Crossing borders in and out of Xinjiang proved to be unexpectedly problematic. Is this a sign of challenges to come as I continue traveling along the New Silk Road?
“Where is he from?” I heard an immigration inspector ask someone standing in line in front of me in Mandarin. Of course, he was talking about me — the only non Chinese or Kazakh person trying to make the crossing, or so it seemed. This inspector’s job, apparently, was to pluck travelers out of line to be sent to tier two of the security inspection. I was plucked and sent ahead to have another inspector write down my details in a log.
I’ve been traveling in and out of China since 2005, crossing the country’s borders and going through its immigration procedures at least fifty or sixty times. I’ve never once had a problem, I’ve never once been sent for additional questioning — they hardly even look at me. I’ve always found China to be a country with efficient, well run borders: the most difficult thing has always been waiting for the immigration inspector to dig through my sandwich-thick passport and weed through a half dozen resident permits until he or she finds the right one. Until now.
After having my details written down in the log and answering some routine questions such as about where in China I live, what I do, and why I’m way out in the Western borderlands trying to get back into the country from Kazakhstan of all places, I went back and stood in line. So far, not bad.
Although I made the error of thinking that speaking Mandarin would expedite the process. This is never the case, and is sometimes grounds for suspicion in and of itself. “Uh, because I studied in a Chinese university” usually doesn’t cut it as an explanation either.
The initial border guard who plucked me out of line kept coming back to me each time he thought of a new question to ask. “American!” he would yell out in English to get my attention before delivering a new inquiry in Mandarin. He wasn’t unfriendly and he was generally smiling, but the public nature of his informal interrogation was embarrassing. My personal story, I felt, wasn’t the business of the entire room of border crossers.
“American! Why do you live in Xiamen?”
“American! What does your wife do for work?”
“American! Why do you stay in China for so long?”
“American! Why does America have so many black people?”
This went on until I arrived at the front of the line and handed my passport over the counter. The guy on the other side didn’t seem to know what to do with it. He held it up in the air as though it wasn’t the same fucking thing he looks at all day long and laboriously dug through the pages, looking intently at over a decade of immigration mug shots of me that popped up on his computer screen as he logged in my information. A pow wow then ensued as a group of immigration officials gathered around to watch the action. Minutes and more minutes went by. Finally, the official with the stamper looked across at the inspector who had first singled me out to see what he should do. He nodded. My passport was stamped. But it was handed over to him, not to me.
Apparently, he wasn’t done yet.
I followed this guy for a few steps before reaching forward and wresting my passport from his hand. Oddly, he seemed to be walking me to the exit gate. Though I didn’t appreciate the escort at least we were moving in the right direction. I said goodbye and made for the metal detector by the door. I got a few steps away and thought that the ordeal was through.
“American!” the smiley inspector then called out. I turned around. “Do you have a phone?” he asked as though an afterthought.
Of course I had a phone. Everybody has a phone. He asked if he could see it. He was really smiling now. I pulled it out of my pocket and handed it over. He called over another inspector and handed it to him. This guy took it and walked quickly to a side room as though my phone was a leash that would make me follow. I followed. He began looking through it. I was incensed but had to go along with it with my smiley face on.
These guards at this obscure outpost were obviously bored and under-worked, and I knew how happy it would make them if I could give them a reason to do something. The inspector opened my WeChat app on my phone but didn’t find much of interest in it. Too many foreign words, apparently. He then tried to open my photos. Luckily, I’d maxed out the storage and the photo gallery wouldn’t open. The inspector impotently kept pressing the icon only to keep receiving an error message in English that he couldn’t read.
“It’s an old phone, it doesn’t work,” I told him.
He didn’t seem to understand how it couldn’t work, so I had to drive it home by snatching the phone back and putting it in my pocket and saying goodbye. He shrugged. I left.
I wasn’t yet overly bothered by that sequence of events. Getting sent to tier two of immigration is just something that happens periodically in travel. In my experience, it’s a one out in a hundred shot for travelers from grade A passport countries. I’ve crossed well over a hundred borders since 2008, the last time I was sent for additional questioning.
But then the same thing happened the following day.
