Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China-First Stop: Urumqi
I was super excited to finally be in Xinjiang on my journey to Kazakhstan via Western China. I’d wanted to go to this province for quite a while. That was probably due, in part, to the many awesome days I’d spent in Shenzhen eating at Xinjiang restaurants, run by Xinjiang people. So of course, the first thing I did when I got off the plane was find myself some Xinjiang food!
Having some food in my belly made it a bit easier to face the northern Chinese accent. It’s definitely not my favourite Chinese accent. I find it downright impossible to understand at times. It’s widely known in China as ‘Err Speech’ because many words sound like they’ve had ‘err’ randomly added to them.
Unlike most other airports in China, the WiFi at Urumqi Airport requires a Chinese mobile number to connect. The code needed cannot be sent to foreign mobile numbers. I’d imagine this would be super inconvenient if you’re just passing through. China requires you to register your passport details to get a local SIM card.
Urumqi’s New Metro
There was a shiny new Metro system in Urumqi, so I thought I’d utilise it to get into the city. It only cost ¥5 (US$0.75) and it’s very clean and efficient, but only half of the planned stations are open. I went to the current terminus station, Balou. I was treated to a beautiful view of mountains behind the city as soon as I got out to street level. The next thing I saw was the police doing some riot drills with traffic cones. They were young and seemed to be enjoying it far too much.
Children’s Park in Balou
I noticed a park nearby, called Children’s Park 儿童心園 and decided to have a look. As in many places in Xinjiang, there was a security checkpoint where you had to get your bags scanned before you could enter. I asked one of the security guards where the nearest cafe was, so I could get WiFi and charge my phone. He said he would let me use his hotspot. Another guy then came out of the little office on site and said I could sit down near the water cooler and charge my phone. How very nice of them!
I walked around the park afterwards and found it quite interesting. It was full of statues, displays, man-made streams and rides
Then just as I was about to leave, I spotted the Great Wall of China!
And a security guard near the exit on the other side of the park carrying an oversized baseball bat. Just what you wanna see in a kids park.
I noticed a few interesting things while walking through the city. One of them was workers using a blow torch to clean a footpath. Then I spotted a horse statue in the middle of a major intersection that claimed Urumqi is the Top Tourist City of China. The place is lovely, of course, but with recent issues in the area, I think this claim may be quite dubious.
Security and Segregation
If you’re not aware, the Xinjiang region of China is home to a large minority population of Uighurs descended from Turkic Muslims. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on this minority by making it hard for them to show any outward signs of their faith. That means there is CCTV everywhere. The city also seems to be separated into Uighur and Chinese zones. I saw one Mosque in the city that was beautiful and some police came along and told me I couldn’t take a picture of it. I got one anyway.
On my way to the station, I had managed to walk into a Uighur area. The city area right next to it was super developed, with large footpaths and marked lanes on roads. The Uighur area, on the other hand, had none of this. I had to walk on the road for several kilometres while passing through this section. The disparity between the ethnic groups here was painfully obvious. It’s also very worrying considering that the full name of the province, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, includes Uighurs. The government however, is intent on excluding and persecuting them.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China – Train to Huo’erguosi (Khorgas)
Due to the perceived tensions in the area, security was tight everywhere. There was a passport check before entering the station area. Then a security check, including a free pat down for everyone, to enter the ticket sales area. Then there was one final check to enter the train departures area.
I was assigned a top bunk in the train, but then found out I could climb up there! I asked the other people in my room if they wanted to swap, but they were just dicks. The lady checking tickets even asked them and they were kinda mean to her. She informed me that there were no other lower beds, as the train was full. Luckily, a guy from another cabin overheard us talking and said he would swap with me. I ended up in a cabin with his workmates, who were actually pretty cool. We had a great time chatting, drinking, (yes, there was alcohol for sale on the train), and finding out about each other.
