HONG KONG – It was 15 years ago today. General China taught the Brits to play. That was, of course, the Hong Kong handover – a milestone in Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping’s “crossing the river while feeling the stones” strategy. First, command “to get rich is glorious”. Then develop the special economic zones. Get Hong Kong back from the Brits. Then, one day, annex Taiwan. And perhaps, by 2040, evolve to some variant of Western parliamentary democracy.
Those were heady days. There were only faint rumblings about a possible financial crisis in Asia. Mainland China media carped about the “humiliations” of the past – including heavy promotion for a blockbuster telling the real story of the Opium Wars. In Hong Kong island, daily showers thundered with fear. Will the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cross the border at midnight in a blitzkrieg and militarize all the malls in Kowloon? Will we be duly indoctrinated as model communists?
For a foreign correspondent, there was nowhere else to be. The Foreign Correspondents Club buzzed like in a perpetual rock concert. At the hip Shanghai Tang store, a waving Deng wristwatch was all the rage. The days went by with plenty of huffing and puffing around to find interviews and gauge the prospects of doom from residents and analysts. Then the long, sweaty nights partying at the Club 1997 in Lan Kwai Fong – and having to beat the hangover back at the hotel to write copy solid enough to fill two newspaper pages a day.
In the end, the proceedings were as normal as Deng would have thought. Chris Patten – the last governor – left in an anti-climax. The British Empire was over. There was no PLA “invasion”. The party at Club 1997 was monstrous. The day after, massive hangover included, the real celebration began. I boarded a plane to China.
Beyond the pale
Little did I know that the Asian financial crisis had just exploded – with a monster devaluation of the Thai baht. Well, on the first of July itself, some of us may have suspected this could be a minor problem – but no one was foreseeing the financial tsunami ahead.
My agenda was to plunge into deep China – the entrails of that beast which was now lording over Hong Kong. Robert Plant was on my flight to Xian. Yes, the Robert Plant – minus Jimmy Page. I resisted the temptation to address him with the opening bars of Kashmir. It turns out we were at the same hotel in Xian – and kept meeting for breakfast. He was traveling with his son and his manager. And yes – we were about to do the same thing. Get our kicks not on Route 66 – but on the mother of all them routes.
I have always been a Silk Road fanatic. The “Silk Road” is not only the great, open highway of Eurasia – from lethal deserts such as the Taklamakan to snowy mountain peaks – but also waves and waves of cultural history connecting Asia to Europe. It’s about forgotten empires such as the Sogdians, fabulous cities like Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, fabled oasis like Kashgar. It’s not “a” road but a maze of “roads” – extensions branching out to Afghanistan and Tibet.
I had to start at the beginning, in Xian, formerly Chang’an – though most of China’s silk came from further south. Xian was a former capital of China during the Han dynasty, when Rome got a hard-on for Chinese silk. And was a capital again during the Tang dynasty – when the Buddhist connection with India solidified the Silk Road.
Hong Kong galleries were filled with copies of Tang terracotta figures such as Yang Guifei, aka the “fat concubine”, the most famous femme fatale in Chinese history. Turks, Uyghurs, Sogdians, Arabs and Persians all lived in this Chinese Rome – and built their own temples (the mosque is still the most beautiful in China; but the three Zoroastrian temples are all gone).
It would take me a few more years – in successive trips – to finally do most of the core of the Silk Road, in separate stretches, an obsession I carried since I was in high school. This time though, I wanted to concentrate on the Chinese Silk Road.
It started with a painter/calligrapher rendering sublime copies in Mandarin of the Buddha’s heart sutra to monks living for years in huts in the mountains north of Chang’an. It was supremely hard to resist both temptations; bye bye journalism, why not become a calligrapher, or a monk? Then I started moving west, through Lanzhou – with a deviation to the immaculate Tibetan enclave of Xiahe and, on the way, an enormous concentration of Hui – Chinese Muslims. Everything by train, local bus, local trucks.
From Lanzhou I even went to Chengdu, in Sichuan, by bus and then to Lhasa in Tibet by plane, and all the way back. That was a classic Silk Road branch-out. But what was really driving me was to go “beyond the pale”. To follow the westernmost spur of the Great Wall and finally reach Jiayuguan – the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”.
It was everything I expected it to be; sort of like the desolate setting for the end of the empire. The (literal) end of the Great Wall. To the west was “beyond the pale”; Chinese who were banned to go west would never return. Still in 1997 I was met with incredulous stares when I said I wanted to keep going further into Gansu towards the deserts of Xinjiang. “Why? There’s nothing there”.
This was still two years before Beijing launched its official “Go West” policy. The turbocharged neo-colonization of “beyond the pale” – a Xinjiang extremely rich in natural resources but populated (till then) mostly by Muslim Uyghurs – hadn’t yet started.
Death, also known as Taklamakan
Through the Gansu corridor I finally reached the caves of Dunhuang – one the great Buddhist centers in China for over six centuries; a feast of wall-paintings and stucco images excavated in caves carved from a cliff on the eastern edge of the Lop desert and the southern edge of the Gobi desert. Dazzling doesn’t even began to describe it.
One of my all-time heroes, the great Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664), had a stop over in Dunhuang on his way to India – where he collected holy texts for translation into Chinese (that explains that calligrapher back in Xian).
