My Personal Values from the OTI Field Team Retreat

The Open Technology Initiative’s field team, whose colors I fly, took a day-long retreat at Bloombars in Columbia Heights a couple weeks ago. We discussed our shared values as a team, building towards a values and mission statement for our work at OTI. We’ll bring this statement into the full OTI retreat in February, as will the policy and tech teams. Our goal there is to construct a vision, mission and values statement for OTI from each team’s own work.

One exercise had us jot down our personal values that we bring to our work. I haven’t done this since my AIESEC days, so it was great to take stock of my values at this point in my life. The values I wrote down are as follows:

What I believe about my work:
– Collaboration is better than competition.
– Competition is better than conflict.
– All relationships are based on trust and communication.
– I am working on transforming human communication.
– I like working with cutting edge open source technology developed with values.
– I have things to teach and I have a lot to learn.
– I want to be a force that changes trajectories.
– I like minimal, but clear, definitions.
– My true joy is expressing myself and sharing in others’ expressions of themselves in their way.
– I believe in platforms, not processes.
– Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.

The Risk of Information Catastrophe

The other evening I watched Apocalypto for the first time. Great movie!

Mel Gibson wanted his film to depict “civilizations and what undermines them.” Apocalypto shows the stresses on the Mayan civilization’s means of production – maize failure, lack of rain, plague, and socio-political turmoil, only soon to be followed by Spaniards and what hell they would bring to Mesoamerica.

Today we live in a so-called knowledge age, in which our civilization-wide and personal access to prosperity – and thus effectively the source of power – is heavily correlated with our access to the means of knowledge production.

Communications is one of those means to knowledge. Our networks can leverage our access to knowledge, and thus prosperity for ourselves and our communities, if we design them appropriately and according to the right values. Notably, if we use a community-centric social process to design the network with values of community prosperity and resilience built-in to the network, then an increase of prosperity through the network would yield more power in the community to affect our world and tell our own stories.

In Apocalypto, the source of the Mayan crisis in the early 1500s is drought. Drought brings maize failure and community turmoil, which leads to starvation, the destruction of villages and human sacrifice by the religious-state complex. These events and conditions leave the Maya people already reeling before the Spaniards arrive on their shores to eventually destroy their society.

That’s a dramatic example, but our communities are no less bound by the need for resilience today than communities in Mesoamerica were at that time. In the recent recession, the financial services industry dipped sharply from contributing 8.3% of US GDP in 2006, to less than 6% in 2009. A ~2..5% drop in an industry with a significant chunk of the wealth generation of the country is bound to create reverberations for many, and harsh shocks for some. This doesn’t only hold for GDP – any reduction in the capacity of the means of production produces these reverberations and shocks.

Our communications networks are to our economy like what rainfall was to the Mayans. If a drought caused so many bad turns for their society then, what would be the result of an information catastrophe today? Our ability to leverage network effects while maintaining resilience in our communities has eroded in many places, and the integrity of our networks is at constant risk. We outsource our communications to giant corporations, who maintain facilities that run wires or beam signals from far away. It may be economically efficient for them to build their network that way, but this does not serve the needs of the community. As much as we hate telecom in less-catastrophic times, the specter of an abrupt and extended communications drought should make us think about the consequences when we lack those resources and skills in our communities.

The Role of Safety in Community Wireless Networks

I have chatted with folks in my neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, for half a year about supporting the community wireless network I’m organizing here. The most common question they ask first is about “security” in an open network. It usually sounds just like this: “But is it secure?” And, painfully, they frequently interchange “open” and “secure” as regular as “work” for “job,” referring to a wireless network without passwords on the access points.

Recently, I thought about the values inherent in Commotion, an open source community wireless firmware project OTI is working on. Commotion will have built-in anonymization and security features. For all the importance of being secure from the start – security having new implications in the digital, networked world – the real potential of the network, the value growth, has to come from an intentional sharing and cooperation. Technical thinking about privacy though has got us in a general mood of securing against others, rather than actively reaching out. I suspect that this is the intent of ISPs, scaring everyone into locking down their wireless APs so no one will share their connection and everyone will have to buy their own Internet access. Plus some leftover hyper-individualistic attitudes from the Cold War.

This brings a new face to a problem of balance. I think that one part of the balance we seek when communicating – and one of the values that Commotion should stand for – is “safety.” Safety is a human term that’s understandable in its way to everyone, and yet we are likely to define it in different ways. For the whole communications network – infrastructure, software, the people involved – I think that “safety” is at the nexus of privacy, security, and awareness.

