Locked up in Urumqi

So there was the “Olympic Torch Relay” in Urumqi on June 17th. And I was waiting for the processing of my Chinese visa extension and hanging around the place anyway. Obviously, this Olympic event would be a welcome change from the usual sightseeing. So I was decided to join the local crowd and cheer in tune for the upcoming 2008 games in Beijing.

Organized crowd for the Olympics

But this is China and things are – this year – a bit complicated. Urumqi is located in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, near the Kazhakh and Kyrgyz border. Most of the local people – the Uyghur – have more in common with the people of the neighbouring countries, than with the (Han-)Chinese from mainland China. Similarities are the roots of their language, the food and the religion. Beijing is far away, which helps to keep the pioneering Wild West spirit alive everywhere around here. Consequently, Xinjiang is considered suspicious by the motherland and the average Chinese believes that this province is a very dangerous place full of potential terrorists.

Therefore, special security measures were put in place for the “Olympic Torch Relay” in Urumqi. As tourists – being in a hostel in a central downtown area – we were notified the day before the torch relay, that we had to stay inside the guesthouse between 7am and 2pm during the next day. Assuming that Chinese people get quite excited about the Olympics, I personally didn’t believe that we weren’t allowed to go outside the hostel. Nevertheless, I stocked up on food. Being optimist, I also bought two small flags, since I wanted to blend in with the locals during the event.

However, things got a bit suspicious that same evening before the torch relay. There were military trucks moving into the city, joining the already increasingly visible police force. Some groups of men in black jumpsuits also drew my attention (I think it was a kind of a special force). Guests arriving later back to the hostel that evening, reported that their documents were checked by police and that they had spotted bomb squads checking out bridges near our place. We were then further informed by the hostel staff that there would be no electricity between 7am and 2pm next day. So we should take precautions in case we needed a shower or go to the toilet. Still, I could not really believe that this was serious.

Olympic spirit for tourists

Next morning though, after waking up and walking towards the common showers, I discovered that the battery powered emergency light was on. Definitely, the power had been cut off. After grabbing my torchlight, I selfishly used up the last remaining warm water out of the boiler to get a shower. After having grabbed my two flags and the camera to go outside, I got a glimpse – together with other tourists – at what was going on. But we didn’t get really that far. Police (speaking to my surprise perfect English) ordered us to stop taking pictures and go back into the hostel. They followed us and ordered the staff to lock the door by shutting down the blinds.

Just before our place was definitely closed, one Japanese friend – who adjusted his travel plans for the very purpose to come and see the “Olympic Torch Relay” – came back to the hostel. He sneaked out of the area before 7am to get the best spot for viewing. Police ordered him to leave that area and they escorted him back to the hostel.

Being locked in the first floor of the guest house, we could witness at least the preparatory events in the side street linking to the relay route. Students in uniformed Coca-Cola shirts were hauled in by bus. Other groups arriving in batches were factory workers wearing the Olympic Noodle sponsor shirt. All of them passed a checkpoint where some of them rehearsed their proper cheering – then they marched to their assigned viewpoint. Everything was meticulously orchestrated and I was amazed at how quickly local residents and foreign tourists can be replaced in such a large area.

Watching the crowd management from the hostel balcony

Obviously, there was no way to watch television to see what was going on about 50m around the corner of our building. Being locked in a guesthouse without electricity felt a bit like during the civil war in Congo. (To be fair, here in Urumqi we had at least running water, which wasn’t the case back in Brazzaville). As the day grew older, the sun heated up the common rooms – shut windows and the lack of air conditioning were contributing their part to create an atmosphere where some people started to freak out a bit. Surprisingly, the – otherwise calm – Japanese tourists were among the strongest voices stating their disgust at the overall situation.

Thomas, who stayed in a neighbouring hotel – away from the torch relay route – was not affected by all this hassle. We texted each other to reschedule, since our plan to visit the event together clearly went downhill. At 1pm we got back the electricity and a little later, police ordered to open doors and windows of our guesthouse. Finally, we were allowed to leave the building and I rejoined Thomas and his girl-friend. The Orchestra (aka: the crowd) was gone as quickly as it appeared. And the streets looked quite empty for a moment, since it took some time for the unorganized locals (aka: the real people) to settle back into the center of the city.

This event leaves me with some mixed feelings. I am actually quite annoyed by the fact that the IOC seems to agree with the fact that this years’ games will be held as a self-celebration of the power in place. At least the Urumqi “Olympic Torch Relay” was a staged celebration as fake as the average Swiss watch being sold everywhere here. But then again: Witnessing such strange events is also one of the reason we travel.