Dispatches are stored at PerpetualTravel.com
At 6:00am on July 6, 1996, we rolled into Daheyan's 'Turfan Station', bringing another 36-hour train-ride to an end. A bumpy one-hour bus ride through a dry glacial riverbed ensued. It was sizzling HOT in the morning, so we knew we would be spending most of the daylight hours in the shade and indoors. At 154m (500 ft) below sea level, in the blazing 47°C (116°F) heat of the Turfan Desert Basin in Xinjiang Province, Turfan (tur-fahn) is the second lowest depression in the world and one of the hottest places on earth. Lots of sand, but not a beach in sight. "Welcome to Hell!" said the sign in Chinese.
We trudged in the heat to the very nice Oasis Hotel. We were relieved to find it on the only boulevard in town covered by grape trellises, an entire kilometer (1100 yds) of them. In fact, both the road and the wide sidewalks were canopied by trellises full of grapes hanging down in full view. They would be ripe and ready for picking at next month's Grape Festival. Tourists are fined RMB 30 ($3.60) per grape if caught harvesting.
We were looking forward to escaping to an air-conditioned or fan-cooled dorm and a nice cool shower, but the electricity was out. The guy at the counter told us there were no dorms, but he miraculously found the last two beds after Marc asked how many dorms there were, and if anyone had checked out.
We checked in and spent a few hours getting acquainted with our Korean roommates. Qiwan's everyday vocabulary was better than ours. He was very aware of current issues and could read and understand most of Time magazine: "The average Korean knows 30,000 English words."
Kim, a short, stocky, mature man with slow but good English, understood us well. However he spoke quickly in Korean, letting Qiwan do a better translation. He had lived through a great deal of changes, having been born during the Korean War. As a professional rock climber when younger, he had scaled Denali in Alaska, and Annapurna in Nepal. He told us about climbing El Capitan and Half Moon, so we made his day by showing him our postcards. We had visited Yosemite at the beginning of this trip.
Kim was in the garment industry, had travelled all over the US on ten business trips, and was also a metallurgy student. When the conversation moved to one of our favorite topics, our knowledge of and appreciation for Korean food impressed them. It didn't take long before they were homesick and everyone was ready to quell their hunger pains, so we moved the discussion to the restaurant across the street.
Somehow the conversation got around to Japan (Qiwan had studied the language for three years). He explained that Koreans don't like to talk badly about them, since it makes themselves sound chauvinistic, but it didn't take much for him to unleash on them, telling us about past war atrocities. He was still worried they would return, but wasn't in the least worried about China. Things started to make sense when he explained that he grew up in a small village during hard times. After reading Nostradamus, he started stockpiling dry noodles for the end of the world. This, coupled with school stress, led his doctor to put him on sedatives.
The conversation moved on to China. They thought it would split into four countries after Deng's death, Jiang Zemin wouldn't be charismatic enough to control it, and the generals would fight over it. We had a hard time believing any of this, but we will save that revealing story for the end!
After lunch, we stopped in at the CITS office and listened to the travel agent's lies. We quickly established that being bounced to death on a 200km (125 mile) tour of the local ruins in this heat wasn't in our best interest.
The Uighur Dance Show at the Turfan Hotel sounded intriguing, and turned out to be even better than we'd expected. That night we watched beautiful, petite women with red cheeks and bird-like voices, wearing bright, elaborately decorated dresses, whip their long braided hair in circles while swirling around the dance floor in dreamlike movements.
The men's performance complemented their movements, some parts reminding us of the Russian boot dance, with its jumps and kicks on toe tips. The pleasant music sounded Middle Eastern with hints of Greek, Russian, and Indian influences. The cameras in the audience never stopped flashing, and we returned the next evening to see the show again.
Starting out the next day, we had good intentions of walking to the center of town and shopping in the market. We didn't get very far, already feeling the effects of the scorching sun only five meters out the hotel gate as we came face-to-face with a scene that could only have been a fata morgana (mirage). Outside the grocery store next door, our path was blocked by a group of men sitting at a table in the middle of the sidewalk under the grape trellises. We asked them where they had bought the bread and would have been on our way, but they insisted that we join them.
Daouro and Nathaniel, highway contractors from Brazil, their Chinese translator, and the store owner's son, were having a traditional Brazilian Sunday barbecue. They were grilling churrasco (skewered beef) on a homemade grill made from bricks and borrowed kabob skewers. The table was covered with plates full of cubes of grilled beef, fresh tomatoes, onions, Muslim bread, delicious Hami melons, and bottles of excellent Chinese beer -- the first thing the Germans did in 1897, when they established a colony in Qingdao (Tsingtao), was build a Bavarian village with a brewery.
The Brazilians also grilled a large piece of beef seasoned with salt, They sliced pieces from the outside, before re-coating with brine and putting it back on the fire. They explained that this was an all-day event back home, but this day it only went on for six hours. By the time it was over, there were thirteen empty bottles of beer and nothing left to eat.
They invited us to visit them in Brazil, and told us to give them enough prior notice for them to have our costumes ready for Carnival -- they were sober and serious. They were building roads out in the desert since "there is oil in them there sands!" It is easy to see recognizable parallels to the US settlers heading west one hundred years ago during the Gold Rush.
On our way to the market the following day, we stopped at the department stores, then at the bus station, where we met a Spanish man from Barcelona. He was on a hundred-day bike trip from Turkey through war-torn Georgia, and the other Central Asian Russian Republics to Beijing
Crossing the street, we entered the huge and colorful bazaar with its yards and yards of cloth in a variety of colors and styles. In front, we found rugs, clothing, blankets, and scarves. Out back, a nice market with fragrant spices, fruits, and vegetables. We bought a kilo of juicy, dried apricots, two loaves of hearty bread, yogurt, and Hami melons, famous throughout Asia for their sweet smell, texture of cantaloupe, and taste of honeydew.
As pleasant as Turfan can be, the stifling heat got to us, so we headed west. The bus meandered bumpily on the black paved road. It went off-road across the rocky desert, surrounded by snow-covered mountains in the distance, then down a small valley and through a gorge. We had to stop while they blasted a mountain 500m (1550 ft) away with dynamite, leaving a dust-bowl in the gorge for us to drive through. It was extremely hot and we were drinking water non-stop, finishing the last of our bottles as we pulled into the bus station.
We arrived 3500km (2170 miles) west of Beijing and were still on Beijing time. Ürümqi is pronounced 'ooROOM-chee' by local Uighurs, and 'woo-loo-moo-chee' by the Chinese -- very useful to know when buying train or plane tickets for this destination.
On the bus, we had met Okano, a Japanese photographer who was travelling around Asia with only a small day bag weighing 5.5 kilos (12 lbs). We took a taxi to the Hongshan Hotel in the heart of town, and he arrived at the same time by public bus. We checked into a three-bed dorm, as it's better to have someone you know in this game of roommate roulette. It took us two hours to wash the desert sands out of our clothes.
