15 October 2003
No Fly Zone
9 October 2003
From 1995 to 1999 I was supposed to be studying Anthropology, Archaeology and Geography at university, but a lot of that time I was actually wandering and wondering about the world, mostly in Asia and in Russia and China in particular.
I have thousands of photographs from these journeys, which one day I will scan in and put online. For a number of reasons, not least misplaced photographic snobbery, I used slide film in my camera, and scanning slides is a tedious business without a proper slide scanner.
(The decision to use slide film paid off on one occasion in Hong Kong, where a glossy magazine accepted a travel story from me and insisted I provide slide photographs to accompany it. Foolishly I left them fifty or so images to pick and choose from, on the basis that they would send them on to me when the article was ready for publication (by which time I was going to be back home in England). They picked the best - and returned them covered in scratches and fingerprints, so they're pretty much unusable now. Maybe that's how they stop their writers selling the same story on to other magazines…)
I digress. Those previous trips - yes: in 1995 I went to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East and spent three months living with a Chukchi family in a village called Sredniye Pakhachi. The Chukchi are one of what twenty or so-called "Small People of the North" - in effect the indigenous non-ethnic Russians who live right across the Russian north from the Finnish border to the Bering Straights. They are small people in that they are few in number, not that they are necessarily short in stature.
Take a look at an atlas and you'll find that there are no roads to Kamchatka. (If you've played the board-game Risk, you'll probably know where to look; if not, focus on Japan and move one step to the right and two steps up - Kamchatka is that long dangly bit that hangs down into the Pacific Ocean from up near the Arctic Circle.
The lack of roads meant that I had to fly onto Kamchatka from Khabarovsk, and then fly again from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy to Usty-Pakhachi, and then fly again by helicopter to Sredniye-Pakhachi. And then I had to do all those flights in reverse coming back again - this time riding alongside five or six dozen recently-slaughtered reindeer carcasses.
Since then I have had a policy not to fly anywhere - though in the early days I did break this rule on a couple of occasions. Since 1998, though, the rule has been strictly enforced and that's the way I want to keep it.
So most of my ramblings have involved long trans-continental bus and train rides - I've become something of an expert on the various ways of reaching China without taking to the air. People sometimes ask if I don't get bored riding trains to China; the answer is a definite no: there are always people to talk to, windows to look out of, questions to muse over. And there are always journeys to plan. Catch me on a train across the barren Kazakh steppe and there's a good chance I'll be thinking about the merits of riding a camel from Astrakhan to Almaty via Astana. Actually I don't like camels much (they remind me of overgrown llamas, and I used to have nightmares about llamas when I was four) so that idea is on the back-burner for the time being.
But on train journeys across Siberia, I was always looking out of the window, checking to see if there was a road or a track running parallel to the railway. The idea of riding a bicycle all the way from the Baltic to the Pacific was never far from my mind. On winter journeys, I wondered about cross-country skiing the same route. That's still an active idea, but I'll work on the bike ride first.
I am drawn to Russia. People who have never been are often surprised by this. Many people in England have a very negative image of Russia and the Russians, perhaps partly thanks to half a century of cold war and negative propaganda. Russians are stereotyped as grey, sombre, cold, hostile, humourless, dour, and suspicious - and if the Russians lived as their Soviet-era leaders appeared on camera then all this might be close to the truth. But my experience of Russia has - almost without exception - been one of warmth, openness, generosity, hospitableness, and humour. Of course, Russia has its bad guys like anywhere else - but the difference, I have found, in is that bad behaviour and bad attitudes are less likely to be tolerated in public in Russia than they might be, for example, in England. By and large, it seems to me, Russian society has maintained a sense of civic pride and honour that is all the more remarkable given the materially deteriorated conditions - conditions that people would not expect to find in England - in which many Russians live today. (I am speaking here more of provincial and small town Russian life - I am less familiar with Moscow and St Petersburg, but I think things may be different there.)
I don't want to over-romanticise, over-generalise, or over-theorise the issue, but I can't help feeling that the relative absence of a consumerist culture in many parts of Russian society has allowed many positive things to survive better than they have in England. That's not to say it would necessarily be easy to give up the greater material prosperity which most people enjoy in England in exchange for the more positive "spiritual" (for want of a better word - but one that many Russians themselves would choose) aspects of life in parts of Russia. Of course as a traveller one often enjoys the best of both worlds, carrying the material prosperity of home on your back or in your wallet, while at the same time basking in the spiritual richness of your chosen travel destination.
Perhaps I will explore this theme at greater length some other time. But think about this: I can't think of a Russian town I have arrived in where I haven't received an offer of hospitality from virtual strangers. And not just offers, either: they mean it too. I suppose the simple point I'm making - and I'm sure I'm not the first to discover this - is that those who give most are often those who can afford it least. It shames me a little to think how unlikely it is that a Russian travelling in England would ever be as well and as kindly looked after by the English as I was by the Russians in Russia. Perhaps it is really we, the English, and not the Russians, who are grey, sombre, cold, hostile, humourless, dour, and suspicious.
