Thursday, 24 July 2014

N 42.56.17 E 89.11.05 altitude 7 meters China's s wild west

We were in China from 23 June to 6 July then spent two weeks in Tibet before crossing into Nepal. Sitting in Pakora in the heat and humidity of monsoon season in the Kathmandu valley to write this post certainly gives contrast.

The border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to China was different again from anything we had experienced. Because of geography as well as politics in the region, the border crossing is actually almost 200 km long. It starts on the plains in Kyrgyzstan with a final police passport check. Then up into the pass along the barbed wire (China on the other side) on one side and the occasional nomad's yurt and flock of sheep on the other. At the top of the pass, we get our exit stamp from Kyrgyzstan and pick up a temporary guide/minder to guide us through the next 100 km of police checks until we get to the town where we will clear customs and pick up our actual guide (who doesn't have security clearance to come to the actual border). In actual fact, after the other border crossings, this really didn't seem that crazy. The whole process happened with smiles and efficient organization, something we came to expect during our time in China. This contrast between tight security and closed society (Google and Facebook as well as most Canadian Government sites were blocked) with a measure of personal freedom was something we were aware of throughout our time in China.

Our guide, Daniel, came from a small frontier town of 7 million people, so it was a steep learning curve about the Calypso way of traveling. His other job was with a multinational oil company and he had travelled extensively in the west, so Daniel was excellent at explaining his country to a group of curious westerners.

The first thing we learned was how huge China was. We continued to follow the silk route with long days driving and came nowhere near the industrial heartland. It was also obvious that China is an economic powerhouse with well designed roads and other infrastructure. Mega projects were everywhere.

First stop was Kashgar (Kashi to the Chinese). Signs in four languages - Cantonese, Sanscrit, Cryllic (the Uigher language uses the Russian alphabet) and English. An important town on the silk road where caravans would go south through the mountains to India or north toward Europe. China is more interested in planting it's brand of frontier town economics than in preserving the old buildings of the silk road town. The people's park was full of tai chi and middle aged Chinese learning western ballroom dancing. Our overnight trip down the Karakorum highway brought home the other reality: this predominantly Islamic province shares very close borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan and unrest is constant. The month before we arrived, insurgents killed a number of people at the night market. Sadly, the night market was closed indefinitely for security reasons. It also meant no bush camps.

Food is a combination of the food we had come to expect in Kyrgyzstan and the fiery Chinese dishes of Sechuan cooking.

We then did sort of reverse mountain climbing - from about 3500 meters along the north edge of the Taklamakan Desert down to sea level at Turpan (another silk road town). There we explored an ancient Buddhist city before heading toward Dunhuang.

Dunhuang was a well planned tourist town based around the Magao caves, and other historical sites that survived destruction because they are so isolated. We and the other Odyssey group were the only westerners, but there were Chinese tourists by the busload, no doubt attracted by the sense of exotic isolation. Hotels were excellent as was the service. Infrastructure was in place and costs were reasonable. We started our stay by attending an acrobatic theatre telling the story of the Apsaras (flying angels common to the Buddhist art in the area) which felt like a mini Circque de Soleil. The next day was filled with exploring the Magao caves and the guide was excellent at putting Buddhism within it's historical context. For example, Apsaras changed over the years depending on what was fashionable. Buddhism came from India and the earliest Apsaras were very Indian in style, and actually male! During good times, when the style was to be well fed, the Apsaras were so heavy that they needed to sit in clouds to stay afloat. A small group of us also explored the western most bit of the great wall and other goodies with a Chinese bus tour. Of course there were a couple of college students delighted to use their English skills to keep us informed about the important bits (lunch, toilets, when to be back to the bus). Great fun. And last but not least was our evening trip to explore the dunes just outside town. This involved creeping down back streets checking out the camels as they came home from a hard days work to get to the best viewpoint.

We started to get some sense of how the Cultural Revolution affected the ordinary Chinese (the prosperity we see is a very new situation - even twenty years ago people often went hungry and education and travel were luxuries). The examples of ancient Chinese cultures we saw were saved from destruction by being isolated and difficult to get to.

What I want to remember about China. Electric scooters creeping up on you. An economy with a lot of commonalities to western countries-we do China a disservice by thinking they can't compete with us. Strikingly beautiful countryside that we didn't get much of a chance to explore because of security issues. Our guide who was allowed/able to be fairly honest about what was working and what needed to change with his country. That there are huge areas of China yet to be explored and that are probably completely different from the wild western bits we visited.

the people's park in Kashgar

Wishing us Canadians a happy Canada day.

Footprints on the dunes

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