Category Archives: China

The colour of Kashgar

We’ve loved our visit to Kashgar. It’s a vibrant city that feels true to its history as an ancient silk road trading post. It’s colour has really boosted our enjoyment of travel. Very timely as we needed some re-invigoration about travel.

It doesn’t feel like a Chinese city any more than Auckland does: there are parts where you could live your life speaking Chinese, but if you did you would miss what the city is all about. The whole central city feels like the Urumqi bazaar. The haze in the sky doesn’t come from factories, but from charcoal grills on every street corner cooking mutton kebabs. Between them and the sheep carcases being butchered in the street, sometimes I feel like the whole city smells like lamb.

Kashgar feels like less of a Police state than Urumqi. In Urumqi the military presence included tanks every couple of blocks and patrols in between. Here the only real military we’ve seen have been guarding the People’s Square and its massive statue of Mao. It’s an austere and unvisited monument that doesn’t feel at all like the heart of the city. Instead that heart is at the major Mosque.

In Urumqi security measures mimicked flying. There were metal detectors to get into shopping malls and restaurants and Fiona got scolded by a police officer for trying to take bottled water on to the bus. Here it all feels much more relaxed. Maybe China feels this city is lost to its original culture. Or maybe there’s not enough that signifies Chinese authority for terrorists to try and blow up.

In any case, while our passports will record that we returned to China for Kyrgyzstan, that’s not how we will remember this part of the journey. We’ll say we visited another quaint and misunderstood culture along the silk road.

Good to know

All of it shows fully that Chinese government always pays special attentions to the another and historical cultures of the ethnic groups and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Party’s religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of equality, unity and helps to each other, and freedom of belief is protected. All ethnic groups live friendly together here. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities.

This notice appears outside the main Mosque in Kashgar. It is so good to know that Xinjiang province is so harmonious, free from terrorism or oppression. And that all the ethnic groups love the party’s religious policy!

If Alice the Camel has one hump is Alice the Camel a camel?


Our travels have taken us back to the lands of camels and so an important question has arisen again. Are dromedaries, who only have one hump, camels? This question arises from the preschool song about Alice the Camel which involves counting down the number of Alice’s humps. When Alice only has one hump the punchline is that she is no longer a camel.

Wikipedia has an answer that is to do with science. Dromedaries are a kind of camel, it says, also known as the Arabian Camel or Indian Camel. But actually I think a more satisfying answer was provided by our camel driver when we trekked in Indian desert some years ago. He had clearly given this question a lot of thought. He’d probably been asked by a lot of backpackers like ourselves. He had reviewed the picture on camel cigarette packets he said. They only had one hump. Ergo dromedaries were camels. The end.

Kyrgyzstan/China border post


Crossing from Kyrgyzstan back to China was our most remote border crossing yet. We chose to cross the Torugart pass because the journey was considerably shorter than the busier southern route. Unfortunately it was also viciously expensive. We had to hire drivers on both size and pay for a bunch of paperwork. Total cost more than $400NZD. To be fair, that did include a whole bus to ourselves on the Chinese side. The bus had deposited an Italian tour group at the border, but had only us to carry back to Kashgar.

It was three hours drive from Naryn to the frontier, three hours of wait, and then four hours on to Kashgar. The landscape was the kind you’d want to live on if you were a nomadic horseman, all endless grasslands and hills with a gentle contour. But you might like to fly south for the winter. The border was at 3700m and it was pretty chilly.

Kyrgyz formalities were easy. Big snaps to them for being easily the easiest of the stans to get in and out of. Chinese formalities were no big deal either, except that there were four separate checks between the border and Kashgar and only in the last was our passport actually stamped. There’s a large military presence throughout Xinjiang, and the border is an obvious focus for the military. There was barbed wire and guard towers as far as we could see.

Most of the traffic over Torugart was trucks. Most were Kyrgyz flagged, but we understand they generally carry goods from China to Kyrgyzstan. There were also some German branded trailers being hauled to China. It’s a helluva long way to go from Western Europe, but via Kyrgyzstan is one of the most direct routes and there is serious talk for forging a railway through to connect China to Uzbekistan and beyond.

