in prayer position and tried my best to apologize and smooth over the situation, but to no avail. The security guard grimaced, psychopath made another lunge for my camera that was hanging from around my neck (in its bag). The security guard motioned for me to stand still and picked up his mobile. The scene seemed to be spiraling out of control.

My ticket was punched, I would have to cop it sweet and take the 21 dollar a night room. The man was still yelling and now pointing at me to the few passer-byes that would walk past.

I darted back into the lobby of the hotel and tried to hurry along the process of registering. The attendants were one Chinese girl and one Uyghur man in their twenties who were surprisingly flirty and touchy. It just seemed to add another element of strangeness to the whole evening. As they were cooing and rubbing each others shoulders and not filling in my registration details three police officers promptly walked in and grabbed my passport  off the counter pulled on my backpack and walked me out the street and dumped me in the back of their van.

This was it I thought, arrested in China. A big bribe is coming and maybe the loss of my camera. I would love to write and pretend that I was completely stoic and angry at the injustice of it all, but the reality is my knees were wobbly and my mouth turned to cotton and I could barely speak.

I kept trying to ask why from the back of the van and reassuring the police that there was no problem. They sat quietly and ignored my pleas. The drive wasn’t long and soon the backdoor opened and I was led into a building and to a small blue room. There were about six officers in there and not a smile between them.

Five of the officers were Uyghur and one was a fat Chinese cop. The head Uyghur cop was named Ahmed and his English was surprisingly good.

“Give me your camera,” he stated bluntly.

At this point I saw hundreds of dollars flying out of my pocket as I would be forced to buy my camera back from them. I decided to talk. About how much I love China, about how my camera is my heart and soul, about the women’s lacrosse team from Kentucky.

Ahmed quickly cut me off.

“This is not America…this is China one of them said…….give me your camera…,” he stated.

I refused, expecting to be taken to a cell and have my camera forcefully removed from me. What was surprising was when I was just forced to wait. Nothing. All the cops and me just sat there in silence. In reality it was probably roughly ten minutes, but it felt quite a bit longer.

The time ticked on.

It was getting hard to see the endgame of this situation. In a stroke of mild desperation I attempted a trick that I learned from my teaching days in Vietnam.

“Would you like to see a photo of my daughter?” I asked, knowing full well that I had no such daughter, but also knowing full well that I had a photo of my wife and our niece.

“You have daughter!”, Ahmed exclaimed.

“Of course,” I replied. “My wife and I are English teachers and I am here to see about the wonders of teaching in China.”

I  turned on the camera and pulled up the photos of my partner along with our niece at Hanging Rock in Australia. A few photos almost made me even believe this phantom family was real.

“So cute,” Ahmed chuckled. The other cops gathered around and looked at my wonderful daughter. I then showed them some photos from Beijing and Qinghai. I intentionally highlighted all the supremely tourist points of my trip. My hike along the Great Wall. My day at the summer palace and my hikes to some temples around Xining.

After a few seconds Ahmed and his colleagues looked up from my screen.

“Only tourist,” Ahmed muttered.

He stood and said something to his colleagues. The fat Chinese cop looked glum…all his hope had been lost. He wouldn’t make the big arrest that would get him the big promotion. No imperial plot would be overthrown and even the chances of a petty bribe seemed suddenly more remote.

The fat cop quickly barked something at Ahmed.

Ahmed turned. “Do you have any American dollars?”

Luckily I didn’t have any US dollars, but I did have a ten dollar Australian note, and I mentally debated whether forking over something would be advantageous.

“No all I have is ten Aussie dollars,” I replied.

A small price to pay I thought if it gets me out of here. I handed over the blue note to the fat cop. He took it and turned it over, examining the design. He quickly turned on the computer and I assumed he was looking up the exchange rate. After some furiously pounding on the keyboard he put his head down and glumly handed the note back. The last glimmer of hope of accomplishment for the past hour and a half was over. At most it would have been 60 yuan and I have yet to come across anywhere, apart from Korea and India that would exchange Australian cash. The relatively obscurity and isolation of Australia wins again.

There was some photocopying of my documents and eventually I was dropped off at my hotel. On the way Ahmed pointed out a few good restaurants for kebab.

“Very delicious,” he gleamed. Now that was a well-established tourist I was deserving of all the best Cherchen could offer.

Back at the hotel, the fat Chinese officer wouldn’t let go. Authority must still be respected. It took him roundabout three hours to look over the hotel receipt and compare the documents to the ID page of my passport. As he turned to walk away the flirty Chinese receptionist stuck her tongue out at him. Ha! I laughed on the inside.

On the way up to my hotel room, I bumped into some Uyghur gentleman who were also English teachers. We talked and drank and they didn’t seem very fazed that I was taken in by the police. Like a hardened criminal one of them cracked a beer open with his mouth. We finished our drinks and I volunteered to go and get some more, confident the psychopath was now gone.

I walked outside into the quiet street and saw a little shop next to the hotel. I walked in, grabbed some beers and a couple bottles of baijiu. The clerk smiled and pointed outside. He gestured and put his hands in a pair of imaginary handcuffs.

“Police,” I said. He smiled and nodded and laughed that welcoming Asian laugh.

Later on as I sat in the bus and passed the Lou Lan museum I looked for Ahmed and the fat cop. In the hazy morning light this town still held the promise of being extremely interesting and my little adventure with the police made it seem doubly so. After all the imperial escapades and archaeologists looting hidden cities this area was still being ferociously guarded from perceived outsiders.


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Filed under: Adventure, China, Travel Problems, Travel Stories, Xinjiang

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 52 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZMap