Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Foreign tourists aren't coming to China, and it is hurting the economy

Most foreign residents in China seem to agree that the country has become a less easy place for outsiders to navigate over the last few years. From renting a house to accessing banking services, having a foreign passport rather than a Chinese ID is becoming more and more of a liability. This is probably part of the reason that the number of foreigners living in China is still pretty tiny, and not really increasing very fast either. I would argue that this is not to the country's benefit, although this can be a hard point to sell in China. 

It has become apparent, however, that there is one area where China's refusal to make more accommodation for foreigners is causing an immediate, tangible damage to the country's economy, and that is tourism. Over the last couple of years, various analysts have noted that China's current account balance has been hard hit by the gap between inbound and outbound tourism. To put it simply, there are currently far more Chinese travelling abroad than there are foreign tourists coming to China.

In 2017 Chinese tourists made 130 million trips abroad, spending a total of 115.29 billion US dollars. In the same year, the number of foreigners taking trips to China fell just short of 30 million. For a country of China's size and heritage, this is not a very impressive figure. By way of comparison, Thailand received over 35 million visits in the same year, Japan got over 28 million, and even not so glamorous Vietnam still managed 12 million.

It isn't hard to see why China receives few visitors. The unnecessarily restrictive visa regime for foreign tourists is one major factor. In a world where more and more countries allow visa-free travel (at least for citizens of developed countries), China is definitely not going down this path. While Americans, Brits and a few other nationalities are able to receive multiple entry tourist visas as part of reciprocal deals, citizens of most countries are generally given one-month visas. This is dependent on showing that they have tickets both to enter and leave China, and presenting evidence of hotel bookings for the entire duration of the trip.

For most individual travellers this is a burdensome requirement, based on the assumption that they have planned out their entire trip in advance. For young backpackers on their gap year trips around the world, this may well be reason enough to stay away from China all together. 

Then there is the hassle of getting around China as a foreign tourist. This has become much harder in recent years, precisely because of the same set of factors that have made life more convenient for long-term residents. Essentially, almost everything in China is now arranged and paid for through an ecosystem of smartphone apps that is very hard for outsiders to access. From cabs to cinema tickets, phone bills to airplanes, there is almost nothing that cannot be booked through your phone and paid for using WeChat.

Trying to do things the old way can be tricky, more expensive or downright impossible. For example, waving down a taxi on the street has become much harder in Chinese cities, since everyone uses Didi to hail a car. But you cannot use Didi unless you can pay with WeChat or Alipay, and you cannot do that unless you have a Chinese bank account. WeChat used to allow you to use its "wallet" function even without linking it to a bank account, but this is no longer possible (probably due to "security concerns").

For travellers not planning to open a Chinese bank account (which is generally impossible on a tourist visa anyway), getting around an already puzzling country has become a lot harder. Fortunately it is still possible to pay in cash in most establishments, although even this could soon start to change (I already know of one restaurant in Beijing that only accepts mobile payments).  

Then there is the truly incredible fact that a large proportion of Chinese hotels do not accept foreign guests as a matter of policy. This is the case even in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. While a few decades ago hotels needed a special license to accept foreigners, and only the high-end ones generally received it, nowadays all hotels could do so in principle. Quite simply many establishments do not want the hassle of having to register foreign guests with the local police, or do not know how to go about it, and so they just reject all foreigners. Although any Chinese city will still have hotels where foreigners can stay, this state of affairs represents a serious annoyance for the independent traveller, especially since it is the cheaper places that are most likely not to accept foreigners.

All in all, what emerges is the picture of a country that is simply not trying very hard to make itself welcoming to short-term visitors, even though this is actually costing it economically. The omnipresent sense of national pride and the state's growing security paranoia remain the best explanations. The strict visa regime is probably seen as a response to other countries' strict requirements for visiting Chinese citizens. The situations are not really comparable though: while most rich countries have a justified fear of illegal immigration, the chances of visitors from places like Australia or Germany overstaying their visas in China is almost non-existent (and they would hardly be able to lay low for very long, given the country’s omnipresent surveillance). The same sense of pride, the increased regimentation and control and the perceived need to monitor foreigners’ movements makes it hard to imagine changes to the rules that make China difficult for independent travellers, although many of them could be changed quite easily with some good will.

The fact remains that China’s diminishing capital account surplus is a serious source of concern for the government, and the large imbalance between how much Chinese tourists spend abroad and how much foreign tourists spend in China is a significant contributing factor (although obviously not the only one). Given that it is no longer politically feasible to restrict the majority of Chinese citizens from travelling abroad, there is little that could be done about this except opening up more to foreign tourism. 

Even within China, some have now begun to call for more openness. At the recent ITB conference in Beijing, Ctrip founder and co-chairman James Liang called for the government to make China more attractive to foreign visitors. He recommended relaxing visa policies, pointing to a study by the World Tourism Organization showing that only five countries worldwide have more restrictive visa policies than China, those countries being Angola, Gabon, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He noted that Turkey, which allows visa-free access for nationals of 78 countries, managed to attract more international visitors than the whole of China in 2017. He also recommended that the government build more museums and further develop airports and railway travel (this last suggestion might seem a bit superfluous).

While this is encouraging, I can't really see much being done to make China more inviting for foreign travellers any time soon. In the near future, tourism is probably going to remain one field in which China haemorrhages money towards the outside world.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

When the Tibetans and Uyghurs overran China

The worrying developments in Xinjiang seem to have finally caught some of the world's attention, although it is far from becoming the cause célèbre that Tibet was in years past. Modern China's relationship with its minorities in these two regions remains fraught, and any compromise seems unlikely. It is interesting to look back at a time when the balance of power was reversed, and the Tibetans and Uyghurs made up formidable fighting forces that almost overran China.

