One morning in early July, our bellies full of fresh lamb samosas, my taxi driver Mehmet and I found ourselves in the vast Xinjiang countryside. We were more than an hour from home, bound for the Kizil Caves, a collection of Buddhist grottoes dating back 2000 years, the likes of which are surprisingly common in Xinjiang. These majestic tourist attractions are dotted around the Silk Road oases of the province. But they’re rarely close to the cities, or each other, so long highway journeys are in order for the visitor, through often barren and rocky expanses. By some rotten luck I had yet to step inside a cave this trip, so I was desperate to see the Kizil Caves, outside the oil and gas city of Kuche, a sparkling and strangely empty new town wedged beside a down-at-heel historical old village. But now, I was standing beside a highway, next to a soldier armed with a QBZ-95 machine gun. And Mehmet was nowhere to be found.
Rewind to the previous day. Baby-faced Mehmet (he looked like a younger, less-annoying Gilbert Gottfried) wasn’t “my” taxi driver. He was one of Kuche’s many local cabbies, who just happened to be passing by when I emerged from the hotel looking for a lift to the city’s Grand Mosque. I flagged him down and he promptly dropped me at the mosque, down a dusty street in the old town. Instead of driving off, Mehmet offered to wait outside while I visited. He must have been well aware that the building lacked any of the grand-ness in its title, and that I’d need a lift somewhere else fairly soon. I paid my fee at the booth before entering and lingering, alone but for a pair of curious toddlers, about the mosque’s courtyard in contemplation. I wondered how I would fob Mehmet off and instead explore the streets of Kuche’s old town on foot, searching for my first meal of the last day of Ramadan. That idea withered and died, however, when I exited the grounds and saw five armed policemen, all ethnic Uyghurs, had assembled outside the mosque, playing with the local children and casting occasional glances my way as I passed through the heavy gate. As I settled back into Mehmet’s taxi, the policemen stood up as one, and wandered off, shooting warm welcoming smiles at me through the window. Paranoid that I might be the only foreigner in the old town and receiving unnecessarily close attention, I took the opportunity to ask Mehmet to take me straight to breakfast – to his choice of restaurant for polo, a typically central Asian dish of rice, vegetables and lamb. His face lit up at the suggestion, and off we went, to a new-build place comfortably back in the soulless broad boulevards of Kuche’s new town. The restaurant was full, so I was shown to the last remaining table, crammed near the kitchen. There I was joined by two more Uyghur policemen, who smiled at me before tucking into their bowls of laghman, Xinjiang’s famous, and ubiquitous, noodle soup. As I paid for my meal, Mehmet was waiting, and together we agreed that my afternoon visit would be the 1600-year-old ruins of a city 23km out of town called Subash. By the time we returned to Kuche that evening, together we’d planned the Kizil Caves trip and agreed a time for Mehmet to be pick me up next morning.
The next morning was Eid – the end of Ramadan, roughly the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. But Mehmet’s dedication to his faith (and indeed his family) can’t have been above his business, because he’d already given his whole day over to driving me around the countryside. After buying roadside samosas to eat in the car, we stopped to get gas. In Xinjiang, all passengers must wait at the entry to the gas station while the driver refuels, so I stood there by the highway in my dusty hiking shoes and faded shorts, next to families dressed their best for the day’s festivities. Women wore bright reds, yellows and orange colours, their shiny high heels digging into the sandy road shoulder. Men sported crisp dark suits and combed mustaches, and children in pressed trousers and flowery dresses cavorted around and between their parents’ legs.
After about an hour of highway driving, we came upon what appeared to be some kind of toll booth. About twenty cars were lined in single file and Mehmet coasted our taxi to a stop. Several Uyghur policemen with shotguns and heavy flashlights approached. I was asked to get out and walk the next fifty meters, through a security checkpoint. One policeman smiled and asked to see my passport, which fell open on the arabesque swirls of my Iranian visa.
More background: The Uyghur language, which all young Uyghurs can speak and read, is written in the Arabic script. (This wasn’t always the case – the Chinese government has switched from Cyrillic to Latin and again to Arabic in the 67 years since 1949.) So Uyghur policemen can’t read our passport pages, and often they struggle with the Chinese on our tourist documents and their very own passports.
But the young man had little trouble extracting my information from the 2013 visa issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Allah!” he read aloud, looking at me with incredulity. The joy written across his face told me I was the most interesting thing to happen to him this shift, on this most festive of days. He led me into the security check and I was whisked through the metal detector and ahead of the patient queuing Chinese foot traffic like some kind of VIP. Several other Uyghur staff gathered round the ID check window where my passport was handed across a desk. One looked up at me and said “Assalamualeikum” to which I instinctively smiled and replied “Waaleikumassalam” They all thought I was a fellow muslim! “What do you do for a job?” they asked in Chinese. Was I married? Where was I from? “Aodaliya! (Australia!)” I spat out hastily. “Oooh Antalya!” they cried in chorus, realising I must be from Turkey. “No, Aodaliya” I corrected them. “Yidali ma? (Italy?)” they asked. My Chinese wasn’t having a good day. Before I could ask for my passport back, to show them the kangaroo on the coat of arms, the whole joyous spectacle had attracted the attention of their superior, a tall, broad, square-jawed Han Chinese who appeared over my shoulder. The playful air was sucked out of the road-side security hut immediately. He rifled through the pages of my passport to find my valid Chinese visa. The question of where I was from returned, in the form of a serious interrogation. What was my occupation? Why was I in Xinjiang? Where was I staying? Mehmet reappeared, helping me answer the superior’s questions as best he could. And when the superior was satisfied, he handed my passport back, and said goodbye. The young policemen continued to chat to Mehmet and they asked me whether I liked Xinjiang, where I was going and where I’d come from, and then bid us a warm farewell as we departed. When we reached the car, Mehmet told me to stay out, and that he’d be back in five minutes. And then he drove off. I stood in the July sun, beside the stern-looking soldier in an armoured vest, carrying the standard-issue QBZ-95 Chinese military machine gun.
Mehmet took longer than five minutes. All up it must have been twenty or thirty, but it felt like an eternity. I’d been unnerved by the exchange at the checkpoint, worried that the several Chinese visas in my passport, combined with the Iran visas, might have been too peculiar for the tall, humourless Han superior. I felt guilty that Mehmet might have been subjected to more searches than he otherwise might have, all because of me. Underneath all of the informal warmth of Xinjiang, there’s still the very serious matter of security. And anything out of the ordinary demands closer scrutiny. Probably hundreds of people like me pass through that checkpoint every year with funny names, strange passports and exotic visas. But they’ve got to check. There’s a process to follow. No need to worry.
The Kizil Caves were worth all the time and effort. Their collective story is remarkable: 236 cubby holes hewn by holy men into a barren hillside overlooking the Weigan River plain; peaceful places of worship overcome by the desert and 2000 years of regional power shifts, in parts plundered and vandalised, and now protected by Beijing in one of Xinjiang’s few truly positive national initiatives. Their “discovery” by the European powers was a coveted prize in the bitter contest between Great Game rivals Albert von le Coq and Aurel Stein at the turn of the 20th century. The soft blues and pinks in the wall paintings came from India and Afghanistan and the frescoes’ artistic style, like the very people of Xinjiang themselves, descends not from China but from the Indian, Turkic and Greco-Persian cultures of central and south Asia. At dusk, before I returned to the hotel, we tucked into laghman and Turkish tea in a Kuche chaykhaneh – the Persian word for “teahouse” that is understood all the way to Europe. There we were accompanied only by curious waiters and cheery families – paranoia subsided and not a policeman in sight.