China’s influence in Central Asia doesn’t feel massive at the moment, in fact it was hard to believe how close it was to Naryn. We didn’t see so much as a Chinese restaurant, or a shop with imported plastic junk. The more noticeable ethnic minority is Russian. But there is a lot of chat about China seeking to increase its influence. The rail link through Kyrgyzstan is a good example, as is the pans for oil pipelines into Kazakhstan. I’d look out for MA-60s flying in Central Asia soon.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s neighbour

We’re headed back to China’s Xinjiang province, land of incredibly tight censorship. Before we do, this post tells the story of a conversation we had about the conflict there.

We were in classic lost traveler pose: big packs on, hunched over our guidebook. She wore a polka dot bandana that looked more gypsy than Muslim. She’d spotted us, she later said, because of how quizzically we were looking at the Chinese army tank at the bus station entrance, and heavily armed guards around it. “We use to,” she said.

In simple English with a hint of Bond villain accent she offered us directions and then, when she found her brother, a ride to our hostel in Urumqi.

Brother got on the phone for directions and spoke fluent Mandarin. So I asked sister what her first language was. “Uighur,” she said. That was enough to unleash a roller coaster conversation about the plight of their people, their disdain for Chinese government, and their sympathy with those who take radical action against it.

At one point sister apologised for the polemic. We urged her to continue. At another, the two conferred amongst each other. It was dangerous to talk about these issues with strangers, they said. We promised they weren’t Chinese spies, so they went on. We never learned their names (so sister and brother will have to do) but we got an amazing insight into the realities of the Xinjiang conflict.

Their story wasn’t fundamentally about Islam or identity. It was about everyday oppression and lack of economic opportunity. Sister’s limited vocabulary left her with repetition as her only tool for emphasis so we heard this a lot: “I speak Chinese, Uighur, English, use computer. All. Him Chinese he get job not me.” Go into any bank, they said, and you will find only Chinese working, and only in Mandarin. Uighurs who only have their mother tongue can’t access services – a loan, a savings account – that they need to get ahead. Outside the bazaars, and the restaurants selling shishkebab and naan, most Uighurs we saw were street cleaners, the womens’ bright orange overalls capped off with a face ask and a head scarf.

Uighurs are feared outside of Xinjiang. They can’t move to the big cities to work in iPhone factories like other rural Chinese. And they’re rarely issued passports so they can’t travel overseas for work, even though they’d probably find a much more comfortable culture in nearby Tajikistan, Krgyzstan or Kazakhstan. “We do not have free,” brother said.

Social services are a problem too. Chinese doctors can no more communicate with Uighur patients than Chinese bank tellers with Uighur customers. Brother talked about being called into the hospital to translate for friends. Uighur children must now be educated in Mandarin from kindergarten. “How,” asked sister, “can you expect our children to learn another language when they do not speak their own?”

The complaints that brother and sister offered weren’t about Chinese people. They were irked by the no holds bar capitalism that Chinese migrants had brought to Urumqi (“Chinese people very like fox”) but they were clear that their complaints rested with the government, not its citizens: “Uighur people good. Many Chinese people good. But the government is bad. We hate the government.”

The economic oppression is so real and the hate is so strong, they said, that some Uighur “can no longer bare it”. They take matters into their own hands.

In October 2013 a group of Uighurs drove an SUV into Tiananmen Square and set it on fire. Five people were killed and 34 seriously injured. The driver was a neighbor to brother and sister.

He was a good man, they said. To their mind the story of his life led to a logical conclusion that we would call terrorism. The driver’s son and younger brother had been imprisoned in Xinjiang, sister said, for circulating copies of the Koran. They died in prison, probably at the hands of guards. Their father wanted an explanation. He bounced around China’s bureaucracy like a ball in a pinball machine knocking on one door and then another, including in a trip to Beijing. He got no answers. He was desperate. He died in the SUV he set alight.

Sister wasn’t advocating violence per se, but sympathised with it in the face of personal tragedy. “I don’t know, maybe I would do the same,” she confessed.