Xuanzang’s own account of his absolutely epic travels, Xiyuji (“Record of the Western Regions”) remains matchless. He started – where else – in Chang’an. Everything happened, including being “tortured by hallucinations” and driving away “all sorts of demon shapes and strange goblins”. But he did manage to get back to China 16 years later, carrying a wealth of Buddha statues and books.
Around Dunhuang, the Silk Road split. I had to make up my mind. The northern route follows the southern edge of the spectacular Tian Shan mountains – running along the north of the terrifying Taklamakan desert (whose name, in Uyghur, means “you may get in but you never get out”). Along the way, there are plenty of oasis towns – Hami, Turfan, Aksu – before reaching Kashgar.
That’s the route I took, under temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius, riding a battered Land Rover with a monosyllabic Hui who negotiated the desert track like Ayrton Senna. And this was the “easier” route – compared to the southern one. I had in mind the Buddhist monks doing it by camel, branching out to head through the Karakoram mountains to Leh (in Ladakh) and Srinagar (in Kashmir) and then down into India.
It’s absolutely impossible to even try to battle the horrifying sand-storms of the Taklamakan. The best one can do is to circumvent it. Certainly not the option chosen by the coolest cat among the Silk Road modern giants, Sven Hedin (1865-1952), the author of My Life as an Explorer (1926) and a man of huge brass balls who faced certain death countless times and left behind him a long trail of ponies, camels and yes, dead men.
In one of his adventures, when Hedin was hoping to cross the southwestern corner of the Taklamakan in less than a month, the camels died one after another; the caravan was hit by a sand-storm; his last servant died; yet he was the only one who made it, “as though led by an invisible hand”.
Guided by my very visible Hui, I finally made it to Kashgar – a hallucinating throwback to medieval Eurasia; once again, at the time the forced Han neo-colonization was just beginning, around the Mao statue at People’s Square. The Sunday market sprang up straight from the 10th century. There was not a single Han Chinese even around the pale green Id Kah mosque at early morning prayers.
From Kashgar the Silk Road did another major branching out. Buddhist monks would travel through the Hindu Kush past Tashkurgan to the Buddhist kingdoms of Gandhara and Taxila in contemporary Pakistan. I did it the China-Pakistan motorized friendship way – that is, taking the fabulous Karakoram highway from Kashgar through the Khunjerab pass, by jeep and local bus, all the way to Islamabad, stopping on the way in the idyllic Hunza valley. Northern Pakistan was all quiet in those pre-war on terror days; although the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, there was virtually no hardcore Islamist in sight.
Silk road traders would have done it differently. They would go north of the Pamir mountains to Samarkand and Bukhara, or south of the Pamirs to Balkh (in contemporary Afghanistan) and then to Merv (in Iran). From Merv, a maze of Silk Roads would go all the way to the Mediterranean via Baghdad to Damascus, Antioch or Constantinople (Istanbul). It would still take me a few more years to follow stretches of most of these routes.
So suddenly I was in an Islamabad duly doing business with the Taliban while all financial hell was breaking loose all across Asia. I made it back to Singapore and then Hong Kong. Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea were braking up. But Hong Kong, once again was surviving – now under close inspection by Beijing.
Motherland knows best
Fifteen years later, none of those Western bogeymen predictions about Chinese heavy-handedness in Hong Kong came true. The third smooth transition of power in Hong Kong under China is already on. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping – the next Dragon Emperor – has given it his full blessing.
Here’s the key Xi quote; “Fifteen years after the handover, Hong Kong has gone through storms. Overall, the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ has made enormous strides… Hong Kong’s economy has developed well and citizens’ livelihoods have improved. Progress has been made in democratic development, and society has become harmonious.”
Well, not that harmonious. True, Hong Kong is the IPO capital of the world. It’s the top offshore center in the world for yuan trading. It’s a matchless world city – in many aspects putting even New York to shame; the best the world has to offer in an ultra-compact environment. The city’s economy grew every year except in 2009 – during the world economy abyss. Annual GDP growth has been 4.5% on average. Unemployment is never higher than 6%.
But Hong Kong still has not made the transition towards a high-value-added, knowledge-based economy. The outgoing administration by Donald Tsang bet on “six new pillar industries” which should have “clear advantages” for growth; cultural and creative industries, medical services, education, innovation and technology, testing and certification services, and environmental industries.
But their development, so far, has been negligible. Hong Kong still relies basically on its four core industries; financial services, tourism, professional services, and trading. Over 36 million tourists a year won’t turn Hong Kong into a knowledge-based society. Most of them are from – where else – the mainland. The backlash is immense; most Hong Kongers deride them as “locusts” – country bumpkins with suitcases overflowing with yuan buying everything cash. And this while inside Hong Kong itself the wealth gap is widening dramatically.
As far as Beijing is concerned, it all comes down to “crossing the river while feeling the stones”. Here’s Xi, once again; “The SAR [Special Administrative Region] government has united various social sectors under the strong support of the central government and the motherland.” The motherland has its own ideas on reviving the Silk Road – and perhaps Hong Kong could be part of it, a least on the financial services side. Maybe it’s time to party like it’s 1997 and hit the Taklamakan again. Well, you can take the boy our of the Silk Road, but you can’t take the Silk Road out of the boy.