Category Archives: China ’09

Les Flâneurs en Kashgar

“Do you know the meaning of the term ‘Flâneur’?”

I confessed my ignorance to my travelling companion Martin, as we strolled aimlessly down the streets of Kashgar deciding what to do with the day.

“A ‘flâneur’ is a person who walks the city, without any particular plan, in order to experience it…” advised Martin, indulging me with knowledge gleaned from his recently completed Social and Political science degree. “Why don‘t we indulge in a bit of ‘flânerie’ for the day?”

I had been travelling with Martin and Becky for a few days. As Becky had been struck unexpectedly by the a bug, a spot of ‘flânerie’ seemed like a capital idea. We rapidly dispensed of the ever-present guide-books and set off in a vaguely Western direction through the streets of this fascinating city.

The flâneurial spirit

Our wanderings soon took us past the old Russian consulate, an incongruous late 19th century pile hidden behind a monstrous mid-20th century hotel. As we wandered around peering through locked windows, you could feel the spirit of the Great Game period when the old Imperial powers played out their political shenanigans throughout this region.

We sauntered on reaching the centre of the city, where the signs of China’s growing 21st century affluence lie side-by-side with more traditional emblems of the country’s 20th century history. Well-dressed Chinese hustle and bustle past branded stores with names like “Ben Cool” and “Playfox”, while not more than a few hundred yards away, a massive 24-metre high concrete statue of Chairman Mao waves imperiously down over the concrete mass of Renmin Square.

The real fun started when we left Chairman Mao behind as we ventured North again.

A Uighur adventure

Life visibly slowed down. We were now in the very different Uighur part of town. The saloon cars were replaced by scooters, donkeys and carts. Men in shalwar qameez grilled kebabs in long thin braziers on the side of the road. Women, in chadors, burqas or headscarves walked purposefully through the streets in pairs. Many men just crouched on their heels pensively watching the world go by.

As we turned into one of the side streets, we could have been anywhere in south central Asia. Faces peered out of ornate turquoise and russet red doors lining the sun-dried adobe alleyways, as a couple of children torment a pair of tied-up cows, pelting them with pebbles.

We wandered further. It became clear that this was a deeply Muslim area, where small, well-used mosques provide a visceral reminder of the importance of religion in daily lives here.

We turned another corner, and discovered a young man sitting nervously in his wedding suit with his friends, waiting to be called into his future wife’s home.

Down a nearly alley a cook brewed a huge wedding stew in a metre-diameter wok. As is the custom, he insisted we eat so we perched on a bench hungrily shovelling some delicious rice into our mouths with our hands.

I suddenly noticed the cook staring at my watch. He rubbed his fingers together in the globally recognised commercial gesture. “How much?”

Decision time – this was a prized Casio F91-W, a retro throwback to my schooldays that I had picked up for a few rupees in Calcutta… could I part with it? It was an easy decision – the lessons on possessions from the Ashram kicked in – I handed it over. The rice had been payment enough.

But our man looked puzzled. He pointed to the watch, shrugging his shoulders and producing his mobile phone. He pointed to the time on his phone, 2 hours earlier than that on the watch.

I suddenly clicked. I recalled hearing that, in a gentle gesture of independent spirit, the local Uighur population run their clocks a couple of hours behind the official “Beijing time” (which is the only official zone for the whole of the country despite it‘s immense size). You can read about it here. This in fact makes enormous sense – it gets a bit strange when it’s still dark at 7am on a summer morning – and the evenings go on till midnight.

The watch transfer paid off too. Despite Martin’s Chinese (learnt from teaching English in Hunan), language was proving a serious impediment to communicating with the locals. Phone-calls were made; an English-speaking Uighur appeared from nowhere; and we were whisked into a house for a fascinating four-hour insight into what’s really going on here…

As the light faded, we headed back to the hostel. Our day of flânerie was drawing to a close… or was it?

A final flâneurial flurry

As we ambled back at midnight, past locals defiantly enjoying their 10pm walks, we passed a motorbike-taxi. (For the uninitiated, this is a 6-person trailer pulled by a 125cc bike. Uncomfortable, Unsafe, and Unadvisable.)

High on life by this stage, we both waved cheerily at the middle-aged buxom lady in the back, calling out the familiar Uighur greeting “Yahximusiz!”

