Friday, October 26, 2007

Bishkek, Kyrgystan

Just a quick addendum to the previous post before I head south.

I have just scored my Uzbek visa and I am very chuffed with myself. It's a long one to explain but it is a typical trail tale of Central Asia so here goes.

In the great game of getting CA visas the Uzbeks are odd players. They want tourists but they do not want independent travellers probably as errant drunks are hard to monitor. Unfortunately for them, their country is where the most famous historical sites of CA are. This ensures a constant siege of their consulates by assorted scruffies wanting to get in.

Their response to this is to put up a number of bureaucratic obstacles and make things such a pain in the arse it becomes very tempting to say sod it and join a "Wonders of the Silk ROad" all-inclusive bus tour. Said obstacles include long processing times, high fees, inability to get into the consulates unless you phone up the previous day and ask (in Russian) to be put on the list and, the icing on the cake, seemingly random requests for Letters of Invitation (LOIs) by some Uzbek travel agency.

The reason for this general annoyance of backpackers is not completely clear. This is pure speculation but I suspect it has a lot to do with the general clampdown and move towards een more abject tyranny that the Uzbek authorities took after Andijan in 2005. A web check will be more informative than this blog but the basic story is that Andijan is Uzbekistan's own Tiananmen Square Massacre. It was a wholesale massacre of civilians that cannnot be excused or contextualised within any decent moral framework.

THe West boo-hissed the slaughter and slapped on a few sanctions. As a result the Uzbeks honchos got huffy and relations started to get cold. Internally, from what the interwebs tell me, the brutality of the regime got worse and the standard attempts to make the locals ignorant of everything were made. This is perhaps why the Uzbek government is none too keen to have a bunch of folk traipsing around unsupervised and, god forbid, talk to the locals.

To add to this, it seems the Uzbek authorities have a special place in their heart for Her Maj's subject sand we get to know it when we apply for a visa. Once I again I speculate but this could be because of a former ambassador to Uzbekistan up to 2004; Craig Murray. Mr Murray had somewhat managed to keep his spine intact after a stint at the Foreign Office School of Conscience Removal and ended up being Our Man in Tashkent.

He got very yappy about the horrendous abuses he heard about (boiling people alive, multiple rapes and other niceties) and wasn't too complimentary of the the folks in charge. The Foreign Office, in keeping with their tradition of helping the oppressed and abused of this world, tried to silence him and, in keeping with their tradition of competence and efficiency, failed.

I would like this to be the reason for the difficulties I faced getting a visa for no better reason than it's been a while that a Brit traveller has been inconvenienced because a an official of our country did something on the lighter side of the moral spectrum. It's a refreshing, though still annoying, change.

Whether or not this is the cause for the general twattery of the Uzbek authorities towards travellers (I am aware that it is nothing compared to what they do to their own people) there is one final hurdle for the man on his way to Samarkand: the dreaded Dragon Lady of the Uzbek consulate in Bishkek. She doesn't speak English, hates people who don't speak Russian and has been known to turf out folk who try to use the world's lingua franca on her.

In spite of dire warnings about the fate of those who faced her without the Holy Shield of the LOI I threw caution to the wind and got the staff at the hostel to call and get my name on the list of challengers. I knew the odds were stacked against me but I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve.

Local folktales indicate that the CACO (Central Asian Consular Official) can be pacified with the use of a clean and ironed short. Apparently the Caco associates this garment with people who matter. The legends say that The Shirt is at full strength when worn by a shaved and combed Englishman with glasses. Was I the chosen one?

I tried to boost my chances by using the ancient art of Fraud. I knew that any hint of my inablility to speak Russian could doom me so I tried to get enough learnt to bluff my way through the process. With the help of the guidebook and hostel staff, I drilled myself until I could say a few predictable phrases to near perfection. I was ready for a showdown.

Anyways, it worked, I'm happy and I'm off for a celebratory beer and a gamburger(hamburger meets kebab local snack). Huzzah for me.

