Barry Holstun Lopez (American author, essayist, fiction writer.)
As a first exposure to Barry Lopez’s writing, “Horizon” is a disturbing review of the state of nature.
There is a “Let It Be” determinism in Lopez’s memoir of travels around the world.
There seems little rage in “Horizon” about the decline of earth’s environment. Particularly in comparison to Greta Thunberg’s accusations against spoilers of the world.
Of course, Lopez is in his 70 s. Thunberg is 16. Her generation is more likely to feel the consequence of world’ ecological change. One doubts pessimism is the intent of Lopez’s recollections. But pessimism is a sense some may get from a 23-hour narration of “Horizon”.
From Lopez’s varied experience as a writer, historian, amateur archaeologist, and world traveler, he concludes humankind may be destined for a sixth extinction.
Lopez lives a peripatetic life that exposes him to the remains of animal species lost; the evolutionary fragments of human remains, and the disparate changes of weather around the world.
Lopez visits parts of the world discovered by explorers. Particularly men like John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, and others. Lopez writes many vignettes about James Cook and his obsession–to map the world.
Man’s inhumanity to man has been recorded many times by many writers. Lopez regrets the passing of native populations, and suggests their passing is because early explorers paved the way for new civilizations. In recalling various expeditions, Lopez makes one aware of the nature of human beings.
The American Indian’s “Trail of Tears” are repeated in many civilizations.
Lopez notes the lows of human beings with a story of two older men who want him to ghost write an essay about their experience with underage girls in Thailand. In a bigger historical picture, Lopez explains the nature of explorers who destroy as well as initiate new civilizations.
Lopez infers human civilization is trapped in a cycle of self-destruction. Every society desires stability and longevity. Lopez infers human nature gets in the way of those desires.
Lopez writes about Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the arbitrariness of genetic selection that sustains human life. Lopez holds the view that Darwin’s theory may be key to human’s future survival.
Lopez infers a chance genetic modification will seed human survival as the world ecological system changes. Lopez notes many civilizations are gone; others are headed for extinction. Today, human advancement is a product of greed and self-interest. Tomorrow, human advancement may be dependent on love and care for others.
Just as greed and self-interest are genetic markers for today’s world cultures, a new genetic marker might offer love and care for others for tomorrow’s world cultures.
Lopez illustrates slavery still plagues the conscience of 21st century civilization. Discrimination because of race, color, or creed are evident in every nation of the world.
Jews, Palestinians, Houthi, Saudi Arabians, Taliban, Afghani, Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Inuit, Canadians, Americans, Chinese, Asians, Russians and others feed into humanities self-destruction. There is blame to go around with a mentality of “my way is the only way”.
Cortes Conquest of the Aztec Empire.
From Oregon to Antarctica; from Africa to California, to New York to Australia, to the Galapagos Islands, and back to Oregon, Lopez reflects on the state of the world.
What can break humanity’s cycle of self-destruction?
Lopez leaves a slender hope that the evolution of human beings will rescue humanity. He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Lopez suggests the world will go on, but humans may be the sixth extinction. The question is—is it up to us, fate, nature, or a Supreme Being?
There are a variety of ways citizens of Turkey choose to live. Some choose to live in homes that are monuments to Turkey’s past. A few live in rock homes dating as far back as 1800 BC.
This home in Capadocia is a few feet from town. A husband, wife, and son live here. It is rented from the government of Turkey for what constitutes an annual property tax. The family can live in the home as long as related generations live there, and pay the taxes. The home is preserved by the State as a monument to Turkey’s past. It cannot be structurally modified without prior approval of the State. The few homes in this program are inspected annually for any forbidden structural changes.
This is a highly coveted style of living. The current occupants note their son is considered quite privileged by his school mates. This particular home is a social gathering place for local friends of the family. The wife is the descendant-connection that keeps this home in the family. Her marriage assures inheritance by future generations that have any blood relationship.
The temperature inside the home is perfectly comfortable when outside temperatures reach above 80 degrees. In the severest winter months, heat comes from a vented stove that is temporarily set in the middle of the living room. The home has electric wiring for lighting and appliances. The floors are covered with beautiful hand-made carpets made by past and present generations.
While sipping tea in the living room, the warmth, and cleanliness of the home floods your senses.
In another part of the city, in an older part of Capadocia, there is an underground communal enclave of passageways and rooms. They are carved into ancient rock formations. It served as a refuge for Christians. It was used in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. It reaches a depth of as much as 200 feet in the Derinkuyu district of Capadocia. Its purpose was to protect Greek orthodox Christians from many wars occurring in that era. As many as 20,000 people sought refuge in this underground city.
Massive rock door wheels secured passage ways and rooms in the underground city. The wheels were leveraged by spears or staffs to open and close the passage way.
Another style of living in Turkey is in national parks–occupied by nomads whose lifestyles reach back to the 3rd century BC. In winter months, nomads move to the city, but return every spring to tend their farms and goat herds. They, like the previously mentioned families retain their place on the State’s land as long as their descendants continue to use it during habitable months.
