Monthly Archives: July 2014

Indiana Jones and the caves of Magao

At the point where Dunhuang stops being an oasis and starts being desert you’ll find the Caves of Magao. More than four hundred have been dug into the rock. Inside are carefully carved and painted Buddhist icons. Some statues are massive and reach to the sky, or they would if they weren’t in a cave. But I also want to offer a special mention of the reclining or otherwise sleepy looking Buddhas. We’re pretty enthusiastic about religions whose central figures are eager to nap.

When we visited the crowds were so large they cancelled the English language tour. So we dutifully followed from one cave to the next. The Mandarin commentary was only punctuated with occasional ooos and ahhhs from the hordes of domestic tourists. The caves deserved all the gushing they got.

The craftsmanship is superb and represents the influences of Persian, Indian and Chinese artisans who all came to work at this important silk road site. The caves were commissioned by merchants looking to buy merit, and a better afterlife as a result.

After Islam swept the silk road corridor the caves were mostly abandoned. When a British-Hungarian explorer named Aurel Stein arrived in 1907 he found just one caretaker monk living in the complex. Here comes the Indiana Jones part. The monk showed the Stein a false wall in one of the caves. Behind it thirteen thousand documents were hidden. Most were Buddhist Sutras, but the collection included representations from other religions too. They were written in a wide range of languages many of which were dead by the time the texts were discovered. The collection is a reminder of the diversity that was tolerated, and flourished, between the communities who traveled this silk road.

With cash and trickery (he pretended what he took was destined for a monastic library in India) Stein took away the most valuable of the documents. Other European explorers followed suit and extracted almost all the documents, and a fair amount of the artwork. . The documents that were removed offered an extraordinary amount of insight on the workings of the silk road route and the societies that surrounded it. The museum at the Dunhuang site offers thinly veiled resentment of this pillaging of Chinese treasures, however.

The wild west

En route to Kazakhstan we’re in China’s most westerly province. The Chinese call it Xinjiang which literally means new frontier. And then they’re surprised that there’s a separatist movement*. It’s like, come on guys, there’s a clue in the name!

Xinjiang is not a historical part of China. The ten million Uighur people that it encompasses were once an independent empire, and an influential one along the silk road. The Uighurs were ruled by the Soviets for a time before Xinjiang became part of Mao’s China. Their inclusion is uneasy at best. Xinjiang is theoretically an ‘autonomous region’, but it’s hard to imagine how you can have autonomy without democracy.

In debunking the idea that nations are primordial and eternal Benedict Andersen talks about how modern a concept the border is. Historically there was no clear line between one empire and the next. Instead the empire’s power was strongest at its centre, but faded with distance from its capital. Modern China feels a bit like this, except that Beijing’s influence has spread with its highways and high speed rail. They carry goods and Han Chinese migrating in search of new opportunities. Cities at their terminus, like Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, are still very Chinese. But outside the city limits is a different story.

More Middle East than Middle Kingdom

We visited an Uighur village an hour’s drive from Turpan. This village welcomes tourists who pay a small fee, but it probably doesn’t get many. There wasn’t much set up with us in mind except some obnoxious Mulberry Juice. But we were very happy to wander and soak up the difference.

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The Uighurs are a Muslim people. Among them we’ve seen more heads covered – men and women – than any other Islamic people we’ve visited. They speak a Turkic language that’s written in Arabic script. They’ve rounder eyes and bigger noses than the Chinese. It felt wrong to greet them with ni hao but we received many cheery “hellos”. Whereas the Chinese are always happy to be photographed, mothers of village children hid them away when we motioned requests to take pictures.The kids playing on the streets had toy guns. Maybe they were playing Uighur separatists. A grandma stood stripping a foul smelling sheep carcass that was gathering flies while her toddler grandson grabbed at intestines. In the mountains behind the village winds were whipping sands to obscure the view. It felt like a scene from the Kite Runner.

It felt so different that we were moved to think of ourselves as starting the next part of our trip: Central Asia and the Middle East. But not quite: we’ve returned to ‘real China’ for a few days in Urumqi now. It’s got all the Chinese brands we’ve come to enjoy, and the feeling of all the big Chinese cities. To the Chinese who live here it must feel like an Oasis in the desert. To the Uighur who now make up a minority of its population it must feel like an outpost of the oppressor they’ve come to fear and loathe.

*We’ll write more about the ongoing conflict here, and what we understand of what the Uighur think of China’s dominance, when we’re free from Xinjiang’s intense censorship.

First world traveler problem #638

Fiona won’t let me buy my body weight in watermelon. It would only cost $15NZD – watermelon is that astoundingly cheap here – and I think it would be oddly satisfying.