“Privacy” is keeping what you want to yourself – “to reveal yourself selectively,” to crib from Wikipedia. You have the right to “not be surprised” as Ashkan puts it. Your sense of others’ knowledge about your assets, information or affairs matters to your decisions and your well-being. Someone could sneak up to your window, or read information you send over a network, without you ever knowing – and without affecting the integrity of the information or your behavior.

“Security” is preventing your information, assets or affairs from being compromised or damaged. Unauthorized viewing of your data on a network is one thing, and having it scrambled, deleted, or secretly replaced is something else. Operation AntiSec, fueled by LulzSec and Anonymous hacktivists, brought this into the forefront of modern technology news. You have the right to not have your property damaged, of course, but the by-product of these attacks – whether by governments, corporations, or hacktivists of any stripe – is to make the digitally less-literate fearful of connecting and sharing. This is one of the things Commotion is meant to solve, with strong and reasonably sure encryption and anonymization by default. Which leads us to…

“Awareness,” the state of knowing what is going on in your environment and being reasonably confident of the consequences of your actions. Most people walk down the street reasonably confident they won’t be robbed, molested or attacked. If the odds were high enough you would be hurt, far fewer people would leave their houses and our society would suffer from the lack of voluntary connections. Security and privacy are great, but if people don’t understand what they mean, what is and is not protected, and what the likely consequences of their actions are on a network, then they are not going to be gregarious online. They will be recluses – society suffers again.

Bring these together and you have “safety,” something which I think all people can understand as a human right. Maslow’s hierarchy has it, we understand it to be a key human need on many levels, from freedom from violence to food security to knowing where tomorrow’s paycheck will come from. Technology needs to be built upon human needs, and so resolving those tensions – privacy versus sharing, security versus ease of use, awareness versus the vastness and complexity of networked communications technology – is paramount to developing a just, effective and enjoyable communications infrastructure.

Start with the People: Building a Community Wireless Network in Mount Pleasant

This was originally posted at the Open Technology Initiative website.

If you are not yet familiar with Mount Pleasant, here’s a chance to learn about one of DC’s most vibrant neighborhoods. It’s a diverse area not far from downtown DC, featuring a main street lined with locally-owned businesses. Many of these shops and restaurants are owned and run by the area’s large Latino community, which has long been central to shaping the neighborhood’s character. However, over the past decade rising housing prices have pushed many in the Latino community east towards Georgia Avenue.

In May, I moved to Mount Pleasant and started to learn about the area. In order to encourage community-building and local empowerment and to increase local information-sharing and opportunities for civic engagement, I decided to use skills and ideas garnered from my work at the Open Technology Initiative to organize a community wireless network. Despite my excitement to get started, I didn’t want to rush in without first connecting with the people, the histories, networks, skill sets, and local knowledge already present in the community.

My first step was technical: with the help of my OTI colleagues, I specified the hardware for the network and prepared the technology for installation. The first-stage plan was to install a few “nodes” (wireless access points) in order to establish the form and structure of the mesh network – open, interoperable, unfiltered, and decentralized. Then, at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, I handed out fliers directing people to an online survey gauging their interest in organizing a community wireless network in the neighborhood. I also posted a few of the fliers in local businesses on Mount Pleasant Street. But I needed to go deeper in order to really connect with the existing social networks of people and projects.

Several of my neighbors suggested that I meet Anya Schoolman, a community leader who organized the Mount Pleasant Solar Co-Op. Anya and her son Walter have worked on the co-op for several years, and through this process they have helped residents install solar panels on the roofs of over 100 homes in the neighborhood, which enables them to share solar-generated electricity with the rest of the community. Anya generously offered to host a gathering at her house in July, which we promoted through the listservs she created for the co-op. Thanks to her work in the community, Anya and her home enjoy “community anchor institution” status as a hub of activity in Mount Pleasant. Neighbors know and trust her, and since she provided an introduction to my invitation email on neighborhood listservs, recipients understood the context of participatory community building and neighborhood improvement.

About ten people came to the house gathering. We discussed the potential of the network and how to get it running, and five people (myself included) committed to becoming neighbor-links by installing a mesh router on top of our roofs – a process people were already familiar with due to their association with the solar co-op. Thus far we’ve installed two nodes and are planning to install at least three more in the coming months – and new folks have come forward who want to add to the network as well.

