Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travels in Kyrgyzstan: Arslanbob

After a couple of days in Osh I went off to Arslanbob, a village north of Jalalabad where a lot of Kyrgyz vacation in the summer, which is turning into a bit of a draw for foreign visitors as well. The area's main attraction is a huge walnut forest near the village, which happens to be the largest walnut grove on earth. Other than that, there are also a couple of waterfalls that attract both tourists and pilgrims. Getting to Arslanbob from Osh involved taking a marshrutka for four hours. We rolled through a typical Central Asian scenery made up of majestic, scarcely inhabited plains and mountains, which in some places started to resemble the surface of the moon. The other passengers were curious about me, but as usual the language barrier kept meaningful communication to a minimum.

The scenery on the road from Osh to Jalalabad
At Arslanbob there is a tourist office that organizes homestays for foreign visitors. We arrived in the village's main square, and as soon as I had gotten off the marshrutka I was approached by a man who asked me in English if I needed any help. He turned out to be the man in charge of the tourist office. Whether he hangs around the main square all day waiting for a tourist to arrive, or whether he had been warned of my arrival by the driver, or even by my guesthouse back in Osh, I do not know. The village is mainly inhabited by Uzbeks, and it is quite conservative, as I could see from the veils worn by all the local women. The tourist office organized for me to stay with a local family for the night, in exchange for 700 som (about 8 euros). I stayed with a family made up of an elderly couple who looked quite picturesque, the man wearing a traditional hat and trimmed beard and the woman wearing a veil, and their son who must have been in his early twenties. They also had a cow.

The conditions in the home I stayed in reminded me of the Chinese countryside, especially the toilet, which was a basically a hole in the ground surrounded by a wall. At night it got cold, but luckily the room I stayed in was equipped with an electric heater. Unlike in the Chinese countryside, in this place you were supposed to take your shoes off when indoors, so as not to spoil the carpets. This is the norm throughout the region. I was served a very nice dinner of stewed meat and potatoes and naan bread, which I had to eat in the traditional Kyrgyz manners, in other words sitting on a raised platform under the table, rather than on a chair. It strikes me that in all of China's neighbouring countries people tend to sit on a flat surface when eating, and only the Chinese will always sits on chairs.

Aslanbab's main square

The house where I stayed

My breakfast

My guide

The next morning I went back to the tourist office, where I was assigned a local guide to show me the area's sites. My guide turned out to be a friendly young man who spoke a reasonable amount of English. He led me out of the village and up a mountain path. On the way I saw an incredibly depressing Soviet-era fun fair, which in the summer is apparently filled with holidaymakers. As we went further up the scenery became strikingly Alpine. Kyrgyzstan is after all known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. After a long trek up the side of a mountain, we got to the area's main waterfall, which was indeed quite impressive. We then climbed back down and walked towards the famed walnut forest. On the way we picked up and eat an awful lot of walnuts. The forest was dotted with local families living in tents. Apparently when it is time to harvest the walnuts a lot of locals move to the forest and live in a tent for a month, in good nomadic tradition.

A family of seasonal nomads

While walking through the forest we had an unpleasant run-in with a bunch of policemen vacationing in the area. It was a group of well-built men on a pick-up truck who all carried very visible guns in holsters, although they were not in uniform and were clearly off-duty. When they saw me they immediately took an interest in us. They invited me over to their truck and offered me a shot of vodka, which I dared not refuse, and spoke to me in extremely rudimentary English. My guide made a big show of shaking hands with each one of them, but he was clearly uncomfortable, and they were clearly pushing their weight around. I wonder if there was also an ethnic issue involved, since the policemen were outsiders who had the Mongol features of the Kyrgyz, while my guide like most locals was a more Middle Eastern-looking Uzbek. I was afraid they were going to look for an excuse to extort a bribe out of me, but in the end they left us alone.

Afterwards my guide told me how uncomfortable they had made him, and that he could tell they were not good news. He told me that the police in Kyrgyzstan are very corrupt, but that it was much better under Stalin(!) In those days, apparently, the police knew how to stay in their places. Before going to Central Asia I had read numerous horror stories about foreigners getting harassed by policemen looking for an excuse to receive a bribe. I am glad to say I never had to pay any bribes either in Kazakhstan or in Kyrgyzstan, and the closest I came to having any trouble with the authorities was that experience in the forest, which made me see how the local police can be unpleasant and overbearing.

After getting out of the walnut forest we made our way back to the village, where I ate lunch in the only local restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall place serving only chicken and naan bread. Then I hitched a ride in a private car to Jalalabad, where I got a marshrutka back to Osh.

Travels in Kyrgyzstan: Osh

Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place that people rarely end up in by accident. This country almost the size of the United Kingdom but with a population of only 6 million, almost entirely covered in mountains and further from the sea than any other country globally, rarely makes it into the news and the world's consciousness.

Nestled between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China's Western frontier, in many ways Kyrgyzstan does not make for a very promising travel destination. The country is one of the poorest in Asia, with an average per capita income lower than Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia. It and Tajikistan have none of the natural resources of their larger neighbours. Kyrgyzstan could be said to be the closest thing to a democracy in Central Asia, which is part of the reason that it has the region's most liberal visa regime. Visitors from well-off countries generally need no visa. On the other hand, the country is also quite unstable, witnessing a revolution in 2005 and another one in 2010. In fact, at the time of my journey Britain's Foreign Office was advising against all inessential travel to the country, due to the threat of instability and terrorism. This almost put me off going at all, but while in Almaty I spoke to some other travellers who had already been there and to the staff at my hostel, and they all assured me that the place was no more dangerous than Kazakhstan (which is, in my experience, safe enough).

I thus decided that my next destination after Kazakhstan would be Kyrgyzstan, from which I would travel back to China through the Irkeshtam pass. The plan was to travel overland to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, and from there catch a cheap flight to Osh, a city in the South of the country. My original plan had been to fly to Tajikistan and enter China from there, but I then discovered that Tajikistan's border with China is often and unpredictably closed to people who aren't Chinese or Tajik. Kyrgyzstan thus became my backup plan.