Within seconds we had been virtually kidnapped, bundled into the back of the open taxi by the ample arms, if not charms, of Buxom. It seemed only fitting to go with the flow.

It was a bizarre hour. As the driver tired, Martin was asked to drive (which he did). Numbers were exchanged. Frantic phone calls were made. We still had no idea where we were headed.

And then, suddenly, it all became clear. We were being taken to meet Buxom’s daughter. When she appeared out of the murky evening light – and turned out to be an astonishing Central Asian beauty (pictured) – it felt like we were being rewarded. (Flâneurially of course).

It had been another remarkable and memorable day. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Uighur Kashgar that provided us with such pleasure may not be around for much longer.

Tomorrow we will set off along the Southern Silk road.

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Chinese Bureaucratics, Kashgar economics and Xinjiang politics

A surprising encounter with the authorities – an insight into the micro-economics of Western China – and a reminder of the politics that dance in the shadows here…

Chinese Bureaucratics

“Ah, Mr Durf, you are still here, good!” said the girl on the desk of the hostel. “You must go PSB! They have called! There is problem with your visa!”

I stopped in my tracks. (You would too if you encountered four exclamation marks in one sentence.) The Chinese PSB (Public Security Bureau) is an organisation that guidebooks advise you to “minimise contact with”. Being beckoned into their hallowed portals is not a terribly good sign.

When I got to the building, I tried my best to stroll nonchalantly up to the counter. I was reminded of a passage in the book I had finished that morning (William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach), which explained the different types of catastrophe under the science of catastrophe theory. A ‘fold’ catastrophe is conditioned by a single factor and cannot be reversed (like the popping of a balloon); in a ‘cusp’ catastrophe, on the other hand, there is always a chance of recovery (like in an epilectic fit, or even boiling a kettle of water). I prayed that this was merely a cusp catastrophe.

“Errr…. Mr Durf… why you have Group Visa with only one person on it?” This was indeed an excellent question, and one that I had asked myself when it had been issued in Kathmandu. It had made little sense at the time, and made even less so now. I struggled manfully to explain that it hadn’t actually been my choice, and that I had little control over the actions of the Chinese Visa section in Nepal, who wouldn’t let you cross Tibet with an Individual Visa.

“Errr… Mr Durf… then we have problem. I also have no control over Visa section in Kathmandu. They report to Foreign Ministry. I report to Public Security ministry,. They make mistake. I must rectify mistake. Sorry. This will take many days. Even then you may not get visa.” My heart sank.

Despite his being the bearer of bad tidings, I rather liked the cut of this guy’s jib though. It was clear that he was one of the Top Dogs in the building, and yet his blue policeman’s shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest in a casually LAPD-kind-of-way. His harsh words were set off against a gentle faintly smiling face. So I pleaded and cajoled my way through the next quarter of an hour – using “yes’ and “and”, avoiding “no” and “but” in an effort to find a constructive solution to his difficult problem. I really fancied I was making progress… but he seemed caught in a loop.

“Errr… Mr Durf… you must understand. I am sorry. It is my duty to report this. Foreign ministry has duty. I have duty. It is problem.” Now I really was ready to give up. If China didn’t want my money, they could stuff it. I’d go elsewhere.

Then suddenly he softened. “Errr… Mr Durf… you wait 20 minutes?” And Bingo. Twenty minutes later, he came back grinning. “Errr… Mr Durf…. Is OK. You can have one month.” I wanted to hug him. I couldn’t help but break out into a grin myself.

In discussions with a few people since, the general consensus has been that this incident is a good pointer to the change that is going on in China. Not only are there a few reasonable guys making it up the greasy pole, but once they get there, they are acting more reasonably, perhaps being given a little more freedom to act. There are still barriers, but they are getting easier to surmount.

Kashgar Economics

Those of you who have had the stamina to follow this blog for a while may remember the Bangalore Economics story associated with the purchase of a ticket for the cricket there.

Kashgar’s economic indicator is slightly different, but equally fascinating. As I got off the 24-hour overnight train from Urumqi to Kashgar, I couldn’t understand why so many people seemed to want to buy my (franked, and therefore redundant) ticket. I enquired of the friendly Hotel bus driver.

