Hitchhiking the Karakoram highway (2)

Riding with Einie, the Uighur cop

I didn’t want to get into Einie’s car at first because he was a policeman in Xinjiang. They are known as bullies, they stop people for nothing and demand bribes (as we have seen previously), and they are often irritating and much disliked among the people in the region.

So when the civilian silver car pulled up and I saw who was behind the wheel, my instinct was to back off. Einie was wearing sports sunglasses—which made his expression look more aggressive than he was—and a full dark-blue police uniform. He was of slightly chubby build, had a head full of jet-black hair, and reminded me of a sheriff. His jacket, which had SWAT written on it in large block letters, was thrown casually over the back of his seat.

As if the cop uniform and the shades weren’t intimidating enough, a golden statue of Chairman Mao, made from cheap plastic, was resting comfortably on the dashboard.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Not one of those people…”

I couldn’t just tell him that we were doing a random, no-purpose exercise of flagging down cars, so I stuttered my usual “we’d like to go to Kashgar and see some lakes on the way” sentence and waited for his reaction.

A part of me expected him to be angry with us for hitchhiking, or to tell us it was illegal. Who are these stingy foreigners who think they can get away with not paying for transportation? Shame, shame, shame…

But he didn’t seem irritated at all.

“I’m going to Kashgar, I can take you all the way there,” he said cheerfully.

The first ten minutes went by quietly, as I was, once again, in my awkward state, trying to come up with appropriate questions and comments to fill the eerie silence.

I stared at Chairman Mao. Is this cop guy for real? A Mao worshipper? Still, in 2015?

Einie was playing Uighur music videos from a little screen in his car. Each video had beautiful young girls singing and dancing.

“So what are these lakes you want to see?” he finally asked, breaking the silence.

I told him we wanted to see Karakul lake and Baisha lake because they’re meant to be really breath-taking, especially on a good day like today.

It was indeed a ridiculously beautiful, crisp, cold (-6C), sunny day. It was the opposite of the weather two days ago when we had left Kashgar. Baisha lake would look completely different on a day like this.

Einie seemed to not comprehend our reasons for wanting to see these lakes. “They are just lakes, there isn’t anything special with them,” he said and shrugged.

As we got closer to Karakul lake he asked us again if we were sure we wanted to be dropped off the car to see the lake. He said if we did our sightseeing in less than an hour he could wait for us and drive us to Kashgar. We thought 20 minutes would be plenty to see this apparently insignificant lake, so we agreed.

Except that the lake was beautiful. A lake-addict’s high. It was stock-image/poster quality. Snow-capped mountains, clear blue sky and the lake, like a mirror, shining in the sun.

“Meh, it’s just a lake in my eyes,” Einie said as we got back into the car, 20 minutes later. We continued driving.

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Karakul lake. A “meh” lake?

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Baisha lake

Who is Einie?

Driving along, I found Einie quite easy to talk to. He didn’t seem offended by my questions and happily told us about himself and his life.

He is 40 years old and lives with his wife and two children, a 13-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, in Kashgar. He is a Uighur—a Turkic group and one of the biggest ethnic minority groups in China.

Einie had originally wanted to marry his dancer girlfriend, he told us, but his family didn’t approve and instead arranged a marriage for him with a “more sensible” girl ten years his junior.

“We had known each other for half an hour before the wedding ceremony,” Einie said. The couple have now been married for 13 years.

Throughout the ride, Einie was keeping an eye on his music videos, which were continuously blasting from the little screen. He suddenly pointed at the most beautiful girl featured in it. “Look, that’s her, my ex-girlfriend,” he said. “Don’t tell my wife about her!” he added.

Both of Einie’s parents have passed away and his two older brothers brought him up. “They were like parents to me, very strict parents,” he said. “I’m 40 years old and I’m still scared to light a cigarette in front of them, not to mention drink alcohol.”

During our 6-hour drive he smoked at least a pack of cigarettes.

On politics and travelling

I was surprised to find that Einie appeared deeply critical of the Chinese government.

“In China, the government has money, but the people don’t have money,” he said, adding that Europe was a “great” continent because “people’s lives are good and they have a lot of money”. I tried telling him that we also have a lot of economic problems in Europe—such as the Greek debt crisis—but he shrugged and repeated: “Money in Europe goes to people, whereas in China, it just goes to the government”.

He was especially intrigued that Jean was from France. His face lit up and he exclaimed: “France is a great country! People’s lives are so good there!”

He also was supportive when I told him that I had a Finnish passport, rather than a Chinese one. “Good, whatever you do, don’t get Chinese citizenship, there’s so much hassle.”