Take care,


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bishkek, Kyrgystan, still

I am still stuck here for reasons of uncooperative Uzbek officials, shifting weather and a series of " You've got to come out tonight it's so-and-so's birthday/ rugby final/ random feeble excuse for boozing" and subsequent voddie hangovers

I have, however, managed to get out of the city and enjoy Bishkek's fine mountainous surroundings. I have finally managed to scoot up to 3000 odd metres and got to practice my huffing, puffing, sweating, suffering and of course work on my sunburn.

It's been a while since I have had to go for serious walkies and the trot up to the Ala Archa national park glacier was a eye-opening and lung-expanding experience. My instinct is to place the blame on China and the assorted heavy metals it has made me breathe but my lazy lifestyle in the Middle Kingdom probably has more to do with my still aching legs.

There is also a question of perspective since my last serious walking. My memories of South East Asia have edited themselves to the point that I retrospectively view myself as a mountain goat, bouncing along trails and hills to gaze at the half dead followers behind me. Selective memory aside, there is a shade of truth in these recollections.

South East Asia is full to the brim with assorted dopers and piss artists. A byproduct of this is that it is easy to compose a walking group full of people whose fitness is even lower than mine. Though I am woefully unsporty, I can still outwalk folk who have been sipping the CHhng or puffing pot nonstop for a fortnight. This gave me the real pleasure of cresting hills and gazing down at the distinctively unhappy members of whatever ad hoc rambling group I joined.

Kyrgystan is a different kettle of gasping fish. Folk come here specifically for the trekking and are prepared both in terms of equipment and body. Overnight stays in refuges are tricky for me as I seem to be the only tourist in Kyrgystan with a mozzie net but no sleeping bag. Day walks are fun but I then have to be the slow chap of the group. Nothing quite kills moral than stopping for a vital breather, hoping your legs will not buckle then looking up at your trekmates 200 yards up the hill and still prancing gaily. Poetic Justice sweeps down to punish me again.

Beyond hauling my flabby body up to altitude sickness heights I have been busy revising my plans for the umpteenth time. Bishkek is a traveller's twillight zone where everyone ends up and stays for longer than expected. The silver lining with this is that there is a lot of up to date info to be gleaned. I had already dismissed Iran as the visa takes eons to acquire and our Persian friends have started to shunt Brits on the same heavily controlled tours they put the seppoes on.

The alternative overland(ish) route is to take a ferry acroos the Caspian to Azerbaijan then go through Georgia and Turkey to the Middle East. THis sounds simple but once again the mighty gods of officialdom cast their loaded dice against me.

To get from Uzbekistan to Baku I can see 3 options each with their separate pros and cons.

1. Get a 5 day transit visa for Turkmenistan, speed through the country to the town of Turkmenbashi and try to get on the ferry to Baku.
Pros: Get to avoid flying (very eco-cool) and collect amusing stories of Central Asian sailors.
Cons: The notorious unreliability of the ferry means that the Turkmen authorities have started to refuse transit visas for that route. Even if I can score the visa the chances of getting on the boat on time are 50/50 so I might experience the joy of being an illegal in one of the most fucked up and paranoid countries in the world.

2.Take the ferry from Aktau (Kazakhstan) to Baku.
Pros: I can get a tourist visa to Kazakhstan quite easily and ditto Azerbaijan though it's time consuming and expensive. Kicking around Aktau would be risk free.
Cons: This ferry tends to sink and kill its passengers. Aside from the risk of spending my last minutes on earth with sturgeons this means that the ferry is cancelled untill someone rustles up another unseaworthy boat for the 12 hour crossing.

3. Fly from Ashgabat to Baku
Pros: Don't have to paste it through Turkmenistan so I get to see more than the golden statue of Crazyboy. I might be authorized to do this trip. Cheap fuel in the Stans means that it would actually be cheaper than the ferry and bus way. Visa on arrival in Baku. Might make Instanbul for New Year and see some family.
Cons: End of no fly ban. Central Asian planes somewhat dodgy.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Need a beer.

Next stop, Osh, Jalalabad, Arslanbob or anywhere south of Bishkek

Take care,


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bishkek (f.k.a Frunze) Kyrgystan

Visas, vodka and crooked cops

The above sort sums up what I have been getting up to in this fair city. In order to make some chronological sense I will say how I got here and also because it introduces what I think might be recurrent theme in Central Asia; Borat Moments.