We wandered across the street to the 24-story Holiday Inn, got information from their desk, and then graced their lovely marble-walled toilets! We tried to buy aspirin at the pharmacy down the street, but got the standard response: "Meiyou." We searched around until we found it in the cabinet.
The vendors along the street serve the best strawberry yogurt we've ever tasted. Ürümqi also has an excellent night market, as well as plenty of tasty melons and apricots for sale. Most tourists are here to see Tian Chi, a small, deep-blue lake halfway up a mountain, surrounded by hills covered in fir trees. We had enough of China's games and skipped it, knowing we were heading into the soaring mountains of Pakistan, India, and Nepal.
The next day, we visited the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, a huge 1950s-style Soviet neo-classical building with a large green-tiled dome topped with a star. We got our teacher discount and roamed through the first room, full of flint-rock tools, clay pots, bronze and iron axe-heads, and a multi-layered log tomb with skeletons for underground burial. The collection also featured urns, jewelry, clothing, and other artifacts of the local minorities.
We entered a room with a huge 'No Photography' sign, so figured this was where the good stuff must be. They had an impressive collection of mummies from the dry desert sands, which they so gracefully called 'corpses'. Like the Egyptians, they buried their dead in underground tombs. The few interpretations they had were poor, but they did stress that a few had European or Mongolian features, or a mixture. (We have heard that this is no longer politically correct, so they have changed the exhibit.) There were a few pieces of ancient rugs with elaborate designs. The next room contained the remains of many different groups from the last 200-300 years, including Mongol and Arab writing, armor, art, plus more Buddhist stuff.
We got thirsty and headed for the concession room, only to find two familiar faces, Jeanette and Dorine from Lanzhou. It was hard to have a conversation with them since their well-spoken guide, Mr. Lu, wouldn't be quiet. He told us about the area and history, but he did feed us watermelon for the trouble. The ladies managed to tell us about their adventure in Dunhuang with a camel caravan. Jeanette's attempt at a ladylike descent was ruined when her camel decided to stand up, leaving her holding onto the saddle with her legs dangling.
Jeanette also lost her scrapbook journal full of photos, admission tickets, drawings, and addresses. The last time she had seen it was when she showed it to the students in her compartment on the train to Turfan. She had fallen asleep after that, then arrived in Turfan. Mr. Lu helped her hire a taxi, accompanying her back to the station. The train crew didn't have the book but remembered that the students sharing the compartment were going to Ürümqi.
On their way back to town from the station around midnight, she noticed the driver dozing off. Then he fell asleep and went off-road, rolling the car onto its left side and sliding along the desert. Her hand was out the window, plowing through the sand like a pitchfork. When the car stopped sliding, her arm was pinned under the car, bruised and bloody. She was laying there in the quiet darkness of the desert, trying to think what to do next, when she heard the eerie sound of something dripping --- she thought it was fuel, but eventually realized it was her own blood.
They pulled her out and a passing truck took her and Mr. Lu to the hospital in Turfan where she was bandaged up. Mr. Lu, fearing for his career and life, did everything he could for her, including buying a new pair of pants since hers were covered in blood, and asked her not to talk to anyone about the accident. She had a cut hand and a bruised left shoulder and upper arm, but was doing well. He was now guiding them for free. He claimed to be a Kashgar Mountaineer Association guide, on his way back, but when we got there, nobody knew him.
We made a date for dinner that night, then went to see the rest of the museum. The last area displayed forty mannequins wearing ethnic costumes, as well as all the related items from daily life. This included three yurts (animal-skin tents) surrounded by stuffed horses, yaks, and sheep. The interiors were outfitted with furniture and beautiful rugs, fabrics and clothes of the minorities.
Since we couldn't take pictures, we stopped in the shop on our way out, hoping for good postcards or brochures, but were sadly disappointed by their dismal collection. It's a good thing National Geographic took excellent photos in their March 1996 issue, featuring the museum and the Silk Road.
We went to the bus station, where it took a half an hour to decipher the signs and buy two tickets for the following day. The usual public notice board was up to communicate info. Not only did it have photos of guns, drugs, and raped women, but also slain people, some hacked into pieces.
We finally had Jeanette and Dorine to ourselves at a quiet cafe. They were surprised to see Dorine's long-lost flashlight appear. In Xiahe, we had no problems tracking down the tour guide, who only had to get in touch with the bus driver to get it. We gave them our other Chinese phrasebook, and Karin asked them to write down the words to De Speeltuin (The Playground), a funny 1950s Dutch song her mom used to sing.
After we left Ürümqi, they went by car on a tour with a female guide and her boyfriend. They went west, through the southern range of the Tianshan mountains, then south to cross mountains, arriving in Baicheng where they found a place to stay. The Public Security Bureau (PSB) showed up and told them they needed travel permits (like the old days), and wanted to keep their passports, then threatened to arrest them. At dark, the guide hurried them into the car and sped away heading east as the police arrived.
They travelled twelve hours in the dark, arriving in Yanqi (yahn-chee) at 10:00am. A cop gave them more trouble, saying that they hadn't entered China legally, so they got in the car and headed north into the mountains. They stopped at a family member's yurt and went to sleep, only to be carried out two hours later as rain came flooding down the mountain. They were moved to a less-than-warm shack that was as waterproof as the yurt, but managed to sleep.
Apparently, the Mongolians, Tibetans, or Kazakhs were having a big meeting in Baicheng, and the military thought it would be a violent dissident meeting. There was fighting just after they left. At first this sounded like a typical oppressive government reaction, but less than a year later, on February 5, pro-separatist Uighur militants rioted in Yining, followed by widespread looting. Three weeks later, bombs were planted on buses in Ürümqi, killing nine people, and coinciding with funeral rites in Beijing for Deng Xiaoping. Over twenty people were executed from these two incidents. Exiled Uighurs vowed to stage more attacks.
On the road the next morning, their path was blocked by landslides, so they went back and got eight workers with spades. The guide gave up hope since it was a massive landslide. The men pulled bags of dynamite powder out of their pockets, sprinkled some around, and lit it, pulverizing the rocks. They eventually crossed the mountain to a comfortable yurt, however someone tried to steal Jeanette's rainjacket.
They wanted to stay a few days, but it started raining, so they dropped back to Ürümqi. The travel agents were surprised to see them because all the tourists had been evacuated due to massive flooding which took out the roads, bridges, and railroad. Many people joked that the freakish weather -- a flood in the desert -- was caused by the recent nuclear testing in the Lop Nur Desert.
They were stuck in Ürümqi for two weeks waiting for a flight out. They had a hard time getting over China. A year later, Jeannette told us, "It was a different world, it made me distrustful of people, which no place had ever done before."
On our last day in town, Marc waited at the cafe with the bags and spoke to an Israeli with an American passport. He had just spent a month in Pakistan. This was fascinating since they would not have let him in if they knew where he was from.
Karin caught a bus to the post office. We were getting closer to the China-Pakistan border, so we filled a box with a few items we no longer needed (such as our Chinese phrasebook and the China LP), and entrusted it to the Chinese postal system. Our backpacks didn't seem any lighter, but getting rid of a box of stuff had a positive psychological effect. We hoped to see it again one day, somewhere.
