Archive for the ‘On the road’ Category


Uighur Festivities: From the Dinner Table to the Dancefloor

January 10, 2009

11/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

For the past week we have been travelling along the Southern Silk Road, the route that runs along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the last bit of flat terrain before, further south, the Himalayas start jutting up out of the sand dunes. We took an overnight bus from Kashgar to Hotan, skipping the towns of Yengisar, Yarkand and Karghlik because we visited them on our trip to Xinjiang last year. From Hotan, we continued along the road towards Cherchen, stopping off in Keriya and Niya, both interesting examples of Hanifications of small Uighur oasis towns.


The Han devlopment in Cherchen is at an earlier stage than most of the other towns we have visited so far: parts of the main arterial road is still framed by Uighur houses and poplar trees, while the obligatory ”People’s Square” is still under construction next to the brand new museum. Though small, we decided to stay in Cherchen for a few days, mainly because we had met a girl on the bus, a student at Kashgar university, who invited us to her house for the Uighur festival that was held on Tuesday 9 December. It seems to coincide with the broader Muslim Eid al Adha, but it was explained to us as a day for ancestor worship, something which is not practiced by Arab Muslims but which we discovered occurred in Kazakhstan, and therefore perhaps other Central Asian countries.


The use of the word ‘festival’ by our hostess, Harmony, had inevitably led us to have some expectations about the occasion. We had learned that group dancing in front of the main mosque was something that only happened in Kashgar (similar to that which we had the pleasure of witnessing last year for the end of Ramadan festivities), so we knew we would not see any public celebration of that sort. To us, the word ‘festival’ connoted large gatherings of family and friends, seated around a table to share a meal. We were therefore flattered when Harmony invited us to her house on the festival day.


We arrived in the afternoon, about 4 o’clock Xinjiang time. Harmony had been out all morning visiting her family in the area, a grandmother who lived out in the countryside some 15 minutes drive away, and her elder brother and sisters who lived in the newer apartment complexed across town. Her father was still out visiting friends, while her mother was at home, both attending to visiting guests and resting because she was recovering from an operation. After greeting her mother, Harmony escorted us into the dining room, in which stood a large table coved with a rainbow of delights. The most eye-arresting of all were the large bowls piled high with tangerines, pears, grapes and pomegranates. Dotted around in small imitation crystal bowls were dates, apricots, raisins, dried persimmons, almonds and jellybeans. High on a platter towered a triple-layer spiral of thin threads of fried dough, all intertwined to form a vortex of crispy scrumpiousness. The only thing that was odd about the scene was that the rest of the room was empty, not a soul was there to enjoy the feast.


Despite our disappointment at not being able to witness a large family gathering, we were happy to taste a variety of the delicacies on offer, while Harmony just nibbled, claiming she was full from all the food at her relatives’ houses. We chatted about her family and school, and asked questions about how the Uighurs celebrated other festivals. At one point, we were broached the topic of Ramadan, which we had previously heard was subject to tight controls by government and university authorities. Harmony said that university students were not allowed to fast during Ramadan. In fact, they were forced to eat during the day: their teacher accompanied them to the canteen at lunch and made sure that each of them ate. To refuse to eat was to invite punishment.


We knew about other repressive measures taken by the Chinese authorities to quell Muslim practices, such as forbidding the headscarf. However, considering that that is a controversial measure that is also taken by other countries, namely France and Turkey, to know that it was enforced in Xinjiang did not come as a surprise. But forcing Muslim students to eat during Ramadan! What an incendiary policy. when you hear things like that, you realise that the government is not doing itself any favours in terms of winning over support from the ethnic populations that it controls.


After we had done eating, we thanked Harmony’s mother and went for a walk to her friend Amina’s house. When we arrived, we had to wait outside for the guests that were already there to leave. As we waited, her older brother came down the road herding a flock of sheep. When they saw us standing in front of the entrance to the courtyard, they veered off into a cluster of poplar trees, and Amina and her brother started hissing and clapping, eventually succeeding in maneuvering the unruly herd into the courtyard. The banal event was enough to keep us distracted from the cold that had set in with the evening, and not too long after the guests who had been inside came out, and we were invited in. The set up was almost identical to what it was at harmony’s house: a table in an empty room piled high with mouth-watering treats, and we were repeatedly encouraged to eat, which we did despite our full tummies, while Amina played hostess, serving us tea and passing round the heavy dishes laden with food.


* * *


Both girls were happy to use the excuse offered by the festival to visit other friends in order to get their parent’s consent to go out after dark. The previous night we had been out with them, and 18-year-old Harmony was given a 9 o’clock curfew, while 22-year-old Amina had to sneak out because her father was not happy with her going out. So, now that they were allowed to be out, we headed for the disco, and this time we didn’t have to hide Amina with out bodies every time a car passed!


The neon sign above the entrance cast an eerie orange light over the large crowd that had gathered outside to watch a brewing fight. Us three girls keep a distance, while J, in appropriate male machoness, got up close to have a look. But it was your usual drunken pub antics, with a couple fiery blokes being pushed apart by five or six others. J stipulated that they were probably rowing over a girl, which, as we entered the disco, seemed to be a plausible explanation: men seemed to outnumber women by about 10 to 1.


Inside, small round tables and chairs were set out on graded levels on three sides of the room, looking down on the dancefloor in the middle. It stank of stale beer and cigarettes, and was the sort of place that made me not want to touch anything for fear of contracting an alcohol-borne infection: The floor was slippery with spilt beer and caked a muddy brow-grey with the combination of shoe-dirt and booze, while I’m sure there was more nicotine than oxygen floating in the air. We took a table to the side, attempting to be as discrete as possible, in the knowledge that our foreignness inevitably drew much attention in the small Silk Road town. The lighting was dim and there was a group of men on the dancefloor playing some sort of drinking game to loud music. Before we had even been sitting for a minute, there was a crash behind us as one party-goer tumbled backwards off his chair, smashing his head and his beer bottle, but being inebriated enough to get right up again without seeming too phased by either the bash to his head or the loss of his beverage (another arrived shortly afterwards to compensate).


J and I orderer beers, while the girls ordered ice tea. I began to think that it was inappropriate to be drinking alcohol when my companions were not, but a quick glimpse round me revealed that almost every table was cluttered with bottles of beer, whisky, and vodka. Even if they did not partake in it, alcohol consumption was obviously not a novelty for them.


It was interesting to note how much alcohol was being consumed by the crowd, because it displayed a discrepancy in the image that the Uighurs like to give of themselves as ”good Muslims”. On one hand, the Uighurs take certain Islamic practices such as halal food, very seriously (to the point where they are reluctant to even set foot in Han Chinese restaurants), whereas they are obviously more lenient about drinking. This was also exemplified by th fact that some Muslim restaurants that don’t sell beer will allow customers to bring their own from outside.


After the drinking games ceased and the beat of the dancing music reigned again, the girls dragged me onto the dancefloor. I had been to a Xinjiang disco before, last year in Karghlik, so I had a vague idea of the way that things happened. The style was very formal, following closely along the lines of traditional Uighur dancing. For women, forearms are raised up at right angles to elbows, hands at eye level performing a twisting acrobatics, some shoulder movement, hardly any hips, and stoic, rhythmic steps back, forth, and then rotating 180 degrees with your parter. For men, the arm movements are broader, branching out to the right and left sides of the body, and then folding back at the waist, one arm to the front and the other to the back. At some points the hands are also raised to the head, and then the body is launched into a spiral, rotating a full circle. Slow dances were done even more ‘by the book’: one hand wrapped round your partner’s waist and the other clasped in their hand, you rock back and forth in at a lullaby pace, following the steps of the leader (during these tunes, men dance with women but also women dance with women, one of them adopting the male role).


Despite my perpetual itching for nonconformity, I did make a certain attempt to adhere to the predominant style, admittedly with a few more hip gyrations added in here and there… But both on and off the dancefloor, I observed the crowd and was perplexed by the uniformity of the whole scene. I wondered what was the appeal of going out to dance, if it was only to repeat the same set of moves for every song. But I suppose that attraction lay more in the social interaction enabled by the lax environment than in actually getting out to let your hair down and have a good boogey.


