Riots III

July 8, 2009

13 hours of sleep was enough. I got out of bed at 6:00 A.M. yesterday morning to find Meenday asleep on the couch. After returning from the bus station to exchange my ticket she'd fallen asleep hard and fast as well. We'd both slept a similar number of hours that night. Time at the police station had worn both of us down.

I took a long overdue shower and started packing my bags up. I hoped that I'd be able to catch the bus to Almaty that evening and finally get out of Xinjiang. We took tea together. When it got close to 8:00 I called the U.S. embassy in Beijing to ask for their assessment of my situation. I'd never asked for assistance from any U.S. embassy before--but then I'd never been in a situation with police holding my passport and camera before.

"If you are calling to report the death, birth, arrest, or detention of an American citizen, please press '1' now...," a recorded bass voice drolled on. I pressed 1. My call was transfered briefly to somebody who couldn't speak English well, then routed to "an extension that does not use voicemail". "What kind of 24-hour emergency hotline is this?", I thought. However, after waiting 15 minutes and calling back, I did manage to connect with a real person: Nancy. When she heard my situation, she and other embassy staff were very good about calling me back and checking up on my situation throughout the day.

Just past 10:00 Meenday and I set out to find a cab. We weren't supposed to arrive at police headquarters until 11:00. I figured it would be wise to get an early start: I didn't know what the traffic situation would be like getting across town. Also, I was hoping that if we arrived early we might be able to resolve the matter sooner.

Upon arriving at police headquarters we found other foreigners ahead of us in line. When we entered the office, a western journalist who had come to Urumqi from Beijing was being chastised for going to the Sai Ma Chang area on his own, without an official chaperone. Another American, Adam, was seated on a couch along the opposite wall from where we sat. He and I had the same problem with the police the first night of the riots. He too had been found taking photos and had had his passport confiscated as well.

Eventually, papers were drawn up for paying our fines. With these in hand we should have been able to take care of everything in minutes--but there was one more link in the bureaucratic chain which wasted a couple hours.

To pay our fines required first printing official deposit slips which would serve as receipts to verify we had actually made payment at a bank branch. It was the woman in charge of printing off the deposit slips who slowed everything down.

The first problem was that she wasn't in the office, herself. When she did show up, she couldn't find the key to the back room where the computer was located. She then spent about 15 minutes calling around trying to find somebody who might have a copy of the key. She finally ran into somebody in the hallway who did have the key--whom she promptly scolded for happening to take lunch at that particular moment.

When she finally got into the back office and on the computer, she realized that she didn't know the password. She insisted to the officer sitting across from us that the password must have been changed. Finally, after another 20 minutes the sole foreigner ahead of us in line (a Korean man trying to get his family out of Urumqi as soon as possible) had his deposit slip in hand--his fee was for something about amending his visa. It seemed like the paperwork was finally coming together.

Then sometime after the Korean man had left for the bank, the woman printing the deposit slips called out from the back room: "What's the password? Why isn't the password for issuing a fine the same as the one for amending a visa?" Then she said something repeatedly about the printer that I couldn't understand.

After waiting nearly two hours, we had our deposit slips. The woman who took so long to print them off insisted that they had to be paid at a particular bank branch location across town. This was a branch next to the location of the old police headquarters. The other officer who had been sitting silently in the front room while we were waiting actually spoke up at this point. He said that going to this location wouldn't be necessary--any branch, including the one nearest-by--would do. However, the woman who printed the deposit slips insisted that fines could be paid at the farther location and none other. We took a taxi downtown.

Getting a cab to the bank wasn't a problem, but finding one heading back to police headquarters was. There was a heavy presence of riot police surrounding People's Square. Few cabs were on the road. Many of those that were out had their meter covered with a yellow hood with characters stating that the cab was off-duty. Eventually a Uighur cab driver--who likely mistook my features for being Uighur--pulled over to pick us up.

Upon return, the officer in charge of my situation was literally stepping out of his office to take lunch. "I'm sorry, but I haven't even had breakfast today. Why don't you two go for lunch somewhere nearby as well. I won't take long; I'll call to let you know when you should come back."