I travelled from Almaty to Bishkek, Kyrgzystan's capital, on a mashrutka, one of the private mini-buses that seem to constitute the main way to get around in Central Asia. The entire journey took four hours. On the way to the border I looked out at the typical Kazakh scenery of empty flat steppe, interspersed with a few villages. As we approached Kyrgyzstan the scenery started to get more mountainous. The border crossing was not too bad: everyone had to get out, go through a Kazakh checkpoint, then walk a few minutes to a Kyrgyz checkpoint and get an entry stamp, then walk on until they found their own mashrutka again. There was little bureaucracy or waiting involved.

As soon as I crossed the border, the relative messiness and poverty of Kyrgyzstan made itself felt. I was surrounded by a crowd of taxi drivers offering rides to Bishkek, one of whom tried to physically push me into his taxi. Luckily I managed to shrug him off and identify my own minibus. As we drove on, the villages we passed looked noticeably poorer than the ones on the Kazakh side of the border. As we drove into Bishkek I looked out at the capital's run down neighbourhoods, which reminded me of what I imagine places like Albania or Moldova must look like.

During Soviet times Bishkek used to be called Frunze, in honour of the Bolshevik leader Mikhail Frunze who was born there. He was a Slav of Russian and Moldovan descent, rather than a Kyrgyz. In spite of the region having been part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union for a century and a half, few people from the native ethnic groups really made an impact on Russian history. The city itself is a Russian creation which has been heavily Slavic for most of its history. Apparently in 1970 ethnic Kyrgyz made up only 12% of the city's population, while European peoples made up over 80%. The proportions are now reversed, with 66% of the population Kyrgyz, and less than 20% Slavic. Kyrgyzstan's lack of opportunities and instability led to an exodus of the Russian, Ukrainian and German population after independence. More or less the same thing happened in all the other Central Asian countries except, to some extent, for Kazakhstan. In spite of that, Russian is still Bishkek's most popular language.

Our mashrutka dropped us off near the central bus station. Dodging another crowd of over-eager taxi drivers, I found a money-exchange booth (these seem to be everywhere in the country), and changed my Kazakh Tenge into Kyrgyz Som. Kyrgyzstan may be the only place in the world where Tenge from Kazakhstan are considered to be a hard currency and willingly exchanged all over the country. With no idea how to get to the airport, I went into the central bus station and looked around. I saw a pretty young woman working at the office of a local airline, and asked her if she could speak English. Thankfully she could, and was able to explain to me that I should take a taxi to a certain square, and then from there take a certain mashrutka to the airport. I went back out and jumped into a taxi, whose steering wheel was on the right-hand side, even though in Kyrgyzstan people drive on the right. This is a bizarre thing about the country: even though people drive on the right like in most of the world, quite a few cars have the driver's seat on the right as well, British style. Perhaps the cars are second-hand British imports?

At the airport I noticed that the soldiers patrolling the place all had their faces covered by balaclavas, I suppose to protect from the risk of retaliation by terrorists. The airport seemed very small, considering that it is Kyrgyzstan's major international airport. With a bit of trepidation, I boarded my plane to Osh. My flight was with Air Manas, a cheap Kyrgyz airline. Just like all Kyrgyz airlines, Air Manas is banned from the EU because of safety concerns. The airline is named after the Epic of Manas, the most famous Kyrgyz work of literature, claimed by the Kyrgyz to be the longest epic poem in the world (unfortunately it isn't). The flight from Bishkek to Osh only took 45 minutes. The overland journey, however, would have involved a full 12 hours of travelling over little mountain roads through the country's spectacular mountains. While we were flying I could see snow-capped peaks from the window.

The market in Osh

Osh is Kyrgyzstan's second biggest city, and it is geographically and culturally very far removed from the capital. Unlike the more Russified Bishkek, Osh is conservative and piously Muslim. It is also an ancient city, which was part of the Silk Road for centuries. It sits in the Fergana Valley, a beautiful but troubled region that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While the valley is now divided between three independent states, its ethnicity is a patchwork that has little to do with the artificial national borders. On the Kyrgyz side cities like Osh have long been dominated by Uzbek tradespeople, while the Kyrgyz tended to live in the countryside as farmers or nomads.

The Kyrgyz have however been moving to the cities in large numbers since Soviet times, and Osh is now equally divided between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. This has led to tension and outbreaks of serious violence. In 1990 a dispute over how to divide a former collective farm led to riots in which over a thousand people were killed. In 2010 there were new clashes in Osh and the surroundings as part of the revolution in the same year, with hundreds killed and thousands of Uzbeks fleeing to Uzbekistan. There is still serious resentment in the region between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, although it is of course invisible to passing travellers like me. What's more, the Fergana valley is also the main hotbed for the region's resurgent Islamist movement.

I arrived in Osh after dark, and after getting out of the tiny airport I took a taxi to my guesthouse. In spite of its troubled reputation, Osh is Kyrgyzstan's most interesting city, and it is the main base for the few backpackers and foreign travellers who make it to this little visited country. The Biy Ordo Guesthouse where I stayed, run by a friendly English-speaking lady, is the establishment where foreign travellers tend to gather. I got a decent room with my own bathroom and breakfast included for the equivalent of 20 euros a night. There were a few other backpackers in the guesthouse, including a group of Israelis. The temperature was much warmer than in cold Kazakhstan, and at night a light jacket was sufficient, while in daytime I could walk around in short sleeves.

Walking around the streets of Osh I really felt like I was in Central Asia for the first time. Most women wear colourful veils, many of the men wear traditional Kolpok hats, people speak to each other in the local Turkic languages rather than Russian, and the atmosphere feels closer to Iran than to Russia. The food is pretty much the same as what you might get in Xinjiang, with skewers of lamb meat and nan bread in every restaurant. The city also sports a huge bazar in its center, with any good you might imagine on display. The town's buildings and infrastructure are however visibly run down and in disrepair, and the area's economic depression quite evident. On the city's outskirts there is a huge statue of Lenin, one of the biggest remaining in Central Asia, which stands in front of an even taller flag of independent Kyrgyzstan and the local government headquarters. The ironies of history.

