Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Will the real Olympics please stand up?

I am sure I speak as one for the many travellers around China. Thank God this farcical Olympics is over! Getting around the People’s Republic during this period has been a right royal pain in the bum.
I watched the closing ceremony in Xining, Qinghai province with great relief. After seven years of propaganda the five-ring circus was nearly over. The pundits who continually referred to the whole Olympiad as China’s ‘coming out’ ceremony had, in my opinion, been totally wrong. This was an event aimed at an internal audience, something to rally around and boost the image of the ruling party. The tub-thumping nationalism that had characterized these Chinese games had proved a huge turn off for me. That said, I admit there were rare stirrings of national pride as the ceremony wound down to the handover to London.
The British part of the ceremony did not start strongly though. A typically unkempt Boris Johnson guffawed his way up the red carpet, mock saluting as he passed each stunning dolly bird lining the route. The Olympic flag that marked the transition from east to west – Beijing to London – struggled to unfurl.
Then came the staged London show, starting off with that dreadful London Olympic logo. How anyone could be paid for this incomprehensible, ugly signage I will never know. Since someone pointed out to me some months back that it looks like Maggie Simpson giving Homer a blowjob (go on, scroll back up to check, if you dare!) I’ve never been able to see it as anything but a seriously fucked up episode of everyone's favourite yellow, four fingered cartoon characters.
There followed a humdrum introductory multicolour, multiethnic and multimodal cartoon before a red London bus made its way round the Bird’s Nest stadium --- people popping out of the iconic London transport mode and performing some modern dance – all arched backs and big gesticulations. It all seemed so small to what the Chinese had been doing for the past 16 days. And then the roof of the bus folded down and a TV talent show winner started to belt out a tune.
It was the guitar that I clocked first that got me going. Surely not, I mused. The camera moved up from the jangling, familiar Gibson. There he was, Jimmy Page, in a long dark coat, sweaty in the Beijing night, nailing one of the most recognized riffs in history. No Robert Plant, granted, but Ms TV Talent Show had a decent voice and rarely have the lyrics to Whole Lotta Love hit home more than on this global stage. ‘You need cooling, baby I’m not fooling, going to take you back to schooling…’
Somewhat predictably and crassly the camera panned to David Beckham who punted a football, snapped up by a delighted Beijinger.
The tune came to an end, the bus gently left the stage, Jimmy awkwardly dancing. Still, the lesson was there for all to see: you don’t need to be big and brash to host an Olympics – on the contrary, there is no doubt Olympian fatigue setting in and it will be London’s mission to teach the world that the Games are all about, errr, games. China’s urgent rush to modernity, its penis envy with the West can infuriate and also obfuscate reality.
I leave my hotel, humming Led Zep in an elated mood. Stepping outside a horribly disfigured shadow on the uneven pavement begs for any small change.
One world, one dream, biiiiiitch!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Where the rhinos roam

Romanian émigré Eugène Ionesco wrote the wonderful allegorical French play Rhinocéros back in 1956. Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses; ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, the indifferent Bérenger. The play, very much part of the so called Theatre of the Absurd, essentially looks at how the French succumbed to extremism, especially fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Earlier this month that play reverberated around my head as I wandered through the heavily policed streets of Yining in the west of China’s Xinjiang province. As the crescendo of the Olympic opening ceremony hit an ecstasy of fireworks many of the locals were kowtowed. Squadrons of army and police sewed fear into the minds of the Uighurs. Worse still though were the people’s militia that roamed the streets. These state backed civilians, almost all Han Chinese, wear a red armband with yellow characters safety pinned on their sleeves stating that they are public security. Some stroll around with tazer batons, others drag baseball bats behind him. Many of these state backed vigilantes have taken to wearing all black too. We have been here before, some 70 years ago, haven’t we?
Beyond the alarming city of Yining though China and the Chinese as a whole are far more keen to exert their newly acquired power than before. As nationalism has replaced communism as the ties that bind (fasces: ties that bind bundles; Latin derivation for fascism) the Chinese together and to central government the winning of the rights to stage the Olympics in Beijing seven years ago set in motion the centerpiece around which the Chinese Communist Party could rally the nation.
The Beijing Olympics flag is everywhere alongside the five star China flag, just like the swastika became synonymous with the German flag. The swastika was an ancient Buddhist sign from thousands of years ago symbolizing represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites before Adolf Hitler defaced its meaning by attacking those he deemed opposites. It was Hitler who instigated the concept of the Olympic torch relay around the world, something the Chinese embraced to much fanfare and considerable controversy. Now the Olympic logo, tarnished with commercialism from the 1980s onwards, has been tainted with nationalism.

