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.


The Islamic world’s contribution to the sciences is great, especially during the European Middle Ages when much western classical knowledge had been lost or forgotten. Unfortunately, I do not know too much about Muslim scientists and mathematicians, but I thought I would write this brief post on Avicenna, whose prominence is attested by the fact that his name is recognizable to us, even if we do not know who he is. Avicenna’s life is not only a reminder of the significance of scientists from the Middle East in the history of western science but also a portrait of the Persian world in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Abdulla ibn Sina was born in 980 near Bukhara, now Uzbekistan, which was at that time the capital of the Samanid empire (see my post of 6.12). It is said that Avicenna had memorized the Koran by age 7 and learned mathematics from an Indian living in Bukhara. (Unfortunately, there are no specific Avicenna-related sites within the city of Bukhara, the city having been destroyed by the Mongols in the intervening years.)

Learning the art and science of medicine, Avicenna became a royal physician, using the royal library in Bukhara to advance his knowledge, until the Samanid empire came to an end in the beginning of the eleventh century. Avicenna wandered westward seeking the patronage of various ministers and royalty, through the extent of the eastern Persian world from Bukhara to Urgench (in now Uzbekistan) to Merv (now Turkmenistan) to Nishapur to Gorgan (both now eastern Iran). For a while he was settled in the city of Rey, near modern Tehran, and the town of Qazvin nearby, until finally he became a royal physician in the city of Hamadan. In 1037 he died in Hamadan, where a modern tomb was erected for him in 2000.

During his lifetime Avicenna wrote literally hundreds of works on numerous subjects, but his most famous legacy is The Canon of Medicine, which compiled not only the fruits of his own experimentation but the knowledge of everyone from classical Greek to Indian scientists coming before him. The Canon of Medicine was used as a medical textbook in Europe into the 18th century, and Avicenna is considered a father of modern medicine, laying out the principles of the experimental method in clinical trials.

Other scientists of Persian cultural extraction who were from now Uzbekistan include al-Beruni, a 10th-11th century scientist who calculated the size of the earth and its distance to the sun and moon with startling accuracy, and al-Khorezmi, an 8th-9th century mathematician whose name survives in the word “algorithm” and from the title of whose book the word “algebra” is derived.

Al-Khorezmi statue, Khiva

Monument to al-Beruni, Urgench

Tour in Iran: A Review

American citizens can receive a tourist visa for Iran only if they are on an organized tour. Fortunately, for those of us who do not care to be in a tour group, the tour can be a tour for two or even one, as long as it is guided and with a recognized tour agency. For our tour, we used the widely recommended Pars Tourist Agency (, based in Shiraz.

After looking through Pars’s website and researching some Iran guidebooks, we put together a 30 day itinerary for our two-person tour, and asked Pars for a quote. Zahra, our contact at Pars, communicated well in English over both email and phone and was reasonably responsive. First, Pars suggested that we change our itinerary to 25 days, as maxing out the 30-day visa period would not be viewed favorably by the foreign ministry in its review of our application (all visa approvals for U.S. citizens are handled through Tehran directly). For a personalized guided tour for two using public transportation (a budget option that Pars calls “Iran Life”), Pars quoted approximately $1500 per person for the 25 days, including transportation, lodging (with breakfast), a guide and entrance fees, and about $1000 per person additional to have a private car. Shortly after we arrived in Iran and after in-person discussion with Pars, we modified our itinerary to 28 days, for which we were charged $1650 per person.

We had had a few concerns about our tour. First and foremost, we were concerned that the “guide” requirement meant that we would not be able to spend time by ourselves, interacting with Iranian people. This fear was totally unfounded. We were able to spend as much time as we wanted wandering the cities alone, either when our sightseeing program was over or when we felt like being alone (we’d just tell our guide when we’d next like his company). In places such as Esfahan and Tehran, where our itinerary had ample time, we spent entire days alone, unfettered by our guide. In truth, it was often good to have him around, since he acted as an interpreter better facilitating our interaction with locals. Our concern that the guide worked as a pair of ears for the Iranian government was also without any basis.