Each nomadic family builds their own house, out-buildings, and fencing. When they leave, those structures become expendable. Many live an “off the grid” existence, supplemented by periodic visits to the city to sell their goats. The couple noted below have a daughter that stays with her grandparents in the city during the school year. The father acknowledges he may be the last of his family to live this life because his daughter has other ambitions.
The remainder live in houses reminiscent of modern America.
The state controls a high proportion of land through the authority of the Under Secretariat of Treasury. Through inheritance rules set by the General Directorate for Foundations, the government indirectly controls Turkey’s historic sites.
One presumes the reason for much of Turkey’s control of land is because of its historic character. For nomads, the tradition of a nomadic population (though now quite small) is preserved for cultural reasons. This reminds one of a Hong Kong guides’ disappointment in the loss of traditional market places in semi-autonomous regions of China.
In addition to Turkey’s effort to preserve history and tradition, its cities are intent on being or becoming modern metropolises. It strives like all countries of the world to join the technological age to better serve its national interests and public needs. Turkey struggles with the same economic concerns evident in other countries of the world. The difference is that so much more ancient history is evident in Turkey than in many other parts of the world.
Istanbul and Ankara are modern metropolises.
Interestingly, it seems relatively easy to become a Turkish citizen. You can be born in a family with one parent who is a Turkish citizen, and you have citizenship. You can marry a Turkish citizen and receive citizenship after 3 years of marriage. Or, you can simply live in Turkey for 5 years (without any absence over a total of 6 months in the 5 year period) and become a citizen. The 5-year rule involves a residence permit which requires a foreigner to have a passport/travel document that is valid for at least 60 days after the expiration of a requested residence permit.
Today, it is possible for foreigners to own property in Turkey. There are limits to the size of the property (about 7.4 acres per foreigner), and some special rules depending on which city or area one wishes to live. In 2007 an estimated 75,000 foreign nationals owned property in Turkey.
Spending three weeks is not enough time to learn much about a country. However, with the help of local guides, and O.A.T.’s policy of travel, there is a glimmer of what life is like in whatever country you visit.
O.A.T. provides educated local guides, a school visit, shopping opportunities, artisan worker experiences, historic site hikes, controversial subject presentations, and dinners at numerous local eateries in their programmed trips abroad. Emphasis is placed on cultural immersion. There is an opportunity to have dinner with a local family and to meet local business people.
O.A.T.’s professional guides explain the history of ancient sites and answer questions about current events while traveling between cities and towns. Travelers gain first-hand views of a country’s culture and history.
Prior to leaving, our guide to Turkey suggests reading “Birds Without Wings” (reviewed earlier in this blog) as an introduction to Turkish society. This historical novel offers a record of Turkey’s ascendance as an independent nation; just before, and after WWI. Turkey is a complex state; re-defined by its Turkish heritage after the war.
In every Turkish city and town, there is an image or statue of the founder of the Turkish Republic. His name is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ataturk is Turkey’s George Washington. He is revered in the same manner as America’s first President. The formation of an independent secular state is what the founder of the Republic demanded. Leaders of Turkey, since Ataturk, have insisted on Turkey’s independence and a government unrestricted by religious belief.
There is an historical continuity in Turkey that seems poorly understood in America. That continuity is the secular nature of its government.
In 1923, Ataturk founded the republic as an independent and secular state. Even before modern times, when Turkey is part of the Ottoman Empire, emphasis is on government’s independence from religion. The Ottoman Empire’s history of diversity in religion is clearly shown by remains of Christian relics, churches, and seminaries in a tour of Turkey’s older cities, and towns.
Turkey is often perceived as a singular Islamic state. Yes, over 98% of its population identifies itself as Muslim. However, America’s population classifies itself as over 70% Christian. Just as American government is not a theocracy, Turkish government is not defined by its religion. Turkey is not a theocracy like Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia.
Neither America nor Turkey could deny religion’s influence on culture, but day to day life is primarily an economic; not religious struggle.
Though one cannot deny Muslim cultural influence, Turkey tightly controls religious radicalization of its citizens. Like America, the Turkish government has never been dominated by a religious faction.
At worst, religion becomes a crutch used by both Turks and Americans to gather followers who desire power; not religious enlightenment. At best, religion in both Turkey and America is a refuge from the hardship of life.
Ironically, the creation and evolution of a singular Christian faith is shown in many ancient Turkish sites. At the time of the Greco/Roman era, when Christianity began its conversion of pagan and Jewish followers, many churches and monasteries dotted the Mediterranean coast of what became Turkey. Religious Saints like Saint George, Nicholas, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and John were born or preached in Turkey. St. John spent the last 23 to 30 years of his life in Turkey. St. Paul visited Turkey in all three of his missionary journeys.
The history of Turkey, though not known by that name before the early
twentieth century, goes back to the pre-Christian era. Artifacts and relics of the past are
everywhere in Turkey. Some reflect on an
age before Christianity. Most reflect on
the world’s conversion from pagan belief of many gods to belief in one God.