Borat Moments are when Central Asia gets really weird from a Western perspective. The reason I want to identify them as such is because I might be jotting a fair few of them on this blog. If I don't highlight them as out of place or one of those special moments that make backpacking interesting I fear my reports from CE might become an increasingly nasty collection of stereotypes. So here goes:

I managed to catch a Mashrutko (minibuses that have taken over from the dying public transport sytem) to Bishkek after wandering around the Almaty Bus station and pestering people. Word got around and I was identified to a huge man with a complete set of golden teeth who was trying to fill up his mashrutko and off I went. Though not as interesting as I am in China I still stood out hence a joyful Q and A in Russian. Lots of Qs, precious little As.

One chap had some halting English and happened to be a Hui Chinese (Chinese Muslims). We got to chatting in bad English and bad Chinese and had a good time as he was as Hanzi illiterate as I was and we spent some time slagging of the Chinese Alphabet. As we got closer to Bishkek he gave me his number and told me to call in case of probs. I was quite chuffed then he said that he would sort me out with a pozzie. I was pissing myself and shaking my head and he started to backpedal. Sort of. He leaned over and told me not to worry. The girl was very clean and she worked for the Chinese embassy. Borat Moment number 1.

Anyways I got myself settled in a nice guesthouse and got to chatting with other backpackers, many of whom had been in Bishkek for a while. This is odd for Bishkek is not the most charming place on Earth. It looks a bit like a rundown Almaty with a lot of crumbling Sovbloc architecture. It's not shit per se but, in a country reputed for it's mountains and trekking, it a bit strange to meet so many folk dossing around. The reason for this is visas.

A combination of dictatorial/paranoid decrees, bureaucracies based on the Soviet model and evershifting international politics means that the Stans are a place where the unprepared, happy go lucky and foolish backpacker (like me) is confronted with the same idiotic obstacles to travel as we place on citizens of poorer countries.I have had to play this game but as it is in process I don't want to jinx it by giving details.

Aside from begging for visas Bishkek is a great place to learn how to deal with the bent cops of Central Asia. They are very light fingered and prey on foreigners as they have sussed that we have an inate respect/fear of the fuzz. The name of the game for them is to isolate a tourist and remove them from public sight. They will then serach the poor soul and steal some cash. I am often spared as I look a bit Russian but I have recently lost my crooked cop virginity and managed to walk way with my dosh intact. As this blog might be read by folk who might one day come here I will now give step by step instructions on how to deal with this.

1: Get surrounded by blokes who may or may not be real cpos. Get shown badges and asked for passport.
2: Remember that under no circumstances whatsoever you should hand over your real passport and give them a photocopy.
3: Get asked for real passport.
4: Invent feeble lie about passport being at embassy, hotel, with wife etc
5: Get asked to go round the corner/get into a car/come to the police station
6: Say Nyet
7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 a few times
8: Have awkward moment of silence
9: There are 2 options here. a) cops get bored and tell you that you are free to go. b) You get bored and just walk away.

It's scary the first time but after that it's a doddle. People who have been stuck here for a long while have reached the point where they don't even stop for a play. They just tell the cops to fuck off and keep walking. I know it sounds like a very risky strategy but in fact the cops are trying their luck and ther is precious little they can do. It's not worth the risk trying to frame you and getting consulates involved for the sake of a few dollars.

Another fun thing I have been doing is getting used to drinking vodka. I still think of it as a drink for teenagers, russians or slappers so it takes a while to adapt. It's cheap as can get here but it's worth upgrading a bit. There is the less than a dollar for a litre variety which is foul and might kill you. There is is the 2-5 dollar bottles that are OK and there are the pricey bottles which are pointless because vodka is a tasteless booze anyway.

If Vodka is not your thing you can try kumyz which is fermented mare's milk (or some other animal when not in foaling season). It tastes as good as it sounds. Just say no.

I have also been to the public baths with a group of equally culturally inquisitive and mildly pissed backpackers. The baths were a collection of strange Borat Moments. We got the hint this would be weird when we got to the locker room. One drunk chap mimed to us that a lot of the people came as they don't have washing facilities where they live. as a result the place is packed and we had to wait for a locker to free up.

