Category Archives: labor

North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

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Filed under democracy, economics, education, industry, Japan, Korea, labor, migration, military, nationalism, philosophy, religion

North Korea’s Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

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Negative Human Development in Resource States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 211-212:

In 1970, the year the Olympic movement expelled South Africa, the government passed legislation formally stripping blacks of their citizenship and restricting them to destitute “homelands,” and the authorities appointed a barbaric new commanding officer at Robben Island prison to watch over Mandela and his fellow inmates, South Africa produced some 62 percent of the gold mined worldwide. From the early 1970s to 1993 gold, diamonds, and other minerals accounted for between half and two-thirds of South Africa’s exports annually.

South Africa’s gold and diamonds provided the financial means for apartheid to exist. In that sense white rule was an extreme manifestation of the resource state: the harnessing of a national endowment of mineral wealth to ensure the power and prosperity of the few while the rest are cast into penury and impotence. None of Africa’s resource states today come close to the level of orchestrated subjugation of the majority that the apartheid regime achieved. Neither do they employ apartheid’s racial creed, even if ethnicity has combined poisonously with the struggle to capture resource rent in Nigeria, Angola, Guinea, and elsewhere. But as their rulers, in concert with the multinational corporations of the resource industry, horde the fruits of their nations’ oil and minerals, Africa’s resource states have come to bear a troubling resemblance to the divisions of apartheid.

While the children of eastern Congo, northern Nigeria, Guinea, and Niger waste away, the beneficiaries of the looting machine grow fat. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist who has examined with great insight why mass starvation occurs, writes, “The sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled—between ‘us’ and ‘them’—is a crucial feature of famines.” That same reasoning could be applied to the provision of other basic needs, including clean water and schooling. And rarely is the distance Sen describes as wide as in Africa’s resource states.

Many of Africa’s resource states experienced very high rates of economic growth during the commodity boom of the past decade. The usual measure of average incomes—GDP per head—has risen. But on closer examination such is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling class that that growth has predominantly benefited those who were already rich and powerful, rendering the increase in GDP per head misleading. A more revealing picture comes from a different calculation. Each year the United Nations ranks all the countries for which it can gather sufficient data (186 in 2012) by their level of human development, things like rates of infant mortality and years of schooling. It also ranks them by GDP per head. If you subtract a country’s rank on the human development index from its rank on the GDP per head index, you get an indication of the extent to which economic growth is actually bettering the lot of the average person in that country. In countries that score zero—as Congo, Rwanda, Russia, and Portugal did in 2012—living standards are roughly where you might expect them to be, given that country’s GDP per head. People in countries with positive scores enjoy disproportionately pleasant living conditions relative to income—Cuba, Georgia, and Samoa top the table with scores of 44, 37, and 28, respectively. A negative score indicates a failure to turn national income into longer lives, better health, and more years of education for the population at large. Of the ten countries that come out worst, five are African resource states: Angola (–35), Gabon (–40), South Africa (–42), Botswana (–55), and Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea’s score (–97), comfortably the worst in the world, is all the more remarkable because its GDP per head is close to $30,000 a year, not far below the level of Spain or New Zealand and seventy times that of Congo.

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Filed under Africa, Angola, Congo, democracy, economics, energy, Equatorial Guinea, industry, labor, nationalism, Nigeria, South Africa

New African Infrastructure for Whom?

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 147-149:

It is too simplistic to see China’s quest for African resources as a Manichean struggle for nature’s treasure between East and West. There is competition, but there is also cooperation in the business of resource extraction. And for all its increased attractiveness to rival investors from overseas, much of Africa remains locked at the foot of the global economy.

