Things changed when we crossed the border from China to Kazakhstan. It wasn’t just different, it was night and day different. Actually more like parallel universe different. We left China’s high tech, brand new surveillance society, and arrived in 1970. To illustrate; In China, the maximum age allowed by law for a car is eight years. In K-Stan, the minimum seemed to be mid-nineties. Ancient Ladas and Audi 100’s predominate.
Donkeys pull carts. We never saw one pulling a Lada, but they probably do. The west of China is all paranoid impersonal efficiency. Everyone is polite, but no one is friendly. Because there be MUSLIMS, everyone is suspicious of everything. Han Chinese parents are enrolled as a militia and wait outside schools for their children wearing military helmets, stab vests and carrying wooden batons. The lollipop ladies wear it too. Really. Barbed wire covers everything and scanners are everywhere; at the entrance to any public building, every shop and restaurant. All parks, and especially the mosques. Shop assistants are also issued with the militia gear, and any potential terrorists will be chased down and clubbed to death by a mixed mob of beauticians and waiters before they can finish saying god is great. Progressing across the state of Xinjiang, we were passed from police checkpoint to checkpoint with the same mind numbing laborious checks each time and eventually processed out of the country. K-Stan, by contrast, seemed strangely normal. It’s shabby and in need of a lick of paint, but it’s populated by open, friendly people who approached us, shook us by the hand, looked us in the eye and were genuinely curious about what we were doing there and where we were going. But I still couldn’t read the bloody writing.
China had been my day to day normality for nearly five years. I was familiar with it, but it was never normal. People did stuff that was unfathomable to my western mind, especially from my street level cyclist’s perspective. Example; You’re riding your electric moped (aka “silent death”) at night. Why would you ride on the wrong side of the road, not switch on your lights and certainly never wear anything bright or reflective? If you’re pulling out into traffic from a side road, why would you absolutely, under no circumstances, never ever look to see if anything was coming? Actually I know why, but I still can’t comprehend it. It’s because the “flow like water” mentality pervades. More than that, it’s hard coded at genetic level. If there’s an obstacle, you don’t confront it, you go around it. This is good and bad. It means that there’s no road rage and no aggression. Develop a radar that allows you to predict which pedestrian WILL cross the road without looking, and I think that it’s actually safer than the confrontation, anger and punishment-pass driven Anglo style. Evolution again.
Kazakhstan is huge vistas, endless skies and long straight roads. No place for agrophobics. A car horn sounded doesn’t mean “get out of my way, it means “welcome to my country” You CAN tell the difference. Eagles and buzzards circle overhead, and even they look pleased to see us, perhaps for a different reason. I never knew what a shrike was, but they’re here by the thousand. Out on the highway, there’s a trick that perspective plays, amplified in a head wind, that when you can see a horizon 30km away, it also seems like it’s always uphill. May the road rise up to meet you is not a benediction. Look far enough up the road and you can see where the two edges converge. The vanishing point. It’s literal; if you travel fast enough, you can reach the point where the two lines meet and you disappear in a flash of light. I’ve seen Star Trek. You reappear in a different place and time, a place that’s simultaneously familiar but strange. Or you could cross the border from China.