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Asia travel

How my family Silk Road trip ended in a nightmare of security and a stay in hospital in Kashgar

During a family holiday in northwest China, Bernice Chan’s father suffered a blood clot that required an operation and 12 days in hospital in Muslim Xinjiang, where security was heavy in the lead-up to National Day

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 7:26pm

Xinjiang Kashgar First People’s Hospital was not on the itinerary for our family tour of the Silk Road in China, which included the famed Mogao Caves, outposts of the Great Wall, the Singing Sand Mountains, and the rainbow-coloured hills of Zhangye Danxia Geopark.

But less than 24 hours after arriving in Kashgar – China’s westernmost city and its last outpost on the Silk Road – we were in an emergency room waiting for an operation to remove a blood clot from my father’s brain.

In retrospect, it may not have been the best time to be travelling in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region – even without the trip revolving around a Kashgar hospital. It was 12 days before China’s National Day on October 1, and security was tightening in the Muslim-majority area labelled “restive” by foreign media and populated by “separatist” Uygurs, according to the central government in Beijing.

A few days earlier, my 80-year-old father had seemed exhausted – walking more slowly and napping a lot more on the tour bus. Now, he could not even walk or stand on his own.

My mother worried it was a stroke, but his speech was not slurred and he was mentally alert. After arriving in Kashgar on a flight from Urumqi, the region’s capital, we took him for a CAT scan, which revealed the blood clot. We called the travel insurance company in Quebec, Canada, to convince them that he needed to be flown to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong for the procedure. The company insisted it was too dangerous for him to fly so we had no choice; the operation had to be done in Kashgar. By this time it was almost midnight.

Our Uygur tour guide translated the explanation of the procedure given by the surgeon, who spoke only Uygur but helpfully drew a diagram showing where holes would be drilled into my father’s skull to drain the clot.

It was 3am by the time he was packed off to a room in the neurology ward, on the seventh floor of a nearby building. A nurse asked if we had paid yet, refusing to wheel him into the room until she saw the receipt.

My mother went downstairs to the Bank of China ATM to withdraw the initial 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) in cash to hand the accounts department in another building nearby, before he was finally allowed into his semi-private room.

The Han Chinese nurse flicked on the lights to reveal a young Uygur male patient in one bed, and his wife sleeping in the bed assigned for my father. The nurse shooed her out and ordered her to prepare fresh bedding for my father.

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Although there were many nurses in the hospital, at least one family member is required to stay with a patient 24 hours a day. My mother’s younger sister immediately volunteered to stay with my father. Since we were foreigners, we were given a bed cot with a thin mattress and lumpy pillow without having to pay the usual deposit.

It would be a sleepless night for everyone, still processing how my father became so quickly incapacitated and the fact he was due in the operating theatre within hours. My aunt also had to sign a slew of papers acknowledging the risks of his operation, and one vowing not to give hongbao (a bribe) to the doctor.

At about 11am, still bleary due to lack of sleep, I got a frantic call from our tour guide. My mother and I had to go to the hospital to sign yet another paper – in which we acknowledged the risk of using the anaesthetic because of my father’s age.

As we rushed over, security took precedence over timing. At the entrance, all vehicles entering the hospital perimeter were being checked by security officers in flak jackets and helmets, looking under the bonnets for bombs.

Visitors on foot had to pass their identity cards over an electronic reader, while we showed our passports to get in. We then had to walk through the metal detector and have our bags scanned. The whole process was repeated as we entered my father’s building.

There was a 20 per cent increase in spending on security in the Xinjiang region in 2016, to 30 billion yuan, according to state media. Earlier this year, the government cracked down on the wearing of veils, “abnormal” beards and praying in public.

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The authorities say the restrictions are intended to control the spread of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang, while critics argue that the region is becoming an open-air prison.

Outside the operating theatre, on the third floor, the waiting room was full of Uygurs, but

no medical staff to ask about signing a form.

Finally someone barked, “Mrs Chan!” in Mandarin. A Han Chinese woman wearing a surgical mask, sitting behind a sliding window, gave us that last piece of paper to be signed.

“Don’t leave this room! We are operating on him now. If there are complications we may need to speak to you,” the woman warned.

Fortunately Wi-fi was available at the hospital, but only on the third floor. The “Great Firewall” seemed to be “higher” in Xinjiang than in other provinces we visited, which made Chinese-owned messaging service WeChat the best way to communicate with everyone, from our tour guide to relatives overseas.

More than an hour later, the masked woman called us back to the window and produced a kidney-shaped metal bowl filled with blood drained from my father’s head. Oddly, she then encouraged me to take a photo of it. The operation had been successful, she said to our relief.

Although there were many nurses in the ward, there were not enough to look after all the patients, which is why at least one family member must look after their loved ones 24 hours a day.

Patients are provided with health care but nothing else. That meant buying everything from soft pillows, soap and a spoon, to tissues, wet wipes, bottled water and even food. There is no hospital cafeteria, nor food for patients.

In the evenings, the ward resembles a refugee camp, with patients’ visitors lying on cots in hallways and stairwells. Others unroll blankets and sleep on the tiled floor.

Getting into a lift in the hospital involved a scuffle. Although there are four lifts, two had been barricaded on the ground floor, so were permanently out of order.

When the doors to the working ones opened, people piled out and others shuffled in, packed like sardines. Inevitably, the doors of overloaded lifts refused to close – but no one budged. After much cajoling, one or two people sheepishly got out before the doors finally shut.

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My father wanted to eat apples as he recovered from surgery, but we weren’t able to borrow a knife. Uygurs are forbidden from carrying them around, and the government recently decreed that all knives have a QR code embossed on them so the owner can be identified in the event of an incident.

It was a relief to leave the hospital, but it was an uneasy feeling. Out on the streets, there were security checks everywhere – at grocery stores, pharmacies and hotels. Police vans were also visible everywhere, crawling at a snail’s pace with sirens blaring and lights flashing. They criss-crossed the city day and night. Our tour guide explained that although the sirens were turned off at night, the presence of the vans was intended to send a clear message: we are here, watching you.

As National Day approached, security got even tighter – there were more police everywhere – even at the hospital. They carried riot shields, wooden batons and restraining poles, and more police vehicles were parked in the hospital compound.

On the evening of September 29, a Uygur guard patrolling the hallway told us the hospital would be in lockdown from 11pm until the next morning. Was this really necessary?

My father’s doctors finally decided he could be discharged on October 1, giving us something else to celebrate on the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Once the doctors signed the discharge letter, we were almost free to go. First though, we were required to settle the hospital bill – a total of 23,000 yuan – at three different windows in the accounting department. Each stamped various papers before we could get a printout of every medication and procedure my father received. We also returned his hospital pyjamas to get our 100 yuan deposit back.

The next day at the airport, we went through thorough security checks, which included a full pat down, before boarding the plane that would take us to Urumqi, then on to Beijing.

The heavy security – and my father’s hospital visit – made for an uncomfortable end to a Silk Road tour that I’ll never forget. But I’ll also remember the friendly Uygurs who helped us, especially our tour guide and his friends, who try to have as normal a life as possible despite the tense environment in their homeland.