Afghanistan 2050: A Travel Guide

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.

The Great U-Turn and the Three Who Made It

The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O’Sullivan; Regnery, 448 pages.

Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings

John O’Sullivan is a journalist with a fine sense of history. Thus it is appropriate that he should write a book about a time, and a set of people, who are now crossing the threshold between being the subject of journalism, to being the subject of history. Of the three — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II — two belong now to the ages, and Lady Thatcher has become less and less active as health issues reduce her speaking schedule. The students who will be entering university this year were born in 1988 — Reagan’s last year in office — and were two when Margaret Thatcher left government. They were sixteen when the white smoke heralding John Paul II’s successor issued forth over the Sistine Chapel; if they were not Catholics, and were incurious about current events, they might have barely registered his passing.

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Andrew Roberts on the Anglosphere

Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings.

This is cool. Andrew Roberts, one of the best English historians of this generation, is about to have his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 published. I have not gotten my hands on it yet, but here are two quotes, one from the extract on his website, and the other extracted from a review.

This from the extract: Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Crown-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common – and enough that separated them from everyone else � that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately. A Martian landing on our planet might find linguistic or geographical more useful than ethnic factors when it came to analyzing the differences between different groups of earthlings; the countries whose history this book covers are those where the majority of people speak English as their first language.

Yes — this lays out one of the most basic points very succinctly. Most of the people of the Anglosphere are so close to the matter that all we see is the visible differences, which are often just a matter of “ethnographic dazzle” — colorful but fundamentally trivial differences. The more perspective the observer gains, either through cultural distance, passage of time, or geographical distance, the more the similarities and continuities of the Anglosphere stand out. Once you have gained this perspective, proper study of the Anglosphere can begin.

And here is a quote presented in Michael Burleigh’s review: A Maori spokesmen expressed this very well in 1918 as he outlined why his people had fought so courageously for the British Crown:

�We know of the Samoans, our kin: we know of the Eastern and Western natives of German Africa, and we know of the extermination of the Hereros, and that is enough for us. For seventy-eight years we have been, not under the rule of the British, but taking part in the ruling of ourselves, and we know by experience that the foundations of British sovereignty are based upon the eternal principles of liberty, equity and justice�.

An interesting footnote, and chilling foreshadowing that the Maori quoted could not have imagined when he spoke those words in 1918, is that the extermination of the Herero in South-West Africa in 1905 took place under the governorship of Paul Goering — father of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.

I’m sure I will have much more to say when I have read the book. And I look forward to what Lex, James, Helen and our other illustrious co-bloggers have to say as well.