The Silk Road, China

Thursday, 30 August 2007

The End

And so my trip now draws to an end. After two months of travelling across China and a detour into Tibet, I find myself at the end of this extraordinary journey. To the highlights of the previous 3 months in the Middle East and Central Asia, I can now add: lunch with Pakistani Finance minister at the Shandur pass; the remains of the Silk Road in an incredible desert setting at Turpan; an unforgettable day looking round the incredible Buddhist caves of Dunhuang followed by a microlight flight over the sand dunes; gazing up at Everest Base Camp; gazing down from the Shug la pass on a trek between two of Tibet's most significant monasteries and finally, the Great Wall of China.

It has been an unforgettable trip. There have been so many good times that I can genuinely say that I could divide most of the trip into two week sections and call them once in a lifetime experiences in their own right. It is partly this fact that has convinced me just how much can actually be achieved in a two week holiday. Combine this with the fact that nearly every country in the world is extremely affordable compared to Britain and I am determined to continue to exploring the more far flung corners of the world, even if a six month sabbatical is not possible every year. My 'to travel' list is growing daily ...

If I had to single out a handful of highlights, they would be as follows.

1. Wandering in total silence through the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria
2. Exploring beautiful Esfahan and uncovering the intriguing Iranian culture by talking to the friendly and inquisitive people
3. A walk on a high altitude pasture past a shepherd and his yaks, in the yellow glow of dusk at lake Bulunkul in Tajikistan
4. Sitting on a moraine above Nanga Parbat base camp looking up
5. Soaking up the sun and the crystal clear views of Everest on our final morning, after two days of almost continuous rain
6. Being quite taken by surprise by the sudden, dramatic views down into the clouds from the 5200m Shug la pass on the second day of my trek in Tibet.


(I couldn't get it down to five)

And of course there were some less good times. Those that remain particularly vivid in my mind are:

1. An 8 hour drive across the worst road ever imaginable in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, after a night of drinking vodka - Russian style - with our guide Oleg
2. Adjusting to the most depressing town on the Silk Road; Nukus in Uzbekistan
3. Having no choice but to stay in a disgusting hotel in Osh in Kyrgyzstan, another serious contender for the above trophy
4. The attritional battles with our drivers for control over the jeeps we had paid for in Tajikistan and Tibet
5. The torturous 12 hours around Tingri in Tibet, during which time we came to realise that we would not reach base camp on that occasion
6. On a number of occasions politely asking for help from Chinese strangers and being completely ignored, as if invisible



China

Further to the last point above - which infuriated me more than every other low point on the trip put together - it has been fascinating to visit China at such as turning point in its history, despite its many frustrations for a traveller. As expected at the outset, visiting China was often an interesting experience (as opposed to a simply enjoyable one) - but interesting it certainly was.

The first thing that struck me was how far from united so much of China is. The Tibetan 'problem' is well known, but as soon as we set foot into North West China we quickly realised that there was a similar Uighar and Mongolian problem. While insignificant compared to total Chinese population, these provinces make up perhaps half of China's landmass, while the total number of Uighars is one and half times that of the population of Great Britain.

Islam stretches deep into today's China, but only tiny minorities exist east of the Great Wall in cities in the ancient Empire proper, like Xian and Beijing. Sadly, China appears to have used the war on terror as a pretext to persecute political dissenters, particularly Muslims. Further east, there were signs of a once powerful Buddhist influence, but the real legacy from the past is the highly pragmatic Confuscian bureaucracy that propped up the Empire for so long, in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

This legacy remains all too visible today: at the borders, in the banks, train stations and in the hotels. Before long you are drowning in pieces of paper, issued in triplicate and each carefully stamped two or three times. The 'long arm' of Beijing is also very much evidence; it expects the citizens of Xinjiang to set their watches in line with the capital even though this means that in the west, the sun does not set until midnight in high summer.

But beyond the Confuscian ideals upon which the Communist state has drawn so heavily, there seems to little else that remains from the past. To me, the pace of change and the sense of both individualism and capitalism is the most powerful I have ever encountered. The latter is acutely ironic for a country that still claims to be Communist. Change is clearly happening at a startling rate, but the Chinese people are forgoing political liberty in return for improved living standards. The question, of course, is whether the Party can continue to muddle along by delivering growth through piecemeal reform, or whether wholesale reform will be required (which may in turn undermine the Party). Whatever the outcome, the challenges facing China today are nothing less than daunting.


Returning home

And so, now back to life in London. It would not be true to say that I am relishing the prospect of 9am on Monday morning, but after 5 months living out of a backpack, it feels like as good a time as any. The sense of saturation that many people speak of is not something I have felt acutely, but I do at least now understand the concept. I have had a unique opportunity to step back from my life and reflect upon it, which has been invaluable. But now, the greatest draw of returning home is to see friends and family. It has been a while ...

JM

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