May 2018 - A hitchhikers' view on Xinjiang:
(You may skip to the conclusion)
I hitchhiked through Xinjiang for two weeks. As mentioned in the post by rfoltz the situation all over the province is in a shocking state and more severe even in the south. If you have been to Iran you may be familiar with the sophisticated techniques of a repressive regime but Bejing has much more survelliance technology and employees in the security sector and the will to recklessly and obviously crack down on a whole province with no shown mercy.
As for us travelers the situation is more annoying and frustrating rather than actually dangerous one can everywhere observe how life-changing, hindering and literally threatening it is for the local ethnic minorities.
Cameras seem to observe every corner of the province. Police cars and groups of policemen continiously patrol in the streets of cities and towns. In the villages the biggest building most often turns out to be the police station. Every police building, official buildings, schools and gas stations are fenced and secured with barbed wire, tank barriers and a redicoulus amount of security personell
Hitchhiking in Xinjiang still works surprisingly well, waiting times rarely exceeded 30 minutes. I always used my hand to flag down cars, even on the highways. I found signs counterproductive and inconvinient as drivers would not understand that they could help by even taking you 10km into one direction.
Entering from Gansu province after Liuyuan on the G30: The massive checkpost feels more like an international border rather than an provincial one. I was questioned about the purpose of my travel, schedule and destinations, people I want to meet and of course accomodation. Pictures and fingerprints were taken. 45min, no baggage control.
Exiting via Khorgas border, Kazakhztan:
Big hustle, 60min. Baggage and body scanner, manual baggage control. Almost missed the last cross border bus to the kazakh side (hitchhiking not allowed). The officers were extremely impolite and yelled at me to "shut my mouth" while looking through my journal pages, books, cloths, sleeping bag, camera, videos, whatsapp chats, browser history...
Entering from Erkeshtam, Kyrgyztan: At the Uluqqat immigration the police controled my backpack and installed some kind of searching app on my device. They refused to give answer to my questions and didn't deinstall it. I was later told that they'd look for political key words in all the documents. Pictures and fingerprints, baggage and body scanner, 45min.
Exiting via Qulma border, Tajikistan:
Straight foreward process, 20min, no body scanner, no manual baggage control but bagagge scan and fingerprints.
You may expect at least one checkpost every 100-150 km in northern Xinjiang and one every 50-100km in the south. Each one took at least 20mins of our time. My drivers had to explain why I was in their car and leave both their ID and car plate number. One of them got scared after this procedure and refused to take me any further. As the concept of hitchhiking is pretty uncommon in China you need to explain yourself again and again everytime and having a long beard doesn't make things easier after all.
In general I found that it was easier to cross checkposts if the driver was Han chinese and they would be suspicious if my drivers were from local ethnicities.
denied entry to certain areas:
First, trying to reach Kanas lake in the chinese Altai mountains north of the town of Altay failed aftet being returned by the police at a checkpost on the S232. The justification was that border areas are too sensitive to let foreigners in but remained unclear in the end as even the officers weren't really sure about it.
Second, my try to hitch the G217 south of Wusu again ended in a checkpost with the reason that the road was blocked due to snow. Still something made me believe that I would not have gotten through august either.
I stayed in my tent every night except in Urumqi and Kashgar. I made sure to hide it well and not be seen.
Situation in Kashgar and Tashkurgan:
As knifes are not allowed within Kashgar I had to leave my precious iranian 5cm knife at the checkpoint to enter the city. No negotiation, passive aggressive policemen and no english spoken.
Even harder than leaving my knife behind was watching a crowd of 100 Uyghur men and women treated like cattle by the authorities while trying to get their IDs checked, documents approved and bagagge scanned to enter their home city.
Seeing Kashgar finally left me speachless. After spending three weeks in Kabul I was blown away by the massive presence of Bejings power in all parts of the city itself and the life of its inhabitants. The police-civilian ratio may come close to 1:20. As it was a symbol the Id Kah mosque is now declared a monument of history by the "autonomous" government of Xinjiang and can no longer being used by the locals for prayer. Instead two Han chinese policemen stand guard with shields and helmets protecting a young lady who sells entry tickets to tourist groups on a desk.
My hitchhiker buddy and me left Kashgar towards Tashkurgan and were held in the south Kashgar checkpoint for three hours. We were told that hitchhiking was impossible and the locals were too dangerous anyway. In the end and after tiring negotiations two officers agreed to drive us 80km further to the next checkpoint from where we could continue.
We reached Tashkurgan in the same evening and camped outside of town. The next day we walked around Tashkurgan openly visible with our backpacks and decided to hitch out again to Karakul lake to spend the night. We were waiting for our tajik e-visas to be processed to leave the country. As it started raining we rode back into Tashkurgan and were caught at the same checkpoint. The officers asked where we stayed last night since we weren't in the register. They called the officer in charge for Tashkurgan prefecture and a translator. He was a twat - extremely mad at us for staying in the tent. He forced us to withdraw money from an ATM and put us in a hotel. He told the receptionist to deny us wifi access and took our cameras in custody. We were not allowed to leave the hotel till the police would pick us up. We luckily got the confirmation for our tajik visas the next morning. We were allowed to hitchhike out but a police car would follow our every footstep until we were stamped out. Of course they refused to give us a lift as they followed us anyway.
- hitchhiking is possible and in fact relatively easy
- many areas are not accessable by foreigners but nobody would tell you in advance till you come to the very area
- expect at least 2h/day of your time being wasted at checkpoints for repeated passport checks, bagagge control, nonsence questioning. No english spoken
- camping is not allowed and if you get caught you might face redicoulus consequences
- interaction with locals about the situation is (in my experience) almost impossible as fear about consequences are wide spread. Many locals even appeared reserved and unwilling to help us with minor questions
- if you speak a little bit of chinese we would recommend to not use it as we were suspected to be spies
- observing and experiencing repression, obvious injustice and ethnical segregation is striking and draining
I nevertheless recommend anyone to travel Xinjiang to become aware of the situation and help spreading the word.
- a person who is afraid to be denied next entry into the country