Einie said he planned to go on a tour of Europe in a few years’ time—to France, Ireland, the UK, Greece and the Netherlands. “They are all great countries!” he said, as if he had already been there.

He added that he would like to just pack his bag and go alone, without joining a tour, but that it would be quite difficult as he doesn’t speak English.

“My brother speaks French really well, he’s a doctor and he goes to France every year,” he said.

But first off was a trip to Japan, in 2016, for “work-related things”.

Like many Chinese, Einie appeared to deeply resent Japan for what they did to the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war. “I hate the Japanese, if you guys were Japanese I wouldn’t have picked you up,” he said.

I pressed him to tell me a bit more about why today’s Japanese people should be blamed for what happened decades ago.

“Well, it’s not the Japanese people I hate, I hate their government,” he replied. “They’re not like the German government, which I like. At least the Germans will admit that they’ve done wrong after the war, but the Japanese, they just won’t do it.”

Einie was also keen to visit the US, but that would have to wait until after Japan and Europe.

“So I’m 40 now,” he said thoughtfully. “I should travel for ten years, and then come back and wait for death.”

After some more thought, he added: “but then, graves are really expensive in China. I’ll have to work hard to save money for it. I also have to buy a house for each of my children.”

This is where Asian culture differs from that in the west. Taking care of the family is the number one priority in most Asian cultures, whereas the individualistic “each to their own” way of life dominates in places like northern Europe. I cannot imagine people thinking that they should be responsible for buying each of their children a house before they can enjoy their retirement. The most common mentality is that my money is what I made, and therefore I should be the one to enjoy it.

Holding on for our dear lives

As a man who had worked as a traffic cop for ten years—and as someone who has probably seen a lot of bad car accidents—I was surprised to find out that Einie drove like a maniac.

“My record from Kashgar to Tashkurgan is 3 hours and 20 minutes,” he said proudly. “I was giving a lift to a colleague, and afterwards he said he’d never step into my car again. I’m driving slowly now because I don’t want to scare you too much.”

But I was still scared shitless. There was 80 kilometres of road under construction, and he made no attempts to slow down during this stretch. He was going 50-60 km per hour on roads where a sane person would not exceed 30. Poor Chairman Mao fell down from the dashboard and had to be tucked into a safer place between the seats.

“My wife doesn’t allow me to drive when I’m at home because she’s afraid I’ll kill myself,” Einie said and laughed.

His wife sounded like a smart woman.

Our conversation then turned to his job as a policeman.

“It’s a tough job for sure, very tiring,” he said, adding that “I’ve done some calculations and come to the conclusion that if I hadn’t become a police man I could have only become a taxi driver.”

Perhaps not with his crazy driving style, though…

As we progressed through that 80 kilometres of shitty road I tried—and failed—to put on my seat belt. There was nowhere to clip the seatbelt into. I then proceeded to hold on to anything I could find with my dear life. Several times I almost hit my head on the car ceiling, and I was bouncing around without any kind of order or pattern.

Somehow Jean seemed unconcerned about the bumpy ride and was napping in the front seat.

“You foreigners are really conscious about safety aren’t you?” Einie asked. “Here people don’t care, they put on their seatbelt only when they see police. Although I used to be a traffic cop I still don’t wear a seat belt.”

Our conversation about traffic rules and road safety eventually led us to talk about death, followed by religion. He asked me whether I was religious and I told him that I wasn’t.

“I’m not religious either, and if I die, I die,” he told us. “But if you two die, it’ll only be you, whereas if I die, I leave behind my wife and two kids. She’ll have to find herself another husband. That’s why she hates it when I drive.”

You’d think he’d consider driving a bit slowly, then, if only to make his wife feel better…

“I believe in the religion of money. Work hard and live well,” he added.

Approaching Kashgar

Our trip back from Tashkurgan was much faster than our trip there. This was thanks to Einie’s reckless driving, as well as the fact that we were breezing through all police checkpoints. Einie would flash his badge each time, and we’d be on our way.

The 80 kilometres of bumpy road came, thankfully, to an end, and Chairman Mao resumed his position on the dashboard.

As we approached a village just before reaching Kashgar, Einie said he needed to stop and wash his car. “I’ve told my wife that the roads are all supergood down from Tashkurgan so she wouldn’t worry about me driving,” he explained. “My car is all covered in dust and mud from the road, so I have to wash it in order for my wife to not be angry.”

So we stopped at a car wash, and Einie took particular care in ensuring that his car was spotless, even helping the ladies with the washing process.

As we drove into Kashgar city, Einie was nice to drop us off a street away from our hostel. We offered to give him money for all his troubles and hard work, but he refused.

“You offering me money makes me angry!” he almost shouted, before driving off.

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