Urumqi, China: The home of the Uighurs is one of the scariest places on Earth

"You Muslim?"

I laugh. It's a joke, right? I mean, I'm sure Chinese immigration officials aren't exactly known for their sense of humour, but still, that's the obvious reaction to a question like this. Nervous laughter. Confusion.

But the officer isn't smiling. "Muslim?"

"Oh," I stutter. "Um, no."

He flicks a finger towards my face. "Your beard."

Forget Colombia or Iran or the DRC. Xinjiang is the scariest place I've ever been.

"Yeah," I say. "It's just a beard. I'm not Muslim."

In the back of my mind I'm thinking, so what if I am? But I'm keeping that to myself as I watch the officer flip slowly through my passport, scrutinising every page.

Welcome to Urumqi. Or, not. Because you will not feel welcome here. You will feel frightened, if you're anything like me. You will feel suspected. You will feel accused. And you also feel completely powerless.

The immigration official at the airport eventually finishes with my passport and stamps it, waving me through, but my journey isn't over yet. I collect my baggage at the carousel and I'm funnelled into another queue, where I'm forced by police officers to lean over and stare into a machine and have my retinas scanned and recorded.


I'm then picked out of the crowd shuffling towards the exit and told to load my bags into an X-ray machine. I'm escorted by more police officers into a side room where I'm told to empty my pockets onto a small tray, where I'm forced to take off my belt and my hat and to sit down on a chair in a corner of the room and wait until they decide what they're going to do with me.

This is real fear. It dawns on me as I sit there in that room that I'm completely at the mercy of these guys. If they don't like me, they lock me up. If I don't do the right thing, they keep me there. No protests. Probably no trial. I'm gone.

Urumqi, I've come to realise, is not a normal place. It's the capital of the Xinjiang region, one of the most tightly restricted and heavily watched places on Earth. It's a police state.

This region is the home of the Uighur minority group, a predominantly Muslim people who have been accused by the Chinese government of fomenting terrorism, while groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused the Chinese government of gross human rights abuses against the Uighurs.

Terrible stories have been coming out of this place. Uighurs have been sent indefinitely to detention camps for such crimes as growing a beard, just like mine, or for accidentally visiting a foreign website (according to a newly revealed database called the "Karakax list"). Last year a Vice documentary, "They Come For Us at Night", revealed that Uighur children were being forcibly separated from their parents and sent to "re-education camps" to become more like the Han Chinese.

This is scary stuff. You can be frightened of criminals when you travel, if you like. You can be scared of bad guys, worried about thieves and terrorists and petty crims. That's fine.

But I'm far more afraid of the police. I'm far more worried about the government. I'm far more concerned about anyone with a badge who can do whatever they want to me in the name of the law.

Forget Colombia or Iran or the DRC. Xinjiang is the scariest place I've ever been.

Finally, the police decide they can't hold me at the airport any longer. Some guy throws my tray of belongings at my feet and motions with his head towards the door. I don't need any more encouragement.

I grab my stuff and head out into the night where a transfer awaits, where I'm whisked to a hotel and more police check my documents outside as CCTV cameras watch on. I check in and head up to my room and pass yet another police checkpoint on my way out of the elevator. My passport is scrutinised again. I'm eventually waved through.

It's good to see this stuff, of course. This is what travel is about. It's instructive for anyone to visit Urumqi and Xinjiang and see just what can happen when police powers are taken too far, when you don't question your government and you never protest about incremental law changes that gradually strangle the population. When you don't realise that one day, you could be the enemy.

You think it could never happen in Australia – but is that true? Powers are increased here bit by bit. Privacy is eroded. Security gets tighter. No one worries though, because this is all in the name of good. Just as it is in Urumqi, I'm sure.

Interesting. Frightening.

I get out of Xinjiang as quickly as I can. I'm not a badass reporter like Isobel Yeung, an Emmy Award-winner who risked her freedom and probably her life to record that Vice doco. I'm a travel writer who would very much like to continue with the freedoms he possesses. So I leave.

After writing this it's probably not a good idea for me to return to Urumqi any time soon, even if I decide to shave off my beard.

And I'm OK with that.

Where is the scariest place you've ever been? What scares you more: criminals, or foreign police? Have you ever had any brushes with the law in another country?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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