I have never been to China before. I have traveled to the edges of Asia many times visiting and working in such places as Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan and Korea, but I have never been to the heartlands of the continent.
So it was with a great sense of expectation that I flew into the city of Urumqi after a twenty-four hour journey and three flights from Richmond. I came to the city that is farther from an ocean than any other place on earth, capital of the Western province of Xinjiang and a place where many of the people look more Turkic than Chinese. I traveled on to Xining, provincial capital of Qinghai, on the edge of the Tibetan region, and finished my travels with a brief visit to Hong Kong.
I am a seasoned traveler with experience of many places on the planet, but these two weeks overdosed me on new experiences. China has undergone an economic boom over the last thirty years. The construction furor which has turned the great Eastern cities into fields of sky-scrapers has now infected the Western frontiers where the crane repeatedly punctures every sky-line. Despite the sparse population of the Western provinces the cities are filled with high-rise neon-lit commercial displays and military ranks of identical apartment buildings. The choreographed precision of Chinese art and drama, so clearly displayed at the Beijing Olympics, fades to nothing the moment the Chinese get behind a steering wheel and dash for every narrow traffic-filled space, trespassing over every lane marking.
In a hotel I saw a wall-sized mural depicting Uyghur tribesmen riding yak-back in a scene reminiscent of a Texan cattle round-up. The painting was alive with motion, as yak jostled against yak and emotion split the faces of the riders. Nonetheless, neither this, nor the timeless splendor of Tianchi, the Heavenly Lake, high in the Tian Shan mountains east of Urumqi can hold back the march to modernity.
I traveled between Urumqi and Xining on the new high-speed rail line. A thousand miles of continuous concrete and steel passed beneath me in little more than ten hours, as the train regularly surpassed 130 mph on a smooth and steady ride. Alongside, a concrete paneled security fence crowned by coils of razor wire, testified to the ability of a state-controlled economy to get things done on demand. Where else could we imagine the need to protect the rail line from distant mile upon mile of the inhospitable Gobi desert?
I love Chinese food, but I have to admit that never having been to China before, I had never really eaten Chinese food. And so my meals became an assault on the pallet as yak meat, steamed buns, tree ears, fish soups, bitter gourd and endless quantities of unidentifiable green leaves tested the taste buds.
My visit was toward the end of winter, with snow melting away from the high ground and drab barren landscapes living in hope of new spring growth. At Tianchi, I walked on the frozen waters of what must be one of the loveliest lakes in the world. On the edge of the Tibetan plateau I similarly walked on Qinghai Lake, at 1,700 square miles, the largest salt-water lake in the world, and at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level a breath-taking experience in more ways than one. Along multiple valleys, populated mostly by herds of Yak and sheep, the Buddhist prayer flags flutter from every rise in the vain hope that written prayers fly with the wind to the spirits, and testify to a world that long ago lost the art of true prayer.
Nothing is discernible as I listen to the language, and the written characters are incomprehensible. Vainly I hope for a sign in Latin script and when I do I wonder what it means. So In Case Read Bend, Pull Sideways translates as In The Event of a Rear End Accident Pull Onto the Shoulder and Home of Teaching Stuff becomes Staff Room.
But the people are wonderful, inquisitive and hungry for new ideas and information from outside the regimented unquestioning education of their society. Meeting businessmen, educators, and social workers revealed a community keenly aware of the growth of their society and the need for a greater social conscience if the new-found prosperity is to extend beyond the cities and social hierarchies.
I visited the church and met Chinese Christians. They are a testimony to the unchanging power of the gospel to bring Good News and social change to a community. Stripped by communism of the superstitions of China’s past, and denied the gospel by government controls, many Chinese are spiritually hungry. The church has thrived and now grown beyond the tipping point where a significant minority can have structural impact on a society. I visited an official Three Self Church, packed with multiple congregations, and saw spiritual life thriving in the worship and preaching. I got the impression that despite restriction and censorship, this official church is flexing its muscles. At the same time Christians from the unofficial church made it clear that they are not afraid of the authorities. They will follow the rules but they will also seek every opportunity to speak truth to both power and the lowly.
China has changed vastly, both from the society that 19th Century western entrepreneurs and missionaries encountered, and from the displacements of the Cultural Revolution. I am sure that there is much about modern China to decry, but I think there is also much to be encouraged by.