Sunday, June 21, 2009

On The Way Out Of China.

As we were rolling out of Kashgar, Breckan was stopped by a well dressed young man who wanted to practice his english. He was well-spoken and seemed sharp and was a Uigher (you could tell by the mustache). Quickly the conversation, as it often had during our stay in Kashgar, veered towards the dicey situation the uighers have found themselves in. Not chinese but living in china, their prospect for cultural survival is anything but assured.

He asked where we were from and Breckan told him America. As hokey as it sounds his face lit up.

"I am Uighur," he proudly said, "but I dream of being an American."

"Here I can not be a Uigher and I can not be Chinese. I can not live here. In America I can be everything."

My eyes tend to roll a little bit when sentiments like this are expressed because I know the streets are not paved with gold. I know of the ignorance and intolerance and hardships that immigrants will face. I know that while the American dream is certainly something that can be attained, many dewy eyed immigrants get ground down and out by lack of quick success and destruction of their false hopes for quick and easy success. And yet, I believe in America and it's hard not to pat these young men on the back and say, "You'll get there. You'll make it."

As the conversation ended the young man expressed a sentiment that we had heard over and over again during our trip- "In America, everyone can be American. American is a good country. America does what is right."

"Most of the time," I replied.

A week later this article hit the wires and as I read it my heart sunk a little. We had shirked our burden. We had shrugged our shoulders. We had let our obligation to the world slide. We stood a little smaller.

On this Independence day, as I sit in a country surrounded by people, who's future is inextricably tied to the choices we are making in America, I think about the obligations we carry as Americans. We have obligated ourselves, perhaps unintentionally, to be a light on the hill. We have stood and shouted to the world, in no uncertain terms, "We are moral. We are good. We are who you should look to. We are what you should aspire to be. We do not believe the ends justifies the means. America does what is right." And quite often this is true.

However, when we fail, when we falter, we strive to hold those who are responsible accountable for our missteps. We right the ship, we admit our failings and we move forward again. We do not equivocate. We do not rationalize. We do not explain away our wrongs with double-speak and euphemisms. This is the dream America promises and often does not fulfill but continually works for. This is the America I believe in, but to often recently this is not the America I have seen.

We have retreated from our obligations to goodness. We have searched for the lowest common denominator and then rationalized our moral failings. We have tortured. We have bickered. We have forgotten who we are and let our thinking be done by strategists and pundits on both sides of the issues. We have to often abandoned our core beliefs in goodness and progress and hunkered down and dug in and shut off our intellects. We can do better.

On this fourth of July, spent on the far side of the earth, I am deeply grateful for being born a citizen of the United States. I am grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me, but am aware that those blessings come with obligations and responsibilities. Here's hoping Americans remember anew the obligations we have to those who yearn to breath free. The obligation to provide hope to those who feel hopeless. The obligation to do what is right.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


All I Ever Wanted Was A Cream Cheese Won-ton.

Our last minute in China was like 100's of minutes that proceeded it; me standing next to a bus furtively arguing with a small uniformed man who was quickly pulverizing logic, reason and common-sense under his black boot of communist bureaucracy and asinine rules.

"Look we just want to get our bikes off the bus now and ride down into Pakistan."

The little uniformed man looked confused as if this request was the height of absurdity.

"You can no ride," he says.


The question seemed to flummox him. Flabbergast him. Shock and awe him. It seemed he literally took a step or two back. Like I had punched him or pulled a gun on him. We had seen this type of response to a simple 'why' time and again in China. It seems Chinese government officials are trained on 'who' (the evil dhali lama), 'where' (China of course will rule everything), 'how' ( through the strength of the people) and 'what' (world domination), but no one ever gets to 'why.' He didn't say a thing. Just stared at me.

"Why?" I repeated myself, making sure he understood the most important of all question words.

"Why can't we ride?"

He caught his breath, you could see the wheels turning. "It is rule."

"Why is it a rule?"

"Because is rule."

"But why is there a rule?"

"For your safety." Now he thought he had seized on something. His wheels had stopped spinning and he was on solid ground.

"Is the road dangerous?," I asked, knowing full well the road was not dangerous.

"Yes! Very dangerous!"

"Why is the road dangerous?" and the perfectly circular illogic began anew and ended with him shouting that he was an authority and I should trust him. 'Why,' as we learned in China was strictly verboten. 'Why' was not going to get you anywhere. 'Why' bamboozled them. 'Why' challenged the absurdity of modern day China, and 'why' was not going to get your bikes off the bus and you on them and out of China. 'Why' was worthless.

