China is a centralist country divided
in provinces, themselves divided in counties, districts and communes
(and one could add villages, houses and floor-tiles). For foreigners,
access to certain areas is restricted : a permit is required and sometimes
a guide must be arranged. The problem is how to know. The police of
the provincial capital does not have a list of a map showing whether
such or such area is open or closed, and nothing is indicated anywhere.
Thus, we arrived in, Gongliu, a small town in the
Ili valley, in Xinjiang province. We had in mind to continue in small
stages towards Kuqa and then Kashgar. After a nice day walking around,
we returned to the hotel in the evening. Immediately, the receptionist
asked us something in chinese, which we did not understand. She was
smiling but in China a smile can a sign of embarrasment. There was a
problem. In the dictionary, she pointed at the words "trip"
and "card". We showed her our passports and visas, but that
did not seem to be what she is asking. Nevermind, we returned to our
room, but we thought may be she was may be asking for a permit. Later,
about 10 pm, a man came around: he was not wearing a uniform but he
showed his police card. He did not speak english, and pointed at the
same words "trip" and "card" in the dictionary.
It became more and more certain we should have had a permit. We did
mention it, we could be fined if this was the case. He wanted to keep
our passports. We tried to explain we need them because we would leave
early next day, but he insisted. Although it was not very polite of
him to show up at this time in our room, he remained calm and accepted
to write something in my notebook about the passports being with him.
He said he would come back next morning 10 am.
Another policeman showed
up next day, and he did not speak english either. He left rapidly when
he saw we did not understand anything and came back shortly later with
the local english teacher. Although he was supposed to be teaching,
he was very friendly and very helpful. He translated that indeed, we
should have a permit to come to Gongliu. He felt sorry we had run into
this problem. We all went to the police station where he examined thouroughly
every page of our passports and filled in a couple of pages ... "why
are you in China, do you have a permit to come to Gongliu, where do
you go next, do you have US Dollars, do you have a camera ... ?"
(of course we had none for this occasion...). The teacher translated
the questions of the policeman and our answers. Perhaps trying to soften
the blow, he said that we will have to pay "a little money"
: a fine. The policeman gave us a booklet in chinese and english concerning
the regulations for foreigners in China. In our situation, the penalty
is a fine up to 500 Yuans : a little money... In the hope of paying
as little a fine as possible, I started telling the teachers about the
difficulties travelling in China, including the bus drivers who try
to overcharge, and also money problems. With our Visa card, we can only
withdraw some cash in the main towns and only a maximum of 1000 Yuans
(which is almost true). If we overspend and we are short of money to
get to the next main town, we have to hitch-hike and sleep outside.
The policeman made a grin when he heard the translation, while he was
still writing. In the booklet, he pointed at a paragraph which actually
concerned people (e.g. hotel staff) who would fail to tell the police
about a foreigner in illegal situation. The penalty is a fine up to
500 Yuans or a warning. The teacher translated that we would
receive a warning and we should return to Yining, where we came from
the day before. After spending the whole morning with the policeman
and the teacher (who should have been at his school), we got away with
the fine and we left with a souvenir : the "warning" is a
piece of paper with a red star and some chinese characters.
Back in Yining, stubborn bretons as we are, we still
wanted to visit the Ili valley and we went after some information at
the police station. The permit only costs 50 Yuans but the policewoman
who spoke good english added that we need a guide before. We asked her
: "why is this valley not open ?". Answer "because it
is closed". We laughed while she sternly added "because I
think it is better for you to have a guide since you do not speak chinese".
She said that to us, after we spent so much time in China already ...!
In the face of so much nonsense, we gave up and continued straight to
Kuqa with much regret, this region was so beautiful.
So why was this valley closed to foreigners ? May
be because of the canabis plants growing wild in the ditches ... Other
areas in China are totally closed (they won't even give a permit) because
chinese authorities have something to hide... I heard of villages of
Yi people (in Sichuan and Yunnan) that are closed because they are supposedly
too poor. In other regions populated by ethnic minorities, the foreign
visitor must not witness the tensions between the chinese police and
the population. Some Uighur and Tibetan people have told us about prisoners
and executions. Areas along borders are sometimes restricted. Two french
cyclists arriving from Kirghistan were forced to go by jeep from the
border (Torugart pass) and to pay 100 USD each. In China, unlike in
Pakistan, a bakhseesh does not help.
see some photos from Xinjiang