Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Three-Body Problem: Chinese science-fiction

I have just finished reading Liu Cixin's famous science-fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past, better know by the title of its first book, "the Three-body Problem". This trilogy by a computer engineer from Shanxi province is one of the few Chinese science-fiction works to have been translated into other languages. It is also one of the few that have really piqued international interest, and rightly so.

The three novels in the series are high quality science-fiction, on a par with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. They take an old question (what would happen if humanity came into contact with aliens?) and really run away with it in ways that are both unpredictable and astonishing, as well as scientifically sound. Some of the books' ideas are quite thought-provoking, like the one of the whole universe being a dark forest in which any civilisation that reveals its planet's location to outsiders risks imminent destruction (thus providing an explanation for the Fermi paradox), and the final image of a universe that is dying as a result of different civilisations constantly waging war with each other by turning the very laws of physics into weapons. 

The interesting twist, of course, is the fact that much of the series is set in China, and most of the characters are Chinese, even though you could often forget this. The setting makes itself felt most heavily in the first book, part of which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and part in present-day China. The second and third books are set centuries in the future, and even though some of the plot still takes place in Beijing, which has now become an underground city, the location obviously becomes less relevant. There is the idea that in future humanity's global language will be a mixture of English and Chinese, but I could easily imagine an American science-fiction writer coming up with exactly the same unoriginal prediction. Apart from the scenes from the Cultural Revolution (a period which the author himself remembers from his childhood), most of the time the Chinese setting feels more like an accidental irrelevance to a series that could just as well take place in another country if the names were changed.

Having said that the books do draw from Chinese history and literature. For instance, there are the aliens who read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and can't understand the constant deception and trickery which the characters employ, since they come from a civilisation in which thoughts are always expressed openly. There is the appearance of Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, as a character in the virtual reality game set up by the sect that want to assist the aliens in invading the earth. And there is the quixotic advice given by a Buddhist monk to one of the characters in the first book.

If you like science fiction the series is well worth a read. Among other things, it really makes you wonder whether humanity's amateurish attempts to broadcast messages disclosing its existence into outer space are really a good idea.

Liu Cixin and the fist book of the series

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why are some Chinese happy about Trump's victory?


Trump's victory has most of the liberal, right-thinking people in the US and the entire Western world reeling in shock and apprehension. Many of my acquaintances fit into this category, and they are none too happy today, as my social media feed is clearly showing.

But the circle of my acquaintances also includes another major group, in other words sophisticated, mostly young Chinese, and in this group the reaction would appear to be quite different. Both judging by things I have heard in person and on social media, it would seem that among the sort of Chinese who follow the US elections, sympathies actually lie more on Trump's side.

In the run-up to the elections, the Chinese media had an easy job of holding up the divisive, bad-tempered race between Clinton and Trump as an example of how US democracy and even "Western democracy" are in decline and don't really work. On some occasions, Trump's gaffes and laughable antics were directly held up as an example of the ills and the corruption of the American system.

All the same, it was already obvious that many Chinese citizens were hoping for a Trump victory, or in any case disliked Hillary Clinton. In fact, Trump's odd popularity in China had already been the object of reports in the international media. Part of the reason for this lay in Clinton's more hawkish positions on foreign policy, and towards China in particular. The perception was that a Clinton presidency would be more decisive in resisting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and more uncompromising regarding the other geopolitical disputes between the two powers. Clinton was also considered to be more keen to promote those terrible American values of democracy and human rights around the world, while Trump was perceived to be more focused on internal matters and the economy.

Thus, in spite of the fact that Trump has described global warming as a Chinese hoax, has often repeated the line that China steals American jobs, and has called the Chinese leaders clever currency manipulators, the perception in China was that Hillary Clinton would be more inimical to Chinese interests. A line one hears is that "while a Trump presidency is more likely to challenge China economically, a Clinton presidency is more likely to challenge China geopolitically".

