Sunday, 15 July 2012
Day 110 – Multicultural China (China)
For the first three months of our trip (barring the three weeks which we spent in Australia at the very beginning) we drove around South East Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Predominantly we drove North, then East, then North again, but actually we drove around in circles quite a bit and weren’t opposed to a bit of back tracking when something took our fancy. During this time we noticed minor changes in the appearance of locals, their culture and food, architecture and landscape. For the most part though, the people all over this area come from very similar ethnic backgrounds. As a result their facial features and skin colour don’t vary too drastically; the architecture mainly fits into the same basic categories; and the food encompasses a lot of the same ingredients and styles of preparation. The landscape changes somewhat over the whole area, but in a nutshell it’s all tropical, and as a result most of it is some rolling green hills and rice fields. These things vary from place to place, but usually very gradually and fairly minimally.
When we arrived in China we immediately noticed a marked change in culture, food and architecture. Driving from the South to the North - from Laos to Kazakhstan – in less than three weeks though has really been an eye opener. In my blog of Day 108 I outlined the various landscapes and climates we’ve experienced during this time, from banana and tobacco fields, to sheer cliff faces and tumbling waterfalls; rolling green mountains scattered with roaming yaks, to the vast and harsh Gobi Desert. Even within the desert the landscape changes dramatically over and over again. There have been bits of very boring, flat land extending to the horizon in every direction, a smattering of shrubbery dotted across the landscape. In other parts we have found ourselves winding around huge rock formations and sand dunes. Then there are the areas covered in huge cracks that look like the dried up lips of an aged smoker. Sometimes the sand is very fine and almost white, yet in other places the ground is pebbly, even rocky, and very gray. And the most bizarre variation is where trees and crops have been artificially planted, right in the middle of all of this.
What we have just started seeing though is the great change in local ethnic groups and their languages and cultures. Through most of China, Han Chinese is the ethnic majority. They speak Mandarin and are what we think of in the rest of the world, as “Chinese”. That’s what we saw up until we reached the Gobi Desert. We’ve now been to three towns/cities in the desert and they’ve all been very bizarre places.
The first was Dun Huang. We were struck by the suddenness of this town rising out of the desert, a small belt of trees surrounding the outskirts and doing a remarkable job at keeping out the harsh elements of the Gobi. We started noticing a few people that didn’t look Han Chinese, but as far as we could tell, the ethnic makeup of the city seemed to be pretty close to all the other places we’ve been through, and most of the buildings and businesses seemed pretty akin to those in the rest of the country.
The second was Shan Shan which is inside the Xinjiang Province. The other Province borders that we’ve crossed have been absolute non-events just like between Victoria and South Australia, or Scotland and England, but this one felt like a real border crossing. There were army people around, and lots and lots of police pulling almost everyone over. Very surprisingly, and much to our delight, we were amongst the few vehicles to be allowed through without any more than a glance. But most importantly, this is where we really started to see the ethnicities change. The first thing was the signage. In the rest of China the signs are all in Chinese, with English translations on road signs and most businesses. In Xinjiang though, the signs are all written bilingually for Chinese and Arabic, with no English whatsoever. And looking at the faces of the individuals in the police force and the army, they matched the signs. For the first time on this trip we were seeing people who looked Central Asian and Arab as opposed to Southern or Eastern Asian.
Inside the town of Shan Shan itself though, the mixture of backgrounds became even more obvious and confusing. Some people looked mainly Chinese and some looked mainly Arab, but we also noticed people who could have been Greek or Turkish and others that could have been Indian or Pakistani. The vast majority however seemed to be some unique mixture of everything in between. Still though the food is very Chinese, varying only as much as it does from province to province in the rest of the country.
The city itself looked very Central Asian. The buildings were of a style I would associate with the “Stans” and the main colour of the ground and buildings is the pale yellow of the desert – not something I think of when I imagine China. Our Han Chinese guide did not feel comfortable camping near any of these houses, considering the ongoing conflicts between them and the ethnic minority groups, especially those in this area.
The third city we’ve visited in the Gobi Desert is Urumqi, which we have affectionately named Jamiroquai because the pronunciation is such that no one can understand us even when we try and say it properly. This is where we are now and this is where we are supposed to be getting our Kazakh visas issued to us. 2 million people reside in Jamiroquai, rendering it the largest city in the world this far inland, and it is made up of the same confusing mixture of ethnicities as Shan Shan. After driving hundreds of kilometres through desert, finding a city of this size is not something one would expect, yet once in the city there isn’t really any evidence of its unusual location. We can really notice the difference in food options now though. There are the usual Chinese styles available, but we’re loving the integration of Arab styles we’re managing to find in this neck of the woods.
That’s one thing I am greatly looking forward to on this next leg of the trip. Central Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern food. I have grown somewhat tired of noodles and rice, and am looking forward to some hearty meat dishes.