Hotan for ourselves

September 2, 2009

We took the day sleeper-bus to Hotan. It was decked like a carriage from 1001 nights, with crimson and plum carpets tassling the beds. A tv blared arabic music and indian films, and the passangers lounged in the heat, men dressed in stripey shirts and caps, women in patterned cloth with colourful headscarves. The Uyghur language buzzed and hacked from inside and outside the bus, the assistant driver occasionally standing up to yell “everyone get off for the police checkpoint”, or “shoes OFF in the bus”. Of course we didn’t understand, but after looking around in plaintative confusion, a friendly lady with a toddler helped translate.

We got talking after she spotted me sweating over my teach-yourself-uyghur books, and let me practice “what is that? that is a X/Y/Z!” with her hyperactive son. “I work for an IT company in Urumqi, I’m travelling to Hotan for my cousin’s wedding, would you girls like to come?” guttingly the dates didn’t match. “never mind, I hope you enjoy Hotan, it’s a nice place.” “Why is your Chinese so good?” I asked her. “I think speaking Chinese is very important for us. If you don’t speak Chinese, you can’t expect to get a top job or a university education. So many of our people only go to Uyghur school and never learn to speak or read Chinese. But I am sending my son to Chinese kindergarten. Come on Adeel, say ni hao!” “ni hao auntie” squeeled the boy, then grinned and threw my book onto the floor. Many of the Uyghur people I spoke to were keen supporters of  learning Chinese… but obviously there is some selection bias as I could only talk to the folk who spoke it already.

We arrived in Hotan as it was getting dark, and got the impression of a noisy, bustling and overwhelmingly Uyghur town. Donkey carts clattered up and down the streets, as well as motorbikecarts with passengers sitting sidesaddle and dangling their legs over the edge. Nowhere cheap would let us stay unless we registered with the police, and the police insisted they were all “unsafe” and we must say somewhere “suitable for foreigners”. Worried about the potential expense of a hotel I explained “we’re students, can’t pay more than 25 yuan each” (though we’d prefer to pay 10 or 15) so they bundled us into a fancy car and drove us to one of the only registered places in town. It later turned out we’d got a discount because the police insisted they were not to charge us more than 25! Here we also saw the first other foreigners since entering Xinjiang – some guys from Pakistan over to do business. I felt a wave of cultural affinity when one started to interrogate me about cricket!

Donkey cart in a market street.

Donkey cart in a market street.

The next day we went to the Friday market and I wish I had pictures because it was fantastic! A huge bazaar full of silks and carpets and cloths and spices and fruits and busy, skilled, beautiful things being produced. Didn’t spot any Chinese there and really felt I’d been transplanted to another world (I’ve never been to an Arabic country). I bought a long green skirt and we all got some headscarves for the heat. In the afternoon I tried out wearing a headscarf to see if I blended. Sure enough, I could walk around the streets without anyone batting an eyelid at me. Except some women who looked at me funny – I wonder if because they sussed me, or because the way I’d tied the headscarf was like so 1990’s or sth. There seem to be dozens of different ways and apparently the fashions are constantly changing. I decided to return to the comfortable Brit-abroad style and display my stylish sunburn.

I also visited the carpet factory which was laid out like a huge public museum but had 0 visitors, so I just wondered undisturbed in and out of the rooms and generally all over the place. They had every step from washing and dying the wool, through spinning and stretching and then tying it into carpets by hand. As well as the typical glorious-harmonious-fantabulous communist-vocab explanation signs. A whole row of parrot-scarved girls grinned and wove blankets on machines, reminding me of film of Sheffield factories in the 60’s. One grinned and waved me over, speaking happily at me in Uyghur for about 5 minutes apparently not the slightest bit bothered that I understood not a word.

Hotan was also super for food, especially the area around the mosque. Since it was friday the mosque filled up with men for prayers, and some women and kids hang around outside waiting. Before it started, food stalls selling kebabs or rice with eggs or cold egg noodles rocked up, with drink stalls of date juice or yoghurt water mixed with huge lumps of ice kept cool under a knitted cover. There also seemed to be a major industry in trading stones (well to me they just looked like stones, some of them huge and heavy looking) as well as Hotan jade, which is internationally famous.

Here’s a couple of food pics:




The pics are as before all courtesy of Joanne, and she’s got some really super ones of Southwestern Xinjiang and the area around Kashgar and Karakoul lake, so I’ll be nicking some of those later!