Bill Sets the Mounting Brackets

As we move forward, our plan is to focus on working with underserved groups in Mount Pleasant — people who may not be able to afford monthly contracts, or who are looking for tools to organize to address the effects of displacement of longtime residents due to rising housing costs. We hope to provide a framework that allows the diverse neighborhood to organize together in order to address the trends that affect everyone’s quality of life.

Stay tuned.

Repost: “Full Circle”

A few nights ago I was staying up way too late stumbling down the rabbit hole that is the Internet. On a whim I searched for a post I’d written at the beginning of 2009, just after AIESEC United States’ Winter National Conference 08-09, where my term as Local Committee President of AIESEC at Georgia Tech ended. Unfortunately the old AIESEC GT blog, where I’d written the post, was lost in Google’s scorching of all FTP blogs on Blogger. However, that particular post had been copied in full and re-posted on a range voting Yahoo! Group. Since I have just become online services director of AIESEC Life, the AIESEC US alumni association, I have decided to re-post that old bit of euphoric writing in full, for posterity. And maybe for the lulz too.

***************************************************

On the night of December 29, 2008, I was in a Zen state.

My former teammate and one of the greatest people I have been blessed to know, Tiffany Curtiss, was elected Member Committee President of AIESEC United States in the first free and fair MCP elections in twelve years.

I haven’t cried in a long time, but I came pretty damn close as Missy poured the water on her head and everyone cheered for Tiffany. What was clear to me, though, is that as much as we were cheering for her, we were cheering for the process, for student ownership, for having a voice. For having come so far just shy of six months after the July 4 letter.

The only thought that had space in my head after the bucket fell was back to the weekend of May 12-14, 2006, when I was told “you have no future in AIESEC US” by the top leadership after trying to bring people together and think for themselves. Instead of doing whatever college students do on the weekend, Tiffany and my AIESEC mentor and former LCP of AIESEC LC Cornell, Arthur Maas, spent the entire weekend on the phone with the key players in New York, and when they were talking about “next steps,” Tiffany was talking about right and wrong. Tiffany, of course, was right, and despite being right, her hours and hours on the phone that weekend got me back into AIESEC US. How incredibly appropriate, how it fits in with the music of the Universe. How justice was served and how progress was lifted up!

I turned off my video camera and I walked up to my room, alone. I could barely even shut the door before the immensity of what had just happened washed over me like a tidal wave. I gripped the table and I put my head against the wall. I closed my eyes and let the reality of it flow through every bit of my being. How years and even months ago, this moment was an unthinkable fairy tale – regardless of the winner of the election. I felt like I have not felt in an incredibly long time, and to the powers that put the breath in my lungs, I let forth in an exhale, “thank you.”

Words cannot express the pride I feel that Tiffany was elected MCP.

And finally, mere hours before my term as LCP ended, I was able to participate as a proxy for Milwaukee (Amira taking the seat for GT) in our legislation, where we established our first compendium in twelve years – and I am proud that I was a key part of writing it. I skipped sessions and I stayed up late to work on the constitution and accountability with Jason, and I personally spent the entire day after the election tweaking and perfecting the range voting process, which was one of the final motions we passed – by acclamation. Though it was hard work and it kept me from hanging out nearly as much as I wanted to with the people who matter to me and friends I haven’t met yet, I realized at the end of the conference how much more valuable it was that we spent our time on things that mattered. We did work together, we built the foundations of a new AIESEC US together. That was far better than anything else I’ve experienced at a US conference before, and I hope for the future members that it only grows and does not stop.

While banging the table to close legislation, we heard loud sounds from above – and through the skylights we saw the fireworks heralding a new year. We did it! And the fireworks let everyone know it.

Poetry upon poetry, the formal New Years Eve dinner that night took place in the exact same room as the plenary of the last Winter Conference in St. Louis. My LCP term ended in the exact same room in which it began. A year ago in that room, as we finished singing “Auld Lang Syne,” I thought to myself: “This is either the year AIESEC US will save itself, or the year in which it will be lost forever.”

I could never have pictured us in that same room one year later, triumphant. The truth is stranger than fiction.

A sincere thanks to all of the people who are a part of the fabric that has been my AIESEC Experience thus far. There are many of you to name, and rest assured you will hear it from me soon. But other than Tiffany, the person I must thank most of all is Missy Shields, outgoing MCP and former LCP of AIESEC at Georgia Tech. Without her AIESEC US would not be here today, and I would not be the person I am, plain and simple. She deserves adulation for years and years, and she will be a golden legend for as long as the word “AIESEC” spurs the heartbeats of people looking for a better future.

