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Archive for May 4th, 2008









The Silk Road that is. And it was an experience. Too much to relate in one post, and too many photos to share. But I shall try to encapsulate the most powerful and lasting impressions. When I saw the world’s largest golden sand dune for the first time, I felt the same way as I do when standing on the ocean’s edge, watching the waves relentlessly pound the shore: an overwhelming sense of the immutable and immeasurable power of nature. I thought of the courage it must have taken for traders to brave that sea of sand; economic necessity then as now, a powerful motivator. The lure of the unknown and adventure as compelling.

I saw many sacred relics, still majestic despite faded paint and amputated heads and limbs. Put into historical context, many of these beautiful carvings were commissioned by the wealthy as proof of devotion (and a guarantee of a trip to paradise) during the period after the fall of Rome and before the reign of Charlemagne. The medieval period in the West historically referred to as “the Dark Ages”, that are now acknowledged as “Dark” largely because we lack historical record. But you know, you can do only so many Buddha’s: after awhile, it becomes like seeing cathedrals in Europe. The first one or two take your breath away: after that, you can let yourself become hostage to “checklist tourism”. You know, Cathedral at Chartres, check, Terracotta Warriors, check, and so goes the passion out of your travel.

I also saw the power of China’s industrial economy, both the production and the consumption sides and I can tell you right now, emphatically, that this country is not going to slow down, not even for one millisecond. Not for the foreseeable future and by that I mean 20 to 30 years. I was confirmed in this conviction as I travelled on a second class bus for 3 hours one morning, across the highway that runs alongside the mountain range which separates Northern China from Southern.

(As a side note, only when the ledge at the back of the bus had squeezed in 8 people and a baby, and every other seat was taken would a Chinese person sit beside me. I will write later about the peculiarities of travelling solo as a Caucasian in China. Definitely, being treated as an oddity to be either stared at at length or treated as an untouchable is one of them.)

From my grimy bus window, I saw coal fired plants going at full tilt, land scarred by the large open pits of what looked like mining operations, and certainly gravel extractions, up tight against ugly grey cement block apartment buildings, and diaphanous clouds hanging among countless hydro towers that went on into the horizon in every direction. (In contrast, planted among all of this industrial development were carefully tended small plots of vegetables for home consumption or possibly for sale at the local market). There were few cars on this highway since regular Chinese cannot afford cars, gas, or the tolls. But there were so many large transport trucks, hauling shiny new tractors, metal fittings, mine tailings, and all manner of industrial goods, that you felt like you were somehow in the middle of a huge military operation.

I cannot stress this enough. Everything you have read or heard about China’s appetite for resources is true. And likely underestimated. I had a vision of a massive swirling vortex of consumption, devouring every single natural resource in China. Is it possible to conceive that it might consume itself into oblivion? Rome did and the United States is considered to be on the same path, according to Homer-Dixon’s book The Upside of Down. It’s a sobering thought. Perhaps China will start to take the high ground on issues of conservation and measured consumption once it feels itself secure as an influential world power, no longer just an “emerging” market. Right now, I understand that Chinese auto manufacturers are pioneering cars that are on the leading edge of energy conservation . Perhaps for the global market. Right now, in their own country, it feels like the wild wild West. Anyone out there seen Deadwood?

I am off to Shanghai next: so called the Paris of the East, Whore of the Orient. Should be fun!

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