Tag Archives: Janina

China – Parallel universe

China is not very different to Germany. Woman dress up in mega short skirts and men try to show off with cars and generosity. Chinese people are mad keen on the newest technical devices and (what differs them from other asian countries) the majority has the money to buy them. They use high-speed trains, live in gigantic clean and modern cities and treat nature like they shouldn’t. They have few children and little believe in religion. Money and individualism appear to be the new priorities in life.

All this seems not very different to us. In theory at least… Still I call China a “parallel universe”. And that’s not (just) because they eat dogs, beetles and cat brains – you could theoretically find such habits in some Bavarian area. But for me China was even more alien than for example India, where they have a huge bunch of weird traditions and pray to Elephant gods… So why is it China is so similar but yet so different? I thought a long, long time about that question and came up with some answers eventually.

It feels like a parallel universe because the people’s minds are so different in many aspects. The Chinese culture seems to be one of few in the world which is not westernized at all. Not American-toned. That might sound strange at first. Like I described at our China trip this country is so big and mighty most people don’t seem to care too much about the rest of the world. And because China is, sadly, so shielded from it they don’t know much about it either. They have their own huge brands, products, pop stars, networks, traditions, habits – which are similar but still oddly different – they don’t orientate much on the western/american ones like most other cultures do. – The whole of Europe is looking towards the States, central Asia peers at Russia and Europe – everyone really seems always to orientate on the bigger and more “modern” culture to integrate some of their idols lifestyle into their own. China doesn’t. Because of two reasons: because they simply don’t need to and because they are not allowed to.

So what provides the parallel-universe-feeling is that China is an independent world-might with their own rules and habits. Even the most basic gestures (which are the onliest ways to communicate when you don’t speak Mandarin) are completely different to those you are used to from the rest of the world. Numbers are shown with the fingers in a totally different way and so are welcoming or negating gestures. If you don’t know the rules you are likely to become desperate very soon because it seems that all basic human communication doesn’t work with Chinese people just because it’s an alien code to you. Eating a raw carrot in public gets you great deranged stares (no one in China would ever eat anything raw) and when you give someone a big present he would just say a brief thanks and put it aside not opening it. Try for a lift and somebody even driving 80% of the way to your destination would just say sorry they can’t help you and drive off. One of the highest priorities of Chinese people is being polite and not loosing face which provides the base for (to us) weird actions and also shallow encounters.

When I sat together with an Indian woman my age who had four children and was devoted practicing Hindu rites we had topics to talk about and we saw and judged many things in life the same way. A Chinese woman though (I am sorry, but mainly appearing as girls) was always inapproachable for me. I felt I would never experience her real inner feelings. She would not speak out loud what she thinks.  Because everything in China was made to be at least a perfect facade. Everything in China had a beautiful, correct, neat and polished surface and you wouldn’t know if it was real or you were just bluffed. And so you wouldn’t know if a Chinese person said or did something just out of politeness or because he really felt that way. You wouldn’t know if that “old town” was really old or rather new build. You wouldn’t know if those smiling employees were truly happy or in fact very sad. You wouldn’t know if someone invited you because he really wanted it or because the politeness-codex forced him to do it.

China was a big strange riddle for me and even after over 3 months I felt I didn’t get any closer to the rules of that similar-appearing parallel universe.



Almost every country we went people were dead religious.

Hindus, (semi-)Buddhists, (semi-)Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Animists… People care about religion and it often determines their lifes – organizes what they do, what they are allowed to do, what they would never do, what their moralities are, what they wear, how they behave… And sometimes even who they are. Our friend Ulan in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, called his son Islam. Because he believed in it so much and wanted his son – given from Allah – to represent it.

People often asked us what religion we believed in. Mostly we said we were Christians, because everything else would have been impossible to explane with only 15 words of the same language. Philipp, who grew up being catholic, felt very attracted to Buddhism since years. Therefore he was quite happy to wear his Buddhist necklace he got himself in India on the journey. One day in Kashgar, when he passed the most populare mosque in town after the friday’s prayer he got into talking with some guys. Then there came some other guys. They asked him what religion he believed in and wheather he was a Buddhist. He answered (like he always did) with a friendly smile that he was “a little Buddhist”.  But they told him with a grim look “it is not polite to wear this (grabbing his necklace) in front of a mosque”.  Because discussions about religion are always a very delecate topic he managed to change it and soon went away….