From there, Karin went to the bank to cash traveller's cheques. A curious Chinese man standing next to her, stretched his neck as far as he could over the counter to see what the clerk was writing. Karin asked if she could help him, then raised her voice and started lecturing him on manners when he didn't budge. He finally got the message and backed away. Although the concept of privacy is alien in China, one never knows what people are up to, so she kept a vigilant eye when leaving the bank and on the bus back to the cafe.
We were running late, and had to skip the reliable but slow city buses, opting instead for a taxi to the bus station. We settled into our 'beds' at the back of the bus. As always, the Chinese flights were ridiculously over-priced, so we resorted to our third and final night bus. There were thirty people in three rows of 50cm-wide (20 in) bunk beds which were 190cm-long (6 ft) when fully reclined.
Karin's bed was directly above the rear left wheel, in prime bouncing position. Marc was a little worse off in the back row of flat, non-reclining beds, his head 3m (10 ft) from the rear axle, his feet hanging into the right aisle. We were in for a very, very, long ride. In retrospect, we might have been better off staying an extra day and getting seats closer to the front of the bus.
Marc started talking to a well-spoken girl from Hubei, whose muscular boyfriend was in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). He was taking her to Kashgar where she would be teaching English. The conversation didn't last long, after her boyfriend left his bed (two rows forward) and made himself comfortable on her narrow bed by wedging in like a sardine.
The scenery was very much like the Rocky Mountains, with a colorful sunset and rainbow at 9:45pm. We stopped for dinner fifteen minutes later, then made another stop outside of town for everyone to claim a strategic spot in the pitch-black desert. Heeding nature's call was real fun in 42kph (25 mph) winds -- could barely stand and the liquid went everywhere. Even funnier were the ones lined up so that the rest were directly downwind!
Somehow, we managed to sleep fairly well, waking at 7:00am to find that we were still on the road. We have slept on all forms of transport, even this one, the bumpiest ride ever. When we stopped in Kuqa (koo-cha) for lunch, it only took one bite of the steamed buns filled with mutton fat for us to decide that one bite was too much. Marc had learned enough Uighur numbers by now to avoid a triple-price scam, and say, "No, thank you!" We snacked on our peaches, then took advantage of the break from the bouncing bus to make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches from our dwindling supplies.
Back onboard, the loving couple got the idea to trade seats with Marc and his neighbor. Good thing he'd mentioned to her the night before that he wanted to move to another seat if one opened up. Marc now had a reclinable seat and they had more room to get cozy under the blanket. We didn't see much more of them once the sun set, but heard an occasional giggle. It's doubtful they ever noticed the quality of the ride, as they were busy being romantic under the blanket.
The bus moved slowly over a barely visible section of pavement that was under a small stream, mysteriously flowing in the middle of the desert. Our next adventure came hours later when the driver spotted a sandstorm and stopped the bus -- it looked like a wall of sand moving towards us. For two minutes the bus was sandblasted by 72kph (45 mph) desert winds; we were surprised to see that the paint was still on. After the storm had passed, some people took the opportunity for a pee-break only to have their bare butts sandblasted by a second storm!
At dusk, we passed through valleys in a spectacular sunset of flaming red and pink, barren mountains, then into fertile areas. We skipped dinner in Aksu since so many have been sick in these areas. We met a Belgian woman onboard who was teaching English in Wuhan. They called her a spy the first year, but relaxed the second year.
Sometimes, the Chinese are just trying to take advantage of Westerners, whom they consider to be walking money bags. Then there are those who are resentful or have an attitude of superiority which manifests itself, like when they have something you need, such as readily available tickets, but won't sell them to you. This is something they are caught doing quite frequently since they don't believe that Westerners can understand their language. One of the joys of not speaking fluent Mandarin is that you don't have to hear the appalling things people say quite openly about you!
This is one area of China that has a bad reputation. One person we met tried to visit the cities along the way, and also in the Kashgar area. Diana told us about a woman at the Hotan bus station ticket window who scratched her friend's arm when he tried to use his legitimate credentials to purchase tickets at local prices.
Then in Aksu, the Uighurs at the hotel ganged up for more money and a woman threw a tea jar at her. She left, but her travel companions threw things back, then tore the place up. Our friends on the camel caravan had a similar incident involving knives and pitchforks. So much for Muslim hospitality: business in the west moved beyond dishonesty and taking advantage of naive tourists, on into the realm of extortion.
When the bus finally came to rest after 1500 km (930 miles), the driver announced our arrival by blasting rap music for those who might not have noticed that the bus was no longer rattling along. This may not seem like a long distance in the West, until you realize that the road conditions were so poor that we averaged only 43kph (26 mph). Karin's neck muscles were locked up, her right shoulder in pain, and it took us a week to recover from the effects of this bus ride. Next time we fly, at any cost!
We located the Seman Hotel and had to settle for a decent double on the fifth floor with a nice view of the city. The dorms out back were full due to the crowd that descends on the city every weekend for the bazaar. On the notice board in the lobby, we found a message from Tony and Mindy, the Aussies we had met in Xiahe and again in Turfan. They weren't 'home', but we knew our paths would cross eventually, so went in search of lunch.
John's Cafe, on the corner across the street, turned out to be more of a travellers meeting spot than a place to go for anything worth eating. We ran into Eric, a French policeman from Nice who we met in Beijing. We were going over travel routes, when Tony and Mindy showed up. They were still on the same course, so we decided to continue on together.
John, the owner of the restaurant, sat with us and explained his tours, then answered our questions about options to Pakistan. On the rare occasion, when travellers we'd met or seen somewhere along the way weren't stopping by, we had a few moments alone to enjoy the pleasantly warm day, watching the donkey carts, Uighurs, and Pakistani traders in 'pajamas' going by.
It was raining, so no rush out the door. While waiting in the hotel for the weather to clear up, we met Khan, a likable Pakistani textile merchant. He had been coming to China for twenty-one years on business -- the Silk Road lives! He would fly to Shanghai, buy his goods, then escort them back by train and bus. He recited Mohammed's descendants, then explained Shia beliefs (compared to Sunni) and their relation to the "little" prophet Issah (Jesus) on Judgment Day.
Getting hungry, we had to find a source of real food. We went to the Limin (Sunrise) Sichuan Restaurant across the street to devour a savory meal of Sichuan chicken and sweet-n-sour eggplant with rice. No need to look further, we'd found our feeding trough for the duration of our stay in Kashgar. The very happy and likable manager sat at our table and taught us Uighur phrases and numbers. He'd been running the place for ten years while also working in a construction company. He explained that his parents were forced to move here from Sichuan during the "Great Leap Forward" in the 1950s.
We were enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of the town and its wonderful blend of cultures, music, and food, when a European family of six caught our eye as they walked into the restaurant. One tall girl stood out immediately since she looked very much like Karin. She had the same forehead, smile, eyes, and general build. However, her complexion was darker and she had a different manner of dressing, walking, and speaking. They were very curious about Karin and sent her 'sister' over to investigate a few minutes after they sat down.