Back in the middle of the eight century CE, China was ruled by the fabled Tang dynasty, now remembered for presiding over a golden era of prosperity, openness to the world and even women's rights (China's only ever female ruler, Wu Zetian, took power in this period). The capital Chang'an was the world's largest city with two million people, and the Tang dynasty was the world's largest empire. The cosmopolitan capital included quite a few non-Chinese among its inhabitants, probably in a higher proportion than you would find in any Chinese city today. Nowadays Chang'an is known as Xi'an, a city that sits in the middle of an arid, impoverished backwater, but in those days China's North-West was the empire's flourishing centre, while Southern China remained on the perifery.

To its North and West, Tang China was flanked by two mighty empires: the Tibetan empire and the Uyghur Khaganate. We are used to hearing about these two peoples as beleaguered minorities in modern China, unable to even beginning to compete with the Han in terms of numbers, resources and power. The balance of power was however quite different at the time.

The Tibetan empire came into being in the 7th century CE, when a specific clan gained control of central Tibet and based their capital in Lhasa, which has remained Tibet's main urban centre ever since. Even though Tibet has always had a harsh and unforgiving natural environment, over the next two centuries its rulers created a powerful state and expanded over a much larger area than the Tibetan plateau, gaining control over much of what is now Xinjiang, Yunnan, Kashmir, Nepal and even Bengal. The Tibetans at this stage were not yet Buddhists, although it at this time that Buddhism appeared in the Tibetan plateau. Buddhism in China, however, was enjoying the peak of its popularity.

A statue of Songtsen Gampo, unifier of Tibet and founder of the Tibetan empire, in one of the ancient meditation caves of Yerpa, outside of Lhasa
The Uyghur Khaganate, on the other hand, was a tribal confederation of Turkic-speaking peoples that existed between the eight and the ninth centuries CE. It spanned a huge area covering modern Mongolia, the north of modern Xinjiang, and a big chunk of Russian Siberia and Northeastern China, reaching all the way to the Pacific. Its capital was at Ordu Baliq, now in Mongolia. Its ruler was the khagan, which in Turkish and Mongolian languages is a title of imperial rank. Given that Turkic languages, which now spread all the way from Xinjiang to Turkey, actually originated in what is now Mongolia, it is not surprising that the khaganate was based there.

It should be recognized that although this kingdom was known by the term "Uyghur", its relationship with the people currently known as Uyghurs is not straightforward. The term "Uyghur" was rediscovered by the Soviets in the early twentieth century and used to define all of the settled Muslims of Xinjiang, which is what it refers to in China today. Although modern Uyghurs are partly descended from the people who made up this empire, and they also speak a Turkic language, they are probably also descend from other groups. In fact, it is likely that the Uyghurs of the time had much more East Asian facial features than the current Uyghurs do. At the time the Uyghurs followed Shamanistic beliefs, although the official religion of their state later became Manichaeism.

Over the first part of the eight century, the Tibetan empire and Tang China were constantly fighting each other for territory. In 755, a devastating rebellion against the Tang dynasty was begun by a general named An Lushan. As was often the case with Chinese generals in these cosmopolitan times, An Lushan himself was not a Chinese. His ethnic origins are uncertain, but his adoptive parents were Sogdian (an Iranian-speaking civilization in Central Asia) and Turkic. He reportedly spoke six languages on top of Chinese.

An Lushan, the "barbarian" general who almost brought down the Tang dynasty
As Chinese historical records would have it, the events that led to this rebellion were put in motion by the Chinese emperor at the time, Xuanzong, who had reigned since 713 CE. Although initially a shrewd and competent emperor, by about 736 he had become tired with affairs of state, and turned his attention to artistic pursuits and his favourite courtesan, Yang Guifei (one of China's traditional "four great beauties"). He consequently left all affairs of state in the hands of his chief minister Li Linfu, remembered as a villanous figure who purged all real or imagined opponents and became a de-facto dictator. One of his moves was to nominate only non-Chinese to the powerful posts of military governors of the different regions of China. His reasoning was that lacking ties to the court, they would not enable any rivals to gain power on the basis of military success. This is not strange when you consider that at the time, a big chunk of the Chinese army consisted of non-Chinese mercenaries. An Lushan was thus nominated military governor of the North-East (corresponding broadly to what is now Hebei and Shandong), and amassed lots of power.

When Li Linfu died in 752, Xuanzong replaced him with Yang Guozhong, the second cousin of Yang Guifei, his beloved courtesan. Yang Guozhong intended to eliminate An Lushan, who consequently rebelled. An Lushan's rebellion was a blow from which the Tang dynasty never really recovered. It continued for years and caused the death of millions by starvation and disease. In the broader scheme of things, it probably put an end to the aristocratic system that still dominated China, and brought about the social and economic changes that would create the bureaucratic, examination-based system of later dynasties.

After the rebels took the capital, the emperor's court was forced to flee to Chengdu. Xuanzong's angry troops rebelled, killed Yang Guozhong, and forced the emperor to have Yang Guifei strangled. Even Confucian scholars would later disagree on whether she was the author of her own downfall, or a convenient female scapegoat. An Lushan was killed by his own son in 756, but the rebellion went ahead. In order to suppress the rebels, the Tang dynasty sought the assistance of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs contributed 4000 cavalrymen to the imperial army, which was then able to retake the capital from the rebels.

