Sunday, January 15, 2017

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

A street in Penang

I have just got back from a one week trip to Malaysia.

Although I only got the briefest glimpse into the country, Malaysia struck me as a fascinating example of a true multicultural society in Asia. The countries I have previously visited in East Asia have all essentially been monocultural, or at least dominated by a large ethnic-linguistic majority making up over 90% of the population. This would be the case for China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia on the other hand, with its large proportion of Chinese and Indians living alongside the native Malay and the other indigenous groups, is a true melting pot. What's more it is quite a successful one, and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to coexist relatively well.

I am of course aware that there is tension and resentment caused by the government's affirmative action policies that favour the bumiputera, Malaysia's "sons of the soil". But all the same, the fact that the country's last episode of actual racial violence took place in 1969 suggests that it must be getting something right. Malaysia's successful economy and relatively liberal politics, in a country with a Muslim majority, also point to a success story.

While in Malaysia I visited the island of Penang, one of the country's main draws for visitors. The island's main city, known as Georgetown, was established by the British in 1786, and soon became an important colonial hub. It is still Malaysia's second biggest city, and the entire historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its streets are a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, Chinese temples, mosques, Hindu shrines, and a variety of languages and faces.

Penang is also considered to be Malaysia's gastronomic capital, although to be fair, after constantly hearing people telling me that Malaysian food is amazing and some of the best in Asia, I failed to eat anything truly delicious during my time in the country. Most of the cheap restaurants appear to be of the self-service kind, with Malay or Indian food that you scoop out of big trays onto your plate. The food just lies around for hours in these trays, and in many of the places I visited there were flies buzzing around the food. It didn't look especially hygienic, although I eat in such establishments a few times and never actually got ill. While in Penang I did go to the famous Gurney night market, where you can eat snacks from stalls. There was some pretty good Chinese-style sea food, although nothing that amazing.

Another place I visited in Penang was the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. In the nineteenth century, Chinese overseas communities would set up clan associations which would include individuals with the same surnames. The Chinese word gongsi or kongsi (公司), now used to mean company, then indicated such clubs. These associations would serve as mutual aid societies and points of social gathering. The Khoo Kongsi (邱公司) served as the headquarter for all the immigrants surnamed 邱 (Khoo or Qiu) in Penang, and it is the most impressive Chinese clanhouse surviving in Malaysia. Originally built in 1851, it was destroyed by a fire in 1894, and rebuilt in 1906. Although it is no longer an important centre of social activities, it has become a tourist attraction. It includes a clan temple and a traditional theatre.

The Khoo clan also became involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, in which the two main Chinese secret societies fought on the streets for days over competing commercial interests. Apparently a cannonball was fired from the clanhouse, which is why the square outside it is known as Cannon Square. The fighting only subsided when the British brought in reinforcements from Singapore.

The Khoo clan is Hokkien, in other words hailing from China's Fujian province, which alongside neighbouring Guangdong and Zhejiang has always been the point of origin of most Chinese emigrants. Many Chinese Malays still speak Hokkien Chinese (known as Min Nan in China), which is essentially the variety of Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian. Outside the clanhouse I happened to see an interesting diatribe against Mandarin Chinese and in favour of Hokkien, which is pictured in the photos below.

I wouldn't fully subscribe to the diatribe, especially since I don't see the problem if Mandarin was influenced by non-Han peoples from the North. Languages evolve and inter-mix, and viewing Mandarin as inferior because it was influenced by outsiders is suspicious. The content of the text is also not all linguistically sound, although it is indeed the case that many Southern Chinese dialects are closer to the Chinese spoken in the Tang Dynasty than Mandarin is. I found a refutation of the text's exaggerated claims here. Still, it was interesting to see this example of Hokkien pride, which would probably be hard to find in Mainland China. I suppose it is also a reaction againse the cultural insensitivity of some Mandarin-speaking visitors from China.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Good work, Netease! An honest discussion of Chinese attitudes towards black people

Guangzhou's African community, probably the most striking case of foreign immigration to China, is apparently getting smaller and smaller. Over the last few months, articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Quartz and CNN claiming that there has been something of an exodus of Africans from Guangzhou and from China in general. Part of the reason would seem to be economic: most of the Africans in Guangzhou are small-time traders buying up cheap goods and exporting them to their own country, but China's economic growth is slowing down, and African consumers are becoming better at distinguishing fakes from original products. There is also currently a shortage of dollars in West Africa, which is a problem because these traders cannot use their local currencies to trade in China.

