I’m in a car with three officers from the Khotan Public Security Bureau, and not on my own initiative. Nabbed in a place that I wasn’t supposed to be, I’m now being brought back, free of charge, to precinct headquarters for registration. It’s been an interesting day.
Let me begin with yesterday. After bidding Hosh! to my Central Asian gangster friends, I caught a shared taxi to Qiaha, a little town in Cele County where I was told there were lots of ancient ruins scattered about. The town turned out to really be more of a village. I stayed in the only hotel in town, and discovered later that majority of its business came from families coming down from the mountains to take their sick children to the adjacent health clinic. Amid all the sick children and babies, it was too easy for their worried parents, glimpsing me, to look at me with hopeful eyes like I was a of Western doctor on duty for the week.
In Qiaha I disappointed in other ways, too. I’d been reminded, here on my second trip to Xinjiang, that popular perceptions of America here seem strongly influenced by all the Hollywood action and gangster movies that are evidently popular in Central Asia. It is a rare bus ride in these parts that doesn’t feature a Sylvester Stallone movie or its ilk, and I can only imagine that people here probably watch more of the same on their own time. This may explain, partly or fully, why so many people look disappointed after doing their “Oh, you’re American?” double-take after meeting me. For them, I am a casting agent’s mistake: worn and cheap-looking clothes, bad haircut, cheap sunglasses, weird shoes, plastic watch. No expensive suit, no sports car, no bulging muscles, no Jessica Simpson. There’s a moment of hope when they see me with my iPod Touch, which I use as my mini-computer (“the original iPad Mini!” I tell my Chinese classmates). But when they realize it’s not actually a super-thin, America-only version of the iPhone, but rather a cheap compromise thereof, the letdown commences anew. Here in Xinjiang, it is my lack of ostentation that makes me an ugly American.
There is one group I didn’t disappoint: the officers at the Qiaha Public Security Bureau. When one of them invited me to come over and register, the whole team came out from their various offices to greet me, take pictures, and wish me well with my travels. They were thrilled to have me there, Schwarzenegger look-alike or not, and just as thrilled for me when I told them where I was headed. Which is partly what makes what happened next so funny.
My next stop, which is where I went today before getting busted, was Kashitashi, a township with several villages in the Kunlun Mountains near the jade-producing Yulongkax River. The ride from Qiaha was incredible, even with a downpour obscuring most of the views.
I arrived in Piya village just as the weekly market was shutting down. With the rain and all the motorbike traffic, the single street, unpaved, had been reduced to ankle-deep muck. I negotiated a bed for the night from an old lady, who gave me a spot with a filthy pillow, but right next to her warm stove, for 10 yuan. After dropping my big bag, I set off–finally–for a good hike. Nobody I met could speak any Chinese, so there wasn’t much point, I figured, in hanging around the mucky village.
The hike, up into remote mountain pasturelands, was beautiful. And during it, I had one of those only-in-China moments: my cellphone rang. “Hello?” I asked, not recognizing the number.
“LITTLE HU, IS THAT YOU?” Came the voice on the other end.
“It is. Who’s this?”
“IT’S ME! YOU STAYED IN MY FAMILY’S TULOU LAST YEAR! I WAS YOUR TOUR GUIDE! WE WENT HIKING! YOU REMEMBER, RIGHT?”
“Uh, I do! Umm… how are you doing?”
“I’M CALLING BECAUSE I’M COMING TO HANGZHOU NEXT WEEK! WE CAN MEET UP!”
“You’re coming to Hangzhou? Wow. Unfortunately, though… I won’t be in Hangzhou. I’m travelling.”
“YOU WON’T BE IN HANGZHOU, YOU’RE TRAVELLING? WHERE?”
“Uh, Xinjiang, actually.”
“XINJIANG! YOU’RE IN XINJIANG RIGHT NOW? WHAAAAAA. LITTLE HU, YOU REALLY LIKE TO TRAVEL!”
“This is my last trip! I have to go back to America soon.”
“YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO AMERICA SOON, SO THIS IS YOUR LAST TRIP. WHA. WELL, LITTLE HU, WISH YOU A PLEASANT JOURNEY. COME BACK TO MY VILLAGE IN FUJIAN SOME DAY!”
“I hope so! Thanks, uh, for calling. Have a good trip to Hangzhou!”
“HAVE A GOOD TRIP TO HANGZHOU. THANK YOU, LITTLE HU.”
“GOOD. GOOD. BYE BYE. GOOD.”
“GOOD. BYE BYE. GOOD.”
I returned to the village at around dinner time, and found a place–the only place–selling the usual kabobs, bread and tea. The people I’d come across on my hike had been friendly enough, but now it seemed that some people in the village were eyeing me more warily. Still, the restaurant owner was excited to have a broken-Chinese conversation with me, all of a few words back and forth, and I didn’t think much of the fleeting impression I’d just gotten outside.
Then two policemen walked in. “Do you speak Chinese?” One of them asked. I put down my tea. “I do.”
“Okay, please come with us. We just need you to register.”
I hurriedly paid for my dinner. “You know,” I said, “I actually knocked on your guys’ office before leaving on my hike this afternoon, but nobody was there.” (This was the truth.)
“Yes, no problem,” one of them said. “Once you register, you can go back.”
We arrived outside the PSB office. But instead of going inside, I got handed off to two other policemen, who were waiting for me.