In 762 the Uyghurs also assisted with the recapture of Luoyang, now an unremarkable provincial city, but then a second capital of sorts, with a population second only to Chang'an itself. The Uyghurs only helped on condition that they could loot the city. In the sacking of Luoyang, in which the Uyghurs were joined by Chinese troops, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and the city burned to the ground. The Uyghurs' behaviour was certainly not exemplary: when civilians fled to Buddhist temples looking for protection, the Uyghurs burnt those down as well. Ironically it was during this adventure that the Uyghur khagan encountered Manichean priests and decided to adopt this faith for his kingdom. Manicheaism is based on the idea of a constant struggle between good and evil.

The rebellion was finally crushed in 763, but in the meantime the Tibetan empire had occupied more and more of Northwestern China's grasslands, taking advantage of Chinese weakness. In 763 the Tibetans actually occupied China's capital, the great Chang'an, for fifteen days, attempting to install a puppet emperor. Although they were quickly kicked out of the capital, they continued to rule over areas previously under Tang rule where many Chinese resided.

The next year yet another important Tang general, Pugu Huaien, decided to rebel after fearing that he would be accused of treason. He was also of Turkic descent, and if he wasn't a Uyghur then he was closely related to them. In fact he had been instrumental in setting up China's alliance with the Uyghurs. When Pugu Huaien rebelled, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans immediately joined him. They were ready to launch a joint attack on the Chinese capital when he died in September 765. The Uyghurs then switched sides again, and helped the Chinese finally push back the Tibetans.

Over the next decades the Uyghurs exploited the Tang's weakness and its need to keep them as allies by extracting rights of extra-territoriality for the Uyghurs and Sogdians who lived in Chang'an and other Chinese cities, so that they would not be subjected to local law. Their immunity from Chinese law, and their money-lending activities, created resentment and anti-foreign feelings amongst the ordinary Chinese which may have laid the basis for the massacres of foreign residents a century later.

A mural commemorating the victory of a successful rebellion against the Tibetan Empire in 848, led by the Chinese residents of what is now Gansu province
Within a hundred years of the events described above, both the Tibetan empire and the Uyghur Khaganate would be history. The Tibetan empire collapsed in the 840s, after a civil war fragmented it and led to the rule of regional warlords over the Tibetan plateau. Tibet would only be unified again under the Mongols, four centuries later. The Uyghur Khaganate collapsed around the same time, after a particularly severe winter in an already cold land killed much of the livestock which its economy depended on, after which the Kyrgyz invaded and sacked the capital. The Uyghurs migrated south and west, became Buddhists and then finally Muslims, mixing with others to constitute the Uyghurs we know today.

It is probable that China, with its much larger population, fertile land and sophisticated bureaucracy was always going to last longer than any Tibetan or Uyghur polity could. Nowadays China is one of the major powers of the world, within whose borders the impoverished and marginalised descendants of the Tibetan and Uyghur of the time are fighting a losing struggle against cultural assimilation, which at least in the case of the Uyghurs has now become worryingly forceful. The fact that they once outfought the whole of China and almost led a joint assault on its capital is not well remembered anywhere.

But it is interesting to look back at a time when Tibet was a military threat and Uyghurs were in the position to blackmail the empire. It is also fascinating to think that China's destiny could be decided by rebel generals who spoke Turkic languages as their mother tongue. Unlike China's current ethnic minorities, non-Han living in China in those days were not constantly told that they were Chinese too. From what we can see, their foreign status seems to have been recognized both by themselves and others. An Lushan used to joke with the emperor about how as a barbarian he could not understand Chinese court etiquette. At the same time, these foreigners were allowed to amass power and become real players at the national level in a way that members of minorities nowadays would find it very hard to do, at least those distinguishable from the Han by speech and custom.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Be careful what you wish for

I recently happened to chance again upon Mark Kitto's article "You'll never be Chinese: why I am leaving the country I loved", which caused such a stir in 2012.

Almost six years and one change of political leadership later, many of Kitto's complaints about China still ring true, but some of them are starting to look decidedly out of date, and in hindsight rather ironic. Take the following passage:

When the (property) bubble pops, or in the remote chance that it deflates gradually, the wealth the Party gave the people will deflate too. The promise will have been broken. And there’ll still be the medical bills, pensions and school fees. The people will want their money back, or a say in their future, which amounts to a political voice. If they are denied, they will cease to be harmonious.
Meanwhile, what of the ethnic minorities and the factory workers, the people on whom it is more convenient for the government to dispense overwhelming force rather than largesse? If an outburst of ethnic or labour discontent coincides with the collapse of the property market, and you throw in a scandal like the melamine tainted milk of 2008, or a fatal train crash that shows up massive, high level corruption, as in Wenzhou in 2011, and suddenly the harmonious society is likely to become a chorus of discontent.
How will the Party deal with that? How will it lead?
Unfortunately it has forgotten. The government is so scared of the people it prefers not to lead them.
In rural China, village level decisions that require higher authorisation are passed up the chain of command, sometimes all the way to Beijing, and returned with the note attached: “You decide.” The Party only steps to the fore where its power or personal wealth is under direct threat. The country is ruled from behind closed doors, a building without an address or a telephone number. The people in that building do not allow the leaders they appoint to actually lead. Witness Grandpa Wen, the nickname for the current, soon to be outgoing, prime minister. He is either a puppet and a clever bluff, or a man who genuinely wants to do the right thing. His proposals for reform (aired in a 2010 interview on CNN, censored within China) are good, but he will never be able to enact them, and he knows it.
To rise to the top you must be grey, with no strong views or ideas. Leadership contenders might think, and here I hypothesise, that once they are in position they can show their “true colours.” Too late they realise that will never be possible."