I read recently that, in England, the poorest twenty percent of the population give, on average, 3% of their disposable income to charitable causes, while the richest ten percent give 0.7% of theirs. Perhaps that tells a similar story. (I may not have remembered the figures precisely, but they were of that order.)
China also attracts me, for a mixture of reasons. It is hard for me to compare China and Russia objectively - as a traveller my impressions of both are naturally coloured by the degree to which I can communicate with people I meet. I speak enough Russian to be able to talk about - or at any rate to listen about - more or less any subject. By contrast I speak enough Chinese to buy railway tickets and exchange a few pleasantries. It is mainly for this reason, I think, that my feelings of time spent in Russia are ones of life and people, whereas I have often experienced travelling in China as an if it were an obstacle course: challenging, often enjoyable, but something to be negotiated successfully. This feeling has diminished as my ability to speak Chinese has improved and I have got to know people living in China better by staying in one place for longer rather than adopting the "it's Tuesday so it must be Xi'an" approach.
It is nothing very revolutionary to suggest that one's travel experiences are in large part determined by one's ability to speak the local language - but that said, most travellers do not display, in their sweeping travelleresque judgements of this country or that, great awareness of this simple inevitability. I am sure I have been guilty of this myself. Many travellers' critiques of China and the Chinese are often rather severe, misplaced, and surprising to hear coming from people who would ordinarily not consider themselves to be habitual proponents of racially-hierarchical stereotypes. I suspect a large part of this comes from the fact that so few travellers in China speak much Chinese; and perhaps also from the fact that travellers (here I am speaking mainly of young, western backpacker-style travellers) in China cannot summon up the full realisation of their Shangri-La dreams for a dollar (or two) a day in quite the same way as they can in some other parts of Asia. Put bluntly, what many travellers want is for foreign-skinned locals to provide them with the luxuries of home in surroundings exotic (or faux-exotic) enough to create the illusion that they are not wallowing in luxury but in fact experiencing some kind of primitive simplicity. They don't expect to pay more than a few rupees (or dong, or baht, or whatever) for it, and they definitely do expect the locals to behave as though they should be grateful for whatever few rupees do come their way. An Edenic (or Imperial?) paradise with ever-attentive (but not too visibly servile, please) servants would do very nicely - but, with the exception of one or two places, this travellers' paradise is not currently for sale in China.
I am being harsh here - most travellers are not such hedonistic monsters in the imperialist mould. But perhaps it is a trait which is present in most if you scratch a little beneath the surface, though some do a better job of concealing it than others. I expect I am not wholly innocent myself. It's an easy trap to fall into, and one doesn't always scratch enough beneath one's own surface to discover one's own subconscious attitudes and desires.
In a way though it is the very absence of the travellers' Shangri-La in most of China that attracts me to the country. There are many things about the Chinese government which I do not admire, but its habit of speaking outside the globally-dominant discourse and sticking to its own rhetorical guns (perhaps a poorly-chosen metaphor, I know, thinking of Beijing in 1989) shows a kind of courage, self-confidence and self-respect which I think I detect many Chinese people. Mao's anti-imperialist fervour was sometimes stretched to the point of paranoid absurdity, but its foundations were solid and a flavour of those foundations seem to live on in the collective consciousness even of the new, open China of the 21st century. I find that healthy. Anything to relieve the stifling sameness of political mantras of the west….
Another traveller's luxury, I know: to admire other people's countries for not sharing the prevailing orthodoxies of one's own. Don't get me wrong though - it's nice to take a holiday in, but I do appreciate the fact that I can come home and be free to criticise whatever orthodoxy is going, a freedom not generally available to Chinese citizens in China. There has been, I think, an unspoken assumption in England (I suppose I mean "the West", but I know England best so I'll stick to that, if I may, even if it does sound rather parochial), especially since the end of the Cold War and the end of the dictatorships in Eastern Europe, that the March of Freedom has, to borrow a recent Blairism, no reverse gear. I'm not so sure that that assumption is true though. Plenty of illiberal regimes are proving that illiberality can be quite resilient, and plenty of liberal regimes (including those in the UK and the USA) are showing tendencies of moving down the illiberal path, perhaps eventually to meet the illiberal regimes half way.
1 September 2003
Since 2000 I've been working as a freelance website designer, but, if truth be told, I've always had at least one eye on the map; I've been waiting to wake up one morning and find myself on my bicycle riding across Russia to China.
1001 mornings came, and went, and slowly it sand in that riding a bicycle to China was unlikely just to happen spontaneously. If I was going to do it, I would have to make what is known by the experts as a decision.
So, one morning in June 2003, I resolved over a bowl of porridge that in March the next year I would get on my bike, point it eastwards, and keep going until people stop saying bonjour, guten tag, or even dobry den. At that point, I reasoned, dusting off my Philips Modern School Atlas, I will either be feeling cold and wet on account of having fallen into the Pacific Ocean, or, so long as I remember to bear right at some point before Vladivostok, I will have reached the land where people say "ni hao" and eat food with numbers not names: China.