Life in the Heart of China: Part
A People Divided
The Cities of Urumqi and Lhasa
Just like my native Cleveland and Cincinnati, and countless other cities in the United States, Urumqi and Lhasa are two cities sharply divided by race. By "divided" I mean literally and completely, like a pie chart, and the divisions are marked by hatred and violence.
Each city is part of an area that used to be its own sovereign nation. During Chairman Mao Zedong's infamous Cultural Revolution, these nations were taken over by China. Thousands of native texts, cultural artifacts and religious sites were destroyed in the belief that, if the ethnic minorities of western China lost their identities, they could be assimilated into mainstream Chinese society.
However, even though territory was taken, the hearts and minds of the people were not. Present-day Urumqi, the Islamic capital of the western province of Xinjiang, is like two cities, divided between the Islamic Uighur people and the majority Han Chinese. There are close to 8 million Uighur living in western China today, and more than 1 million of those are in Urumqi.
Driving into the city from the south, you enter what appears to be a modern Han city, much like Beijing or Shanghai, with no trace of Islamic influence.
Halfway through the city, you are magically transported into a dusty Uighur city, with small ornate mosques, urban sheepherders who guide their flocks down busy streets, and numerous carpet factories.
Armed security forces patrol the divide of the city 24 hours a day. I see at least a dozen groups dressed in full riot gear with semiautomatic rifles hanging from their shoulders.
Xiaoli and I are told never to go out a night. Even though I only half believe these tales, we are back in our hotel by dusk.
Urumqi was once a part of a Uighur sovereign nation called East Turkestan, founded in 1933. The nation-state even had its own flag, and European embassies were once established here.
But in 1950, Mao's Red Army began redefining Chinese borders, capturing Manchuria (the northeastern seaboard of China), Inner Mongolia, Tibet and East Turkestan. The Uighurs fought to maintain their independence but were defeated by the Chinese after a prolonged conflict in the 1950s.
To this day, Uighur separatists still fight for autonomy from the Chinese.
After 9/11, Chinese authorities began a military crackdown in the area, detaining anyone suspected of terrorist links and limiting the religious rights of all Uighur people. No clear ties have been established between Uighur separatists and al Qaeda, other than the fact both groups happen to be Muslim.
Back in the United States when I was researching my trip to China, I found numerous Web sites supporting the Uighur cause, but, here, the Chinese government has long since blocked access to those sites, so I apologize if I have missed anything.
Tibetans were also victims of Mao's revolution. Religious practice was banned, more than 6,000 monasteries were leveled, and countless Tibetan artifacts were destroyed.
Tibet is the more famous example of China's brutality and oppression. For example, in California, there are "Free Tibet" bumper stickers reminding people of what happened here. I don't recall ever seeing any that read, "Free Urumqi" or "Uighur Independence."
Journey Into Tibet
August 3, 2006
Our mission in Tibet is to find purebred Tibetan mastiff puppies to take back to the China Exploration and Research Society Mastiff Center in Shangri-la. We will travel into Tibet through a remote mountain pass -- so remote there's no checkpoint on the border. But there are many checkpoints to come, especially as we get near Lhasa.
As the only white man in the group, and traveling on a tourist visa, I will be entering the restricted area without a permit.
How Man tells me I'll be strip-searched. Others say I'll be beaten with a belt by Chinese government officers. Discussing my fate becomes the main topic of conversation and provides much amusement.
We descend into Tibet along a steep, rocky road with no checkpoints or Chinese government officials in sight. I feel very lucky.
The scenery simply takes your breath away: vast snow-topped mountain ranges, lush green meadows, and crystal-clear mountain lakes and streams. This does not look like the exploited Chinese environment I'm used to.
Tibetan antelope graze fearlessly with their young 10 meters from the cars. Light shimmers on the newborns' downy fur. We also see Tibetan gazelle butting heads and racing through the grasslands at play.
There's no trash here, another reminder of man's absence from the area.
On the way in, we lose one of our Land Rover Defenders due to an engine problem. It has to be sent back to Kunming for repairs. We move all of our film equipment over to a Land Rover Discovery 3, but the new vehicle just can't cope with the rough terrain.
We have so many flat tires that we end up taking a less challenging route, which pretty much rules out the search for mastiffs in some of the more remote areas.