To you both: because you have changed me, you have changed the world. Hold me to that.

— http://atlanta.nomadlife.org/2009/01/full-circle.aspx

Year End Self-Analysis 2010

In the spirit of former endeavors, I think it’s a good idea to take another look at myself.

Accomplishments

Failures

  • Did not start learning Chinese as early as I had planned
  • Did not land a paying job in DC by the end of the year
  • Didn’t get to cooking enough on my return to the US
  • Gained back some of the weight I lost in China
  • Didn’t get a solid workout schedule going yet in DC
  • Did not couchsurf as much as I would have liked
  • Fell off the BrainCanvas wagon for a while
  • Did not move forward with Entropy after receiving scathing reviews from the business plan analysts
  • Have not picked music back up yet
  • Did not stay out longer to contemplate the Universe at Nam Tso
  • Didn’t take enough risks

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2010

  1. _mg_0933
  2. img_0300
  3. Trippy Buddhist Art
  4. All You Ever Need in China
  5. Walking the Path in Inner Mongolia

Status of NYE 2011 Vision

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC: I am in DC and I have an excellent internship.  I’ve only just started getting involved in the community though and I don’t yet have a permanent position.  At least I’m here; not sure that I’m making too many waves.
  2. Working Out my Mind, Body and Soul: My mind is getting a serious workout at the Open Technology Initiative.  I have failed to keep my body in shape recently, something I will correct imminently.  And in the rush of getting settled in a new place, I have neglected specific soul-nurturing.  However, being in the same place as Kelsey has improved my general mood and optimism tenfold.
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese: Done.  However, it’s slowly rotting away sans practice.
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications: I was hoping this would happen for BrainCanvas, but I did write two pieces for OTI which have been retweeted nearly a hundred times by some focus-specific thought leaders.
  5. Making Music Regularly: Total failure.  Disappointed in myself.

Looking Forward to NYE 2012

  1. Self-Actualization, or rapidly approaching it
  2. Active participation in creative communities – especially musical
  3. Reaching “Authority” Status on a Useful Topic
  4. Have started something influential
  5. Traveled somewhere new and amazing with Kelsey

Joe Walker, the Myth of the American West and Its Modern Consequences

Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker
Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker

Last week I finished reading an engaging historical work titled Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert.

I came to know of this book during my adventures in genealogy, which I undertook in October whilst resting in Alabama after returning from my year in China.  In the course of my research I found the location of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land, in modern-day Zack, Virginia.  Archibald Rhea was my first paternal ancestor to come to America, and his story is wound up with that of all the original Scotch-Irish migrants to America.  He came over in the late 1720s, settled first in Pennsylvania (around what I believe is now Norristown or Eagleville) and eventually went south and west through the Appalachian Valley to settle that land.  He was a founding trustee of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Raphine, only a few miles from the site of his home.  His family had to flee the area, along with most of its residents, after the threat from Native Americans intensified during the French and Indian War in 1755.

I learned all of this while also preparing to move up to my current residence in Washington, DC.  It so happened that I would be traveling, in reverse, the path my paternal ancestors took from that first foothold down into what is now Etowah County, Alabama.  After seeing the site of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land and grave in what is now Happy Valley, TN, I continued up the Great Valley alone and drove near the site of his father’s land in Wythe County, VA.  The next day I came to Zack, where the only thing I knew for identification was the bit about founding the church and that the “Kennedy-McCray” mill is on the site of what was once Archibald’s land.  I happened to meet a man named McCray there, who said he currently owns the land, and he talked to me for a while about the history of the area and I told him what I knew from my research.  He told me that the creek on which my ancestor’s land stood is called Walker’s Creek, named after the first white man to settle this far west in the Colonies, John Walker.  His reconstructed cabin was just a couple of miles down the stream.

John’s grandson Joseph Walker was an even more ambitious mountain man, being the first to lead a white party of significant size to California over the Sierra Nevada.  Joe is the subject of the book that Mr. McCray strongly recommended to me, Westering Man.  Mr. McCray mentioned that the book’s early pages delved into the social and economic reasons for the Scotch-Irish migration to Appalachia, before focusing on the Walker family.

