inside thoughts on China and beyond

Photo Story – The Silk Route -another China

At 4:30 in the morning, the road was already busy, not with cars but with sweepers. Every other kilometer an other sweeper  was sweeping the dust of her  assigned asphalt from A to B. (Her, because these are mostly high heeled middle aged women.) Cars passing with 120 km per hour will blast it back to A and that guarantees their job for tomorrow. Chinese are sweepers, but surely not scrubbers. We discovered that once more on our first day of this trip. Getting out of Sichuan driving into Gansu was as entering a different country. One that obviously somehow missed the fast train to modernity. We’re passing through towns that even 2 years after the earthquake has many of its citizens still live in tents. Houses and everything else are either brown or gray. Streets are streams of coffee colored mud. Our car wheels disappear at the deepest points. Below their knees, pedestrians are all the same color: mud brown. No one cares anymore. Mud is everywhere. Splashed up against walls, doors and cars. Smoke from the brick factories darken the air. Rubbish is piled up meters high on road sides and river beddings. People come out of houses they don’t bother to repair. No wonder that all young and strong leave town for big cities like Chengdu; anything better than this! A government placed sign to educate its population says: “environment is the power of energy; how you look is the power of influence.” They surely influenced me with how their town looked!

Two days went by before we passed through Lanzhou and saw the Yellow River. Before reaching Lanzhou, we slowly descended the higher mountain ranges that divide Sichuan and Gansu. Gentle broad plateaus and wide valleys with lush green fields open up to small hamlets wrapped around the highway housing mostly people of the Hui (=muslim) minority group.

A local market-day causes a long delay. Wreckages of trucks in houses show that the highway leading through towns might need to be reconsidered. For Gien and Asher, time is measured by number of toilet stops and movies watched. Asher’s little poem says it all:

Bored in the car
Doing nothing but feeling  car sick
Bored in the airplane
Doing nothing besides watching tv or sleeping
Bored in a boat
Doing nothing but playing card games on the bed
Bored on a train
Doing nothing but talking or looking out side a window
Bored with using an iTouch

Trying to do something when I am bored
Hearing the bird chirp
Hearing the flies buzz
Hearing pages flipped from reading a book
Hearing the ping pong bounce on the table
To do something when I am bored

And so, though the desert road is good, long and very straight, or because of this, it is as Asher wrote: very boring to drive here.  The kids watch another movie while we pass ruins and small oases. Far ahead, the road seems constantly to disappear into a lake that we’ll never reach. Every so often we overtake an oversized and surely heavily overloaded truck. Buses fly by with the speed of light. We arrived in Dunhuang after passing through several types of deserts and finally settle in a hostel just out of town in an old orchard on the edge of the desert. The Gobi desert. Hot sand dunes that barbeque your feet in seconds are piled up in a 800 square km area, rising hundreds of meters above us. During an early morning walk, I pass one-storey flat roofed mud houses with beds on the roofs and in their front yard with blankets rolled up, caravans of camels pass me, donkeys neighs and I found myself if returned to Egypt. But instead of Nubians, palm trees and sugar cane fields, I’m surrounded by Chinese, high poplars and shady orchards. Although the desert is growing each year with several feet, the poplars seems to do remarkably well in protecting the green. It all refreshes my desire to show Gin, Gien and Asher the beauties of Israel and Egypt; the pyramids and Cairo, felucca’s on the Nile, resting under the village tree and Jerusalem.

The hostel is wonderful but somewhat behind in maintenance. It is run by a couple of Chinese that are clearly neither sweepers nor scrubbers. It’s built as an old Chinese courtyard, with the rooms all around the cool inner court. Swallows nest on the bars under the patios. While the desert is right behind the hostel, orchards surround it on all other sides. A heaven on earth as long as you’re not too close to the toilets. Asher is really having the time of his life. I haven’t seen him this energetic, wild and initiative for a long time. Sand dunes and kids. Texel without the sea. Running up, rolling down, sliding down, jumping down. Building castles, though this project he abandoned quickly due to lack of water. No wonder that most of the ancient Silk route towns and castles of old are no more but ruins. In the afternoon we exchange our car and the comforts of the hostel for camel and tent. The camels are shaved and look skinny. Compared with a horse they seems to live in slow motion and are constantly re-chewing their previous meals. They walk like an Egyptian and shout like a dinosaur. They stare at you with their cartoon like popping-out eyes. They just look dumb and dull. We are told that that is OK. To enable tourists to enjoy a ride without being thrown off, they purposely keep the camels weak and under fed. They are still able to survive in the desert for up to 10 days without water and food. That makes me feel better. It’s quite reassuring to know that when I die from thirst and sunstroke, at least my camel lives on to make the last arrangements.