Statue of Lenin in Osh

Flag of Kyrgyzstan and Lenin facing each other

Kyrgyz Communist Party offices

On my first day in Osh I went to see the city's main attraction, in other words the Sulayman Mountain. Kyrgyztan's only World Heritage Site, it is a small mountain that cuts Osh into two halves and offers great views of the surroundings. It has also been a place of pilgrimage starting from millennia ago, long before the arrival of Islam to the region. It later became an Islamic holy site, visited by many travellers along the Silk Road. After taking a taxi to the gate and paying a very small fee equivalent to around 0.3 Euros for a ticket, I started walking up the mountain. The mountain has some holy caves that are places of worship for local people. I tried to enter a couple, but I found that to get in it was necessary to climb up some rocks that struck me as dangerous. Worrying about how I would get back down again, and not wanting to experience the local hospitals, I decided to give up. I saw various locals climb up and enter without giving it any thought.

I then continued climbing up the stairs carved into the mountain until I reached the mosque of Babur. Babur was the founder of the Mughal Empire, the empire ran by Muslims that came to rule almost the whole of India. A descendant of Genghis Kan and Timurlane, Babur was actually born in the Fergana Valley, and it is said that while sitting atop of the Sulaiman Mountain at 14 he decided to set off and build his empire. On the mountain there now lies a reconstruction of a little mosque that Babur built there at the beginning of the 16th century. The original mosque was destroyed by an earthquake in 1853, and then its reconstruction wad destroyed in the sixties by a strange explosion, which the local people of course blamed on the godless Soviet authorities. The current reconstruction dates from after independence.

The Sulayman Mountain
Mosque of Babur
View of Osh
Mosque at the base of the Sulayman Mountain
Inside of the mosque

The views of the surroundings from the mosque of Babur were pretty good. Next to the mosque a group of young Kyrgyz girls asked if they could take photos with me, something which often happens to foreign travellers in China. They really wanted to chat with me, but upon discovering that I spoke no Russian they were forced to give up. While in Kazakhstan most people assumed me to be a local Russian, in Osh everyone could tell I was a foreigner just by looking at me. People of Slavic descent are no longer that common in the area, and foreign tourists are easy to spot.

In spite of the warnings about the area's safety, I found the locals to mostly be very curious and friendly towards me. On a couple of occasions I was stopped on the street by youngsters who wanted to chat, although the language barrier meant communication stayed very basic. Taxi drivers would always shake hands with me when I got into their cars, and my "salaam aleikum" response to Russian greetings was always met with delight. If I were able to speak Russian, or indeed Turkish, which is close enough to Uzbek and Kyrgyz to be understood, I would have certainly got more out of the trip and been able to get to know more local people. All the same, when I was lost or had any sort of problem, there were always local people offering to try and help me any way they could. I suppose foreign visitors are not that common, and the traditional hospitality of nomadic cultures is still highly felt. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

A visit to Kazakhstan

Over this year's Chinese National Day Holiday, while most of my friends from Beijing spent their predictable vacations in Thailand and Bali, I decided to fulfil my old plan of travelling to Central Asia.

The "Stans" of Central Asia remain a blank spot on the map for most people. While the world became aware of the existence of places like Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan when they suddenly appeared on the map as independent countries in the early nineties, few people have been there or have much idea what they might be like. This is, of course, part of what attracted me about the idea of going there.

I began my journey in the new capital of Kazakhstan, the biggest and most influential country in the region. Kazakhstan is a huge place, about the size of Western Europe. It is also extremely scarcely inhabited, with a population of only 17 million people, which might explain why it gathers so little attention outside of its borders. Astana, my first port of call, is a city in the North of the country which was turned into the capital by decree in 1997. Before that date, it was just an unimportant provincial town. In the years since, Astana has been transformed into a showcase of president Nazarbayev's ambitions for his country.

While Kazakhstan may have gained some dubious notoriety through the film Borat, it is actually the country in Central Asia least deserving of such stereotypes. Thanks mostly to its huge oil reserves, Kazakhstan is a relatively prosperous country. In fact, its economy was growing at almost Chinese rhythms until a slowdown occurred a couple of years ago. Some of the oil revenues are being used to turn Astana into a sleek modern capital, replete with skyscrapers and shopping malls. The city boasts a number of fancy new buildings, including a huge shopping mall built in the shape of a traditional Kazakh tent, designed by British architect Norman Foster.

The view from my window in Astana

The neighbourhood where I stayed
Central Astana

I stayed in a flat I booked through Airbnb, and my host came to pick me up at the airport. Like many Kazakhs, his features would not have been out of place in China or Mongolia. As we drove into Astana, my first impression was that the city would not have been out of place in China either. It looked to me like a Chinese county capital where the local government has decided to go on a building spree. The outskirts were full of blocks of flats and big half-finished buildings, and the cold and flat landscape also reminded me of Northern China.

Northern Kazakhstan is geographically almost in Siberia, and even though it was early October temperatures were already pretty frigid. Culturally the region is also closer to Russia than Central Asia, and in Astana almost everyone simply speaks Russian, regardless of whether they are ethnically Russian or Kazakh. The flat I stayed in was located in a new apartment complex within walking distance of the city centre. As I walked around the city seemed clean and safe. The central business district sported some sparkling new skyscrapers. After eating in a fancy shopping mall I stumbled upon Bayterek, an emblematic monument placed right in the middle of the city. The monument is supposed to embody a Kazakh legend in which the mythical bird Samruk lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human happiness in a tall poplar tree, beyond human reach. Although the top of the building does look like a golden egg, one has to use some imagination to see the bottom as a poplar tree.