“You have to go to Khotan to register,” one of them, the fatter of the two, said.
“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed. “Those guys said I just had to register here!”
“No, first in Khotan. You have to register in Khotan first. That is the law.”
Khotan was two, maybe three hours from here. And the bit about the law was made-up. So in other words, I was being told that I wasn’t allowed to be here. So I asked: “Why can’t I be here? I didn’t know this place was closed to foreigners.”
“No, no, this is not a closed area. This is just for your safety.”
“Yes. It’s very cold here. And the road is not safe.”
“The road is not safe. But you want me take that road down to Khotan, register, then take that road back up to here again? Altogether that’ll be three times on the unsafe road instead of one.” It was pointless to argue, but I was hoping to get closer to the real reason I wasn’t allowed to be here.
The fat cop was not forthcoming. Then a car pulled up, and the three of us got in.
Once the car started moving, however, he revealed a little more to me: “Last year some Russian bicyclists tried to sneak into Tibet from here. Of course you can’t get there from here, unless you cross over some glaciers and very high mountains. Certainly not on bicycles. Some villagers saw them pass through, then a week later one of them came back. He said he hadn’t eaten in two days. We tried to find the others, but never did. A few months ago a shepherd found one of them, just his bones. The rest had been eaten by animals.”
I joked that they underestimated me: “But I’m American, not Russian!” But the story had had a sobering effect on everyone in the car. Still, as the car climbed on the narrow road out of the valley, we all looked out the window, mesmerized by the sunset that was splashing warm colors across the snow-capped peaks. I piped up again: “Hey, you guys want to take a picture of that?” Everyone in the car agreed. We stopped once, then again, and then again, everyone hopping out at once to take pictures on their cellphones (and me with my dusty camera). Suddenly we were all just tourists in this beautiful spot, and not three policemen placing an intruding foreigner under arrest.
Farther down the winding road, out of nowhere, we passed a massive compound, its high walls and guard towers backing up against a steep canyon wall. “Is it alright for me to ask what that is?” I asked. “Prison.” Came the response. “For political criminals. Mostly Han Chinese, from eastern China. But they don’t use it very much anymore.” My arrester had become more talkative. “See that big building there?” I did. “That’s where the high-level officials stayed when they came to visit.” I tried to imagine a high-level official coming out here, to this remote canyon near the far end of Xinjiang, in order to visit a prison. Then all I could wonder was how high-level the prisoners were. Certainly higher-level than me, although my treatment thus far had been exemplary. I’d even accepted a cigarette.
Having noticed that the fat cop had limped when getting in and out of the car, and also had a huge scratch on his face, I asked him how he’d gotten injured. He said something to the other policemen in Uighur, and they all laughed. Then he told me: “Where you were, there’s another little village even farther up in the mountains. Far, far up there. They had a huge fight. Really it was war. A tribal war. Someone called us, so we went up there. It’s two, three hours driving from where you were. The road is bad. Our car went off the road, and I broke my leg. Then we got to the village, and the people all attacked us! I could hardly defend myself with my broken leg. They hit me in the face with a club.” He paused, taking a look out the window.
“Those people,” he said, “have no knowledge of any laws.”
The drive continued, and darkness fell upon the winding canyon. With the windows cracked, a cool breeze flowing through, a woman’s voice on the stereo singing to soft Uighur music, and a full moon lighting up the canyon walls, the setting was almost romantic–if you forgot about the three chubby cops who’d just arrested you.
As the canyon got darker, little lights appeared down along the river and higher up along the ledges. At first they were sporadic, then more numerous. “What’s all that?” I asked.
“Earth diggers,” the fat cop said. “Digging for jade.”
As we continued descending, the canyon was soon filled with lights. Earth diggers dotted the cliffsides, all working through the night, ripping apart the canyon walls, in search of the jadeite that has made Khotan famous for thousands of years. “I should get an earth digger,” I joked. “Then I could get rich too.”
My co-riders all chuckled. “You can’t just be anybody. You need a permit. And to get a permit, you need guanxi. Connections.”
“So that’s why you’re a policeman and not a millionaire,” I offered. “You don’t have any connections.”
“Correct. Besides, jade… I don’t care about it. The Han are crazy for that stuff. The government especially. It’s the government, government officials, who buy most of it.”
“And why do they like it so much?”
“Ha! Well, they think it’s pretty, and they also believe it is good for their health. But mostly, Han like jade because their higher-ups like jade, and whatever the higher-ups like, all Han like.”
Looking at the frenzied, well-lit destruction going on around me, I thought about all the slogans across China about “scientific development.” Of course, to me it had always seemed like a catchphrase created just so that higher-ups could slap local officials from time to time for their particularly stupid development schemes–or at least those schemes that elicited enough popular resentment. Like all propaganda in China, “scientific development” banners seemed to be most numerous in places where the development was the least scientific, like in the rural county seats that were equipped with huge stadiums or the huge, empty high-speed rail stations that were built fifty miles from the cities they served. But here, before my eyes, was perhaps the nation-wide winner for that special genre of “scientific development” irony: a beautiful canyon being ripped apart by hundreds of earth diggers, working at top speed and around the clock, in order to harvest a dwindling supply of rocks that high-level government employees–with their advanced degrees–uniformly believe to be capable of conferring mysterious health benefits to those who possess it.
And now here we are, at the PSB headquarters in Khotan.