There may be some truth in this. Trump is an isolationist who has publicly questioned whether the US should defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack. His view is that the rest of the world should "fix its own problems". It is legitimate to wonder whether he will be enthusiastic about supporting US allies in East Asia, which include Japan, South Korea and crucially Taiwan. At the same time, it strikes me that Trump is an unpredictable character who might reverse his views once in power, and be very hawkish about certain issues. But still, chances are that he will be less interested in East Asian geopolitics (and less shrewd in his interventions).

One might think that the Chinese would be more worried about the possibility of Trump setting higher tariffs on Chinese imports and restricting foreign trade, which might actually affect people's livelihoods in China. But unfortunately the strength of popular nationalism and the influence of the media is such that many Chinese are genuinely more concerned about the sovereignty over some patches of sea they will never visit than they are about their economy.

Another reason for the Chinese public's sympathy for Trump might just be their cultural distance from the United States, and their lack of personal experience with an electoral system. America's "culture wars" are obviously rather abstract to people in China. The illiberal values propagated by Trump, his racist comments and misogynist jokes, may not necessarily seem as shocking to people who do not share a Western sense of political correctness. Describing refugees as a threat cannot seem all that terrible in a country where North Korean refugees are happily deported back to North Korea. And the immigrants who have been the targets of Trump's rhetoric are generally Muslim or Latino, not Chinese (in which case I'm pretty sure the reaction would be different).

Another line one sometimes hears in China is that "Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the US economy". I have heard the same line repeated innumerable times in Italy by Berlusconi supporters, so I know exactly how empty it is. But Trump's identity as a demagogue millionaire with no political experience might not be so recognisable or so unpalatable to people in China. There are after all no exact translations for words like populism and demagogue commonly used in China (populism is translated as 民粹主义, but I have never heard anyone use the word in speech).

Of course, not all the Chinese with an opinion are happy about the result. A Chinese ex-colleague who is an activist for gay rights (and lesbian herself), and is now getting a post-graduate degree in Washington University, wrote a long post on Wechat today. She said that this morning all the students in her school received a letter from the dean, who as an "immigrant Latina lesbian" reaffirmed the school's commitment to diversity and inclusion. But she also lamented that racism and homophobia would get worse in the US now that they have political backing, and said that a friend of a friend was told by a white person on the street to "go back to China". She finished off with: "(in Chinese) Hillary lost, the new liberalism is slipping away, and the world that we are about to enter is not going to be a better one. A phrase is constantly reverberating in my heart today: (in English) there's no place in the world that we can live now." 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Kashgar

The Erkeshtam Border Crossing

The last step in my Central Asian adventure was crossing back into China overland from Kyrgyzstan, travelling from Osh to Kashgar. By taking this route I was faithfully retracing the ancient Silk Road on which both Osh and Kashgar were major stops, long before national borders existed.

In order to get from Kyrgyzstan into China I had to pass through the Erkeshtam crossing. Situated at over 3000 meters of elevation, this border post sits deep within the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. It is China's westernmost border crossing, and one of its most remote ones. In fact it is probably the most remote border crossing I have ever passed through, and I have been around.

It was the owner of my hostel in Osh who arranged a place for me in a private car which was going to make the four-hour drive to the Chinese border. Public transport in Kyrgyzstan is under-developed, and the best way to make the journey remains hitching a ride with a private driver. The ride cost me the equivalent of about 20 euros. The car unfortunately came to pick me up at 7 in the morning. The other passengers in the car were a Kyrgyz soldier in uniform, and two older women wearing traditional ethnic clothing. I later realized that these women were Chinese citizens crossing back into China, but they belonged to an ethnic minority and seemed to speak no Chinese. I was completely unable to communicate with anyone in the car.