On the new road, we see Indians and Nepalese on a religious pilgrimage. Most of them are in their late 50s or older. They are here to see sacred lakes and mountain peaks before they depart this life for the next.
We talk to many travelers, who are friendly and in high spirits. But they also remark on the poverty they have seen and the lack of sanitation.
We have been camping this entire trip in meadows next to nomadic sheepherders and mountain streams. Two weeks of tent life is enough to bring anyone down.
We're all filthy, and several crew members are sick with what sounds like bronchitis. One man coughs until he gags, but we can't get him to a doctor until we reach Lhasa.
Later, along a narrow pass, our car is hit by another SUV careening out of control in the opposite direction. The SUV tears off the side mirror and crushes the side of our Land Rover but keeps on going. Our driver, Zhang Fan, calls How Man on the CB radio. He is traveling in the Land Rover behind us and quickly blocks the road, forcing the guilty driver to stop. Turns out, the other vehicle belongs to a tour company taking Taiwanese visitors around various Tibetan tourist spots. The tour leader eventually pays for the damage, after we threaten to call the police on our satellite phone.
August 16, 2006
Today Xiaoli is the sickest I've ever seen her. She has turned pale green and says she can't breathe. She looks like she is going to die. We try to ride it out for a while, but, with tears in her eyes, she finally asks us to turn around.
When we stop, she gets out of the car and is violently sick. An hour later, she feels fine. I guess it was something she ate.
Everyone on the team jokes with her saying, "Congratulations!" thinking she must be pregnant.
A Hungarian architect traveling with us affectionately calls her "the mommy" for the rest of the journey. I joke with Xiaoli that we should have five kids. I would love to have children, but I'm in no financial state to have five, which is the point of our little joke.
In fact, the life of a vagabond is not so romantic. I'm in terrible debt. The mountains of it waiting for me back in the U.S. stalks me like a giant storm cloud.
Visiting the New Lhasa
August 25, 2006
When we eventually pull into Lhasa, I am disappointed to find a Han city. We go into a "Dicos," a Chinese fast-food chain akin to KFC, for some ice cream. I never really feel homesick, but I sometimes crave Western food. There are several monks in the restaurant eating greasy fried chicken and chatting away on their cell phones. Modern monks, young and old, all have cell phones tucked under their red robes.
There's a famous open market here called Barkhur Street, selling mostly tourist junk: plastic reproductions of "priceless Tibetan artifacts." Xiaoli and I see numerous Tibetan antelope skulls and horns for sale; many are the tiny skulls of infants. They are sold openly in many of the market stalls, proving that poaching is still active and economically viable.
I also find numerous human skull plates for sale. A skull plate is the top half of a recently deceased person's skull, removed with a saw and given to Tibetan monks.
In the eyes of the dead person's family, the deceased was a hopeless sinner. For the family to be redeemed, they donate the skull plate to the monks, who use it to drink from. That way, the sinner's soul will be saved in the afterlife.
Perhaps I am attracted to items like this because, essentially, I am afraid of them. Being terrified of death, I've made a habit of surrounding myself with it.
It's not so much an attempt to deal with it as an attempt never to forget it. One day I will die -- it may be today or tomorrow or 30 years from now. So all these small moments on the road have significance. Each one could be my last, and each one is precious in its way. By writing all these events down, I hope I can hold on to them.
This is really why I am traveling -- to see things, to understand new cultures, to get away from the American bubble.
The city of Lhasa today looks like an attempt by the Chinese government to make everything appear OK. It seems to carry a slogan that says, "See! The Tibetans are happy this way."
There's even a brand-new train system, supposedly the highest in the world, that brings Han Chinese and other tourists into Lhasa from six cities in China.
But to anyone with a pair of eyes and a soul, Lhasa is a divided city and a mockery of its former self. Driving into Lhasa, you see no trace of Tibetan culture, only Han businesses and Han buildings, distinguished by their architectural style. No Tibetans are employed here as far as we can tell.
We also notice a lack of any written Tibetan in this section of the city. All road signs, businesses, shops and restaurants display information in Mandarin. We see Toyota dealerships, fast-food restaurants, Western fashion malls and Han-style apartment complexes towering over the city.
Tibetans and Uighurs are terribly poor, living in the most primitive areas of both Lhasa and Urumqi. They lack even the most basic sewage systems and garbage disposal. Basically, the Chinese government has kept them in a permanent peasant-like state.
