Salaam from the Karakorams, I find myself writing this very joyfully from Pakistan after successfully crossing over from China, at 4785m the Khunjerab Pass is the highest border crossing in the world and I was more than a bit nervy going over it. I applied in a couple of places for a Pakistan visa but was told ‘No, you have to apply in the embassy in your home country’… but then I heard about this bizarre loophole at the Chinese crossing where foreigners could get a visa on arrival. The problem is I was doing it ‘illegally’ (for reasons I won’t explain here), I didn’t have a plan B if anything went wrong and the nearest town back on the Chinese side is a 2 day drive away. Therefore despite the extortionate visa fee (thanks to W and the War on Terror) I wasn’t exactly upset when they let me through.
And coming down the Karakoram Highway has been one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, I guess I’ll write more about it in the next email but leaving ‘China’ this way was as spectacular as my entry through Tibet several months ago.
I’ve actually found this email really quite difficult to write because whilst I really do love China, there are some things it (or its government at least) does which are unforgivable.
Ask any Chinese person to point to Western China on a map and they’ll point to provinces like Sichuan or Gansu, in the Chinese imagination the country ‘ends’ at the last fort of the Great Wall at Jiayaguan where prisoners were kicked out of the Western gate and sent into exile. In modern China though, further West are the ‘self autonomous regions’ of Tibet and East Turkestan and they’re some of the worst places in the world to see imperialism in action.
I adore Chinese history and the fundamentally different Confucianist base on which the culture and society is based vs. the West and even things like the music and especially the food I’m already missing.
The pace of development and improvements in the populations quality of life are fascinating and even enervating to see but in what amounts to virtually the Western half of the country things are very different. As I’ve spent quite a bit of time there I found it increasingly difficult to consider the country as one and somewhat hypocritically left the country thinking of it as ‘2 Chinas’ with the positives of the Eastern parts in the middle and the utterly despicable behavior of the Chinese in the West bookending my time in the country.
When I left Nepal several months ago it was via the Friendship Highway to Tibet and due to China's 'Great Firewall' I didn't write about it then but it's obviously one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world and I feel very lucky to have been there at all. As you'll doubtless be aware the Free Tibet movement stepped up a gear during 2008 as it was the year of the Beijing Olympics but the move has arguably backfired as the Chinese greatly increased the number of 'security forces' in the area (1 soldier for every 10 Tibetans) and led to a widespread crackdown in all kinds of areas like schools and monasteries. One of the decisions also made was to stop foreign tourists from visiting the region independently and unfortunately you can now only visit on an organized tour, unless you look Chinese. Much to my disappointment I don’t look like Andy Lau and the tour was disappointing, overpriced and fairly poor quality in a crazy group size of 25; you could ask virtually no questions as the (Tibetan) guide would just quickly mutter "I can't talk about that" and turn away. However, you were given quite a lot of free time to wander around and whilst locals who could speak English would only have brief conversations with you (they can get in a LOT of trouble if caught) simply being there was just a wonderful experience, even at -10 in December.
Tibet plays a very important role in Western imaginations of the 'mystic' East with Lhasa having been the goal of many explorers and adventurers til well into the 20th century. And it is of course one of if not the most celebrated political causes in the world with the likes of Richard Gere and The Beastie Boys being amongst the celebrity activists. And that's because what's happened since the Chinese invasion is really unforgivable on virtually any level; in truth it's hard to know how much of the information given out by Free Tibetan groups is truthful or just propaganda but according to them: 1.2m Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese and 90% of their cultural heritage in the form of monasteries, scriptures etc. has been destroyed or at best turned into tourist attractions. Huge chunks of Tibet have been reassigned to other Chinese provinces and immigration from Han Chinese has been so high that Tibetans are now a minority in the region. Environmentally they've denuded the regions forest cover and animal numbers and in the last few years have even started dumping nuclear waste on the plateau. The history and contemporary politics of the issue are quite complicated but the Chinese claim on the area, with any intellectual assessment is virtually non-existent.
Whilst it's an otherwise fairly disappointing film there's a wonderful scene in the Brad Pitt film "Seven Years in Tibet" when the Chinese army are approaching and playing messages over loudspeakers and on the radio along the lines of "Tibet is being overrun by foreigners and the Dalai Lama is under the thumb of foreign imperial powers" to which the defence minister bemusedly responds "…But we're a nation famous for not letting foreigners in for centuries. In fact the only ones here are you two (Heinrich Harrer and his climbing companion)"
Basically, China lies about Tibet. A lot.