Btw the post title “Hotan for ourselves” is because apparently it’s usually full of tourists, but we didn’t see any. This is presumably because they were all scared away by the July 5th incident.


How to learn Uyghur

September 2, 2009

The Uyghur language used to be known by Europeans as “East Turkic” and is spoken by about 10m people in Xinjiang and around half a million outside. To learn the language, the following steps would be helpful:

1) learn to read the arabic script. except for a few decades in the late 20th century, the uyghurs have written mostly in arabic letters since they were islamicised a millenium ago. the recent blip was a shift to the roman alphabet organized by the chinese government. cynics suggest the return to arabic came about because they didn’t want uyghurs getting a headstart learning english and collaberating with roman-script-using enemies. (now that islamic terrorism has replaced the capitalist west as a direct threat to the region’s stability, this might seem a mistake). The more generous say this was simply the abondonment of an unpopular and overly zealous communist policy, and return to the traditional way of writing. Older people still have a fluid command of the roman script, but arabic has ubiquotously replaced it.

2) Speak Turkish, Kyrgyz, Tartar, Uzebkh or some other Turkic language. They’re all related and Uyghur so it would help hugely. Some of the grammar takes a bit to get your head around – for example the subject has to agree with the verb (I, You, He, all add endings if they are combined with the verb to have, eg it would be I-X have, You-Y have, He-Z has). The are also seem to be at least three different throaty h noises. In Kashgar I met quite a lot of central asians who spoke no chinese but communicated reasonably well with the locals via their own languages.

3) Go to Southern Xinjiang. In the area I was I met many, many, many people without Chinese. Even the simplest questions such as “how much?” or “where?” couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be understood.  English is actually more useful since some words (Maschina for car, kilo, bazaar) are similar. But even for the short amount of time we were there, teach-yourself-Uyghur books came in very handy indeed.

4) Look vaguely central asian. My friend who is half asian apparently looks chinese when she wears glasses and uyghur when she does not. when she did not, she was constantly talked at in uyghur. I also found that if I dressed less like a bratty brit abroad (ie less of the hawaiian shorts and more of the longsleeved shirts) the uyghur-spoken-at me levels went up astronomically.  

5) Read the menus. They often have a Uyghur/Chinese translation, so you can practice your food vocab. Actually Uyghur food has mixed up quite a lot with chinese, complete with loanwords, eg meefan for rice (mifan in chinese), laghman for pulled noodles (lamian in chinese). Of course this requires the arabic script. Take care when ordering random stuff off the menu in uyghur – they might think you’re serious and really do want a lump of deepgrilled fat on a stick.

The longer I stayed in Xinjiang for, the more I was struck by a curious desire to come back some day and study Uyghur probably. One real draw is that as an indoeuropean you can mingle much more with the crowd than in chinese areas where you’ll always be the laowai. Also I met folk who had used it to great effect in other central asia countries, or vice versa. Actually I met a few really impressive characters in Xinjiang, including a french girl who spoke fluent Tajik (which interestingly is not turkic but close to persian) and had travelled widely in Afganistan, and an American who spoke extremely good Uyghur. There were also a pleasantly surprising number of Han Chinese who spoke or were learning Uyghur. This was markedly different from Western Sichuan/Southern Qinghai when I didn’t meet any locally based Chinese leraning Tibetan.

However unless I end up living in Xinjiang, Uyghur probably won’t rank that high on my language to-learn wish-list. Which is still topped, as it has been since I was 14, by Russian. One day…

Is it good to believe?

September 1, 2009

There’s something that really bothers me about the church, and has bothered me since I was a child. It is the confusion of belief with morals.

The term “morals” is of course problematic and I’m just using it in the most general sense of “values we think are good”. I tend to think most “morals” can be boiled down to love, truth and action. Love meaning caring about other people and the world, truth meaning seeking to base our understanding on reality, and action meaning living our lives in a way that respects or even fights for truth and love. Most other morals are a combination or extension of these.

The christian church puts these values at the forefront of its message. God embodies all of them – he is love, truth and life. He created everything and it is our duty to love him, to search for truth for him, and to live for him. In the search for truth, the church has splintered into branches catering for those with a wide variety of different conclusions about what is true. Christianity is great for the believer.