The monument is 105 meters tall, and after buying a symbolically-priced ticket you can enter and take a lift to the top, inside the golden egg, where you get an excellent view of the city. Right at the top there is a print of the palm of president Nazarbayev. Visitors can have their photo taken while placing their hand in the print of his palm (which must be very big, since everyone's hand seems to fit inside it) and looking eastward towards the presidential palace, which is clearly visible in the distance.

The majority of visitors appeared to be Kazakhs from the provinces, some of them wearing traditional headgear and Muslim veils. They rather reminded me of the provincial Chinese tourists you find in Tiananmen Square. They were all very happy to have their photo taken while placing their hand in the palm of their glorious leader. Even some newlywed couples were there to have their wedding photos taken.

The Bayterek Monument

A view of the presidential palace from the top

A lady puts her hand into the print of the President's palm

So does this child

Kazakh family pose for a photo inside Bayterek

A view of Astana's business district from the top of the monument

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the object of this glorification, has been the president of Kazakhstan ever since it became independent in 1991. Even before that he was the head of the Kazakh branch of the Communist Party. Although he is an elected leader, he has received over 90% of the votes in every single election that has ever been organized. Needless to say, none of these elections were considered free and fair by outside observers. The country is run in an authoritarian fashion, and opposition is stifled. Having said that, Nazarbayev enjoys some genuine popularity due to the country's relative success and stability. And in spite of everything, Kazakhstan is not nearly as repressive as some of its neighbours, like Uzbekistan or the totalitarian black hole of Turkmenistan.

It is a story I recognise from China: a strong leader or party govern in an authoritarian fashion, they help the economy to grow and enforce the peace while they stifle dissent, but they make sure that most people are left in peace as long as they don't get involved in politics. Most of the population is happy enough with the situation, and the few opposition leaders languishing in jail or the lack of genuine legally guaranteed rights for the average citizen don't appear to bother them.

That evening I wanted to go to a restaurant recommended by my guide book, but it was too far to walk and the weather was rainy and frigid. I suddenly realised that there were very few taxis around, and that local people get around by just flagging down a private car on the street and hitching a ride in exchange for some cash. I couldn't work up the courage to do the same, partly due to my lack of Russian skills and the fact that it was nighttime, so in the end I just eat in a random cafe' and then went back to my flat.

The next day I found a travel agent inside a shopping mall and managed to book a train ticket to Almaty through a lady who spoke not a single word of English or any other language I know. I then found the courage to flag down a private car and take it back to the flat. I managed to negotiate a price in Russian with the friendly middle aged driver. It struck me that a country where people are ready to get into the car of a random stranger cannot be an especially dangerous one, or at least levels of social trust must be relatively high.

That afternoon I went to the Khan Shatyr, the already mentioned shopping mall designed by Norman Fosters in the shape of a Kazakh tent. Although the building was definitely impressive and the shopping mall was quite fancy, it must be said that it is hard to impress someone who lives in China with fancy shopping malls designed by foreign architects. Beijing has more of those than Astana ever will. The tent-like design follows a general pattern I noticed in Kazakhstan, where the government seems to be doing its best to forge a national identity by making use of the symbols of the Kazakhs' nomadic past, particularly tents and horses. This is in spite of the fact that no actual nomadism survives in the country.

The Khan Shatyr Mall

Inside the mall

The view of Astana from the mall

In fact, during the 70 years of being part of the USSR, traditional Kazakh culture in many ways disappeared, and the region was filled up with Russians and people of other ethnicities who either went their voluntarily or were deported there by Stalin. Ethnic Kazakhs now make up 66% of the country's population, which is already a big upswing compared to when the Soviet Union collapsed, at which point Kazakhstan was only 40% Kazakh. The Kazakh language is also being promoted, and most official signs are written in both languages, with Kazakh coming first (it is also written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but it is easy to tell apart from Russian due to the additional letters used to represent Kazakh sounds). Although travelling in the big cities one hears mostly Russian, apparently in rural areas of Southern Kazakhstan people speak almost only in Kazakh.

That evening I went to Astana's train station and took the overnight train to Almaty, Kazakhstan's other big city. The train was fast and modern, and the journey took about 12 hours in total (the ticket cost 15000 tenge, or about 40 euros). When the sun rose I got to observe a scenery of endless empty steppes, interspersed with some very rare villages or factories. I wouldn't describe the scenery as beautiful, but its emptiness and uniformity had a soothing quality. After arriving in Almaty I took a cab to the youth hostel that I had booked. Almaty is Kazakhstan's former capital, and still its biggest city and cultural centre. In fact it is the biggest and most cosmopolitan urban centre in Central Asia. It even has a subway, although I had no chance to take it.

A view of the steppe from the train window

Almaty was founded by the Russians in the nineteenth century, and compared to Astana it looks much more like a traditional Russian city, with large boulevards and turn-of-the-century buildings. It felt quite like Eastern Europe, and yet the city is actually quite close to the border with China and closer to Afghanistan than to Russia. Due to my vaguely Russian looks people tended to assume I was a local. Thankfully, the weather was also a bit warmer than in Astana. I visited the city's well-known green market, which is full of stalls piled with local produce, and I tried a bowl of shubat, or fermented camel's milk, which is a Kazakh specialty. It tasted extremely strange, but I managed to finish most of the bowl before handing it back to the amused lady at the stall.

I then visited the Arasan baths, one of the finest bathhouses in the region, which was built during Soviet times. I paid a small sum to relax for an hour in the bathhouse, and I then strolled through Almaty's central Panfilov Park. I walked into the Zenkov Cathedral, one of the few surviving Tsarist-era buildings, which is built entirely of wood. During Soviet times it was used as a museum and theatre, but it has now been restored to the Orthodox church, and as I walked inside a service was taking place. Immediately outside the cathedral I stumbled upon an imposing war memorial, where an eternal flame honours the fallen in the civil war of 1917-1920, and the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-1945. There's also a monument showing soldiers of the 15 Soviet Republics bursting out of a map of the USSR itself.