So naturally you have your thoughts about your own religion and wonder about others. You spot and observe the “strange” ways of people practising theirs. And you have your thoughts and feelings.

I moved out of church, having been evangelic before, because what my religion told and symbolized was not what I felt I believed in. I mean, come on… A bleeding, abused guy on a deadly cross who is supposed to symbolize that we should always remind all our sins because he died for them? What a motivating thing to believe in! Especially when you come across comparisons like the rich and colorful Lord Ganesha who removes all of your obstacles!

But what did I believe in? Certainly a lot! Plus I loved many trivial, daily things that result from religion. Like woman wearing skirts. People having collective prayers. Not eating meat. Not harming living creatures. But seeing people living in partially radically restricted ways to follow their believes and obliged duties? It’s easy to understand how it works for the others but at the same time it isn’t understandable at all. Sometimes people suffer a lot although they pray every day and they are the most devotional people. Their lifes often don’t work out the way they wish for although they would have deserved it so badly. But aren’t they still the happier people after all? Are we (western people) maybe so unhappy because be don’t believe in anything anymore? No guardian god, no protective and sacred familylife, no moral doubtlessness, everyone just on his own with his misery, fighting for his way.

I have not found “the one” religion for myself yet. But I have been inspired a lot by many different ones and taken a lot from them home and to my heart. Moralities. Believes. Superstitions. Habits. I try to worship every plant and every insect and every day I go to sleep I pray to Ganesha to remove all the obstacles from my way and a silver Buddha face is glowing wise and guarding over a candle in my room.

The Uyghur train

Because trains in China are not nearly as cheap as expected I decided for the third class instead of second for the whole way from Chengdu to Kashgar which means a seat in a big carriage instead of a soft bed in a six-person compartment for three days and three nights for exactly half the price. It was a great as well as a stupid decision. I would not do it again but I am grateful to have made the experience once.

The first day and night were great. All was very quiet. I met some nice Chinese students and the conductor was friendly enough to even show us an almost empty carriage in the evening where we all could take three seats to stretch and sleep quite properly. I visited Philipp in the sleeper section several times and wandered around. Because it’s common anyway in China to always provide hot/ boiled water for tea plus on the train everyone eats instant noodle soups at least three times a day (I’ve seen mothers entering the train with two gigantic plastic bags filled only with pots of noodle soups!) there is always plenty of hot water provided on Chinese trains. In every compartment is a big tank with a burning fire underneath or even small cans where everyone can get hot water at any time. It’s (the onliest) drinks and food.

On the second day it became a little more crowded (mainly with Han-Chinese people because we hadn’t entered Uigurien yet) but still there were seats available and we could walk around, chat and eat a lot of noodle soup! In the evening there were less spare seats so I had to sleep on only one, sitting.

After our one day stop in Urumqi we entered the train again the next morning. Philipp went into one end of the train for the sleeper and I into the other – the third class again what I now felt for the first time immediately! My carriage was so packed with families, tons of luggage and loudly discussing people that not a single centimeter was spare anymore. It took almost an hour until they all had settled and I could claim my seat (because it of course was already taken). Almost all people were Uyghur, only a few Han remained. The cultural difference was obvious on the first glance – different faces, different clothes and after the following 24 hours I couldn’t deny it: different manners. The nice Han couple who spoke a tiny bit of English helped me to translate to the Uyghur woman who had taken my seat that it was my seat and slowly and grumpy she moved from it.

I felt uneasy because most of the people were looking stern, no one was smiling at me, the westerner, the invader, and the family of the banished woman was angry anyway. I visited Philipp in his nice and peaceful sleeper compartment were classical music was played over the loudspeakers. But soon a conductor came, controlled our tickets and told me fiercely to return to “my class” immediately. We explained to him that I only wanted to have lunch with my “husband” and would return afterwards and he replied grimly we should hurry then.

