Monthly Archives: June 2004

The Taste of Gobi Rations in the 1930s

Travel rations in the Gobi were somewhat less varied in the 1930s than they are now.

We started by drinking a bowl of “brick tea.” This was tea made by hammering off a chunk from a brick measuring about 6″ x 10″ x 1″ that weighed about two and a half pounds and was formed by compressing tea leaves into the least possible space in order to reduce the cost of transportation. Such bricks were widely used as a medium of exchange in the barter trade between Chinese and Mongols.

The chunk broken off from the brick is pounded, usually in a mortar, to loosen the compacted elements. Most teas are steeped in hot water according to the taste of the drinker. Brick tea is made by boiling. Mongols and Tibetans drink tea au lait, with added milk, butter, and salt. Chinese prefer it straight.

We had ours Chinese style. At first sip the tea tasted a bit like water in which a strip of rubber has been boiled. It improved only slightly with more sips.

Next we had a bowl of roasted or parched millet. Although millet is generally considered to be poor people’s fare, especially in contrast to high-status rice and wheat, it seemed to me not a whit inferior in taste to many of our cereals that are well known to be the breakfasts of champions…. Camel drivers generally eat the millet dry, washing it down with copious bowls of brick tea. Others prefer the somewhat more efficient technique of pouring handfuls of the cereal into their tea and then slurping down the combination. This was my preference, too …

We also had a small taste of two other cereals. One was a kind of oatmeal, not the flaky sort such as graces American breakfasts, but rather a finely ground flour, also roasted or parched. We ate it in a bowl of hot tea, making a sort of porridge, with the optional addition of a bit of sugar. I found it quite tasty. The other cereal, also a parched flour, tasted like bran. We sampled a few spoonfuls in our tea, again with a bit of sugar. It too seemed to me quite palatable.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 94-95

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The Feel of the Gobi Underfoot

John DeFrancis trekked across the Gobi in 1935, mostly on foot.

The term “Gobi” requires a bit of explanation. It is a Mongolian word with the literal meaning “gravel desert.” The term “Gobi Desert” is therefore redundant, but it is now firmly established in general usage, where it is applied to an area extending seven hundred miles from north to south and twelve hundred miles from east to west. This is centered along the border running east and west between Inner and Outer Mongolia.

But this huge expanse, the central portion of which is often designated “the Great Gobi,” actually consists of stretches comprising different kinds of terrain–sandy belts, barren rocky hills, patches of grassland, and gravel-covered soil. It is only the last of these, the gravel-covered stretches, that Mongols refer to as “gobi.” Foreign travelers in the area soon learn to use the term in both the restricted sense of the Mongols and the looser sense established by popular usage.

The distinction, which is sometimes expressed in writing by capitalization versus small letters, is important if we are to make sense out of a statement like “After crossing this sandy stretch we’ll have a belt of gobi before running into more sand.” When hoofing it through the desert one can hardly fail to be impressed by the differences in terrain and by the utility of the restricted Mongol usage of the term. And after slogging through a stretch of sandy soil it is a relief for one’s legs to come to a belt of good firm gobi.

We developed a refined feeling–literally a feeling–for the differences in the ground under our feet. Sight was not a completely reliable guide. Except for differences in color, one stretch of gobi often looked much like another. But our feet felt a difference.

Some stretches of gobi consisted of a thick layer of hard-packed gravel that held up well under our weight and made walking a pleasure. Others consisted of a thin covering of gravel on a friable crust that gave way to softer earth underneath. Walking over such terrain was almost as tiring as walking on sand.

There were differences between sandy areas too. Wind-blown sand that covered the ground with drifts and dunes was so tiring to walk on that we often made long detours to avoid such areas. Sand in dry riverbeds was occasionally somewhat compacted and so provided better footing.