Zenkov Cathedral
After this casual stroll through the symbols of Russian history and faith in the middle of the Asian steppe, I returned to my youth hostel. That evening I went out with a couple of girls I know from Beijing who were also travelling in Almaty. One of them comes from Hong Kong and one from the US. We took the cable car to the hill of Kok-Tobe, from which you get excellent views of the city, and then we eat in a fancy restaurant at the top. On top of the hill there is also a slightly bizarre sculpture of the Beatles, with life-sized bronze statues of the fab four as they looked circa 1964. The meal was good, although of course all our dishes contained meat. Kazakhstan is certainly not a country for vegetarians, as is true of the whole of Central Asia.

The next day I booked an extortionately expensive tour with my hostel and went to see Lake Almaty, a famous lake set in a fantastic alpine scenery in the mountains outside the city. It only takes an hour to drive to the lake from the city, but by the time I got there I was high up in the mountains and the ground was covered in snow. The lake was indeed beautiful, and made for some good photos. There was a smattering of Kazakh tourists, although nothing like the crowds a similar place would receive in China. I was warned various times not to get too close to the lake, or I would be stopped by policemen who would try and extort a bribe out of me. This had happened to some other tourists the previous day.

Lake Almaty

The Tien Shan Mountains seen from a suburb of Almaty
My driver turned out to be a well-educated chap whose real work is as a psychiatrist in a state hospital, although he supplements his meagre income by driving tourists around. He spoke some English, and was very keen to chat with me. He claimed that president Nuzarbayev "is a gangster, but a good gangster. He makes a lot of money for himself and his family, but thanks to him Kazakhstan has no war, it is peaceful and ok to live in", or something along those lines.

All in all Kazakhstan struck me as far more prosperous and orderly than I was expecting. Of course, it must be said that I only visited the two largest cities of this vast country. All the same, the impression I got was of a relatively well-off and liveable place, and the people struck me as politer and friendlier than what I remember experiencing in Russia. Although the Kazakhs are supposed to be a Muslim people I definitely did not get any feeling of being in a pious Muslim country, in spite of Astana's impressive new mosque. Girls in veils were few and far between in Astana and Almaty, although there were more of them in the villages of Southern Kazakhstan which I saw from the bus window while travelling out of the country.

That evening I walked around the city centre until I stumbled upon Almaty's one and only expat pub, full of middle aged foreign businessmen drinking beer. Although it wasn't exactly my crowd I still drank a glass of Guinness, after which I caught a ride back to my hostel. The next day I would be heading off to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured that I had better get to bed early.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Not being Chinese in your next life

I have just powered through a full-length book in Chinese. No, it wasn't the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but a polemic by Hong Kong journalist Joe Chung. Its title, 来生不做中国人, is officially translated into English as "I don't want to be Chinese again", but a more exact rendering would be along the lines of "I won't be Chinese in my next life" or "not being Chinese in your next life" (the subject of the sentence is unstated). It has yet to be translated into English or any other language.

The book is actually a collection of the author's essays and articles. It is basically a frontal attack on Chinese culture and everything it stands for, written from the point of view of a Chinese from Hong Kong. The book's title was inspired by an opinion poll which appeared on Netease, one of China's main web portals, in 2006. The poll asked people whether they would want to be reborn as Chinese in their next life. Over the next few days thousands of Chinese took the survey, with a whopping 65% of people answering "no", until the government noticed and demanded that the poll be taken down. A Netease editor lost his job as a result.

Drawing inspiration from this episode, the author engages in a full-blown polemic against his own culture. He attacks the Chinese mindset as selfish, irrational, antiquated, petty and incapable of changing, and criticizes the Chinese people for accepting injustice by their own leaders and blaming others for their misfortunes. Unlike many Hong Kongers would do, he doesn't limit his critique to the Mainland, but criticises his native Hong Kong's culture as well, seeing in it the same flaws that hold back the whole of China.

The author dismisses Chinese culture as a culture which has long outlived its usefulness and should have disappeared long ago, and compares its survival to the Roman Empire surviving until the present day. Although he doesn't make a very big thing about it, the author is in fact a Christian, and blames the lack of a strongly held religious faith for what he perceives to be his countrymen's flawed and underdeveloped sense of morality. He claims that Confucianism is an ideology which cannot act as a substitute for true religion.

Such total dismissals of their own culture by Chinese intellectuals are actually not entirely new. A famous example is Taiwanese author Bo Yang and his well known book that came out in 1985 with the English title "the Ugly Chinaman and the crisis of Chinese culture". Under the relatively liberal atmosphere of the time, the book was actually distributed in the Mainland as well. Going back even further, China's most famous modern writer Lu Xun had some very harsh things to say about the "Chinese national character" and his own people's 劣根性 or "deep-rooted flaws". What's more he felt that the defects of the Chinese mentality had not really been improved with the Xinhai Revolution and the end of the empire. There is in fact a vein of self-hatred that has run deep within Chinese culture since at least the nineteenth century. This self-hatred actually survives in Mainland China too, although it is buried under the veneer of state-sponsored nationalism and pride.

It is certainly true that China's particular version of a modern society leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes China can seem like a country trapped in its own history, unable to find a way out, in spite of all the economic growth and material development of the last decades. But total rejections of Chinese culture aren't really convincing either. If China's problem is the Confucian tradition and the lack of a strong religious faith, then why have the Japanese and South Koreans, who come from a similar religious and ethical tradition, been so much more successful at creating decent modern societies then the Chinese have?

Traditions and cultures all have good and bad sides. Cultures based around monotheistic religions can lead to rigidity and fanaticism, while East Asian cultures sometimes appear to lack a concept of basic moral norms that have to be abided by at all times, and lead to extreme utilitarianism and only caring about your "in-group". But the reality is that until the enlightenment took off, European societies (and other Asian ones) never appeared to be any more successful than China at producing peaceful or civilized behaviour. In fact when Marco Polo travelled around China he remarked with wonder that the men did not need to carry weapons with them when they went out, unlike in Europe at the time.