Fiona wants to know what I would do with the watermelon. She thinks it would embarrassing to buy the stuff, enjoy its company and then give it back to the vendor. I admit it would be difficult to explain with hand gestures and very limited Chinese.

So I propose that we could move the watermelon to another spot by taxi. Fiona is unmoved. She wants to know what we would do with it then. I should like to give away big slices. Kind of like buying the world a coke. Problem is, there’s a good chance that everyone in this town already owns their body weight in watermelon. There are stacks of them everywhere.

China does the environment

Somewhere in the dunes outside Dunhuang are 5,000 wind turbines. We only saw a few as we flew in, but since 2005 the Chinese government has been pledged $700 billion to develop wind energy. By 2020 it wants 15% of China’s electricity generated from renewable sources.

When I worked on emissions trading policy it was trendy to say that China was opening a new 200MW coal fired power plant every fortnight, dwarfing whatever thermal power developments New Zealand had on the books. But since 2011 China’s wind developments have been growing at a rate of about 750MW per fortnight. If their commitment to renewable energy is half as strong as to high speed rail, I’d say they’ll reach their 15% goal with ease.

This flies in the face of how we tend to perceive of China in climate change debates – the ambivalent mega polluter. My suspicion is this characterisation is all the easier to make because of the same unspoken xenophobia that gets us freaked out about Chinese ownership of New Zealand dairy farms, or flying on a Chinese certified plane. Otherwise I can’t see how the China-as-a-baddie narrative is sustainable when China’s new energy is firing a new level of comfort and development for its citizens that we already enjoy.

The growth of refrigeration in China is a good example.* In the twelve years after 1995 refrigerator ownership in urban households jumped from 7% to 95%. Refrigerated supply infrastructure has developed to match. Refrigeration can improve food safety and give consumers more choice in products. It can also reduce wastage in the supply chain (though US studies suggest wastage just shifts from on the way to the store, to in home where consumers chuck more out.)

Refrigeration comes with massive environmental costs. First, up to 15% of energy worldwide is used on cooling. That’s counting the electricity keeping fridges going in homes, stores and warehouses, and the diesel for the trucks that get them there. Second, fridges use gases that harms the environment to keep things cool. And they leak between 2 – 15% per year.

China’s refrigeration revolution has begun, but it’s not done. As wealth and reticulated electricity spreads, more and more families will forget how to preserve, ferment and pickle and will buy their tofu and chicken feet from Walmart.

China’s a good punching bag on climate change issues. Even its own government admits its environmental future is “not optimistic”. But to baldly chastise it while foraging from our well-stocked fridges is nonsense. We should acknowledge our greater responsibility when our per capita emissions are much higher than the average Chinese. Plus, we should give credit where credit is due: good job on the wind farms, China.

* Info about refrigeration comes from a great article in the New York Times. Unfortunately, because Xinjiang bans access to the NYT, and VPNs, I can’t link to it right now.

“Sleeping” bus


We took a “sleeping” bus out of Dunhuang.

We’re reasonably accustomed to overnight bus travel in the seated variety, so we were optimistic about the added comfort a sleeping bus would offer. We also wondered just what it meant.

The bus was arranged in three aisles. Each contained two tiers of narrow recliners. We could lie with our legs outstretched and from about our torso up we were up on an angle. It sounds more comfortable than it was. The seat in front was angled in such a way that our feet had to be skewif.

When we boarded at 7pm an electronic display advertised 37 degrees outside and 49 degrees inside. The bus idled at the station for forty minutes. We hoped this was to get the aircon working, but no, it was just to wait for the bus to fill up. Once off into the desert I’d say it took a good two hours for the temperature to drop. The thick duvets we were issued with were absurd. They seemed no purpose other than to take up space.

In a nod to cleanliness we were all required to remove our shoes when we entered, but the bus itself was pretty grubby. My upper bunk had a charming view of dust and cob webs and chewing gum stuck to the roof. This was glamorous travel

Once things cooled down and we got to grips with the inevitability of spending thirteen hours on the bus we both managed to get some sleep. I even slept through the military check point as we crossed a provincial border. But actually, a seated bus would have been more comfortable, and the sleeper trains are immeasurably better too.

Things Chinese people say

American overheard in a bar: It seems inevitable that Taiwan will return to mainland China at some point, I guess the question is when. I don’t know, five years, twenty five years?
Their Chinese colleague: Definitely within five years.
American: But I think maybe it won’t happen until China becomes more democratic.
Chinese colleague: Five years.

Chinese student: Have you been to China before?
Fiona: Well I went on a tour of Tibet, but that’s different.
Chinese student: So this is your second visit to China.