Second, we were concerned that our budget “Iran Life” trip would not allow us to see everything we wanted in the time we had, because we would always have to track down public transportation. This was also unfounded. Whenever necessary or optimal, our guide would commission taxis (or share taxis), allowing us to see essentially everything we wanted quite efficiently. If anything, I thought that our tour was probably more comfortable in the end, since the truly long stretches were done by modern bus, far better than sitting in a car for hours at a time. Especially given the necessity of hiring taxis for day trips, we thought that the tour was very good value. The standard of lodging varied but was generally quite acceptable, and I’m not sure that we could have paid for much more than transportation, lodging and admissions with the amount we paid for our tour (seemingly leaving Pars not much profit after paying the guide, although I’m sure that their negotiated rates for the hotels are better than we could arrange for ourselves). [In terms of expenses, it may be worth establishing whether you will pay for your guide’s meals. Our first guide assumed that he would pay for his own meals, while our second guide was somewhat ambiguous on the point until we expressed what the first guide did.] Pars also helped us arrange, at some additional cost, the initial approval process for our transit visas for Turkmenistan, which was very convenient.

So, positive things aside, some criticisms:

The quality of the guides is variable. We ended up having three guides on the trip, one for the first two days, a second for the rest of the trip (save one day, when he had to run an errand) and a third for that one day. Of the three, we felt that two were excellent (both in terms of knowledge and attitude) while one was seriously deficient. He was a nice enough guy, and did what we asked, but his knowledge of the sites was substandard (noticeably less than Lonely Planet, which really should serve as a baseline for a guide anywhere) and at times we did not feel that he was totally honest with us (a long ordeal involving a train reservation that nagged us for several days of our trip). (We think that we may have gotten a poorer guide in part because our itinerary was relatively tiring and demanding (one person called it a “marathon tour”), although we don’t know for sure.) All things considered, this problem wasn’t a deal-breaker for us–we’re pretty self-sufficient with books on background information and as I said the tour was reasonable value not including the guide. It would have been better, however, to work before the tour at securing just the right guide. [This is tricky of course, on your first tour, but I can suggest a name if you email me!]

There were a few problems with hotel reservations. Since our guide did all of the work on planning our sightseeing and transportation, during the tour Pars–that is, the office–really only had to worry about our hotel reservations. Unfortunately, this process was not without glitches, which proved quite frustrating to us (and our guide) on the ground. It would be helpful if Pars (or one’s guide, as we requested after the second incident) confirmed each hotel reservation immediately before the tourists’ arrival. In one incident, the faulty reservation meant that we suffered what seemed to us to be a severe downgrade in lodging, which royally pissed us off and severely impacted our first half day in Esfahan in terms of time and aggravation.

Be clear about the sites you want to see, and if there are any that are particularly time-consuming or out of the way, be proactive in making it happen. Our initial itinerary with Pars only included a rough outline of the places we wanted to visit, including names of cities and certain attractions. We expected that Pars would fill in the details, and, for the most part, they did. When our itinerary specifically included places that were a bit out of the way, however, we had to be fairly persistent with our guide to sure that we ended up going. After the first few days, we also made sure that we visited the sites we wanted to in the order we wanted to, going over our itinerary with the guide in advance. Bottom line: If you know what you want to see, be fairly aggressive and do not shy from handholding your guide there.

On Iranian Identity

Traveling in Iran, we have come upon some interesting points on Iranian identity, relating to everything from Islam to Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Iranian empires to the State of Israel, which I thought would be worth covering in a post. It is interesting to see which strains of Iranian history and culture are emphasized by Iranians and the Iranian government, and why.

Iranians all over the country speak very proudly of the Achaemenids and the great Achaemenid site of Persepolis. I believe this is not only because there was so much that was great about the Achaemenid Empire, from its expansive territory to its successes as a truly cosmopolitan, universalist and seemingly benevolent world power, but because it (along with, to a lesser extent, the Sassanid Iranian Empire) represents what Iranians see as purely Iranian greatness, a past untainted by the Arab conquest, which is viewed largely as a destructive invasion by a relatively barbarian people. This focus on ancient, pre-Islamic Iran was also shared by the 20th century Pahlavi dynasty, which deliberately positioned itself as a continuation of Iran’s ancient past, including by naming itself after an ancient Iranian language. While there is something slightly sad about a country’s dwelling on its greatness of nearly 2,500 years ago, it is interesting to see how some Iranians, frustrated with and contemptuous of the current government, bulk the Islamic Revolution together with the Arab conquest and the coming of Islam as things that are non-Persian and bad, as defined against Cyrus the Great, Persepolis and all that is Persian and glorious.