The Tiananmen Square fire was not an isolated incident. Uighur terrorists killed 33 people at Kunming train station with knives, and injured 143 more in March this year. Personal tragedy might explain why some Uighurs are radicalized, but the violence is probably better understood as a separatist movement. Many of the ten million Uighurs want out of China and a new state called East Tajikistan.

Brother and sister say reports of violence are exaggerated and some are made up. Ordinary crimes are trumped as terrorist attacks. And the state violence against Uighurs – like the Chinese murder of an Imam – is never reported. They find themselves yelling at the television. Chinese censorship may have effectively made the nation forget the 1989 violence in Tiananmen Square, but it can’t make Uighurs forget their conflict, because they’re still living it.

The Chinese have done a good job keeping the Xinjiang conflict out of international media, especially as compared with Tibet, where the issues are broadly similar. Search “Tibet conflict” on and you’ll get twenty pages of results. Search “Xinjiang conflict” and you’ll get eight single results with The Idiots Guide to World Conflicts in fourth spot. Sure Tibet has a government in exile, a revered leader, and a movie where kids play soccer in flowing orange robes. I also wonder if it’s easier to get on board with China’s charaterisation of Uighur Muslims as terrorists than of Tibetan Buddhists. The truth is, both are setting themselves on fire.

Sustaining a coffee addiction in China


Long distance travel does away with most routines – bed times, meal times, work and rest times – but my morning (and often afternoon) coffee is one habit I’ve been reluctant to let go. South America was generally happy to sustain my addiction, especially the likes of Colombia. China, not known for its coffee drinking culture, promised to be a bigger challenge.

Hong Kong eased us into China in many ways, and I was thrilled to indulge in a Wellington flat white at one of Fuel Espresso’s two Chinese stores (the other, in Shanghai, I didn’t visit, but I was comforted to know of its existence). An indulgence it was. At 49 HK dollars it was almost twice it would cost at home.

On the mainland we found an emerging coffee drinking culture. Major chains were popular in larger cities – and sporting a Starbucks cup an obvious status symbol. Some even had independent cafes serving decent espresso coffee. But at around 30 yuan for a cappuccino (NZD $6) prices were way out of step with other food and drink in China. My latte could buy a basic meal for four people. Tea, incidentally, was also surprisingly expensive.

So what did I do in between expensive coffee splurges? China had an array of bottled drinks that extended to about 15 types of iced tea and at least half a dozen of iced coffee. These coffees sustained my addiction while providing welcome refreshment from the heat. My favourite was the trusty Nescafe for 4 yuan a pop.


The road to Kazakhstan


It took us thirty hours to get to Almaty from Urumqi. Six of those were spent waiting at the border. The rest were on another notorious “sleeper” bus.

We left in the early evening and sometime before nightfall we passed as close as we’re ever likely to to the point on the earth’s surface that is furthest from any sea. It’s called the ‘Eurasian pole of inaccessibility’ and it was a useful symbol for the fact that, though Kazakhstan is in the middle of everything, it is its middleness that makes it so remote.Our bus mates included three toddlers who were at once scared of and mesmerised by the bouncy ball tied to elastic that I used to throw to pass the time at rest stops. Their presence was another example of something we’ve observed throughout our travels: outside of New Zealand (and/or the West) little ones are routinely expected to do things – stay up late, travel on long journeys, walk long distances – that would be considered herculean or impossible feats for kids at home. Sure, the toddlers got a little tired and grumpy as the hours dragged on but, hell, we all did.


The peril of pretty black passports

The border crossing was a mission. The Chinese side was okay. An official took our passports and examined them in detail. The fancy New Zealand fern covers might be pretty, but they probably attract unhelpful attention. “You are going to central Asia for sight seeing?” he inquired, bemused. Yes, we are. We then had to rattle off all the countries we plan to visit before returning home to New Zealand. As those of you familiar with our forward plans can appreciate, this can take some time.