Zhou said that there were actually five kinds of gobi–white, black, yellow, red, and blue. These colors refer to the kinds of gravel that covered the ground. The sand, soil, and rocks in their various hues added still more color to terrain that not only varied from place to place but changed shape before our eyes, sometimes because we saw the wind literally remaking the face of the land, always because in our progression we saw things from constantly changing perspectives. We found no little pleasure, or at least fascination, in the desert kaleidoscope.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 84-85

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Naipaul on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist Christians

Naipaul’s chapter profiling a Javanese Christian poet from Yogyakarta is entitled “Below the Lava”:

It was because of the Christian preaching against polygamy, and the suffering it had brought in their own lives, that Linus’s father and mother–as recently as 1938–had converted to Christianity. They had not been Muslims before, but Javanists, with a mixed local religion made up of survivals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. They had both attended Christian schools; they had learned about Christianity there. The Christianity they had adopted had not meant a break with the past.

“Here even when we became Christians we continued with our old customs. Taking flowers to the cemetery, praying to the spirits of our ancestors. When someone dies even today in our Christian community we have mixed rituals. The ceremonies three days after the death, seven days, forty days, a hundred days, one year, two years, a thousand days.” Because of his father these death ceremonies would have been on Linus’s mind.

Linus said, “Christianity is important because it teaches you to love somebody as you love yourself. It means teaching us to become tender persons, not wild or aggressive persons. In Javanism also we have the concept of restraint. It is easy therefore for Javanese people to embrace Christ’s teaching.”

High up on the inner concrete wall, above the central doorway, out of which Linus’s mother and sister had come from the room at the back, there was a big brown cross. It was above a grotesque leather puppet. It was the standardized puppet figure of the clown, Semar, from the shadow play, a character, Linus said, from one or the other of the two Javanized Hindu epics, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata: “a god turned into a man, always supporting the good people.”

In 1979 there had been a leather puppet there, but I didn’t remember Semar. I remembered another figure. I couldn’t say what it was, and I didn’t ask Linus about it. It was only while working on this chapter that I checked, and found that in 1979 the mascot figure on that wall, the associate divinity of the house, above the horizontal ventilation slits and below the cross, was the Black Krishna. Not the playful Krishna of India, stealing the housewife’s freshly churned butter and hiding the clothes of the milkmaids while they swam in the river; but the Black Krishna of Java, a figure of wisdom. That Krishna would have been a sufficient protector of a man starting out as a poet. Now, in a time of deeper grief and need, Semar–the man-god who helped the good–was a more appropriate divinity….

[Linus] said, “Six or seven feet below us here are many Hindu temples or Buddha temples or Hindu-Buddha temples, buried by eruptions of Merapi a thousand years ago and also two thousand and fifty years ago.” Merapi, the active volcano of the region, creator of the lava that enriched the soil, and showed as black boulders in the beds of streams. “This creates a job for people who want to study about Java culture and religion, because behind these phenomena we can catch the spirit of Javanese people today.”

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 81, 85

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Naipaul on the Pesantren Palimpsest

V. S. Naipaul has a keen sense of the palimpsest that is Indonesia.

In 1979 Mr. [Abdurrahman] Wahid and his pesantren [think madrassa], the Islamic boarding-school movement, had been thought to be at the forefront of the modern Muslim movement. The pesantren had the additional glory at that time of having been visited by the educationist Ivan Illich and pronounced good examples of the “deschooling” he favored. Deschooling wasn’t perhaps the best idea to offer village people who had been barely schooled. But because of Illich’s admiration the pesantren of Indonesia seemed to be yet another example of Asia providing an unexpected light, after the obfuscations of colonialism. And a young businessman of Jakarta, a supporter of Mr. Wahid’s, arranged for me to visit pesantren near the city of Yogyakarta. One of the pesantren was Mr. Wahid’s own; it had been established by his family.

There had followed two harrowing days: looking for the correct places first of all, moving along crowded country roads between crowded school compounds: usually quiet and sedate at the entrance, but then all at once–even in the evening–as jumping and thick with competitive life as a packed trout pond at feeding time: mobs of jeering boys and young men, some of them relaxed, in sarongs alone, breaking off from domestic chores to follow me, some of the mob shouting, “Illich! Illich!”