She asked if we could help them solve a mystery: "Was Karin from Somalia?" The answer was: "Maybe, indirectly by way of the Caribbean." Kindy had lived in London for a while and was starting environmental law school. She'd had many problems living in Pakistan due to the reputation that Africans have for smuggling. She understands Arabic and liked to shame the Pakistanis. We relocated to their table and talked for hours. They also invited us to stay with them when we got to Pakistan.
Back in the hotel hallway at 11:00pm, we ran into a group of dark-skinned men from the Punjab area of Pakistan. They also inquired about our origins. When we told them that Marc was American and Karin was Dutch, they said "But, she's dark!" This reminded us of the scene with Danny Glover and Joe Pesci at the South African Embassy in the movie Lethal Weapon 2. Being fanatical cricket fans, the Pakistanis warmed up to us when we explained that Karin is from a Dutch island in the West Indies. They recited the names of the entire Windies team! Richie Richardson, the captain of the team, was from the same island as Karin, so we were instant 'buddies'.
The next day was the one-year anniversary of our fascinating journey: glad we made it, but sorry to see that we only get to do this once more. The best thing to do was celebrate at Limin with a healthy and delectable breakfast of pancakes, honey, yogurt, and bagels with cheese and jam.
A Belgian woman named Trui (twee) joined us. She had just finished an eight-month Rome - Greece - Turkey - Iran - Pakistan - China bicycle trip with two Belgians, a New Zealander, and a German. They found the Iranians to be the nicest people they had met. She said the traffic on the Karakoram Highway was light, but the roads in other countries had too many vehicles these days, and the children in Kohistan throw rocks down onto the tourists, even using slingshots and big rocks. "It's not a game!" The Khunjerab Pass was beautiful and easy in this direction, with Kashgar being a perfect ending. They were finished biking and would be taking buses and trains to arrive in Beijing for their flight home.
As soon as they left, the European family from Pakistan arrived. We talked for many hours about Pakistani men harassing women, and they gave Karin tips on the things you can do to them. We wondered what we were getting into, but they assured us that the positives outweighed the negatives.
A Uighur man in a tonga (covered donkey-cart) had been trying to get our attention the entire time we were sitting and talking. When we left the restaurant, our friends decided to use his tonga. He took us only halfway to the market, probably in retaliation for 'making' him wait so long for us. We took a trishaw the rest of the way to the famous Sunday Market.
We walked through the colorful and busy bazaar for two hours without any hassles. There were thousands of Uighur men buying and selling melons, knives, hats, chickens and many sheep. The vegetable carts were pulled by donkeys, some of them complaining about their work -- ee-aw-ee-aw! We ate a Hami melon, then caught a ride back to the hotel to trade books with the Aussies. This is a good time to take a reading break and see some beautiful shots of Kashgar by Mr. Wee Keng Hor, from Singapore.
At 9:00pm Marc was taken to dinner by the four Pakistanis we had met the night before. They 'forced' him to consume massive quantities of savory food, including: sliced cucumbers; tomatoes; greens; tender skewered lamb; lamb samosas; lamb nan (bread), and a perfect, moist whole fish in a superb sauce. It was the boy's night out and Karin's status as a West Indian didn't carry nearly enough weight compared to the fact that she was a woman, so she was not invited, as is their custom. They didn't return Marc until after 1:00am. Somehow, Karin survived This was her first real exposure to life in a Muslim society -- NO women allowed out on the town!
While Karin was dining in isolation, the men were discussing politics and world affairs. They told Marc that they "like the US very much, but feel it is over-involved in their affairs." One man said that his grandfather fought for the Brits against the Chitral Raja in 1895, receiving the Victorian Cross. He himself had been to Hong Kong, Thailand, and Iran.
They were not pleased to see the drunken Uighurs since they are Muslims too. They said: "The Pakistani people are rich but the government is poor, however it is the opposite case in China." They explained that Pakistanis work very hard to make money, and that the government isn't happy about the huge influx of Chinese goods and export of cash. "The Chinese require US dollars for transactions, and don't even allow a carton of cigarettes in for personal use." By the way, Pakistanis are known for exaggerating!
Everyone must have gotten tired of the Limin at the same time, as all the regulars showed up at John's Cafe for breakfast. Henry told us about a Brit who left his daybag on a chair while he played pool. It was stolen, probably by another penniless traveller. The PSB just laughed, and so did we. The last thing you want in China is to draw attention to yourself, so John used his connections to make the bag re-appear in three days. Perplexingly, the money was gone but not the passport, potentially worth thousands of dollars in China.
Just like what we encountered on the other side of the country, travellers were trying to go to Tibet, but few actually succeeding. One man we met was stranded many times while trying to hitch illegally on trucks for several weeks from Tibet to Kashgar. The police fined him the entire way, making for an expensive adventure. After we left, other friends tried to go from Kashgar to Tibet, but the area was closed down after a Chinese man had killed six Uighurs.
We caught a minibus to the Qinibagh (chin-ee-bahg) Hotel to rent bikes, but ran into Marc's Pakistani buddies from the night before. They insisted we join them for lamb kebabs, bread, tea, and conversation. They didn't mind eating with Karin, but didn't talk to her, out of respect for another man's wife. They were shipping textiles home, and had just finished clearing customs. When the Khunjerab Pass closes from December to April each year, it is too cold to stay in the north, so they take their families to Islamabad and Karachi for a winter vacation.
We rented bikes, then pedaled to the post office to mail a small package home. A woman behind the counter got testy when Karin asked her to frank the stamps (mark them 'cancelled') right away, so Karin backed off and hoped for the best. We had been warned by other travellers that the staff in some countries peel the stamps off letters and packages and re-use them. We were happy to see that all of the packages we mailed home arrived safely.
At the bus station, Karin guarded the bikes while Marc found out that we were too late, as all tickets for the next day's bus were sold-out. Tickets are sold a day in advance, and we'd have to return to buy them. We biked around for twenty minutes until it started to sprinkle, then raced to the Qinibagh to return the bikes before heading back to home base. We decided to stay an extra day instead of paying the exorbitant CITS bus fares at the Qinibagh. The delay with the Pakistanis earlier cost us a day, but it was worth it.
Starting out early the next day, we loaded up on our favorite breakfast at the Limin. A Chinese couple from New York, who'd been teaching English in Nanjing for two years, told us that we didn't look like backpackers since we were too clean and well-dressed. This was not the first time we'd heard this, and our appearance had paid off for us on many occasions, as we were often approached by educated and sometimes affluent locals.
We rented bikes and pedaled back to the bus station, securing tickets for the next day's bus. While there, we met a couple from Oklahoma and Canada who looked like they could've been Native American Indians. We biked down a boulevard lined with large Weeping Willows on either side. They provided shade for pedestrians and bikers on the bike path, and also shielded us from the faster traffic on the pavement. Between the branches, we caught a glimpse of Mao waving to us, and stopped for a better view. It is impossible to miss the 8m-tall (25 ft) statue poised on top of a 6m-high (19 ft) building, an overpowering reminder that we were still in Mao country. We took the obligatory photo, waved back, and were on our way.