And these arrangements for the afterlife are different here in Dunhuang. While the shadowy orchards slowly disappear behind us in the vibrant hot air and the dunes to the south continue to grow higher, we are bumping our way through the valley of the dead. A real encouraging start. As far as the eye can see in this heat, cone shaped pyramids pop out of the sand. Just like in Egypt. But here they are only 1 to 2 meters high. Here, the villagers claim a plot of desert land to bury their dead. And to drink. Besides the old trousers, shoes and shirts that have once been donated to the dead to assure them a good travel to the next world, broken bottles litter the area. Alcohol helps a lot when negotiating with the gods.

In the evening we settle in a pit protected by high sand dunes. Our butts are sore and it is a relief to lay down and just watch the stars. An hour long sand storm beating against our feeble little tent between 3 and 4 in the morning kept us quite awake. But not just that; it was a great night.

One of the most annoying aspects of traveling in China is that for each ‘thing’ of interest there is an entrance fee. From old villages to a pond in the desert or a tree on the grasslands; you’ll have to pay. If they could charge you for breathing in fresh air they would. Old towns are rebuild into souvenir paradises, nature reserves into a series of stepping stones. It all need to be high-heel friendly. Signs are placed teaching you that “Civilization is the most beautiful scenery” and that “Grasses are afraid of your feet” (this, I have to admit, is surely true for my feet after a day of walking in mountain shoes) but even that you need to “Look out for your steps and be averted in your mind”. All included in the price. Good thing is that there’s often a back door that gets you in for free. You just need to find it.

From Dunhuang it took us 13 hours to reach Urumqi. With much of the highway under repair, it seemed we would never arrive.  What makes the night travel harder is that Chinese don’t know how to use the car lights. Some just don’t use lights at all. Saving energy.  All Others only know the big headlights. Blinding whoever they meet. To make things more challenging, there are the invisible pedestrians, walking on the road as if going for a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park; kids, elderly, drunk, cows, goats and camels. When we encountered our 2nd sandstorm with wind speed 5, it all didn’t really matter anymore.

Urumqi is a divided city: Uyghur and Chinese. Police in between. Guns pointing at the Uyghur though. It is exactly one year ago that some Uyghurs fought for their rights, so THEY say – and lost. Other minorities like the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Mongols, Russians, Tibetans, Uzbeks and Xilans are part of the silent sufferers. Talking with a Kazakh shepherd, hosting us for one night in his yurt, Earjan NoLastName (Kazakh tradition have no last name),  we learned that although they agree that the Chinese government has treated them well: providing land and supporting their culture, they also say that they do not have equal chance to get better jobs that go beyond being shepherd, cowboy or tourist guide. It seems that the Chinese love their minorities as much as the Americans their Indians. As our Chinese friend continues to say: “So pretty!!”  Minorities as cute rarity to take a snapshot with when the tour bus stops by the minority souvenir shops where Han Chinese sell junk mostly made in Nepal or India. You wonder why the Kazakhs stay here. They can freely travel to Kazakhstan and there have up to 7 wives and countless more kids then the respectively 1 and 2 allowed here on China side of the border.

From the cool heavenly mountain we dived down into the boiling pot of Turpan. Everything is turned up: the temperature, the windows, the aircon, it is up to 50*C. Close to the 2nd lowest point of the earth at 250 meters below sea level (but who cares about the sea here; there is no place on earth farther removed from any ocean than this place), Turpan has much to offer. Yet we didn’t see any of it. One after the other, we got sick. Probably the street food in combination with the extreme heat. So much for their famous sheep meat street BBQ…

Why people started living here remains a mystery to me. To get water, 2000 years ago, they had to dig tunnels from the gletchers up the mountain many kilometers away. Now, that water is drying out. Gletchers are disappearing. Over the centuries it has created a green grape producing Eden with a distinctive culture. For us however, once sick and sensitive, the heat becomes unbearable; the squatting toilets a nightmare and the smell of local food a reason to vomit. To make things worse, the kids fainted one after the other. So we left. West again. Further west; to Kashgar.  Distance here needs to be measured in time. Due to bad roads, 100 km can take half a day driving. And don’t cheer if the map identifies a road as highway until you’ve seen it –and see how it is around the corner: it may just be a small dusty – or muddy- road with lots of heavy traffic to slow you down even more. We were forced to make an overnight stop in Kuqa, a Chinese oil town (once it was a kingdom on its own) on the edge of the desert  with a surprisingly interesting old Uyghur animal bazaar, right under the bridge.