One woman explained to us that Iran has a long tradition of gender equality going back to Achaemenid times, and that the concept of female subservience (including as promoted by the current government) is fundamentally Arab. Indeed, a paradox of Iran is that despite its laws it is in some ways more gender equal than other countries we have been to. Women here are quite visible in the workplace, unlike some parts of the Arab world, and many places, such as restaurants, that would be segregated in other parts of the Islamic world are not segregated in Iran. What makes Iran such a backward place, gender-wise, is largely not culture, the young woman argued, but merely law. (There is little doubt in my mind that Iran has the potential of far exceeding any other country in the region in gender equality and female success, socially and economically–even now, women make up a solid majority of Iranian university students.) Other people have told us that some Iranians are rejecting Islam altogether due to their disaffectedness with the Islamic authorities, turning instead to Zoroastrianism. One Zoroastrian pointed out to us that many Zoroastrian practices are not based in religion at all, but the ancient customs of the Aryan people. Viewed in this light, Zoroastrianism becomes an ancient and heroic Iranian alternative to Islam.

One young person we spoke to went so far as to say that the country’s present leaders are not Iranians at all, but Arabs. This statement isn’t accurate, of course, but there is what could be called a strain of Arab supremacy that runs through Iranian religious belief. As I mentioned in my post of 5.20 on Shia Islam, Iranian Muslims pay special respect not only to the twelve Imams of Twelver Shiite Islam but also their various relatives and indeed all other descendants of Mohammed. Such descendants are called seyeds and even have a special outfit, including a black turban.

A seyed, Esfahan

I was never able to confirm whether all such people are clerics, or have any special benefits under Iranian law, but it is certainly true that they are afforded respect and take enough pride in their designation to want to stand out (by their dress). Now, many countries have a notion of aristocracy–but it definitely seems strange that Iranians would be celebrating people who are, along at least one identifiable line of descent, not Iranian at all but Arab, given that Arabs as a rule are quite disliked by Iranians as barbarians who came and damaged the high culture of Iran.

Respect of seyeds is but one example of putting religion over ethnicity, also a common feature of a version of Iranian identity. Superficial but telling, the stress that the Islamic government of Iran places on religion over matters of national history is revealed in Iranian money. Iran is the only country I can think of that has, on its money, sites that are not located within the country’s borders. In Iran’s case, no bills contain Persepolis, in the hearts and minds of many Iranians and non-Iranians alike the most beloved and inspirational of Iran’s cultural heritage, but the 1000 and 2000 Rial notes do contain images of Mecca and Jerusalem.

1000 Rial and 2000 Rial notes, showing Islamic sites not in Iran

(Showing the political orientation of the money even further, the new 50,000 Rial note makes a special reference to Iran’s contentious nuclear program.)

One of the most significant areas in which Iran puts religious politics over ethnic politics is its virulent anti-Israel policy.

Anti-Israel mural, Tehran

I found myself asking, “Why should Iran even care about Israel?” Iranians generally have no fondness for Arabs, even if co-religionists, and go so far as to consider some of them, Saudis in particular, their enemies. Palestine is quite a distance from Iran, and, let’s face it, Iran and Israel in many senses don’t have anything to do with each other. Given that Jordan and Egypt, the countries actually bordering Israel and most affected by the problems rising from the existence of Israel, have made peace with Israel, why is it up to Iran to become a protagonist in that struggle? The answer is that through its struggle against Israel Iran believes that it is assuming leadership of the Islamic world, a mantle that Iran clearly desires. Do Iranians as a people have anything at stake? No. But the Islamic government does. (In one of the most perverse statements derived from propaganda that we heard in Iran, and generally we heard quite few, an otherwise smart man told us that Iran must oppose Israel now before Israel invades Iran, because the Zionists’ objective is to expand Israeli territory indefinitely. Today the West Bank, tomorrow Tehran? Also, note that the mural above is instructional in nature–if you are a follower of Imam Khomeini, you must support Palestinians (even if you didn’t know you cared about Israel).)

In addition to promoting Iran’s Islamic identity over Iran’s non-Islamic history, the Iranian government uses its religion of Shiite Islam specifically as a major building block of Iranian national identity.

