Chinese Exports

Chinese trucks carrying goods over the Qolma Pass from China to Tajikistan

We all know that China’s economy has flourished largely on its exports, and that the volume of Chinese exports is tremendous, but even so it has been interesting seeing in person Chinese goods across the world, as well as their effects on local economies.

One of the first and oddest visibly Chinese products we saw on our trip were these rear view mirror decorations in Syria and Iran. It was peculiar especially because of the disjunction between the clearly traditional Chinese “good-luck” design and the Islamic “Allah” in Arabic script. We imagined a factory in Guangdong Province somewhere churning these out, not knowing what it says or for where it is destined; whereever the factory may actually be, I think that the trinkets are actually produced largely for domestic consumption in Muslim Xinjiang (where we also saw them).

The Syrian driver whose car this was in didn’t even recognize the red and gold ornament as Made in China!

Given the historical influence of Russia in Central Asia, we were surprised to find that the trains in Turkmenistan were Chinese-built. They were brand new and fairly luxurious, especially considering the absurdly cheap (and clearly subsidized) fares. The train we took in Iran (also new and comfortable) was also Chinese built, as were the cars of the Tehran Metro. The Tehran Metro cars, we think, are exactly the same as Hong Kong MTR cars!

On the Tehran Metro

Chinese automobiles are also making headway around the world. In addition to Chery dealerships in Iran and elsewhere, we saw long convoys of new Chinese minivans coming over the Qolma Pass from China into Tajikistan, sometimes filled with other Chinese products such as toilet paper. The Chinese minivans are fast becoming the main mode of public transit on the Pamir Highway. We were told that, prior to the arrival of the minivans, it was sometimes hard to find any public transport, with waits of a day or two for a car. With the cheap Chinese vans ($4000-6000, and with lower maintenance costs than other, older vehicles), there are more cars and cheaper rides. The vans even had Five Friendlies seat covers, with their names in Cyrillic (the script used in Tajikistan)!

Another example of cheap Chinese products improving the world–solar energy. Living in remote locations in the high Pamirs, the Kyrgyz in Tajikistan have no access to any other electricity and no doubt the ability to have music during the day and reading light at night is a welcome luxury in their lives of privation. We were told that they used smoky oil lamps before the solar power came along.

Yurt solar power

We were able to trace the solar panels to the place where they were likely once purchased–Kashgar’s Sunday Market.

To many Americans, the availability of cheap Chinese goods might mean DVD players in the kids’ rooms or a nicer iPod; to Tajikistan, Chinese manufacturing efficiency has brought transportation, music and light.

Unfortunately, the Chinese are exporting ill habits as well. We were told by a Hunza man that the Chinese have proposed to expand the Karakoram Highway to four lanes, with parallel rail lines and gas pipelines. The cultural and natural setting of Northern Pakistan is a fragile one, and no doubt such “progress” would be devastating. Such destruction and environmental degradation are being exported elsewhere as well, for example in Southeast Asia where the Chinese are buying up huge amounts of raw materials to feed their growing economy–in Laos Derek saw a new highway to speed up the transport of timber into Yunnan Province, and the forests of Indonesia are coming down at a startling rate.

As the Chinese economy grows, its impact on the world will become greater and greater, and the scale of the country is such–unimaginable to those who have not been there–that it will be felt in every corner on Earth. From people to products to ideas, we can only hope that the Chinese contribution will be a net positive one.

Beijing, Pre-Olympics

We are not going to be in Beijing for the Olympics, but we did make a brief stop in Beijing in its final preparations for the Olympic Games. Due to security it wasn’t possible to get close to the new sporting facilities, but the stopover was worthwhile (for me) just to see the new airport and other city infrastructure. We had no problem finding a hotel room–due to the crackdown on visa issuances by the paranoid Chinese government, it seems like 2008 may see a fewer number of visitors to China than non-Olympics years!

Beijing National Stadium

On one of the new subway lines. Although we were there little more than a week before the opening ceremony, the subway line to the stadiums was not yet open!

Airport Express Line from Dongzhimen Station to Beijing Capital Airport


Terminal 3, Beijing Capital Airport (eerily similar to Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok)


Faces of Muslim China

Although we left China via the new terminal at Beijing Capital Airport, the overland core of our route was from Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Xian in Shaanxi Province, through the central parts of Muslim China. We may not think of China as a Muslim country, and indeed it is not, but there are some twenty million Muslims in China, a larger number than in the majority Islamic countries of Syria or Malaysia (though as a percentage less than 2%). China officially has 55 ethnic minorities, and ten of them are largely Muslim, including the Hui (almost 10 million), who are Muslim but otherwise culturally similar to Han Chinese, Uyghurs (over 8 million), and the other Central Asian Kazakhs/Kyrgyz/Uzbeks/Tajiks (in the aggregate less than 2 million). (For more thoughts on the Central Asian minorities, please see my post of 7.23.)

Since you’ve by now seen plenty of pictures of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz (posts of 6.16, 6.29 and 7.6, respectively), let’s start with the Uyghurs, who live largely in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Uyghur men, Kashgar

Uyghur man in typical Uyghur hat, Kashgar

Uyghur man, Yarkand

A young Uyghur woman with typically Central Asian features, Yarkand

Couple, Kashgar

Young men, Yarkand and Hotan

Siblings with astonishingly fair features, Yarkand

Even among the Central Asian minorities the Tajiks stand out for looking particularly “white” and apparently out-of-place in the PRC. What would you think if you met a Chinese Uyghur or Tajik in your home country, and upon your asking him where he was from, he responded “China?”

Tajik man, Tashkurgan

Tajik woman in traditional dress, Tashkurgan

Moving further east, many of China’s Muslims are classified as Hui, a designation that is not really ethnic, linguistic or cultural but religious–different groups of Hui have nothing in common but their Islamic faith, and the Hui are largely indistinguishable from the Han majority. The Hui have their own autonomous region near Xian, but most Hui live outside of it, all over China. We first encountered Hui in Jiayuguan in Gansu Province but saw the greatest numbers in the city of Xian in Shaanxi Province, where they dominate the city’s atmospheric Muslim Quarter.



Expensive Coffee

In these days of high inflation, it’s not surprising to see excessive prices, but I think this takes the cake: about $10 for a cup of coffee at Xian airport. We actually saw some customers in the store–they must either be stupid or spending someone else’s money.

Biang Biang Mian

In Xian we tried biang biang mian, a local noodle speciality famous not only for being tasty but for the convoluted characters with which the name of the noodles is written.


I asked a friend of mine to do some research for me on the origin of the noodles’ written name. Her findings:

One day, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty of terracotta warriors fame, was sick and lost his appetite for all of the delicate food available in his palace. One of his servants got him a bowl of biang biang noodles, which were sold by vendors in the streets of Xianyang, the capital of Qin dynasty near present-day Xian. Qin Shi Huang liked the noodles so much that he designated the dish as a must-have food in the palace.  

After Qin Shi Huang recovered, he went to the street to examine how the food vendors prepared the noodles.  After he saw the whole process, he proclaimed, “People in Qin are great, Qin will unify the whole country, and the Qin people will be united and bravely ride horses to win battles to protect the land of Qin.  May the Qin people have biang biang noodles every day and visit Xianyang every month.”  Qin Shi Huang took a brush and ink and created a character for “biang” including parts of all of the words in his statement.