The train ride was quite lovely. It was very smooth the whole way, so it wasn’t hard to get some sleep in. I’m glad I chose it over the bus, which takes the same amount if time, but isn’t nearly as comfortable. The train pulled into the Huo’erguosi station, about 6km out of town at 08:20. My passport was checked on the way out of the station and I made my way into the town to find a bus to Kazakhstan.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China – Second Stop: Huo’erguosi
At the second stop on my journey to Kazakhstan via Western China, I was welcomed by a police checkpoint at the entrance to Huo’erguosi. All cars were stopped there. Even people going through on foot or bike were halted. I had to show my passport again and it disappeared with one of the officers for about 10 minutes. I was a bit urked at having to wait so long, but was glad when I could finally leave.
The architecture of the Huo’erguosi didn’t seem very Chinese. Perhaps there’s a big Kazakh influence, being so close to the border. I had a bit of time and saw a park near the bus station, so I decided to check it out. Not only did they want to scan my bag, but they also wanted to see my passport. To enter a park! I decided I didn’t need to see the park that much and continued to the bus station.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China – Getting to the Border
By now, you could probably guess that there was another passport check to get into the station. A guy who was standing outside the station escorted me inside, I presume because he gets some kind of commission for whatever ticket I buy. As I was at the ticket desk deciding which town I wanted to go to, I met a fellow Hong Konger. We both paid ¥70 for a ticket to Жаркент/Zharkent/Jarkent. We decided to stick together to try to work things out, as the station staff had given us almost no information about where to go or when the bus was leaving.
It turns out that the bus wouldn’t leave until it was full. But conveniently, there was a waiting van that was willing to take us to Zharkent for an extra ¥20 each. We said we’d do that, but we wanted to go out and get some food first. There was a bit of confusion as to where the food place was because their northern accents were hard to understand. One of the guys ended up going out to get some food for us and refused to take our money when he returned. Free food always tastes better!
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China – Border Annoyances
About 5 minutes later we were in the building on the China side of the border. A building we didn’t leave for nearly an hour. The immigration part was easy and the lady stamping us out was quite nice. After clearing the immigration area, I was stopped by an angry-looking guy who asked me if I had a laptop. I said yes and he told me to step into a roped-off area to wait.
I tried to ask him why, in both Mandarin and English and he just decided to stare at me instead of answering. After 10 minutes of that ridiculous standoff, I was done. I approached the desk behind the immigration area to see what was going on. Luckily the guy at the desk was much nicer and said that they were waiting for female officers to be available to search me. Wait.. what?
I asserted that I had done nothing wrong, but they said it was the procedure in China. I pointed out that I’d never been searched at any other China border, so they then changed their story. Apparently, they have to search everyone going through the border for the first time. I pointed out that they didn’t search my friend, who was also going through the border for the first time, so they went back to the ‘procedure’ excuse.
I was ushered into a room and they asked to look in my bag. I complied and opened it. One of the ladies must have been a trainee. She was happy to leave my bag packed and just feel around. The other lady told her that she had to check each item individually. She then unpacked my entire freaking bag and slowly unfolded and patted down every piece of clothing. Every single one.
Next, they wanted to check my laptop and mobile phone. Not just visually, they wanted to look at the contents, especially photos. Obviously, that’s a massive invasion of privacy, but it didn’t seem like I was getting out of there unless I complied. I watched the lady trying to find stuff on my laptop. Her lack of English proficiency or knowledge of the filing system on my computer meant that she didn’t know where to look. After 30 minutes of clicking she hadn’t even managed to open one file. I’d call that a fail on her part. I found it amusing.
The other lady with my phone was having similar problems. She only managed to open Wechat, a Chinese chat app that I never use, and videos from travels I’d completed almost 2 years ago. The funniest thing in all of this is they’d missed an entire section of my bag which included another camera. They had essentially just wasted an hour of not only my time, but the time of the 6 other people waiting in the van that would take us through to Kazakhstan. For nothing.
Kazakhstan is in Sight. Finally!
Upon exiting the building, we got back into the van for a one minute drive to another passport check, because the 50 million up to that point just weren’t enough, haha. That was the last check before crossing the border into Kazakhstan from China. We were glad we didn’t have to submit to anymore unneeded security checks!
All in all, Xinjiang is a lovely region, but the ridiculous security that has been set up to combat a situation that the Chinese government itself created is absolutely bonkers. Prepare to be annoyed and frustrated if you choose to travel there.
Check out my next post for my continuing travels onto Kazakhstan.