Aside from the extraordinary history of Turkey, our guide explains his view of current affairs. We pepper our guide with many inane, and a few (hopefully) interesting questions. The following paragraphs are personal opinions rather than objective truths of what modern Turkey looks like.
Ruling Turkey, as is true of all nations, is complicated. The current leader of Turkey is President Recep Tayip Erdogan. He is not the first popularly elected head of state (there was Menderes in the 50 s, Demirel in the 70 s, and Ozal twice in the 20th century), but Erdogan is the first popularly elected President in Turkey’s history.
Like a lion tamer, Erdogan manages his country with one lion on
the right; one on the left, and his country’s lion in the middle. Russia, China, India, Great Britain, the
European Union, and the United States (among others) are important trading
partners for Turkey. Each country takes
its position on the left and right in the lion’s cage, while the leader of
Turkey focuses on the middle lion (Turkey’s citizens).
An estimated 80% of Turkey’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Gas and oil comprise most of that energy. Significantly, more than 70% of that gas and oil is imported from Russia and Iraq, with Iran playing a major role.
The spat between the U.S. and Turkey over military equipment ignores the reality of Turkey’s energy and defense needs. Russia and Iraq supply much of the energy Turkey needs for economic growth. Erdogan must walk a tight rope that offers a satisficing solution to two opposing world powers; Russia and the U.S., which are important players in Turkey’s future.
One doubts President Trump cares about the realpolitik situation of Turkey’s leadership.
Nationalism is the order of the day for many world economic powers. “America First” is Trump’s rallying cry. President Erdogan joins that nationalist movement with a revised Turkish constitution.
Erdogan changes the constitution to enhance Presidential control of government. Like Trump, Erdogan attacks internal dissension by weakening checks and balances offered by other branches of government.
Because of Turkish Constitution changes, Erdogan acquires a more powerful and longer-term leadership role in government. Though Erdogan is the first democratically elected President, his first elections show an anemic 36% and 47% winning vote for office, and less than 52% vote in his most recent election as President.
In the case of Ataturk, his recommendation for democracy in Turkey was a moment of “do what I say; not what I do” because Ataturk came to, and retained, power without democratic election. Multi-party democracy arrives in 1950 when the first truly democratic election is held., 12 years after Ataturk’s death.
Since its founding by Ataturk in 1923, Turkey has had a unitary form of government; i.e. a political organization with a central supreme form of government. However, the 2017 Constitution, adopted in a 2018 vote (some say, a controversial vote), weakens the judicial branch of the Turkish government.
Erdogan became a political power as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. In 2003, he became Prime Minister of Turkey. With changes in the Constitution, which is approved in 2018, Erdogan became Turkey’s first popularly elected President. The parliamentary form of government in the pre-2018 Constitution changes the “head of state” from Prime Minister (a less powerful leadership position) to President of the Republic. The significance of the change is that Erdogan can now serve up to two five-year terms.
Erdogan’s recent imprisonment of alleged revolutionary conspirators is evidence of the judiciary’s weakened position.
Without trial, and often because of association rather than volitional act, citizens are accused and jailed for a surmised conspiracy to overthrow the government. The judiciary has been able to get some “guilt by association” prisoners released but it is a procedural, long term struggle; reminiscent of repressive government. It can take months if not years for the falsely imprisoned to get a hearing before the court.
Erdogan voided Istanbul’s recent election for mayor. The voided election showed an 83.86% turn out with Ekrem Imamoglu getting 48.77% of the vote while the Erdogan party’ candidate received 48.16%
Erdogan’s seeming loss of support in Istanbul implies rising discontent with his leadership.
A possible successor to Erdogan might be the Istanbul opposition-party’ candidate, Imamoglu, who seems to have been popularly elected in the voided election.
As Lord Acton, the historian, said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is the risk that Erdogan is travelling down that road. Some may argue the same for President Trump. Erdogan’s position may be threatened at the next election if he persists in unjust incarcerations. Add that to a weakening economy, and 2017’s change to popular elections, Erdogan may lose his second Presidential bid for office.
AMERICAN WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED 6/14/2019:
To be fair, leadership of any popularly elected national government is difficult and complicated. One must experience the complexity of democratic leadership to truly understand its difficulty. America’s experience is that “check and balance” are an essential ingredient of good democratic government.
Autocratic judgement by one leader may result in Stalinist purges with false arrests, torture, bogus confessions, and executions without a check and balance on Presidential fiat. One wonders if Erdogan is as far-sighted as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in recognizing the importance of democratic governance.
An interesting side note is Turkey’s interest in becoming a part of the European Union. Based on the nationalist movement evidenced by Brexit and present/past expenditures of Turkey to secure their borders, it seems unlikely it will become part of the E.U. any time soon.
Joining the E.U. may have economic value but nationalism gets in the way of practical economics, and open borders.
Our guide invited a Syrian refugee to tell us of his journey to Turkey across the Syrian border. His story is harrowing in that he came with little, did not know the language, and had to rely on the kindness of Turkish citizens to survive. He is a Kurd. His family remains in Syria.
One final aside is the temporary housing afforded by Turkey to Syria refugees.