All good you might think but this means standing amidst shedloads of naked Kyrgyz blokes and, bear in mind this is a Muslimish country, 2 bored middle aged women who opened lockers and sold soap. 2 of our party bailed out at this stage. We eventually got a locker, stripped, felt awkward and walked into the first room. This was the shower room.

The first thing that greeted our eyes was a table where the locals lie down and get a mate to soap them form head to toe up before hosing them down. Other activities in the shower room were scrubbing bollocks in front of a mirror, shaving the bikini line (WTF???), getting a mate to aim the hose at your arsecrack and staring at naked foreigners.

We then went to the insanely hot sauna where we sweated and got instructions on how to beat ourselves and each other with twigs fomo a fat bloke who wore nothing but a Kyrgyz felt hat. Once we started to find it difficult to breathe we pegged it to the cold pool inside a large dome, dove in and shouted profanities. We repeated this a few times

After a final shower and we walked out of the baths and went to the bar. The same dress code of fuck all applies and you can buy cold beer and sandwiches. Stage as it seems it's hard to leave the bar as the combination of a sauna and cold beer leaves you very relaxed.

Anyways I am getting out from Bishkek to get some hiking done before it gets too cold. I have been sitting here getting pissed and grovelling in front of consular officials for too long. I like the boozing though as Central Asian backpacker war stories are a fuck of a lot more interesting than south East Asian ones. It's a bit more tricky to get around here so there are precious few gappers on a pisstrip here and lots of old trailers who have been milling around the world for a couple of decades on and off. There are also a lot of chaps who seem intent on making life as difficult for themselves as possible. Example below.

If any of my more sedentary readers think what i am doing is intrepid/interesting/outright stupid you might want to check these guys some of whom I have just met at the hostel ( just to get some perspective. They are doing a similar route to mine (the other way) but they are doing it in Trabants which happen to be both iconic and very, very crap. Getting around the Stans is annoying enough for people and you can imagine what bureacratic hurdles they face trying to do it in silly cars with 2-stroke engines. They are a good laugh though and I am suprised they are still upbeat and not suicidal.

Off to the hills,

Take care,


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from a different world. It's a 30 hour train ride from Urumqi to here but it might as well be a 30 hour flight so different are the 2 places. I will elaborate on this later in the post.

My departure from China was reasonably uneventful. I settled in and got chatting to my cabinmates all of whom spoke perfect English which was an interesting change. As the train left as midnight is was bedsies soon after departure. We arrived at the border on the Chinese side at 7ish in the morning and then the fun began.

In a sense the border was a little of China condensed. There was some creepy authoritarianism in the form of of a bunch of soldiers standing at attention in front of each door whose mission seemed to be stopping folk from getting off. There was some out of place pinkness too as the loudspeakers blared cute songs including one about how some guy was going to look after his little sister.

Finally, as this was China, there was a rigidly enforced stupid decision. In this case, they stopped the train, locked all the toilets then woke everyone up. To boot no-one was aloud off the train for a couple of hours. Nothing feels more like China than being uncomfortable and ranting to some poor soldier. When not trying to look martial he was apologetic when I spoke in Chinese and bemused when I spoke English. To the boy's credit, after a long while listening to me and 2 Russian chaps looking at him and droning on endlessly in the usual howfuckingstupidcanyougetgivemestrengthwascommonsensebannedbyMao rant he relented and let us off for a quick dash to the bog. After that crack in the dam other passengers started to badger their green guardian and eventually people got to get off the train.

On the Kazakh side, things were a bit different. Customs were quick and cursory then we were all offloaded in a small village station to wait for the wheels of the train to be changed (Sovblock trains have a different gauge apparently to hinder invasions). During the checks I got to meet a Kazakh border guard. He popped in and started to ask questions. I was a tad nervous at first and thought the questions were part of his job and then I realised this was just curiosity and smalltalk.

The reason I was nervous is that Central Asian border pigs have got a rep. They are legendary for being corrupt, devious, thieving bastards. This reputation meant that each time the customs chappie was being friendly it made me edgy. He took me and an Australian guy to a cafe for lunch and the further we got from the station the more alarm bells were rgoing off in my head. As it turned out that he took us to a cheap and cheerful homecooking spot and gave us some useful advice on Almaty. To cap it off he gave us each a box of choccies. Even after that a part of me was wondering what the scam was and when it would hit. Some people just can't deliver what is expected.