I was trying to enter the Horgos Free Trade Zone to do research for a project that I was working on, and I found myself walking past armed guards flanking a metal detector by a high gate. The FTZ is on the border of Kazakhstan, and is a jointly operated, grey area between the two countries — part of both China and Kazakhstan. It was just a commercial no-mans-land where people from each country can go to buy cheap Chinese junk a little cheaper.
I wasn’t expecting the security to be very tight going into this place, but soon discovered that most international frontiers are less militarized than this free trade zone. It was as though I was entering a prison or some kind of high security government complex. Shoppers and traders were being moved in batches, the doors of the huge gates being shut between each group. These gates were manned by guards in black SWAT gear and automatic rifles. Once past this gate you move into a caged-in area in front of the immigration building.
Once the outer gate was closed the armed guards began looking over the crowd waiting to be let into the FTZ. There was a second metal detector and baggage X-ray machine up ahead and the line was moving at a slow stomp. The guards picked me out of the crowd and asked to see my passport. I obliged. Another guard came over and asked me to step out of line. I refused — these guys were just gun-totting thugs, not formal immigration inspectors. They handed my passport back and let me in.
But the ordeal was far from over. The guard at the metal detector also decided to pluck me out of line and ask for my passport. I handed it over. He looked it over and passed it back to me. Nobody else was subjected to either of these additional inspections.
I was now waiting in a group of around one hundred other people — mostly Han Chinese — for the formal immigration inspection. Although we would not be crossing into another country and our passports would not be stamped our IDs were still checked anyway.
I was plucked from the line again. An immigration officer pointed to me and motioned for to walk up to the front. This was the third time in a matter of ten minutes that I was called out for an additional passport check. I let my irritation show, which was probably a mistake.
“This was the third time that I have been asked to show my passport. Nobody else has had to do this. This is very inconvenient, all I want to do is go to your free trade zone and shop but you keep harassing me,” I complained in Mandarin.
He called over another officer and handed him my passport. He took it into a side room. I followed. I answered numerous questions and had to empty the contents of my backpack out on a desk. There was a computer sitting on the desk and the room seemed more like an office than a place set up for interrogations.
They looked at the pictures on my tablet and phone. It was a direct violation of privacy but not a violation of law — immigration officers can do this everywhere. But I really couldn’t figure out how a border guard watching videos of some American’s daughter dancing around was keeping anyone in Xinjiang safe.
I couldn’t show my anger. I had come all the way out to the farthest fringe of Xinjiang to do a story on this FTZ, so I couldn’t get denied entry at the gate.
What a stupid place to be hamstrung by immigration — I wasn’t even going to another country. I again matched smiley face with smiley face. After answering dozens of questions from three different officers I was not deemed to be a threat and was allowed to pack up my things and enter the duty free zone.
On the way back out I was almost subjected to the same treatment. The passport inspector passed my passport off to another official. He browsed through it and began asking me the same questions I’d been answering over and over again for the past two days. But this time I tried a new strategy. I refused to speak Mandarin. I was finished making things easy for them.
This official seemed to struggle with finding the right words in English, and after a couple false starts he gave up, shrugged, and handed my passport back.
I walked back into China proper and tried to make sense of what had happened over the past couple of days. Being jacked at borders is something that has only very rarely happened to me in these past 16 years of world travel, and it had never happened in all of these years that I’ve spent crossing in and out of China. Now I’d just been plucked out of the immigration line and sent for additional questioning three out of three times. It seemed too much for coincidence. I was wearing the exact same clothes and carrying the exact same luggage as always, the only thing that was different was the location: Xinjiang.
Something was setting off the profiling criteria of China’s immigration officers when they looked at me. This wasn’t a situation where all the young males were sent in for additional questioning or one in every X people were screened more closely, etc . . . It was me and only me.
Was it my beard? Beards have been reported to be restricted in some Xinjiang cities, apparently being taken as a sign of radical Islam rather than just something that grows out of the faces of men with adequate levels of testosterone and a disinclination to shave. I can remember a conversation that I once had with a Uighur man in Hangzhou some years before. He said he admired my beard and that he would like to grow one. I asked him why he couldn’t. He just laughed at me as though the answer was obvious.