Another part of the explanation seems to be connected with the increasing strictness of the authorities towards foreigners breaking visa regulations in China, something which is affecting both African traders as well as English teachers. Some of the Africans in Guangzhou do indeed overstay their visas, often because they are itinerant traders who are given 30-day tourist visas at a time and find that they are unable to finish their business in such a short time or don't even have the money to fly home. There are however also Africans who have lived stably in the city for years and have proper work visas. What all the reports agree on is that many of the city's Africans complain about the impossibility of acquiring some kind of permanent residence right, and about a general climate of racism and hostility towards them.

That there is a certain dislike of black people among many Chinese is a well-known fact to those familiar with the country. It is however extremely rare to hear such things openly admitted or discussed in the Chinese media. When it comes to racism, official slogans like "racism doesn't exist in China" and "Chinese people are very friendly towards foreigners" are what you will usually hear both in public discourse and on the streets. That is why I was quite surprised, in a good way, to see an article entitled "Why do the Chinese self-righteously discriminate against black people?" appear in Wangyi (Netease), one of China's major internet portals. It should be noted that Netease is one of the most liberal and open-minded of the country's major media providers (of course this is very relative).

The article touches upon all of the problems that black people might encounter in China. For instance, there is an interview with a black American who teaches English in Beijing. He claims that his school was happy with his performance, but his boss still told him that they were forced to look for someone else, because "the students would like a different teacher". During the breaks, he said he would hear students say in Chinese "I spent such a lot of money, and I'd really like a white teacher", or "I really don't want to stare at his black face the whole evening".

The article then goes on: "Saying that in China there is no discrimination against black people means deceiving ourselves and others (自欺欺人). Any ordinary Chinese can imagine the hard-to-conceal sense of foreboding and dread they would feel if they saw a black person walking towards them. Even though historically China has not engaged in the kind of large-scale, organized discrimination that Europe and America did, and there haven't been any policies of separation aimed at black people, racial thinking has long embedded itself in the heart of the ordinary Chinese. These sayings that we often like to use, like "descendants of the dragon" and "descendants of the fiery emperor and the yellow emperor", are actually a kind of racial thinking which show how we uphold the concept of blood lineage." The sayings mentioned (龙的传人 and 炎黄子孙 in Chinese) are often-used ways to refer to the Chinese people. It is really quite rare for an article in the Chinese media to attack the roots of Chinese thinking about nation and race in this way.

Later on the article describes the anti-African protests of 1988-89 at Nanjing University, something else which I am relatively surprised to even see mentioned. Finally, it touches upon the African community in Guangzhou. It says that even though Africans in Guangzhou have their own "Little Africa", "in China they are still a group that is seen in a poor light, rarely mentioned and even studiously avoided". It also quotes an African trader who married a Chinese woman and found that even his wife was constantly telling their children bad things about Africa. Finally, the controversy over the Chinese "Star Wars" poster that relegates the leading black actor to the a supporting cast position is analyzed.

All in all, I am quite impressed at the honesty and self-reflection displayed in the piece, in a country where racial issues of this kind are rarely acknowledged. Hopefully articles like this might help to improve attitudes. Keep up the good work, Netease!

African woman and baby on the streets of Guangzhou

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why are there so many English teachers in China on the wrong visa?

Over the last few days, China's expat magazines and websites have been reporting the news that a large number of foreign English teachers have been detained for working without a Z (work) visa, or in some cases for using fake diplomas to obtain their visas. They will certainly be fined and may be deported. Although it is hard to separate facts from hearsay, it seems that Chinese police officers are being offered a reward of 2000 Yuan for every foreign teacher without the right visa they can bust.

Due to this incentive they have become very determined, and apparently have gone to the lengths of posting fake adverts for high-paying English teaching jobs on websites used by expats. They will then arrest people who present themselves to the interview if they don't have a Z visa (I don't really understand how it can be a crime to just go to a job interview, but anyway). They have also threatened the foreign teachers detained with 30 days in jail if they don't turn over all their phone contacts, some of whom will then supposedly be the victims of more checks.

When I first came to China, the general situation was that nobody really seemed to care what visa foreigners worked on. It was common for foreign students to round up their meagre scholarship allowances by teaching English part-time in schools. Although it is theoretically illegal for a foreigner to work and earn money on a student visa or anything other than a Z visa, in actuality nobody was bothered. Teachers working full-time on a business visas or even tourist visas were also quite common, and again it was very rare for anything bad to happen. As long as a foreigner didn't actually overstay their visa, nobody really seemed to mind if it didn't match their occupation.