One potential problem with Islam for Iranians, as I described above, is that it originated with Arabs, who are generally perceived quite negatively, and came to Iran through the Arab conquest, which is thought of as a destructive and negative period of Iranian history. Even today, Islam as a whole is in many ways dominated by Arabs. (We were told, for example, that the Saudis treat Iranians poorly in the hajj, assigning them substandard amenities and suboptimal access.) One “solution” for this problem has been the promotion within Iran of Shiite Islam, a sect that it would grow to dominate. Iran is now 90% Shiite Muslim, but it wasn’t always so; even up to the 17th century, there were as many Sunnis as Shiites in Iran. The balance was changed by the Safavid dynasty, which forced the conversions not only of Sunnis but also of Zoroastrians to Shiism. (I sometimes wonder why this sort of historical perspective does not make people question their beliefs.)

One Iranian woman described Iran to me as “the center of Islamic culture.” Of course, many places can lay claim to that title, and more convincingly than Iran, but the Iranian government is hard at work promoting Iran as the center of Shiite Islam (a title it undoubtedly now holds). For the Safavids, the Shiite faith was a way for Iran to distinguish itself from the also-Islamic but Sunni Ottomans and Central Asians with whom Iran was at war, and to raise the prestige of Iran as a sort of sub-leader within the confines of what is in some ways a foreign faith (perhaps comparable to the state churches established during the Reformation). Shiism still serves the state function of helping strengthen national identity and status by acting as a brand of Islam that is Iranian rather than Arab. The current government continues to promote Iranian-style Shiism not only in Iran but throughout the Islamic world, by funding of Shiite mosques and otherwise, with the additional political aim of building support for Iran, Shiism’s center, within other countries.

Another way that the Iranian goverment uses religion is by creating confusion between faith and state. Iranian people are, undoubtedly, deeply religious, and the government equates religion and state such that it becomes difficult for Iranians to reject fully their government without in part rejecting their religion. One example of this is what I think is an ambiguous use of the word “martyr.” Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, Iraq took advantage of the chaos in Iran to launch an attack, leading to the debilitating Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Portraits of Iran-Iraq war “martyrs” are still painted on countless billboards and buildings. While calling war casualties “martyrs” no doubt helped the war effort (by borrowing from religious fervor), to me, dying in a war is not religious martyrdom even if your country has no separation of church and state. The Iranian government does not seem to recognize this distinction when bandying about the word “martyr.” According to one popular government slogan, a country whose citizens are willing to martyr themselves will never fail.

One can only wonder about a government that promotes the human sacrifice of its citizens.

The Iran-Iraq War served to unite the Iranian people under their new government, and the current government takes many actions to make the memories of the war endure despite the passage of much time, maintaining an atmosphere of perpetual war. An Iranian told us that Ahmedinejad recently had a plan to bury war dead in new memorials in every Iranian city, and another told us that now was not the time to push for political reform because the country is still recovering from the war.

I do not know if Iran is still in a period of recovery from the Iran-Iraq War, but it is clear that the wake of the Islamic Revolution, with its conscious and forceful reorientation of Iranian identity, has not settled. Of course, all the strains of Iranian identity will continue to co-exist, as always, but it remains to be seen when a national sense of balance will be reached.

Gay Life in Iran

Our introduction to gay life in Iran was a strange one. Our first evening in Iran, while walking around Shiraz looking for something to eat, we crossed a public square in the middle of town that at first glance did not seem out of the ordinary, but turned out to be one of the most aggressive gay cruising grounds we had ever seen. The first man we met had an extremely high feminine voice (although he was like 6’2″) and showed Derek a (straight) porn video that was on his mobile phone, suggesting that we walk over to his house. The second started with polite chatter but then moved quickly to sex (“In America, man on man okay?”), repeatedly asking Derek the size of his, um, ****, and complaining about local sizes. Despite a very reserved appearance (he was an academic of some sort), this man was quite explicit about what he wanted, and persistent. (I suppose we could have just walked away, but while not sharing his interests we stuck around fruitlessly trying to engage him in more substantive conversation.) Passing through the same square on the way back from dinner, another man told us that he loved America and George Bush and said that George Bush was gay. All of this, happening on our first full night in Iran, was utterly surreal.

Having gay sex in Iran is a capital offense, as is well-known, and there have indeed been cases in which gay men have been executed (although it is not clear whether they were executed merely for homosexual sex or for that in combination with other crimes). Even if one is not executed, there is no doubt that punishment for being openly gay would be quick and harsh. Iranian President Ahmedinejad famously said at Columbia University that there are no gays in Iran, and one fairly liberal, open-minded Iranian we spoke to agreed with that statement, only acknowledging when pressed that there may be a handful, four or five. (Other Iranians did recognize that there were of course gays and lesbians in Iran, and were embarassed at the absurdity of the President’s statement, with which they were surprisingly familiar.)