For many years the Chinese government have offered no explanation for the occupation beyond "We've always seen Tibet as part of our country and the takeover in '49 was merely the reunification of the country'.
This is Stalinesque in its dishonesty; in Lhasa there is a staelae recording an agreement between the '2 countries' to respect the wishes of the other, whilst this is from the 10th century the Chinese also use the laughable claim of control due to the fact that during the Mongol empire both were governed as one area. This is like India trying to claim Myanmar under the pretext that both were run by the British once upon a time and ignores the fact that the mighty Red Army took it very much by force against the tiny, untrained Tibetan militia.
Whilst there's obviously a huge amount written in the Western press about the destruction of the region etc. in truth in the first few days there were very few signs of it with towns hosting few security personnel and only the ubiquitous Chinese flag on every public building gave the hint that the Chinese are trying to show their authority.
Tibetans were wonderful people to be around, they don't see many foreigners but even in Lhasa would always greet you with a smile and a tashi delek (hello), I would also describe Tibetans as perhaps the most interesting people I've ever seen to look at with wonderful brightly coloured clothes and seemingly unending supplies of character in their faces at all ages. From the insanely cute children to the effeminate looking long haired men and the ever smiling old women who had more lines than you'd think possible it was something of a photographers dream wandering round and seeing them with their prayer wheels and beads. Culturally it is as you might expect an incredible place to be; Tibetan Buddhism through the use of Lamas and Shamans is much more colorful and vibrant than the more conservative forms of the religion practiced in places like Myanmar or Sri Lanka and the incense filled monasteries and temples are wonderful to wander around. Amongst the highlights were the statues in the Tashi Lumpo monastery and getting to see the monks doing their famously energetic debating (stamping their feet and clamping their hands to make a point) at the Sera Monastery. Amongst such a friendly, peaceful people the first few days just felt nothing but very relaxed and all the things I'd heard about the region didn't ring true.
But then we got to Lhasa and things really changed- the first thing I saw when we got off the bus was a female SWAT officer brandishing a rifle not much smaller than her in the middle of an ordinary shopping street. In the evening there was a festival going on and it would have been a wonderful sight with thousands of colourful pilgrims from the countryside making a kora (circuit) of the big Jokhang Temple. However, they had to share the route with literally hundreds of armed soldiers doing nothing but glaring at the people and emitting that sinister air of menace which comes with knowing they can say or do anything to the locals and there'll be virtually no comeback on them. Tibetans are about as unconfrontational and peaceful a people as can be imagined, quite how the Chinese feel the need for all the guns and snipers on the roof etc. is just beyond me as even if a few Tibetans do protest about anything you can be fairly certain it won't need such a heavy handed response. Still, I made sure to wink and smile at the troops as much as possible and wave at the video camera touting officers looking out for 'troublemakers'.
For all the Chinese 'reunification language' or talk of 'investing in the region' on the ground the Chinese have done so many things which serve seemingly no purpose but to demoralise the Tibetans. From turning the 'picnic island' in the centre of Lhasa's river into a horrible, soulless shopping centre to tearing down the village below the Potala Palace and building a Tianamen style square with an horrific 'Tibetan Liberation Monument' standing phallically out under 24hr armed guard.
In Tibetan Buddhisms hierarchy the 2nd most important Lama (senior monk) is the Panchen Lama and one of the most serious and perhaps the nastiest thing the Chinese have done has been to make him and his family disappear. He was only 6yrs old in 1994 when he was abducted by the Red Army and is believed to have been kept under house arrest ever since though no-one has actually seen him. The Chinese claim that only they can pick new Lamas and it's a deliberate challenge to their authority on the part of the Dalai Lama to choose another Lama. They inserted their own picked Panchen Lama whilst the actual one remains the record holder of the world's youngest political prisoner. For the above reason the Dalai Lama has indicated the next DL will probably have to be picked from the exiled community, if another one is picked at all.
Whilst so much is written about Tibet's incredible culture and it's destruction, Tibet itself is one of the most memorable landscapes on earth. 'The roof of the world', almost all of it is at well over 3500m up to Mt Everest and is the watershed for several of the world's longest rivers (Yangtze, Brahmaputra etc.). It receives very little rain and it's a harsh environment hosting 50% of the worlds silica with the population eking out a subsistence lifestyle with meat the major part of the diet as no crops or vegetation aside from barley will grow. As we spent 3 days on the bus we got a good look at it but the train journey leaving it would surely rate as one of the most memorable in the world.