The problem occurs when the church comes into contact with non-believers. In particular, non-believers with a strong sense of moral purpose, who also put love, truth and action at the centre of their universe. Christians score very highly on the love front – loving the sinner and the heathen is at the core of the message (although there are some widespread slipups, eg homophobia) – and on the action front, via community action and evangelism. The point of dispute is truth.

The truth of Christianity and the existence of God have never been proven by science or philosophy. They have never been disproven either. Many people devote years to searching, but ultimately, all seekers come to one of three conclusions:

God exists. God does not exist. We cannot know whether or not God exists. (The fourth one being, I don’t know/don’t care)

What is the difference between holders of these opinions? OK background and upbringing is a major factor, but the real seekers will acquire/discard/change their religion if necessary. These are people who really value moral truth, and are prepared to question everything they know in the search for a sincere and real understanding of the universe. Since these seekers can be found among atheists, agnostics and christians alike, we need a way to differentiate. And the difference is belief.

It’s howlingly obvious of course, but the difference between a christian and a non-christian simply boils down to belief. The Christian believes in the christian God, and the non-christian does not. Intellectually serious christians do not claim that God can be proven or found without faith. Arguments about the creation of the universe or the source of morals are irrelevant unless you are willing to make that leap, to put your trust and your life in God, as did Abraham, as did Paul, as can any person. The non-christian may want to believe, but they do not. They may search for a God, but they do not find him, though they come across many explanations for why people tend to believe in religion. They conclude that he does not exist at all, or that he exists for some people but not for others, or that we’ll just never know.

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult for these two groups, the non-christians and the christians, to work together. They both value truth, love and action, they just see them as coming from a different source. Both groups produce idealists, activists, realists, fighters, fantastic people. Both groups have been involved in individual and institutionalised lying, killing, abusing, and other misdemeanours. We could accept that belief makes us different, but that all people are searching together to do what is right and it is good. But we do not, and this is my problem with the church.

The church says that unbelievers are going to hell. OK not all churches say it in so many words, but that is the basic idea. There are two types of people in the world, the sheep and the goats, the lost and the found, the in and the out. If you are in then no matter how many problems you have, we can help you. If you are out then we’ll try to save your soul, but ultimately if you refuse to come in from the cold then you’re a hopeless case. Furthermore, you are a problem. Unbelievers may think they are searching and fighting for love and truth, but they are like blind people lost in the dark, and heading in the wrong direction. They are to be pitied, assisted, evangelised, and kept away from our children.

OK I do Christianity a bit of a disservice. Lots of individual christians are perfectly tolerant and accepting of non-believers. Many see them as no different or worse than themselves. But from an institutional perspective, there are very few churches which fully respect the non-believer. The four churches I’ve had the most direct contact with; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran, all state that to be the best person you can be you must believe in God. The methodist, orthodox and pentacostalist churches are also pretty strident on this point. The only ones I have come across which seem genuinely open minded and accepting of the unbeliever are the unitarian universalists and the quakers. Who are generally considered as soppy, hippyish, wishy-washy and barely christian. As well as small and shrinking. It is much easier to hold your church together if you can convince your congregation that you are the ONLY way to God.

This is quite simply a confusion of morals with belief. Since it is saying that to be a good person you must not only behave as you think is correct and right, you must also believe in God. Indeed if you do not believe in God, then your moral compass will be completely off balance. What you think is good and true, is not. It may be misguided, harmful, or even evil. But what if you really, sincerely, from the bottom of your heart, just don’t believe? If you search but you do not find? If you pray on your knees to be enlightened, but hear nothing back? If you ask Christians laymen and clergy for help, and are told that all you have to do is to make that leap and believe, and you try, but at the back of your mind a voice is saying “this is nonsense, I cannot accept that this is true, I honestly do not believe.” What then?

In the eyes of the church, your lack of belief means just one thing. You are bad. All people are bad (we are born in original sin, we put Jesus on the cross, even though we are Christians we are still tainted and sinful, but at least through the church we have some chance of salvation), but you are willfully, knowingly, bad beyond help. You are bad and you refuse the medicine that would cure you. You are bad and you say things which may corrupt the church, corrupt other christians. A kind church will not condemn you out of hand. Perhaps you are not bad, you are just lost and confused. You are to be pitied and helped. But ultimately, you are not only different to Christians, but on some level of the moral hierarchy, you are inferior.