After that it was a long train ride through lots of grassy buggerall. I have seen expanses of buggerall before but never so much uninterrupted buggerall. We stopped a couple of time in tiny villages and I mean tiny. In Kazakhstan a village is a village unlike in China where a 100 000 souls town will be reffered to as such. These places could be called one-pony towns except that I saw more horses than humans milling about. At these stops a bunch of baboushkas (or whatever they are called in Kazakh) sell fruit, veg, smoked fish, sausage and, of course, vodka.

Between these halts I busied myself at learning the Cyrillic alphabet by walking through the train with a phrasebook trying to read anything from the toilet door to the instructions on the water heater. I amused a lot of folk by standing in front of some random plaque and slowly enounciating the word before grinning like an idiot when someone nodded at me to indicate I had got it right. The consequence of this is that I am experiencing a complete reversal of my linguistical skills in China. Here I became literate in 2 days but can't understand a bloody word I am saying.

The shock of having a multilingual border guard being nice and not trying to shake me down pales in comparison of how I felt when I got to Almaty. As referred in the first paragraph, this place is worlds apart from China. It feels and looks European. It's diverse, leafy, quiet, clean and cosmopolitan. And. like Europe, it's pricey as fuck.

Everthing seems empty and quiet even though it's only in comparison with China. Seeing only a hundred or so folk on the street makes it feel deserted for me. Not hearing a zillion car horns, horrible mobile ring tones and constant shouting translates as eerily quiet for me. Directions given are always accurate and often given to me in English which means I have wasted my time trying to judge if the giver of said directions is talking bollocks to save face. The map feels wrong as the main avenues are 4 lane job and not stupidily wide and long stretches designed to make an armoured regiment pass through quickly or to glorify the great social cohesion of something or another.

I finally realised why this place feels so strange when I was nearly dancing with joy at the cheese section of a supermarket. I have been Sinofied. I have spent so much time getting accustomed to the weirdness of China that I feel strange when it is absent. May the gods have mercy upon me.

Anyways Almaty is pleasantish in a sense and the gentle upslope to the mountains give me much needed exercise as I traipse around its leafy roads and fun parks. There is a nice wooden cathedral and a few museums and shedloads of good food. At a price. That being said I face a problem as most interesting things in this country seem like are fecking miles away from Almaty.

The cost and distance here is a problem and as a result I am going to consign Kazakhstan to trophy tourism. I got here, got drunk here, got the visa to the next country and got a stamp in my passport. From now on I can say that I have been to the land of the most famous Kazkhstani on earth: Borat.

It's hard not to mention him though it's wise not to here. A childish part of me wants this place to be more like the fictional Kazakhstan of Cohen's creation. If I was standing between the village rapist and the chief gypsy catcher at the festival of the running of the Jew I could at least feel smug and civilised. As it is I feel more disinterested than I should, more Chinese than I like and poor. So very poor.

No politicky stuff this time as I haven't bothered to enquire much. I get the Head Honcho here is a dictator of sorts but not as crazy or nasty as other Central Asian Presidents. The place is not obviously bent but I would be suprised if it wasn't due to the amount of natural resources here.

Fuck it, off to Kyrgystan.

Next stop, Bishkek

Take care,


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Urumqi, Xinjiang province, China

Howdy from China's wildish West.

I got here after one of my most scenic train rides since Sichuan. This is due to the capacity of the local people to develop an oasis when they can find one. Rock strewn desert, dunes and strange small canyons flicker past and keep you mesmerised then you go through a tunnel and on the other side it's all greenery, cattle and water. Another tunnel and it's back to martian landscapes. The arrival to Urumqi was heralded by more frequent pathes of green and some large ugly industrial buidings.

For all the guidebook hype, this town is Han. The Uygurs (I'm not sure how to spell the name) are there but seem to be in second place numerically. Anyways, Urumqi displays the usual characteristics of Chinese cities. Huge, insanely large population and, of course, a healthy dose of pollution.

