Monday, September 14, 2009

Day 1 - Urumqi, and an excursion we would rather not repeat...

If you’ve only got one day of sightseeing in Urumqi, we only had 5-6 hours of time here, there are probably better things to do then spending 3 hours of that time sitting in a squalid police station or, at least, we presume there are better things to see…

Let’s just back up a bit to last Friday, we were up bright and early and sitting at the Xiamen airport by 06:30 waiting for our 7 hour flight up to the far north western corner of China. This will be a long post, we will warn you of that now, and it’s amazing how much you can see and do in just 4 hours. Urumqi is the capitol city and our starting off point. We landed at 15:30 and were leaving first thing the next morning to move on to our next site.

We had heard the day before we left that there had just been some new protests and apparently something about the Han Chinese injecting Uyghurs with syringes. Now that we are back we can finally read reports of exactly what had happened. When we finally arrived in Urumqi our guide Mohemmed Ali, he tells us there’s a famous boxer with the same name, told us that there had been protests the last two days and a lot of the streets had been blocked off. He warned us that we might not get to see the local museum that houses some mummies for viewing because it may have restricted access.

Driving in most of the exits were blocked with local cops or what we presumed were National Guard dressed in riot gear. Mohemmed laughs and tells us that we may not be able to get to our hotel, but they have a backup if required. No problems, we managed to get to our hotel with it only taking slightly more time then it should have. Our guide left us with these fine parting words – “See you tomorrow at 09:30, you should be able to get some sightseeing done, with the police around you should be fine. People’s Square is only 3km down that street.”

So it’s about 16:40 when we leave the hotel, by 17:20 we are squished into the back of an unmarked police car alongside a resident Uyghur with two police dressed all in black sitting in the front and we are getting a view of the city on empty highways that are apparently blocked off just for police use. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again, let me back up….

Just outside of the hotel the main road is blocked with a police van and about 6 guys in riot gear with their thick clear shields ready for action. Further up the main road is blocked by about 60 army men in camouflage standing behind some serious looking steel barricades, but while cars were not allowed we could walk on if we squeezed through an entry about two people wide. The streets were fairly empty for a Friday night, but seeing groups of guys with machine guns with their bayonets attached at every street corner may be something that keeps some people at home.

Walking on we ran straight into a market selling grapes, tomatoes, peaches, nuts, all sorts of items off the back of their flatbed tricycles. Behind them was a market of lamb and goat carcasses, all on hooks and being cut apart and then loaded onto smaller bikes that would quickly pedal them away to other markets or restaurants. This is what we wanted to see, and we were snapping away photos as we’re always doing. Walking out through the market onto smaller back streets, we were happy and figured that we weren’t going to make it to the People’s Square, but we would make up for it with stopping by a mosque or two...

We had stopped and where taking photos of a guy holding a lamb head in a pot of fire with some long tongs, while his wife pulls three more sheep heads (one with nice horns) out of plastic bags getting them ready to be next in line, when a girl comes up to us and starts talking English to us, much more then the hello’s we get from the small kids wandering around, and she points us in the direction of a good mosque to see. One of her friends says something to her and she says “Oh, I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t take any photos today. There are problems in the city and the police won’t allow it.” It’s then that we notice that all of the group she is with had little red armbands on, her friend say’s something else to her as a few more friends join the group. “Sorry my supervisor wants to see you, you need to follow me. Are you guys reporters?” followed by “You aren’t allowed to talk to any of the Uygher’s, no interviews of anybody”

Ah, now we understand, they think we are here to report on the latest issues that they are having. “No, we are not reporters, we just want to walk around and get some photos of the locals.” A five minute walk and we are back to the main street and then surrounded by a ring of police followed by a huge collection of the locals that all want to see what’s happening. A car pulls up and we are directed inside….

A 20 minute car ride later, along totally deserted raised highways (special for the police, we did pass through a few checkpoints before getting on the highway), and we are at the local police headquarters and directed into the “Foreign Services Department”, luckily the girl that had been talking to us they dragged along so that we would have a translator. She works in finance for the government and since the issues arose all government workers have been pulled into service to help patrol the streets.

As we figured they are worried that we took photos of the army, we show them a few photos and delete them for them. I’ve got two cards in my camera and had switched photos from one to the other in an attempt to save some of the urban tank and police lines in riot gear photos that I had snapped with the telephoto lens. We sat with 3 police in a really nice room, we explained that we lived in Xiamen and they complimented Tina on her Chinese. A woman came in, took our cameras, and walked away. Ah, no problem, just please don’t delete our market photos. We sat there for an hour and a half, answering questions like why we didn’t have our passports on us, how long we had been in Urumqi, and when we were leaving. The cop that had been the lead guy and had us driven over here started to get frustrated with how long this was taking, and it was explained that it was because we had too many photos to look at. We had only been out 30 minutes, between us we had maybe 100 photos, but then I realized that it was because my photos are shot in RAW so if they try to download off the memory card they can’t view them. They don’t know how to switch cards on the camera to see my other card and they need to find a way to convert the photos. They question why my camera had two cards and Tina’s only one – they presumed that Tina must have taken her card out. Tina suggested that maybe it was taking a while so that they could search our hotel room to see if we had been telling the truth.

Eventually they bring our cameras back, tell us sorry for the delay and while we tell them it is no problem and that we are sorry for the problems we head back to the car for a ride back to the market where we had left from almost 2 hours ago. We look at our cameras and luckily all of our market photos are still there, there were new files added on mine – so they found a way to convert and view the RAW files. Overall these guys were incredibly friendly and nice to us, other then the time delay which bothered the one cop more then us, it was just great blog post material. I can honestly say this was the best two hours I have ever spent in police custody.

We lost only our police presence photos, which they kept showing on television that night, and some of our time. They told us that we were not to talk any more photos, but our impromptu Uyghur translator told us we could probably take photos on the mosques. They were surrounded by more police so we decided not to take our cameras out, and the one had a Carrefour built into the back of it which seems to take something away from the whole thing…

The best part of the entire police excursion was the ride back, our new friend pulls out her cell phone and shows us photos of the riots that happened back in July “Here are photos of the Han Chinese with iron rods marching down the street attacking Uyghurs and destroying their shops. I slept in my office that night…” Wow, “Don’t show these guys.” I tell her gesturing to the front seat, to have her respond “Oh, no way… I can never show them...”

Good times, what a way to start our trip…

Oh yeah, here’s the best of the photos that met police scrutiny:

Local girl
Fresh lamb for sale
Roasting a lamb head
Preparing the next heads to be roasted
Local market - apparently just set up in the street due to the police blockades
Local streets
If you enlarge this last one you can almost make out the row of army men lined up blocking the street going forward, they must not have noticed this when they were deleting the rest of our photos.

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