Where does this judgement fit in amongst the other moral values? We’re not saying you lack love, lack truth, or action, but simply that you lack belief. And if you lack belief, then the loving, truthful way to behave is in a way that reflects your lack of belief. Otherwise you’re being hypocritical and insincere. Likewise if the church really puts love and truth before other values (such as the value of saying you believe in God or agreeing with the church – even if you don’t), then it should respect very highly the non-believers who strive for these values. Even if their struggle may conflict with some of the interests of the church. The only way to rationally continue to see nonbelievers as morally inferior, is to position belief as a moral value on its own.

If belief has a moral value, then we must be able to distinguish between “good” belief (a la mother theresa) and “bad” belief (a la spanish inquisition). How do we decide which beliefs are justified and which are not? Usually we do this using truth. If the belief seems to conflict with reality it must be false. We can also use love – if the believe contributes to major suffering and unhappiness, it should probably also be discarded. And the third feeling – just knowing – is not a justification but rather a sympton of its presence. And lets say that you you think belief in God is of high moral value, than that also implies God truly exists for everyone in one particular way and is good… but in that case a true seeker armed with love and truth should be able to find him. Which means either all non-believers really ARE morally inferior to believers, or belief is not a moral value.

And if belief is not a moral value, then the church has no business going around separating people into two groups like this. No business telling us that christians are better than non-christians, or that it is morally superior in any way. Furthermore, by behaving like this, the church is violating the very values of truth which it seeks to uphold, through God. Which is a shame. The church does not genuinely seek to understand those who do not believe or to explore the secrets of the universe and God together. Instead it denounces them or keeps them at arms length.

This is my main problem with the church. To say you believe God is everything, fair enough. To say you believe you must work through the church for truth and love, fair enough. To say that only you have found the only way and anyone who doesn’t believe you is fucked up? That contradicts the very principles you stand on,  it undermines everything you say.

This argument is obviously quickly formed and full of holes. If by some miracle you have read through my tedious ill-construed ramblings to this point, and if you disagree either with the whole or any part of my argument, I’d be really grateful if you’d let me know why/where/how. In particular, how would you justify the attitude of the church towards non-believers?

The Southern silk road

September 1, 2009

We arrived in Charkliq (Ruo Qiang 若羌) hot, smelly and knackered after 50 hours by bus, and were immediately struck by the pleasant relaxed atmosphere of the town. It was like a sprawling oasis of bungalows,dusty melons, and leaf-shady trees. The population seemed mixed about half uyghur half han, not surprising since it’s so close to the Qinghai border and the asbestos mines/oil industry. We had intended to leave immediately and head onwards for Kashgar, but since there was no afternoon bus we just knuckled down in a cheap hostel to enjoy our first evening in Xinjiang. 

Whereas the day time was ridiculously hot and dry, the evening was about perfect, though there were a few stares at the foreign girls in shorts. It was my first time travelling to a majority muslim area and I felt an immediate need to aquire long-sleeved shirts and trousers so as to fit in. It’s hard to describe how different it felt from the rest of China, really almost like a different country despite the usual communist banners/signs and identically stocked corner shops. The Uyghur people look a lot like europeans and eat a lot like europeans, with lots of bread and milk-products. Though for dinner we had sortof hybrid uyghur/chinese food which was absolutely delicious.

In the morning we struck off westewards along the southern silkroad, which has branched off in order to skirt around the south of the Taklamakan desert. Crack-dry fields with stickily plants gave way to real desert with swirling hot wind and distant sand-dunes. The sides of the road were tightly plaited with reeds to stop the sand constantly blowing over the road, but it was still slow going and with police checkpoints ever increasing in frequency. The checkpoints had started in roughly the centre of Qinghai province, with all passengers being hauled off the bus to show their ID cards and explain themselves to the police. Since ever han person we talked to warned us we MUST NOT go to xinjiang, we had lied and told the police our destination was Pakistan, which after some grumbling they accepted. Of course to get to Pakistan you have to go through southern Xinjiang, so now we continued to repeat our story. But the checkpoints here were more hardcore than before. Often they would require women to take off their headscarves and would photograph them along with their ID card. Posters of dozens of people wanted in contection with the June 5th Urumqi violence featured prominently at the check points. Police scanned the passengers for any similarities. Then let us continue. 