Pictures of the scenery on the way to the Erkestham Border crossing

The drive towards the border brought us progressively to higher and higher altitudes. Even though Osh was quite warm, by the time we approached the border we were driving through huge, snow-covered mountains. As usual the scenery was majestic and almost devoid of signs of human presence, as I had become used to in Central Asia. By about 11 am we reached the last Kyrgyz border post. I said goodbye to my driver, and went through the guard post where I would officially receive my stamp and leave Kyrgyzstan. Once I'd walked through the border post though, I realized I had no idea what to do next. All I could see in front of me was a long road stretching into the mountains, with a long line of lorries heading towards China. There was no sign of a Chinese border post. From the other side of the post, my driver gestured for me to get into one of the lorries. I don't know whether he knew the driver or had tipped him, since I could not communicate with anyone, but I did as I was told. The lorry then drove the 20 minute drive through no man's land to the first Chinese border post. When exactly we entered Chinese-controlled land I cannot say, but at some point I realized that I was back in China.

No man's land between Kyrgyzstan and China

When we approached the border post I got out of the lorry, and walk towards the rather un-impressive building officially marked as the "Erkeshtam border crossing" in Chinese. There was no longer snow here, but due to the fierce mountain winds I was compelled to get my heavy winter coat out of my suitcase. As I approached the entrance I was met by a pretty young soldier who was clearly from a local minority and spoke extremely accented Chinese. I handed over my passport and was told to wait in a waiting room. After about 20 minutes I was shown through the building's exit, and into a big empty square in front of the border post. There was a bunch of Chinese men probably returning from doing business in Kyrgyzstan, a young Chinese couple and a few young Tajik men all waiting around. I had no idea how long I would have to wait to get my passport back, but figured it wouldn't take long.

About half an hour later, all of the border post's soldiers suddenly left. I asked the Chinese men what was going on, and I was told that the soldiers had gone off duty, and we would have to wait for them to resume work at 4 pm in order to be get our passports back. At this point it was nearly 2 pm, Chinese time. I was aghast. I really wasn't expecting this kind of inefficiency on the Chinese side of the border. I had had no breakfast, it was cold, and all we had to do was hang around and admire the scenery. One of the men told me I was lucky it wasn't December, when it gets cold for real. I later went for a walk and discovered that nearby there was a little row of shops and restaurants serving travellers and lorry drivers stuck at the border. The restaurants looked awful, but I was able to buy some instant noodles in a shop and fill my stomach.

The Chinese border post

At 4.30 pm the soldiers finally returned, and told us to get on a minivan waiting for us. Our passports were handed over to the driver. It was clear to me now that we still hadn't reached the place where we would officially go through customs and enter China. After much confusion about seating arrangements, the minivan finally drove off into the wilderness. We drove for ages, descending into the vast desolation of the Tarim Basin. The landscape became more desert-like, and I even saw a flock of camels out of the window. After about one and a half hours we reached another guard post. We all had to get out and show the soldiers our passports. When one of the machine-gun totting Chinese soldiers saw my British passport and realized I spoke Chinese, he became extremely chatty and friendly. While his colleague checked our passports, he asked me if I had voted for Brexit. He then asked me how the Pound was doing, how long I have lived in China, if I have a Chinese girlfriend, and told me I'd love it in Kashgar. My fellow Chinese and Tajik travellers looked at the scene in amazement. I assume the soldiers don't act so friendly with them.

Flock of camels in Xinjiang

We then got back into the minivan, and drove another half hour to the customs facility where we were finally going to have our passports stamped and officially enter China. The whole process was quite quick for once. I filled out the arrivals form and got my stamp. Six hours and a 100 kilometres after officially leaving Kyrgyzstan, I had finally entered China.

I had never imagined the whole process would be so complicated, but I guess that is what you have to expect when entering China at such a remote location, where the flow of people crossing is quite low. I later learned that the Chinese customs facility was relocated 100 kilometres east of the actual border in 2011. What happens if a foreigner wants to visit the huge area in between, which contains some towns too, I am not sure. It may well not be possible. What are 100 kilometres of wilderness in huge Xinjiang anyway?