It transpired that this was actually an expenses scam. The flight from Urumqi to Kashgar costs 300 Chinese Renimbi (about 30 GBP), 50 renimbi less than the cost of the train ticket. So if someone buys my used ticket for 5 renimbi, they can then sell that ticket to a businessmen who has actually taken the flight for 20 Renimbi; the businessmen can then claim with that used ticket for the extra 50 Renimbi, pocketing 30 Renimbi.

Elegant, I think, is the word.

Xinjiang Politics

A couple of brief examples, without comment, of the way that politics infuses culture and religion here.

On the first panel in the (generally excellent) Xinjiang Museum:

“We have selected a batch of fine works to show the contributions of the peoples of all nationalities in Xinjiang have made for safeguarding the reunification of the motherland’s cultural treasure-house, and to make the masses of audiences receive the education in patriotism.”

At the entrance to the grand mosque here (from where salat prayers can be heard every morning at 6am, reinforcing the Central Asian feel here):

“[This mosque] shows fully that Chinese government always pays special attentions to the another and the historical cultures of the ethnic groups and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Party’s religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of equality, unity, and helps to each other, and freedom of beliefs is protected.”

And finally…

Kashgar is full of interesting travellers. The most interesting/courageous are a couple of likely lads from the US, who have just spent 2 months cycling across Tibet. Given the various obstacles in their way, much of the actual cycling was done at night to take advantage of dozing check post guards. Great stories. They only got arrested once.

Kashgar is also full of surprises – I was a little taken aback to see “Haggis” on the menu in one restaurant. Clearly I had to order it. It is somewhat more rustic than the famous Crombies’ offering; I think I can vouch for the fact that they use a few more parts of the sheep too. Oh, and the coup de grace is that it is served on a bed of sheeps’ lungs. I think I’ll stick to Crombies.

I will spend a few more days here exploring the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway before heading along the Southern side of the Taklamakan Desert and into central China.

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The Gobi, the Uighyurs, and Urumqi

Western China definitely marches to its own beat.

In the past few days travelling along the ancient Silk Route, it has been impossible to ignore the very Central Asian nature of this region; a ride in the fringes of the Gobi desert, a drinking contest 80m below sea-level, and the melting pot of Urumqi have all kept me on my toes.

Into the Gobi desert

Despite having already “done” the camel thing in Rajasthan, when the chance to spend a night out in the Gobi desert, travelling on double-humped Bactrian camels arose, I jumped at it.

I set off with four others, escorted by the face-scarred Mr Lee, a man who none of us doubted would make Chuck Norris look like a pansy in a fist-fight.

As we all struggled to find the optimal camel-riding position (there isn’t one), Mr Lee started to reveal his feminine side, screeching local songs in an odd little falsetto voice, lending a faintly authentic feel to the ride.

It was a great relief to discover three of my camel-borne companions were Mandarin speakers (2 Americans ex-pats, 1 Russian student) and therefore able to converse with our glorious leader in his mother-tongue. As we watched the sun go down, Mr Lee brewed up some dinner over a camp-fire, explaining that by day he was “daddy’ at home, and by night “mummy” to crazy foreigners. (Given that dinner consisted of instant noodles and dry bread-rolls, we judged that “mummy” was the smart one, and was probably bringing home enough dough for the entire village).

Night came quickly, and with it an incredible celestial array filled the sky. It felt like a great opportunity to sleep out under the stars. I asked Mr Lee if it was safe. The translated answer was wonderfully enigmatic. “No problem as long as you’re not scared of the snakes…”

I lay awake tightly rolled up in my sleeping bag, looking up for hours. The incredible beauty of watching a moving night sky outweighed the consequences of the fitful night’s sleep that followed.

Rule #643: Don’t get into a drinking contest with Uighyurs

My next stop was the town of Turpan. Reputedly the hottest place in China, Turpan is situated in a dust-bowl 80 metres below sea-level with temperatures reaching 49 degrees at times.

As it was too hot to do anything meaningful on the evening I arrived, I decided to stop under the vine trellises in the main street (the local Uighyur people have cultivated pretty good wine for centuries) and have a beer. Within minutes I had been beckoned to another table by 4 young Uighyurs, Central Asian to their wavy brown roots, and keen to surmount the language barrier with alcohol.

