The southernmost road headed east through Xinjiang took us through some pretty disgusting places. Trash piles burned on the sidewalks, and little kids just shit in the street. Goat skins and carcasses were discarded in a pile throughout the day as the meat was sold off at a city market stall.
We left Kashgar at night in a taxi and got into the next city, Hotan, around three o’clock in the morning, Uhigur time, or maybe Chinese… the two are different, but I can’t remember by how much, so clocks are extremely ambiguous. It was the middle of the night. We tried to sleep on some steps outside a closed shop until the sun rose, but it was much too dusty, and much to strange and uncomfortable a place to be able to sleep. So we just laid until the sun rose.
We were quite well into the Uighurs’ land; the dress and manners of the people of the people, and the style of the town, was more of what I would have imagined to find in the Middle East, not China. They were Muslim by long tradition, and as a relatively small tribe they maintain a very strong culture, evident in almost all of the Uighur people. Their own language is written in Arabic strip, and thus looks pretty much like Arabic language to me when written. But it has a distinct sound, similar to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages, not so much to arabic.
But these people are far away from everything. The entire province of Xinjiang, or Uighurstan for the native people, sits just north of the massive Himalayan plateau. It has borders with remote parts of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, none of early pioneering of industrial development or global commerce. In only the last generation were they tapped by this system. So, all the trash was a new thing to them, and they had no idea what to do with it or how to deal with it.
In comparison, our ancestors in the United States going back to the 1940’s have slowly been introduced to the concept of having large amounts of waste to dispose of. By waste, I mean tin, aluminum, plastic, styrofoam, paper, cardboard, and other garbage. I mean all the garbage: old furniture, computers, bed frames, construction waste, plastic cups, chap-stick tubes, candy wrappers, old shoes, fast-food bags, class handouts, newspapers, boxes and bags, wrappers and boxes for food, bottles for water or industrial chemicals, broken cars, and plastic utensils.
Our people has grown up with it all, slowly for several generations. We have garbage cans all throughout the cities, in public places, and in our houses, all of which are attended to by municipal or private workers. Our landfills are engineering feats, assembled with great machines. It’s all had time to set in.
But in Uighurstan, this barrage is brand new. “Medieval” is what my journalism professor called parts of eastern China he saw as it just began to open to the West in the 1970’s. And this place is far away from everything, even eastern China. Quite recently, these people lived in a manner relatively unchanged for many thousands of years: localized production without petroleum power, industrialized. The roads and the trucks and all the stuff in them just hit them by surprise.
Thus: the disaster. They didn’t know how to deal with it or what its effects or qualities really were. No one ever had trash before. How could they know already that burning it is bad or have developed a disciplined method of bagging it, collecting it, and shipping it away? The scene was really revolting. With so little municipal trash collection, most shops and houses burnt garbage outside their door, and the streets were jam-packed with people and tricycle motor carts. There was a huge open junk market selling piles and piles of rusted metal parts and industrial cuts of metal, all leftover or salvaged from broken things. The place was just dirty, in general, almost as dirty as anywhere could be.
And for me, it is sad to see this have befallen a people. Has it done them any good? We call it modernization, or globalization, but it seems that the side effects of this upgrade are not so mild. Now a very big mess has been made of the places where desert merchants once traded beautifully handcrafted rugs and tapestries and urns and such things along the great Silk Road between the West and the East. Here people had traded their art for food and other goods, to be like a regal desert tribe. They built eloquent, golden-domed mosques that still stand today. The air was clean before, and you could drink the water. People lived and died as they almost always had until the quiet was broken by petroleum motors as the trucks start coming in.
When we compare ourselves and the city around us with others, places we call the third-world, we never realize the scale of the change in global lifestyle that our people led in the last century. Just three or four generations ago Europeans in the United States were some of the first people to industrialize and capitalize, and since then the infrastructure and idea has grown, large and larger with time.
If we are the subjects of capitalist industrialization, then these people are the objects. The concept came to them, and what could they have done? The world needs roads, today it seems, for after all they carry goods to market. In eastern China, tens of millions of workers labor in the factories that stock the markets around the world. Roads make factories money. They are necessary now, and all people must be tapped by the system
Thus, bear in mind when you bask in euphoria when you bask in the wonder of what our civilization has done; you are not seeing all of it.