Friday, May 25, 2018

"Tenderfoot on the Silk Road"

An extract from my article below has been published in Highlife magazine.  The full article appears under the photos.

Tenderfoot on the Silk Road


Travel may broaden the mind, but it frequently results in sensory overload.


This happened to me on my first visit to China, albeit to a less populated part of the country, western China.


Our journey began at Xi’an, former ancient capital of China.  Getting there involved a domestic flight after reaching Guangzhou (Canton).  Then that bane of travelers struck – a problem with luggage.  Luckily I had met up with some of the other 28 people with whom I would be traveling, mostly Malaysian Chinese. My bag did arrive at Xi’an on the same flight, but it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of furious words exchanged in Chinese.


First impressions are of the sheer size of this country, not just numbers of people, but the construction activity.  It is one vast construction site. This has resulted in over-construction – we were told that in some towns, around half of the apartment towers were unoccupied.  We were also told of corruption – in some cases involving the construction of stations for the excellent high speed rail. Elevators are more expensive than stairs, hence the several flights of stairs at these stations, leaving the traveler faced with lugging heavy baggage up and down these things. Porters aren’t always available.


Perhaps one of the most significant things that happened during our journey was the Malaysian election.  A corrupt government headed by Najib Razak, entrenched by gerrymander and tradition, lost power in a swing across ethnic divides, to give the Malaysia its first win by an opposition since independence 61 years ago in 1957. This news electrified my fellow travelers with Malaysian connections.


The election result showed that in Asia, a parliamentary democratic system can still provide an alternative.  Given the looming colossus of the single party, command economy system of China, and the token parliamentary system of Singapore, this could indeed prove significant.  However, as Zhou En Lai is reputed to have replied when asked of the significance of the French Revolution, it may be too early to tell.


In any case citizens of China and Malaysia must be asking “what’s next?”  In the former case, President Xi Jinping, a strong and seemingly brilliant leader for his country, has concentrated the reins of power in his hands, without identifying a potential successor as has been the usual practice after the period of time he has been in office.   Malaysia may be in the situation of de Tocqueville’s classic dilemma, the vulnerability of a repressive regime when it first attempts reform.


My next impression is of the helpfulness and honesty of the local people. At Xi’an on my first morning after arrival, I decided to set out and discover the city at dawn.  My plan was to walk in one direction, then return.  That isn’t what happened. 


As a keen photographer, I found much to attract my interest.  Historic buildings in golden light, a bustling fish market, street cleaners wielding straw brooms, early morning exercise being undertaken in parks, scooters and tuk tuk like vehicles laden with goods and produce – in short all the people whose activity is vital in bringing another day to life in a city of 9 million.


Then of course my feet began to tell me I needed to give up on finding the hotel, and hail a cab. The driver spoke no English.  He rang his niece who did, and I spoke to her over his mobile phone.  I could understand her, but she couldn’t understand me.  The driver solved the problem by driving me to an international hotel.  He found someone who speak English, and knew the address for the Grand Noble hotel.  After half hour or more, I was returned safe and sound, all for 16.50 Yuan.  Note to self – when traveling, always get a card from the hotel with its contact details printed in the local language.


In another incident, I was waiting at Guangzhou next to the baggage trolley I had been using.  An inquiry from at porter reunited me with my Kindle, still sitting in the top carry basket.


This is not to say all is sweetness and light in China – the fitting of a taxi in Guangzhou with numerous cameras, bars and alarm devices was testament to risks by drivers in China with others across the world including Australia. The bicycle delivery man for McDonald’s I photographed at Guangzhou carefully locked his machine and removed the lithium battery, before collecting his next load.


The high speed rail in China is excellent and my little band of travelers with Australian passports expressed their admiration;  we Australians made invidious comparisons to our own government.  A project to link say Sydney-Melbourne, is yet to leap off the drawing board and into reality.


However, there is a huge difference in scale.  For example, Xinjiang Province, the westernmost point of our tour, contains 30 million people.  It also has Turpan, the smallest place we visited, with 100,000 people.  This is equivalent to Toowoomba City, Australia’s largest inland regional centre, (excluding Canberra which is the nation’s capital).


The ability of China to decide on a national project and carry it out, is indeed awe-inspiring.  Imagine driving through a forest of wind turbines for the best part of an hour as we did from Turpan to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Our guide on this part of our journey said 20,000 turbines had been built in this part of the Gobi Desert, with another 100,000 yet to be built.  This is not to say China isn’t using coal fired power stations – we saw several of those in our travels.


Most places we went were broadly similar to Malaysia and Cambodia which I have visited, in that market vendors, small shop fronts, shopping centres, bustling chaotic traffic all abound – in short all the signs of daily commercial activity.  While police abound, there are signs of the limits being stretched, especially by vendors.


