Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
I was in the middle of a dream as a dark figure stood in front of me. Three armed police officers now surrounded me while I attempted to decipher reality from the unconscious mind. The sun was shining again and now it was time to check in with the Xinjiang police force. As I left the hotel the same worker who tried to charge me $250 USD for a room began to tell me that I owed him more money. The police officers snarled something which I could not understand but probably amounted to something along the lines of “Keep your trap shut.” Indeed, in some places in the world it pays dividends to be broke and have police escorts. Xinjiang was starting to grow on me rather quickly as a phenomenal travel destination.
After standing around for two hours that morning while nibbling on continental breakfast of bread and tea I was finally released. I was more than satisfied with my complimentary proletariat style meal which was brought to me with a smile of hospitality by a police officer. I thought of the people in that four star hotel who were stuffing food down there faces and dining on Chinese caviar or shark fin soup. If invited to join I certainly would not have refused a lavish meal, but that kind of extravagance failed to tempt me in the least bit.
Before being set free to roam the roads of rural Xinjiang again, there was one very important condition imposed by the authorities. A police escort would have to accompany me along the way. They said that it would be just for my protection and that there would be no problem at all. I have to admit I was rather surprised but had learned to expect the unexpected in this remote region of China. The whole situation reminded me of my time in Pakistan when I went for a hike with five armed escorts in a remote region which was once a strong Taliban breeding ground. Surely there was no Taliban here in China, by the way things were going, even if a similar organization existed, I am sure no one would tell me anything about it. There was nothing to do but roll with the punches. Even though I felt suffocated by the authorities in Pakistan, this time it might turn out to be much different. Perhaps I could make friends with the police officer and he would make a good travel companion. It would be great if he gave me some tips on where to stop along the way. Whether an assigned or unassigned travel partner, I had a local with me, which might not be so bad.
The motorcycled companion kept a steady distance of about one hundred meters behind me the whole time. At one point he caught up to me and demanded I stop. The seriousness in his expression left my worried. Was I entering a danger zone? Was there someone in the vicinity trying to harm us? He stopped his motorcycle and parked with great conviction and ran full speed toward me. After shouting something in Chinese to his phone I found out what he was up to. “Lets take a picture together,” the voice bellowed in a high pitched woman’s voice. We posed for a few shots and then he sprinted back to his motorbike. He then road alongside me smiling for a few minutes before taking his post one hundred meters back. I am glad to have helped him make some positive memories with the big guy from the other side of the world.
A few minutes later we stopped at a village and another guard replaced him, this time driving a car. This guy stayed farther behind to the point which I thought I had lost him a few times. He caught up to me and asked if anything was wrong when I stopped to take a leak. He stayed on my tale for a bit until his headway kept on getting further and further away until he became a minuscule speck in the distant horizon. I was on my own again. It actually felt a bit strange not being in the company of the police anymore. I was growing fond of having someone look out for me and take care of me. I have to admit I felt very secure with my escort there. Perhaps I was just missing my mother at that point. Anyway, only about 18 hours had passed since the police arrived on the scene and steered me in the right places to go. I enjoyed just sitting back and relaxing for a bit and not having to depend on myself for every decision.
The new found feeling of solitude would not last very long. I entered a village and people stared at me with intense curiosity and I had some casual conversation in my survival Chinese and body language. The sun was about to set so I decided it was time to eat and pitch my tent for the night. One kilometer outside of the village I stumbled upon what seemed to be the perfect spot to pitch my tent for the night. It was just far enough so no one would come and bother me at night and close enough so I could get some breakfast to fuel myself up for the following day. There was a patch of trees shielding me from the main road as well. Surely no one would be able to find me there. My instinct proved to be incorrect this time.
I had just fallen into a deep sleep when some bright flashes of light in the distance woke me up. My hunch was that some villagers were probably just taking care of their animals and it would pass. However, the light came closer and closer over to my direction. The blinding light was beaming with such intensity that I realized no villagers would ever carry flashlights of that magnitude. I counted five in total and now they were approaching my tent at a very quick pace. Was this the Chinese Taliban that no one had told me about? Would I become the next kidnapping victim, all the while just trying to make peace with my fellow global citizens? Whatever my fate would be I had no choice but to accept it. Everything was out of my control. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins but I was still no Bruce Lee and I had no chance in a one on five battle.
Before I knew it five armed men in fatigues had me surrounded. Once again it was the Xinjiang police. I pointed at my two wheeled machine while explaining as quickly as possible that I was just a guy traveling by bicycle who meant no harm. The men started motioning aggressively using their hands to communicate a warning that I would have my throat slit if I slept in that spot for the night. I was completely at their mercy and would comply with whatever request they made. The electronic phone translation came to the rescue once again. “We will take you to a school close to here and you can sleep there. It is dangerous here,” the robotic voice repeated. The police saved me once again. My guardian angels arrived right on time. Who knows what my fate would have been had I stayed in that spot for the night. Perhaps my throat would have been diced into small pieces.
I loaded my bags into the police truck and was now going for one more ride. My eyes were still not accustomed to the midnight darkness and I carried no light with me. Upon explaining this to the police they came up with the perfect solution. One of the younger men would ride my bike to the school himself. After receiving orders from what seemed to be a more senior office, the young cop’s face turned to sheer excitement similar to that of a young child who was given candy by his mother. Often on my world cycle tour adventures, one of the requests I always receive from locals is to test drive my bike for a few minutes. The young man was more than elated and sprinted toward my bike and hopped onto the seat right away. Quickly he realized the seat was much too high for him but immediately shifted to the spinning position. He was off to the races in the midnight darkness.
We sped away toward the school and caught up to the guy riding my bicycle. He was pedaling relentlessly and waved at us as we zoomed past. I was happy to have him take my bike for me, as I had been riding all day and did not plan for night riding. Also, seeing the excitement on his face made me happy to be able to contribute to this special memory for him. I am sure he would remember this moment for a long time to come. I certainly will never forget it either.