Two things struck me about this book before I was halfway through reading it: Joseph Walker and his family were at once superlative characters, and yet exemplary of the white pioneers who made the white American journey west the singular cultural remembrance in American society.  That story – “How the West was ‘Won’” – is very different than the one I was told in school.

Gilbert leaves no stone unturned in his literary quest to animate this amazing man.  He masterfully segues each paragraph into the next, and progressively fleshes out the details in a highly informative and fascinating way. I stole any five-minute interval I could to read this amazing work, which combines the history of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, the economic and social realities of life on the “old frontier” before the American Revolutionary War, and the circumstances of an extraordinary man whose legacy sheds a new light on the things we consider “American” to this day.

The most poignant character contrast is that of Walker with his contemporary and sometime employer, “The Pathfinder” John C. Frémont. Frémont (or the stories Frémont tells about himself) characterizes the common archetype of the of the Western frontiersman: an ambitious white man running roughshod over unseen lands, then standing nobly atop high peaks and declaring the glory of the Republic and Manifest Destiny, all interspersed with violent episodes with the native peoples. He was (mostly) the total opposite of Walker, who held a deep fascination with exploring but not “civilizing” new lands and had a real respect and camaraderie with Native Americans. Walker was generally kind to those he guided, heavily favored diplomacy over guns, and made it a point to not tell tall tales about himself.

This book, though a historical work, makes me ponder the kinds of imagery and justifications our leaders today take when they authorize gunship diplomacy, unilateral intervention and a conflict-based “survival of the fittest” mantra. What Gilbert makes clear through Walker’s pioneering and leading of the Westering movement is that violence did not win the West. Of course, neither was the process completed via some kind of idealistic peace-waging with the natives.  Nevertheless, Joe Walker was a man the likes of which we miss in our characters today; a respectful, understanding, and eager explorer, not a conqueror.

Kashgar, the Khunjerab Pass, Eid ul-Fitr, and the Way Back

Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China.  In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities.  To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”

We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi.  I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China.  Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.

After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search.  The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing.  Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri,  and a livestock market with no livestock.  I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room.  It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.

Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque

In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town.  Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia.  The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it.  The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage.  Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.

A Hall of Doorways through Walls
A Hall of Doorways through Walls
You Can't Come In
You Can't Come In
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
A Silk Road Homefront
A Silk Road Homefront
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China

Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet.  We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh.  Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive.  He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass.  This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan.  The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB.  We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.

We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway.  The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast.  We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic.  After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint.  In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has.  The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.

Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway

I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar.  We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch.  Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites.  The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges.  This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music.  It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling.  After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept.  By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.

Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow

The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass.  The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram.  Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley.  To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border.  Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan.  One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt.  When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long.  The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends.  The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track.  We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit.  I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared.  Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them.  One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry.  After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.

The Border Permit
The Border Permit
Station South of Tashkurgan
Station South of Tashkurgan
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
The Sign Says it All
The Sign Says it All

Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.

We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share.  After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar.  Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street.  At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.”  Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?

I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque.  I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place.  This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran.  It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer.  This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.

The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque

After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day.  At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco.  We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night.  Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty.  At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again.  Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day.  I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink.  Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy.  In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities.  Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.

The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates.  Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative!  My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end.  I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year.  Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/prestonrhea/5016453503/” title=”_mg_3403.cr2 by preston.rhea, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4152/5016453503_989b15c418.jpg” width=”500″ height=”399″ alt=”_mg_3403.cr2″ /></a>

Yarkand

We went to Yarkand because it was on the way to Kashgar and the Lonely Planet described it as a town of the “by-gone Silk Road days.”  Though I would not recommend going to Yarkand on an out-of-the-way day trip when you are on a time budget, I was glad we stopped on our way through.  There is the nice Altyn Mosque, an old royal and a common mazar or Islamic graveyard, and a shrine to Ama Isa Khan, a Uighur princess from the 16th Century who collected Uighur poems and music.  In this way it reminded me of a sort of Central Asian Rose Hill Cemetery.

The price to enter everything was just 15 RMB.  The sleepy old town makes for an interesting walk-through.  The only negative I can recall was that when we awoke in our hotel, there was a massive dust storm which did not subside until Eid on the 10th, five days later.  Thus the old town was covered in dust so I did not bring my camera fearing damage to the sensor, which was a stupid decision.  We hired a taxi to Kashgar instead of waiting for a bus, which took a long time in finding a third and fourth person to make the trip worthwhile for the driver.  Eventually, after bumping over rough roads partially washed out by rains and rivers, we arrived in Kashgar that evening.