Meenday and I found only a couple places serving food behind police headquarters. Most shops and restaurants were shuttered. I ordered laghman and kidney kebabs from the man barbecuing meat on skewers over a charcoal trough out front of the restaurant. He kept smiling at me and looking at me and smiling again. I couldn't figure why. I ultimately presumed that perhaps--given the tensions the city had endured over the past days--he must have been charmed to hear a foreigner speak Uighur.

We had barely been served our noodles and kebabs when we heard people outside talking excitedly. Rumors were spreading that more riots had just broken out in the neighborhood.

"Let's take our food to go," I suggested to Meenday. "We'd better return to police headquarters now."

Meenday was skeptical. I continued trying to convince her:

"Look, if something is really happening now we don't want to be stuck here in this restaurant. And the police are going to have bigger issues to deal with than returning my passport and camera. If it turns out that there aren't any problems we can just finish our meal at the station."

We had our food wrapped inside two plastic bags and began walking back to the station. The situation on the streets near us didn't seem problematic. But we could see bunches of men clustered together further off in the distance.

"Why don't I call the police station to let them know we're coming back early?", Meenday asked as we walked along.

"Sure, that's fine... as long as we keep on moving," I told her.

"The call isn't going through! It's that 'service unavailable' message again."

We strode along faster until arriving at the folding gate at the front of police headquarters. The guards refused to let us in.

"Come on. Don't you recognize us? We've been in and out of here so many times over the last two days," I pleaded with the guards.

"No. Nobody may enter now."

We continued trying to convince the guards to let us in. Finally, an unlikely savior came to our rescue. The woman who had taken so much time printing off our deposit slips was standing idly in the courtyard. She approached the guards:

"These two are okay. They just came from the bank where they paid fines. They have to deliver the paperwork, now. Let them pass."

We were allowed inside. We skipped up the steps of the main entrance and down the hall to the Office of Foreign Affairs. The officer in charge of my situation was still there. We handed him the receipts showing we'd paid our fines. He handed me my passport and camera. He pointed out that my visa had not been amended and that all of my photos were still on the memory card. That surprised me. As they made such a big deal that I had shot the photos in the first place I expected them to wipe at least the pictures I took the night of July 5.

We were finally free to go. As a parting gesture, Meenday thanked the officer and gave him a watermelon.

Upon leaving police headquarters we found the atmosphere on the streets had changed. Everybody walking along the streets outside was--without exception--carrying some sort of long blunt object. There didn't seem to be any tension. Nobody was waving their weapon about or threatening others. It could have been a perfectly normal day--if it weren't for that everybody was carrying a bludgeon of some sort: hollow metal pipes, strips of lumber, bricks, and re-bar, to name a few.

The few taxis that were out on the streets all had the yellow hood over their meter and weren't picking up passengers. With no transport available to drive us home, we started walking down Nan Hu Lu toward the center of town. After passing dozens of people holding scraps of lumber and metal rods Meenday started to become nervous. "Should we continue walking?", she asked me.

"Well, we don't have much alternative. The buses and taxis aren't running. Let's keep on going," I replied.

A few minutes further down the road I agreed that it wasn't safe to go on. There were large crowds of Han Chinese--mostly men--gathering in the street ahead. All were also holding crude weapons. We hadn't witnessed any violence yet, but I recalled how I could have spared myself the hassle of the last two days if I had just stayed put and not tried to walk home through the chaos the night the riots broke out.

"Let's turn around and wait somewhere," I suggested.

"Where can we go?", Meenday asked. "All the businesses have suddenly closed up."

"I noticed a place we passed less than 10 minutes ago. It's a youth hostel. The doors were still open when we walked by. Let's wait there for awhile and see if traffic begins running again."

I asked the staff at the hostel if we could spend a little time inside to be off the streets; they smiled and answered, "No problem!", in English. I enquired about room rates as well--just in case. We finished our laghman and kebabs in the common area of the hostel. I chatted briefly with a few European travelers who had also found themselves trapped in Urumqi. Two German women were hoping to somehow get to the airport to find any flight, regardless of destination. A young Polish man who had arrived by train that morning seemed less concerned with the situation on the streets and more interested in asking me about the details of the cheapest route from Urumqi to Kazakhstan.