With that kind of distraction I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I am sure I missed a lot. But deschooling didn’t seem an inappropriate word for what I had seen. I didn’t see the value of young villagers assembling in camps to learn village crafts and skills which they were going to pick up anyway. And I was worried by the religious side: the very simple texts, the very large classes, the learning by heart, and the pretense of private study afterwards. In the crowded yards at night I saw boys sitting in the darkness before open books and pretending to read….

Before Islam they would have been Buddhist monasteries, supported by the people of the villages and in return reminding them of the eternal verities. In the early days of Islam here they would have remained spiritual places, Sufi centers. In the Dutch time they would have become Islamic schools. Later they would in addition have tried to become a more modern kind of school. Here, as elsewhere in Indonesia, where Islam was comparatively recent, the various layers of history could still be easily perceived. But–this was my idea, not Mr. Wahid’s–the pesantren ran all the separate ideas together and created the kind of mishmash I had seen.

While we talked there had been some chanting going on outside: an Arabic class. Mr. Wahid and I went out at last to have a look. The chanting was coming from the verandah of a very small house at the bottom of the garden. The light was very dim; I could just make out the teacher and his class. The teacher was one of the most learned men in the neighborhood, Mr. Wahid said. The pesantren had built the little house for him; the villagers fed him; and he had, in addition, a stipend of five hundred rupiah a month, at that time about eighty cents. So, Islamic though he was, chanting without pause through his lesson in Arabic law, he was descended–as wise man and spiritual lightning-conductor, living off the bounty of the people he served–from the monks of the Buddhist monasteries.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 22-23

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Camel Train: Fueling Up, Heading Out

John DeFrancis describes crossing the Gobi by camel in 1935.

Our first day on the road turned out to be fairly typical of the routine we followed in more than two months of travel by camel. After breakfast [Cameleer] Zhou took the five camels out to pasture. The rest of us busied ourselves with various chores for the rest of the morning. At noon Zhou brought the camels back from pasture. We had dinner (this was always our biggest meal of the day) and then got everything ready for loading the camels. We had previously decided what we wanted to have access to on the march, such as windbreakers in case the weather turned cold, what would be needed when we made camp, and what would not be needed for several days or even weeks. When we ended our march for the day it would be night-time, too late to search for fuel for our camp fire, so we would have to carry some with us. Martin and I took a small basket reserved for this purpose and went scouting for the only sure fuel in camel country.

The Mongols call it argol. It consists of camel droppings about the size of the briquets popular in American outdoor barbecuing. One needs only a squishy mistake or two to learn to distinguish between fresh droppings and sun-baked ones. Well-seasoned “camel briquets” burn a little more slowly, and with a little less heat, than charcoal briquets, but they serve quite well in the absence of better fuel. After filling the basket with enough argol, we hung it on one of the camels along with a few other things that needed to be readily available.

The men brought each of the loaded camels to its feet by giving a tug on the cord attached to the peg thrust through the cartilage of its nose–gently at first, not so gently if the beast tried to ignore the summons to rise. Then they tied the cord of one camel to the load of a preceding camel so that all five of them were joined together in a string.

In larger caravans a string consists of ten or a dozen camels led by a man known as the camel puller. The last camel in his string has a bell attached to its neck so that, if no longer hearing the clanging sound behind him, the camel puller would be alerted to the fact that one or more of the camels had broken loose. Zhou went to the head of the string and took hold of the cord of the lead camel, since he had been designated to have the first stint as camel puller. We were to take turns at the task of leading the camels.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 82-83

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How the (Mongolian) West Was Lost

Whether you consider land as won or lost depends on your point of view. In America, whites exult at how the West was won, Indians mourn at how it was lost. In our travels through the western part of Inner Mongolia we saw how the Mongols were literally losing ground before the influx of land-hungry Chinese.