Hotan: Jade City on the Southern Silk Road

On our 24-hour sleeper bus ride across the Middle Silk Road and the Taklamakan Desert, I saw lots of oilfields and derricks and I read hundreds of pages in the amazing Team of Rivals.  We drank tea and ate laghmian, or Uighur pulled noodles, at a roadside stop once sundown came at 21:30 Beijing time, 19:30 Xinjiang time (this is done because Xinjiang is so far from Beijing, whose time zone is officially imposed on the entirety of the PRC).  I got very fitful sleep thanks to the bad roads and discomfort.

I awoke in the morning while the bus crossed over the Aksu-Hotan Cross-Desert Highway.  The Taklamakan Desert seemed like the beach without the ocean: sporadic but plentiful trees and shrubbery on low rolling dunes, a far cry from the massive Arrakis-dunes of Dunhuang.  We disembarked in Hotan, a major point on the Southern Silk Road.  We forced down a cheap Chinese lunch before trying to get a room at the the Yingbingguan hotel, but they said “no foreigners allowed.” So we went to their other branch, which tried to shoo us away with “we have no rooms, try the Yingbingguan.”  I explained that we had already tried to get a room there.  After the concierge called the Yingbingguan, she said “Okay, we have rooms.”  It frequently happens this way.  We took a nap to remedy the poor sleep we fought for on the not-so-sleeper bus.

Our Hotel in Hotan
Our Hotel in Hotan

Later that afternoon we visited the Hotan Cultural Museum which despite its poor translations includes two ancient well-preserved Indo-European mummies.  Their shoes were interesting, not unlike the traditional shoes Uighurs wear today.  The museum also boasted a spiffy wooden coffin with Buddhist and Chinese-language paintings on it.  These were the people and artifacts who made Hotan an important Central Asian trading hub famous for its jade, the most highly prized form of the stone in China.  It seems that Chinese demand for reliable access to Hotanese jade spurred the development of what we now know as the Silk Road.

That evening, Arnab and I had a misadventure trying to reach the Imam Asim Shrine when our driver went the wrong way down a sandy desert path and got the taxi stuck.  It took over 30 minutes to help get him out, and a guy on a motorcycle came by to help.  We sandwiched on the back of his whip and tossed about in the thick sand until we reached the blacktop, when we got back in the taxi and the driver took the correct, non-sandy road to the shrine.  The mosque had a peaceful, quiet air about it.  It is out of the way of the main town drag just inside the desert, and there are Tibetan-Mongolian influences in the burial mounds.  That night we ate overpriced local food at the night market and watched some of a cultural performance in the square.

The Driver is Stuck in the Desert
The Driver is Stuck in the Desert
Writings on the Wall of the Imam Asim Shrine
Writings on the Wall of the Imam Asim Shrine
The Imam Asim Shrine
The Imam Asim Shrine

The bus to Yarkand did not leave until about nine the next evening, so we had plenty of time to see the Sunday Market.  It was fascinating; one can find everything and everyone from around the area comes to see and sell.  It is much bigger than Kashgar’s Sunday market, and we were the only foreigners there; we only saw two small clutches of Chinese tourists whilst perusing the market.  It is held in a vast space which includes packed covered shopping arcades and several long avenues with three rows of goods.  The only negative (major for me) is that in Xinjiang for some reason, raw meat and delicious pastries offered outdoors are absolutely swarmed with yellow jackets, and I have a phobia.  How the butchers and sweets-sellers sit and butcher and sell these things all day long while surrounded by a cloud of wasps I will never understand.  We got lost in the massive market for a couple of hours, and aside from the heat, the escape from the vespid plague most relieved me.

Musicians at Hotan Sunday Market
Musicians at Hotan Sunday Market
Young Girl at Hotan Sunday Market
Young Girl at Hotan Sunday Market
So Many Boys in Xinjiang Play with Toy Guns
So Many Boys in Xinjiang Play with Toy Guns
Silk Saleswoman at Hotan Sunday Market
Silk Saleswoman at Hotan Sunday Market

We spent the rest of the day eating a long Chinese lunch, the only kind of food readily available in daylight during Ramadan, and I read plenty in Team of Rivals.  The bus took six hours to reach Yarkand at 3 AM and was super-uncomfortable, not least because the driver played loud Uighur KTV videos at the front where we sat.

All of my photos from Hotan can be found here.