I am kind of stuck here as I have to juggle with the entry date on my Kazakh visa, the availibility of trains and the wonderful Chinese National holidays. For those unfamiliar with the middle kingdom, national holidays are sort of a mix between a love parade and the 6th circle of hell. There's lots to do but the usual Chinese overcrowding gets pushed to absurd limits. Tickets are a nightmare to obtain, anything interesting will be ringed by a few zillion people and it's hard to get anything done.

I faced this when trying to go to Tian Chi (one of the many, many Heaven lakes in this country). The plan was to get a bus early, find a yurt, and chill out for a couple of days by the lake. All this fell apart when I got to the bus station. The jolly sights of thousands of tour groups complete with baseball caps made me do a quick about turn and decide that I will have all the lake and tent time I need in the Stans.

I know that I convey this image that Chinese tourists are somewhat like strange and loud herd creature. To a large extent this is true but of late I have been seeing some new breeds. Maybe due to my capability to hold a crap conversation in Chinese or maybe it's just a new trend but I have recently met a few of a species that many thought was but a myth: the lone Chinese backpacker. These are of the same cloth as the rest of the Western dorm denizen. Students whose situation allows them to sod off for a few months, youngish people in between jobs and folks who have good careers but decide to put them on hold for a while or just sod it and go as life is to short to spend it in meetings.

These rare and wonderful lone travellers should not be confused with a more common, albeit still unusual group who seems to have taken the hostel I am in. The halfway house types. Strong communal instincts make it uncomfortable for a lot of Chinese people to venture in unknown parts on their own. However, more and more people realise that being shuttled about between photogenic spots, restaurants and karaoke joints in a bus while listening to some young thing drone on endlessly about the beauty of what they are going to see for 5 minutes is, to put it bluntly ; shit.

Therefore a sort of copromise is reached. A lot of folks will go out as a group of reassuring size ( 10people minimum) but will locate hostels by themselves and sort out their own transport. They also have the quasi alpine gear of the backpacker but have not realy grasped the finer points of packing. Many times I have wrongly deduced from backpacks twice as heavy and large as mine that the bearer of this burden was in it for the long term. As it turns out they are only away for a week but often admit they got a bit carried away on the shopping. Tempora mutantur, China et mutamur in illis .

So what is there to do in the world's most landlocked city? Not much to be honest. As weird as it seems I am enjoying the familiarity of China. I can go to the park knowing that I will have lots to see, I can still odrer food and I can even chat to people in the street (mainly Chinese tourists as lost as I am). Confort crapness if you will.

What is nice here is the food. I had promised myself to stay clear of the mutton as I know I am going to eat a lot of it in the near future but I can't resist. In a way I am in the homeland of a type that has served me well in China. Wherever you go in China you can rely on good lamb kebabs from the muslim vendors (identifiable by their hats if you are crap with ethnic facial features). Xinjiang is the mothership of these purveyors of meaty goodnes and the shashlyk is brilliant. Another yummy treat the China Hand is unnacustomed to is decent local bread. The Uigurs bake big slabs of Nan type bread in tandoori type ovens and you can buy one of these huge sesame-covered treats for a kwai.

Also of note is the local museum. Unlike most chinese museums it is coherent, informative and the English is quite good. That is untill you reach the section that deals with the communist period. That's all in Chinese as they might be trying to prevent foreigners from walking about and sniggering. In my case they failed.

When I say the english is good and informative they do have a few lapses An introduction to the histroy and pre-history of the area is preluded by a statement to the effect that Xinjiang is, and always has been, an inalienable part of CHina. A display of Kazakh, Uighur or Mongol traditional dress and homes has to be highlighted as an example of how the various cultures of China work together for social harmony and the motherland.

The reason for this strange display of national assertion is not just mediocre English skills but a result of the strange sitch of this region. In a way, Xinjiang is the Tibet no one gives a fuck about. The background is different but the methods used by Beijing to keep the Uighurs in check are similar to those used on Richard Gere's favourite ethnics.

The reason Urumqi is more Han than Uighur is that the Chinese Government has been encouraging Han people to come and settle the place. Like in Tibet they have rigged the game to make sure one group progressed and the other stagnated.