Some may presume Syrian refugees are as likely to be Isis revolutionaries as citizens escaping the terror of war. The billions of dollars spent by Turkey to house these refugees, and close monitoring of citizen’s status as residents or refugees, offers hope that fleeing Syrians are being properly cared for and fairly treated. All arms are taken from those crossing the border, but beliefs cannot be controlled. No publicly revealed records are kept of any past actions of Syrian refugees. Even without weapons, the power of ideas can resurrect Isis ambitions.
E.U. membership would offer some help in covering the cost of refugee camps, but current costs far exceed the amount offered by E.U. membership. Some suggest E.U. membership is being denied to Turkey because of the size of its Muslim population. This is an interesting but weak reason for denial because Turkey has always been a secular state. The irony of that concern is that open borders (required by E.U. membership) could mean Christians would return to Turkey after their WWI ejection. How would the Turkish population feel about repatriation of the long absent Christians?
All of this E.U.’ conjecture seems moot because it seems likely that Turkey’s nationalists would reject any offer to join the E.U. Maybe, when nationalism becomes less important, and people realize we are all part of the human race, there will be no borders between nations. Ha.
Our trip to Turkey is in our memories and hearts. Thank you Mustafa Kemal Topcu. You represent your country with love, and show unwarranted respect for tourists’ foolish and impertinent questions. Turkey is a beautiful country; with a remarkable history and welcoming people.
Martin Jacques has written an interesting book about China’s rise as a world economic power. His overview of the geo-political and Realpolitik relationships of the east and west are interesting; particularly in light of the Trump administration.
“When China Rules the World” has interesting details that inform but do not convince one that China will rule the world. The provocative title drives the bus but it does not reach its destination.
World control is a myth that causes wars and destroys the best and brightest, as well as the mean and maniacal.
What is happening in China is remarkable. China’s transition from Maoist communism to capitalist communism is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly; i.e. China has grown wings but it still lives in a world constrained by its environment.
Though President Xi is re-instituting some Maoist mistakes, China’s world wide investment in infrastructure is based on capitalist beliefs. Xi has an internationalist focus, just like that which made America great; at least, until Trump’s Presidency.
Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution and belief in enlarging collectivist ideology nearly destroys China’s path to prosperity
Xi is attempting to open new markets by financing infrastructure improvements in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. He is creating customers for Chinese product.
Undoubtedly, Xi is also trying to seduce other nations into belief in Xi’s form of Communism. This is not unlike America’s intent to democratize the world.
Jacques argues that a 90% Han Chinese cultural domination of 1/5th of the world’s population will change the nature of the 21st century. In a limited sense, that is undoubtedly true. However, regardless of the type of government rule, human nature is the same.
Money, power, and prestige, are the primary motivations of humankind. Whether one is Han Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Indian, Hispanic, Black, or any singular ethnic group, all humans seek control of money, power, and prestige. These innate drives are the speedometer, brakes, and steering wheels of nation-state’ leaders and followers.
There are dominant factions in every culture that are not necessarily the majority of a culture’s population. Jacques’ early comments suggest China’s 5000 year history reflects a cultural conformity greater than any other country in history while later he acknowledges that the predominant Han population is highly diverse in its beliefs.
Cultural conformity is not the relevant issue; i.e., dominant cultures, whether a majority or minority of an indigenous population, are the game changers of a nation’s history.
Jacques argues that China’s cultural history of familial respect and veneration will have profound affects on the future of world economies. Jacques has a valid point. However, the history of modernization suggests that the fabric of extended filial obligation will be ripped apart in China just as it has in every industrializing nation.
China, just as all modernizing nation-states, will see deterioration of familial bonds.
Human nature is immutable. As an agrarian culture moves to the city and parents are compelled to work for wages, family structure and filial commitment deteriorates.
Of course, capitalism is not the same in China as it is in the western hemisphere. As Jacques reports, major capitalist businesses are state owned in China. They compete in the world market but government support mitigates much of the free enterprise ideal of capitalist economies. However, no nation-state operates as a free enterprise capitalist country; i.e. government has always played a role in capitalist nations. Government subsidy of industrialization is a matter of degree.
It may be that China will change the way industrialized countries compete but global economic domination is no longer possible in a tech savvy world that recognizes knowledge is power and natural resources are limited.
All the world knows how each culture in the world lives. With that knowledge, countries will gravitate to systems of government that serve its dominant culture best. Best is defined as what is most important to the dominant culture in the context of either money, power, or prestige.
Long term, China is facing a tougher road to modernize because of population, environmental degradation, and dwindling natural resources, but their short term prospects look better than most other nations.
As Jacques points out, China’s savings rate is over 20%, with a GDP growth rate 3 times that of America. The cost of dwindling natural resources is more affordable to China than most other modernizing countries. However, all economies are closely tied to each other and a major failure in America or Europe will have great consequence for the world economy which will significantly affect China’s short term advantage.
With a failure of a western countries economy, China’s drive toward modernization will be in danger. That danger is demonstrated today by America’s creation of a trade war with China.