I don't think I need to spell out why this now feels ironic. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Where is Beijing headed?

As I write these words, Beijing is blanketed by a layer of thick air pollution. The concentration of PM 2.5 per square meter is currently 212, way above any recommended limit, visibility is reduced and the unmistakable smell of Beijing smog lingers in the air. Fortunately my air purifier keeps the air in my living room relatively clean, but if I go outside I'll be forced to wear a mask.

All the same, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection has informed us that the capital's air quality has been far better this winter compared to previous years, and for once the improvement they talk about has actually been fairly obvious. It is a simple fact: the air pollution in Beijing over the last couple of months has been much lower than normal. Oh, there have still been days like today, but they have been the exception rather than the norm. Waking up to a clear blue sky has been a more common experience than waking up to the view of a grey post-apocalyptic nightmare outside the window. While winter is usually the worst season for air pollution in Beijing, this year November and December have actually been less polluted than the summer and autumn months were.

The authorities have hailed this relatively smog-free winter as a great success in their drive against air pollution, but it has not come cost-free. One of the main reasons for the improvement is a policy that the government has been implementing all over Northern China this winter: 煤改气 or "coal-change-gas", as the Chinese media has named it with typical conciseness. The aim of the policy is to switch coal with natural gas as a source of heating for people's homes. Coal-powered heating is the main reason that pollution in Northern China gets so bad every winter.

The policy has been implemented with great strictness. Slogans have popped up in Northern Chinese villages warning that those who burn coal will be arrested, and in Shaanxi some construction workers were detained for five days for starting a fire with coal to keep warm while working over night. The problem is that not all houses are yet fitted with gas-powered heating systems, and a lot of areas have also seen shortages of natural gas as everyone switched to gas heating at once. The result is that millions of people have been left without heating in the rigid winter, with temperatures dropping well below freezing at night time.

The coal bricks used for cooking and heating in Chinese homes

Although figures are disputed, it is clear that quite a lot of people have been suffering from the lack of heat. About a month ago, photos of children from a primary school in Hebei province having class outdoors in their coats, because the feeble winter sunshine was still warmer than their unheated classrooms, were shared on the internet and provoked an uproar. I have also come across a folk rhyme shared in different version across the internet, describing the inconvenience and hardship faced by ordinary families with no heating in their homes. It contains some pretty subversive lines. One version ends with the angry words 官下令,民买单。乡亲们,别喊冤,咬紧牙,熬东关,敢苑哪个王八蛋?, translated more or less as "the officials deliver an order, the people pick up the tab. Fellow villagers, don't complain about injustice, endure the winter, which bastards are you going to dare blame for this?"

While this policy has been tough on peasants who would certainly rather have warm homes than clean air, it has obviously delivered benefits to the better-off social classes in the cities who do not have to worry about their homes being heated, and whose concern about air pollution has grown enormously over the last few years.

On a related note, a large-scale operation to kick poor migrants out of Beijing started a couple of months ago. The campaign was sparked by a fire that broke out in a cheap building in the city's southern outskirts, killing 19 people. 17 of those killed were members of working families from other parts of China, living in cramped conditions in an unsafe building. The fire gave the authorities the pretext to start a wide-scale campaign of demolition of "illegal structures", which has led to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of migrants. Families were often only given a few days, and in extreme cases a few hours, to vacate their flats and either find a new place to live or go back to where they came from. This was in late November, during an early and especially rigid winter, with temperatures hovering around freezing in daytime.

The campaign has also affected people beyond the circles of poor migrants doing unskilled labour. Young graduates living in cheap housing blocks have been evicted, and the hip hutongs in the city centre have also been targeted. In the middle of November British writer James Palmer, who was living in a hutong next to Houhai lake, right in the middle of Beijing, tweeted that he had been given three days to move out by the police, because the "illegal structure" he lived in was going to be demolished. Still, the demographic most heavily affected is clearly the unskilled migrants and small-time traders living on the city's outskirts, who in many cases are finding themselves forced to leave the city.

All this is clearly related with the authorities' stated goal of capping Beijing's population at 23 million. What this campaign has in common with the one to ban the burning of coal is that it favours the interests of the comfortably-off and of the native Beijingers (many of whom have become prosperous simply by owning properties or selling their land in the expensive capital) at the expense of the working poor and those who live in small towns and the countryside. One campaign drives out, or in any case strongly inconveniences, unskilled workers from other parts of China living in Beijing, but in the long run it will create a less congested, cleaner and more gentrified city with less slums on its outskirts. The other one forces peasants across a large swathe of Northern China to go cold, but it pleases the well-off and the educated living in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities who don't have to choke on polluted air the whole winter, relying on air purifiers and flimsy face masks for some protection from the damage the smog does to your health.

One might almost say that the government is doubling down on championing the interests of the richest 20% of the Chinese population (often referred to as the "urban middle class" in the foreign media), while pushing policies that risk antagonizing the rest of the country more openly and aggressively than ever before. This is obviously a huge over-simplification, but it has its explanatory power.

The only thing is that the campaign to kick out the migrants from Beijing appears to have backfired. The sight of families getting thrown out into the cold with little or no notice has caused a wave of anger and indignation in the Chinese public, even in the more privileged sectors who run no risk of getting kicked out themselves. As always in China, this anger is being expressed in the only place it can be, in other words on social media. But this doesn't make it any less real. In a country where people often don't seem to care about things that don't affect them personally, and may even support heavy-handed policies as long as they are not directed at their own group, this wave of solidarity with the downtrodden is really quite unusual.