I went back and, of course, my seat was taken again, this time by someone else of the family. At least thirty people were standing in the hallway anyway because there was not nearly enough space. I decided to stand some time on the corridor where people were smoking. The train was moving through endless desert, only the mountains on the horizon changed their shape sometimes. After some hours I wanted to sit down but the whole family was now sleeping on the seats and tables so I didn’t want to disturb them. I was slowly running out of water but the big tank at the end of the carriage was empty already. I stood on the corridor, watched the desert passing by and waited. After a while people were getting hectic and voices rose. The whole carriage was grubbing and moving and suddenly I realized why: A man pushed a medium-sized silver tank which was obviously filled with water and all woman started relentlessly fighting their way to get to it in time. I followed them but waited politely of course until I realized that there would not nearly be enough water for everyone. So I started to push my way through as well but as it got to brutal I decided to get my water later from somewhere else. Mistake!

When I wanted to visit Philipp again and fetch some water I only made it to the next carriage. A big grumpy asshole of conductor stepped into my way and wanted to see my ticket. When I showed it to him he pointed and said “Your place is there. Go back.” I said “I need some water.” He said “Not here”. I said “But my husband is in the sleeper, I have to see him.” He said “No. You have third class ticket. You stay there.” He was just big and mean and I was pissed and returned to my class. I was worried because I was hungry and thirsty and I was afraid of all the unfriendly people and afraid of the upcoming night. Luckily Philipp visited me later to see how I am so I asked him to bring me some water to my “prison”.

I was standing and smoking patiently on the corridor until it got dark and I got tired. I decided it was time to finally claim my seat for the night. The family had sat and slept on my seat until now so it was my turn now. I stood in front of the big lazy woman on my seat, pointing, showing, asking her to leave. But she wouldn’t move. I thought she hadn’t understood me so I asked the Han couple again to translate her. They did. But still she wouldn’t move. The whole family was staring at me and she kept ignoring me. I was furious but what was I supposed to do? I didn’t want a fight with the grim Uyghur men of that family and I couldn’t even ask the conductor for help. So I decided to just ignore the bold behavior and sleep on the floor somewhere. The onliest problem was: There was no space! People were already sleeping on the floor of the corridor and even under the seats! There were only tiny spaces to sit in the smokers corridor. So I sat and tried to sleep somehow and realized that Uyghur country was an area with different people and different rules. Maybe the rules of fighting or resigning.

Uigurien – trapped in the giant’s golden belly

No Uyghur person ever spoke completely openly to us about the relation of their “ethnic minority” (though majority in Xingjiang province!) to China or their feelings about it. Still they told us a lot about the history of their culture and some of them were clearly hurt and felt mistreated in their individual culture by the powerful Chinese politics. And when already the facts told the unfairness of the situation they seemed to get scared and only gave hints by saying they didn’t want to talk further, we should see for ourselves…And we did.

We nodded to our friend Arslan who was studying in Chengdu and now visiting his family in the 3000 km away Turpan – one of the old important towns on the ancient silk road. We looked outside the window of the train winding through thousands of kilometers of desert, spotted a huge oil refinery every now and then in the middle of nowhere and resuming what he told us.

It had always been the Uyghur people living in the great desert land between Urumqi, Kashgar and Hotan. They had been invaded by almost every bigger dynasty or civilization since then. They “have been” Mongolian, Arabic, …. Now they all had to learn Mandarin in school and where still always treated as something worse everywhere in China and got the worse jobs. The area around Kashgar had always been their country. Still it almost never had officially been their country. They were a banished culture and were never given the chance to be an own proud country.

The oil rafineries belonged to rich Han Chinese people from further east. Arslan told us there was three times as much oil hidden under the Xingjiang desert than in the United States. A while ago the cities in Xingjiang (Kashgar and Urumqui) province had a 60 percent majority of Uyghur people. But the Han Chinese in this province are now allowed by the government the exception of getting more than one child so they can expand their influence through population.

We experienced many Uyghur people skeptic or even bitter and not very friendly to foreigners which we excused and understood because we imagined every stranger must appear like another potentially dangerous invader to them who might want to take something away from them again. From their deeply hurt and repressed culture.