September 06, 2008


Everybody else is talking about. Here's the man himself playing 1922 Blues...

September 01, 2008

Kashgar Cow

A traveller who will be joining us in China next month to explore the Silk Road has been reading some work by Colin Thubron. She highlights the paragraph, 'In two years there'll be nothing left of the Old City, just a sample town for tourists. Ten thousand people have already been moved out, and paid rubbish for their homes.'

My colleague goes on to ask, "In the chapter on Xian, the author writes about how different the city is than when he was there 20 years ago, with McDonalds and billboards and malls. This reminds me of what I have read about Beijing, and how the Chinese govt has indescriminantly, planlessly destroyed the old parts of the city to modernize and Westernize, and I wonder what you think of the changing China and whether I will be seeing it in time."

Dear Colleague,

I think it's going be a very different journey for each of us. On the one hand we have Simon who makes a living out of tracking the details of a place and noting what has been retained or what has changed. His perspective may be similar to what you describe in the book. In contrast I like to see places with new eyes, see what is and ignore all the stuff that doesn't fit nicely into the frame.

China is one of the few places I return to, and I return regularly. So there are treasures that I see being washed away in a tide of people and progress. But then I look around the corner and there's another treasure that hasnt been. Those old areas of Beijing have been made into a big issue outside of China. Maybe bigger than inside the country. Some people are sad to lose their homes, some are glad to have modern dwellings that don't fill their lungs with coal dust. The areas that were preserved had a major upgrade to deliver electricity and sanitation. It's not all bad.

I don't know what we will find as we head out west in China. In many ways it wont fit the romantic notion of silk carts and camel trains. But in many ways it will. As a travel journalist the things that excite me most are not the ancient ruins of former civilisations, but the living cultures that remain intact despite the modernisation of the world. Things like the Berber Markets of Morocco, the survival crafts of Sami in the Arctic Circle and the Buddhist Amulet traders in Bangkok. China has tonnes of continuing culture. We'll see some of it on this tour. Xi'an has many treasures besides the warriors, not everything in modern China is a tourist attraction!

They key thing is to look for the treasures, and to let them find you. Take an eye for adventure but be open to the experiences that you cant predict.

Remember when we were in Bikaner and staying in that lovely haveli? Most of the city is underwhelming in my view, but the section of spice market that leads down to the temples is really something. It's not for tourists. Further off the radar, down at the railway station where backpackers come and go and the auto rickshaw drivers tout for trade, there's a little juice stall across the road. The owner is about 25 years old, and he has the most amazing collection of fresh fruit I've ever seen in my life. For 10 rupee he makes me anything I want. Pomegranate, pineapple, pears - whatever!

I sat there for an hour one day. Just watched him service his customers and had as much fresh juice as I could drink. He's like the Michael Jackson of the juice game, moving with rhythm and a flow that could almost be dancing. He's on show. Drink after drink flips his rupees into a bucket and makes someone happy. The entire world of Bikaner is rolling by us on the street, oblivious to this pantomime of life. At one point the electricity went off, as is prone to happen in Indian cities. No problem, he simply goes over to a filthy diesel generator sitting by the road and cranks it over. Thick smoke rushes out of the exhaust, black and grey and black again. The filter cap on the exhaust is long rusted and jiggles about on the top of the engine as toxic fumes spill into the air. It was like something out of a cartoon, I expected the whole thing to come to life and run off down the street.

The young man strips two wires off the mains supply and connects them to the generator. The juice is on again.

You asked about Kashgar though. Yes it will have changed. For instance the market has moved to the edge of town. Simply too many goats, camels and cattle being romped through the city streets so the show is now located somewhere dusty where there is plenty of space. Maybe this is better in some ways, maybe it now resembles more closely what it once was. Either way, we'll see it for ourselves soon enough. And when we do we just have to take fresh eyes with us, and leave the books at the hotel.

PS: This is a link to the Photo Tour along the Silk Road