During the hour that I spent at the disco, my thoughts and emotions swung from one extreme to the other. On one hand, I felt intimidated by the rowdiness, paranoid by the griminess and uncomfortable at the attention I received on the dancefloor. I admit that I danced less subtly than I could have chosen to, perhaps sub-consciously seeking to push the boundaries of the normal moves by inserting a bit of hopping and head-shaking, in a drum n’ bass sort of way. Nothing sexually provocative or anything like that, just more energetic, less composed, unleashing the surface of the dancing demon inside us all that disregards convention and is a slave to the beat… Ok, perhaps a bit risqué given my surroundings, but you know, gotta push the envelope…


During one jive, a red-haired bloke who had been dancing behind me grabbed my arm and twisted it round so that my face was in line with his. He held me there, just staring into my face, gazing over my hair and clothes (long skirt and hooded jumper) but not uttering a word, for a good few seconds before I managed to pry myself from his grip and merge back into the circle that I had been dancing in. Noticing my flusteredness at the encounter, Harmony came up to me, brought her mouth up to my ear and shouted: ”He wants to dance with you”. I replied that he would significantly increase his chances if he asked in a more gentlemanly manner… Obviously, my strange dancing provoked some bizarre, but, given the context, probably understandable, reactions. But even when I was not the object of such attention, I saw it happening to others, and came to feel that overall, the venue allowed more for sexually-driven pursuits and alcohol induced debauchery than relaxed, good-natured enjoyment.


On the other hand, when I could make myself as invisible as the darkness allowed, there were times when I found the dynamics of the disco to be less threatening, even verging on pleasant. One such moment was when there was an all-male dance. As soon as the music started, only males came onto the dancefloor, forming a circle, and beginning the broad, arm-sweeping movements accompanied by short hops and turns, as the circle rotated slowly. They all danced in unison: a synchronic tide of black leather flatcaps and square, green skullcaps. I found the mingling of tradition and popular culture to be endearing, in the sense that it tore down the pretenses of a gilted disco culture and replaced them by a short-but-sweet return to community ethics.


* * *


As we exited back on the the psychedelic orange street, we had J take some photos of us girls posing in a Charlie’s Angels sort of formation. It was amusing, and we giggled as we started walking down the road back towards our hotel and their homes. But then Amina’s phone rang: it was her boyfriend, at another disco in town, begging her to come back out. Feigning tiredness even though it was only 9:30 pm, and using our bub to Korla which departed at 8am as an excuse, we managed to wriggle out of having to go along with them.


”Won’t your mother be worried about you?” I asked Harmony, perhaps slightly apprehensive that us foreigners would get blamed for her night out on the town.


”No”, she replied, ”because it’s the festival, I can stay out a little late”. Ok, I said, but take care of yourselves in there!


We said our goodbyes, exchanging the usual promises to stay in touch. They hurried off back towards the town, obviously eager to make the most of their one night of freedom, while I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of indefinitely postponing the my next visit to a Xinjiang disco.


Beyond the ghost towns

January 10, 2009

3/12/08 Cherchen, Xinjiang, China

The main roads which lead into the oasis towns that lie on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert are but thirsty veins creeping to the surface of an otherwise healthy body. They run shallowly along the surfaces of the towns, offering an unsubstantive glimpse of the lives that are led there.


In most cases, when we arrived in public buses, we would be puzzled by the desertedness of the wide arterial avenues. There would be shops, restaurants, with signs in both Uighur and oversized Chinese characters, but so few people. Where is everybody? I would wonder.


And time and time again, it would only be when we would lose ourselves down the unpaved streets or behind the imposing government buildings that we would find evidence of livelihood, social and commercial hubs. The new Han towns, comprising the bus station and various retail shops, are artificial centres. The combination of their grandeur and fakeness renders them both farcical and defunct, while the real pulse of life can be felt in the old Uighur parts of town.


In Hotan, a city famed for its jade, the newly arrived visitor is tempted towards Hantown by a massive statue of Mao greeting an Uighur peasant, which can be seen from half a kilometre away approaching from three different main roads. Below the statue, a series of images tell the story of the majestic encounter: the peasant, having suffered under the harsh hands of warlords and the Guomindang, was so enthralled by the arrival of Communist forces upon their ‘liberation’ of Xinjiang and the justice that they brought to the region that he decided to travel, by donkey, to Beijing in order to thank the Chairman himself. The statue is a replica of that meeting, with the meek peasant expressing his gratitude and Mao commending him for his revolutionary steadfastness in the face of so many years of hardship.


Whether or not the story is true (I seriously doubt it) is insignificant compared to the fact that it is a massive piece of propaganda which is being used to mark the new centre of Hotan. But this new ‘downtown’, with its multi-story banks, fast-food chains and tasteless fluorescent streetlights in the shape of palm trees pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the Uighur bazaar, which lies about a kilometre to the south east of the Mao statue. The roads surrounding the bazaar are, literally, crammed with people. There are countless food stalls, bakeries, fruit stands, cobblers and carpet shops, and hundreds of people milling around between, either customers or merchants themselves. This is where the heart of Hotan lies, even though its head has been decapitated and moved uptown in the government’s policy of urban fragmentation.


When we arrived on a bus in Keriya, we encountered similar scenes: wide, lifeless avenues. Wandering aimlessly down the one outside the bus station, we saw a small covered bazaar off to one side, where things were definitely in fuller swing. Further on, we saw the towering facade of a mosque, and walked towards it. As we go closer, we saw that a string of stalls ran from the entrance along the sidewalk both to the right and left, creating another little beehive of life, that was really really buzzing. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, later we realised thousands. And as we got close to the mosques entrance, we realised why: floods of men were leaving the mosque, and amongst them a coffin was being carried high on the shoulders of one group. It was a funeral.


We sat outside the mosque watching the men exit. It is only men who are allowed in Uighur mosques; women have to pray at home. As they left the building, some stopped to chat to eachother, while others ventured towards the merchants who displayed their wares on the pavement or on small tables: thermal underwear for men, women and children; leather coats on sale for 50 yuan (about five quid); sticky slabs of walnuts and honey; baked sweet potatoes and steaming slices of bright orange pumpkin.


When the stream of mourners started to thin, we walked along the market, which faded into women peddling sad-looking cabbage on the street, after which we turned off on a dirt path to find a street of restaurants, now brimming with customers after the funeral, enjoying lamb kebabs or steaming meat pies. Back on the road, we passed an alley of tinkers, hammering away on metal furnaces, pipes and cooking pans, and some children playing in a coal depot. The street was still lively, but as we made our way back to the bus station, it progressively quieted down, until we once again found ourselves on the large, quiet avenues. Up ahead, we saw a statue, and decided to take a look before we caught our ongoing bus to Niya. There, in a deserted, burgundy-tiled square just off the main road out of the town, was the towering statue of Mao and the peasant.


Pave the bazaar, put up a Han santing

January 10, 2009

25/11/08 Kuqa, Xinjiang, China

       We are now in the third town on our journey around Xinjiang, and the only thing that seems to differentiate these various urban centres is the degree of Han Chinese encroachment on and domination of public space.

       I regret that I used the word ’sprawling’ to describe Alamty; for it would have been much more accurate had I used it to describe modern Chinese urban planning. Having been to China before and having experienced the enormity of all the features of Chinese cities (shopping malls, roads, train and bus stations, parks…), I didn’t expect that my most recent arrival in China would yield any surprises on that front. Maybe my memory was not up to par; or perhaps it is that I expect such magnitude from the provincial capitals but not from remote towns;   more probably, it could be something to do with the contrast between the Han sides of town and the Uighur quarters: whatever the reason, I have been truly gob-smacked by the size and newness of the cities in north western Xinjiang.