The two previous days had seen us in a Tashkurgan bus-station/immigration-post stomping our feet, yelling, lecturing on the merits of democracy and the demerits of state owned monopolies, pouting, cajoling and finally resigning to the fact that we would have to pay an outlandish $35 dollars to be driven, on a bus, 100 miles to the pakistan border. We enlisted our Chinese published English/Chinese "Tourist Phrasebook" to help us battle the bizarre conjoining of immigration and bus-ticket-selling. However, as one would expect, our dictionary was completely devoid of the words for 'bad,' 'evil,' 'shameful,' 'muy malo,' steal,' 'thief,' 'robbery,' 'robber,' 'corruption,' 'pathetic,' and 'why don't you go kill yourself.' Apparently, in China, tourists do not run into situations that would require that type of vocabulary. Upon further retrospection, we realized the inclusion of such words would of been a lot more useful than the two entire pages they dedicated to "names of Chinese trees." Never, in sixty days of travel, did I care what a birch was called in Mandarin.

And this is China, for me, in a nutshell. The mostly wonderful experiences we had with the people and the culture and the land were always overshadowed by the prodigious ridiculousness of the government. Of the authorities. Of little men in big uniforms. Of silly rules and mandates and regulations.

"Why are we being kicked out of our hotel and 11 pm?"

"Why can't we use the internet today when we used it yesterday?"

"Why can we not ride on this road anymore?"

"Why are you checking our passports when they were just checked 10 miles ago?"

"Why can I not sit down and eat in this town?"

"Why can I not find a damn egg-roll in this country?" (this might or might not be the fault of the government).

So was China worth it? Probably. China was fantastic- most of the time. The Tibetan regions and their people were amazing. The culture, despite Beijing's best efforts, was vibrant and alive. The people were curious and as welcoming as they could be under the watchful eyes of authorities. Most of our 60 days in China were spent amused by the outlandish generosity we met around every corner. The food was awful and so were the toilets, but we rode away truly appreciating the time we spent there. 60 days ended up being about ten days too many and by the time we crossed into Pakistan we were ecstatic to be able to speak English with people. Listen to devirgent political views and drink Mountain Dew. Seriously though, the food in China is awful.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"You Trust Me. I Am Authority."

Ah China. I'm so glad my last interaction with a Han in China included this little gem, "You trust me. I am authority." If that didn't sum up my China experience, than nothing could. But alas, we are out of China and now in the most superlativey place we have traveled- Pakistan. I could get effusive, however, this is a quick post since we are off to trek tomorrow. We are fine. Pakistan is astounding and we will be posting more in about five days. Oh, Charlie stole all the pictures I was going to post and put them on his blog. Check them out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Still In Kashgar.

Breckan had some stomach problems and we have been waylaid at the "Diligently Surmount" hotel (that's really it's name.  I think Diligently Surmount is China's Marriot affiliate) in Kashgar for another day.  This wasn't a bad thing at all and it gave me more time to dedicate myself to some empirical data collecting and research on Uighur culture.  The following is a peer reviewed list of "Things Uighur Love."  Oddly enough none of these things have made the wikipedia article.  Luckily, my dear readers will receive a more scholarly assessment of Kashgarian cultures.
1. Mustaches.  Every man under 50, and quite a few women, sport powerful, viral and awe-inspiring mustaches.  The simple reason for this is Uighur men are truly glorious men and the mustache is the only way real men will wear facial hair.  I'm not kidding.  Right now, looking around, I see at least 15 mustaches.
2. Flesh Colored Nylons.  Uighur women love flesh color nylons the way Uighur men love mustaches.  Today I saw a woman wearing flesh color nylon socks over her flesh colored full length nylons.  It was a flesh colored nylon fiesta and it was fantastic.
3. Watermelon.  The commitment this town has to watermelon is truly fantastic.  Every 9 feet you can stop and buy a slice of watermelon.  Men stand around with huge knifes in one hand watermelon in the other.  You hand them 15 cents and they cut a piece off for you. 
4. Things That Sparkle.  You couldn't throw Liberace 3 feet in town without hitting a woman in a dress with either glitter, sequins, or bedazzled beads on it.  It's like walking around all day at an 80's prom.
5.  Unibrows.  This isn't some "haha isn't central asia backwards" kind of joke.  I have seen mulitiple women with drawn on unibrows.  Go figure.
6.  Being The Worst Drivers On The Planet.  I thought Tibetan Nomads would hold this title forever, you know with the fact that they all bought motorcycles 8 minutes ago and spend most of their lives living 100's of miles from the next nearest motorcycle.  Boy was I wrong.  If China really wanted to solve the problem of Uigjer insurrections they would hand out free cars to everyone, and in 2 years there wouldn't be a living soul left in this city.
For us, this entire area has been one of the highlights of a very highlighty trip.  The city rocks and will for a couple more minutes.  The livestock market was beyond belief and probably one of the coolest things I've ever seen on any trip.  I'm also going to link to an NPR debate I really enjoyed.  If you have 45 minutes and like seeming smart, give it a listen.   Last but not least I'm including a wikipedia article to Nestorianism because, well ancient Christianity was pretty cool.