Our bus had been bumping its way over the desert highway for almost two hours when we were forced to come to a sudden halt. An impromptu police check point had been set up and we were all commanded to climb off the bus and stand in a long line so that our identification and paperwork could be checked.
The sun blazed hot above our heads and groggy passengers, who had been contentedly sleeping moments before on the bus, now grumbled as they awaited their turn to talk to the officer. I could hear them muttering “this is a waste of time’, or ‘why all the hassle’. Both statements may be true… but these sorts of interruptions are all part of travelling in this part of the country.
Traffic heading in both directions was being stopped. On both sides of the street makeshift shacks were set up for the officers to sit in comfort as they did their job. The center of the road had barricades supporting large shade giving umbrellas. Several guards stood at attention under them, wearing bullet proof vests and holding semi automatic weapons. The intended intimidation factor wasn’t lost on any of us.
I looked back at my travel companions; we were all dressed in very traditional Uyghur outfits. The boys had on doppas ( an Uyghur man’s hat) and us girls were sporting long skirts, long sleeves and headscarves. We were going for the ‘when in Rome’ mentality… but I also knew that was not really the mindset of the government or of the guys holding the big guns. My mind started whirling with plausible explanations for our country bumpkin appearance.
The man with the large gun broke rank and started strolling towards us “ Where are you from?” He asked our group in pretty fluent English. As we chatted pleasantly I soon discovered this guy had studied at the same university I had done my language schooling at. We were schoolmates, a bond that can count for a lot in this country. He chuckled merrily and I knew there was at least one friendly face in the group.
Soon one man stepped out from the booth and said “Foreigners over here”. His English was not nearly as clear, but to give him face in front of his colleagues we kept it the language of our questioning. One by one he took our passport, “You what name?” “Birthdate when?” “Country of home where?” “Where you go?” Sometimes we had to mutter under our breath an interpretation of what he was trying to ask each of us.
He stopped one of the guys “picture no look you” He declared. “Oh I grew a beard,” he responded, stroking his facial hair with pride. The officer smirked and waved him back on the bus.
He made a similar comment regarding my passport photo. “This you no like!”
I know,” I said “It is a really bad picture.”
“He tried again more insistently “No you… picture like a black man”
For the first time since getting off the bus I switched to speaking Uyghur , “Now big brother don’t be mean. I was sick when the picture was taken… but it is not THAT bad. Now I’m all embarrassed.” His smirk broke into a full on smile and he laughed heartily as he passed my passport back and allowed me to go through.
I can’t wait till I get a new passport next year.