Kashgar

After crossing the border, I teamed up with the young Chinese couple and one of the middle-aged businessmen, who were all going to Kashgar as well. We shared a taxi to the city. On the way we were stopped at a checkpoint, and when the soldiers saw me they asked me to get out of the car and have my passport scanned. Only I, being a foreigner, had to get out of the car. This was the kind of intense security checks and suspicion that I was expecting in Xinjiang.

The Chinese businessman in our taxi seemed friendly and rather rustic, the sort of person you would only meet in a Chinese backwater. In the end he paid the ride for all of us, something which quite amazed me. After travelling through more desert landscape and little Uyghur towns, we reached Kashgar after dark. The taxi dropped us off at the train station. I was exhausted, hungry, hadn't booked anywhere to stay, and the internet on my phone wasn't working. I took a taxi and asked the driver to go to Kashgar's Old City, which worked. Once in the city centre I identified a reasonable hotel and went in. It was a four-star hotel, and a double room only cost 200 Yuan a night. That's the kind of prices you can still find in small towns and remote parts of China. My first impression of Kashgar was that it seemed recognizably Chinese, and at the same time very un-Chinese and exotic. The centre was replete with the typical neon-lit high-rises and skyscrapers of a provincial Chinese town. Although Kashgar is a small city by Chinese standards, with 500,000 people, coming from Kyrgyzstan it looked impressively big and modern.

Kashgar, a city whose very name invokes images of exoticism, has a history of 2000 years as a major outpost on the Silk Road. Marco Polo went through Kashgar during his great journey to China, and his description is a curious mix of praise and criticism: "There are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itself. The inhabitants live by trade and handicrafts; they have beautiful gardens and vineyards, and fine estates, and grow a great deal of cotton. From this country many merchants go forth about the world on trading journeys. The natives are a wretched, niggardly set of people; they eat and drink in miserable fashion."

Although a lot of places are described as being at the "crossroad of different civilizations", this is true of Kashgar as it is of few other places. Historically, Kashgar was for a long time a Persian-speaking, Buddhist city which was a vassal to a succession of Chinese dynasties. Then it became part of the Tibetan empire. Later it became the capital of the Karakhanid Khanate. During this period the city (and the whole region) turned into a Turkic-speaking and Islamic one, as it basically remains today. Later on Kashgar was ruled by the Mongols, then incorporated into the Qing Dynasty's empire, and finally into the People's Republic of China.

Today, Kashgar remains the city most representative of Uyghur culture. The word Uyghur is basically a modern invention of Soviet ethnography, just like many of the other names for Central Asian peoples. It refers to the sedentary speakers of a Turkic dialects living in what is now China's Xinjiang province. While the North of Xinjiang is now heavily populated by Han Chinese with origins further East, the South of Xinjiang is still heavily Uyghur. The provincial capital Urumqi is now 80% Han, but in Kashgar, which lies in the South, the proportions are reversed: 80% of the city's population is Uyghur, according to official statistics. This lends the city an extremely exotic air (from a Chinese perspective). Most women wear veils, most men have beards and/or traditional round hats, and the food and lifestyle are totally Central Asian.

What has probably helped to preserve Kashgar's traditional character is the city's truly amazing geographical isolation from anywhere else in China, nestled as it is right in the Western corner of gigantic Xinjiang, which on its own is as big as Western Europe. Even Urumqi is a 16-hour train ride from Kashgar. In fact, Kashgar is geographically closer to Damascus then it is to Beijing. Although the whole of China officially operates on Beijing time, Western Xinjiang is so far from Beijing that this would result in people going to work before the sun has risen. As a result, people operate on their own unofficial time which is two hours behind the rest of China, and the same as in Kyrgyzstan. For this reason I had no problem finding a restaurant still open on my first night, although it was already 11 pm Beijing time when I went out to eat.