True blue

Tourist locations are perennially sprucing up their image, using Photoshop to often comical, outrageous affect. We’ve all seen it before. The murky, rough English Channel transformed into an azure, flat Caribbean paradise on postcards for sale near Dover or tourist brochures extolling the stunning blue skies of Beijing.
So it was with some apprehension that I unfolded a tourist map of Xinjiang nine days ago to see where I was heading from the provincial capital Urumqi. There way up in the far north, on the border of Russia and Mongolia, was an image of Lake Kanas (sometimes written Hanas). The picture was of a piece of stunning chalky turquoise water. Simply unbelievable.
36 hours and another 1,200 kilometres later though I got to see that this was no figment of an imaginative tourist board’s mind. Measuring 24 kilometres long and up to 188 metres deep this huge domestic tourist draw set in a gorgeous, gigantic Alpine valley, just two valleys away from desert, has a mythical creature in it like Loch Ness in Scotland.
Eagles soar, nomads roam, and for the brief three months of the year that constitutes summer the Chinese mob this spectacular location. However, walk for five miles and you’ll have the place to yourself, everyone else contents themselves with taking a high speed boat to tour the area. Go there!

The taxi driver

She was 50-ish, permed, and a Chinese version of Roseanne Barr, replete with wild cackles. She hurtled through along the highway in her green taxi, the fierce hot air blasting in through the windows. Worryingly, Roseanne keep giving me the eye in the rear view mirror. Like an infatuated teenager she teetered and laughed whenever our eyes happened to meet. I lowered the wide brim of my cowboy hat to avoid eye contact. It was going to be another long journey.
Getting to the Narat grasslands in the centre of Xinjiang was proving difficult. The police had said it wasn’t possible. The area was full of innocuous Kazakh nomads, hardly a breeding ground for terrorism, but, hey, by now we were used to the unilateral, undecipherable decisions of the cops in this part of the world during Olympic time.
The night previous though salvation seemed to arrive as we kicked our heels at a bar watching the opening ceremony. A Chinese guy chipped in saying that he could get a car and take us to Narat no worries. Narat was where his girlfriend was and it shouldn’t be a problem. Cool, we toasted this rare bit of good luck over another ice cold Yanjing beer as Yao Ming led out the huge Chinese sporting delegation into the Bird’s Nest stadium to rapturous applause.
As is the way of these things, our man turned up the following day with a car and the driver just happened to be his sister, and the price just happened to be 100RMB higher than originally agreed. Nevertheless, eager to get out of Dodge and onto the horses in the beautiful grasslands we headed out of Yining. It was a relief to be out of the heavily policed city but increasingly I had something else to worry about. Roseanne didn’t exactly beat around the bush. “She wants to f*ck you,” Roseanne’s brother tells me after a couple of hours on the road. He glances at me seeing my surprise and takes it for confusion so he repeats this generous offer, “My sister, she wants to f*ck you.” I demur. It’s hot as hell in the cab, and following this statement the temperature seems to have risen further. We get two thirds of the way to our destination before cops at a roadblock turn us back – no permit, no entry. By now this kind of irritation is so commonplace we take it in our stride. The cab turns round heading back to our nemesis, Yining. Will we ever get out of this Orwellian police state?
Roseanne continues to cackle, glancing up in the rear view mirror, preening herself as she looks my way. Dear God, got me out of here! To compound matters our car overheats twice on the way back. On one such occasion in the middle of nowhere Roseanne, with her considerable girth, tries to pin me against the side of the car. Whooooa, lady! With a deft touch, I pirouette out of her orbit just as she is coming in for her prey. Suddenly I can’t wait to get back to the security of my hotel room in Yining.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The five ring circus

