It was Donald Duck who first introduced me to the Himalayas. Just as my travels to Central Asia and all the countries ending in “stan” may have been inspired by Donald’s many escapades in Farawaystan, the seeds of my current expedition had been sown by Carl Barks. As a child I fell asleep with Donald Duck and I woke up with Donald Duck – in fact I learned to read with Donald Duck. My dad would only read Donald Duck magazines to me in bed, and when he fell asleep, which he often did, I would have to continue reading alone.
As I got older, of course, I read other things, and I was fascinated by the home atlas. We didn’t have a globe, but we had several thick atlases. In my imagination I traveled over these maps, and nowhere were the names more magical than in the brown and white mountain range between India and China: Hindu Kush. Thimphu. Lhasa. Hunza. Kathmandu. Sikkim. Karakoram. Annapurna. And the most beautiful name of all: Himalayas. I never got tired of repeating the sounds to myself: Hi-ma-la-ya.
In one of my favorite Duckburg stories, Carl Barks lets Uncle Scrooge have a meltdown. His condition is serious: he can no longer bear to look at or hear about money. Finally, Donald and his nephews take Scrooge to the hidden valley of Tralla La high in the Himalayas, where apparently there is no money. The valley is so isolated that they can only parachute in, but all efforts pay off: they find an earthly paradise, where people are happy, happy and harmonious.
There are not many places in the world that are as shrouded in myth as the Himalayas. The mountains were a final frontier for many explorers. Even in the early twentieth century, Western adventurers continued to disguise themselves as local merchants and pilgrims in the hope of reaching Lhasa, Tibet’s legendary capital, and for decades after flags had been planted at both the South and North Poles, the highest the peaks of the Himalayas remained unconquered. Then there were all the stories and the mystery. Books about hidden valleys where no one grew old and no one died, where everyone lived in enlightened harmony and had deep insight and great wisdom, flew off the bookshop shelves in Paris, London and New York.
Uncle Scrooge did not stay long in Tralla La. He had brought some bottles of medicine with him in case he relapsed, and the locals became obsessed with the bottle tops, which they considered rare treasures, so they began bartering with them. To solve this problem, Uncle Scrooge had airplanes drop a billion bottle tops into the valley. The fields were covered in bottle tops and this proved to be too much of a good thing. The inhabitants were furious, and the ducks had no choice but to flee the valley.
When I started traveling at nineteen, my first choice was obvious: I had to see the Himalayas. My encounter with the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, where tourist shops jostle for space, and the Tibetan villages of Annapurna, where pizza and spaghetti are on the menu, left me nauseous but wanting more. Many years later I went to Bhutan, and discovered a completely different Himalayan reality, but this too had been modified and padded to suit the modern Western explorer.
I sensed and had read that the Himalayas were so much more than this, much more than the dream of paradise for spiritual tourists or mountaineers. The cultural and linguistic diversity is enormous, as ethnic groups large and small have sought refuge over the centuries in the remote, inaccessible valleys, many of which have remained more or less undisturbed until today. Mountain climbers write about the mountains they climb and their own efforts; explorers more often than not write more about themselves than the societies they “discover”. The Himalayas are not only high, they are also long; the area crosses five countries, from China and India in the north, through Bhutan and Nepal, to Pakistan in the northwest. I wanted to discover what life stories and cultures exist there, beyond the beaten paths, high up in the valleys and villages in the mountains with the beautiful name.
Soon I was to travel both far and high.
I took a taxi from the center of Kashgar and followed the pungent smell of cattle past the melon sellers and butchers until I came to the cattle. At the entrance to this part of the market I was stopped by three policemen, all pointed sternly at my camera.
“No pictures!” they shouted in unison.
“Why?” I asked but got no response other than to be told again, “No pictures!” It made no sense. The livestock market in Kashgar is known to be one of the best and most interesting in the world. People traveled from far away with suitcases full of expensive camera equipment to experience it for themselves.
The market area itself smelled of fur, feces and fear. The place teemed with sheep and fine oxen and the odd obstreperous donkey. The animals stood cheek by jowl, tied to the temporary fences or squeezed together on trucks. People shouted and traded everywhere, fistfuls of bills were counted and exchanged. The men had calloused hands and were dressed in dirty work clothes. The women had long dresses covered in shit. Here and there I came across Chinese tourists with face masks. None of them noticed that photography was not allowed, and the farmers didn’t seem to mind being photographed – they were too busy for that. The police stayed in their guard house at the entrance, at a safe distance from the cow pats, sheep excrement – and tourists.
Kashgar and trade are more or less synonymous. The city’s strategic location at the foot of the Pamir Mountains meant that whoever controlled Kashgar also controlled the trade routes west to Persia and south to Kashmir. There were caravan routes from Kashgar to Xian in the north-east and Kazakhstan in the north. Marco Polo, who passed through the city on his expedition to China in the thirteenth century, described Kashgar as “the finest and largest” city in the region.