Given how much importance the leadership attaches to making the public perceive them as benevolent, paternal, and only tough when they need to be, it seems like this time they may have miscalculated. Some might argue that it was just the local authorities that went too far, but I can only imagine that the central government must have set the tone. The decision to evict people in such a rush, with so little notice, may seem illogical, but I suppose that it was done to prevent the possibility of people getting organized and putting up resistance. There was actually at least one mass protest in a Northeastern suburb of Beijing, which was reported in the international media but not within China.

After a few days the government went into damage limitation mode, and Beijing's mayor was sent to visit some of the poor migrants in front of the cameras, while even the People's Daily timidly criticized the campaign. This suggests that the authorities realized that they had gone too far. A couple of months later the evictions seem to have ended, and the public's indignation has died down. Those who had to leave have left, and the plan to turn Beijing into a modern, orderly capital city with clean(-ish) air is going ahead. But one has to wonder what all the drama around the expulsions means for China's future. Are the leadership's technocratic plans going to start encountering more resistance? Is a new era of social conscience dawning? Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Travels in Indonesia: West Timor

The most memorable part of my journey to Indonesia was certainly my trip to West Timor.

Timor is an island located towards the Eastern side of the Indonesian archipelago, a whopping 2660 kilometres from Jakarta. The island is well known mostly because its Eastern half is the independent country of East Timor. Curiously, the word Timor itself actually means "East" in Malay. The roots of the island's division lie in European colonialism: Timor was divided between the Dutch and the Portuguese in the nineteenth century. While the Western side became part of Indonesia in 1949, along with the surrounding islands, the East remained a Portuguese colony until 1975, after which it declared independence and was promptly invaded by Suharto's Indonesian regime, fearful of the rule of the left-wing Freitlin party. Many East Timorese never accepted Indonesian rule, and the territory regained its independence in 1999 after the fall of Suharto, but only at the cost of massacres and bloodshed.

West Timor is the half of the island that belongs to Indonesia. It is home to about 1.8 million people (the whole island has 3.2 million). It is part of the wider province of East Nusa Tenggara, which includes 500 islands scattered through the ocean, north of Australia and West of Papua. The province has the lowest per capita income in Indonesia, with much of the population still living off the land. West Timor is no exception, with 30% of its people living below the poverty line. Outside of the main city, Kupang, society is still rural and ancient ways of life are changing only slowly. There are various ethnic groups, but the largest one is the Atoni people, also known as the Dawan.

My journey started in Kupang, the only real city in West Timor. I flew from Bali to Kupang on a small propeller plane. On the first leg of the flight I appeared to be the only foreigner. Most of the other passengers had the typical features of the peoples of Indonesia's eastern islands, with much darker complexions than the Javanese. Many of them would have easily passed for East Africans anywhere else in the world. Our plane stopped over in the small town of Maumere, on the island of Flores. As we were about to take off again, I was surprised to suddenly hear what sounded like Italian spoken a few seats behind me. At first I thought it might be a local Austronesian language which happened to sound remarkably like Italian, but after hearing a few more phrases I concluded that it really was Italian. I turned round, craning my neck, and managed to catch a glimpse of a girl who was obviously an Italian backpacker. She was chatting in Italian with a nun, who looked Indonesian.

After arriving at the tiny airport in Kupang, I got out of the plane and walked the 20 meters to the terminal building where the luggage was. While we waited for our luggage I got chatting with the Italian girl. She turned out to be a professional tour guide who lives in London, and was backpacking across South-East Asia for a few months. She had already travelled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and most of the islands of Nusa Tenggara. The nun she was chatting to was a local who she had met on the plane, who spoke good Italian thanks to the years she had spent studying in the seat of Roman Catholicism.

Unsurprisingly, the Italian girl (named Anna) turned out to have booked the same guesthouse I had, the Lavalon, which appears to be the main gathering point for the foreign backpackers and adventurers who wash up on these shores. The guesthouse had sent a driver to come and pick us up, so I hopped in with Anna and we shared the cost of the ride.

The guesthouse turned out to be underwhelming. Lonely Planet describes it as the "best value in town, with clean rooms and Western-style bathrooms. Excellent meals and cold beer are served in the open air common area, which has fine views". There was indeed a common area with nice views of the ocean, but the accommodation turned out to consist of two single rooms and a dorm with bunk beds, all of which were dingy, dark and uninviting, and not even terribly cheap compared to what was on offer. The showers did not have hot water. Anna and I were the only people staying at the guesthouse, and also quite possibly the only foreign tourists in West Timor while we were there.

An even bigger disappointment was the guesthouse's owner, "much-loved living Nusa Tengara Timur encyclopedia and former Indonesian film star Edwin Lerrick". The Lonely Planet website goes even further: "the irrepressible owner of Kupang's Lavalon Bar & Hostel is also a sensational guide, with deep regional knowledge and connections throughout West Timor, especially in the traditional villages". When we met him in person, there appeared to be little irrepressible or glamorous about him. He looked like an old retainer, slumped in a chair wearing shorts and a shirt open on his bare chest. He acted quite indifferent to us, just giving us our keys and a form to fill in, and asking us no questions. After a while he just disappeared. The remaining staff were quite unresponsive, and we had to ask a few times before finally being given such luxuries as pillows, blankets and towels. Oh, and there were no meals and cold beers in sight. This obviously was low season, but still...