The 200ml glasses were small, but as I was forced to down a toast with each of the four, twice, I was soon starting to feel the heat in more ways than one. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that this was as good a way as any to get to know a local culture, and settled in for the long haul as we all became the best of friends in no time.

I thought I had detected early on that there was a whiff of tension in the air with the neighbouring table of similarly inebriated young locals, who looked suspiciously like my boys, possibly cousins. The occasional Uighyur word that was exchanged left me none the wiser, and despite the growing tension, I continued to partake in the toasts. One side of my brain was gently reminding me that discretion was the better part of valour, and suggesting a discreet exit; the other (befuddled) side was unfortunately confusing matters… “… but Andy… what if… sometimes valour is actually the better part of discretion?”

Luckily, I wasn’t given the opportunity to pursue this line of thinking. Both tables had clearly been on the sauce for a while and started (literally) dropping like flies without any valorous deeds required, such that none of us had any choice but to retire with discretion in tact.

I reflected the following morning that I should probably steer clear of getting involved in familial disputes between hard-living Uighyurs. Interesting evening though.

The melting pot of Urumqi

The city of Urumqi is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world at a distance of about 1,400 miles (2500 km) from the nearest coastline.

Despite this, it (slightly bizarrely) benefits from the status of a “port”, giving it a leg up in the economic race that is China.

It is a strange city, truly a melting pot. Chinese characters contend not only with Uighyur script, but also with Russian script for space in shop signs, a sign of a growing trade access with Russia and the Central Asian republics.

Despite the large-scale Han Chinese migration here in recent years (which has resulted in a city centre with high-rise office-blocks and imitation Western shops lining the streets), the feel of Central Asia in the south of the city is still predominant, with headscarves, beards and the occasional hijab replacing the bland western clothing of the city centre.

From here, I go to Kashgar, as long as my visa extension request (submitted today) is granted. It will be the fulfilment of a 15-year wait – Kashgar is a city that a friend Andy Simpson and I tried to reach in 1994, along the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan. Landslides blocked the road.

As there is deep concern that the old city will not be there for much longer, it seems that now is a good time to visit. Click here for the story

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Challenging Chinese menu choices – and terrific Tibetan beauty

I left Tibet three days ago, and have been in Dunhaung, in Gansu province, for 24 hours. This evening I decided it was time to sample the local cuisine.

Taking my guidebook’s advice, I headed for the Shahzhou covered night market, “the most atmospheric place to eat Dunhuang, where you can sit on deckchairs and drink babao tea”.

I grabbed a deckchair, and opened the menu. The first item stared back at me, uncompromisingly. “STIR UP A SHEEP’S HEAD”. Undeterred, I decided to read on.

The following page was no easier to decipher. “CRAM FOOD INTO ONE’S MOUTH PIT MEAT” was followed by “EXPLODES FRIED (COLD FOOD IN SAUCE) THE ASSES SKIN”, not to be confused with “EXPLODES FRIED THE SHEEP’S INTERNAL ORGANS”.

I skimmed past the “TINTIN OF SPECULATION”, and decided I didn’t fancy “THE PORK PESTERS A BOILED DUMPLING”. Delightful as the next three items sounded – “EGGPLANT BURNS FACE”, “HAIR BLOOD IS FLOURISHING” and “GARLIC FIRED THE BLOOD CLOT” – I didn’t feel any of them would quite hit the spot.

Ignoring the “ELEMENT STIRS THE NAKED CATS VEGETABLE”, I turned back to an earlier page, and selected the least threatening item on the menu, the “YANGBUO INQUISITOR”. Despite the scaly looking skin on the meat, it was surprisingly tasty. Let’s hope it doesn’t make too may inquiries of my digestive system.

These wonderfully off-the-mark translations are representative of a major challenge inherent in traveling in Western China. In a country with an internal market of 1.6 billion and a strong belief in their nation’s destiny, there is little desire or will to kow-tow to foreign tourists and their languages, even English. In India and Nepal, everyone at least understands English. In Tibet we had been cosseted by our English-speaking guides. In mainstream China, it is undoubtedly going to be different. It looks like a dictionary is going to be rather handy.

Terrific Tibetan beauty

My final two days in Tibet earlier this week were spent in Lhasa, the capital. They proved to be insightful, intriguing, and inspiring.