It was deeply controversial at an estimated $10 billion cost but it's an incredible piece of engineering. Long parts of the line have been built on permafrost and they actually invented a cooling system to keep the ground frozen so that melting snow doesn’t interrupt with the sleepers. You go past beautiful frozen lakes and go as high as 5400m on a 2 day journey to get off the gigantic plateau and it's one of the things which to at least some extent indicates the Chinese influence in the area isn't all bad.
Whilst the present Dalai Lama is one of the most popular men in the world his predecessors ruled under a terribly corrupt and stagnant governing system; new Lamas were decided under a belief in young boys being reincarnated from the previous lama and were picked via an archaic and open to abuse system to maintain the monasteries power, in fact for much of its history in Tibet the theocratic governing system paid no attention to improving the everyday lives of the people.
That’s starting to change as there are definitely positives of the Chinese coming in, in the last few years they've invested billions in building fantastic roads and the railway and organized schooling has been established beyond the monastery system which only educated young (male) monks, which I think most people would agree is an improvement on what went on before.
But, and this has perhaps become the key part of the whole Tibet issue is that the Chinese have done this with only their own interests at heart. Tibet has huge deposits of various minerals, oil and natural gas and the government clearly has a long plan in regards to more trade with Nepal.
Around Lhasa they've taken almost all the best land and turned it into little more than industrial suburbs, the bus system doesn't run to towns unless there's a Chinese community and unless you're Chinese you've got no chance getting a job below the lowest levels in any public service.
In some ways China is not the best place to travel in, whilst the landscapes are outstanding and transport is normally pretty good the distances between places can be exhausting and the tonal language is frustrating to say the least. However, probably the biggest criticism visitors have of it is that it’s ‘The Great Monoculture’. Aside from a few Western provinces the people look, speak, dress and eat the same and thanks to Mao’s unification programmes despite the vast distances there’s very little human differentiation between areas. Therefore another thing which the Tibetans are struggling to deal with is being turned into a human zoo or tourist attraction from which they see few of the benefits. Tibet has become an object of fascination for Chinese tourists with the 'mysterious' Tibetan culture being popularly promoted by the tourist board and Chinas best selling book of the last year, the pseudo spiritual mystery The Tibetan Code. Since the railway was finished in 2007 the domestic tourist industry has grown annually at 45% but as they stay at Chinese owned hotels and pay incredible sums to enter the tourists attractions (e.g. $45 for the Potala Palace) which the government keeps, their presence is understandably deeply resented by the Tibetans. Certainly the bizarre sculpture in front of the Panchen Lamas Tashi Lumpo monastery of a Chinese tourist taking a photo of Tibetan people looked like nothing more than stating 'this is how we see you’.
China's economic clout is now so strong that the issue has now been almost forgotten by much of the international community in fear of losing trade etc. and the Dalai Lama now has very modest goals. Whilst most Tibetans would dearly love the Chinese to leave entirely he's reduced their aim to nothing more than religious freedom with no hope of a separate state in the medium term at the very least.
One of the things I've never understood about Tibet and being there has brought me no closer to understanding is why the Chinese are still persisting in the religious clampdown. During the initial invasion under Mao it was understandable as he was trying to build a united atheist country through the language, political system and everywhere in China experienced a clamp down on religious activity. However, surely that's now defunct and for a culture as peaceful as Tibet surely they should just let it be. The Dalai Lama has now resigned all political roles and even asked for a Chinese passport but he's still listed as a separatist leader and vilified in the Chinese government run press. With the recent news that the Chinese are going to stop schools teaching in Tibetan it's a depressing situation in a magnificent part of the world but I can’t see how things are going to improve any time soon.
I do feel very lucky to have been to Tibet but for a neat summary: an incredible landscape, fascinating culture, a home to wonderful people and the Chinese are slowly strangling it to death.
Fast forward a few months and a similar situation is occurring in what the locals call East Turkestan but the Chinese don’t; despite being the 2nd most powerful country in the world the Chinese really can be unbelievably petty. My Bavarian friend will angrily recount how his China Lonely Planet was confiscated by border guards when crossing from Kazakhstan because Taiwan was covered a different colour and other amusing examples I’ve seen are Tibetan mastiffs and even ‘Tintin in Tibet’ being pointlessly renamed to ‘Chinas’ Tibetan mastiffs and ‘Tintin in Chinas’ Tibet’.