We cruised through the Old Town Market, a big bazaar, with small streets and small storefronts, selling everything from Uighur fiddles to brass trunks, aluminum pots, steel pans, fruits, vegetables, and spices. One street had the sound of a thousand tin cans, pots, and containers of all shapes and sizes being pounded into existence. Another featured birds in cages, tweeting away at us to release them.
On one of the backstreets, we stopped outside dentist's offices to take photos of the billboards, which had painted cutaways of people's heads showing dental views. We saw the ancient, Afghani-style Id Kah Mosque as we cut through the plaza to the other side of the market. We hit some muddy streets and had to pedal hard so we wouldn't get stuck and have to put our feet down. The bikes were a mess when we got out of there, so we banged the mud off before returning them after two hours of fun.
We were glad we stayed an extra day to tour the old city, as it was nothing like the area our hotel was in. It had definite Middle-Eastern sounds and aromas, and an atmosphere unlike Chinese cities. A refreshing hot shower was in order before a pre-dinner nap. We washed our muddy clothes and boots, then went out to find sustenance. There was another nightly blackout, so we hit the sack early and somehow got some sleep despite the MSG in our meals, and the noisy drunken Uighurs in the streets.
We caught a taxi to the bus station at 5:45am. Everyone showed up early and there was a mad scramble for good seats when the bus arrived. Marc was in charge of locking down the backpacks on top of the bus, while Karin's assignment was to secure seats in the bus. Although this seemed easy enough, she was almost elbowed to death trying to get into the bus, then met by 'seat guards' claiming multiple rows. She had to settle for uncomfortable seats in the back, but soon got even when one turned his back on his seats. We ended up with some decent seats near pretty Tadjik women wearing colorful flat-topped, round, rimless hats covered with scarves.
The bus was in motion by 9:00am and we heard our last serenade: thousands of screaming donkeys! The place was completely planted with poplars and a few willows. Further outside of town, the fields were very fertile, with silty, dark-orange rivers.
We got our first views of the huge snow-capped mountains as we crossed into the desert rubble, then started climbing into canyons, tremendous gorges, and 100km-long (62 mile) valleys with steep walls. At one point, everyone had to get off the bus while it went over three partially-cleared landslides. We walked through and hoped the bus wouldn't tumble into the gorge, with the driver and our backpacks. Further along, we had to wait while a bulldozer cleared the road where another landslide had claimed it.
The road followed a wide dry riverbed covered in smoothly rounded glacial rocks. There were obvious signs of massive waterflow eroding the lower areas, but only small, gray streams rushing through at the moment. In the distance, getting larger and moving closer, were giant flame-red mountains with a mist of wispy clouds near the snow-capped peaks. Brilliant blue sky, bright white snow and glaciers, darker further down turning to dark red, then beige areas with some light, green grasses, and finally gray sands and road. Nobody slept on this trip as all eyes were pinned to the scenery.
We passed through two military checkpoints, showing our passports. Stopping at the bright blue waters of Karakol Lake, we visited the Tadjiks living in yurts on the lush Subash Plateau grasslands at an elevation of 3000m (9900 ft). The Pamir Mountains and rolling green meadows provided a nice backdrop for the grazing donkeys, horses, cows, sheep, goats, and yak. More "oo's" and "ahs" when we got moving.
After nine and a half hours, we arrived in the small Tadjik town of Tashkurgan (tahsh-kohr-gahn) at 340m (1050 ft) above sea level. We located the Ice Mountain Hotel, where Tony and Mindy said they'd be staying. The friendly hotel owner let us look through the register to find their room. They were quite surprised when they walked in a few minutes later and found roommates with familiar faces in their four-bed dorm.
We joined them for dinner at the Happiness Cafe. Over a bowl of delicious lamb, zucchini, onions, string beans, hot green peppers, and noodles, we unleashed our pent-up frustrations about China, sharing the many stories of gloom. The general consensus: it was a relief to be done with it, and there was no compelling reason to return. This town is famous for gouging, and the food bill was a bit high -- how appropriate an ending for the country. A great orange and purple sunset near the snowy, brown slopes with a deep blue sky above saved the day.
Up at 8:00am to a pretty sunrise on the mountains. Our roommates went to buy bread, while we went to the bus station to stand in line. We decided to tag along across the border with them and get out of China, rather than stay an extra day. However, the bus from the Qinibagh Hotel in Kashgar never made it yesterday, unlike our local bus. We were the only four buying tickets, but they wouldn't sell them to us since they weren't sure if the bus would show up.
We waited around for an hour, just talking to Pakistanis -- for some reason they all think Marc is an old friend. They say he doesn't look Pakistani, but does have a strong resemblance to Iranians. One had been in the Merchant Navy for twelve years, visiting ports around the world. He liked Miami, Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco, but not Asia. He invited us to call him when we arrived in Gilgit.
We waited near the road, hoping to catch a ride, but no such luck. If we had known that the border post was a couple blocks away, we would have tried there, and bargained with the bus driver if we couldn't find a ride.
The bus finally arrived at 10:00am, and the passengers got out and went for breakfast, leaving us standing with our backpacks ready to go, and still no tickets in hand. They had spent the night in the desert when their expensive Qinibagh Hotel bus broke down. The driver had to hitchhike back to Kashgar at 2:00am to find another bus and driver, leaving them in the dark and freezing desert. You are not supposed to take your bags off the top of bus after Kashgar customs clears them, so this bunch abided by the rules and nearly froze to death while their sleeping bags were a few feet away.
We reluctantly bought tickets at the tourist rip-off rate after they assured us that, "There's only one price, same for Chinese." Later, we discovered that the real fare was half what we'd paid. Gouged to the very last transaction! Half an hour later, the bus was loaded and rolling, but the driver had to make a stop at the border control office. The customs officers didn't care about our bags, and immigration consisted of five young boys looking at our passports and practicing (self-teaching) their English. Checked out of China on July 18, 1996 with RMB 2.3 (US$0.25) left.
After forty-five minutes, everyone had passed inspection and we were back on the road, with spectacular panoramas of Muztag-Atashan towering 7700m (25,260 ft) behind Tashkurgan. The ride was wonderful, climbing up for hours into beautiful snowy mountains with the grasslands keeping big, double-hump camels happy. The cute golden Himalayan marmots, sitting up and watching like meercats, scampered about as the bus approached.
We met Muhamat from Chad, not like anyone we'd seen before: a dark-skinned man sporting an Egyptian beard with long gray streaks in it. He spoke basic English, but Arabic was his native language, which he spoke with a Uighur man. French was his colonial language, which he used when he travelled to Cameroon, Benin, and the Ivory Coast: what he calls, "Visiting my brothers in Africa, since they always give me food and bed for a day or two."
