Southwest China: Lhasa to Kabul (Rough Planet TravelWikiTI, 2050 edition)
It is possible to fly on the Lhasa-Kabul leg of the journey, although expensive, but to fly would be to miss the wonderment of taking what is perhaps the most exciting train ride left on the planet – the Lhasa-Kabul Express. Not only is the scenery fantastic, and unviewable by any other means, and the engineering of the Karakoram Tunnel and the amazing bridges leading up to its portals a modern Wonder of the World, but the sociological aspect of the ride is unbeatable. Hard class, although not recommended for the novice rough traveler, has all the excitement of the wagon trains and emigrant ships of the Nineteenth Century, packed with a nation on the move, as migrants from the more northern and eastern parts of China come to try their luck in the Southwest. Soft class is more advisable, and from your comfortable sleeping compartment you can sip tea or maotai and watching the pageant of timeless, yet changing China unfold past your wide plate-glass window. We watched in fascination as other emigrant trains passed in the opposite direction, taking migrants also on the move, in this case members of Southwest China’s colorful national minorities headed toward the Voluntary Resettlements in the less crowded lands of the Tibetan Plateau. A nation on the move! Our guide and translator, the ever-helpful Miss Chen, explained that the armed guards on the train were there to protect the voluntary settlers from the occasional bands of bandits that still remain from the Times of Troubles before Southwest China was restored to its rightful historical status as part of the Chinese nation. Similarly, the many long eastbound freight trains of minerals speak to the massive economic development that has transformed Southwest China since the end of the Time of Troubles and reunification.
Arrival in storied Kabul was exciting, but, on walkabout, the first impression of the city was a bit of a letdown. So much of it has been rebuilt since the Times of Troubles that it now for the most part resembles any other Chinese city, and the crowds on the busy streets generally have the faces you would see in Shanghai, Beijing, or Lhasa. Indeed, if you are looking for the famous veiled faces or turban-clad national minorities, you must go to the Minorities Quarter, where several blocks have been restored in the traditional minority style – even a mosque! (Although the call to prayer was merely an automatic sound file played by a helpful policeman-guide.) Ironically, you will see more Tibetans on the streets than Pashtuns, since many Tibetans have taken advantage of the lower altitudes and cheap housing available in Kabul these days. It is easier to get good Tibetan momo dumplings now in Kabul than the traditional lamb and rice dishes associated with the area, although a convincing version of the latter can be found at the restaurant of the Kabul Sheraton. However, as a consolation, the conventional Chinese food is ubiquitous and good; we especially grew fond of the barbecued pork buns sold by street vendors on almost every corner.
The Minorities Quarter is also recommended for finding those unique local arts and crafts, which have been carefully preserved by the Ministry of Chinese Minority Cultures. One novel gift is the replica firearms (non-working, of course) made in the traditional manner by local gunsmiths, several dozen of whom still work in the Minorities Quarter. The more expensive versions are purported to have been fabricated from the remains of Soviet and western armored vehicles destroyed in the Times of Troubles, although such claims may be taken with a grain of salt — or two! Authentic minority dancing shows are put on several times daily, see the Ministry site for times.
Travel outside of Kabul is limited and inadvisable, both because modern infrastructure is still under construction, and because police permits for such travel are still difficult to obtain, due to some remaining bandit activity. We did make a visit by air to Khandahar, which has been rebuilt along similar lines to Kabul, but frankly less interesting, with no Minorities Quarter or handicraft shops. The guide was proud to show us the new pork packing plant in central Khandahar, on the site of the former mosque, but frankly, if you’ve seen one light industrial facility, you’ve seen them all. The air trip to see the restored Bamyan Buddhas (see below) is also said to be worthwhile; no special permit is needed if you fly.
One word of caution to travelers – it is easy to offend local sensibilities by discussing politics and repeating ill-informed stories spread by Sinophobic elements in those few irresponsible nations that still unfortunately permit such gossip. All responsible academic experts now agree that Southwest China has always been part of China, and its national minorities have always been part of the greater Chinese family. The Bamyan Buddhas, destroyed by Sinophobic separatists and now carefully restored, demonstrate the influence of Chinese Buddhist missionaries and the ties that have always existed between the various parts of China. Separatist activity has virtually ceased, outside of a few exile organizations, and, just as with the Tibetan region, over time the natural mixing of population and the acceptance of reunification by the world community has laid separatist fantasies to rest. Be particularly aware that the use of the former purported name for the Far Southwestern Region (“A*********n”) is considered Sinophobic.
For return travel, we would suggest air travel back to central China for those who can afford it, and a ride back on the train for those on a more limited budget. Air links to the east and west are few and permits for travel on them are generally restricted to government officials on priority business. It is possible to travel by bus east to Quetta or west to Herat, and thence onward to other Indian or Iranian destinations. However, visas and travel permits are difficult to obtain and the trips themselves, over not-yet-improved roads, are tedious. If you do wish to pursue this option, the Imperial Iranian consulate is on Sun Yixian Avenue, and the Union of India consulate is on May Fourth Boulevard. Be aware that dosimeters must be worn on bus travel through (or more accurately, around) Quetta and other Reconstruction Zones, by order of the Indian Military Administrator.
The authors would like to acknowledge the generous grant of the Southwest China Development Railway Authority that underwrote the research for this article.