What really struck me was how little the Chinese language has penetrated Kashgar. From the taxi drivers to the shopkeepers to the people at my hotel's reception desk, everyone seemed to speak limited and heavily accented Mandarin. The average inhabitant speaks Chinese like a Middle Eastern student entering his second year of language studies in Beijing's Language and Culture University. Most of the writing on the streets and shopfronts is in Uyghur's Arabic script. This is a far cry from the situation in Inner Mongolia, for instance, where shop names have to be displayed in Mongolian script by decree, but the tiny Mongolian writing is always flanked by much larger writing in Chinese, the actual language everyone speaks and reads.

Uyghur language and Uyghur culture clearly survive and in some way even thrive in Kashgar, to an extent that few minority cultures still do in China. The fact that primary education is actually provided in Uyghur must be an important factor in this. The Chinese authorities can be pretty hands-off about such things, especially when confronted with a determined people like the Uyghurs who have made it very clear that they do not wish to simply be swept up in the high tide of Chinese culture. As a result, the Uyghurs speak much less Chinese than the Kyrgyz across the border do Russian, in spite of 26 years of independence. Relations between the Han and the Uyghurs remain notoriously tense however, and a few years ago Kashgar was at the center of some very serious terrorist attacks directed at Han immigrants.

The security measures in the city are very striking. There are police vehicles and riot troops stationed at every one of Kashgar's squares, and it is necessary to go through a security check and a scanner just in order to get into supermarkets and public places, something which reminded me of Israel. There was even a security check at the entrance to my hotel, which I had to go through every time I entered the building. Having said that, the city itself did not feel tense, and the locals were mostly friendly and forthcoming. My hotel was situated right next to an extremely Middle Eastern feeling-souk, with jewellery and spices for sale. About a 20 minute walk away was Kashgar's old city.




Pictures of Kashgar

The old city is a collection of traditional mud houses on a hill. It has been called the best collection of traditional Islamic architecture to be found anywhere in Central Asia, showing that the USSR was even more destructive than China when it came to old buildings. The Chinese have not been idle, however: a few years ago there was an uproar in the international media about a government plan to relocate the residents and raze the old city. Some claim that the outrage was misplaced, and the plans were justified. The authorities have definitely been paying residents to relocate to modern flats, claiming among other things that the old city's houses represent an earthquake risk. Although some areas of the old city did appear to me to have been destroyed, there was still a large intact area of old courtyards and little winding alleyways that reminded me somewhat of Jerusalem's much larger historic centre. It was all quite atmospheric and attractive. Uyghur traders and potters still ply their trade in houses that have belonged to them for generations, while the odd tourist from Eastern China takes photos.

The Old City of Kashgar

A potter in his home


Pictures of the Old City

The huge statue of Mao in the middle of Kashgar

A little distance away I chanced across what seems to be a sanitized "old city" approved by the authorities, with new houses built in a replica of the ancient Islamic style. At the entrance there was the inevitable sign claiming that this was a "国家AAAA景点" (National AAAA Tourist Site), and the main street displayed the unmistakable signs of a Chinese tourist trap. Having said that, even in that area the little alleyways off the main street had a genuine local feel, and some of the buildings actually looked old. After leaving the old city I walked to Kashgar's main city square, which contains an imposing 18 metre statue of Chairman Mao, one of the biggest ones remaining anywhere in China.

I had lunch in a local restaurant near my hotel, where I impressed the curious waiters with my ability to write my name in Arabic writing and the Kyrgyzstani money in my wallet. That evening I went for a walk in another direction, and I soon reached an area that I suppose is where Han immigrants tend to live, since I suddenly felt like I was back in Beijing, with people speaking Chinese and the shop signs only in Chinese.

The next day I flew over the Taklimakan desert to Urumqi, where I caught a connecting flight to Beijing. My journey across Central Asia was over. 

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, 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 remained 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 who offered to help me any way they could. I suppose 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.