June 20, 2008


Shifting sands tell the tale of the Chinese west (Howard W. French, June 12, 2008, The International Herald Tribune)

There has never been a marker on the ground in this area, and had there been, it would have been long ago removed, but through much of its long history, the country we know today as China has largely petered out somewhere in the vicinity of this Silk Road outpost.

A visitor today can imagine that spot as towering dunes with their shifting sands that sit at the edge of this sleepy town. You could just as easily place it somewhere in the forbidding badlands that lie within a few hours’ drive from here.

I visited them recently to get a taste of the history in this desolate corner of the country, wandering into gigantic sandstone formations cut and shaped over the ages by the wind into a sight as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon.

Intrigued by the travel stories of the exiled Chinese author, Ma Jian, along the way, I had my driver wander off the simple, two-lane road that winds through the region in search of western end of the Great Wall. Throughout the morning, my mind had raced with images of what I might find. I had imagined myself climbing atop the structure, as every visitor who travels to the wall near Beijing surely does.

When I mentioned this to my driver, he shot me a look that suggested I was crazy. He was having trouble enough finding this section of the Great Wall, which was built during the Han Dynasty two millennia ago. There would be no climbing, he informed me. What remains of the wall is scarcely high enough, and rather brittle.

When we finally caught sight of it, I was chastened but not disappointed. The voyage had been all about understanding China’s definition of itself over time, and its relationship with the “other.”

Quite rightfully, the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province has captivated the world’s attention and drawn unprecedented sympathy and support for China from countries all over the world. From the perspective of Beijing, it has also conveniently pushed out news from beyond the Great Wall of unrest that had roiled Tibet and Xinjiang - provinces that are known as “autonomous regions,” in an administrative fiction that Orwell would have appreciated.

Xinjiang alone comprises one-sixth of the land of the People’s Republic of China, and Tibet, such as it is defined today, is only marginally smaller. At various times in its history, including recently, Tibet has been much larger, comprising parts of several other provinces.

On the surface, Tibetans and the indigenous Uighur population of Xinjiang would seem to have little in common. The Tibetans are Buddhist and the Uighurs are largely Muslim. But they are united in their sense of oppression, as native people of distinctive cultural spheres with a history of autonomy and even independence, all of which has been recently snuffed out by China.

I was hoping he'd head to Karakorum
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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 20, 2008 6:28 AM
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