After waiting in the hostel for a couple hours nothing had changed outside. Buses weren't running. Taxis weren't running. Everybody was still clutching something long and blunt. Meenday suggested that we again attempt to walk home, but this time taking a longer route that would avoid the city center. We could follow the streets beneath the beltway looping around the city. It would take about three hours--but there was no alternative. I was still hoping that I might make that bus to Almaty in the evening.

As we walked, most of the people we crossed paths with were Han Chinese. All were carrying their choice of weapon. Much of what people held looked like whatever was the nearest long, hard object they could grab. A frail girl walked by clutching a long bamboo lash. Elderly people tottered along holding thin sticks--I wondered what the outcome would be of any conflict involving those people and their weapons.

But some of the objects--and the people who were holding them--were scary. One man was showing another a stout scimitar that--while probably crafted for decoration--looked like it could inflict real damage. The one I found most chilling was a woman walking the opposite direction down the street. She looked like an average middle-aged housewife--but was clutching a meat cleaver wrapped inside a sheet of newspaper. The way the newspaper was so perfectly folded around the dimensions of the blade and handle did more to enhance than conceal what was inside.

We continued walking along, not once threatened by any of the people we passed. Despite walking for hours through this city on-edge, my concerns were simpler. I worried about encoutering another blockade of riot police that wouldn't let us pass. I worried about not making it in time to the bus station for the 7:00 run to Almaty. I worried where we could stay if we weren't allowed to walk all the way across town.

"People are looking at you," Meenday said at one point. It was a simple statement with no dramatic overtones. But it was true. After she stated it aloud, I realized that as we walked, people were concentrating on my features more closely than usual. I began to feel somewhat better when we finally crossed into the Uighur side of town, somewhat northeast of the Grand Bazaar. Nobody on that side of town was carrying any sort of bludgeon. I received far fewer dirty stares there.

As we walked down the long final stretch, Tuan Jie Lu, there were still odd clusters of people--almost all Uighur--crowded about here and there. At least these crowds didn't feel menacing the way the packs of men with long sticks did, back up in the Nan Hu area where we had walked from. But all the shops were closed. Many of the establishments owned by Han Chinese still had their windows smashed out from the rioting a couple nights earlier.

Tuan Jie Lu seemed to be one of the main arteries for moving military through. As we walked southeast, we saw more convoys of tanks headed in the opposite direction, toward the city center. Long-distance sleeper buses were interspersed, bringing soldiers in from far-off places. At least a dozen buses had been taken off their normal route. Signs above the windshield of each bus designated a run between two cities off in distant Gansu province--Jiayuguan and Lanzhou. Each bus was filled with troops wearing camouflage fatigues. As the buses streamed past, I started focusing on the differences in headgear the military and police were wearing. Some of the soldiers on the streets were wearing doughboy helmets. The troops stuffed into large trucks full of riot-police wore fuller helmets protecting the entire skull, similar to those worn while riding a motorcycle. Most of the men in the sleeper buses were wearing camouflage-colored cloth caps.

In one brief moment of normalcy I chuckled: a soldier was surreptitiously pointing a small camera through the window of his sleeper bus to record images of the street we were walking along. I wondered whether this was his first time in Urumqi.

After three hours on foot we were home. Phone service wasn't back to normal, but Meenday found that a new phone she had bought a few days prior had a signal. We managed to get a call through to the bus station, only to find that there would be nothing leaving for Almaty that night.

The cancellation of that night's run was actually good news, for me. It was about 15 minutes past the scheduled departure time when we finally made it home. I'd already resigned myself to losing the value of the ticket. However, the agent at the bus station said that the ticket would still be valid for any future run the entire week.

The bad news was the reason why there were no departures. The killings had begun again--already there were reports that two Uighurs had been murdered by a Han Chinese man in the Nian Zi Gou area--the part of Urumqi where the international bus station is located. Official reports that night would tally dozens more killed throughout the city.

As for now... now that I have my passport and camera back, my main concern is making it to Jochen's wedding. That will be held in Bishkek on July 10. Even if the buses do depart today, I won't arrive into Almaty until the evening of July 9. If I arrive in time it will have to mean making it into Bishkek on the very day of the wedding.

I could buy some time by flying, perhaps. But right now I don't know if flights are leaving Urumqi... or how I could possibly get out to the airport, even if it is still open.