       To the untrained eye, these cities could have sprouted up randomly out of the virgin desert sands like mushrooms after an autumn rain; brand spanking new cities purpose-built to accompany the largely oil-related industrial developments in the region, reminiscent of those icons of economic-growth architecture in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Indeed, there is not much left between the 3-story KFC’s, 5-story KTV’s (karaoke bars), Colosseum-sized Bank of China’s and gaudy apartment complexes to remind the visitor that, five hundred years ago, these used to be proud Silk Road towns. There is not even much to remind the onlooker that  a mere 10 or 15 years ago, these used to be Uighur towns.

        As I mentioned in my previous piece, the Chinese government has been encouraging Han migration to and settlement in Xinjiang  as a key element in their strategy for controlling the region. This has been accompanied by the construction of massive metropolises, which are being built on the sites of already-existing Uighur towns. The differences between the two are glaring: the single-story, brick Uighur houses with brightly painted doors, sometimes left slightly ajar through which one can glimpse the courtyards with their wood piles and outdoor stoves, stand in stark contrast to the high-rise apartment blocks, multi-story strip malls and 50 metre-wide avenues.  The modern parts of town house all sort of Han businesses, including restaurants, shops and banks. Uighur businesses, for the most part, seem not to be present in these ultra-new, ultra-modern complexes.  

       From the architecture and layout of the new towns, it appears that little to no effort is being made to integrate the styles of housing and traditional livelihoods of the original inhabitants. From what we have seen so far, one of two things is happening: either the Han settlement is built adjacent to the Uighur town, thus creating clear dichotomy between the old and the new and reaping the connotations of that division (backward vs. modern, primitive vs. civilised); or the Uighur town is, quite simply, bulldozed over, flattened out, made an empty lot upon which a ‘civilised’ centre can be built.

 *     *     * 

       The town of Gulja (Yining to the Chinese), in northwester Xinjiang near the Kazakh border, is an example of the first model of appropriation of space.   The Uighur part of town winds itself along quite narrow streets, where at many junctures two cars cannot pass abreast of each other, surfaced with paving stones upon which the click-clack of donkey carts echoes off the houses. Light blue seemed to be the colour of the moment in Gulja, and the azure panes of windows and doors beamed out from behind the willow trees lining the street. We wandered through this residential area, getting odd looks from the people we passed; as it is probable that not many foreigners venture into Gulja itself, let alone the old town (not marked on the Lonely Planet map!).

         We eventually came to the bazaar, where, like in many other towns of Central Asia, all senses are tickled by the vibrant stimuli of the bustling surroundings. The air was smokey, laden with the scent of cumin-infused meat grilling on charcoal, and through the fragrant clouds bursts of colour rose up before you, taking shape as we approached, becoming basket after basket of apples, mandarins, pomegranates, pears, and then further on piles of raisins, dates, apricots, roasted sunflower seeds. After that, hundreds of just-baked breads piled up like full moons next to a still-smoking clay oven, and then rows of soft, second-hand leather and fur lined coats…           

          Heading north through the bazaar, the landscape began to change from outdoor market stalls to the epitomization of Chinese modernity: the concrete and neon jungle in which over-sized bright red Chinese characters glare down from billboards and shop fronts, advertising all consumer products under the sun, or indicating the presence of staple source of Chinese gastronomy, the Han santing (Han canteen). One part of town ends starkly where the other begins. There is hardly any overlap between the two, and when it does occur, it is lopsided: the Uighur part of town is notably devoid of Han Chinese, while Uighurs are seen in the odd Muslim restaurant or as a bus driver in the Han part of town. Like the compulsory teaching of Mandarin in Uighur schools compared to Han ignorance of Uighur, it is apparent that one group is obliged to assimilate into the other, while the latter is perfectly willing and able to live in a constructed cultural bubble.

                                *     *     *            

             In Korla, south of the Tian Shan mountain range from Gulja, the Uighurs have not been so lucky. The heart of their own town, pleasantly and strategically placed on the banks of the Kongque river, is all but standing. While the modern town, which exhibits the same characteristics as those already mentioned, is less than 20 years old, amongst the remnants of the old town we stumbled upon a mosque which had a plaque on the inside stating that it had been built in 1892. I say ‘old town’, but this is an overstatement: it is only really the skeleton of a town, in which vacant, rubbish-littered lots outnumber the brick houses that are still standing. Sandy-coloured walls and dirt roads fade into crumbled piles of stone and accumulated filth.        

            Gazing down these dilapidated streets, our vision would be accosted by a crane towering above a giant, solid blue- and peach-coloured apartment blocks: a single image portraying all too clearly the destruction of tradition upon which the construction of modernity is being carried out.  And if there was any doubt left as to the drive of the government towards an ideal model of modernity, the remaining walls of the town have been covered in red characters spouting government propaganda phrases such as ”Strengthen civilisation throughout the whole country by striving to build civilised cities”.       

           The remnants of the Uighur town, which I imagine would have once stretched over both banks of the river, is being flattened to make space for luxury apartment complexes. One of the promotional awnings of these building sites had a photograph of a Han man and woman in track-suits, jogging through emerald-green parks, with a text underneath reading: ”Lives in the park, lives in the nature. 300 Chinese acre peacock parks: My private back garden”. A private back garden built on the ashes of a hundred-year old Uighur town.

        Where did the people who used to live in that part of town go? Have they been moved into the more modern accommodation that has replaced their original homes? Or have they been relocated completely, either as a strategy of the Chinese government’s self-styled civilising mission, or of the Uighur people’s own rejection of that project? 

                               *     *     *       

            In the town of Kuqa, some 300 km southwest of Korla, we came across some tentative answers to these questions. Kuqa is on a similar path to Korla, albeit at a lesser stage of advancement, in that the old parts of town, with their low housing sitting on either side of long, straight roads lined by tall poplar trees, are being demolished in order to make place for apartment blocks. It is on one such street that we befriended a young Uighur who cooks up some exceptionally scrumptious grilled mushrooms and tofu. For two days in a row, we warmed ourselves on the charcoals of his mobile restaurant, savouring his wares and chatting about this and that.        

          When we felt comfortable in our exchange, J pointed to the pastel-coloured monstrosities emerging over the roofs of the Uighur shops, and asked how long they had been there. Two years, the young man said. J went on: ”Before, what was there?”. ”It was like here”, he replied, indicating the street on which we found ourselves. He continued, saying that in two more years, this street and the ones adjacent would also befall the same fate. J asked about the price of the new apartments, and he said they were very expensive.        

             And then he made the most interesting comment of the conversation; he said that when they knocked down his street, he was going to move further out of town. With the new buildings usurping the space of his home and business, he did not want to stay, so he would leave town, implying he would set himself up in a similar place somewhere beyond the claws of the expansionists.       

           I wonder how many other Uighur feel the same way, preferring to leave the cities  and thereby maintaining both their traditional livelihoods and their dignity by not partaking in the Chinese government’s hegemonic project of modernity…


A brief, if biased, snapshot of Xinjiang’s past and present

January 10, 2009

21/11/08 Korla, Xinjiang, China

NB: The purpose of this piece is not to give a comprehensive understanding of Xinjiang’s long and complicated history. Obviously, all history is inherently political, as the events that are highlighted versus those which are omitted expose the partiality of the author. With this in mind, the purpose of this short piece is for the benefit of readership, to present a basic outline of what I consider to be some significant developments in Xinjiang’s history and their present manifestations in order to provide a context for my commentary pieces which will follow. For those who are interested in learning more, I would recommend Christan Tyler’s Wild West China.  *     *     * 

       Known as ‘Xinjiang’ (pronounced ‘shin-ji-ang‘), meaning ‘new frontier’ by the Chinese,  and ‘Eastern Turkestan’ by its other inhabitants, the most north-westernly province of China is a multi-ethnic region situated on the historical crossroads of the Silk Road trading route. (For a pertinent analysis of the politics of naming, see It has been home to the Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz, Xibo and Uighur people, which are the majority, for centuries.

       The Chinese have been attempting to control Xinjiang  for well over 1,000 years, and have succeeded in doing so on-and-off since the 1700s. Not surprisingly, these imperial ambitions have not gone down well with the majority Uighur, who share little cultural, linguistic or religious links with the Han Chinese, being, like many of the peoples of Central Asia, of Turkic descent. The frictions of identity politics resulting from the interplay between distinct ethnic groups vying for control over a single land, as well as the tactics of coercion and resistance on both sides, has often erupted in conflict. Indeed, the history of Xinjiang is a very bloody one.

