#24. Winter in Xinjiang
Published one year ago today, “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State” is a multimedia reporting project that combines text, animation, photography, illustration, audio recording, and virtual reality reconstructions to tell the stories of seven people born and raised in China’s largest administrative region. The following outtake, which I wrote for The New Yorker as a standalone prologue, introduces an eighth.
Although “Bakhtiyar’s” story has since appeared briefly in news outlets under his real name, I’m following his request, made shortly after our interview, when his asylum status was in question, to use a pseudonym.
In 2017 and 2018, ethnic minority citizens of China began to flee across the Kazakhstan-China border to escape persecution in Xinjiang. Some came through official border crossings with forged documents. Others simply hiked across the mountains using old routes that predated the boundaries of any nation-state.
There is no way to know how many people escaped in this way. Those who succeeded in reaching Kazakhstan illegally rarely spoke out; it is likely that many feared arrest or extradition to China. Bakhtiyar’s story of his border crossing is therefore rare. Nevertheless, the section below was cut from the final publication of our project for reasons of space and narrative economy. I’m presenting it here as a standalone piece of independent journalism.
On the day Bakhtiyar decided to flee China by hiking across a snow-capped spoke of the Tian Shan into Kazakhstan, he packed a bag with two loaves of bread and two small bottles of water. It was around six o’clock in the evening, a half-hour past sunset on January 17, 2017. He said goodbye to his parents and set out for a wooded area where he knew the mountains well. It was a cold winter. Soon the shapes of trees, familiar near his family’s home, began to seem strange. He’d never gone so far into the forest before. At one point, he descended into a valley and climbed over a wire fence. Then he hiked up again into the mountains. A large gibbous moon hung overhead.
For his escape outfit, Bakhtiyar had chosen jeans and a lightweight hoodie. Since he’d grown up in the mountains, often playing in the woods as a child, he thought he could handle the winter crossing. This was hubris. In the wilderness between the two countries, he grew bitterly cold.
“My fingers and toes and hands and legs were frozen. And I could also hear sounds, animal sounds— wolves, maybe. I don’t know. I was frightened and scared and frozen at the same time.”
Around six in the morning, just before dawn, he stopped under a tree to rest. When he checked his bag, he found that his water had turned to ice. The loaves of bread were like rocks. He didn’t know who owned the tree he stood beneath, whether China or Kazakhstan. All the trees around him made the same dry, hollow sound. He ate fresh snow and waited for nightfall.
Bakhtiyar was born in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in a military village called Regiment 78. His parents, both of them ethnic Kazakhs, had worked for the People’s Liberation Army until their retirement. In 1998, when Bakhtiyar was 16, the family was resettled in the more sparsely populated Regiment 75, 90 miles away, and just two dozen miles from the Kazakhstan border. The official reason given for the resettlement was that Regiment 78 had become too densely populated, but Bakhtiyar believed the actual reason was that his village was “99 percent Kazakh” and needed to be broken up. There were conflicts between Kazakhs and the few Han Chinese shop owners and taxi drivers who lived there. As government-sponsored Han migration increased sharply across Xinjiang in the 1980s and 1990s, so did violent encounters. Finally, the government began to take action, diluting Uyghur and Kazakh populations through mandatory “surplus labor” population transfers.
Unlike Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, in some quarters of which a strain of separatism has persisted since the region’s colonization by the Qing dynasty, ethnic Kazakhs already have a country founded in their name next door. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs have moved to Kazakhstan since the country’s 1991 independence on the heels of the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 2015, Bakhtiyar became one of them. He moved to Kazakhstan with his wife and child and settled in Akshi, a village on the swampy shores of Lake Alakol where Silk Road traders once treated sciatica, and where Soviet cosmonauts took holidays after spaceflights.
In late 2016, Bakhtiyar decided to visit his parents. It was his first time coming back to China since leaving the country. He imagined that it would be a short trip, so he left his wife, their seven-year-old son, and a two-month-old baby boy in Akshi. He’d only been gone a year, but the changes in Xinjiang were immediately apparent. At the port of entry, in Bakty, he was detained and interrogated for hours. Officials asked him—over and over—why he was visiting Kazakhstan, where he lived, and whether he was religious. When they finally decided to let him enter the country, a police officer called his younger brother, who still lived in Xinjiang, and made him pledge to act as Bakhtiyar’s guarantor in China, ensuring he wouldn’t try to flee. Bakhtiyar’s passport and other documents were confiscated. An officer told him that he would learn only after a year whether he could get his passport back. His family in Kazakhstan would not see him before then.
On the long trip south to Tekes, Bakhtiyar observed that the highway was now full of police checkpoints. When he got to his village, he found it, too, was transformed. There were cameras everywhere—at the entrance and exit of every house and building. “At times, it felt scary just to get something at the grocery store,” he said. “People felt like criminals.”
When he reached his parents’ house, Bakhtiyar was ordered to go the nearest police station, 30 miles away. Here he was interrogated again. When the officers released him, they ordered him to come back the next day. Then the next. All told, he submitted himself for interrogation ten days in a row. Every day, the police asked the same questions. Why had he moved to Kazakhstan? Was he a terrorist? Did he pray? Did he attend mosque?
There was another change, too. In the past, most of the Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Mongol men in his village were either jobless or informally employed as construction workers, landscapers, and cattle hands. His father had often hired such men to help with the family’s livestock. But now it seemed this population was entirely employed in what Bakhtiyar called “uniform jobs”—the expanding security industry, including border guards and police officers. Almost everyone he met was now on the government payroll. Bakhtiyar’s father complained to him that he couldn’t find anyone to cut grass.
Even after his interrogations ended, Bakhtiyar didn’t feel free. Authorities had taken blood samples from his parents and had confiscated their passports, forbidding them to visit Kazakhstan for three years. In the weeks that followed, young men in his village began to disappear. First one or two, and ultimately between 10 and 15 men were taken into custody that winter. He heard rumors that some of these men were receiving long prison sentences: 15 years, 20 years. He didn’t know what crimes they had committed. In January, a Han neighbor of his parents warned him he’d be next. He thought of his family back in Kazakhstan and was frightened. He decided to escape.
In the mountains, Bakhtiyar shivered beneath the tree until the evening of January 18. When night fell, he continued his journey. He ascended a second ridge and reached a second wire fence. In the morning, around seven, he found himself on a road near a village in Kazakhstan called Narynkol. He went into the village and found the highway, then flagged down a taxi. His hands and feet were badly frostbitten. It was a six-hour drive home.
Bakhtiyar knows he should have admitted to the authorities right away that he had crossed into Kazakhstan. But he didn’t. First, he was sick. He felt lucky to be alive. Then, after he recovered from the crossing, a series of disasters—family illnesses, money problems—prevented him from turning himself in. In November, after the birth of his third child, Bakhtiyar finally received the phone call he’d been dreading. It was a man from Kazakhstan’s border control. Bakhtiyar was suspected of illegally crossing the border and should present himself to authorities in Almaty. For two days, he stayed at home and weighed his options. Then he overheard two neighbors gossiping; one said that government agents were already observing his house. He decided to give himself up. A week before our meeting, he had taken authorities to the place he’d crossed, in Narynkol, walking them across the valley and into the border forest. “I took them up to the mountains and showed them the tree where I slept.” He didn’t know what would happen now. He hoped he would receive citizenship in Kazakhstan and that he would not be deported. He does not expect he will ever see his family in Xinjiang again.
I’m giving a Poynter Fellowship lecture on Monday at Yale University to discuss my writing on Xinjiang for The New Yorker and other outlets, and the use of immersive technologies to report on human rights. The Zoom talk is free and open to the public.