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” were perhaps inspired by Donald’s many escapades in Farawaystan, the seeds for 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 actually learned to read with Donald Duck. My father only ever read Donald Duck magazines to me in bed, and when he fell asleep, which he often did, I would have to carry on reading by myself.
When I got older, I of course read other things, and I was fascinated by the home atlas. We did not have a globe, but we had several thick atlases. In my imagination, I travelled all over these maps, and nowhere were the names more magical than in the brown and white mountain range between India and China: Hindu Kush. Thimpu. Lhasa. Hunza. Kathmandu. Sikkim. Karakoram. Annapurna. And the most beautiful name of all: Himalaya. I never tired of repeating the sounds to myself: Hi-ma-la-ya.
In one of my favorite stories from Duckburg, Carl Barks allows Uncle Scrooge to have a breakdown. His condition is serious: he can no longer bear to look at or hear about money. In the end, Donald and his nephews take Scrooge to the hidden valley of Tralla La high up in the Himalayas, where apparently money does not exist. The valley is so isolated that they can only parachute in, but all their efforts pay off: they find an earthly paradise, where the people are joyful, 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 at the start of the twentieth century, Western adventurers continued to dress up as local merchants and pilgrims in the hope of getting to Lhasa, Tibet’s legendary capital, and for several decades after flags had been staked in both the South and the North Pole, the highest peaks of the Himalayas remained unconquered. Then there were all the stories and mysticism. Books about hidden valleys where no-one got old and no-one died, where everyone lived in enlightened harmony and possessed deep insight and great wisdom, flew off the shelves of bookshops in Paris, London and New York.
Uncle Scrooge did not stay long in Tralla La. He had taken with him some bottles of medication in case he had a relapse, and the locals became obsessed with the bottle tops, which they considered to be rare treasures, so they started to barter with them. In order to solve this problem, Uncle Scrooge had planes drop a billion bottle tops in 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 from the valley.
When I started traveling at nineteen, my first choice was obvious: I had to see the Himalayas. My meeting with the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, where the tourist shops jostle for space, and the Tibetan villages in Annapurna, where pizza and spaghetti are on the menu, left me disgusted but wanting more. Many years later, I went to Bhutan, and discovered a very different Himalayan reality, but this too had been modified and cushioned 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 large and small ethnic groups have sought refuge over the centuries in the remote, inaccessible valleys, where many of them have remained more or less undisturbed to the present day. Mountaineers write about the mountains they climb and their own exertions; 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 range crosses five countries, from China and India in the north, through Bhutan and Nepal, to Pakistan in the north-west. I wanted to discover what life stories and cultures were to be found there, beyond the well-trodden paths, high up in the valleys and villages of the mountains with the beautiful name.
Soon I would travel both far and high.
I took a taxi from the center in Kashgar and followed the pungent smell of cattle past the melon sellers and butchers, until I came to the livestock. At the entrance to this part of the market, I was stopped by three policemen, who all pointed sternly at my camera.
“No photos!” they shouted in unison.
“Why?” I asked, but got no answer other than being told again, “No photos!” It made no sense. The livestock market in Kashgar is famous for being one of the best and most interesting in the world. People travelled from afar with suitcases full of expensive camera equipment to experience it for themselves.
The market area itself reeked of fur, faeces and fear. The place was heaving with sheep and fine oxen and the odd obstreperous donkey. The animals stood cheek by jowl, tied to the temporary fences or squashed together on truck beds. People were shouting and bartering everywhere, fistfuls of banknotes were counted and exchanged. The men had calloused hands and were dressed in dirty work clothes. The women wore long dresses covered in shit. Here and there I came across Chinese tourists wearing face masks. None of them paid any heed to the fact that photography was not allowed, and the farmers did not seem to mind being photographed – they were too busy for that. The police tended to stay in their guardhouse by the entrance, at a safe distance from the cowpats, sheep droppings – and tourists.
Kashgar and trade are more or less synonymous. The city’s strategic location at the base 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, Arabic caliphates, Mongolian khanates and Turkish dynasties. The Chinese did not dominate until the eighteenth 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 most westerly province in China, and the biggest by far: it covers an area that is larger than Spain, France, Germany and the UK combined. The province has 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 the Belt and Road Initiative (the BRI), as the Chinese authorities’ 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 an enormous network of new roads, railway systems and shipping routes – a modern Silk Road, with China as the world’s main supplier of labour, big loans, cheap electronics and mass-produced clothes. China has cracked the code: in the age of hyper capitalism, when anything 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 with force when you can be the cheapest supplier to their markets?
Even though Xinjiang is half the size of India in terms of area, the population is the same as that of Beijing – around twenty million. The central Asian terrain is inhospitable, and enormous areas, such as the Tian Shan Mountains and Taklamakan Desert, are uninhabitable. In the past few decades, the number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang has increased dramatically, but still is no more than half the population of Uighurs. More than ninety per cent 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 ninth 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 cruel army and for centuries were ruled by various Mongolian khanates. The Uighurs were originally Buddhists and Manichaeists, but converted to Islam under the Mongols.
The Chinese have had to work hard to maintain their rule over the new territory. Towards the end of the 1860s, Yaqub Beg, a brutal warlord from what is now Uzbekistan, took control of large parts of Xinjiang. Beg tyrannised the region for almost a decade before the Chinese eventually managed to force him out. In the meantime, the Russians had taken the opportunity to occupy the Ili Valley in the north, but gave it back to the Chinese ten years later – for a handsome sum of money. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1912, and the first Chinese republic was announced, Xinjiang was more or less left to itself. Once again, Russia seized their chance, 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 centres and theatres. The old Soviet consulate in the centre of Kashgar still stands as a monument to this Russian influence. It is now a cheap hotel, but the extravagant gardens, complete with Greek-inspired statues, pavilions and fountains, bear witness to past grandeur.
At the same time that the Soviet Russians dominated the region, the local population had a national awakening. The Turkic-speaking Muslims once again started to call themselves Uighurs, heirs to the kingdom of Uighuristan, a name that had lain dormant for centuries. There were those who dreamed of creating Turkestan, an independent republic for the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and at the start of the 1930s, East Turkestan emerged. 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 battles, and the East Turkestan republic died with them. It was resurrected again for a short period ten years later, in the Ili Valley, in the north of Xinjiang, with considerable support from the Soviet Union. The second East Turkestan Republic, which had its own monetary system and army, relinquished its independence for good when Mao came to power in 1949.
More recently, there have again been rumblings in China’s Wild West, which have resulted in numerous terrorist attacks. In March 2014, for example, a group of Uighur terrorists attacked random passengers with knives at the train station in Kunming in Yunnan Province, more than two thousand kilometres from Xinjiang. Thirteen people were killed and more than a hundred and forty wounded. Some weeks later, forty-three people were killed by a car bomb in the vegetable market in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang. In September the following year, more than fifty people were killed in a knife attack at a coal mine in Aksu, in western Xinjiang, and again Uighurs were responsible for the attack.
The Chinese authorities have now implemented draconian measures to crush the Uighur separatist movement. Since 2017, more than one million Uighurs have been held in state internment camps. The Chinese authorities prefer to call them “re-education camps”, but in reality, they are like modern-day concentration camps, with watch towers 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 held in isolation. In many cases, Han Chinese have moved in with the families of prisoners in order to supervise the relatives and teach them about Chinese values.
Excerpted from High: A Journey Across the Himalaya, Through Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and China by Erika Fatland. Courtesy of Pegasus Press.