       Originally, Xinjiang was important for the Chinese empires because of its geographic location: a buffer from the powerful Khanates of Central Asia, and, after that, from Tsarist and eventually Soviet Russia.  Further, Chinese empires have always seen the peoples from the region as ‘barbaric’ and dangerous, and hence in need of control and civilisation.

       Nowadays, Xinjiang is not only coveted by Beijing for its wealth of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and minerals, but also for the sheer immensity of its landmass (one-sixth of the total area of China), which proves immensely valuable to a nation constantly pressed for space by an increasing population.

       The methods of Chinese control have varied according to the ages, from military outposts and garrisons in the 18th and 19th century, to forced migration tactics in the 20th century. During the height of Mao’s Communist endeavors, Xinjiang was the location of many work camps, the Chinese equivalent to Soviet Gulags. Hundreds of thousand of people were sent out to this region in order to be ‘re-educated’. Today, you can still see the contemporary manifestation of these: so-called ‘work-teams’ in matching uniforms, flanked by shuttle buses and armed soldiers, digging trenches or planting trees in the middle of the desert. (In fact, we passed one on the bus just yesterday.)

       More recently, in the past 20 years, the Chinese government has given Han Chinese from the easterly provinces incentives to migrate out to Xinjiang, such as job opportunities or promotions and living-cost subsidies. Such policies have been aimed not only at alleviating the burden from China’s overpopulated eastern coast, but also as a means of shifting the demographics of the region so that the Uighur become a minority. The settlement of Han in Xinjiang is not only a means of undermining Uighur claims to national autonomy; it is also a way of preventing dissent.

       Recent Uighur uprisings, including riots in the town of Yining in the late nineties, a series of explosions in early 2000s and alleged attacks on Chinese police in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have been heavily crushed. The Chinese government’s approach to Uighur dissent is two-pronged: punishment and construction. On one hand, they refer to any sort of anti-government activity with the convenient label ‘terrorist’, in order to legitimise arbitrary detentions, questioning, torture and even execution of individuals. On the other hand, they continue to invest heavily in the region, developing industries and urban infrastructure, the benefactors of which are largely Han Chinese. In the majority of cases, neither the Uighur nor other minorities of the region are granted access to these new wealth-generating enterprises, save in low-level maintenance posts such as gardening or rubbish collection. At the same time, their businesses are notably absent from the newly constructed city centres, in which large Chinese characters drown out the Arabic script of the Uighur language. 

       The extent to which the social or economic activities of the Uighur are pushed to the margins of contemporary development is also present in the education system: Uighur and Han children are obliged to attend different schools. In Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese (in Chinese ‘hanyu‘, ‘Han language’, or ‘putonghua‘, ‘common language’) is a compulsory subject, which must be passed in order for the student to obtain a high-school diploma. In most Uighur schools, English is not taught.  In Han schools, English is taught as a compulsory subject, and Uighur is not taught at all. This segregation not only reinforces ethnic differences of Han vs. non-Han, which forces the Uighur to assimilate into the dominant culture; it also produces generations of Chinese citizens with inherently different levels of education, and hence perpetuates a systematic imbalance in terms of access to the job market, whether nationally or internationally. 

     The methods of Han coercion exceed languange, and come to infringe on all sorts of cultural practices. From fostering a social stigma against beards and forcing Muslims working in or attending public institutions (including universities) to eat during the day in Ramadan, to covering the walls of Uighur parts of town with propaganda proclaiming the need for “civilisation” and insisting that businesses and official services run on ”Beijing Time” when Xinjiang’s longitude should have it running two time zones earlier, there are many examples of the Chinese government’s drive to to stamp its authority on the region and undermine Uighur ethnic identity.

      Though in-depth analysis of all these factors exceeds the scope of this blog, my commentaries aim to bear testimony to the ways in which the livelihoods and identities of the Uighur are being compromised by the imperialist projects of the contemporary Chinese government.


Back in the XUAR (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region)

January 10, 2009

19/11/08 Yining/Gulja, Xinjiang, China 

A year has passed, and I find myself back in the most westernly province of China, known to the Chinese as Xinjiang, or ‘western frontier’, but referred to as ‘Eastern Turkistan’ by the Uighurs, the historical ethnic inhabitants of the area. My return to the region has to do precisely with this distinction, as J is fascinated by the Han Chinese expansion, control, and veritable colonialism in this region, and the corollary movement for Uighur national independence. Consequently, he has decided to return here to learn more about it, and I, for the second time, have chosen to follow him.

 I suppose that at this point, it is necessary to mention that our three friends with whom we began our journey from Beirut across the Asian continent have all left us, following their own paths. Di and Caro said their goodbyes in Tashkent, both returning to jobs and loves back in Lebanon, while Jeevs decided to brave the harsh winter climate and discover Kyrgyzstan.  I admire his drive for discovery, as I myself decided not to venture there because of my fear of sub-zero temperatures (which I am encountering here in Yining anyways and are no doubt unavoidable from here on out), and hope that the harsh conditions do not hinder his path and engagement with the place.

 I ask myself to what extent their absence has changed our travelling experience. On hone hand, it does change the way that we do things, in many ways. Now that we are only two people with largely the same direction (I really am tagging along to wherever/whatever J feels he needs to go/see) and desires, which reduces the decision-making processes and the conflicts. But despite these conflicts, there was a sense of comfort and security in the group which, perhaps, at times, made us more insular, but, at others, definitely gave us more strength to confront difficult situations. The prime example of this was when Di fell very ill in Yazd, Iran, and was place on an IV drip. Our combined efforts managed to get her the medical attention she needed, and also make sure that there was always someone by her bedside to help her get to the toilet or hold up a plastic bag when she felt a wave of nausea. I believe, therefore, that their absence, both in terms of a lack of bickering and a lack of companionship, is akin to a separation of siblings. 

 On the other hand, more than the presence or absence of our friends, I think the biggest factor that will alter the way that we will travel in Xinjiang is that we are no longer on a ‘voyage of discovery’ in the same sense as we were in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in that those were all countries that we were visiting for the first time. We were there on a much more touristic basis, in which we sought out the iconic attractions of those places, be they ancient desert cities, magnificent mosques and madrassas or the self-congratulatory monuments of megalomaniac dictators. Our previous visit to Xinjiang followed a similar pattern, in that we visited many touristic locations: Turpan, Tian Shi Lake, Kasghar and other southern Silk Road cities including Yarkan and Karglik. This time, however, we are explicitly seeking out those places off the beaten track, and, perhaps most importantly, hose not contained in the traveller’s bible, the Lonely Planet Guide.

 * * *

 Out of the seven land borders that we have so far crossed during this journey, the Kazakhstan-China one unexpectedly proved to be the most eventful. We had had some preliminary worries about whether or not our crossing into Xinjiang would be problematic, due to the travel restrictions placed on the area in the wake of the attacks here in the run-up to the Olympics in August, but our concerns proved unfounded. In fact, the reality proved completely the opposite.

 On the Kazakh side of the border, the customs and immigration offices were housed in  simple, clean buildings with effective but unassuming facilities, namely computers. Even upon entering Kazakhstan, I remembered being impressed at the presence of computers in the control booths; the first appearance of such advanced machinery in all our travels. But these could not compare with the set-up on the Chinese side of the border: a brand spanking new building, with automatic doors, shiny floors in which the neon ceiling lights glowed and a host of smiling, uniformed Han Chinese to welcome you to the motherland. My jaw probably dropped upon entry, to stark was the contrast between this office and all of the others that I have ever encountered in my life. Obviously revamped for the Olympics, the building completely resembled the most modern airport, complete with wide, multi-lingual signs hanging from the ceilings, designating the various queues and counters in the style of airline check-in desks.

 And the personnel were so pleasant as well! Their behaviour was in complete accordance with supposed traditional Chinese docility and compliance, which seems to be a stereotype that the government is keen on fostering. Apart from one brief inquiry as to our eventual destination (Beijing, we duly replied), we were not given a second (overt) thought.