In Langzhou, while visiting the White Pagoda, we encountered a row of vendors half blocking our passage over a road overpass.  Suddenly we saw them sweep their goods into the blanket or rug upon which they had been displayed, and they scurried off.  Apparently they did not have permission to sell here, and had been tipped off that police were coming.


But when a crackdown does occur, it is felt.  In Xinjiang Province, half of its 30 million are Moslem Uigher people.  Here a new governor, recently from Tibet, upgraded security measures.  After arrival by rail, we were individually photographed.  Every tourist venue had baggage scanners and walk-through scanners.  Hotel fencing was topped with concertina rolls of razor wire.  Foreign SIM cards will not work in electronic devices, only Chinese (however FB, Instagram and Whats App don’t work in China, but Wechat does). No casual down town strolls here.


Airport security for the flight out of Urumqi was excruciating. 


In the days of the Silk Road, camel trains would meet at camping areas known as caravanserai.  The modern version of the caravanserai is the hotel dining room.  Here we met a Serbian, who was part of a European tour group traveling the Silk Road from west to east.  It took them 12 hours to cross the border to enter China.  


The impression we had was of an iron curtain around the Moslem areas of China.  Inside that curtain, the government has made opportunities available to improve living standards – in Xinjiang we were told of generous loans with 10% deposit for Uighers to leave mud brick homes for new 3 storey brick houses.  The family lives in the centre level, the bottom can be rented out, and top used to dry grapes, a major crop in Xinjiang province.


While there are many excellent museums, the rush to sweep aside the old for the new could mean that in the future little trace will remain of how people lived just a short time ago.  This is a pity for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, we often relate to other people as individuals at the domestic level, and it is more convincing if it is genuine rather than replica built heritage.  Visitors to Great Britain for example, may have experienced like us, staying in a thatched roofed farmhouse or cottage that was several hundred years old. Lastly, future generations with no knowledge or living family memory of the conditions experienced by the generations that went before them, may lack appreciation of the many benefits they enjoy in the current day.


This journey also convinced me of the worth of a tour guide.  A good one, like Amanda from Gansu Province, is extroverted and genuinely likes people.  Amanda endeared herself to us with her “hello, hello”, not being quite sure of difference between left and right, and eccentric pronunciations.  Above all, she quickly detected issues and solved them before they became problems.  Our party included an elderly man with bad feet accompanied by his daughter, and Amanda’s care and attention was exemplary.  In general most rail and airport staff seemed helpful, but slipups occurred. 


Amanda also told us of an amusing story which is probably an outcome of the one-child policy which saw boy:girl ratios reach over 110:100 .  Girls now have much greater bargaining power in Gansu than was previously the case.  When a boy wishes to get married, he (or his family), must not only buy an apartment (typically 100 square metres costing anywhere from Y1,000 to Y10,000 per sq. m.), it must be furnished as well.  In Gansu, the boy’s family is known as “the construction bank” and the girl’s family “the investment bank”.  Amanda is glad to have a daughter.


So what of the tour highlights?  Well, one does not see camel trains moving through the Gobi Desert.  The nearest we got to camels was at the Singing Sands outside Dunhuang.  Much of the Gobi that we saw, is productive where water is available.  This needs to be from snow-fed fresh water, as the underground supply is apparently too salty. 


There is a heritage of buildings that help convey some idea of what life might have been like.  The scale of China is not just a modern phenomenon.  The first emperor is buried near Xi’an.  After numerous wars, this emperor united China for the first time.  He commanded sufficient resources to construct the tomb of the kiln-fired clay warriors – 8,000 real-life figures in three major pits.  The town also has one of the best preserved city walls, wide enough for several carriages and several kilometers long.


The museums while good, are generally static.  Some places have audio visual documentaries which are great, while the cultural shows we saw on the Tang Dynasty at Xi’an, and the Silk Road, were excellent.


The Mogao Grottoes outside Dunhuang were the best for Buddhist art and sculpture.  They have been built into the side of a mudstone ridge, into an almost perpendicular cliff face.  While photos aren’t permitted, I was suitable entranced by the artwork.


The appeasement of other ethnic groups by the dominant Han population has a long history in China.  During the Song dynasty, the local Han governor commissioned a temple to be built in one of the caves.  On the left hand side of the entrance, the painting of male members of three generations are shown in line, with the governor at the front, while on the right is the female line.  However, the order is not what might be expected.  His Uigher concubines headed the lineup, followed by his Han wife, then daughters.


What the governor’s wife thought of this arrangement is unrecorded, but then she would not have been asked.