Some argue this burgeoning trade war is hurting the Chinese economy more than the American economy. That may be true in the short term, but the efficacy of trade wars are questionable in the long term; particularly in our internet connected world.
Jacques’ book is worth its purchase price and a consumer’s time because he exposes some of the cultural biases of China that are not widely known. His suggestion that discrimination is as prevalent in China as it is in the United States is reprehensible, and disgustingly familiar. Globalization is real. Human nature is immutable. All mankind travels on the same space ship; i.e. our blue ball. At the very least, China is proving that our environment is fragile and natural resources are finite.
Egypt is a crossroad between Africa and Asia which makes it a prime target for colonization and control by invaders.
CLOSEUP OF THE SPHINX AT GIZA, NEAR CAIRO
The pyramids, ancient artifacts, lush farming communities, and Nile river reveal Egypt’s past and present. Egypt’s current capitol, Cairo, is the seventh most densely populated city in the world. No coal is burned to pollute the air. The Nile puts China’s Yangtze river to shame in showing less river trash and pollution.
FISHING ON THE NILE
Egyptian farms are irrigated with river water distributed by concrete and mud channels from the Nile.
Lusciously feted Nile river farmers are encouraged to use organic fertilizer, but one wonders how many chemicals are returned to the Nile unseen.
Egyptian infrastructure is burdened by lack of investment. The infrastructure for Egyptian farming is primitive by modern standards with ditch irrigation systems, antiquated farm equipment, and intense use of manual labor.
Infrastructure investment in China suggests prosperity while Egypt is foundering. Many Egyptian city and village roads are unpaved. Housing is dilapidated and poorly maintained for most of Egypt’s population.
In Egypt, food is plentiful, security paramount, and camel rides a tourist delight. The trick in riding a camel is getting on and getting off.
As a tourist in Egypt, ancient sites surpass China’s remarkable historical monuments (viewed in a previous blog). The Egyptian army seems everywhere in part because of a state-enforced draft but also because of the military’s role in governing a nation fractured by Islamic extremism. Religion’s influence in Egypt is obscured from tourist’s eyes because of the warm reception from residents but the military’s ubiquitous presence implies a different story.
The sheer size of the many Pyramids, tombs, and temples surpass the Great Wall and equal China’s remarkable Terracotta soldiers.
Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849)
What comes as a surprise from our guide (who is an Egyptologist) is how many times Egypt has been ruled by outsiders. Modern Egypt is founded by Muhammad Ali in 1805. Muhammad Ali Pasha is Albanian; not Egyptian. His dynasty is supported by the Ottoman Empire. It lasts until 1952 when a coup led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser takes control of Egypt.
Prior Muhammad Ali, exclusive Egyptian leadership is in the distant past. (The ten most famous Pharaohs ruled from 2686 BC to 1213 BC.) Of course, there were many more Egyptian dynasties (31 to be precise) but only ten marked history with Egypt’s indelible imprint. Cleopatra (principally famous for her role in the Greco/Roman incursion) is the last Pharaoh to have power. Her reign lasts 21 years; to end in 51 BC.
Egypt is a crossroad between Africa and Asia which makes it a
prime target for colonization and control by invaders. The Romans, Turks, French, and English take
turns at controlling Egypt. Fortresses abound along the Mediterranean and Nile
built by conquerors and the conquered.
Today, Rashid shows a level of prosperity that is belied by its dirt streets.
The Rosetta Stone is found in one such fort held by the French and overcome by the English. It is found in the ancient town of Rashid which was a primary port in Egypt’s earlier history. Today, Rashid shows a level of prosperity that is belied by its dirt streets. There are mud brick manufacturing plants, burgeoning boat building businesses, and fish farming pens in Rashid–the town where the Nile enters the Mediterranean. Only a replica of the Rosetta Stone remains at the fort. The actual stone is in the British Museum in London.
BOAT BUILDING INDUSTRY IN RASHID
Penned fish farms on the Nile in Rashid
The once imagined great city of Alexandria seems a shadow of tourist’
dreams. It is burdened by lack of
investment and a tax structure that works against finishing buildings. Billions of potential worth are hidden by poorly
maintained buildings along the Mediterranean water front.
Still, there are great sites to see in Alexandria. There is the modern library meant to resurrect the great library of Alexandria that was destroyed twice in Egypt’s history. It is a spectacular monument to Egypt’s potential. Its modern design rivals the best libraries of the world.
Bids for modernization can be seen in some areas. There is a burgeoning Silicon Valley, with nearby gas power plants to energize new industries.
This modernization contrasts with early Christian and Muslim places of worship, the Valley of the Kings (a giant cemetery for royalty), and the restored Winter Palace in Luxor that is now a Sofitel hotel. There is the Temple de Karnak, Grande Cour with its ram’s head entry leading to an inner sanctum temple.
Many royal residences have been returned to their original beauty and become state owned and maintained public museums.
One is reminded of the monumental gap between the rich and poor in visiting island farms that are owned by singular families. They employ hundreds, and feed thousands, while prospering from the rich Nile soil. Farming is primitive by modern standards, but the production from these farms is a sight to behold.