 Upon exiting he building, we were faced by a more daunting sight: about 100 metres away stood a black metal gate with two soldiers on one side checking visa stamps, and a huge mass of people on the other side, clinging to the iron bars, staring in. Past experiences told us that these blokes would consist of taxi drivers, money exchangers and hotel touts, waiting to pounce upon us and reap the affluence assumed by virtue of our white skin and (fake) North Face jackets.

 We stood in line, waiting for our turn for our passports to be checked for the last time before leaving the border compound. The two officials were young, perhaps not even 20 yet, but their personas were inflated by the prestige of their uniforms, khaki green jacked and trousers with bright red trimmings, topped off by a high, broad hat. They had a slight build, and their bodies seemed to shrink beneath the magnitude and significance of their attire.  Even though we were last in line, we had been identified by the men beyond the gate, and they proceeded to voice their offerings to us: ‘Taxi! Taxi Yining! Taxi Wulumuqi (Urumqi)!’

 Eventually, the person in front of me was waved through, and I stepped up to the young man and, with an emphatic ‘Ni hao’ and a broad smile, I handed him my passport. From the black gate that now stood only a few metres away, the shouts were increasing in frequency and volume, so I put on my best bored, disinterested face, in the hope that obviously ignoring them would encourage the furor to subside.

 And then, before I realised what was happening, two of the young men from the crowd had run through the gate and slapped me on the arm, the way you do if you’re tagging someone in a game. My immediate reaction was to grab my handbag, in the fear that that was their target. But no, they were laughing as they pulled back as quickly as they had came, snickering and satisfied at their meagre accomplishment. After the initial surprise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought: a bit of cheekiness for shits and giggles, one round of ‘tag the foreigner’ to pass the time…

 But the young soldier beside me was not so passive, and he immediately jumped forward at the perpetrators, who huddled back into the crowd. The soldier took a few swift, intimidating steps past the gate, threatening those assembled with both sharp words and steely body-language. The men in the crowd all stepped back, creating a semi-circle of pavement around the soldier. It was only then that I realised how physically small he was: in the space that had opened up around him, he looked like a little child about to be bullied by a group of  burly adolescents; although in the current scene, the roles of domination had been inversed. He took an extra few seconds to give them all am icy look as if to say ‘Don’t try me, I’m not messing around here’, and then calmly came back to where we were waiting, slightly disorientated at everything that was unraveling so quickly before us. The soldier flipped through my passport, then handed it back to me, and I walked over towards the gate.

 The following scene happened so quickly that i don’t remember exactly how it begun. I do remember some sort of tussle as I got beyond the gate, someone grabbed me and the shouting was amplified. But I didn’t even have time to think about what I would do to evade the crowd when the young soldier had, once again, leaped out beyond the gate and begun to hit one of the man who had moved forward. My body stiffened, and I was afraid to move because I didn’t want to get caught up in the fight if others joined in. So I just stood there, feet stuck to the ground, hiding my face in my hands like an ostrich hides its head in the sand. 

 The next time I looked up I saw that the soldier was now kicking the same man over and over again in the ass. The  soldier was holding the man by the arm as he repeatedly and roughly shoved the tip of his polished black boot up the man’s backside. Again, like some dumb animal stuck in headlights, I just stood there and stared. And then I realised that everybody else in the crowd and in the line behind the gate was doing the exact same thing. There was no movement on the behalf of any of the other men to come to the aid of their colleague, nor did any other soldiers attempt to restrain the one who was kicking. And just as the soldier dished out the end of his beating, I realised again how small he was compared to his victim: the man was at least a whole head taller than him, not to mention well-built. I have no doubt that he could have knocked the adolescent soldier unconscious with a single blow. but he did nothing, just stood there and took it without a single utterance piercing his lips.

 After the soldier had finished delivering the punishment, he returned to his initial post and handed J back to passport which he had been holding. J immediately came up to me and asked if I was ok, which of course I was, and we hastened our pace to escape to harassers, but to no avail: perhaps 10 metres away from the gate they descended upon us again. But at this point I was so eager to get the hell out of there that i shouted ‘Piss off! Piss off!’ over and over again, as J and I  moved with linked arms farther from the crowd. My shouting seemed to take effect, and after about 50 metres, there were only 3 highly persistent touts surrounding us anymore, and they too eventually dissipated.

* * *

 Since the incident, J and I have been replaying it over and over again in our heads, trying to dissect the motivations behind the actions of the persons involved and attempting to identify the power relations therein.

 Was this a random incident, in which the taxi drivers’ reactions to our presence was impulsive, misplaced and confronted with disproportionate aggression? Or was it a deliberate act of provocation, in which we were merely provided an opportunity for the threshold to be crossed and the soldier’s authority to be challenged? Does that sort of thing happen often? Was it an isolated event, or can it be seen as part of a larger, more systematic challenge to imperial forces? Those are questions that we can only deliberate and pontificate, without yet having enough experience to arrive at any definitive conclusions.

 I found it particularly intriguing to attempt to analyse the significance of the soldier’s show of force: was his aggressive reaction an attempt to set an example, a form of public punishment that would serve as a deterrent? Or did his use of violence betray an underlying lack of control, in the sense that the necessity of resorting to violence may mean that the other mechanisms of instilling obedience and fear are not functioning properly?

 Alongside the quest for answers, I think it’s also important to be aware of how loaded  the questions themselves are, and how they betray our own agendas. It is imperative that we acknowledge the extent to which what we are looking for will strongly influence what we come to see. We have come here with much curiosity and with many questions, and therefore we must be wary to not let those permeate every single experience we have, lest we lead ourselves to read too much into every situation…


A taste of Kazakhstan

November 16, 2008

16/11/08, Zharkent

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Central Alamty is tastelessly gentrified and tacticfully sanitised from anything remotely ‘Kazakh’; it is only Kazakh in name and geography. It is a sprawling, completely Westernised metropolis, replete with over-priced cafes offering wi-fi internet and dishing up $10 slices of cake, Mercedes/Land Rover/Porsche SUV’s careening down wide avenues, Soviet war memorials, and huge supermarkets where you can purchase anything from French Brie to sushi to Heinz baked beans. It is flanked to the south by towering mountains which boast the Chimbalak ski resort, where the town’s more wealthy (and, more often that not, Russian) inhabitants stretch their legs.

Leave the centre, though, and you are quickly faced with a very different picture. Tree-lined, paved avenues are replaced by uneven, unlit dirt roads; the atrocious architecture of Soviet-style apartment blocks fades into the quaint simplicity of single-story, almost barn-like wooden houses; the upmarket shopping malls filled with designer labels are substituted by the Barak Holka bazaar, an endless maze of haphazard containers and stalls that runs five kilometres along a road to the west of the city.

It is in this bazaar that one begins to get a real taste of the contemporary character of Kazakhstan’s cosmopolitanism. A distant relation of J’s, Mahmut, (his aunt’s partner’s brother) lives in Almaty. Ethnically Kazakh, the brothers and their siblings were born and raised in Istanbul and are now scattered all over the planet, in what reads like the locations of an haute couture label: London, New York, Zürich, Almaty.

Mahmut imports Turkish leather coats from Turkey and sells them in Barak Holka, and invited us to see his shop. The inside of the container was made to feel warm with imitation wood panelling, and we were immediately offered seats and tea. We were joined by the merchants in neighbouring shops: an Kazakh who had lived in Iran, Turkey and Russia, and an Afghani who boasted the same. After we had finished the tea and exchanged some phrases in rudimentary Farsi, Mahmut invited us to lunch. We followed Mahmut and the Afgani through the labyrinth of fox fur coats, goat hair shawls and leather boots to the main road, which we crossed and entered a whole new maze. ‘This is the Chinese bazaar’, Mahmut said.

Indeed! The elaborate clothing had been replaced by mounds of industrial plastic bits and bobs, fairy lights, footballs, toy trucks and sandals.