And finally, Sunday night, we arrived in Kashgar. A historical major Silk road city that still depends heavily on the old trade; carpets, herbs, music instruments, silk and of cause any type of animal living in Asia.  An old city of mud houses, though they are now all being demolished to be replaced by brick and cement. Each street has its own craft; carpets on the Carpet Street, Iron ware on the Smith Street, wood-work on the Carpenter Street. Far off, the snowy mountain tops. It is a city of Uyghur, more remote and out of Beijing’s reach than most other city. These Sunni, and often Sufi Muslims seem more fierce and exclusive, making you at first contact constantly feel at unease. Their standard gaze is not just one of curiosity, it has an expression of anger, distance and aggression. But, more innocently, it could well be caused by fear; fear for the unknown; for using a language they do not master. Talking with them and using some words of their language does in some cases do wonders.

The kids don’t bother; they are looking forward to each evening: watching the FIFA world cup; so far they missed all Dutch games.

From here to the Pakistan border is only one day. So on south we went. Across a pass of 4200 m high, to the land of the Tajiks. With only about 40 thousand left, they are mostly very poor sheep and cow farmers. They look like as if walked out of the British ‘James Herriot’ series of the ’70-‘80‘s; as if we went back to Wales. They are taller, features are soft but skin is weathered and rough, eyes are more round and light colored; brown, green, blue, just name a color.  But their nose; their nose is huge; sharp and bend like an eagle’s beak. If they speak English it is without the typical Chinese accent, in fact, it could well be the highest level of civilized English: British. When they go to a bigger town, which they don’t often do, they’re usually mistaken for foreigners. Foreigners with a Chinese ID card. They are poor and with no real perspective to improve their situation. They are not even allowed to open a guesthouse. Han Chinese rule like true colonists. By and for their people. Signaling the local minorities to be peaceful and patriotic Chinese on the one hand, suppressing and discriminating them on the other. As the poster that flanked one of the many military trucks patrolling through the Kashgar streets teaches: ‘we are all one family’. Kim, a local Tajik, brought us around and got us to a night performance of Tajik dances. Reason for the event was a visiting VIP –yes, Han Chinese. In the pre-Mao time we would probably call them warlords or Mandarins.

After returning to Kashgar once more, we went east this time, following the southern Silk Route to Hotan. Fast moving pillars of sand towering high above the desert surrounded us on this sandy road. Impressive sandy columns dancing on the heat rhythm and sometimes crossing the road. Such miraculous beauties of the desert. We were equally surprised and impressed by the large number of wild streaming mud rivers. Some of which crossing the road or sometimes even ripping the road away, forcing us to cross the river at any shallow part we can find. Which you never now until you are there. We won’t be the first to get stuck. Quite a story: stuck in a river in the middle of a desert. But we made it each time. Moving along on the never ending desolate desert road we felt quite invincible and, though tired, in high spirits. Bach, Vanessa Mae and Sting blasting through the desert. Until our back tyre popped. Stranded. 100 km into the desert and several 100 still to go before the next town. Forced to get out of the car, the heat slash-hammered us. Whirlwinds blew sand in our eyes wherever we looked. No car had passed us for as far as we could remember. Suddenly, the desert lost its beauty and we lost our high spirit. It took 1/2 hour and lots of sand-biting to change the tyre. No more spare, many more unspoken worries. On we went. Driving much slower, praying much harder.

In Hotan we found a Han Chinese helpful to get us the right size tyre after finding out that no shop seemed to have what we needed. It took quite some effort, but then, he made a lot of money out of us that day. Needless to say, we were happy to have 5 good tyres again.

And thus we thanked God for bringing us safely to Hotan, where even de donkeys have to cover their legs. Hotan, an even more than Kashgar remote center of Uyghur troublemakers. Not quite the place to find rest and quietness after our little desert adventure, but so be it. Here, the Han Chinese are scared. Asking how many Hans live in Hotan, they answer quick: not enough.  Asking the way to the animal market, we are warned not to go: too dangerous. We never found the market, because the Uyghur here cannot or will not speak Chinese. They stare with much suspicion before turning away. The town has a very poor appearance, it has never been able to live up to the glorious Silk route days, despite that it has been the center of Jade trade for over 7000 years.  It is dirty and quite a mess. And everyone is dealing here. Some in the open, some secretively. Hiding their ware in their inside jacket pockets or in the trunk of their car or simply spreading it out on the sidewalk. Buyers and sellers make deals that involve hundreds, thousands or even ten thousands of yuan. The ware: jade, and the experts go for green jade. Traders are from all over China, Pakistan, India and now, Holland. Having learned quickly, we found our own set of jade collection during our first toilet stop not far outside of Hotan, near one of the last trees in the endless desert to come. Asher is confident that it is top-notch quality and expects to sell it well in Chengdu.