In East Turkestan the cynical name the Chinese have given the province is Xinjiang, which means ‘New Frontier Province’ and that alone is symbolic of the cause of much of the problems in the area.
This area is home to the Uighur people and being Muslim and (unless to the very practiced eye) largely indistinguishable from other Central Asian people it has none of the ‘sex appeal’ of the Tibetan cause to Westerners although if anything things are maybe worse here, certainly more volatile and likely to end in violence than Tibet. China has a slightly longer claim on this area (about 150years) but as with most of Central Asia for most of its history who governed it in practice is highly debatable, China didn’t really start taking a proper interest until the 1960’s and ‘70’s when they found resources and Mao launched ‘the Great Leap Westwards” and encouraged Han Chinese to move in to develop the area.
As can be seen in many examples such as the British in Southern Africa, more recently Russians in Georgia/Ukraine or even the ongoing Israeli policy of changing ‘facts on the ground’ in Palestine, one of the very worst aspects of empire building is moving people into already occupied areas. Ostensibly this is done to develop those areas but it creates divisive, potentially dangerous changes to the makeup of the population and the longterm prospects of peace in those regions. In the case of modern China the concept which screams out at you is Lebensraum as the Han Chinese have overgrown their Eastern heartlands and quite simply needed more room to settle and feed the population. The problem is they’ve taken away so much of the locals land and resources that it’s led to a major culture clash and even violence through an ongoing insurgency in the region.
It’s another magnificent area to travel in, vast and empty it’s home to the giant Talimaklan desert but is punctuated by gorgeous oasis areas such as the -150m Turpan basin where amongst the vineyards you can quite remarkably look up to snow capped 5500m peaks above you.
Ignoring it’s natural charms the Chinese are so interested in the area because it’s rich with oil and gas reserves and is of vital strategic importance in their increasingly successful ambitions to control Central Asia. The Han didn’t really want to move West with its inhospitable climate and different, remote environment so the government has thrown in all kinds of incentives to people to make the move. They’re offered higher salaries in government jobs, free education for their children and in some cases even lower tax rates compared to Eastern provinces. These have been so successful that the joke goes: the ‘Iron Rooster’ (the train that goes West) arrives full and leaves half empty’, to the tune of 250,000 migrants a year moving in.
In contrast the Uighur population have one of the worst quality of life in China, they’re not allowed to speak their own language at school and as in Tibet they’re virtually barred from holding any positions of authority. In East Turkestan they have few economic opportunities beyond farming and it’s a sad but frequent sight all over China where they’re forced to move to cities on the East coast and reduced to doing nothing more than selling either bread or meat on the street as they’re treated disdainfully by the Chinese. As a result, calls for independence have become more pronounced and frequently have started to use violence against the Chinese immigrants as they feel they’re now second class citizens in their own home area. Their way of life is even less compatible with the Chinese than Tibetans and in the bigger cities like Kashgar or especially Urumqi the difference between the two communities is, if not quite apartheid certainly unofficial segregation. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the situation is that you see virtually nobody who’s ethnically ‘in the middle’- they’re clearly either Chinese or the central Asian looking Uighurs as intermarriage is virtually unheard of and culturally the differences are stark. The Southern half of Urumqi is the Uighur part where there are virtually no Chinese wandering round, the people eat mutton, listen to Turkic language music and the women definitely cover up whilst in the Northern half of the city you have the usual neon lights and conspicuous consumption beloved by rich Chinese (flashy, overpriced bars, shops and restaurants) and the women display their standard dubious taste in clothes via skimpy shorts and heels. Due to China’s crazy policy of having just one time zone (it’s still light at nearly 11pm at this time of year) they even time their lives separately with the Chinese following the official Beijing time whilst the Uighurs use ‘local time’ set 2hrs earlier. Apart from maybe Guyana and the warring Black and Indian communities I can think of few places I’ve been where the two communities have so little in common and clearly resent the others presence so much.