American English teacher: My favourite Chinese cuisine is Xinjiang cuisine, because it’s not really Chinese.
Chinese student: Xinjiang province is China.
Teacher: Hm, what about Africa province?
Student: *Confused*

Descent into Dunhuang


We landed in desert. I’d been watching out my window for an hour, waiting for the Dunhuang oasis to emerge from the desolate, sandy landscape. As our landing gear dropped a highway came into view, flanked by wind farms, but there was nothing green anywhere.

It was 8.30pm at night, and the sun was oddly high in the sky. Beijing requires the whole country to live in its timezone putting far west China out of kilter. Even as the sun dropped over the next hour you could really feel its force. Humidity can make the air feel unbearably like soup. But there’s something similarly punitive about the directness of desert heat. Whereas the scrum beats the queue in much of China, here queues twist and stretch into single file for a chance of shade.

It took a drive along the highway before Dunhuang started to feel like an oasis. It was suddenly green and with the windows down it smelt like agriculture. Crops were dense and vibrant and workers harvested their fruits. We’ve bought watermelon and nectarines so unexpectedly juicy that one bite has sent me rifling through our first aid kit for an alcohol wipe to clean off the keyboard.

Dunhuang’s got a couple of hundred thousand people but it feels profoundly provincial. It’s like the towns at home where refurbishment of the local McDonalds makes front page news. It’s primarily an agricultural service town now, but it used to be an important way point on the silk road. It still feels Chinese. The look of the people, the sound of the language, the choices on the menus are all pretty much the same. But we’re starting to get a sense that we’re on the edge of something and that, whatever borders atlases might mark, the Chineseness is likely to fade away in the next week of travel. We’re also traveling further away from the beaten track. The one other international hostel says we’re the first westerners she’s seen in three weeks.

On like donkey kong (with noodles)


It’s hard to imagine an environment where the most useful English word a second language speaker could know is donkey, but we found one.

We’d spent most of the day sheltering from the oppressive desert heat and, as a consequence, had not done much in the way of looking at Sites. So when we saw a sign advertising donkey noodles on a street without any other English lettering, we thought we’d let our taste buds do the tourism.

The waitress greeted us with a broad smile. “Donkey” she said “donkey meat”. We nodded. Donkey meat arrived.

Maybe it was the framing of our guide book’s description that made me think so, but I agree with lonely planet that donkey meat tastes like roast beef. Not the world’s best roast beef. More of the boarding school variety. But it was quite passable, and it was a nice change to be eating meat without bones. The Chinese tend to think meat is tastier on the bone, so their dishes are seldom without them.

Fiona and I counted, and the addition of donkey brings our collective total of meats tried to twenty. That’s mammals and reptiles, at least. There are no meats that I’ve tried that you couldn’t find in a decent New Zealand supermarket that I would rush back to eat again. Donkey is no different.

What we say in Chinese

Fear not, this will be a short post. We’ve very little Mandarin. But we like to think that, along with enthusiastic head shaking and nodding, it’s enough to get by.

  • Xie, xie – thank you. Probably the thing we say more than anything else. Occasionally I have been known to use this to mean ‘delicious’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’ as well.
  • Xin xe lan – New Zealand. The answer to the question we are most commonly asked. Also a kind of quasi excuse in response to all the others. If folks are ranting at you, this one is your best bet.
  • Ji ge – That one. What we say when we’ve got a picture menu.
  • Yi ge / Liang ge – One of those / two of those. What we say when we’re picking things out in a shop, or eating street food.
  • Duo shao qian – How much is it?
  • Ting bu dong – I don’t understand. In case it wasn’t already incredibly obvious.

We’ve also a reasonable handle on the numbers, Fiona more than I. Luckily counting goes up in a very logical way. We’re also pretty good at hand signals for numbers. Interestingly they count one to five on fingers just like we would, but six through ten is symbols that wouldn’t be out of place in paper-scissors-rock. Given this, we’re just enormously grateful that they ended up with a base ten number system. We’re also super thankful that written numbers are almost always in roman script.

Correcting imperialist Chinese cartography one in-flight magazine at a time


Whoever is lucky enough to be sitting in seat 50L and 50K on board China Eastern’s first flight out of Dunhuang tomorrow morning will find their in-flight magazine annotated to  identify the following as nations: Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkestan.

They will also find a more reasonable assessment of China’s claims over islands in the South China Sea. The island a thousand miles from China and fifty miles from Malaysia, in particular, is no longer shown as sovereign Chinese territory.

I’d have scribbled on more magazines if I could, but I dropped my pen.

While we’re on the subject of Things That Are Wrong, I was pretty grumpy that the back of the China Eastern boarding pass featured a Singapore Airlines 777 with its tail marking photo-shopped off. For. Shame.