Island farms along the Nile show why the Greco-Roman era coveted the agricultural fecundity of Egypt.
The intricacies of Egyptian hieroglyphics are explained by our guide. The volume of information is overwhelming.
The rituals of mummification and fealty are displayed in faded colors of high and low relief pictographs on ancient walls and columns. The source and provenance of limestone quarries where great blocks of rock are harvested and hauled to temple sites are a side trip on a luxurious Nile barge cruise. There are many forms of domestic travel, but none surpasses four days of a cruise on the Aida.
Pictograph writing reveals ancient Egyptian belief in gods and goddesses; their stories of ascension, decline, death.
One of many values in a well-designed trip to a foreign country is the opportunity to meet with residents. Our trip is organized by Overseas Adventure Travel which specializes in having their tour groups offered lectures by residents of the countries that are visited.
The opportunity to hear from Christians, Muslims, Nubians, and local farmers broaden a tourist’s understanding of Egypt.
Every country of the world is complex and no brief trip will explain that complexity but these personal notes and pictures are meant to offer a peek into a mystery to all who do not, or cannot travel.
Three thousand years of history are compressed into a twenty-one day tour of China. Aside from dramatic images of China’s economic growth, one of the most interesting political observations made by our tour guide is the 70% rule of leadership.
In a self-limited group of 15 American tourists, Overseas Adventure Travel produces a personalized tour of Zhonggou; a.k.a. the “Middle Kingdom”–so named because China grew from a number of small provinces into a singular nation; i.e. a nation the size of the continental United States. Like all maps drawn by a nationalist country, China became the center of the world (a self-identified “Middle Kingdom”).
Our professional guide introduced himself as “Jason” (on the left). “Jason” is born and raised in China. He is educated and trained as a natural-medicine pharmacist like his mother. However, he chooses to abandon that career to see the world. He applies for a position with O.A.T., and after extensive interviews, training, and testing he becomes an independent, licensed tour guide. Being a guide is no easy task. When guiding 15 people, and seeing sites only read about in literature and the news, things get complicated.
In many ways, tourists are like ostriches. Ostriches are known to bury their heads in the sand when scared. As tourists, we often do the same, not out of fear, but in astonishment.
China’s great wall, giant cities, panda parks, public monuments, landscaped byways, and city parks overwhelm the senses. O.A.T. guides are charged with gathering, and managing 15 tourists while directing and telling a cultural history of the country in which they live.
This is a panda reserve in Chengdu, China. As with many indigenous species around the world, the panda is endangered and restricted to sanctuaries where they can reproduce without fear of poachers who covet their fur.
The immense surroundings of an awakening political, and economic giant arrives in a rush of cityscapes, bullet trains, and water ways. China is a country of 1.3 billion in a land the size of America. The difference is in population density with America at 327 million people. Instead of big cities of 8,000,000 citizens, China’s big cities have 20,000,000.
China is the country that thrills, and some suggest, intimidates the world. Intimidation is borne in the monumental display of human precision by multitudinous Chinese at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
While explaining China’s complicated history, “Jason” juggles arrangements for traveling cross-country. He assigns rooms at hotels, arranges meals, schedules meetings, and offers lectures prepared by local historians and residents. At the same time, “Jason” prepares 15 people to board trains, boats, and planes for the next city.
ROOM ACCOMMODATION FOR OVERNIGHT TRIP
A constant refrain from our guide is “don’t forget your passport”. Sometimes, a passport is forgotten at the hotel; other times personal luggage exceeds air-travel weight limits. “Jason” smiles, calms fears, and explains how problems can be overcome. He says he has a “cousin”. He doesn’t, but somehow problems are solved and the group moves on.
China is a closely watched country. The government requires surrender of your passport at hotels, and often insists on presentation of passports at particular sites like Tienanmen Square. Two areas we visited (Tibet and Hong Kong) are called autonomous (actually they are, at best, semi-independent) provinces in China. These “autonomous” regions have a different set of rules but the influence of main-land China is obvious in conversations with local residents.
A famous Tibetan monastery (Depung Monastery), originally designed to house Dali Llamas in life and death–is converted to a government building during the cultural revolution. It falls into disrepair but is renovated by President Xi as a museum. The current Dali Llama (forbidden to return to China) is unlikely to be entombed, like former Dali Llamas, in this monastery.
Tibet requires a passport, a special visa, and security checks. All interior China flights have security stations to x-ray baggage and inspect passports when you board. Wi-fi is generally available at hotels but an unsettling feeling comes with use of wi-fi because of a feeling everything you do is monitored.
Some hotels have only Chinese stations and those that have CNN or BBC seem to limit coverage of any news that is critical of China
Additionally, it seems certain information is not available on the internet. These anomalies do not change one’s interest in China but “Big Brother” seems ever present.
Of course, the same is true in America but “Big Brother” is more likely a private company like Facebook, or Google. Government surveillance is restricted by “rule of law” in America. America retains “checks and balances” that mitigate autocratic decisions by singular leaders.
“Jason” notes–in his experience, people all over the world are the same. People love; people hate; people believe and disbelieve, but cares and feelings of individuals are the same.