It is certainly true that China has found it harder than most countries to reconcile itself with modernity, and many progressive values which much of the modern world takes for granted still struggle to take root in China (the value of life, equality, moral concern for strangers etc...). The country's size and its isolation from "global culture", part natural and part intentional, also contribute to keep things this way. But it can only be hoped that when China finds a system that can bring out the best in its culture and people, then things will no longer be so.

Lu Xun

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and the failures of democracy

After the Brexit debacle, it was only to be expected that China's most nationalistic newspaper wouldn't miss the chance to jump on the bandwagon.

The Global Times has attracted international attention with an editorial in its English edition which gloats that Europe and Britain are in decline and are unable to solve their problems through their democratic systems. But less attention has been given to an editorial published by the paper's Chinese edition, according to which the EU referendum shows that "Western-style democracy" is no longer working.

The editorial is entitled "Western-style democracy's willfulness raises doubts". The term I translate as "wilfulness", 任性, could also be rendered as unruliness or doing things on a whim.

The article starts off with some pretty reasonable statements about how a European Union without Britain will be "more inward-looking, conservative and focused around the continent", and this will be "bad for Europe and bad for the world" (although this comes from the most inveterate supporters of policies which continue to make China inward-looking and conservative).

It then turns into an attack on democracy, or rather, "Western democracy". Why is it that this year's EU referendum and last year's Scottish referendum could take place, and what seemed unthinkable could become so possible, alarming everyone? According to the piece, the answer is the "wilfulness of democracy" (the word used in Chinese is 任性, same as in the headline).

The author of the editorial then relates a parliamentary sitting which he witnessed in Norway, in which there were only 13 MPs in attendance in a parliament with 169 seats, and uses this as an example of the flaws of democracies, where even members of parliament take their duties so light-heartedly. I have no idea whether the author realizes that Norway was held up as an ideal by the Leave camp during the Brexit debate.

The article then goes on to claim that democracy is "a conquest of human political civilization", but it is a pity that it has now become a game that anyone can tamper with. Europe's constant referendums show that democracy is also being kidnapped by nationalism and populism, and that the system is losing its resilience as it has to deal with the negative effects of globalization. After quoting from Han Feizi, in order to predictably cloack itself in the mantel of China's "5000 years of history", the editorial concludes that "in terms of productivity, China has already won. In terms of resilience, China will yet win."

It would be easy to dismiss the paper's nationalistic ramblings, or to think up possible counter-arguments and point out all the problems of Chinese authoritarianism. It is true, on the other hand, that in a country like China where the desirability of democracy is still a matter of serious doubt and debate, the EU referendum might seem to some like an excellent example of democracy's inherent flaws.

Those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were overwhelmingly the elderly, the less educated and the less well-off in England and Wales. A momentous decision, which will have consequences most of these people cannot even conceive of, was taken because of marginalized and frustrated people emotionally blaming the EU for complex phenomena they don't really understand, and using the referendum as an occasion to show their distaste of the metropolitan elite.

Frustration with immigration and the increasing multiculturalism of British society were also a clear motivation behind the leave vote, even though stepping out of the EU is going to do little to nothing to reduce immigration to Britain.

In the meantime, these people have quite possibly condemned their country to eventual break up, since a second referendum on Scotland's independence is now looming on the horizon. Even Northern Ireland's peace agreement is threatened. As a historian said the other day, Britain, the country which colonized half the world, has committed national suicide because of the fantasy that it is being colonized by others. And all this because of a 4% difference in the vote.

When you look at this scenario, it is easy to see how the Chinese elite's professed ideal of a group of wise, enlightened, forward-looking leaders governing their country according to a long-term plan, without having to constantly bend to the will of the ignorant, easily misled masses, might seem like a better alternative.

The concept of voting is indeed problematic on a theoretical level, and the concept of referendums even more so: giving every single person the same power to decide on an issue on which most people simply don't have similar levels of expertise and understanding may not lead to the best outcomes.

But in the end of the day, the problem with diatribes against democracy like the one in the Global Times is that they always stop at the issue of general elections, without looking at all of the other institutions and values that underpin democracy: separation of powers, the rule of law, independent institutions supervising each other, freedom of speech. Only focusing on elections and the unpatable results they can throw up due to the ignorance of the average voter is missing the point.

If China could find a way to implement a system which didn't include giving every last fool the possibility to vote and make decisions on crucial issues, but which protected all of the other rights which people in democratic countries take for granted, then I am sure most of the world would be ready to accept its system as legitimate. Unfortunately however, this is just not the case at the moment.

In any case, I do hope that Britain doesn't seriously decide to hold the referendum on the EU again, and that the British parliament doesn't refuse to implement the referendum's results (amazingly, according to British law they have the right to do this). If similar courses of action were followed, then Britain really would become the world's laughing stock, and its democracy would rightly be derided as a joke.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Travels in Ningxia

Last week I spent four days travelling in Ningxia province with my girlfriend. I managed this by carving a holiday out of the three day break for the Dragon Boat Festival, taking an extra vacation day at the end.

Ningxia is the kind of place which only old China-hands will have heard about it. Small, landlocked, arid, remote and little visited by anyone, it is China's proverbial middle of nowhere. The province's distinguishing feature is its large population of Chinese Muslims, thanks to which it has become one of China's five "autonomous regions". The autonomy granted to such places has little to do with the kind of autonomy enjoyed by places like Scotland and Catalonia. It certainly does not refer to the local people choosing a regional government free to make its own laws in particular areas. It does mean however that certain policies are put in place to protect the culture of the main local ethnic group, and especially its language. 