Muhamat had learned two years of Chinese while working on a four-year Masters in Computer Science in Shanghai. He was sent by his government, which now seems to be run by Sudanese in key positions. He was on a one-month vacation and realized that he is unique, as an African curious enough to travel. A year and a half later, we received email from him -- he was about to graduate and return to his family.
Just before our last checkpoint at Pirali, we saw Tadjiks racing horses on a ridge, probably training them for polo. Tadjikistan is only 10km (6 miles) away, across the Pamirs. Five mountain ranges intersect here: the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Himalayas, Kunlun Shan, and the Karakorams. A nice way to end our first year on the road.
We had taken on an extra passenger at the customs checkpoint, a Chinese military escort. He got us past the two checkpoints through no effort of his own since the passports were re-examined by boys in uniforms each time. While the driver was in the office taking care of business, they played with the bus controls, joking and giggling, even cranking up the bus for kicks. These kids didn't look authoritative nor command any respect, they just seemed like power-drunk, forced-ripe children, their green uniforms and big guns only intimidating the masses. Not much had changed since the days of the Red Guard.
There are occasional uprisings by the independence-minded Uighurs. A journalist in Pakistan wanted to know what we thought of China, but quickly started telling us about Chinese oppression of the Muslims in Xinjiang Province. He said seven hundred were killed in May 1996 trying to gain independence, although other reports we read indicated two hundred. He wanted information from us, since he "works for a human-rights organization and wouldn't tell anyone our names!"
He wanted to correspond, but we refused. Another man, whose opinion we trusted quite a bit more, explained that the city was full of spies due to unrest in the previous few years. He also explained why the Tadjiks were so quiet -- out of the same fear since the government had killed many in a village. Apparently, fundamentalist Muslims from Pakistan had been bringing ideas to the Uighurs.
This was surprising to us since there were no rumors during our twelve weeks in China on the tourist trail. We didn't notice the slightest oppression or sadness in the Uighurs, nor did they try to tell us about it, unlike a man we met one night in Kunming. We didn't pay close attention to the Uighur's attitudes in Kashgar, but did notice that they just sat and stared, and were definitely not interested in interacting.
We picked some pretty flowers in Pirali, and found a bullet shell, then got back on the bus. We climbed sharply for a while along grasslands and through a light snow flurry, finally approaching the border. We were wondering how we'd know when we were across the border, which became quite obvious when the Pakistani passengers started singing their national anthem.
The driver swerved from the right to the left side of the road (a legacy of their British past) as we passed through two white pillars, and over to the Pakistan side of the border, stopping on top of the Khunjerab Pass, the highest in the world at 4780m (15,700 feet). No one showed any signs of Altitude Mountain Sickness. It was about 7°C (45°F) with a lovely view of the snow falling down the valley. We finally gained three hours from Beijing time. Some passengers were so relieved to be out of China, that they even kissed the ground. We had traversed 10,000km (6200 miles) and our three months in China were happily over.
Everyone took photos of the pillar inscriptions, mountains, glaciers, and especially beside the regal and distinguished Kashmir Security Force (KSF) border guard. He wore a dark-gray British Commando outfit, greeting everyone and shaking our hands. He was very impressive with a huge smile, dark tan, and deep wrinkles, making John Wayne look girlish!
It was a quick and steep three-hour descent, practically free-falling down the mountain road. Aqua-blue river from the melting glaciers traced our path through barren mountains with sharp, jagged ridges, and slopes covered in crumbling shale, slate rocks, and scree, snowcaps glistening in the sunlight -- very different from the other side we had just come from. It looked like the world had been turned upside down here. We only encountered one landslide, but it was already being cleared by a bulldozer. The driver did an admirable job of keeping us on the road.
We would like to have taken seven days instead of two to cover this amazing area. It's impossible to describe everything we saw, but it was one of the most spectacular and memorable moments of the trip, although we were to soon find out that much of the northern areas of Pakistan, India, and Nepal look like this. There are plenty of books full of great photos, but they don't come close to being there in the Himalayas.
We rolled into Sust (soost), a hectic border town in a nice valley. A uniformed border guard claimed everyone's passports and disappeared. We eventually found them with the customs officer, who made us declare whether or not we had any alcohol, which is not permitted in Muslim countries. Everyone passed the test.
The immigration guys were funny, but we had to be careful due to their friendly personalities. We also had to press them to give us "Registration Form C" for foreigners staying more than thirty days (which isn't necessary anymore). They wanted to help with money exchange, but at eight percent below bank rates. Then they tried to get us an overpriced jeep for eight people which could only hold four or five, so we figured it was better to leave. We received high offers for minibuses, so waited to see if the Gilgit bus had room.
Talked to Rizwan, another man we met on the bus, about the situation. He gave us his address, some anise candy, and a "Hope to see you, Inshallah." "As God wills" is very popular when you make plans here. We also saw the group of Pakistani men we met in Kashgar. They seemed anxious and pre-occupied on this side of the border, but did invite us for tea, however we were short on time.
Finally getting a bus driver to agree on a reasonable price, we followed a route with more great views along the river. Forty minutes and 35km (21 miles) later, we were dropped at the Shisper Hotel at the southern end of the small village of Passu. The first thing you notice is that the Passu Glacier is threateningly close to the back of the hotel.
Azim welcomed us with a face that had character, as if it had been carved out of light mahogany, permanent smile included. The air was fragrant with the smell of the lavender fields surrounding us. This was the kind of place where we could easily spend a few weeks, and Azim's hospitality and home-cooked meals didn't do anything to motivate us to move on.
Looking Back on China
Unlike travel magazine stories, we don't try to make a country look good, nor do we lead you along on a theme, we just write about the interesting things that happen along the way. Each reader will have a different opinion in the end, some might be swayed by one or two of our bad travel experiences and think we dislike a country, however it is necessary for us to give a summary or final, overall impression this time. We like to wait awhile after leaving a country before deciding if it was a positive or negative experience. It's nice to write this now that we've had enough time to digest all that happened, and reflect at length.
Sometimes we leave a country in a bad mood, but later we look back finding many good things to reminisce about, realizing that the worst parts weren't so bad after all. This is the case with China. It would be extreme to call our three months a waste of time, but after three weeks, it stopped being interesting. That was when we realized just how expensive budget-travel is in China: the travel is easy, but the distances are long.
Halfway through, we were numb to the country and were simply enduring it -- this was also our perception of the average citizen's coping method. We had decided to cut our losses and not try to do too much, just stop at a few places on the way to Pakistan. You might think we were having 'culture shock', but if this were true, then so were the majority of Chinese!
When we arrived in Pakistan, the four of us were in a rage about China, so we took many days in paradise depressurizing. We were amazed to not be in a concrete box, but a real family guesthouse with polite smiling people who welcome and trust you, are willing to bargain fairly, and don't ask for the money until you leave. This vast contrast made it even more difficult because everyone felt like they had wasted three months of their lives. After a couple of days of breaking into rages when others asked us "how we liked it", we realized we needed to get this under control, and stop dwelling on the negative aspects.