One subtle sign fo this can be seen on any street corner in Urumqi. The Pinyin (latin alphabet version of CHinese) that I had relied on everywhere in CHina is gone and has been replaced by Arabic. This might look like a nice concession to local culture but in fact it's a result of a massive Fuck You. Uighur is Turkic and up to the mid 80's they used the latin alphabet. This was discontinued and Arabic was imposed by Beijing. The reasons for this are unclear. The Lonely Planet claims that this was because the Uighurs had a huge advantage over the Hans in learning English. More likely is that to impose restraints on a language restricts the written culture to all but a very educated (and very monitorable) few.

Another visible sign of Peking's nastiness is just as widespread and innocuous: Children. When the bell rings, Chinese cities are taken over by hordes of sprogs wearing their school uniforms (aka: shellsuits). They make noise and clutter up the pavement when buying horrible snacks. Urumqi is no different than any other city in this respect and that's the problem. The annoying pack of kids here look exactly the same as the ones in Changchun, Beijing, Kunming etc. I would expect a certain percentage of the little blighters to be Uighurs but it was a couple of days untill I spotted one. This tells me that the educational opportunities might be slightly biased towards the Han.

The last of the trivial signs of what is happening here is something I do many times in a day. I glance at my watch. This seems like nothing but it has some significance. In the pursuit of the myth of a unified China, all clocks in he country are set to Beijing time. The snag is tha Urumqi is a fair few thousand miles West of BJ and the utter darkness circa 7am reminds you off this. Opening hours are mindfull of daylight hours and the strange result is that banks close at 8, schoos kick out around the same time and fuck all happens before 10am. The Uighur restaurant next door to my hostel has set their clock to local time (2 hours behind official time) and I understand that a lot of locals do this. The upside of this silly situation is that Urumqi is a town that respects my natural body clock. Wake up at 9, coffee-up until 11, lunch at 2 and dindins around 9.

The above are the things visible to any visitor but behind the scenes a lot more bastardry goes on. The government in this case follows the lead of industry by seeing something developed in the West, making a piss poor copy of it and hoping no-one will realise the difference. The ever trendy boys in Beijing have justified their recent clampdowns on Xinjiang by invoking that wonderful American concept of the War on Terror. The Middle Kingdom has seen the benefits of this stupid notion and have seen the way cowardly statesmen around the world have used it to excuse a state power grab.

On this one the West has played along probably since all moral highground was thrown away along with a large batch of individual liberties. The Chinese have been quite savvy on this. They have tried to palm off the Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet lot as terrorists in the past but got rightly mocked as a result. Muslim clerics and separatists are easier to portray as jihadis nutters and they have bumped off a fair few of these with a thumbs up from the West. Another brilliant result of TWOT.

In a way I am glad that this is my last stop in CHina. I have grown fond of the place and it's easy to forget what a shower of cunts the rulers of this country are.

I guess I should do a last "What now for the Dragon?" post but in a sense I already have. My views on the political aspect of this place have not changed and I have covered these in previous posts. What has changed is that the future of China will matter to me on an emotional level.

If China becomes the nemesis of the West aswwe all want the same resources for our bloated countries than I will have to remember the people I have met here when the happy demonisation process begins back home.

If CHina supplants the US as the biggest fish in the pond and does an even crappier job at ruling the world I will have to remind myself that behind the policies are lots of people I care about.

Finally, it's also possible that China will cock things up. Their economic strength is built on their capability to produce a lot for very cheap. The snag with this is that they have now reached a catch 22 situation. The reason Chinese products are so cheap is that they pay the workers close to bugger all. They can also build factories willy nilly and not give a stuff about the environmental impact. Inflation here has crept up quite a bit and wage inflation will soon follow. The Chinese are also aware that if they don't want to lose a million workers a year to health problems they have to impose some sort of limit on what can be dumped into the atmosphere and the water. If they do this, goods won't be so cheap and other countries, such as Vietnam, are all to keen to step in.

If all goes tits up for China I don't think I will be able to snigger to much as an economic downturn means that a lot of good folkare going to get it in the neck. I will however laugh at the chappies learning Mandarin in London and New York just as I laughed at the ones who where convinced Japanese was the new language of business.

Anyways, That's all for my last post in CHina,

Next stop, Almaty

Take care,