There is a road that runs parallel to the Hotan River in the western end of China. The river and highway cut through the vast desert. To the north lies the city of Aral. To the south is the city of Hotan. There is nothing in between.
I was on the road with my driver and translator — we were inspecting a potential oil site for a contractor. The three of us were three hours in our drive when we noticed an SUV coming up behind us. The hotel concierge at the front desk had warned us that there were groups of men that would ram your vehicle and force you to stop, where they would rob you at gunpoint. I increasingly became nervous as the SUV came closer and closer.
“Should we drive faster?” our driver asked.
“I don’t think that’s a bad idea,” I said.
I knew that we had another seven hours on this road. We had budgeted for gas and straying from our plans meant there was a chance we would be stranded in the desert.
“It’s the police,” the driver said.
I looked back, through the rear windshield, and sure enough, a police SUV was catching up with us.
“Is he pulling us over?” I asked the translator.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I felt my insides twist.
“He’s not putting his lights on, maybe he’s just passing us,” the driver said.
Something was off. I felt it. Why would the police give chase to a contractor three hours away from the nearest city? Then, we all saw it, the flashing lights.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked.
The driver pulled over to the side of the road, the tires whipping up sand behind us. We felt the right side of the car sink and the car lurched to a stop.
“Fuck, fuck,” I heard the driver whisper. “Fuck, fuck.” I tried to remain calm, but given how peculiar this situation was, I began to tremble. I looked in the rearview mirror. Three men dressed in uniform got out. Two held assault rifles. My eyes widened.
“They have fucking rifles,” I said. “What the fuck is going on?”
“Just keep calm, maybe this is a routine inspection,” the translator said.
The man without a rifle knocked on the window.
“Lower the window,” he said in Chinese. He looked at the three of us. It must’ve been quite a sight to him. A white man sitting in a car with two Uyghurs. He pointed to the driver. “You, speak Chinese?” The driver nodded. “Good.” He pointed to the translator. “What about you?” The translator nodded too. The man turned to me and smirked. “I speak English,” he said and pointed to himself. “You American?” I nodded. He smiled. “Get them out,” he said to the two armed men. They shouted at us to leave the vehicle.
“What are you doing?” I shouted to the man.
“Arresting you,” he said. He turned to the translator and the driver. “Has this man been paying you?” They both nodded. “Yes, yes,” the translator said. “Did he pay you to say that?” The translator shook his head.
The man kicked my legs from under me. I collapsed in the scorching sand. An old friend of mine had told me that he had been harassed by the police while working near the Kyrgyzstan border, and I assumed that this, too, was harassment for a bribe.
“I have money,” I said. “I have money. I can give you money.” I tried to get up. The man kicked sand at me. He spat on the ground. “I don’t need your fucking money.” He spat on the ground again. “Fucking spy.”
Spy? This man thought I was a spy. “I’m American,” I said. “I’m an American contractor, I’m not a spy. I’m here to investigate oil deposits.” The man remained unconvinced. “I’m not a spy, look at my ID.”
“You’re lying,” the man said. “Your government, they think they can come here and spy on our people. You fucking spy, I should kill you right now.” He kicked my stomach. I collapsed back onto the sand. “Pick him up,” the man said. “Do what you will.” The man with a rifle standing next to me grinned. He must be a bodyguard, I thought. I saw him raise the butt of his rifle and everything went dark.
I woke up with dried blood on my shirt and my arms ziptied behind my back. The translator was next to me with his arms ziptied behind his back, but he seemed uninjured.
“Fuck,” I said. “What’s going on?” The translator said he didn’t know. “We’re headed back north,” he said. “Our driver is following us with one of the police officers riding with him.” The man, who I assumed to be the leader of the group, told us to shut up. He leaned over and smacked our heads. “Shut the fuck up,” he said.
I stared at the empty road ahead. I looked at the police officers. I saw that they had no insignias on their uniform. The rifles they had carried were resting on the dashboard of the SUV. They looked like AKs. The leader looked to be in his 40s, his face weathered by years of sand and the sun, stretched when he spoke.
I noticed that we were nearing a compound surrounded by what I thought to be farmland. The leader must’ve noticed by surprise because he said, “Jail. You go to jail.”
We slowly made our way up to the concrete walls, the road snaking through cracked fields and dried grass. “Best time to be here,” the leader said. I could feel the heat through the window of the SUV. The sun was relentless in this part of the country. We stopped at a gate. Plainclothes officers, at least I thought them to be so, pulled me and the translator from the SUV. They dragged us to a dark, cool room near the entrance and sat us down. A police officer dug through my pockets and handed the contents to a man standing next to the leader.
“American?” he said with his eyebrows raised. “Yes,” the leader said. The man leafed through my wallet and looked at my ID. He walked over to me. “You are contractor?” he asked. I nodded. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone,” I said. He nodded. He turned to the translator and spoke to him in Chinese. The translator nodded. “He says he needs to hold you here until prosecutors can throw the case out,” he said. I felt faint. “What? Are you fucking kidding me?” The translator looked defeated. “There’s nothing I can say,” he said. “This is the law.” One of the officers picked me up and directed me to a cell. I looked back to see the translator and the driver being led in my direction.
We were placed in a cell with two other men. There were four beds — bunks on opposite sides of the cell. One of the men pointed at me. “American?” he asked. I nodded. He broke into a smile. He and his cellmate grabbed my hand and grabbed my face. “American!” he said. His name was Erkin and the cellmate was Nur. “I’m Nicholas, and this is Xiang [the translator] and Ilham [the driver].” Erkin told us that he was arrested for reading the Qu’ran in public. Nur was arrested for not shaving his beard after being told repeatedly by his university that he was breaking the law. I told stories about growing up in Alaska and traveling in airplanes for work and Erkin and Nur told me stories of growing up as Uyghurs in China. “You are lucky,” Nur said to me. “You can fly home. We are stuck. We cannot move around like you do. The government, they think they can come here and run our lives like they do in Beijing.”
The next day, I was led out of the cell and marched to a room. A thin, skeletal man addressed me in broken English. He said that I was to be released into the hands of the US embassy. I was not to enter this part of the country again. “What about my driver and translator?” I asked. The man waved his hands. “They will be taken care of,” he said. “What do you mean?” He explained in his limited English that Xiang and Ilham would be released with me. “We American friend,” he said, smiling.
I was led back into the cell and I told everyone that I was to be released that day. Erkin and Nur looked happy for me. “American!” Erkin said. “You see? You can go anywhere.” As we waited for an officer, we played cards that Xiang had been able to sneak past the officers. We heard someone approach the cell. It was a police officer. “Let’s go,” he said. I gave Erkin and Nur a hug. “Let me know when you guys get out,” I said. I scribbled my email on a card and gave it to Erkin. “I hope to hear from you soon,” I said. Xiang, Ilham, and I were led out of the cell. I looked back at Erkin and Nur. “Goodbye!” they shouted.
I remember a couple of days later, after I got off a flight from Beijing to Wuhan when I received an email from a name I didn’t recognize. It was Erkin.
Nicolas! Greetings! I am Erkin! Hope to talk to you soon.