We arrived in the provincial capital of Yinchuan after a two-hour plane ride from Beijing. Yinchuan turned out to actually have a youth hostel, showing that youth hostels have now become well and truly established as a concept in China, and are no longer the preserve of places where foreign backpackers like to go. The youth hostel was quite pleasant, although the beds mimicked the traditional Kang beds of Northern China, and the mattress was far too thin for my liking. Outside of the hostel, however, the city did not give a particularly good impression: it seemed more like a county town than a provincial capital, and it lacked much in the way of charm and pleasantness. It did turn out to have a square with a replica of the Forbidden City's facade, replete with the picture of Mao and the two quotations on each side, although "Long Live the Unity of the World's Peoples" was replaced by "Long Live the Communist Party".  Perhaps internationalism is no longer expedient?

One interesting fact was that all the names of the roads were written in Arabic as well as Chinese, and this holds true throughout the province. In every one of China's Autonomous Regions the language of the local minority holds some kind of official status (although this is often symbolic). The Hui Muslims of Ningxia don't really have a language of their own, since their daily communication takes place entirely in Chinese, as it has done for centuries. However, in a decision which got some Chinese nationalists muttering, it was decided to give co-official status to Arabic, which in spite of being their holy language is not really spoken by any of the local Muslims. The result is that Arabic is found on all the street signs, and exactly nowhere else except for mosques. The translations of the street names into Arabic are often phonetic and meaningless. 

Before getting the hell out of Yinchuan, I decided to go and have a look at something I had read about in this report a few months previously: the huge "Hui Muslim Culture Park" built on the outskirts of the city, apparently in a bid to attract Arab and Muslim tourists. According to the report, the Park is supposed to showcase the culture and history of the Hui people, and direct flights have actually been established between Yinchuan and Dubai as part of the scheme. At the city's main square, we boarded a public bus which took us on the one hour ride to the park. I wasn't expecting anything much: a rather kitsch presentation of Chinese Islam with a lot of imposing new buildings and little substance was my best guess. Once we got there, it turned out that the Park looked decidedly unfinished. The huge main gate, built in a faux-Middle Eastern Style, was closed, and visitors had to enter through a side gate. Although there was a smattering of locals visitors around, there were certainly no hordes of Arab tourists anywhere in sight. The tickets cost 60 Yuan per person, and the inside didn't look promising. I made what I think was a good decision, saved myself 60 Yuan and went back to the city in order not to be stuck in Yinchuan another night. 

The (closed) entrance to the "Hui Muslim Culture Park"
Soon afterwards we boarded a bus to Guyuan, the main urban center in the South of Ningxia. Trains in Ningxia are still slow and old-fashioned, and long-distance buses remain the best way to get around. As the bus left the city, the landscape started getting more and more arid and desert-like, although never actually turning into full-blown desert. It reminded me strongly of certain landscapes in Israel. We slowly made our way down to Southern Ningxia, the remotest area of an already remote province. While Northern Ningxia is more fertile and prosperous and inhabited mostly by Han, the South is poorer and more strongly Muslim. Guyuan is the only city of any size in the area. Mostly newly built, it felt nicer than Yinchuan at any rate. We stayed in one of the city's fanciest hotels for relatively little money, one of the advantages of travelling in small and remote Chinese cities. 

The next day we woke up early and set out to visit the Xumishan Grottoes, the most famous site in the area. It is a collection of 130 Buddhist cave temples which were built between the fifth and tenth century, when the area was traversed by the Silk Road, and before Islam had arrived. The site is at the base of a mountain known as Xumi, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Sumeru, the name of a mythical sacred mountain in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Getting to the site itself proved to be problematic. Unable to find a public bus going in the right direction, we took a taxi whose driver initially agreed to take us to the mountain for 60 Yuan, but then changed his mind after driving us out of the city for about 20 minutes, asked for more and when we refused, dropped us off at a petrol station. Luckily we were able to board a bus from somewhere nearby, which took us to Sanying, the town nearest to the mountain. From Sanying we took another taxi after negotiating a price with the driver. 

The site itself was interesting, and thankfully completely lacking the crowds of the more famous sites in Eastern China. In spite of this being a public holiday, visitors where relatively few and far between, something which would be unthinkable anywhere near Beijing. Given how hard the place is to reach without a car, and that it is in a remote part of the country, it is not really surprising. The surrounding landscape is one of majestic, empty mountains and red earth. 

The most iconic element of the site is the 65 meter statues of the Maitreya, sometimes referred to as the "future Buddha", who according to tradition will be a successor to the present Buddha. According to Mahayana Buddhism, this enlightened being (known as 弥勒佛 in China) currently resides in the Tushita heaven, where he can be reached through meditation. One day he will appear on earth and teach the pure dharma, at a time when the Buddha's teachings have been all but forgotten by humanity. According to some traditions, this will take place at a time when human beings will live to be 80 thousand years old. 

The entire site is apparently classified as endangered, due to erosion and improper conservation. At the very least the giant Buddha has not been subjected to the same fate as the ones in Afghanistan that the Taliban vandalised. After leaving the mountain we hitched a ride back to Sanying, the nearby town. The town is heavily Hui Muslim, with most of the women wearing veils and most of the men sporting little round hats. For the first time I notice the unusual purple veils worn by many Hui women, which look more like a baker's hat than a Muslim veil, at least to my eyes. We entered the courtyard of a local mosque (the town had several), where there was a crowd of local children playing. A local young man in Islamic dress explained to us that there would be a big feast after sunset in order to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast. His Chinese had a strong enough local accent that I had trouble following him.

We then walked down the town's main street. As a foreigner I was subjected to a level of attention which I don't remember feeling since I first visited China in 2004, at least in towns of that size. The surprise and curiosity foreigners garner in Ningxia, and especially Southern Ningxia, has remained what it used to be. We bought a delicious local bun from a street vendor, after which a lady even took a photo of me eating on the street. 

Back in Guyuan, we had a nice meal of mutton. This is always the local speciality in Muslim areas of China, where pork is of course avoided. This is something most Chinese find hard to understand, perhaps more than they do women wearing veils. Pork is an absolutely core part of the diet in a nation where even the character for home (家) shows a pig under a roof. There is a myth among the Chinese, which I have heard repeated with my own ears, that the Hui won't eat pork because they believe they are descended from pigs. God knows how offensive they must find this misconception.