The second town where we stopped was Cherchen (Qiemo 且末), quite a bit bigger in the last. This is a proper regional centre, and once quite an important trading post on the silk road. PLA military tooted up and down the main street and the cheap hostel refused to take foreigners, though eventually we persuaded them it was OK. We spent the morning seeing the sites – a museum (which I thought was very good) and most excitingly, the mummies! To get a taxi there we first had to go to the museum and register with security and borrow a key, then drive back across town and out into the edge of the desert, where a square field was irongated off. The taxi driver opened a rusty padlock and brought us through to a shedlike boxhouse of one room, in the middle of which the excavation pit lay beneath a smooth layer of glass. At the bottom lay 12 or so wrinkled mummies, well-preserved in the exceptionally dry climate. They are indo-europeans! What more, the time they died was shortly before the volkervanderwung pushed our germanic ancestors out of central asia and into europe, where they eventually invaded england and pushed their influence far into scotland and ireland. we could even be related! I was feeling more at home in Xinjiang than ever. 

In the evening we wondered through the shadow-sloping streets, which seemed more middle eastern than anything else. Shops sold carpets silk and spices, restaurants grilled kebabs and had pretty metal tanks set up to wash your hands. The mosque was tall and well-tended (and strictly off limits to girls) and stalls were piled with melons, grapes, figs and other desert delights. I later realised this is a pretty rich place by Xinjiang standards, and not everywhere looks as healthy and self-satisfied. For dinner I accidentally ordered a whole dove on a stick, but luckily there were lamb noodles and ice tea to wash it down. The restaurant owners spoke not a single word of chinese, and I was dumbstruck at not being able to communicate. You get so used to the idea that you can just travel anywhere in China and people can at least communicate the basics, but here they just glared and started talking loudly at us in Uyghur. I was like, what is this?!

So we got a couple of teach-yourself-Uyghur books to read on the bus to Hotan tomorrow 😀

Stolen Photos

September 1, 2009

The upside of cameraless life is no stress, loss, damage, water danger, lack of film or similar catastrophe. The downside is no photos. Luckily I have friends with cameras. Here’s a few pictures taken by Joanne up until the point we left greater Tibet and entered Xinjiang.

1 Arriving for the living Buddha

Silk-clad tibetan knights dismount and the crowd heads up hill to the monastery, preparing for the arrival of the living Buddha 活佛 who will bless the people and ward away bad spirits brought out by the eclipse.

A hillside in Dege 德格 where new/traditional houses cut through the prayer flags

A hillside in Dege 德格 where new/traditional houses cut through the prayer flags


A Tibetan woman with a beautiful umbrellas, with a background activity on the Qingyuan grasslands

A Tibetan woman with a beautiful umbrellas, with a background activity on the Qingyuan grasslands

4 The view into TibetThis is the pass between Sichuan province and Tibetan autonomous region. Everything below is Tibet. 


Me sitting on a hilltop covered in prayer papers in Yushu, and looking like a bit of a muppet.

Me sitting on a hilltop covered in prayer papers in Yushu, and looking like a bit of a muppet.


We couldn't get a train ticket to Xinjiang so struck west by bus through Qinghai, the "siberia of China". here the rapeseed creates an amazing colour contrasts at the banks of the largest lake in China, qinghai lake

We couldn't get a train ticket to Xinjiang so struck west by bus through Qinghai, the "siberia of China". here the rapeseed creates an amazing colour contrasts at the banks of the largest lake in China, qinghai lake


The road from Qinghai to Xinjiang. On one of the few occasions when we were able to drive on the road as opposed to next to it.

The road from Qinghai to Xinjiang. On one of the few occasions when we were able to drive on the road as opposed to next to it.

An Unalienable part of China

September 1, 2009

I was once having a “discussion” with my friend Kong (a dyed in the eyes and proud CCP member) about Xinjiang province. This was several years back, well before the stuff kicked off this year. I may have been provoking him slightly. “So Xinjiang wasn’t always part of China. I wonder if there are any people who wish it still wasn’t?”. “Uneducated foreign nonsense! Of course Xinjiang has always been part of China!” “Then why is it called Xin – Jiang? (Xin Jiang means new border) Surely if Xinjiang is the new border, then once upon a time, when we had the old border, it wasn’t in China!” “Aiyorr, that’s coincidence, it’s just a name, it doesn’t have any meaning”. “Come on, all names are there for a reason. Ningxia is named after the Western Xia dynasty, Qinghai comes from the lake. Don’t tell me Xinjiang isn’t named for the border.” “Well China has a long long history. Perhaps Xinjiang once was not in China. But that was a very long time ago. Before most of your European countries even existed. Xinjiang is an unalienable part of China!”   