In these fast and desolated areas with conflicting and very poor people groups, imagination easily takes a hold of you. Stories of robbery, killings and political unrest on top of the general feeling of not being welcomed strengthen these ideas. What if you’re stopped in the middle of nowhere? And so we were stopped. They were dressed up as road workers and ‘busy’ on the road just out of town. They stopped us and asked a silly question, noting at the same time who and what’s inside and estimating the value of the luggage. You will stop because in Xinjiang, nearly every town, village and hamlet has a police checkpoint. While we drove on and were wondering what this was all about, they made a call to their pals further away from civilization and deeper into the desert. There we knew we will be stopped again, like it or not, and stripped of our belongings. Well, the 2nd group never materialized. I guess we were lucky or the car was too cheap. But I may have just imagined it… I did keep my doors locked all the way!

Soldiers. More soldiers and special forces marching in the street in the last village we visited at the border with Sichuan. With leaving Xining, where we watched Holland win against Brazil with a large group of other Dutchmen, we left the desert behind us for good and crawled into the Qinghai-Tibetan mountains, back to Sichuan. And from Sichuan is where the problem came. Lang Mu Si has 2 Tibetan monasteries. With 2 different lamas leading them. One is Sichuan Tibetans, the other Gansu Tibetans. Last week, the Sichuan Tibetan lama decided to mobilize followers from Sichuan and attack their Gansu counterparts.  And on their way to that monastery they destroyed much of town. Not sure what happened with the warriors and their lama lord, but with soldiers now marching in 4 by 6 ‘s through the muddy streets and special riot police with large guns strolling along the roadsides trying hard to avoid the mud and rain pools, peace has somewhat returned to town. The provincial government has paid a good amount to the local leaders to compensate people for damages, but most of that money is not expected to ever arrive.

Hostels in these areas are anywhere between ‘great’ and ‘disgusting’. The hostel we had hoped to stay was destroyed last week and the one remaining seems to house more cockroaches than humans. Hostels are an upcoming thing here in China, but the audience is somewhat different from the traveling students in the West. Here, well-to-do urban Chinese love to be seen in hostels with the latest outdoor ware, fastest laptops and biggest cameras. A new trend leading to a new promotion slogan for these hostels: “we’re not cheap; we’re social”; which means that you got to pay more for wooden beds and smelly common use toilets and showers that don’t work to be able to freely enjoy the smoke in the socializing areas. We’re in a local Chinese hotel with equally smelling toilets but at least with good beds. The kids are especially happy with one of the two tv’s actually working because they would murder me if I cause them to miss a FIFA world cup football (Americans: soccer) match. Holland didn’t play well is their analysis and Germany surely deserved to win.

Just around the corner is a small restaurant we frequent now. Not because it is good but because the story. My impatience helped us discovered it. We’d settled in another restaurant recommended to us by many and we weren’t sitting there alone. After ages living on rice, packed noodles and water we graved for some good old solid western food. So we placed our order but all that arrived after 10 minutes was my beer and the notification that half of our order was out of stock. We waited another 15 minutes and realized that, with some luck, the other half could be with us by tomorrow. We were tired and starving and I feared for the well-being of my family so we walked out and found an empty restaurant serving some western food right near our hotel. It really wasn’t much more than a yak shed with newspapers stuck on the mud wall and lose bricks on the floor. Five plates and four cups. No running water. But Xiao  Tian is cheerful, optimistic and determined to make it work. The soldiers that occupy the opposite hotel (they’ve taken over most of the town’s good hotels) often drop in for a cup of coffee. They respect her as their far-from-home mum. She makes the boys ground the beans and brew the juice. They fix her broken heating plate and write Chinese phrases on the wall. And that’s about all the support she gets in this town. Once stability has returned and these boys are gone, loneliness will return too. Life is hard for her here. She is from ‘outside’. A lone Christian lady amidst two rivaling factions of Tibetans and Hui muslims and all have their own exclusive, very controlling social network and pressure groups. She’d been visited by all of them. With the skills of a seasoned diplomat, she has declined all help so not to be seen as being part of one or the other group and sucked into the generations old twists and distrust. How can someone continue in a situation like this if not for knowing that God knows.

After that it took us 15 hours to get back to Chengdu. The sweepers returned, even on sandy roads were the asphalt had been torn out for repair and somehow it made us feel at home again; safe, without any unknowns. This trip of 27 days and 9510km in 165 hours on the road gave us a view of the other side of China; literally and figuratively. The Silk Route opened a complete new world for us.

More photo impressions can be viewed on my photo site in the folders: Gobi Desert, West-Xinjiang and QinghaiGansu.


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