It seemed like the interrogation might end, but then he paused. “I ask you more questions?” he said. We couldn’t turn him down. “Wellington is the capital of New Zealand?” We confirmed it was. He continued: “New Zealand, Harry Potter, J R R Rowling?” We set him straight: “that’s England, but in New Zealand we have Lord of the Rings.” This satisfied him immensely. “Ah, yes. The Ring,” he said. With the broad smile of knowledge confirmed he waved us through to traverse no man’s land before Kazakh formalities.

Entering Kazakhstan without cash money

We stayed on no man’s land for at least four hours. For no obvious reason the vehicles wanting to cross were in massive, slow moving queues. When we got out of the bus and into the queue for Kazakh immigration a man in military dress approached us. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but wanted to know where we were from. He too seemed to think our shiny black passports afforded us special foreigner status and marched us to the front of the line. We waited patiently there until his colleague, also in military uniform, came and marched us to the back again.

The Kazakh immigration officer was the first local with blond hair and blue eyes I’d seen in months. She spoke enough English to quiz us about our plans and was on the verge of stamping our entry approved when she called over a serious looking colleague. This had me a little worried, until his self conscious giggling gave away the real purpose of his questions: to practice English. He asked my name. He asked my age. He asked my name again. He asked Fiona her horoscope. He asked where my immigration card was when he was holding it in his hand.

The customs officer next up had little English, but he had what he needed. “Passport” he barked, and I handed it over. “Cash money,” he stated boldly. “Good try, but no,” I said. His computation of my refusal gave me enough time to grab my passport and march out to the waiting bus. In hindsight it’s possible he wanted me to declare foreign currency I was bringing into the country. But it sounds like “cash money” is basically the way things get done with government officials in Kazakhstan, so I probably did, indeed, escape offering a bribe.


From the border it was another seven or so hours into Almaty. The road was bumpy and single laned, despite being the main highway from China. The desert and steppe landscape rolling by was majestic and open, punctuated only by the occasional yurt.

We were super grateful to be met in Almaty by the friend we would be staying with. We’d been told our bus would arrive at 5pm. She’d been told 9pm and had been waiting since. It ended up being about 11pm.

The ideology you have when you’re not having ideology

Nationalism. It’s got flags.

The English language version of Chinese state owned TV is always entertaining. It’s a window into the parallel universe of Chinese news media where different things are true. When we last watched a massive Chinese military exercise off the coast near Shanghai was the top story. Its paralytic effects on civilian air traffic went unmentioned.

The reporter interviewed a retired Chinese naval officer. His answers were spliced with endless shots of missiles careering off Chinese warships. No, he said, it was just a coincidence that the exercise coincided with the hundred and twentieth anniversary of the Sino-Japanese war. It had been planned as part of an annual calendar (because apparently it’s impossible to anticipate anniversaries in advance). But, he laboured, there were still messages given what he called “growing tensions” with Japan: keep your hard right politicians in check, don’t think about participating in foreign wars, and keep your hands off the rocky outcrops China claims as its territory, thanks.

The Japanese bare the brunt of China’s aggressive nationalism. I’ve read accounts of an engineering student who told a journalist he wanted to build tanks to exterminate the Japanese, and of shops that literally use Japanese flags as door mats. But almost any nationalist cause will whip the Chinese population into fever pitch these days. Pick an island, any measly island. China claims dozens, including one a thousand miles from its coast line and fifty from Malaysia’s. Have another power act on its claim in some way, and you’ve got the perfect reason for a mass demonstration. Protests like these are the largest in China since Tiananmen square in 1989. These ones are actively facilitated by government.

The century of humiliation

As strident socialism made way for no holds barred capitalism, there was an ideological vacuum to fill. It was becoming tough for schools to teach lessons about class enemies with a straight face. The government cunningly turned to the ideology you have when you’re not having ideology: nationalism. Its underpinnings are little more sophisticated than “we’re Chinese, bitches”. Encouraging pride in national identity was a useful companion for a culture that now encouraged pride in wealth. Both involve celebrating things you’ve got, without requiring you to question why you’ve got them.