The real reason most go to China is for the novelty value. Now that it is 'capitalist-communist', the novelty isn't so great, and this along with their bad reputation among tourists has led to their hotels being emptier than they expected. It is ironic to read an article by one of our FIT Humanities Professors, Dr. Rufus Cook. Shortly after the 1990 Tiananmen Massacre, and having lived there for two years, he wrote:"For Westerners arriving to live in a provincial Chinese city like Changchun, Lanzhou, or -- in the case of my wife, children, and I -- in Jinan, there is always an initial period of depression, of waking up each morning wondering what on earth you are doing here. One reason for this, even with people educated enough to know better, is the enormous disparity between our romantic image of China and the reality -- between one's expectation of sampans and pagodas, bamboo peaks and saffron-robed priests, and the reality of overcrowded, noisy, coal-polluted cities, of a countryside stripped centuries ago of every tree or shrub or non-utilitarian patch of grass."
You can feel lonely in China, possibly even develop a victim mentality, from the constant, cold, indifferent staring that hides each person's true nature. Half-joking, we tell people that the nicest person we met in China was from Tanzania, however, we do have many good memories from the friendly and helpful Chinese personalities that we met while wandering about, especially on the trains. The sad thing is that they never tried to build a friendship. We wouldn't call them "reserved" since we have seen them in action, but maybe "scared".
We understand how the "Cultural Revolution" from 1966 to 1976 left them impersonal, after destroying educated and artistic people, and thousands of years of their ancestor's work. This leaves us wondering what traditional life was like before Communism, and we believe there are still some small communities in Malaysia, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, which may provide the answer.
We found the people who travel to China to be very interesting. For us, one measure is how often we gave them our address in the hope of meeting them again; only Laos and Sumatra were similar in this respect. They have a wide range of opinions about China, which confuses those who haven't been there. We have met many who liked China, but we call it "salvaging the good, and ignoring the bad."
The people with the best opinions were the English teachers and Chinese-language students living in China who could speak some of the language. Those in tour groups are heavily shielded from most of the difficult aspects, besides being shepherded through the country too quickly to have time to mingle. However, this mode of travel is just what we are recommending to many people who aren't backpackers, and can afford it. Also recognizing this, some tour companies arrange the transport and hotels, and leave you to fill your days with activities.
We are often asked, "What do you think of China?" We like to limit or qualify the question by asking which aspect, since it's a large and diverse country. Separate answers could be given on the tourist sites, the economy, human rights issues, environmental protection, hegemonical intentions, etc. This country is just too big for anyone to comprehend, and there are too many perspectives to view it from, but we can give an opinion just as happily as the next person! What is implied in this simple question, with a book's worth of answers is, "Did you have fun, and do you recommend the place?"
After seeing more of Asia, we are convinced that there are better versions of the same attractions elsewhere. If you want to see forts, palaces, temples, glaciers, mountains, Tibetan culture, Buddhist art, there are plenty in Nepal and India, and at an affordable price without the language barrier or food problems. The Silk Road and Western China are better seen in books and documentaries, yet pales in comparison to Rajasthan and Pakistan.
As for southern China, it is nice, but there is a saying, "It's better just over the border." The next time we want to avoid the monsoon, it will be in Indonesia, Malaysia, northwest India, or northern Pakistan. If we are desperate to see exquisite Chinese art, we can go to Taiwan, since that is where the majority of the national treasures went when Chiang Kaishek fled in 1949. When we want Chinese food, we will go to Singapore, even though Hong Kong has great food too.
After all this, you probably think we don't like China, but it isn't true. We are just kicking ourselves for staying so long in an expensive place with little tourist value. Conversely, we would return if someone else was paying for it, like on business trips, and look forward to returning in ten to twenty years to see how it has changed. The bottom line for us is that China is not worth going out of the way for, but if you are close, it is worth visiting the east for one or two weeks to know what it is like. If you want more, we suggest a week in Beijing, a train to Lanzhou, then bus south through Sichuan and Yunnan for a month or two.
Quite awhile after leaving, we gathered the mental energy to look for things we liked about China. That was when we realized we had been having fun everywhere we travelled except China. This is how we learned to separate or differentiate "having a good time" from "having a valuable travel experience." We had been learning throughout our travels, and the fun was like a reward that made the difficult times bearable. This is why we now answer inquiries about China with one word: educational!
Now, about those educational aspects we salvaged. We went in thinking China was a mysterious place we would have difficulties in, especially due to the tonal language, however we came out with knowledge of: the regional variations across the vast landscape; the disparities as they rush into capitalism; how modern some parts are; and a great sense of achievement and satisfaction in knowing about a country that will play a large role in the planet's future. We feel few people know anything at all about the country, and because it is a future superpower, we will go into detail, unlike our other dispatches.
China is the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada. It spans 4000km (2500 miles) from east to west and covers 3.7 million square miles. With a land boundary of more than 20,000km (12,400 miles) China's borders adjoin those of fourteen other countries: Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Korea, Russia, and three of the former Soviet Republics: Tadjikistan, Kyrgyzia, and Kazakhstan. And Japan is so close across the water, it might as well be included.
Although it is rich in resources, only eight percent of the land is available for cultivation, the rest is mostly uninhabitable, cold, barren, and dry. Major rivers stream down from the Tibetan Plateau, at an average height of 4500m (14,700 ft), into a very fertile and intensely cultivated basin where seventy percent of the people live on fifteen percent of the land.
China currently has a population of 1.2 billion, seventy percent of which live in rural villages, the rest in cities that are quite modern. Ninety-three percent consider themselves to be of Han ethnicity. The fifty-five distinct minority nationalities, each with their own language, comprise only seven percent of the population, but reside on more than sixty percent of the land. Minorities are encouraged to be different by following their customs, as long as they obey the government.
It is surprising how fast China has developed. It is the New Japan, but ten times bigger. Mao's solution fifty years ago was rapid industrialization at any cost. This resulted in widespread environmental degradation, with factories making a strong contribution to the pollution of air and water. Deng took this further twenty years ago, starting free zones and joint ventures to acquire technology and export goods to the West. Zhu is taking the final step into capitalism.
They have recently patched up their differences with India and the former Soviet Union. There has always been a railway through Siberia, but now they are trying to get products to Europe quicker by completing the rail through Central Asia, what we like to call the New Silk Road. The roads through Vietnam and Laos are also nearing completion, giving China access to the markets and resources of Thailand and the rest of SE Asia.
Slowing China down are the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) which lose money at a staggering rate, but these have been evaluated on Western models of business efficiency when they are in a period of transition. Few look at it from the aspect of a welfare and training program that has been drastically reduced over the last five to ten years, and is getting so much attention that it isn't likely to affect the overall situation very much longer.
The West is already pointing at the "trade imbalance", but the numbers have been wildly wrong since they are counting the value of all items exported, even though Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are reaping much of the profit. The manufacturing has been moved to China, but the profits are made elsewhere. The advantages that the US uses to bargain over trade imbalances with Japan do not exist with China, and the Chinese are quick to counter -- they quickly take offense over anything that reminds them of colonial control or Cold War containment. It seems that any action that the US takes turns out to hurt itself!