The next day we had lunch in a local restaurant which was almost empty, possibly due to Ramadan. After that we decided to make our way back north. Our first stop was Tongxin, a town which houses the only ancient mosque in Ningxia to have escaped the ravages of the Red Guards, China's equivalent of the Taliban. Tongxin is one of the main centers of Hui Muslim culture in China. It is also a small and remote place, and although its mosque is actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is certainly not a common destination for visitors, either domestic or foreign. 

We went to the bus station in Guyuan and got on the bus for Tongxin. Once we were on the bus, two policemen suddenly got on and started checking people's IDs. A routine check. As soon as they saw me, the policemen forgot about all the other passengers and went straight up to where I was sitting in the back row. After determining that Ting Ting and I were travelling together, they asked us why we were going to Tongxin. We replied "tourism", at which they just repeated "tourism?" in a disbelieving tone. We mentioned Tongxin's ancient mosque, something they had probably never heard of, but they accepted our explanation. They then proceeded to check my passport and her Chinese ID, taking photos of the main page with their phones, and left. 

After a two-hour drive we got off at Tongxin's main bus station, and caught a cab to the Great Mosque. The Mosque started life as a Buddhist Temple built by the Mongols, but once the Mongols were thrown out, it was turned into a mosque. It was renovated a few times, most recently in 1907. Most importantly it wasn't destroyed during the anti-religious drive of the Cultural Revolution. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, this is because Mao Zedong himself visited the mosque during the Long March. According to Michael Dillon's book on Hui culture, the mosque was protected by the proud local people, but it was also spared because Tongxin was the seat of the first contacts between Hui Muslims and the CCP. Whatever the truth, the impressive building shows you what mosques used to look like in China: it is built in the style of other Chinese temples, and the only sign you are in a mosque is the ornate Arabic writing on the walls. Most of the other mosques in the area are newly built in a faux-Middle Eastern style, with minarets and bell tops. Typically for China, most of them look cheap and tacky, with none of the majesty of real Arab mosques. When we entered the inner courtyard of the old mosque, there were lots of local men and children chatting.

Tongxin's ancient mosque

 A newly built mosque
The town of Tongxin looked like a typical poor county town in China's interior, with the difference that the people were heavily Muslim. I even saw men wearing white dresses of the kind you might see in the Gulf countries or in Pakistan. As a foreigner, I provoked even more surprise and stares than anywhere else I had visited up to then. Unfortunately we had little time to explore the town, as the last northbound bus left at 4.30.

As the bus made its way northward through the countryside, you could feel the Muslim presence gradually dissipating, and the villages becoming more and more Han in their feel. Although I did not have enough time to really get to know local society and research the matter, I am left with more questions than answers about Hui Muslim society. It certainly has all the outward signs of being Muslim, with the women wearing veils and most people fasting during Ramadan. But up to what extent do these people living in the middle of China and speaking Chinese, so isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, really follow the religion? To what degree is the Islam taught in the local mosques a watered down promoted by the authorities? I have heard of complaints that Saudi Arabia now funds mosques and Islamic schools in the region, and spreads its extremist message. Given what I know about how suspicious the Chinese government is of foreign influence, especially in the area of religion, I find it hard to believe that this would be allowed. As much as Hui society appears Muslim, it certainly doesn't feel like one of those conservative Muslim countries where women and men go out separately or the women are segregated in the home. Behaviour in this area seems much closer to what you might find anywhere in China. Then again, some would argue that segregation of the sexes is a tribal Arab custom which has little to do with Islam anyway.

Local girl in a veil, Sanying
Whatever the case, while I was visiting the Hui areas I had the same refreshing feeling I have felt while visiting minority areas of China in the past. People always seem a bit friendlier, more relaxed and less materialistic than they do in areas where the Han live. When we got to Zhongwei, I had the strong feeling of being back in ordinary China, with all the consequent behaviour I have got accustomed to. On the other hand, Zhongwei turned out to be quite a nicely planned and well developed city, far nicer than either Yinchuan or Guyuan. We got to stay in another nice hotel for little money, and the next day we set off for the Shapotou, a small town that serves as a gateway to the Tengger Desert.

The Tengger desert is a patch of sandy desert which is located mostly in Inner Mongolia, but is accessible mainly from Ningxia. It has become a popular destination since an episode of the Chinese show 爸爸去哪儿 was filmed there. The town of Shapotou is now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist hotspot, and on the way to the desert we saw huge hotels and tourist developments still being built. Near the town there is an area where tourists can go and engage in activities like riding a camel and driving a dune buggy. The area was a bit like I expected it to be: expensive and touristy, but worth it for people who have never seen a real desert before. I had actually agreed to go there mostly for the sake of my companion, since I have already been lucky enough to visit deserts in the Middle East, and did not feel a great need to pay in order to ride a camel round a few sand dunes.

Camels waiting to give tourists a ride

By Beijing standards the place was far from crowded, owing to its remoteness. Most of the visitors seemed to be from places like Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Sichuan. After paying for an 85 Yuan ticket (to enter the desert!) and a 160 Yuan ticket for the activities, we went in. We got to ride on camels through the dunes for about ten minutes. There was a line of about a dozen camels tied to each other, each one ridden by a tourist. The camels didn't look terribly healthy or happy, although I don't really know what camels normally look like. We then got to drive a dune buggy for a while, and then sit in the back while a local guide drove over the sand dunes at incredible speed, making it feel like a roller coaster. 

Just outside this patch of desert there was an incredible view of the Yellow River snaking through the mountains, which provided for some really good photo shots. After taking a few good photos, we hitched a ride back to Yinchuan's airport and boarded our flight back to Beijing. In the airport I saw a group of foreign visitors, and it struck me that these were the first obvious foreigners I had seen since arriving in Ningxia province four days previously.