The ancient city of Yar out from Urumqi, is a world heritage site as are other places along the Silk Road.  Although badly eroded, and has suffered at the hands of the Mongols, it does give an appreciation of how villages were laid out at the time when the tinkling of the traders’ camel bells could be heard in the desert.


A contrast to the desert is the Heavenly Lake or Tianchi, out from Urumqi.  Here you depart your tour bus for a shuttle bus, which snakes its way up to meet conifer forests at the lake.  Deng Xiao Ping, the leader who famously opened China to the market economy, had a small villa here, in which he once spent three months recovering from illness.  During our tour, much of China seemed to be getting married; we encountered wedding receptions at restaurants we happened to be at, and on our visit to Tinachi, a wedding photo shoot was in progress.   Like the country itself, weddings seem to be conducted on a grand scale, there were people everywhere.


At Tianchi we dined at a Kazak restaurant.  It was the noisiest dining experience of my life. Nearby there were Kazak vendors with market stalls.  Apparently the nomadic Kazaks were offered housing and higher standard of living.  This they declined, the stall revenues fund their traditional way of life.  The guide commented that you could see them packing their TV sets, presumably into the panniers carried by horses, (they are renowned as horse riders and traders).  Now that would have been the shot of the trip, if I’d been able to see it.


But the most touching story to me is that of Kumārajīva, the translator who built the White Horse pagoda c. 380 AD in memory of his horse.  The translator had travelled through the Taklamakan Desert to reach Dunhuang when the horse collapsed.  Despite his efforts, the horse could not be saved.  The pagoda has nine levels to correspond with the age of the horse. Here we gain an appreciation of the hardships of travel all those years ago.


Our journey.


Our tour was organized by several members of our group and the itinerary arranged through China Access Travel.  We flew South China Airlines – Brisbane-Guangzhou-Xi’an outbound and home Urumqi-Guangzhou (with 2 day stopover)-Brisbane.


The Silk Road, an ancient trading route linking China to the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, operated at fluctuating levels for over a thousand years, until replaced by the ocean-going caravels of Portugal and Spain in the early 1500s. There are many books about the Silk Road, but one which examines word history from the perspective of the region, is Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads – a new history of the world”.


There were several routes across the Gobi Desert to Central Asia, our tour, the Northern Route, was just one such route.


In summary:


1.    Xi’an – Terracotta warrior museum  and factory, city wall, Shaanxi history museum, muslim quarter.

2.    Langzhou – White Pagoda park, Iron Bridge on Yellow River, ancient water wheels, Gansu history museum.

3.    Xining – Kumbum Tibetan monastery, Qinghai lake, Dongguan mosque, Museum of Tibetan Medicine.

4.    Zhangye – Giant Buddha, Rainbow Mountain.

5.    Dunhuang – Singing Sands and Crescent Moon lake, Mogao Grottoes, Shazhou night market, Dunhuang museum

6.    Turpan – Karez irrigation system, Imin minaret, White horse pagoda.

7.    UrumqiHeavenly Lake or Tianchi, international grand bazaar.


Surviving a Chinese banquet.


When traveling with a group of nearly 30 people, where all bar a couple are Chinese, there will be an emphasis on food.


Firstly, a joke by Chinese about food.  “If Adam and Eve were Chinese, they would still be in heaven.  Why?  Because they would have eaten the snake.” 


Every meal is an event.  Not content to dine at hotels, we ate at restaurants, and the serving style was a banquet.


Many courses are presented, and here one must be careful not to take too much from any one dish, as more are sure to follow.  It is a good idea to have some proficiency with chopsticks (tip, use the spoon in conjunction with the sticks when it really gets tricky), as knives and forks won’t always be available.


Rarely is anything de-boned, watch for fragments of bone or small bones in some fish while chewing.  Similarly, portions of pure fat, skin, ect I found myself having to remove to find the portions to my taste.  There may be a lot of food, but it takes to some effort for the novice to extract it.


Then there are the dishes that stare back.  Whole chickens chopped and arranged Spatchcock style, with the head attached.  Or a plate of quails with enough heads to resemble a busy day at the executioner’s block.


Then there was the camel toe.  Actually it was a boiled hoof.  Verdict – tough as leather.


Beer is usually served and there several different varieties.  The couple of Chinese reds I tried were very sweet.  Australians have some of the best wine in the world, so it has to be good to impress.  One of the distilled rice wines tasted a bit like brandy and was quite good, but in general these spirits weren’t to my taste (which is single malt or cognac).  It is almost impossible to be served good quality black tea.  Even the green tea, especially served at hotels, is often dishwater, and at one place, it was made using Lipton tea bags.  I did find a tea shop with row after row of beautiful leaf tea in Guangzhou, but my companion had to drag me from the premises reminding me I couldn’t bring it home (to where my Russian Caravan-Lapsang souchong blend awaits).




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