As ever, when confronted with the completely different scale of Chinese vs European history, it is difficult to know how to reply. Certainly the history of Xinjiang is far more complicated than either Kong or I would admit. As with many outlying areas under fluctuating levels of Chinese control and influence, its historical political situation depends entirely on definitions. It’s clear that from the international relations perspective, China was from quite early on able to set up a garrison, sign some documents with local leaders, and proclaim to international approval that officially speaking it owned the place. (An approach similar to British colony-collecting behaviour). It’s also clear that until 1949, there was only a tiny number of han chinese in the province, most of them on temporary assignment in garrison posts etc, and they had no direct influence over the vast majority of the population. Most local people spoke no Chinese, and had no interest or identification whatsoever with China. Most Chinese dreaded being sent to this wild and uncivilized outpost, and hoped for any opportunity to leave and go home. But that is history.

Today the newness or oldness of Xinjiang is irrelevant. The majority of the population is Chinese (almost all arrived in the last 50 years), and CCP territorial control is 130% complete. OK some Uyghur people want independence, but they have about as much chance as the Dalai Lama has of succeeding Hu Jintao in Zhongnanhai. We can debate local rights and autonomy, treatment of dissidents, religious freedoms and the spread of minority languages, but the ultimate question – the symbol, flag, border question, is not up for debate. But does that really make Xinjiang an unalienable part of China?

That word, the unalienable word is the absolute favourite of the Chinese nationalist lobby et al, and it is also a big problem. Literally 不可分裂的 – cannot be separated, it appears from red banners and official documents to online posts by 愤青 (fen qing – computer-savvy and sexually frustrated young hypernationalists). The particularly unalienable parts of China are the new three T’s – Tibet, Taiwan, and Turkestan cough cough sorry Xinjiang I mean. (New to distinguish from the old 3 T’s,which are the topics you’re not supposed to mention when teaching in the mainland – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen). But the term also extends to a variety of disputed islands no ordinary people given a flying eff about in the pacific, some chunks of uninhabitable mountain in the himalayas, and anything else which has had the glory of being graced by Chinese hobnobs at some point in history. But if you think about it for just a second, the choice of word is pretty bizarre.

For one thing, it is not true. Nothing is unseparable. Your head may seem a pretty inseparable part of your body, but try telling that to Marie Antoinette. Ireland was once considered an integral part of the UK, but that, er, didn’t last. Humans have been around for about a million years, and the longest potentially unbroken civilization (yes yes, the Chinese, well done) even at a generous 5000 years, is well under 1%of that. And who seriously thinks that China/the US/Azerbaijan will still be around 500,000 years from now. Any takers? Philosophically speaking the term is just stupid. So lets take a tolerant, short-term perspective. Erm, Taiwan anyone? In what way is Taiwan still a part of China? Beijng has only ruled it for four of the last 100+ years. OK so there are many on both sides who feel it should be part of China, and that at some point in the near future, it will be. In neither of those cases does cannot-be-separated apply. Because right now, politically and realistically speaking, it is very much separated. Unless….

… unless we redefine China. China, rather than being any political identiy (eg the PRC, or the RoC) is a culture. It is the culture of any place which is Chinese. Now that obviously does include the mainland as well as Taiwan, they’re both very much Chinese. It also includes large sections of other countries, too… Singapore is mostly Chinese… Penang Malaysia… how about China Town New York? Why shouldn’t they be part of China too? The only sticking point is that the Chinese who dominate these areas showed up at a time when the land had already been claimed and recognised by someone else. When the Chinese rocked up in the new borders (Xinjiang), the local Uyghur people were disorganized, had belonged to too many other empires, and were simply uanble to get them themselves together to convince anyone that they should be allowed to rule themselves. And once the Chinese had some official documents to “prove” it, they could as with Tibet, claim that they had rights to this land for eternity, that the people were their people, and that it was an unalienable part of China. But since neither Xinjiang nor Tibet is culturally Chinese (except in the harmonious 56 minorities sense of the word which should therefore also include Mongolia, Korea, most of central asia and Russia), we need another definition… how about history? Anywhere that has historically been part of China, is also an unalienable part of China today?  