However, there seems a distinct philosophical difference in views of freedom. Freedom seems more feared in China than America. National coverage of Tibetan, Uighur, and Hong Kong independence suggests great concern over ideological differences between ethnic groups, provinces, and the government; particularly differences that encourage public demonstration against government policy.
As “Jason” unfolds Chinese history, one thinks about how important powerful, and singular leaders have been in governing China. Three cultural constants in Chinese history seem to be:
great care for familial relationship,
pursuit of higher education, and
Through generations, China relies on strong leaders who are able to unite disparate interests of provinces, religions, and ethnic groups.
From the great dynasties of ancient history to the eras of Mao, Deng, and now Xi, our guide suggests many Chinese believe “…great leaders must achieve 70% of what is right for the Chinese people” to advance the country. Those leaders that do not achieve that level of public good, are failures.
In other words, Mao and Deng may have made mistakes, but they were at least 70% right. President Xi seems in the process of proving himself. Ancient China’s lead in the world of science and economic growth suggest some truth in a 70% rule–after all, no one is always right.
China, like all surviving nations in history, have fallen and risen. In the 1940’s and into the 50’s, Mao overcame, what is considered by some, a corrupt government with a revolution that advanced the economic and political strength of China. Mao eliminated feudal farming that enriched the few at the expense of the many.
In the 1950’s China rapidly improved farming production of the country. On assuming power, Mao’s goal is to eliminate landed gentry who fail to make their farms produce what they were capable of producing. Redistribution of land became a primary goal of the communist revolution.
Mao’s means were to split the land among the peasants and allow them to own their own land. Individual small land owners formed collectives to improve farming productivity. In the 50’s that plan worked magnificently. China advanced rapidly in the early years of Mao’s reign.
However, with the initial success of small farm-collectives, Mao made the mistake of increasing the size of the collective with communist overseers. Mao’s intent is to advance productivity more quickly. The overseers undermine productivity with an economic program titled the “Great Leap Forward”.
Communist bureaucrats begin saying production is steadily increasing when it is not. Individual farmers no longer control productivity.
Farmers lose their passion to improve productivity as they become smaller cogs in a bigger machine. The bigger machine is layered with bureaucrats that want to look good on paper, but as overseers they overstate the productivity of the collective.
The communist party overestimates its ability. The “Great Leap Forward” replaces farmer’s with Communist bureaucrats. In the late stages of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, millions of Chinese die because of bureaucratic lies about farm production. Presumably, this falls into the 30% failure of Mao’s leadership.
Nearing the end of Mao’s life, he may have recognized his error but a cabal, called the Gang of Four (which included his wife), seized control of the government and continued the failed policy of communist control of agriculture. Mao, or this Gang of Four, started the cultural revolution (1966-1976); causing the death of millions. With the question of Mao’s intent, and the usurpation of power by the Gang of Four, the mistakes of the cultural revolution seem less attributed to Mao than the “Gang of Four”.
After removal of the “Gang of Four”, Deng Xiaoping, a pragmatic leader during Mao’s reign, opened the door to a form of capitalism. The door is nearly shut with the Tienanmen Square slaughter. At Deng’s order, a massive protest in Tienanmen Square, is to be ended by “any means necessary”. An unknown number of Chinese men, women, and children are murdered by the military.
Some suggest that Tienanmen Square is a turning point in the history of China. Deng did not apologize for the Tienanmen decision, but he overcame his mistake by arguing that “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. …. “ Deng seems to have listened to some of what the Tienanmen protesters were saying. Undoubtedly, many protesters were attempting to make communism better; not to destroy what works for the masses. but to focus on what enriches their lives.
However, the principle of the collective in China remains. Land is largely owned by the State. However, a version of a free market is created which allows private sale of vertical construction (particularly space within buildings) in China’s cities. (This is somewhat misleading because the sales price in a private transaction requires approval by the government, but the government does allow profit to the individual on the sale.)
Small farms are still owned by some Chinese, but the trend is for continued collectivization. Additionally, the growth of cities changes the desirability of farming. Older Chinese may stay on the farm but their children migrate to the city. When aged farmers die, the land is retained by the family but often as tenant farms; unless the government makes an offer they cannot refuse. The tenant farms still operate as a part of a collective. Produce is determined by individual farmers but brokers sell farm product to retail stores for purchase by the public.
A construction boom began with Deng’s pragmatic solution that seemingly combines communist oversight with capitalist ambition. Chinese entrepreneurs work hard, become wealthy, and live a better life. Small farms are steadily re-acquired in China through a process of payment to farmers in the following way:
families are offered (collectively owned) small-parcel farms equal in size to their parent’s land. They become absentee landlords that receive rent in the form of farming profits,
various incentives are offered by the government to families for their move; sometimes, a pension or medical insurance policy, and
the government offers a condominium or house in a different location.
In using this method of acquisition, the government is able to build new condominiums, shopping centers, and infrastructure projects–like the “Three Gorges Dam” that controls flooding. Infrastructure work is ubiquitous in China.