On reaching Lhasa, the excellent male Tibetan guide that had accompanied us from the Nepali border was replaced by a stunning young 20-year-old female Tibetan guide. It would be fair to say that none of the men in our party were immune to the our new guide’s considerable charms. She combined great beauty with an ability to slip easily between history and religious belief, between stories of kings and stories of Bodhisattvas (incarnations of the Buddha).

For Tibetans, there is little distinction between, for instance, the story of the king Songtsten Gampo who unified Tibet in the 7th century, and that of the flying Guru Rinpoche who spread Buddhism across the Himalayan region airborne on a lotus flower. Myth merges with reality in a delightful way.

We were privileged to have her as a guide – there are not many Tibetan guides left, and it is wonderful to see Lhasa with someone who lives this belief system. In one monastery, I overheard another guide (more reflective of the 80% Han Chinese population in Lhasa) quite deliberately point out that “Religious people believe…” and “Traditional Tibetan religion says that…”

We visited the amazing Potala Palace, home of Dalai Lamas through the ages, and the compact Jorkhang temple, a magnet for Tibetan pilgrims, before moving on to two monastic establishments which once rivalled anything in the world for religious devotion. Over 50 years ago, Drepung monastery held 10,000 practising monks while Sera had 7,000. Today they cannot hold more than 500 combined. The sight of huge 15-foot wide vats designed for cooking meals for thousands brings home the changes that have occurred here, as did the strong government presence. Nevertheless, the monasteries – and the Potala and Jorkhang – are fascinating places to visit.

As my 7 days in Tibet came to an end, I reflected on the fascinating experience of entering China through Tibet. The majesty of the landscape, snatched and insightful conversations with the wonderful people, and the sheer force of the ever-present beliefs all made it a hugely enlightening experience. I highly recommend it.

North by Northwest – across the Tibetan plateau by train

While 10 of our party returned south (from Lhasa to Kathmandu by plane), two of us boarded the train North into China from the imposingly monolithic new train station, which connects Tibet to the outside world like never before.

This incredible railway (which passes through a permafrost dotted with yaks and the occasional human) crosses 5000m passes as it wends across the barren plateau. It brings home the scale of investment that China has put into this region. The railway has forever changed the dynamics of Tibet, making the movement of people (in and out of the region) relatively simple. India may have benefited from the remarkable rail infrastructure left by colonial occupation, but with new railways like this, China is catching up – fast.

At 2am, I finally arrived in 3000m-high Golmud, one of the most isolated cities in China. I scurried through the freezing drizzle to my hotel. As sleepy Chinese girl rose from her camp-a-bed to check me in, the language issue hit me square between the eyes as I struggled to explain what I needed. Hmmmm… that dictionary….

I awoke the next morning; looking out of my window at a statue of a flying horse, adorned with the moniker “TOP TOURIST CITY IN CHINA”, against uniform grey skies. (Some places seem destined to be grey, at all times. Cowdenbeath, for instance. Actually I’ve never been to Cowdenbeath, but it strikes me that it might be a good twin for Golmud. Which is grey, grey, grey).

I gave Golmud a day, before deciding to move north by bus to meet the ancient Silk Route at Dunhuang. This decision meant another visit to the local Public Security Bureau, where I was required to get an “Alien Travel Permit” for 50 Yuan (about five pounds). Perversely, if I hadn’t had to purchase this, I would have never have known that the endlessly flat plateau was in fact pretty close to Lop Nur, which my guidebook tells me “happens to be China’s nuclear testing site.”

The bus journey was dominated by a loud static-ridden DVD of Chinese comedian-singers blaring from a small screen above the driver’s head. I still can’t decide if made the journey more or less bearable. It was hard to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Dunhuang (where I am currently) is the stepping off point for the incredible Mogao Caves full of carvings of Buddhas (the largest 35 metres high) and intricate wall paintings, some dating to the 5th century. I happily spent the entire day there today.

Tomorrow night I am venturing into the desert with Mr Lee and a Bactrian camel. Considering Mr Lee’s (very) limited English, I am looking forward to more interesting food choices.

After that I have decided to head west, along the Silk Route to Kashgar.
That’s all for now.

[Still no pictures I am afraid - as reported in The Telegraph
there's still a ban on in China, so photos are difficult].

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