I remember about a year and a half ago, I was in the local Barnes and Noble near my apartment. I wandered to the travel section to look at guidebooks for fun. I saw a section on China and I thought, “I will explore you one day, you land of magical mysteries”. The land where kung-fu masters dance gracefully in the skies, atop mountains, as their swords clash and their long robes flap. The land where friendly dragons watch over the people who worship them. The land where old men stroke their long, snow-white, wispy beards, as they bestow wisdom upon those who came from far away to seek counsel in those tiny wooden shacks in the most remote part of a lush countryside.
But I didn’t find any of that in China. Instead, I came upon a country that was built on, and thrived, for the most part, on concrete and human power. Where these days, armed security is found on many street corners and almost all subway stations of major cities. The free-flowing dance in the skies the kung-fu masters displayed on our movie screens are nothing but an illusion of freedom that doesn’t exist anymore in modern China. You want to fight with swords in the sky? You better ask the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for permission. You want to go seek out an old master in the remote desert in Xinjiang? You better ask the CCP for permission. You want to eat, drink, and piss? You better ask the CCP for permission.
Okay… So China isn’t all like that, at least not to a foreign tourist. We still have our freedom although it is quite restricted. We cannot travel freely anywhere we want anymore, especially in western China (Xinjiang), where upon arriving in many cities, one cannot find accommodation at all because “Foreigners are not allowed to stay here, only locals!” (I later found out why, based on some research. Hint: There are nefarious, unspeakable activities happening to people in these parts that the CCP prefer we foreigners don’t know about.) I don’t want to make this a political diatribe against those in charge in China but let’s just say, the “invisible” persecution of Uyghurs (and Muslims in general) are getting out of hand these days.
Edit: I want to add that I don’t know exactly what’s going in those “re-education” camps. Is there a human rights violation? The Uyghurs have their side of the story, foreign watchdog groups have their side of the story, and so do the Chinese. Maybe it’s best I reserve judgment about these things. As the saying goes, “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.”
Politics and human rights issues aside, China still has some of its old magic. Along the banks of the Li River, the beautiful Karst mountains in Guilin and Yangshuo, seen on many Chinese calligraphy paintings, come to life. I felt minuscule standing at the base of the world’s biggest stone Buddha in Leshan. My senses sprung to life when I tasted the mapo tofu from the restaurant where the dish was born. My legs became like jelly trying to walk along the endless Great Wall (there are steep sections!). Wandering the old town of Pingyao, I could imagine what it was like to walk the streets of 15th century China. I had “wings” when I stood on narrow planks on Huashan, doing the so-called “world’s most dangerous hike”. I was in a completely different country (or so it felt) when I stepped into the Kashgar Sunday livestock market. And I was transported to some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth when I looked out the window of the car along the Karakoram Highway.
Stay tuned for more stories of China. For more pictures of China, click here.