Roads, bridges, and rails are being built to influence and connect Chinese provinces. The most recent monumental evidence of this practice is a high-speed train connection over a bridge between the mainland and the “autonomous” province of Hong Kong.
The process of government acquisition of privately owned farmland is complicated. A team of Chinese bureaucrats measures the house in which a farmer lives, the size of the land the family owns, the product they produce, and the livestock they have. The government determines the price that will be paid. The land owner must accept the decision. In return the farmer may be offered an equally sized piece of land in a collective that is farmed by others; personal incentives like a pension or medical insurance, and a condominium or home in which to live.
BARGE NEAR THREE GORGES DAM
SHIP’S WAITING TO ENTER LOCK AT THREE GORGES DAM
LOCK AT THREE GORGES DAM
State acquisition of land allows massive infrastructure projects to be built. These projects offer jobs to Chinese farmers and their children who are migrating to the city. In some cases, the small farm is retained while the farmer’s children go to the city for a job. With payment from a city job, some call on their farmer parents to help them with a down payment on a condominium in the city. The price of condominiums rises. They rent the condo they have, and make a down payment on a second condo. With each transaction, they become wealthier; i.e. at least, wealthier on paper.
Construction activity is endemic in every city visited. A striking observation is that many of the condominiums seem unoccupied. The question becomes whether construction is too far ahead of real economic growth.
However, retail businesses appear to be booming in China’s cities. Shopping centers are full of residents, and travelers. Restaurants of every kind compete with each other in high-rise shopping malls. Our local guide in Hong Kong notes that the original street markets are disappearing because of conventional retail construction.
Another striking difference between big American and Chinese cities is that you see few homeless citizens in China. In China, government subsidizes housing for the poor. It is not luxurious. It is small and crowded. But, it appears to keep the poor from being homeless.
There seems an underlying fear of the effect of the tariff war (started by President Trump) on the local economy. An example of the consequence of the tariff war is a new 90% tax on purchase of a new Tesla in Hong Kong. There was no tax when Tesla first entered the market. Before the tax, Musk’s cars were widely purchased in Hong Kong. One doubts that continues with a 90% tariff.
Another great surprise is that air pollution in Beijing, when we were there, seems no worse than it is in America. However, we were there during the African conference which may explain why the air seemed relatively clear. China successfully cleared the air by limiting polluters during the Beijing Olympics.
Environmental degradation is a concern in China. Over 60% of their energy comes from coal. The largest Hydroelectric dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, only produces 2% of China’s energy needs. Three Gorges is considered a dam for flood control more than energy. Interestingly, the Yangtze river shows a lot more debris and garbage below the dam than above it. Generally, water ways seem polluted with debris like plastic and other human debris. In an effort to abate pollution around Hong Kong, sampan life is discouraged. Much fewer sampan are licensed in modern Hong Kong.
Tap water is considered undrinkable throughout China; which means nearly all water for daily consumption is bottled. Hong Kong is vitally dependent on the mainland for water. There are 21 treatment works in Hong Kong but treatment changes the taste of the water so much that Hong Kong residents drink bottled water.
As noted in a previous blog, President Xi, the current leader of China, is determined to reassert the dominance of the Communist Party in China. Strong centralized rule has been a hallmark of rapid economic and political advance in China’s history.
PRESIDENT XI’S CENTRALIZED RULE CONTINUES TO BE CHALLENGED BY HONG KONG DEMONSTRATORS–NEW YORK TIME’S ARTICLE 6.14.19.
Time will tell if President Xi is a 70% or 30% leader. Xi’s decision to initiate a China’s “Road and Belt” program for the world may the a harbinger of great success or abject failure. The worry may be whether Xi is like an early Mao, and pragmatic Deng, or a singular version of “The Gang of Four”.
Red Rock Canyon is one of many natural wonders in the Las Vegas Valley. Hiking, biking, and climbing are popular resident and tourist pastimes.
Charleston Boulevard is a major east/west arterial road in Las Vegas. Travel for 20 minutes east on the Boulevard and Red Rock Canyon looms large; the vista explains the name. Like rusty pieces of sheet metal, hills are colored and striped by iron oxide bleeding red below a blue skyline. In January, it can be cold (say 30 to 40 degrees) and windy (say 30 to 40 mph) but on a good January day temperatures can be in the 60s with no wind.
Hiking the Bristlecone Loop on winter days is an oddly quiet experience, even though birds are flying in and out of parched bushes and bleached bark trees, there is little chirping. Burros track the fields and valleys with an occasional mountain goat peeking down from a ridge.
Well-traveled hiking Trails split the terrain leading to tiny snow melt waterfalls, clear water streams and occasional wild life. Ancient tribes left their mark on sandstone Red Rock Canyon monoliths jutting from dried grass ground. Climbers cling to mountain face crevices on their way to nowhere to satisfy some untouched need.
The Las Vegas Valley packs a lot of life styles within an hour’s drive; i.e. entertainment and dining that rivals New York; Boulder Dam, Mount Charleston, and Red Rock Canyon that offer every outdoor experience a resident or tourist can think of.