An interesting part of travel is reading news about countries you’ve traveled in and having a new kind of affinity for what is going on there. It also means I tend to seek out news from places we have traveled in a way I wouldn’t have previously. Here are some examples of news that have raised my eyebrows recently:
TAP Air Portugal is starting nonstop flights from Lisbon to Bogota. You probably don’t care about that, though. You may be more interested that the US has withdrawn its request to extradite a man they thought was money-laundering, but it turns out is a carpenter who can’t use a computer.
China claims to be phasing out its practice of harvesting kidneys from death penalty victims to use for patients who need them. This strikes me as a difficult ethical issue. If you accept the validity of the death penalty then to me taking organs seems okay.
Remember the Uighur minority in China’s troubled Xinjiang province? We talked to a brother and sister who told us a sad story of how tough it is for them to get by in the face of the overwhelming economic and political power of Han Chinese.
Now, in a move claimed to be promoting inter-ethnic harmony, some parts of Xinjiang are offering substantial bribes incentives to Han-Uighur (or other minority) couples who get married. There’s about $10,000NZD in cash, which goes a helluva long way in Xinjiang, plus assistance with housing and healthcare.
This is an astounding piece of social engineering. I might find a way to support it if it were genuinely breaking down inter-ethnic barriers and supporting couples in the face of intolerant attitudes that might scorn mixed race marriage. But my strong sense is the real agenda here is essentially to breed away the Uighur sense of difference, and the conflict that comes with it.
For the next two weeks the Karakoram Highway will shape our travels. It’s the road from Kashgar, China, to Islamabad, Pakistan. It passes through the Karakoram ranges for which the world’s second highest mountain, K2, was named. Historically it was an important silk road trading route, but today we understand it is a well maintained highway, redeveloped with Chinese money. China wants to increase its linkages with Pakistan, and is especially interested in shipping goods from Karachi.
The highways is known for outstanding scenery. The first leg today from Kashgar to Tashkurgan was genuinely breathtaking. But we understand the best is yet to come.
We’re in Tashkurgan, the very last town in China before the border with Pakistan. Were it not for the official buildings that come with being the seat of the Tajik Autonomous Community, it would feel like a village, but their pomp and circumstance makes it rise to the level of town. It’s not clear that this ‘autonomous region’ has any more independence than Xinjiang, and if it does that probably owes more to its remoteness than any genuine devolution of power.
We really are in the middle of nowhere. It was seven hours along a dusty road from Kashgar. And there’s about 100km of no mans between here and Pakistani border formalities, including the western end of the Himalayas with peaks reaching above 8,000m.
Tashkurgan was another important stop on the silk road. This is seen most clearly in the ruined fort just on the city’s outskirts. Beyond are grasslands when yaks and camels join the standard horses, cows and sheep. The hills around are arid and angular, and the higher among them are capped with snow, even in this height of summer. We think it looks like Afghanistan and it turns out filmmakers do too. Tashkurgan provided the backdrop for most of the filming of The Kite Runner.
There’s just a hint of Pakistan emerging. We ate yak curry with chapatis for dinner and had the first strange recognise New Zealand because it’s a cricket country. We chatted with a Pakistani man tonight who told me excitedly he had once seen Mark Greatbatch play. Bring on the cricket chat, I say. It’s a nice change from talking about whether New Zealand really looks like Lord of the Rings (and/or Harry Potter).
We’ve mentioned before the ridiculousness of the observance of a single time zone across China. China is easily the largest country in the world with just one timezone. Along its northern border different parts of Russia have three separate timezones.
Everyone is supposed to wake and work at the same time as Beijing, though geographically China’s Western extremes are as close to the Mediterranean as they are to their capital. It’s not been such an issue for us because a) people here effectively operate on ‘Xinjiang time’ which is two hours behind Beijing and b) it’s the height of summer so there is plenty of daylight to go around. But in winter, which can be pretty dire here, it must be horrible.
Nowhere is the absurdity of Beijing time observance clearer than at the border with Pakistan which we plan to cross today. You’d need to travel about three thousand kilometers due West of Auckland before you gained three hours. We will do it in a single step.
Returning from the stans we were looking forward to Chinese food. It wasn’t easy to find in Kashgar, a city that is not really Chinese, but when we did it was just as we remembered: fresh, flavorful, varied.
I had thought of writing an ode to Chinese food until I remembered that someone already had. The author of Rebecca Black’s cult classic Friday also penned this similarly atrocious number entitled Chinese Food. Watch in particular for the tweenage singer getting hangry and pushing stuff over, and the rapping panda bear. You’ll never forget this tune. Happy Friday.
Uighur food ranges from exceptional to inedible. The variation is mostly a function of the quality of the meat, and whether or not said meat is offal. We’ve never eaten so much sheep meat in our life, and the best stuff is just wonderful.
Everyone in Asia claims that Marco Polo went back to Europe inspired by their noodles. I think that’s most believable coming from the Uighurs. Their noodle dishes are spicy and mostly without sauce so they don’t taste Italian, but the texture and shape of the pasta does have an Italian feel. We’ve seen some shops selling something that could have come straight from my treasured fresh pasta machine at home.
So I am unsure whether fragrance is something that anyone – concubine or otherwise – should necessarily aspire to be remembered by. It strikes me as at least ambiguous whether being fragrant is a good thing. But the information panels at the beautiful tomb just outside of Kashgar insist that the concubine contained therein “had an exceptional aroma from birth”. Still ambiguous, I feel. Good exception? Bad exception?
The same panels recount the story of this scented concubine. She was part of the imperial harem in Beijing in the seventeenth century where she was one of the Emperor’s favourites.”Love between this Uighur maid and the Emperor is evidence for great unity among different ethnic groups” they claim. Okay, so, a couple of things about this. First of all, I’m not convinced that the literal prostitution of ethnic minorities by the ruling powers in Beijing is really the kind of metaphor for national unity you want to champion, however accurate it may remain. Second, there is an Uighur story about the concubine that runs in quite a different direction. She was an independence leader in the Uighur version, who was taken to Beijing against her will, and away from her lover, and she died of a broken heart. Put that on your panels, China.
The tomb itself really is stunning. We especially appreciated the delightfully asymmetrical tiles that cover it in different patterns. We were less enticed by “take picture place” which offered costumes so you could dress up like a concubine. And odd addition to an otherwise peaceful and beautiful place.
We’re shopping for attire that will be suitable for Fiona in Pakistan and Iran. That means tunics that cover the butt and elbows, as well as headscarves. Fiona is bothered that I don’t have to cover up in the same way. “But won’t they be distracted by your sexy elbows?” she asks. I imagine they will.
One of the challenges is that the garments are neither cut, nor coloured to Western tastes. Wearing long, baggy stuff for cultural reasons is one thing. But wearing stuff that is totally ridiculously coloured is another. You can see from the picture that we were struggling to find something subdued. Fiona found one tunic that works well enough. Hopefully there will be more in Pakistan.
We’ve been searching for reference points by watching closely what the young Kashgari women wear. There’s quite a variety: headscarves like bandanas, or more what we imagine as more classically Muslim; tight long pants versus long flowing skirts; sequins everywhere imaginable. We’re left with a lot more questions than answers: is clothing just a fashion statement, or an indication of how devout/conservative you or your family is? Do young women just suddenly turn up to school one day head-scarved when their family considers it appropriate? Or is it more like high school ball dates when one day no one has one and the next everyone does? How must it feel to be the last girl in your friend group whose parents want them to cover up?