So is there gay life in Iran? In one month, without much effort, we witnessed a surprising amount. Just by keeping our eyes open, we came across what we believe were four gay couples in Iran. One was relaxing by the river in a large Iranian city, one guy’s head in the other’s lap. In the same city, two other young men, rather similarly and tidily dressed, were walking hand-in-hand. Having just passed us on the street, they looked back and lifted their clasped hands to show that they were together, then a couple seconds later again looked back and lifted their hands. One young man showed us a tattoo on his arm apparently of his boyfriend’s name, which he showed to us saying, “I love [Abdullah],” and pointing to the young man next to him. A fourth couple was quite suggestively stroking each other’s hands and forearms on the Tehran subway, much to our shock. Some of you may argue that all these were the sort of liberal male/male expressions of closeness/friendship without any sexual content that one sees all over from the Middle East to India. As one man told us, two Iranian men can share a bed naked without fear of interpretation of homosexuality–it is just simply acceptable among male friends. But we’re quite familiar with those sorts of behaviors as well, from our experience traveling, and these were not those. In our best judgment, these individuals expressly signaled to us their sexuality (why us I’m not sure, other than that we are two foreign men), and we think they were gay.

The situation seems to be that public awareness of homosexuality is so low in Iran, being gay so unthinkable, that you can get away with a surprising amount of public displays of affection, certainly more than a heterosexual couple can. What we saw gay men do in Iran was beyond the mere friendly same-sex handholding as in India or elsewhere–they were flagrantly physically affectionate, with no-one the wiser.

Public awareness of homosexuality is so low, the possibility so far under people’s radar, that you can also have a public cruise in the center of town. In addition to the square in Shiraz, we visited a park in central Tehran known as a gay meeting place not only on gay websites but even in Lonely Planet.

In the early evening, gay men make up a small (though to the westerner easily identified) minority, among many young people and families, but grow to dominate the park more and more later at night, numbering in the dozens. The atmosphere was much lower key than Shiraz, with men talking to friends and saying hello to strangers but without a sense of desperation.

Park, at night

We were told that, during Khatami’s presidency, there were even drag queens or transsexuals in the park, but after the accession of Ahmedinejad the police came and arrested them, and ordered them never to return to the park again (better than the treatment of such people at the time of the Islamic Revolution–apparently transsexuals working in cabaret shows were put in large bags and thrown off of high places, a traditional Islamic punishment). The police continue to raid the park, including by posing as attractive young gay men on the prowl (of course, a classic ploy in the U.S. as well, as former Senator Larry Craig knows). If the police catch someone taking a compromising action or making a compromising statement, they make them sign statements promising never to return to the park–it is less clear what happens at a second offense.

Of course, banishment from the local park isn’t the only risk gay men face in Iran. We were told by one young man that he had been beaten up by basijis, a radical fanatical group that is a remnant from the Iran-Iraq war, near the park because he was perceived to be gay. Despite being able to hold your boyfriend’s hand in public, you can’t actually be “out,” or self-identified as a gay man or couple. One man told us that he was able to find and have sex but could not maintain a relationship for fear of exposure and total destruction of reputation and career. And, ultimately, there is the possibility of execution.

Two bonuses on this post, a poem and a joke.

A poem, mine:

Did guys in Texas fear being arrested
before Lawrence v. Texas the sodomy laws tested?
So the guys of Shiraz cruise the parks for the hung
with no ‘pparent fear that they too get hung.

One piece of “evidence” of the ancient and persistent existence of homosexuality in the Middle East (like anywhere else) is that many Middle Eastern countries have a city that is infamous for homosexuality, and the butt of all gay jokes in that country. In Iran, this city is Qazvin (we were there, but didn’t notice anything particularly gay about the place), and we even heard boys in Tehran teasing one another by saying that the other was from Qazvin. At our request, a gay Iranian told us this Qazvin joke:

The grim reaper came to collect the soul of a Qazvin man. “You may write a last statement,” the grim reaper said, “before you leave this world forever.” The man answered, “Oh, I’ve already prepared my statement–it’s under the bed. Could you bend over and get it?”