If I were a Chinese nationalist I would take this and run with it. Going by historical dominance at some period of time, China can justify posession of lots of cool places. Forget Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese empire has also had as colonies Korea, Vietnam, and during the Mongol lords of the Yuan dynasty (which many will claim as being Chinese), probably most of Asia. At a pinch we could take in Japan and Myanmar too. The problem is that outsiders might want to muscle in. As a Brit I could be a bit of a spoilsport and point out that if we define “British” as “has ever been ruled by Britain”, we can not only nick Hong Kong back but also about 1/3 of the entire world. Indeed the Portugese presence in Macao is pretty much just as old as Chinese presence in Taiwan.

Quite clearly, this term “an unalienable part of China” has been used to the extent that it has lost any consistent philosphical/cultural/historical basis. It is not a fact that provides truth. Instead it is a statement of desire. “Cannot be separated from China” has come to mean “If you try any funny stuff I’ll scream and scream and if I can I’ll fekking annihilate you. And If I can’t (see Taiwan) I’ll sulk and throw a tantrum.” It is nothing more glamorous than realpolitik, and another example of how our political masters prey on constructed feelings of duty and patriotism in order to harness our energies in their favour. Is the “new border” of Xinjiang an unalienable part of China? Absolutely! Why? Because Beijing says so! Personally I think it’d be kindof cool if my flat in Edinburgh were an unalienable part of China too. As an official tenant with a name on the lease, perhaps I am entitled to call up the Chinese consulate in Edinburgh for a wee chat.


NB I am obviously not seriously trying to suggest that China has a roughly equal territorial claim over my room in Edinburgh as it has over Xinjiang. I’m just moaning about an expression which is a pet-hate of mine, and also very rationally suspect.

In Taipei airport

August 28, 2009

In 5 minutes my flight from Taipei to Frankfurt will start boarding, and I will  wing back over the country I have not left for over 13 months, and head home. 

Interesting fact: reading Edgar Snow’s interview with Mao in the 30’s, he says “when we’re in charge, we’ll regain what is rightfully part of China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and give freedom to our former colonies, such as Korea, Vietnam, and Formosa (Taiwan).” 

Guess Mr Chiang KS made him change his mind. 

OK I’m running for the plane!

Back from webless lands

August 24, 2009

Well I made it to Xinjiang, and back again! I even managed to hack into my blog and see that several people have left comments (yay, thanks :-)!) which I’ll reply to as soon as I get out of the mainland, since the proxy won’t let me post anything. This post again is being mailed to my mum so she can upload it.

I’ve only got a few minutes now, as I just got off a train from Urumqi and am about to leap onto another train to Yinchuan. I’m sitting in a smoky internet cafe right next door to Lanzhou station. The last post actually needs correcting a bit. By the time it was posted, I was already in Xinjiang, and had no intention of going to Urumqi. It’s almost three weeks since I had internet access.

When we got to Xining we found it impossible to get train tickets to Xinjiang (they wouldn’t sell to foreigners) and bought tickets to Lanzhou instead hoping to go from there. But at the last minute we met a guy who told us that would be a hopeless errand, and our best bet was to get a bus through northern Qinghai and enter Xinjiang on a mountain pass near the southern silk road. It took about 30 hours through an area known as the ‘Chinese Siberia’ since it is full of nuclear sites and labour camps. Every Han Chinese we met had been moved there/strongly encouraged to go there by the government, as part of their drive to resettle/develop/control the west.

At the border it felt like the end of the world. The road was under construction and we had to drive next to it, it was rocky desert with no plants or water, and the only industry seemed to be …. asbestos mining! We had to share a sweaty, ridiculously cramped car (three on the passenger seat, five on the back seat, four in the boot) driving for hours through lifeless rocky mountains before we descended into Xinjiang. Which was like another world. Full of melons and sweetcorn and Uyghur people in colourful scarves who took life slowly and didn’t stare at us foreigeners, since we looked pretty similar anyway. We discovered that the internet had been dismantled in the whole province, as well as international phone calls, and it would not be accessible again until late October (safely after the Chinese 60th anniversary of the Communist party taking charge). At this point my phone must have still had some signal from Qinghai, beause my mum phoned and managed to get through. I warned her we were in a communications blackspot, and asked if she could post something to that effect on my blog.

