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…
“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.
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.
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.”
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.