In the years since then, there have been some changes in Chinese policy owing to the establishment of the new regime in 1949. For one thing, the Mongols, along with other minority peoples, have been exempted from the one-child policy that has been applied to the the major part of the population, those called “Han Chinese,” so named from the great Han dynasty of 206 B.C. to A.D. 220. For another, the Mongols’ demand that their tribal lands be merged into a single unit has been at least partially met by the de-gerrymandering of the old provinces and the establishment of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. However, the boundaries are still drawn so that Chinese far outnumber Mongols there. While the population of Inner Mongolia has increased fivefold, the Mongols themselves have increased by only 50 percent. Today they comprise only 2.5 million out of a total population of 20 million.

The more things change. …

While trekking west of the Temple of the Larks [in 1935], we noted a pattern of Chinese penetration that differed somewhat from what we had encountered in the region directly north of Guihua [‘return to civilization’, now called Hohhot, which the Mongols used to call Koko Khoto ‘the Blue City’]. There the Chinese had taken over large tracts of land and settled close together in villages similar to those that dotted the farmland of North China. From these villages the peasants went out in all directions to till their plots of land.

In the area where grassland merged into gobi [‘gravel desert’], however, Chinese families lived separate from each other, a pattern more closely approximating that of the United States in the frontier days. We encountered these isolated farmsteads only at long intervals in the course of our daily marches.

Another point of difference was that some of these farmsteads doubled as trading posts. Many of the families settled in this region did some supplementary buying and selling. They either acted on their own or served as agents of the trading houses based in Guihua and Baotou. It also happened that some Chinese who started out primarily as traders took to farming and sheep-raising as sidelines. The goods sold at these trading posts were supplied by caravans belonging to the parent companies with which they were affiliated. Supplies were dropped off by caravans on their outward journey to the Black River. On the return trip the caravans picked up the items that had been acquired by barter with the Mongols.

For all these little trading posts it seemed to be a pretty miserable existence. Only the Mongol princes who permitted the alienation of tribal lands, and the Chinese authorities who promoted the whole business, made any real profit out of it all. The worst losers were ordinary Mongols, who bought and sold at prices largely set by the Chinese and saw their best-watered land being taken over by these immigrants.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 21, 84, 118-119

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China’s Unsettled West

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Joshua Kurlantzick reviews several books about China’s “unsettled west”:

After 1949, Beijing’s brutal pacification of Xinjiang — a vast province in western China — was almost completely ignored in the West for the next 40 years. Unlike other groups persecuted by China (such as the Tibetans), Xinjiang’s Muslim inhabitants, the Uighurs, have had no charismatic, English-speaking spokesperson or unified exile organization; the Uighurs’ few prominent exiles lived in Turkey, and they spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Xinjiang thus rarely made it onto the agenda of foreign governments, and with the region largely closed to foreigners, few academics or human rights groups could study it.

Within the past decade, however, news from Xinjiang has started to seep out. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was suddenly confronted with newly independent neighbors in Central Asia — states with close ethnic ties to the Turkic Uighurs. Uighurs began traveling to these Central Asian states, Pakistan, the Middle East, and even the United States, often returning to Xinjiang more determined than ever to fight for independence. Worried about growing Uighur separatism, Beijing tightened its control of Xinjiang, turning the region into the death-penalty capital of the world….

The idea of Xinjiang as a contiguous entity is relatively new. As Tyler’s book colorfully captures, from the premodern era until the mid-eighteenth century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all. Its vast, barren deserts made it difficult to conquer: in the early twentieth century, the well-traveled British archaeologist Aural Stein visited Xinjiang and was overwhelmed by its inhospitality, marveling at its “desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death.” When Chinese rulers did manage to conquer Xinjiang, they found maintaining large armies there nearly impossible. In 104 BC, Emperor Wudi sent 60,000 men to conquer the West; only 10,000 came back alive.

Tyler brings the region’s premodern history to life, skillfully employing individual anecdotes to illustrate its wild past, including the introduction of Sufi Islam in the tenth century and the later development of the Silk Road trade route, which passed through Xinjiang. The other two books, which are drier but fact-filled, fill in Tyler’s overly broad narrative with rich detail and more nuanced assessment.

via Asiapages via Peking Duck

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