Ibrahim Iddi Ango, the industrialist who headed Niger’s chamber of commerce, told me that Niger’s rulers had sold the country short in their negotiations with the Chinese. “They need strategic resources. You must say, ‘You are interested in that? These are the conditions. First, you must use local labor. Second, all the needs you have—for example, the transit—you must use at a minimum 50 percent local operators.’ But when they came the government said none of this. The state took a percentage of the businesses and let the Chinese do what they want.” A brief window of opportunity to use China’s desire for African minerals to insist on securing for Niger the skills and infrastructure that might help to salve the resource curse by broadening the economy was closing. “To diversify, it’s central,” Iddi Ango said—and with good reason. Niger is among the African states most acutely dependent on a handful of raw commodity exports, their economic fortunes yoked to the whims of far-off consumers. On the African Development Bank’s index, where a higher score indicates a more diversified economy, relatively wealthy countries not shackled to the resource trade such as Mauritius and Morocco score 22 and 41, respectively. The average for the whole of Africa, including more prosperous North Africa, is 4.8. The most oil-dependent states, Angola and Chad, record the lowest scores, 1.1. Niger does only marginally better, with a score of 2.4.

“But if you let China do what it wants—as many African countries have—they pay for the oil or the resources and use Chinese labor, Chinese trucks. It’s a big problem,” Iddi Ango said. “They are coming because the resources are here. This moment will not be repeated. We can’t miss it. When the uranium or the oil is finished, they will leave.”

The fall of Tandja demonstrated the limits of China’s readiness to get involved in domestic politics to protect African allies. But Xia Huang, the Chinese ambassador in Niamey, encapsulated how China’s readiness to spend and build allowed Beijing to gain a foothold sufficiently strong that its interests could withstand a coup against an ally. “Today there is a bridge between the two sides of the River Niger,” he told me. “But there is also a bridge that links China and Niger.”

Yet the true value of China’s offer to guide Africa on a path to economic diversification and industrialization—the road that led the rich world to prosperity—rests on whether its construction spree is geared primarily toward cultivating the rulers who govern access to resources or toward broadening the opportunities of the population at large. Neither railways that simply connect Chinese-owned mines to Chinese-built ports for the export of commodities nor vanity projects of great cost but little economic usefulness will lift resource states’ inhabitants from their poverty. Martyn Davies, the chief executive of a South African consultancy called Frontier Advisory who has worked as an adviser on Chinese deals in Africa, told me, “When you have a commodity-driven economy, where a lot of people are excluded, it’s a silo economy. It’s very difficult to build infrastructure that supports inclusive growth. Is Chinese-financed infrastructure going to provide diversification? Which comes first?” He added, “African governments should never assume that responsibility for the development of our continent has been outsourced to Beijing.”

Beijing appears to be undercutting its side of the deal. Chinese goods like the counterfeit textiles flooding into northern Nigeria drown out hopes for industrialization, regardless of how many roads and railways Chinese companies lay. Lamido Sanusi, governor of Nigeria’s central bank from 2009 to 2014, put it well: “So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism. The British went to Africa and India to secure raw materials and markets. Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.”

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Filed under Africa, China, economics, industry, labor, Niger

Congo’s Tantalum Wealth

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle p. 30:

The Congolese are consistently rated as the planet’s poorest people, significantly worse off than other destitute Africans. In the decade from 2000, the Congolese were the only nationality whose gross domestic product per capita, a rough measure of average incomes, was less than a dollar a day.

Tantalum’s extremely high melting point and conductivity mean that electronic components made from it can be much smaller than those made from other metals. It is because tantalum capacitors can be small that the designers of electronic gadgets have been able to make them ever more compact and, over the past couple of decades, ubiquitous.

Congo is not the only repository of tantalum-bearing ores. Campaigners and reporters perennially declare that eastern Congo holds 80 percent of known stocks, but the figure is without foundation. Based on what sketchy data there are, Michael Nest, the author of a study of coltan, calculates that Congo and surrounding countries have about 10 percent of known reserves of tantalum-bearing ores. The real figures might be much higher, given that reserves elsewhere have been much more comprehensively assessed. Nonetheless, Congo still ranks as the second-most important producer of tantalum ores, after Australia, accounting for what Nest estimates to be 20 percent of annual supplies. Depending on the vagaries of supply chains, if you have a PlayStation or a pacemaker, an iPod, a laptop, or a mobile phone, there is roughly a one-in-five chance that a tiny piece of eastern Congo is pulsing within it.

The insatiable demand for consumer electronics has exacted a terrible price. The coltan trade has helped fund local militias and foreign armies that have terrorized eastern Congo for two decades, turning what should be a paradise into a crucible of war.