There have of course been moments in the past when the authorities became stricter with foreigners. I have been in China long enough to remember the 2012 crackdown on foreigners "entering illegally, staying illegally and working illegally". I was never actually affected myself, but stories abounded of police randomly stopping foreigners on the street and demanding to see their passports, or raiding language schools and checking whether all the foreigners present had work visas. Although I was not yet in China at the time, the crackdown just before the Olympic games in 2008 is supposed to have been quite bad, with foreigners who had worked in China for years suddenly being refused visas and raids on bars where foreigners liked to gather.

The truth though is that those crackdown were only temporary, and in 2012 things were back to normal after about two or three months of the campaign beginning. The whole campaign gave me the feeling of being more of a show than a serious attempt to weed out foreigners on the wrong visa, although of course I stand to be corrected about this. Nowadays however, what we appear to be seeing is a serious, sustained attempt to kick out any foreigners who work here on the wrong visa. If police officers are being offered bonuses to catch illegal foreigners, then someone is pretty determined to make this happen.

Of course, it could be argued that the Chinese authorities have a perfect right to ensure that their visa regulations are respected. If you need a Z visa to work, then you should get a Z visa, right? As always however, things are not that simple and can be seen from a variety of angles. China is not a country where rules are clearcut and always followed. Rather, it is a country where rules are often unclear, selectively applied and ignored when it is considered convenient. This flexibility allows the authorities to get things done quickly and efficiently when they want to, but it also means that few people are ever completely clean and unassailable. Depending on how strict they decide to be, the government can pretty much choose to crackdown on anyone and anything they like.

There are a number of factors pushing foreigners to teach on the wrong visas in China. For one thing, Z visas are very hard to obtain, and only getting harder. Applicants need to have at least an undergraduate university degree, and they have to get hold of a criminal record certificate from their own country's police, an official letter by an employer proving two years of full-time work experience after graduation, translate all of the required documents into Chinese, and finally apply at their own country's Chinese embassy (it cannot be in a third country).

On the other hand, the demand for foreign English teachers in China is extremely high. Parents in cities all over the country are ready to fork out quite a bit of cash to have their children taught by a "native" English teacher (native very often meaning "white" in their minds). Often the employment of foreign English teachers is handled by third-party agencies that rent them out to schools. Given the difficulty and high costs associated with getting a work visa, agencies and schools have every incentive to hire foreigners who are in China on a business or student visa, and try and convince them that there is no risk involved.

What's more, there have been cases of agencies faking university diplomas for foreigners without a bachelor's degree so that they would be given a work visa. This is another thing which is being cracked down upon. There are also restrictions on the number of foreigners which Chinese companies can legally hire. Although I am not sure how this is applied to language schools, it may mean that schools cannot legally get work visas for as many foreign teachers as they would like.

There is thus a vast English teaching industry in which all players have an interest in cheating. The small army of foreign English teachers is also a most diverse one. The unfortunate stereotype of the Western reprobate who comes to China to teach English because they have nothing going for them back home or to get away from personal problems is probably true for some people, but certainly not in the majority of cases. There are the young Brits and Americans who do it a few years for the adventure. But there are also plenty of people coming from countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa teaching English in China, probably attracted by the relatively good money you can make.

I have also met people from countries like Ukraine and Russia, hardly famous for their English fluency, teaching English here. Years ago I met a Polish couple teaching English in a small town near Chongqing. They had passable English, and their agency had told them to introduce themselves to their high schools students as Jack and Martha, from England. As far as I know nobody doubted them. But while it is true that some foreign teachers may not speak English quite as well as advertised or may not be the best educators, there are certainly also employers that act dishonestly towards them. This is a field where standards are generally low on all sides.

Essentially, for years this hugely profitable industry was kept going on the understanding that nobody would care if foreigners worked in China without the appropriate visa. Now, however, the authorities have started to care. Of course China's vast size and chaotic development means that different people can have very different experiences. I am sure there are still plenty of foreigners teaching on the wrong visas, or places where the authorities have not started to make a fuss. Essentially, though, the trend is towards greater controls and strictness.

Basically what I see is a contrast between the demand for English language training in China and the sums parents are ready to spend on it, which remain vast, and the current tendency towards more control in all fields and stricter application processes and checks for foreigners who want to work China. If nothing else, when teaching English on the wrong visa becomes so risky it isn't worthwhile, legitimate and certified foreign teachers with the right visa might actually find themselves in better demand and able to earn more for their efforts.

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


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?


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.