In Urumqi we saw Uighur men selling mutton on a stick grilled on hand-cranked barbeques and baking naan bread in vast ceramic pots. There's a glint in their eye that seems to say, "This way of life is only temporary. Just wait around and see." In Lhasa, Tibetan women and children beg for money and food in the main tourist areas. Some are on the verge of starvation. They approach you and articulate in simple English, "Money" and "Help me. It's as if they trudge through life twirling prayer wheels and fondling beads, trying to ignore the Han and white tourists who are desecrating all that they hold sacred.
Prisoners at Kunming International Airport
September 12, 2006
Perhaps it's fitting that my final diary entry reads like something out of a disaster movie.
Xiaoli and I and scores of other passengers from a China Eastern Airline flight are locked in a passageway between the terminal and the plane. We've been kept prisoner here for four hours. There's a big padlock on a rusty iron chain across the door holding us in. I see airport security and police officers with side arms and mace coming our way.
I begin to envision scenes of protesters being beaten and killed and a full-scale riot erupting.
Beside me is a 6-year-old boy with severe altitude sickness. He sits with his head between his legs. His father says he hasn't eaten in two days, and there's a look of desperation on his face.
I am the only white guy here, and people look to me to do something. Ironically, Chinese expect this kind of treatment, but they think foreigners deserve better, especially if they are visiting for the first time.
All I can do is take pictures. Men are so angry they curse and spit on the arriving security officers.
So how did we end up in this predicament? Xiaoli and I were back at
the China Exploration and Research Society's main base in Zhongdian, otherwise
known as Shangri-la. Soon, we'd be on our way home to Shanghai -- just a short
stop off at Kunming stood between us and some well-earned rest after six months
on the road.
To begin with, the flight was delayed for three hours because of "mechanical malfunction," and the airport at Shangri-la is not a place to be stuck. There are no food stalls, and we haven't eaten in more than 10 hours.
When we do get to Kunming, Xiaoli asks a stewardess if we need to pick up our luggage or recheck in for a new boarding pass. What we find out is that this plane is not going to Shanghai. It's going to Sanya, a resort island in the south.
Apparently we will have to stay overnight and fly out to Shanghai tomorrow. But first we need to go claim our luggage. The stewardess only shares this with the two of us.
We later find out that there are 50 people scheduled to fly from Kunming to
Shanghai. No one knew what was going on; they've just been locked in this
passageway. Several passengers are so incensed that they decide to break through
security, reboard the plane and stage their own "hijacking."
They figure that if they take the plane hostage, they will get China Eastern Airlines to negotiate with them.
China Eastern is now a publicly traded company, so it is no longer, strictly speaking, operated by the Communist government. Reports of a passenger mutiny could damage its reputation.
The "negotiators" then hand over a ransom note detailing their demands.
They want 500 RMB [approximately 65 USD] and a four-star hotel, with breakfast thrown in. They also want a written statement from the company for each passenger, explaining to their employers why they were forced to miss a day of work.
I must stress that these are ordinary people taking action that to me closely resembles what would be viewed as "terrorism" in the United States.
The whole episode demonstrates why Chinese push and cut in line, why men scream and yell at authority figures. It's the only way to get fair treatment in a system where a person is only a number. Here, there are no lawsuits or much in the way of recourse for lousy service. Of course, one of these people could sue, but since the airline is ultimately under the control of the Communist government, there's no chance they would ever win.
To my amazement, a group of airline officials and security board the plane and start bargaining with the passengers.
After noisy exchanges and much arm waving, the officials leave with a shrug as if they don't care whether the plane takes off or not. Two hours later, they return for another round of bargaining.
Eventually both parties settle on 300 RMB (the equivalent of 38 USD) to be paid in cash to each passenger with a valid ID and a plane ticket. They also agree to a four-star hotel and breakfast. An airport employee arrives with a stack of red bills and starts dishing them out.
The passengers look triumphant.
It was 4 o'clock in the morning by the time we arrived back at the hotel -- certainly not how I envisioned my journey home after six months on the road.
We're now back in Shanghai where we have begun the arduous task of editing more than 100 hours of footage. And it's here that my China Diaries come to an end, just as the journey has reached its end... for the next six months at least.
Until the next adventure...