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Africa’s Resource Curse

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 4-6:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planet’s richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africa’s first and second biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africa’s copper-belt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

The phenomenon that economists call the “resource curse” does not, of course, offer a universal explanation for the existence of war or hunger, in Africa or anywhere else: corruption and ethnic violence have also befallen African countries where the resource industries are a relatively insignificant part of the economy, such as Kenya. Nor is every resource-rich country doomed: just look at Norway. But more often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy becomes distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called “economic rent” and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government—so it has no need of their consent.

Unbeholden to the people, a resource-fueled regime tends to spend the national income on things that benefit its own interests: education spending falls as military budgets swell. The resource industry is hardwired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power, there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for “big man” politics. The world’s four longest-serving rulers—Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Paul Biya of Cameroon—each preside over an African state rich in oil or minerals. Between them they have ruled for 136 years.

From Russia’s oil-fired oligarchs to the conquistadores who plundered Latin America’s silver and gold centuries ago, resource rents concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. They engender what Said Djinnit, an Algerian politician who, as the UN’s top official in west Africa, has served as a mediator in a succession of coups, calls “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Survival means capturing that pot of rent. Often it means others must die.

The resource curse is not unique to Africa, but it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest.

Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum—and that is probably an underestimate, given that the continent has been less thoroughly prospected than others. The richest diamond mines are in Africa, as are significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), and practically every other fruit of volcanic geology. By one calculation Africa holds about a third of the world’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

Outsiders often think of Africa as a great drain of philanthropy, a continent that guzzles aid to no avail and contributes little to the global economy in return. But look more closely at the resource industry, and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world looks rather different. In 2010 fuel and mineral exports from Africa were worth $333 billion, more than seven times the value of the aid that went in the opposite direction (and that is before you factor in the vast sums spirited out of the continent through corruption and tax fiddles). Yet the disparity between life in the places where those resources are found and the places where they are consumed gives an indication of where the benefits of the oil and mining trade accrue—and why most Africans still barely scrape by. For every woman who dies in childbirth in France, a hundred die in the desert nation of Niger, a prime source of the uranium that fuels France’s nuclear-powered economy. The average Finn or South Korean can expect to live to eighty, nurtured by economies among whose most valuable companies are, respectively, Nokia and Samsung, the world’s top two mobile phone manufacturers. By contrast, if you happen to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the planet’s richest deposits of the minerals that are crucial to the manufacture of mobile phone batteries, you’ll be lucky to make it past fifty.

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Filed under Africa, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, democracy, economics, education, energy, Equatorial Guinea, industry, labor, migration, Zimbabwe

Political Economy of the Roadblock

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 44-45:

Our two-jeep convoy slowed as it approached a roadblock deep in the tropical forests of one of eastern Congo’s national parks. Manning the roadblock were soldiers from the Congolese army, theoretically the institution that should safeguard the state’s monopoly on the use of force but, in practice, chiefly just another predator on civilians. As my Congolese companions negotiated nervously with the soldiers, I stepped away to take advantage of a break in a very long drive and relieve myself, only to sense someone rushing toward me. Hurriedly zipping up my fly, I turned to see a fast-approaching soldier brandishing his AK47. With a voice that signified a grave transgression, he declared, “It is forbidden to piss in the park.” Human urine, the soldier asserted, posed a threat to eastern Congo’s gorillas. I thought it best not to retort that the poor creatures had been poached close to extinction by, among others, the army nor that the park attracted far more militiamen than gorilla-watching tourists.

My crime, it transpired, carried a financial penalty. My companions took the soldier aside, and the matter was settled. Perhaps they talked him down, using the presence of a foreign journalist as leverage. Perhaps they slipped him a few dollars. As we drove away it occurred to me that we had witnessed the Congolese state in microcosm. The soldier was following the example set by Kabila, Katumba, Mwangachuchu, and Nkunda: capture a piece of territory, be it a remote intersection of potholed road, a vast copper concession, or the presidency itself; protect your claim with a gun, a threat, a semblance of law, or a shibboleth; and extract rent from it. The political economy of the roadblock has taken hold. The more the state crumbles, the greater the need for each individual to make ends meet however they can; the greater the looting, the more the authority of the state withers.