We have been telling people for the last few years that China cannot continue their rapid economic growth for a number of reasons. It is easy for a country that was so far behind to jump forward with the large cash infusion and modern technology from overseas investors, but they have hit their peak and started to level off, especially in the areas of skilled technicians and management, unless they can import them. They also have an overvalued and only partially convertible currency. However, they will probably come through without a dramatic crisis since the country has US$140 billion in foreign reserves that can be used to bolster the economy.
Compounding their problems is the present Asian crisis. Their neighbors devalued their currency, giving them lower production costs by comparison, and making them more competitive. China is depending on a continued high rate of growth to meet their needs, but it is already clear that they won't meet their projections.
Deng finally gave up the helm (passed away) in February 1997, just four months short of his wish to see Hong Kong returned to China. Jiang Zemin has been a successful president who is well-liked by Western politicians, especially since his visit to Washington in late 1997.
The newly-elected Prime Minister Zhu Rhongji is an intelligent and pragmatic man. With his team of young technocrats, he hopes to cut the bureaucracy in half in the following three years by eliminating eleven of forty ministries and commissions, even though similar efforts in the 1980s were sabotaged. He had been steadily reforming the banking system over the past five years. Soon after winning the election in 1998, he made plans to model the Central Bank after the US Federal Reserve system. He also announced bold reforms that will effectively dismantle central planning, the bedrock institution of socialism.
He proposes to privatize state-subsidized housing and setup an independent social safety net to free workers from the state. He also announced that government housing will be sold to current occupants at subsidized prices, and the people will be allowed to buy and sell their homes freely.
Many people have speculated that the country will split into independent states due to: provincial rivalries, and rural discontent caused by the gap between the rural and urban incomes and standards of living.
This isn't likely as Beijing seems to be in firm control of the people -- they now have the effective mechanism of modern communication to go with their existing surveillance and weaponry. The government knows that most dissent starts in the universities and they have increased their surveillance to prevent more incidents. Nobody there has forgotten the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, nor the realities of Tiananmen. In addition, this young generation of only-children, known as Little Emperors, is spoiled, not idealistic. The students realize their only choices are to go into business or leave the country.
Through past hardships, many have learned to be resigned but resilient, adapting to any changes life may deal them, with a minimum of bitterness. We feel that the people accept the new government because they are tired of the old system; and like the new direction China is heading, since it has improved their standard of living. Although their latest transition will cause a large increase in unemployment, the Chinese are true entrepreneurs who will make do. While relatively small, China's vast, underground, gray-market economy cushions those earning the lowest wages from the worst of a weakening economy. People fail to realize all of the economic activity, thereby underestimating their resilience.
An often overlooked factor that helps hold China together is that most Chinese share a sense of common cultural and ethnic identity: whether real or perceived, it is a powerful unifying force. In addition, they are realizing the revival of their strength, which fits well with their view of Chinese history, and the papers support this with nationalistic propaganda.
There have been a few attempts at independence movements in the "autonomous" western regions over the last 150 years, up to present times, but all have been crushed. The area is heavily garrisoned by what the locals consider to be a military occupation force, and the government has been forcibly migrating prisoners from the east to settle in these areas, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang.
In 1972, Nixon switched to a policy of engagement instead of containment, although that is what is still reported in Chinese newspapers. The relationship between China and the US is a lot better than either admit to. They do argue about human rights and copyright law, but there is a lot more going on between these two countries than you will ever read about in the papers.
In 1996, Jiang Zemin was quite the social butterfly in his 747, zipping off to Africa, India, and Russia to repair relations -- their fifty-year experiment with Communism is over. It is only a matter of time before they are the regional power, and will have tremendous influence over SE Asia in the coming decades. They already know how to wield the force of economic imperialism -- just the threat of cutting off business keeps other countries in line.
The word hegemony, a negative connotation for dominance, has been tossed about lately, even whole books written on it. They are being closely monitored by their neighbors, especially Japan, and there are signs of military expansion, but we don't expect any invasions like India in 1962 or Vietnam in 1979, however, we do wonder about the weak nation of Myanmar. We only foresee escalation of tensions as China competes for Asian business and resources.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is 3.2 million strong, and isn't closely tied to the politicians, acting independently from them, sometimes even calling the shots in foreign policy. You could see them flexing their muscles in 1995 and 1996, when they tried to influence Taiwan's first democratic elections through saber-rattling missile diplomacy. They moved troops into that region and played war games near Taiwan by dropping missiles off the coast. The US joined the brinksmanship, making an opposing statement by sending a carrier group into the area as an overt warning to the PLA.
China considers Taiwan to be a rogue province, so they don't believe any action to be an invasion. As much as the Taiwanese don't want to join China, there seems to be a certain inevitability to it. They are an island of twenty-four million, near a country of 1.2 billion that is growing economically and militarily. Taiwan seems to be waiting for China to catch up in the areas of politics and personal freedoms before re-unifying, and Beijing realizes that Taiwan is watching to see how things turn out in Hong Kong.
It will be interesting to see all these things develop with time, but the real problem that causes concern is: How to feed a growing population on a rapidly shrinking amount of arable land? In the 1970s, China realized their population projections weren't sustainable and started the One-Child Policy, only postponing the problem.
Every spot has been touched for agriculture, and they are now exceeding the land's capacity. There is a limit to how far technical advances in food production will go, and there are already signs that it is slowing. In addition, the land is being taken out of cultivation at an alarming rate for factories, roads, and housing.
As if this wasn't enough, the soaring urban and industrial demand for water has led to a lowering of river levels, and the depletion of aquifers. Satellite photographs show hundreds of lakes disappearing and local streams running dry in recent years, as water tables fall and springs cease to flow. As China's population grows and food demands increase, the country's farmers face strong competition for water from cities and industry. The farmers cannot compete economically with industry for water. These looming water shortages are threatening grain harvests to the point where rising imports could destabilize world grain markets.
China is well known for droughts and famines, but the next ones could be frighteningly large in comparison. Their only solution in the near future will be to import food, but in the long run they will be exporting people by opening the doors and letting citizens leave freely, to follow in the footsteps of the diaspora.
We think you will notice China's increasing global importance by how often it is in the news, and enjoy the familiarity that will hopefully better prepare us all to understand the changes that are coming. China is no longer inward-looking or colonized. They are transitioning into a global player more inline with their representation on this planet. Regardless of the scapegoat rhetoric that will surely spread, just like it did against Japan, we hope you will not see them as an enemy. China is rapidly changing for the better, and only through the West's involvement will this continue.
There won't be any more dispatches for a while, as we need to get jobs first, but the Round-the-World Travel Guide should be updated within a week, after three years of neglect. We would appreciate any feedback on the China dispatches ;-) If you have the time, please surf out and visit the Magic-1.com pages we built for our friend Fran Ferry, the magician we met in Bangkok.
Marc & Karin
June 4, 1998 (Tiananmen)
Palm Bay, Florida
Round-The-World Travel Guide|
[ Next Dispatch | Table of Contents ]