The “century of humiliation” helped spur Chinese nationalism along. It suddenly appeared as a national meme in the 1990s, rewritten into text books and crowed about by politicians. The idea is that from 1842 onwards China suffered humiliations at the hands of foreign powers and now need to assert nationhood to atone. There are a couple of problems with this. First, excepting the brutal Japanese occupation of north eastern China which still makes Japan public enemy number one, the humiliations were pretty modest. The loss of the opium wars saw China concede Hong Kong to Britain – then basically a rock. The concessions in cities like Shanghai were mutually beneficial. China was never colonised, nor subservient to foreign powers. As humiliation goes the hundred years from 1842 was like a bad karaoke performance, not an unexpected nudity incident.

Second, the ‘century of humiliation’ is, to my mind, much less humiliating than the fifty years that followed. More people died under Mao, as a result of direct brutality and foolish economic policies, than in any other period in history – some 70 million – and it was all, pretty much, self-inflicted. And it hurt.

I accept that the ‘century of humiliation’ is a powerful rhetorical tool for galvanising Chinese. But the problem with using nationalism as a proxy for ideology is that it doesn’t explain, much less justify, what the Chinese government is doing. Not the rampant inequality. Not the outrageous corruption amongst officials. Not the myriad of restrictions on free speech.

Policy wonk digest: Mao not the red sun in our hearts edition

Fiona’s has just finished a great biography of Mao. It’s a hefty tome. As Fiona read I would ask her “what’s Mao up to?” It was always something dastardly. Here are some highlights.

  • Mao was Maoist in the sense that he was all about Mao. But there’s scant evidence that he was ideological, and he probably wasn’t Maoist in the sense of the particular kind of socialism.
  • Mao’s defence Minister advocated adhering to traditional Chinese ethical codes including do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. “My principle” Mao said in reply “is exactly the opposite. Do to others precisely what I don’t want done to myself.”
  • In 1957 Mao opened his regime up to criticism. Then he had a list of critics who he could purge in 1958.
  • Mao was an exceptional strategic thinker. For example he was all Frank Underwood about getting nuclear weapons. He threatened Taiwan to draw a response from the US, including a threat that they would use nukes. If they did, the Soviets would be obliged to come to China’s aid. The Soviet’s didn’t want that responsibility, so they helped China develop nuclear technology so it could defend itself.
  • Mao specified how much food the peasants could eat. To start with he calculated what would be required for a level of subsistence. But that didn’t leave enough for his ‘superpower programme’ for which he needed to trade food for weapons from the Soviets. So he changed the calculation. He established what he needed to buy the guns he wanted, and left the rest to the peasants. 38 million starved.
  • During the Great Leap Forward Mao said he wanted to double steel production in a year. Steel furnaces were fueled with grain. Millions starved.
  • Mao also instructed the peasants to contribute to the steel drive. They built backyard furnaces and melted down everything they could. Including the tools they used to harvest food. And the backyard steel was rubbish.
  • At one point China’s overseas development aid reached a whopping 6.3% of GNP (the highest, I suspect, ever recorded anywhere). China was dirt poor, but Mao was determined to be the leader of the socialist world so he gave to all regimes (expect Russia) and expected their loyalty in return. That trend continues today. China gives all sorts of aid, to try and increase its influence. Some of its peasants still starve.

Fast food development: China


We could hardly leave China behind without completing our assessment of its fast food development.

Big cities have a reasonable number of western fast food outlets, especially in the richer areas. In Zhengzhou, featured in the photo above, we noted six separate KFCs in the square out the railway station. In fact, KFC seems to be the fast food of choice. It’s telling that McDonald’s also offers fried chicken in a kind of can’t-beat-them-join-them sort of way.

We confess to having sampled some k-fry, once when famished on our return from the Great Wall. Once when sort of lost in a train station. We can recommend the sichuan style burger and the prices. You’re looking at about $4NZD for a combo. That’s certainly not the cheapest meal available, but it’s cheaper than a flat white at the Shanghai branch of fuel. Other western brands are priced similarly.

There are no western fast food brands in small town or rural China. None. And by small town we mead small town in a Chinese sense, say, cities under a million people. That, combined with the pricing leads us to conclude that China is a stage 3: Western fast food is available in most towns or cities and is an aspirational brand for the middle classes (with a price tag to match).