The only person who was friendly and chatty was the man who had picked us up from the airport, who was a professional tour guide and wanted to sell us his tour of West Timor. If you want to visit the island's interior it is advisable to hire a professional guide who speaks the local languages, and so after some thought and bargaining we decided to take up his offer. Anna had actually come to Timor because her one month visa-free travel in Indonesia was almost up, and so she planned to cross over into East Timor for a visa run and then re-enter Indonesia. She still had a few days left in the country though, and she was also keen on seeing the interior of Timor, so we naturally decided to go on the tour together and split the cost.

That evening we went for a walk around Kupang's harbour. Lonely Planet describes the city as "East Nusa Tenggara's top metropolis, which buzzes to a frenetic Indonesian beat", as opposed to the rural interior. Coming from outside, it was rather hard to detect the frenetic beat. It gave the impression of a quiet provincial town, and seemed to lack much in the way of amenities. The main shopping street was busy but scruffy, and the humid heat and the lack of proper pavements made it rather uncomfortable to walk around. We attracted attention and cries of "mister", although just like elsewhere in Indonesia the people seemed friendly and polite. After failing to locate a waterfront bar that showed on Google Maps, we decided to make our way back to the hostel, and enjoy a couple of beers while looking at the ocean.

Next morning at 7 (it was supposed to be 6, but I had insisted on 7), we got up and left in our guide's car. After a five hour drive through the island's beautiful hills and forests, we reached the market town of Oinlasi. We were in luck, because the weekly market takes place every Tuesday, and this happened to be a Tuesday. The market was full of villagers from rural communities selling their produce, many of them dressed in traditional clothing and ikat cloths. Some women were also selling their handmade ikat, which is apparently some of the most beautiful in Indonesia and costs about a tenth of what it would in a boutique in Bali. A lot of the local people displayed bright red lips and teeth, due to the widespread habit of chewing betel nut. Many of them wore absurd amounts of clothing given the heat, something that you notice all over Indonesia. Me and Anna were the only obvious foreigners, and we attracted many giggles, stares and greetings. Foreigners do sometimes end up in these places, taken there by one of the handful of professional guides in West Timor, but it is certainly not an everyday occurrence.

Lady selling garlic and chili in a market, West Timor

Weekly market, West Timor

As well as villagers selling their own simple produce, there were also people selling cheap mass-produced plastic ware, of the same kind you could probably find anywhere in the country. Although I was quite unaware of this at the time, I later chanced upon this article claiming that many of those selling the mass-produced goods are actually not Timorese but Muslim Bugi people originally from Sulawesi, and that the Timorese are getting marginalised in their own markets by these industrious outsiders. I have no idea whether this is true, but it is certainly the case that most Indonesian islands do experience both religious clashes and tension between the locals and immigrants from other parts of the country. Most people in West Timor are Catholic, and Kupang has seen clashes between Muslims and Christians in the past. While short-term visitors will be unaware of such things, it is good to remember that these islands that appear so idyllic, with their lush greenery and friendly, relaxed people, do not lack such problems.

In any case, we ate lunch in a dingy local restaurant, where you had to pick the food from various trays, all of which had flies buzzing all over them. This seems to be a problem in all the cheap restaurants in Timor, and certainly all the ones we ate in. It definitely does not make the food more appetising, although the taste is not bad. After lunch we drove on to our next stop, the "kingdom" of Boti. Boti is a village near Timor's south coast, accessible only by a mountain road that often becomes completely impassable during the rainy season. This was the rainy season, but the local gods must have smiled upon our trip, since it barely rained at all during our tour, while it had rained heavily prior to our arrival in Timor. Boti is noticeable because it is ruled by a chieftain, often referred to as the "king" by outsiders, and strictly adheres to local adat (an Arabic term that has come to refer to traditional customs and rules throughout the region).

Boti has become something of an obligatory stop for the few tourists who take organized tours of West Timor, and the two or three guides who operate in the region have all developed a relationship with the king. As much as I would like to say that I was the first outsider to end up in Boti in 200 years, this obviously isn't the case, but still the village is far from becoming a tourist destination. When we arrived at the village, it seemed to be deserted. We were told that the men and also most of the women were out working in the fields, including the king himself. We were however taken to the king's house, which was just a simple concrete dwelling with a few rooms. We hung out on the verandah, and the king's young wife and small son soon joined us. We were served some tea and fried cassava, while our guide conversed with them in the local dialect, supposedly a variant of the Uab Meto language of the Dawan people, although I did detect some words of Indonesian thrown in.

We then went for a walk around the village. It was almost empty, but we did see a couple of women weaving ikat by hand the traditional way. There were some simple thatched dwellings, and some small pigs lying in an enclosure. We were shown a stone platform with a thatched roof above it to protect it from the sun, where the people apparently gather in the evenings. We were also admonished not to take photos of a specific area, just behind the king's house. The houses seemed quite simple, and the whole place lacked electricity, although there are a few battery-powered lamps in the houses. The village wasn't totally lacking in modern goods, but the lifestyle certainly appeared to be very simple and old-fashioned. Let's just say that if all contact with the modern world were cut off tomorrow, local life would probably not be too affected. The guide told us that the locals do go to the weekly markets to sell their produce, and use what money they earn to buy some outside goods they need, for instance rice, which isn't grown locally.