A few more minutes of wandering, we arrived at our destination: a small white container which was an Afghan restaurant on the inside. We were introduced to Ahmed, the owner, who spoke Arabic because he had spent some time in Saudi Arabia as a cook. Now, he served up what Mahmut called ‘the best shashlyk (lamb kebab) in Almaty’. A grand claim, but when the chunks of meat arrived still sizzling on their metal skewers and we had the opportunity to test its truth, we could not disagree. Sprinkled with a dash of cumin and chilli, the shashlyk was the best I have eaten in my life (i suppose 6 years of vegetarianism puts this statement into perspective).

* * *

Today, in the small village of Zharkent in Eastern Kazakhstan, I learned two interesting things:

– The Kazakhs have a very particular method of making butter. They extract the stomach of a sheep from the slaughtered animal, inflate it, and leave it to dry slightly. Then, they put milk, whey and salt inside the stomach, mix it up, and leave it to ferment. This process doesn’t take long, only a few days, but the stomach prevents the butter from spoiling. It can literally be preserved for years in this way. And despite the seeming grossness of its production, the taste is exquisite: light, fresh, with a slight but pleasant arome de mouton…

– ”The only thing that loves meat more than a Kazakh is a wolf”

-Kazakh saying


Off the Silk Road

October 27, 2008

            26/10/08, Samarkand

            We have spent the last three days off the Silk Road tourist stretch. After Iran and Turkmenistan, whose precarious politics have not yet made them popular tourist destinations, the proliferation of mass tourism in Uzbekistan took me by surprise. The towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, each with its own claim to some civilizational greatness over the past millennium, are seeped in bed and breakfasts, tour buses and shop after stall after sidewalk of Uzbek women selling their coloured embroidered wares. Retired Europeans seem to be the pick of the moment, with French leading in terms of numbers.


            The combination of these tour groups with the recurring architecture of the Silk Road cities, which started to become tedious in that it is very similar to the mosques and madrassas of Iran, lead us to splurge over our $25-a-day budget in order to take a trip out to a nature reserve north of Samarkand. On the way there, we spent a night in a yurt camp in the Kyzylkum Desert near Lake Airdakul. Sure enough, we were joined in the camp by a group of about 20 retired French people, who filled the tranquil air with inquisitions as to the location of each other’s flashlights and an amusing, vodka-induced rendition of ‘Champs Elysees’. Yet this was to be expected, as our own presence there was equally explained by a penchant for the ‘roughing it’ type of tourism offered by yurts and camel treks that no doubt attracted them in the first place.


            On the other hand, the most amazing aspects of staying at the yurt camp were what raw, remote nature had to offer: a sunset so electric and vivid that it had me thinking that the whole planet was on the verge of bursting into flames; a night sky so brimming full and vibrating of stars that I could imagine the universe expanding; a sunrise so sublime and unassuming that it made me contemplate the insignificance of humans in that face of such simple majesty that has existed for eons before us, and will continue long after all of us loud, parasitic, digital camera-weilding, adventure-seeking travellers have faded into dust…


*          *          *


            The next day, we ventured up to the small village of Sentap in the Nuratau mountains, which sit . On the way, our driver stopped on the desert road and motioned towards some men working in the scrub. ‘Gold’, he said in English.  We got out of the car and walked over to them. There were two: one was manning a small, hand-held shovel, scraping rocks and gravel onto a grill-lined trough on an incline, while the other poured bucket after bucket of dirty grey water over the stones. The stones would run down the rough and out the other end, while small flecks of glinting material would stick in the grill. Behind them was a huge mound of gravel that had already been sifted through. Not far away was a hole that had been dug 10 metres into the ground. From the bottom, our driver explained, they had dug 200 metres horizontally and pulled out all the gravel in that tunnel, which would then get sifted through as they were currently doing.


            They said that hey sifted through some 30 buckets of gravel a day, which yielded about 2 grammes of gold, and that they received $28 per gramme. Which meant that they made $28 each a day, but only during the last phase of the extraction process, which was the shortest and least physically challenging. Factoring in the length and effort of the entire process compared to the income, the Uzbek gold mining industry came across as a harsh livelihood.


            Back on the road, we headed towards Sentap. Originally, we had been seeking the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve, and we are still unsure as to whether or not this village was actually part of the reserve. Regardless, it proved to be a charming place, situated on the banks of a small river, where it seemed that humans were far outnumbered by farm animals. The dusty, meandering road and the walnut groves on either side of it were the realm of cows, sheep, donkeys, goats and turkeys. Here and there, big fluffy dogs with their ears snipped curled up in patches of sunlight, straining for the warmth.


            We were able to stay in the guesthouse of a lovely family spanning 3 generations, who we were fortunately able to have some minor communication with due to the fact that the village, like Bukhara, Samarkand, and much of southern Uzbekistan, is ethnically Tajik, and that Tajik differs from all the other Central Asian language in that it is almost 80% Farsi. The ‘boss’ of the house Shoddiboy and his younger brother Umid also spoke some French, because most of the visitors they received were French (ah, gotta give it to the French for their undying search for adventure…)


*          *          *


            On the second day, Umid took us on a 21km hike through the mountains, up to a lake 1000 metres higher than the guesthouse. the beginning of the walk was easy, following the river up along wide paths, under the bright yellow and orange leaves that still remained in the brisk end of autumn. About 6km in, we started to climb steeply, increasing our altitude by 400m in about a kilometre. Arriving at the top, we had spectacular panoramic views of the mountains as they sank quickly into the desert and completely disapppeared into flat yellow sands, with Lake Airdakul glowing sapphire on the horizon. The remainder of the way to the lake was much easier, along the light inclinations of the plateau atop the gorge we had just suffered up.


            The lake itself was quite disappointing: muddy, shrunken and shallow. An oversized duck pond more than a lake. We huddled next to a pile of rocks, the only minor protection from the harsh wind that swept the plateau, and ate a meager lunch of boiled potatoes, tinned corn and hard bread with our icy fingers, although our fare was more than Umid’s, who refused the potatoes and corn and only picked at some bread and an apple.


            Eager to begin walking again to fight off the cold, we started off on a different return route and encountered a stunning sight: five wild horses emerging from a distant hilltop, galloping in our direction. Four had milk-chocolate coats, while the fifth shone pearl white. As they approached, they varied their pace but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. They came within a couple hundred metres of us and stopped for a few seconds, as we fumbled with our cameras like the imagophiles we have come to be. Then, they altered their direction and galloped past us. The grace of their flowing manes and the rhythm of their hooves against the hard ground held us in rapture for the entirety of their passing. At one point, Caro noticed that one of them had a rope attached to it, which led us to question how wild they really were. Yet despite the somewhat shaming reminder of the presence of humans in their lives, the majesty of their movements still hinted at an image of absolute freedom, that notion for which they have come to symbolise. 


            The descent was more grueling than the climb, for the alternate path was no more than a goat trail over the tops of the mountains and along slippery scree slopes on the side of the peaks. For a second time, we were rewarded for the difficulty of the route when we passed underneath a rock face that housed eagles nests. Three, five, eight, twelve, as we walked the number of great birds that we saw circling above us in the sky just kept increasing. With J’s binoculars, we were able to gain excellent views of the pristine white down of their underbellies, and distinguish the shapes of the thick brown feathers at either end of their outstretched wings. They glided with such ease, mastering the heights of the gorges below. I felt humbled, embarrassed at the limitations and aches in my own limbs as I plodded along so disorientated and earth-bound beneath them… All the effort we have to go through, I thought, to get one single glimpse of these beings whose innate strength and beauty shame the human condition.


*          *          *


            The following morning, while tucking into rice and pumpkin for breakfast, the sounds of music being blasted through great speakers nearby and flocks of villagers walking in its direction aroused our interest. A party for a new baby, Umid told us. Requesting our unhappy driver that he wait another hour before taking us to Samarkand, we ventured off towards the music.


