. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath


Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition


Kensington Tours can help you plan your own expedition anywhere in the world.




#39 - Western China
Jeff Willner - 4 May 2002

(Golmud, CHINA)  I think my impressions of China are heavily influenced by my childhood in Africa, it would explain the difference of opinion between Sally and Kathryn, and myself. Personally I am quite impressed with the country. It certainly has its flaws, an inefficient and obsolete form of government, corruption at many levels, and a poor environmental track record. But the country has made incredible strides forward and I see evidence everywhere of a great future. Coming from Africa, a continent that seems trapped in a cycle of self-destruction, I realize how precarious progress can be. For all its shortcomings, in my opinion China is making remarkable progress. 

Chinese Socialism
Early in the trip Sally asked a fellow restaurant patron to explain the local political system. "You are communist so the government must provide jobs for you, right?"
"Not really," he said after a pause, "if you are lucky you can get a job with the party, but most people must find their own work."
"But certainly there is housing?" Sally raised an eyebrow.
"Well that used to be the case, but today it is only through work that you can get some support. Employers are encouraged to pay a housing subsidy to their employees but if they don't want to they don't have to."
"Of course you get free healthcare though," she said almost as an aside.
"Ummm, not really. We must pay when we visit the hospital, although the fee is not so high," he explained.
"Wait a minute! You are communist but you have no job, no house, and no healthcare?" Sally was suprised.
"Actually communism is the dream," he stopped and then elaborated. "Under communism everyone is equal and everyone is paid the same. But we have Chinese Socialism where we are taxed 10% and we must look after our own jobs, houses, and health. And people earn different amounts of money depending on their jobs."

"So you have all the burdens of capitalism without any choice of political representation!"
"Yes," he smiled, "because we are not capitalist! We are socialist." 
"Well call it what you want, you are pretty close to our system - and I would love to only pay 10% tax!" Sally laughed.

It is indeed an odd mixture of ideologies. The government is committed to 'one country, two systems' for Hong Kong and Macao. There is speculation that there would likely be more political change if those in power were not so worried about the possibility of future prosecution for Communism's more egregious sins - like Tiananmen. In the meantime the country has gotten on with the task of getting competitive with the rest of the world. They are tremendously proud of their WTO ascension . Many inefficient government factories have been dramatically cut back or even closed in order to comply with world trade requirements, but most people seem philosophical about the short term hardships. In a country that has seen ups and downs over several thousand years they seem content that all will work out in the end and China will once again have its day in the sun. That kind of patience and forward thinking was quite impressive.  

Come out wherever you are
There have been some surprises though. Like the lack of animals. After several weeks of driving we started paying attention to the complete absence of wildlife. It's not as though there were only domesticated critters like squirrels and crows - there was nothing. We almost never heard a bird call, only rats ran free in the city, and the countryside was devoted to agriculture. I guess that's the downside of thousands of years of constant human habitation. We visited a bird sanctuary on Lake Qinghai in western China and I was struck by the dozens of tour busses and hundreds of Chinese tourists - all to see some birds. The kids were going crazy, pointing at the eggs littered across the stony beach, throwing bread crumbs to circling geese, and parents were shooting off rolls of film. All for some birds. Not that there is anything wrong with that but, honestly, birds?

And China is uniform. I mean in the core provinces almost everyone is ethnically Han. They share similar traditions, speak one of two languages, and identify strongly with the same history. Sure there are regional differences and rivalries, Beijing natives think Shanghaiese are rude and greedy, people from Shanghai are sure that Beijingers couldn't find their butt without a committee and central directive. But still, that kind of consistency across several hundred million people is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. And it leads to some challenges. Racism isn't a problem if you are from a wealthy western country, but there have been incidents with black visitors even from America. And the mainstream community doesn't have much respect for the differences of the western provinces. Predominantly Muslim with different traditions, dress, and cuisine, even our guide Allan was uncomfortable once we left Shaanxi province. "This food is very strange, and they don't know how to cook noodles!" he complained as we were searching for a restaurant. 

Integration is a thorny problem that continues to plague China. Though the western provinces receive much less attention that the Tibet issue, they are also quite distinct from the Chinese mainstream and have long agitated for secession and independent statehood. To it's credit, the central government has changed tactics from the 'stick' to the 'carrot', investing heavily in infrastructure and local industry during the last decade. In the past the emphasis was on a heavy military presence to quell local unrest. These days the brains in the politburo are realizing that if people have something to lose they will be less likely to leave. So during the course of our driving we passed massive highway and railroad construction projects designed to connect the west with the rest of China, reduce the price of consumer products, and make it easier to develop mineral resources. And substantial mosques were under construction in many cities. "The government has decided that religion must be supported" said a man I spoke with. "Not only can we contribute to our own churches but if there is a possibility of tourism we can get government money." Quite an about-face for the propagators of the cultural revolution.

What's In a Name
'Chinese government to re-forest area the size of Germany' read one headline when I checked the news online last week. For all the things that have been done wrong in the last fifty years there certainly seem to be a lot of sensible decisions lately. From almost any perspective, economic, political, historical, humanitarian, it is virtually impossible to defend the structure of the government now in place. Central government without representation and without change leads to abuse of power, inefficiency, and policies not in the best interest of the many. But the tendency to vilify is a bit overdone in my opinion. What is most important for any country is stability and predictability, not necessarily the political structure under which it thrives. 

In fact most political scientists would agree that the very best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. Unfortunately many African experiments have proven that term to be an oxymoron, still, the idea is to have a stable government with the best interest of the people at heart making informed decisions. The benefit of this system is that decisions can be made quickly, policies are implemented without delay, and results are quick. Disastrous if the decisions are ill conceived, but quite effective when progress is heading in the right direction. It's ironic therefore that the Chinese government, a perceived weakness from the outside, is actually proving to be a great strength in the last decade. People are conditioned to obey in this country so when the government says 'Jump!', people say 'how high?'. 

A recent National Geographic article gives a good example. In the eighties rural poverty was a problem and the authorities decided that logging was an excellent way to generate jobs. A decade later the loss of species, increased flooding, and international outcry caused them to rethink the policy. In an about face they decided to implement the largest tree replanting project ever undertaken. And to substitute income for the rural loggers who lost their jobs they issued a directive to the middle class to get out and be tourists - visit your local forest, enjoy the scenery. Voila. Several dozen national parks are now formed, trees being replanted, water quality subject to stricter dumping rules, rural folks are building guesthouses and restaurants to cope with the boom of national tourists - and we found ourselves wading through a sea of locals to see some birds at Lake Qinghai. That's another amazing thing about the country, things can happen almost overnight.

I must say, I was not well informed when I first arrived here and I have to admit that there is a lot more to admire about China than just cheap labour and good food. Granted my expectations are probably lower than most - I've seen a lot of pretty messed up countries in my travels and have low expectations. But to those in the west I would say, give it time and don't be so self righteous, it's likely we will all be taking lessons from China in a couple of decades.


Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com