Hut in Boti

The jungle just outside our front door, Boti

Boti steadfastly refuses to accept any kind of government assistance, and government offers to bring in electricity or modern housing have apparently met with refusals. The few hundred villagers still follow a local animist belief-system, although they are classed as Catholics on their IDs. According to what our guide told us, in every family at least one boy is supposed to stay in the village and keep local custom. This involves not going to school, and letting their hair grow long, part of local adat. The other boys can go to school and marry out. According to another source I have read, only one in two children are sent to school, and they can only come back to the village after finishing school if they are ready to relinquish any outside influences. According to Lonely Planet, local children are allowed to attend primary school but not high school, considered to be a source of unhappiness.

Whatever the true arrangement, the Boti people clearly view modern schools with suspicion as something that will endanger their culture, and don't necessarily let their children go to one. Although denying children a modern education is morally questionable, I can see their point. Especially in a context where going to school may well mean going to a boarding school, with children from different communities, in a different language, schooling might well sound the death knell for this ancient way of life.

Woman spinning wool, Boti
Woman weaving ikat, Boti

After looking around we retired to our living quarters, in the house where guests to the village stay. We were given two small rooms with no lighting or windows that remained dark even in the middle of the day. Our beds had mosquito nets, which turned out to be very useful. Our toilet was a squat toilet in an outhouse, of the kind I am used to from my stays in Chinese villages. We both lay down to nap, and once we got up the village was still quite deserted. Even our guide had disappeared somewhere to sleep. We sat outside chatting for a while, and then went for a walk around the area. The lush green forest and the valleys that could be seen from just outside the village made for some spectacular views.

Around seven o'clock we saw men starting to come back from the fields. Soon after our guide appeared and called us to go and meet the king. With some trepidation we walked back to the king's house, and there he was sitting outside. He looked like a very simple middle aged man, wearing a traditional sarong and an old and torn t-shirt. He shook our hands and greeted us politely. He seemed humble and unassuming, as did his family. We were then shown inside his house, where there was an assortment of four or five dishes we could choose from, all very tasty. We filled our bowls and went outside to eat on the verandah. The king, his wife and his children didn't eat with us, but just sat on the other side of the verandah. Our guide told us that it is not local custom to eat with guests. I would later discover that this seems to be widespread in Indonesia.

While we ate, we asked the king a few questions which our guide translated. I asked him whether his family had always been kings, and he replied that he only knows that his father and grandfather were kings too, but beyond that he doesn't know. Local history is not written down or recorded, apparently. After chatting with the guide for a while we left the king's house, so that he and his family could finally eat themselves, and we went back to our hut. It was only 8 pm, but in a village with no electricity there is obviously little to do after dark, so we just sat outside and chatted, while looking at the Southern Hemisphere's starry sky. Anna commented that the lack of a written history and of clear seasons must mean that the locals' sense of the passing of time is rather different from ours (although there is a rainy and a dry season, they are not really as distinctive as the four seasons of temperate lands).

A local man nears our guide's jeep just outside of Boti

Next morning we went back to the king's house for some breakfast, bid farewell to him and his family and then left Boti. After driving a bit down the winding mountain roads, we stopped at a home by the side of the road. Our guide obviously knew the family. Just like most families in the area, they possessed both a small modern house made of concrete, and an ume bubu or traditional conical hut just behind it. We went inside the traditional hut, which although only a couple of meters high was divided into two floors. The first floor is only about a meter high, meaning that standing up is impossible, and it is where the family sleeps. The ceiling was black from smoke. The top floor is used for storing food. The hut had no windows, so it was dark inside.

A modern house next to a traditional ume bubu dwelling belonging to the same family
The inside of an ume bubu

According to the guide book, the authorities have deemed the cramped and smoky ume bubu a health hazard, and are replacing them with cold concrete boxes. The local people have in turn deemed those to be a health hazard, and still live in the old huts behind the new houses. This would explain why most families seemed to have both a modern house and a traditional one. At the same time, my guide said that the new houses are built by the families themselves when they have enough money. I don't know which version is the true one, although this family definitely seemed to still use the traditional dwelling. It certainly didn't seem like a nice place to spend your days, but in a tropical country where it never gets cold, people don't need a warm, cozy home to hide away in. All they need is a dwelling to sleep in, while waking hours are spent outdoors.

Have taking our leave we drove on to Kefamenanu. Although it is just a small town, Kefa as it's know locally is still bigger and more urbane than most other places in the region. Our guide is from there and lives there. We briefly stopped at his home and met his wife and a couple of his seven children. The simple living room had a large picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. The whole area is strongly Catholic, as was made obvious by the churches and the invocations to Jesus and Mary written in Indonesian on the side of the bemo. Although it is in West Timor, the town was a former Portuguese stronghold.

The guide took us to the local high school, where we met a few of the brightest local students who wanted to practice their English with us, including one of the guide's own daughters. They spoke pretty good English. The school was made up of classrooms facing open-air corridors. We arrived at around noon, and the whole school seemed to be having one big party, with students listening to hip hop in the corridors and playing football outside. It was explained to us that the kids had finished their final exams before the Christmas break, and were now relaxing.

A local English teacher who was a friend of our guide, and two of the guide's daughters joined our afternoon excursion. After having lunch in another local restaurant with the same old food and the same old flies buzzing around, we drove to Temkessi, another very well-preserved traditional Timorese village. We had to park the car and walk up a path for about ten minutes, until we reached an opening with a group of huts of the kind that seem to be used for social gatherings, with just a thatched roof held up by a few wooden columns, and an open space underneath. We then climbed up another little path up the rocks, until we got to an area with some wooden houses. This village also seemed quite empty, with just some local children hanging around. We were told that the adults were in the fields, once again. The guide explained that this village is where several different communities gather for their religious rituals, but most of them actually live elsewhere. Only the heads of each community and their families live there. The place did have the feel of a bit of a museum, or of somewhere that was left running more as a symbol than anything else. Still, the children hanging around obviously lived there. They certainly weren't just waiting for our arrival.