            In a field not far away, hundreds of green plastic chairs and tables had been set out in two separate sections, one for men and one for women. The majority of the 1,500 villagers were there, all decked out in their finest attire: the men in grey suits or black jackets, often accompanied by some traditional hat or other; the teenage boys in logo-embedded tracksuit jumpers which ranged from Adidas to Arsenal; the older women with their hair tied in wildly colourful scarves, wearing ankle-length dresses and waistcoats in brightly patterned, sequined and sparkling materials; the young girls in solid synthetic dresses with shiny black shoes. 


            A stream of people was entering the festivities from the house closest to the field,  every person carrying a bowl of soup with bits of meat and veg poking out in each hand. Every table was crowded with bottles of fizzy drinks and vodka, plates of various cold cuts and pieces of meat, round loaves of bread, and bowls of peanuts, almonds and individually-wrapped sweets. At the front of the layout, two amplifiers were set on a deafening volume, blasting out the voice of a man who stood with a microphone, singing against pre-recorded music. Behind him sat the table d’honneur, the family of the newborn.


            The six of us wandering in in our fleeces, hats and scarves was obviously an amusing sight to many of the children. We were welcomed by a man who seemed to be of some sort of authority, and he pulled up chairs for us at one of the tables with the men. Fearing I would be forced into a vodka shot at 10:30 in the morning, I managed to slip off in order to go back tot he house and collect something to offer as a present to the baby: a scarf I had gotten in Khiva and a pair of knitted socks Caro had from Bukhara. Returning 10 minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed when Di said that she had not managed to escape the obligatory celebrational vodka.


            I was not let off completely though, for as i offered our small gifts to grandmother who held the bundle centre-of-attention in her arms, I was pulled by another granny, the hostess of our gueshouse, into the space between the tables that was obviously the dancefloor. Imitating as best i could her movements, I pranced about for a couple of minutes to the amusement of the many gathered around, and then made a pink-faced exit towards my friends stood laughing from the sides.


            I would have liked to stay for longer ( think that after a few vodkas, the dancing would have been a lot easier), but our impatient driver awaited. i was grateful nonetheless for having been able to witness the celebration, however briefly. The aspect that fascinated me the most about it was that it was not only an open invitation for everyone in the village, but so many people were participating in making the event happen and run its course. I thought of how many women there would have been slaving away in several different kitchens in order to produce enough food for the hundreds gathered. I thought about how we saw big present packages wrapped in cellophane filled with dolls and clothes for the baby, and how that would also have required a pooling of resources. I thought of the beeline of people carrying bowls of soup to the guests. All this made me realise that everyone was making a tangible contribution to the event.


            I concluded that the dynamic of the celebration was very different from the way that we have large-scale parties in Europe. There, festivities are an industry: one rents a space, one hires caterers, waiters, photographers, entertainers… Whereas in Sentap, I think that the only person who might have been receiving a fee was the singer. Everybody else was just assuming their part of the responsibility that accompanies the festivity.


            These were the ethics of community that have been largely lost in the way we celebrate in urban centres around the world, where solidarity is replaced with convenience. I think that in the first major shindig I have in my life, I will take inspiration from that village party in the mountains of Uzbekistan instead of bowing to the weight of my own social conventions; not as an appropriation of some romanticised exotic, rural purity, but as a reclaiming of a set of communal values that, in many places, I feel have been forgotten.


Turkmenistan: through the looking glass

October 23, 2008

Borders rarely delineate cultures. Since attending university, I have come to conceive of nations as, for the most part, artificially constructed entities, especially postcolonial states. It only takes one glance at a map of Africa to deduce that the continent was divvied up among the imperial powers using the contents of an adolescent’s pencil case.

Consequently, populations have always found themselves split according to these inorganic divisions, and history has been stained with the blood of millions caught on the wrong sides of geopolitical rifts. The shallowness of national boundaries often translates into the presence of the same ethnic groups on either sides of national borders, creating transitional areas between countries that reduces the starkness of crossing borders: it is rare that one feels complete cultural difference from one side of a border to another. With those ideas in mind and past experience to support them, I found the abrupt changes that constituted crossing the border from Iran into Turkmenistan gobsmacking.

We crossed over the border at Bajgiran, some 200 km from Mashhad. Unfortunately, we arrived at the border at 3:45, 15 minutes after closing time, and had to spend the night in the remote border town, which, with its middle-of-nowhere calm and crisp mountain air, was pleasant. We awoke at 6am the next morning, ready to catch the border opening at 7:30. Instead of braving the 20 minute march uphill to the border post with our backpacks, Di and I thumbed down a passing lorry and hitched a ride up, while our stubborn companions faced the incline ahead. Our saviour was a chatty trucker from north-western Iran, who was happy to spare us the sweat of the climb and also offered us some sustenance for the crossing: apples and toffee.

The crossing itself was quick and painless. The most amusing aspect of the experience was the face-off between the Iranian and Turkmen customs offices: facing outwards from the inner wall of the former, the obligatory photographs of Khomeini and Khameini projected their stale stares across into no man’s land, while a poised, iconic portrait of Turkmenbashi returned their imposing gaze. The juxtaposition of the faces gave a preliminary insight into the potency of the Turkmenbashi personality cult. It also highlighted the irony of absolutism, in that it accentuated the geographical limitations of the totalitarian. It was a parody of national hegemony, in which the leaders of each regime were reduced to the egotistical, melodramatic competitors of an American wrestling match. I could almost here the stereotyped television voice laden with forced suspense spouting: ”In this corner, the deceased yet timeless self-proclaimed leader of the Turkmen people! In the other corner, the quasi-twin-named tag-team of the twentieth century’s most influential Shi’a clerics!”

My amusement was suspended by the realisation that a single step through a set of white gates could lead to hair freedom. After walking past the line that demarcated the border into Turkmen territory, I subtly slipped off the scarf hat had covered my head for the previous three weeks, and felt slightly risqué doing so. At the same time, I reflected on the spatial arbitrariness of morals; how in five metres, one could cross from indecency to acceptability with no other reason than property.

After passing through Turkmen immigration and customs, which included a not-so-thorough medical check, we had o wait for over an hour for a mini-bus to arrive, which would take us the remaining 20-odd kilometres into Ashgabat. The soldiers were very strict, they would not allow us to even venture over to the area where the trucks were coming out of customs in order to ask for a ride. Heeding to the subservience required by the circumstances, we obediently waited.

Finally the minibus arrived, and we began our descent into Ashgabat. No amount of nominal change of territory could have prepared us for what we saw: a woman crossing the road in Ashghabat: in a short sleeved, knee-length dress. We all turned around at each other in mutual shock! Really, apart from the odd white marble buildig, the first thing that struck us most was the way in which the women were dressed. The stood grouped on roadsides in bright, solid coloured dresses, in blues and reds and purples, accompanied with green, yellow and brown patterned head-wraps. The contrast of these scenes compared to those that we had left in the holy city of Mashhad the day before was shockingly stark. From women hunched under opaque tents (‘chador’ literally means ‘tent’) to women standing tall, straight-backed and proud in technicolour glory.

The amazement did not cease there, but grew exponentially as we discovered more and more of the capital. The starkness of the difference in people’s appearances was compounded by the intensely grandiose characteristics of the architecture and sanitized, fairy tale-like town planning. Vastly wide, perfectly straight roads bypassed tall, white, almost colonial style buildings, each as perfect and poised as the next, none too close to the other. Every now and then, the eye would be accosted by a glimmer, and your attention would be drawn to one of the many gold-plated statues that grace the entrances of public buildings and banks, or constitute statues in their own right.

The many monuments immortalizing Turkmenbashi, who died from a heart-attack in 2006, are ostentatious and have a futuristic, sci-fi quality to them. The most bizarre is probably the Arch of Neutrality, which resembles a a huge rocket ready for lift-off, adorned with a golden statue of leader that rotates to be constantly facing the sun. At night, it is lit up with an ever-changing array of garish colours: fluorescent green, pink and blue fade into one another, and reinforce the impression that the rocket is bound to take flight at any given second.

