West Again: On the Edge of the Forbidden Tajik Areas of Akto County, Spies Like Us

IMG_3346Travel Log, 19 June.

10AM: Back on a bus, and feeling good. My catch-and-release experience with the Khotan Public Security Bureau last night had actually been a pretty positive one for everybody involved: a comfortable ride, interesting conversation–and a chance to meet the senior public security officer on watch for Khotan County that night, a friendly middle-aged bureaucrat who was, expectedly, Han–but unexpectedly, a woman, and even more unexpectedly, fluent in Uighur. After seeing my Zhejiang University ID card and hearing my story about this being my last grand trip in China before leaving, she was nice enough to direct her junior officers to take me to a cheap guest house, as I’d requested, rather than to the usual overpriced grand hotel preferred by most PSBs for their foreign “guests.” My PSB escorts even told the guesthouse night receptionist, an affable Uighur man in his twenties who’d had a bit to drink that night, that the rate I was looking to pay was nonnegotiable, and that was that.  

Yes, my arrival back in Khotan had been a positive experience. And setting out on the streets this morning had initially brought back some fond memories of our time here last year. But after six amazing days on the more-or-less open road between here and Xining, I quickly decided that I wasn’t ready to be back again in what was, in comparison, just another grungy Chinese city. Amidst the bustling streets and broken sidewalks, I felt decidedly claustrophobic–so much so that I quickly went to the crowded bus station and bought a ticket for the next cramped, un-air-conditioned bus trundling out of town.

Which brings me to here, on this bus, on this road–good ol’ Highway G315. Continuing west from Khotan, the highway actually bends to the north, beginning a wide-arching, 500-kilometer right turn across the sands.  The road, and the arc of scattered oasis settlements it connects (most of them we just pass), together form a rough contour line marking the topographical edge of what is probably the most imposing land obstacle on the Eurasian continent. It is there ahead, although sometimes just barely visible on the desert’s dusty horizon: an uninterrupted wall of rock and snow formed by a tangled knot of many mountain ranges–namely the Kunlun Shan, the Himalayas, the Karakorum Range, the Pamirs, and the Hindu Kush–that has long defined, divided, and sometimes united this region’s histories, and the world’s.

1PM: Where the highway today bends, ancient caravan routes once did penetrate, taking people, goods, religions, and occasionally armies up and down a vertical maze of rock and ice to worlds on the other side both alien and familiar.  I switch buses in Pishan, a poor and dusty farming town, once the thriving northern terminus of a summer caravan route linking China and Central Asia to Kashmir and India. Nowadays, the remaining people here don’t seem very used to seeing outsiders. The modern caravan routes, designed by Chinese central planners for strategic purposes, are now laid down in crumbly asphalt upon dynamited rock, and driven by teenage truckers and weary bus operators departing Kargilik and Kashgar for Ngari and Rawalpindi.

2PM: As the highway turns north, security tightens. Roadside checkpoints appear between each county, and amiable Uighur cops like the one in Keriya are replaced by no-nonesense Han Chinese members of the People’s Armed Police. At each checkpoint the bus slows, then stops, then waits, as nobody moves at first, nobody wanting to break their gaze at the Uighur-dubbed Die Hard sequel playing on the bus’s video screen. Then the movie gets paused, Bruce Willis’ frozen grimace flickering on the screen, and people reluctantly reach for their cigarettes and start slowly shuffling off.

7PM: By my measure, this day is ending badly. My goal, formulated this morning upon returning to my fly-infested guesthouse room, was to try my luck going somewhere a little out-of-the-way again.  It wasn’t much of a plan: just seeing if I could go up a little ways into the Karakorums. I’d veer left where the highway veered right, maybe finding a cab driver willing to take me up to his village, and perhaps find an interesting ethnic-Tajik settlement up there to spend the night. Nothing too ambitious, I’d thought.

