How we were turfed out of a village in remote China

It was late January, the start of Chinese New Year, when Chris and I decided to escape the coal pollution, dirty snow and concrete overpasses of Urumqi.

We were teaching English in the capital city of China’s remote northwestern province of Xinjiang. Tired of the daily grind of teaching, drinking Wusu beer and watching DVDs, we caught a flight to Kashgar, close to the Chinese border with various -stans: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrghyzstan, and even Afghanistan.

Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)
Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)

It really felt like frontier country as we headed up the Karakoram pass for eight hours on a rickety local bus. Stark snow-capped mountains reached 7,500 metres high, and we passed loaded camel trains, and scattered villages with small herds of yaks, sheep and goats. It was a chilly minus 25C, and the villagers wore a fascinating array of fur hats: Snoopy hats with long ear flaps, upsidedown flowerpot hats and flat fur hats with woolly bits on the outside. While we were busy staring at them, the locals were equally busy staring at us.

“It’s because you wear such bright colors all the time,” Chris insisted, glancing at my bright blue jacket.

“Maybe it’s because you’re a 6′5″ American,” I retorted.

 Villagers in Bulunkol valley
Chris with the villagers in Bulunkol valley (Pix: Alison Bate)

But never did they stare at us as much as near the hilltop village of Bulungkol, where we stayed for two nights on the way back to Kashgar. As we hiked up a side valley, men, women and children literally ran out of their houses to look at us.
A family of Kyrgyrs, one of the semi-nomadic ethnic groups in the region, invited us to stay in their simple home, for a fee, of course. So that night we settled in comfortably while they watched local XJTV2, Chris read Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha” (in true backpacker style), and I updated my diary. Come nighttime, the family pulled colorful eiderdowns out from behind a curtain and we all lay down to sleep on the carpeted floor, packed together like sardines.

After a breakfast of yak milk tea and nan bread the next day, we went walking again, but Chris was itching to play soccer. We’d seen a wonderful soccer pitch carefully cleared of stones, and headed there again.

“Any of you guys play soccer?” he asked the villagers, miming in true ESL teacher-style. An impromptu game began, with more boys and men joining in all the time, while the women gathered around me. After several minutes of action, though, the ball was suddenly kicked away and everyone disappeared mysteriously.

 Bulunkol valley
Iced-over river in Bulunkol valley

A little uneasy, Chris and I carried on walking across the ice-filled river valley. I started a rambling story about my scary experiences in Kashmir, and how I’d run into a risky situation after being out after curfew. Perfect timing, as just then a police jeep came bumping along a dirt road toward us.

“Hope that’s not for us,” I said half-joking.

Unfortunately, it was. Four uniformed officers got out, along with one of the villagers who’d been watching the soccer game. He gave us a long, long stare before slipping away.

“Where are you staying?” asked one of the officers politely, after they’d checked passports and herded us into their vehicle. He was a good-looking Han Chinese guy in his mid-20s, with pretty good English. Foreigners were not allowed to stay in this border village, he told us. As they grilled our hosts, and we worried they would get into trouble, he played the good cop, while a veteran Kyrgyz officer played bad cop, exchanging harsh words with the feisty lady of the house. After long discussions in the local language, which we couldn’t understand, the tension eased, there were smiles all round, and we were told to be ready to leave in the morning.

They came for us the next day, the same young Han Chinese officer and a different colleague, and for the next 90 minutes, we sat chatting in the back of the police car.

The officer talked about growing up in China, studying English at university, and how he wished he’d been posted to a city where he could meet foreigners. We were the first foreigners to stay there for two years, he added. I practised my shaky Mandarin, and he was thoroughly charming.

Every now and then, he remembered he was a police officer, and became more menacing. He checked the digital photos we’d taken, and there was an awkward moment when he saw that my “Lonely Planet” guidebook marked Taiwan in a different colour from the rest of China.

“Taiwan is in China. Why is it a different colour?” he asked, suddenly angry. We could see he was caught in a dilemma: very proud of his country, but also wanting westerners to enjoy themselves in China.

Finally, a private vehicle came down the lonely mountain road, and the men inside were ordered to take us to Kashgar. As we said goodbye to the young officer, his last words were: “When I’m in Urumqi, I hope we can meet up again.”

Sadly, he never did call to meet for a drink. It would have been neat — to visit with the guy who kicked us out of town.

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