While we were visiting my historian brother during his sabbatical in Cameroon, we hired a driver to take us into the Southern Region. As we approached Lolodorf (a name dating back to German Kamerun), I stepped out of the car to take a photo of the sign. As I got back in the car, a policeman, who had been sitting in his car in the shade across the road, came over to tell us it was forbidden to take photos of road signs. After we politely asked why, he began to find fault with the windshield documentation required for the hired car. He went back and forth to his car several times, supposedly checking with his superiors, while we quietly waited to see how much of a bribe it would take to get free of him. He asked for all our IDs, and we gave him anything except our passports. After perhaps 20 minutes of quiet back and forth, we were able to pay him a “fine” equivalent to about US$10, enough for him to buy more beer for his afternoon in the shade.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Filed under Central Asia, disease, economics, labor, Middle East, military, nationalism, travel, Turkey, war

A Pastoral Veterinarian’s Four Tasks

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 214:

IN EARLY JANUARY, we were graced with a guest of honor. This visitor was very distinguished—he was neither looking for camels nor passing through: he was the veterinarian!

The veterinarian was the guest who had traveled the farthest and who was also the most important, so far. From the banks of the Ulungur, he drove down in a pickup to complete four important tasks: one, vaccinate the sheep; two, geld livestock; three, act as deliveryman for incoming and outgoing parcels; four, give everybody a haircut.

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Bactrian Camel Herding Woes

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 128-130:

Herding sheep, you only had to follow them around slowly, but herding camels required cracking the whip, letting the horse gallop, cursing your ma and cursing your pa, a never-ending contest of wit and brawn.

Camels were an odd bunch, perpetually in a state of discord, forever engaging in separatism; not at all like horses, sheep, or cattle that always traveled in a group.

Besides being members of the free-spirit clan, the camels might also be considered members of the beggar clan. When a flock of camels wobbled their way over, each wearing a patchwork of rags … Oy, it was their fault for being too big—where would you ever find a whole piece of cloth big enough to tailor an outfit for them! The only way was to cobble together a patchwork of old cotton jackets, old felt scraps, and old tekemet. And the camels never took care of their blankets, always rolling around on the ground (where clothes were most likely to tear off) until they were covered in wet cow dung. Then they’d stand and scratch an itch against a friend’s body, soiling the other camel’s blanket too.

Further, camels were supposed to be masters at enduring thirst and hunger, but that’s not what I saw. On our journey south, the camel bull calves without nose pegs always looked like they were starving. They stopped to eat every little clump of grass bigger than a thumb, constantly falling behind, forcing me, the chief organizer, to work my butt off the whole way! Only the pack-laden lead camel knew how to behave, never stopping to eat or drink all day, keeping onward as always.

On the journey south, I was responsible for the camels. For some reason, the lead camel was always grumbling and grim. It had a special trick, which was to shut its mouth and let out a deep rumble from the back of its throat. Even though it was clearly right next to you, the sound it made seemed to come from miles away.

ANOTHER OF THE CAMELS’ mischiefs was to crowd into the middle of the flock of sheep. Especially during the busiest hours of dusk, the wild bunch would try to force their way into the sheep pen! They may have liked the sheep, but the sheep clearly didn’t like them. As the sheep filed orderly inside in a line, they were suddenly disrupted by this “death from above” and chaos ensued, wool stood on ends. The camel tried to play dumb; the more you tried to shoo it, the more comfortably it sat, blocking the entrance to the pen. When you tried harder to push it out, it simply rolled onto its side, playing dead, refusing to budge.

Even though the camels were terrible, they still had their cute side. Specifically, these gargantuan camels had the tiniest ears!

WHEN THEY ATE SNOW, the cattle twirled their tongues around, the horses chomped properly with their teeth, but the camels were most impressive of all, lowering their long necks until the bottoms of their chins lay on the ground, then pushing forward like snowplows, instantly plowing up whole mouthfuls of snow! Then they shut their mouths, swallowing it all in one gulp. My guess was that somewhere among their ancestors, there must have been the genes of the Platybelodon.

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