Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pay no attention to the man with the automatic weapon

A lot of people have expressed concern for my safety in visiting Urumqi. How to put this delicately? There are certain things quasi-totalitarian regimes do "well," and quelling disorder is one of them. It's very unsettling to imagine everything a tourist doesn't see--the paddy wagons, broken fingers and black eyes, swollen prisons, body bags. But what one does see is a city effectively being dared not to keep the peace. Police, SWAT teams, and soldiers are everywhere (all of them Han, rather than Uighur, of course). All but the most essential areas of the train station are cordoned off. Leftover police tape surrounds large areas of the Muslim quarter that were presumably trouble-spots before, but have resumed at least the appearance of normality now.

Every traveler knows never to stare at, much less photograph, a soldier. The unsettling thing in Urumqi for me is that the soldiers, like everyone else, all gawk at me. I assume they just want to study my strange appearance, because the general attitude of police and other authorities is clearly "leave the foreigners alone." They let me bypass X-rays at train stations with my film and camera with hardly a glance, and I get the feeling I could bring nearly anything through without half the attention a native would get.

All that being said, there is something particularly creepy to me about a camo transport truck full of Chinese soldiers spinning straight through town. This is, after all, the world's biggest standing army (by far), and these guys do have access to nuclear weapons and all manner of other highly advanced war toys. Yet there's that hunger and insouciance in them one doesn't see in American or European soldiers, suggesting that, on the one hand, they're just kids in soldier suits, but on the other hand, they know war as a personal fight for home and food and safety, not a video game or abstract geopolitical gambit.

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