The approach to Temkessi

Cactus in Temkessi

Local children staring at us in Temkessi

Our guide told us not to let anything drop on the ground, and that if we did we should tell him and not pick it up ourselves. Apparently it is a bad omen, and a fine would have to be paid to the village before the object could be picked up. Exactly who would enforce this I don't know, since there only seemed to be children around, but tradition is tradition. None of us dropped anything to the best of my knowledge. Just as in the other village, there was one area that we were told we must absolutely not take photos of, as it is taboo. Overlooking the village there was a strange rock formation, which every seven years is the focus of a local religious ceremony, in which young warriors climb the rock with a goat strapped to their back, and then slaughter it.

After leaving Temkessi, we headed back to Kefamenanu. On the way back our guide noticed a funeral ceremony going on in a village, and stopped the car. He was clearly vaguely familiar with this community as well. There was a whole bunch of local people gathered under another conical hut, and a hearse lying nearby. A local 70- year old man had apparently died the night before. His body was still inside the house, waiting to be put in the hearse. The atmosphere seemed quite cheerful, with women laughing and joking. The older women were dressed in traditional clothing. We sat under the hut with everyone else, and stayed there for a while as our guide chatted with the locals. At some point a living chicken was taken, and its throat was slit right next to the hearse. This was a sacrifice made to the deceased, whose body was about to be taken out and put into the hearse. At this point we left however, before we got to see the actual deceased.

We then drove back to Kefamenanu, where we were going to spend the night. We were taken to a local hotel, where we were shown two not especially nice rooms for the price of 180.000 rupiah each. Anna was not having it, declaring that she had been travelling in Indonesia for a month, and she felt the price wasn't worth the quality. The rooms had no air conditioning, but what bothered her even more was that the window could not be completely closed, which meant that mosquitoes would inevitably come in, and there were no mosquito nets. Although we were both exhausted and looking forward to a shower, she insisted that we go and see some other hotels. The guide took us to two other hotels, both of which were even worse and a bit cheaper. One was old and dirty, and the other had no showers at all. At this point I insisted we go back to the first one, and Anna reluctantly agreed. It may be that in remote parts of Indonesia you just don't find good hotels by an outsider's standards, the same as in remote parts of China.

In any case we checked in and enjoyed the showers and wifi. That evening we were invited to have dinner at the home of the local English teacher who knew our guide. He and his wife turned up on motorbikes to pick us up and take us back to their home. Thankfully we were both given helmets. The teacher's house was simple but pleasant, and his large family were all there, including his parents and various offspring. Once again, the family did not eat with us. Me and Anna eat the food, and the family sat with us in the living room but didn't eat. The teacher's relatives asked questions that he translated. The room had a large image of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus on the wall. The family got very excited when I said that I had lived in Rome, and asked me if I had met the Pope. Timor's fervent Catholicism is something I am not especially used to encountering in Asia. Of course Islam is historically an equally foreign religion to Indonesia, although at least it isn't the religion of recent invaders as Christianity basically is. After eating we were offered some strong local liquor, of which I managed to drink a glass.

We went back to the hotel and I collapsed into bed, although mosquitoes disturbed my sleep somewhat. Next morning the guide came to pick us up, and we started driving back to Kupang. We had time for a couple more weekly markets, and to stop at None, another traditional village whose people practiced headhunting until 1945. I suppose the government of independent Indonesia must have put an end to the practice. It seems amazing now to think that such any idyllic place was engaged in headhunting so recently. Once again, needless to say, the village was almost deserted, with a few old women and children hanging around between the conical huts. We took photos of a 200 year old banyan tree, under which there is a totem pole where warriors used to meet before going off on headhunting expeditions.

A valley in West Timor

After a few more hours' driving, we got back to Kupang, and settled back into the Lavalon Guesthouse, whose rooms now seemed a lot nicer compared to where we had slept for the previous two nights. Although exhausted, that night we went out to a little bar near our guesthouse, and ate some rather indifferent sandwiches while a small local band played. Kupang felt a lot more like a city now that we had seen the island's interior. The next morning Anna got up at 5 to catch the bus to East Timor, and I was left on my own until the afternoon, when my plane for Jakarta was leaving. I posted a few photos of Timor on Facebook, and it was then that I made a discovery: there is an Esperanto speaker in Kupang. He was already my friend on Facebook although we had never actually spoken, and when he saw my photos he immediately wrote to me. After finding out that I only had a few hours left in Kupang, he rushed over to my guesthouse on his motorbike to meet me. I don't suppose foreign Esperanto speakers must end up in Kupang very often, if ever.

He turned out to be a young Timorese man who had learnt Esperanto from a Spanish professor while going to university in Yogjakarta. He was now back in Kupang and had opened a language school. I suggested we get some lunch, and he took me to a little restaurant on the waterfront. It was just like all restaurants in Timor seemed to be, with a few dishes in trays you could pick from, and of course flies everywhere. I ate some very nice fish's head, a local delicacy. He then drove me to the old Dutch cemetery, where the graves of various Dutch colonists who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries were preserved, as well the graves of many locals. The cemetery was overgrown, but you could walk around. We then walked along the beach nearby.

After that he drove me back to my hostel, and we bid each other farewell. I then took a cab to the airport, and boarded my plane for Jakarta. A couple of days later I would be boarding another plane back to China.