Little did I know. As it turns out, my area of declared interest, somewhere up the Yarkant River in the direction of Kusilafu, is also an area of declared no-way-in-hell for independent foreign travelers by vigilant Chinese authorities in these parts. Although the area is part of the Kizilsu Kyrgyz Prefecture, whose jurisdiction extends to the sensitive borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, my target was on the eastern slope of the mountains, a good 80 kilometers from the nearest border and, presumably, comfortably under Chinese control. But I should have guessed. Throughout the day, as I hopped off buses–and back on–in Poskam, Yarkant, Sugaiti, and Yengisar, I missed all the cues: bus station attendants who told me try one more town over to see if there were connections from there, taxi drivers who said they’d never heard of anything that way, and then, incongruously, shop owners who said sure, of course, there are settlements up that way, should be no problem getting there. It wasn’t until I got to Akto, the county seat and the place that would most definitely have bus connections going the way I wanted, that I realized what was happening. But at that point it was too late, and as soon as I’d told the station attendant where I wanted to go, he not-so-surreptitiously called the cops while inviting me to sit down and chat. Should’ve just offered to over-pay one of those cagey taxi drivers back in Yarkant, I guess.

The three PSB officers who came to the bus station were not the usual cheery types, and none of them were locals–another sign that “security” is a real concern around here, and foreigners snooping around in these parts are taken a little more seriously than elsewhere.  After perfunctory introductions and handshakes, they asked me to come to the PSB office to register with them. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t some element of comedy still present. Seeing my big backpack, the senior one offered to drive me. We went outside, loaded the bag in the trunk, got into the car, drove about a hundred feet, and stopped. The PSB building was located next door. Then I got my bag out of the trunk and we went inside.

We went into a back office, where another PSB officer was waiting. After inviting me to sit, he began the interrogation. “Why did you come to Akto County?” He asked, in perfect English. Another sign that foreigners were a particular concern here.

“Sightseeing,” I answered, and then couldn’t resist adding: “And your English is really good! Where did you study?”

“Thank you.” He didn’t answer the question, instead scrutinizing my passport. Then: “Are you Tajik?”

“Uh, no, I’m American. See, the passport.”

The four PSB officers huddled together over the passport. Backs turned to me, they spoke quietly among themselves. Several times a couple of them glanced back, looking me over.

Then the English-speaker spoke again. “You look like you are Tajik. Are you a Tajik-ethnicity American citizen?” He spoke slowly, unsure of the phrasing, then switched to Chinese. I confirmed that I understood.

“No, I’m not a Tajik person. My blood is European-person.”

One of the other officers spoke up. “European person? So is that what you American persons are?”

“Uh, well, America is an immigrant nation. Everyone’s families all originated somewhere else. Mostly Europe. A lot of American persons are Asian, too.”

“And your America’s black persons. They are from Africa.”

“Yup, that’s right. But we’re all American persons. I mean, if you came to America and stayed a while, you too could be an American person.”

Amused smiles. Then back to business: “Okay, so, are you an American Tajik person?”

“No, I’m not Tajik.”

“Okay. You just really look like a Tajik person. And this area is closed to foreigners without permits.”

“Oh. Okay, so can I get permit here?” I knew I was getting kicked out, but asked anyway. I dreaded what was coming next.

“No.” And there it came: “You have to go to Kashgar. There is a car that will take you.”

Kashgar! A terrible end to the day. And to think that I’d left Khotan this morning, so many hours and miles ago, to escape just that which I was about to be sent back into: another Chinese colonial outpost, another grungy showcase of Han chauvinism built on the razed rubble of so many Uighur aspirations, another look-alike city with its People’s Square, Liberation Road, and Beijing Avenue, all covered in diesel exhaust and racial tension. Modernity everywhere is pretty ugly, sure, but in Kashgar, for some reason, I’d always thought it was particularly hideous. Maybe it was the sense that the grand project there, the guiding force behind all the cranes and bulldozers, was always more about destroying than building. Maybe it was the sense that I was contributing to all that by going there, as a tourist, thereby implicitly legitimating the sterile, infantilized re-packaging of “Ye Olde Kashgar” for Western and Chinese domestic consumption. In any case, my heart sank. If only I’d been smart enough to avoid Akto. Or been lucky enough, perhaps, to  not look to these clowns like such an obvious Tajik spy.

My interrogators gave me one last piece of advice. “You can apply for a permit in Kashgar, but you should know, nobody lives in the area you tried to go to. All the people up there have been moved down here. You know, where there are good houses, good schools, more security. There is nothing to see up there. But in Kashgar there are many things for foreigners to see. Lots of local culture. So I think you should stay in Kashgar.”

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