They swooped before dawn. Roads were cut off, police sirens whirred and more than one hundred menacing green trucks of the People’s Liberation Army started to patrol the streets of Yining in the west of Xinjiang province. Guns toted from flaps in the roof and riot shields formed walls at the back of the vehicles. They travelled in packs, slowly and deliberately, so that no one could miss their significance.
Taxi drivers scratched their heads. Long haul buses had to drop passengers in the outskirts of this multiethnic city that sits nearer to Almaty than Beijing. Citizens woke up confused, dazed as their normal walk to work was shut. The eighth of the eighth in 2008, a day when China was to show its friendly, polished face to the world would also turn out to be the single most repressive day of my life.
Xinjiang – which literally translates as New Frontier – has always been a contentious region for Beijing since it was conquered in the 18th century. It briefly enjoyed a period of independence in the first half of the 20th century known as East Turkestan. There are a total of 14 minorities in the region whose size is the same as western Europe. Mass Han Chinese migration from the 1950s onwards diluted this mix. The region is home to the largest onland oil and gas deposits in China as well as significant mineral reserves. Up until the early 1990s it was home to China’s nuclear testing. It shares borders with Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. All of which means the presence of the Public Security Bureau, the army and the police is unmissable. The repression of the minorities especially the Muslim Uighurs, the original inhabitants of much of this land, has been well documented.
Yining was the site of a massive 1997 Uighur rising that saw thousands protest and a very bloody response from the authorities with many human rights organizations suggesting the number of violent deaths that followed hit four figures. The Uighurs call this city Ghulja and when I arrived on the August 8 before six am they were clearly kowtowing to the increased security presence, wary of the recent bomb near Kashgar that killed 16 Chinese soldiers and the reports of reprisals and riots that followed.
After a long night time bus journey covering some 1,000 m our bus finally hit solid tarmac and came to the outer limits of the city where at 5.45am the first police patrol boarded and gave a very firm look at all ID cards and passports. Before I would get to my hotel three hours later my passport was checked another six times.
There are police/army checkpoints on every other block of the city and in total my passport is checked 17 times that day, my bags scrutinized countless times too, and the pictures on a digital camera are given a quick once over for good measure. Police carry a full complement of fearsome looking tools – knives, guns, rifles, and bats.
Moreover, there’s a public militia, generally Han Chinese led, with citizens wearing red armbands fixed to their sleeves with safety pins with ‘Public Security’ scrawled in yellow Chinese characters on their armbands. Some of these locals even tote tazers. Hey are there ostensibly to check bags of people entering buildings but also to inform authorities of anyone they deem suspicious. Xinjiang, like Tibet, has long been awash with spies and informants. My second nature journalistic tendencies such as reaching for a notebook, snapping a pic, are kept on the down low all day long. The constant security keeps everyone on their toes.
We eat that evening just around the corner from Sidalin Jie, it appearing wonderfully appropriate that the city has named a street after Stalin.
After dinner the long seven year countdown is over; the Olympic opening ceremony is underway. No where is showing it outside in the bright sunshine. It might be 8pm but the sun is still high – Beijing insists on one time zone for a nation that stretches from New Delhi to Vladivostok in longitude.
We decamp to a bar to watch the culmination of the greatest propaganda show on Earth. The symbolism of this four hour power flaunt is occasionally misconstrued. All dressed up in their ethnic costumes individuals from China’s 56 minorities process through the sweaty, smoggy Bird’s Nest stadium with the five star flag over their heads, handing the red and flag drape meekly to six stern looking members of the People’s Liberation Army. Around 20 minutes into the show a dove of peace emerges on the digital scroll in the centre of the stadium. Outside the bar all we can hear are the sounds of sirens.

The bus journey

We pull up. It’s just after 10 and the sun has finally gone down in this remote part of western Xinjiang. Strolling barefooted down the narrow aisles in between the bunkbeds we put our shoes on at the exit of the bus. Ahead lies dinner and round the corner a chance to ahem ‘freshen up’.
The bare surroundings of the diner mirror the landscape, the only colour bar the blue plastic seats is the fearsome black grime eminating all over the kitchen area.
A cheeky chappy comes in with a deck of cards trying to hustle diners with three card monty – no one is dumb enough to fall for this routine. He leaves within 60 seconds.
The Hui chef attends to his wok on the roaring stove; the results are slopped onto bowls and passed around.
A host of men shuffle off to the bogs – open holes in the concrete. While others are pissing away three men whip down their kegs and are crapping for all the world to see through the fetid gaps, one even nonchantly speaking on his mobile while laying his deposit.
So far this day we’ve covered around 750km, there’s another 300 or so to go before we arrive in Yining – a town with a wild, gritty reputation for multiethnicity, drugs and prostitution.
Bus rides in this part of the world, as well as being bad for yr stomach (I barfed gloriously a couple of hours back), are also a relentless security nightmare. Countless passport checks both in station and on the road, bags checked and stickered as safe. No leaving the bus station once you’re in. A caged existence.
Sirens wailed, combat police stood to in our last city where we changed buses. One day before the Olympics security is at all time high in Xinjiang following bombs and riots in the Kashgar area.
Now if only Beijing 2008 had a freestyle crapping tournament the Chinese would win hands down.