Kashgar’s history is long and turbulent. Over the centuries, the city has been ruled by the Greco-Bactrian Kushan dynasty, Tibetan kings, Chinese emperors, Arab caliphates, Mongol khanates and Turkish dynasties. The Chinese did not dominate until the 18th century: Xinjiang province, and therefore also the city of Kashgar, was not permanently incorporated into the Chinese empire until 1757. Xinjiang means “new frontier”.
Xinjiang is the westernmost province in China, and by far the largest: it covers an area larger than Spain, France, Germany and Great Britain combined. The province shares borders with eight countries – Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and is crucial to the development of the new Silk Road, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), like the Chinese. the government’s new pet project is officially called. The plan is to connect China with the other countries in Asia, as well as with Europe and Africa, via a huge network of new roads, railway systems and shipping routes – a modern Silk Road, with China as the world’s main supplier of labour, large loans, cheap electronics and mass-produced clothes. China has cracked the code: in the age of hyper-capitalism, when everything can be sold and free competition is god, empire-building takes on a different form. Why occupy when you can buy? Why subjugate a country by force when you can be the cheapest supplier to their markets?
Although Xinjiang is half the size of India in terms of land area, its population is the same as that of Beijing – around twenty million. The Central Asian terrain is inhospitable, and vast areas, such as the Tian Shan Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert, are uninhabitable. Over the past few decades, the number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang has increased dramatically, but is still no more than half of the Uyghur population. More than ninety percent of the population in the rest of China is Han Chinese; Xinjiang and Tibet are the only provinces where they are not yet the majority.
The Uighurs are a Turkic people with roots in Mongolia and the area south of Lake Baikal in Russia. When they were driven out of Mongolia by the Yensei Kyrgyz in the 8th century, they settled in the area that now includes Xinjiang. Here they established the kingdom of Qocho, also known as Uighuristan. In the thirteenth century, the Uighurs surrendered to Genghis Khan’s brutal army and were ruled for centuries by various Mongol khanates. The Uighurs were originally Buddhists and Manichaeans, but converted to Islam under the Mongols.
The Chinese have had to work hard to maintain their rule over the new territory. By the late 1860s, Yaqub Beg, a brutal warlord from what is now Uzbekistan, took control of much of Xinjiang. Beg tyrannized the region for nearly a decade before the Chinese were finally able to force him out. Meanwhile, the Russians had taken the opportunity to occupy the Ili Valley in the north, but returned it to the Chinese ten years later – for a handsome sum of money. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1912, and the First Republic of China was proclaimed, Xinjiang was more or less left to fend for itself. Once again, Russia seized the opportunity, and by the 1930s Xinjiang was a Soviet colony in all but name. The Russians controlled everything from the oil wells to the tin mines, Russian was the most popular foreign language, and in good communist style, many of the mosques were converted into community centers and theaters. The old Soviet consulate in the center of Kashgar still stands as a monument to this Russian influence. It is now a budget hotel, but the extravagant gardens, complete with Greek-inspired statues, pavilions and fountains, testify to its former grandeur.
At the same time as the Soviet Russians dominated the region, the local population experienced a national awakening. The Turkic-speaking Muslims again began to call themselves Uyghurs, heirs to the kingdom of Uighuristan, a name that had lain dormant for centuries. It was they who dreamed of creating Turkestan, an independent republic for the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and in the early 1930s East Turkestan appeared. With the support of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, a Muslim army attacked Kashgar in 1934. Several thousand Uighurs were killed in the ensuing fighting, and the East Turkestan Republic died with them. It was resurrected again for a short period ten years later, in the Ili Valley, northern Xinjiang, with significant support from the Soviet Union. The Second East Turkestan Republic, which had its own monetary system and army, gave up its independence for good when Mao came to power in 1949.
Recently, there have been rumblings again in China’s wild west, which has resulted in a series of terrorist attacks. In March 2014, for example, a group of Uyghur terrorists attacked random passengers with knives at the train station in Kunming in Yunnan province, more than two thousand kilometers from Xinjiang. Thirteen people were killed and more than one hundred and forty wounded. A few weeks later, forty-three people were killed by a car bomb at the vegetable market in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang. In September of the following year, more than fifty people were killed in a knife attack at a coal mine in Aksu, western Xinjiang, and again Uighurs were responsible for the attack.
Chinese authorities have now taken draconian measures to crush the Uyghur separatist movement. Since 2017, more than one million Uighurs have been held in state detention camps. Chinese authorities prefer to call them “re-education camps”, but in reality they are like modern concentration camps, with watchtowers and surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Former prisoners have told how they were forced to sing songs in praise of the Communist Party, and that difficult prisoners were beaten, raped, denied food and kept in solitary confinement. In many cases, Han Chinese have moved in with the prisoners’ families to supervise their relatives and teach them about Chinese values.
Excerpt from High: A Journey Across the Himalayas, Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal and China by Erika Fatland. Courtesy of Pegasus Press.