In our first venturing around the city, we happened to fall upon a military parade, which we later realised was the rehearsal for the seventeenth anniversary of Turkmen independence from the USSR. Watching it from atop the Arch of Neutrality, we felt as if we were experiencing a true example of totalitarian regime, a small-scale reenactment of the images of Maoist China or Nazi Germany, until Caro pertinently reminded us that military parades are infact still quite common in the twenty-first century and not only in North Korea, but for Bastille Day in France and national independence days for many other non-dictatorships. Our romanticisation aside, our amusement shifted to the hectic disorganization of the soldiers instead of taking every single incident to be part of the ideologue’s landscape, which, in the context, was admittedly difficult.

The sudden and immediate bizarennes of my first few hours in Turkmenistan, and especially the contract of the cultural landscape with that of Iran, made me feel like I had fallen down that deep, dark rabbit hole, and had emerged in some odd parallel universe. Unfortunately, due to our transit visa that meant our time in the country was severely restricted to 4 days and other rules like an 11 ‘clock curfew for foreigners, I didn’t have the chance to see any other sides to Turkmenistan that challenged the initial impression of a country drowned by personality cult.

The most marking incident outside of Ashgabat was when we were stopped on the highway in the middle of the Karakum desert, because the new president was visiting the inauguration of a new town 100 km away. Firstly, we flet that stranding a handful of truck-drivers and families in the middle of the desert was a slightly excessive security measure. Then later we drove past the new village, which was surrounded by a perimeter of Turkmen flags, and the sparkling new buildings were wrapped up in big blue and white bows… Again, I wondered when I had slipped through the rabbit hole.



October 12, 2008

9/10/08, Gazor Khan, Alamut Castle

A crag. A mammoth shard of warped rock sticking near-vertically into the sky, and the valley like a vast basin below. Emptiness that arrests both breath and imagination, set against distant rolling peaks. The wispy, ashen clouds hovering closely overhead, betraying the altitude. A freak feat of nature that imposes itself on the entire valley, dominating the landscape. Its cracks and crevices a hundred eyes peering around, surveilling the space.

This is the location that Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, twelfth century leader of the Ismaili Shi’a resistance to the Sunni caliphate of Baghdad and architect of the army of the assassins, chose as the seat of his ideological empire. The story of Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, like the scenery which encourages a certain suspension of disbelief, is a fitting combination of fact, legend and lore. In the 1930s, Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol wrote the most modern rendition of the tale in his book Alamut, which, at the time, was framed as a metaphorical critique of the rise of fascism in Europe. Perched amongst those fabled cliffs and hillsides, I reran the story over and over in my head, and realised that it would be impossible to separate the myth from the reality.

Reputed around the region as the holder of the key to the gates of Paradise, Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah was a herbalist, philosopher and conflict mastermind who harnessed the intoxicating effects of hashish in order to build himself an army of followers. Among them was a small, elite force of expertly trained and absolutely dedicated assassins. Alongside his military tactics, Hassan created a series of luxurious gardens in hidden valleys behind the castle, which he filled with exotic plants, tame wild-animals (panthers, leopards), and a collection of beautiful, exquisitely manicured and groomed adolescent women. They were to bee the houris, and the gardens were to be Paradise.

The absolute dedication of the ‘hashishioun’ (from where the word ‘assassin’ is derived) to the cause of bringing down the Caliphate was ensured by Hassan drugging a select few with hash, and then transporting them in their sleep to his secret gardens. When they awoke, they were surrounded with all the indulgences of paradise: milk, honey, immaculate young women playing unearthly music and doting on them. They were allowed to taste such pleasures for a few hours, after which they were drugged again, then transported back to the castle. When they awoke there, they believed they had been in paradise. Therefore, the rumour of Hassan as the bearer of the keys to Paradise flourished. Moreover, having savoured the delights of the afterlife, they no longer feared losing their own lives, they no longer feared sacrificing themselves for the cause, confident of the other-worldly pleasures that awaited them on the other side of mortality…

As I sat gazing at themysical scenery with the tale of dark enchantment buzzing in my mind, I wondered: What did this rock say to Hassan? What did he feel as he gazed up at its sublime majesty and strength? Immense empowerment? Illusions of invincibility? Either way, a pertinent place for a man of such twisted brilliance, where natural grandeur complements unbridled human ambition.


Every piece tells a story

October 12, 2008

7/10/08, Bam

In the evening, so as to avoid the sweltering heat of Iran’s southeaster desert, we went for a wander in town of Bam towards the Arg, the historic site of old city. I say ‘town’, but really, even five years on from the quake, Bam is still no more than an accumulation of innumerable construction sights wedged between dense date palm groves. I did not see a single building that predated the quake: you can tell because all buildings have been rebuilt with a quake-proof steel frame, which provides the vertical and horizontal support for each floor and every staircase. Each wall is diagonally dissected with another piece of steel that links the top right-hand corner to the bottom left. It is in the spaces between these steel rods that bricks are inserted, which means that from the outside you see the steel supports and the bricks filling the gaps between. The steel structures line the roadsides in different phases of construction. Some, like those already described, have been completed with bricks. Others exhibit no further construction at all, just gaping structures; the preliminary stage of a Meccano project whose young architect got distracted by something else, and was therefore never finished.

Yet even these structures are not the most prevalent: the majority of shops that line the streets of Bam are housed in metal containers, the kinds used to transport cargo on ships. From mechanics to car part retailers, from barbers and clothes outlets to grocery and spice shops: all the commercial activities of a town have been compartamentalised into roadside boxes of iron. Even Bam’s bazaar, which in other Iranian cities is housed under the ornate arches and covered-alleys of the old town, has been temporarily reconstructed in a web of shops and services set out in these containers. Their heavy metal doors hang open off their hinges, hovering some 30 centimetres off the ground like so many suspended hopes for a swift retrieval of normalcy. The containers heat up like furnaces in the desert sun, and I cannot imagine how they have been the seats of various business activities for all these years. I suppose, though, that necessity is as much the mother of resilience as invention.

I wondered how, five years after the disaster, people were still living such makeshift lives. Accounts of the causes of this differ. On one hand, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, the Iranian government was simultaneously accused of not having done enough to prevent the high death toll (ie not investing in quake-proof infrastructure), and of embezzling aid money. Frustrated bloggers vented their anger at the regime’s prioritization of other causes instead of the welfare of Iranians:

I want to know how many thousands of people dead under the rubble would have lived if all this money that our rulers have spent in the last few decades on Palestine, Lebanon and Bosnia, had been spent on the sort of safety measures that are the north in other earthquake zones.”, 30/12/2003


Moreover, the Iranian Red Crescent indicated that it had only received some $2 million dollars out of the $12 million donated to them for relief assistance. The remaining $10 million could not be accounted for or located. Nasrin Alavi, author of We are Iran,claims that this is a consequence of bureaucratic chaos and state corruption.

On the other hand, Akbar voiced his satisfaction with the efforts of the powers that be. He claimed that the Iranian government were funding most of Bam’s reconstruction, and seemed grateful to them for doing so: ‘We couldn’t do it without them’. His comments, however, indicated that he considered the government’s involvement as a favour rather than a duty. Yet in the context, they seemed more like the necessary optimism required in order to continue life in a post-natural disaster environment than a detached evaluation of the situation.

* * *

The Arg e-Bam. The mud-brick town in its state of post-quake dilapidation, proudly bearing the bandages of reconstruction (scaffolding, JCBs and hard hat-clad construction workers), is a humbling sight. On one hand, there is are the inklings of its past grandeur: its sheer size, covering about 1 square kilometres; the majestic stature of the citadel watching over the town beneath; the fruit-bearing palm trees that remain standing in crumbled courtyards. One knows one is treading in the dust of a powerful, proud city. On the other hand, there is the destruction. The hands of immense and immortal natural forces have created an infinitely different town from that which was the result of human endeavours. Piles of rubble where once there stood public baths; gaping holes in place of winding market streets; cracked, disintegrating walls instead of robust ramparts.

Before and after photographs at the entrance of the site give a real sense of the scale of the damage caused by the earthquake. Seeing the consequences of Mother Nature on this one town made me wonder how many other places had suffered similar fates over the eons… It made me contemplate the impermanence and relative futility of humanity in the face of such force. It consolidated the notion that with a single twitch of the vast planetary skin, all we have is literally reducible to dust.