One of the biggest criticisms most people have about China is their unforgivable foreign policy and their wasted seat on the UN security council. They’re quite happy to not get involved in any dispute and write off virtually any human rights abuses or clampdowns by abusive leaders abroad as ‘internal issues’ and this has twin benefits for them. On the one hand it allows them to trade with absolutely everyone and so they’ve virtually singlehandedly shored up the world’s worst governments (North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar etc.) totally ignoring any moral implications of doing so in exchange for very cheap resources. In fact you may argue China has been one of the biggest obstacles in achieving peace for much of the world and if everyone behaved like this then we probably would have had plenty more serious wars following WWII. Then on the other hand it allows them to treat their own citizens however they want using the justification that it’s an ‘internal issue’. This task was made much easier by the Sep 11th attacks as with total justification they could point to NATO chasing ‘stateless terrorists’ and say they’re merely doing the same. In East Turkestan the issue reached a crux in 2009 when after riots by the Uighurs over unemployment and their lack of opportunities the Chinese ruthlessly responded by throwing thousands in jail and executed hundreds more. As with Tibet I couldn’t really see how a solution can be found that will make everyone happy, the Chinese will simply not listen to any calls for change either from the Uighurs or the international community and the oppression both Tibetans and Uighurs face is upsetting to see.
Despite all the above I think it would be unfair to blame the Chinese people as a whole as they're told virtually nothing of what's really happening. Thanks to the millions spent on propaganda by the government, the impression I get is that most Chinese merely believe that the rest of the country is simply investing in the region (at their own expense) to improve everyone who lives there standard of living and they receive virtually no word on the human rights abuses etc.. In Turpan we saw a bizarre official mural of Uighurs laughing in the fields and displaying their traditional dancing before it incongruously ran into paintings of electricity pylons and aeroplanes taking off to perfectly highlight the Chinese attitude. Whenever China releases a statement on Tibet or E Turkestan they seem genuinely perplexed why the locals aren’t thanking them for bringing so much development to their areas but they seem simply unable to understand that for other cultures there is more to life than money. As with most people around the world political and religious freedom probably comes ahead of financial concerns for Tibetans and Uighurs but for lots of reasons that’s certainly not true of the Chinese. China is full of public propaganda about how unified and happy all the different races are in the country but seeing the total cultural domination by the Han and lack of respect given to other humans in these areas definitely led to me thinking how the idea and fears of the Yellow Peril and Dr Fu Manchu became popular in the West a hundred or so years ago. Quite a negative way to leave China as there’s so much I admire about it but in it’s current form at least an ever more powerful China is a scary prospect.
Ultimately the lack of freedom in both areas link into one of the strongest feelings I’ve had about traveling in Asia- there simply isn’t enough of it. To put it in some sort of context: Europe has ?m people spread across ? countries, on this trip in Asia I’ve visited 22 countries but collectively they’re home to ?bn people. Much of the blame for this lies firmly with the imperial powers, aside from China described above the British created ‘Frankenstein’ states in India, Myanmar and Pakistan by establishing the modern day countries based on what they found easiest to administer, rather than actually reflecting the cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup of the areas in question. In the New World this wasn’t really a problem as even in the biggest countries like Brazil or the States the national identity is very much formed round the idea that (virtually) everyone is an immigrant. But in Asia things are far different as you have many of the worlds oldest civilizations, based on different religions, ethnicities and language being suppressed or ignored by whoever is most powerful at the time. As a result, with the exceptions of Vietnam and Japan in all of the bigger countries I’ve visited there are separatist conflicts of differing intensities. In almost all countries a power split has formed along ethnic (Myanmar, India, Pakistan etc.) or religious (Thailand, The Philippines, Sri Lanka etc.) lines with the biggest/most powerful group inevitably suppressing weaker groups and it’s been one of the most negative things to see traveling in the continent.
International relations are actually very good in Asia; aside from the ongoing Kashmir issue and minor Thai-Khmer clashes there have been very few conflicts since they gained their independence in the post WWII period. However, because you have so many independence movements across the continent unforgivable sums are wasted by countries with no external enemies like Myanmar and Sri Lanka on relatively gigantic armies whose role is to do nothing other than suppress groups wanting greater autonomy or independence. Far and away the worst example of this is Indonesia where the Dutch were even more guilty than the British in India by not forming a workable plan for the post-independence period. The Indonesian state is now fairly horrific to see as whilst many islands want nothing to do with the country the majority Javans simply send in developers to strip their resources and then the army to hit the locals if they show any resistance.
The only successful independence story of recent years was in East Timor and despite being dirt poor and riddled with developmental problems it would have to rate as one of the most uplifting places to visit in Asia. The people were so pleased of their freedom from Indonesia and the national pride they felt shone through as they happily talked about it and you couldn’t help but hope that Tibetans, Uighurs and the various other minority groups are given the same opportunities. If there’s one wish I’d have for the continent it would be that maybe in the next 30-50 years the map will start to look much more complicated than they currently are and maybe one day more like Europe.
But for now I’m still in Asia, so from Karimabad,