Then we set off west skirting the Taklamakan desert, along the southern silk road. When I have some more time there is so so much more I want to post about. Not only about Xinjiang, which was totally fascinating, but also about Tibet. Especially the conversations I had with people while we were in Tibetan regions. While I was in the area I was very careful with what I posted about, and I will not write in detail until I am back in Europe. It is also worth mentioning that all the names and identifying details of anyone I mention in this blog have been changed, except for me and friends who have said it is ok that I use their real names.

Right I’d better run. I’m heading to Yinchuan, which is where I used to live, and I’m desperately excited to be seeing again some good old friends 😀 Journey’s almost over.

Watch this space …

August 11, 2009

I’m now headed off into Xinjiang region, aiming for Urumqi and Kashgar, and may not be in touch for a few days. I have heard that there is no Internet connection at the moment, and it is difficult to phone out.

Thank you for reading my blog, and for your comments, which I really appreciate.

I’ll post again soon.


The end of Tibet

August 8, 2009

We’re leaving Tibet this afternoon. Now the plague is cleared, we’re leaping on the overnight bus to Xining. From there, we will hopefully travel due west. To Xinjiang. (You might have heard of this place in the news recently…)

So I thought I’d pop in some odds and ends I’ve failed to include elsewhere in my posts, just to wrap up. One was the Tibetan disco in Ganzi – brilliant fun! Men with 70’s hair and women in christmas tree tat mouthed along to power balads from the plains, and when the audience approved they raced up to the stage and threw white silk scarves around their necks. Mostly it was two drunk fat Han chinese throwing the scarves, and also jumping up on stage to join in the fun with sweaty shirts and awkward dance moves.

Another was some attitudes of Han Chinese towards the area in which they live. Most of the Han who are not military or police seem to be working in restaurants, shops, and taxis. Why did they come? The money’s good. “I used to work in Guangdong, but the business is slowing. My friend told me to come here.” “I’ve got a relative moved here five years ago, she said the business was good, so I came with my son.” “You can make so much money in western Sichuan! Look at the fruit, its fantastic, in Chengdu it costs 4 yuan a jin (half a kilo), here I can charge 7, the money is great!” “I came two months ago, there’s not a lot of taxis so I get good custom.”

What do these new immigrants think of the place they’ve moved to? “It’s alright, but it’s dangerous.” “The land is quite nice, but I wouldn’t go out alone”. “It’s too cold in winter. The Tibetans don’t like us.” “You should’t go to the countryside, and you must say in at night. Then the streets are not safe.” Why is it not safe? “The Tibetans. They are dangerous. They don’t like us.” “Some of the Tibetans from the countryside have funny ideas. They cause trouble. Just like the trouble in Xinjiang. It’s no good.” One restaurant owner put us to eat in the special room. “This is only for visitors. We don’t let Tibetans eat in here. These are the nice cups and the nice chopsticks. The Tibetans can’t use them. They’re very good quality.”

That’s not to say all the comments we met were hostile, money-orientated, or feeling threatened. One guy quite liked Buddhist temples, a woman rather enjoyed the scenery. But in general the only Chinese people I met here with really positive attitudes to the land and its people were educated tourists and backpackers. Tibetans, on the other hand, did not express such forthright views on the new immigrants. Perhaps they talked more about the Tibetan language. “It is beautiful and important, but very difficult to read.” “I don’t speak Tibetan properly.” “I hate speaking Chinese, I only do when I have to.”

While I was sitting outside our hostel in the evening, a 10-year-old girl skateboarded back and forth in front, monologuing at me. “I will be eleven next month. I am Tibetan but I don’t speak Tibetan. I understand but I don’t speak. I am too embarassed because it is not good. My mum always speaks Chinese with me, she says it is the common language, we must learn it. At school my grades for written Tibetan are very good. I want to learn English but I can’t speak English. Tibetan is almost the same as English. That’s why all the foreigners speak Tibetan. We think it is strange when they come to us and say “tashe delek” and speak Tibetan. Some speak Tibetan but not Chinese. Yes Tibetan is just like English. It sounds very beautiful. I want to learn English. My teacher said…” she flipped off the edge of the pavement, picked up her skateboard, and wandered off into the darkness.

And now I’m leaving Tibet, for a part of China which to me is a patch of darkness, where I’ve never been before.