By the time I was about to catch that train with destination Zhangye, Mandarin rail tickets had ceased to be the cryptic collection of instructions that seemed to trick me into getting lost every time I wanted to move from one city to the other. After forty days in China communication was still an obstacle, but I felt slightly more at ease when seated in the station’s waiting room surrounded by chicken feet chewing locals: I knew, somehow, I was in the right place. What, instead, I wasn’t prepared for, was a fifteen hour night ride in the third class of a fully booked train. They don’t even call it third class in China; it’s named hard seat. A reminder that, if you are one of those that can’t afford better spot, some degree of suffering it’s probably to be expected.
Of the many things in life I am not sure about, one was what exactly I was getting myself into: I was in Xi’An, Shaanxi province, about to enter the Gansu corridor on a mission to get back home, in Europe, without taking an airplane or a helicopter or a hot air balloon or a zeppelin or any flying mean of transportation. Well, for a zeppelin I would probably have broken the rule, but the option never presented itself. I was travelling with the romantic intention of retracing the steps of merchants and explorers of the past by following the ancient Silk Road through central Asia and the Middle East, using public transport and the occasional hitched ride, for no clear reason whatsoever. I guess at 25 adventure seemed like a decent shortcut to self accomplishment, or maybe it was just that sacrificing comfort appeared to be the only way to justify a selfish journey in search of personal happiness. But that’s another story. The doubts were not just lying in the whys, but also in the more practical aspects of the trip, in the whats and in the hows.
The world exists as we know it because we built it this way. According to geographer Franco Farinellii, at the time of the discovery of America anyone that could read Seneca, Cicero or Thomas Aquinas already knew that the Earth was a sphere. What we have to thank Columbus for, then, is not having proven this roundness, but exactly the opposite: having reduced our planet to a map, to “a number of intervals between the junctions that are formed at the crossings between meridians and parallels”. The Earth takes shape by the way we interpret it. By traveling, exploring and searching for what lies beyond the known, we flattened the Earth, drew lines across it and, somehow, invented it. Maps, therefore, are not simply the scientific projection of measurements we often take them to be, but products of our cultures and conflicting ideologies, a reflection of the human dimension and needs onto the surface that is the planet we inhabit.
Maps are stories to be read, that tell us who we are, both as individuals and communities. Just take a look at any world map you find around you: Europe is at its center. Do the same in New Zealand and this eurocentric approach is lost: in the middle you find a great expanse of water with a couple of little island popping up from the Ocean. You can go even further: open Becky Coopers’ “Mapping Manhattan”ii and realize how geography can instantly lose all the objectivity we’d like to entrust science with. Coopers did something simple: she distributed a blank copy of a map of Manhattan to hundreds of its inhabitants and asked them to mail it back her after having filled it in as they pleased. In her book she collected this series of drawings, notes, directions, collages, some detailed and some basic, some from homeless people and some from famous celebrities, some schematic and some creative. On one of the maps you find highlighted the green spaces on which someone likes to go jogging, another one, titled “My lost gloves” is covered by dozens of colorful hands, while the next one is still completely blank apart from one tiny cross and a caption “Met my wife”. These maps might look different than the ones found in any atlas, but have the same function: they point out human created markers that enable the reader not only to move without getting lost, but also to establish what his or her place is in the world.
The way we look at maps is the way we look at the Earth, and whether it’s individual or communal ideas that are represented on paper, we have to remember that just as race, gender and class are socially constructed, so are our borders, our cities, our landmarks. And just as for race, gender and class it isn’t always the individual that gets to define where it belongs, maps cannot always be drawn like in Becky Coopers project, but are instead produced by whatever society is in a dominant position.
I had arrived in Kashgar after almost a week. The itinerary I had just completed was part of the thin link that connects East and West through what is known as the Silk Road. Alexander the Great had reached today’s Uzbekistan when his empire was at its largest expansion, but China was still far, occupying only the north-eastern part of what it is now. The opening of the Gansu Corridor around 130 AD allowed for commerce to begin and two continents were no more divided. For the desired silk to get to Europe it wasn’t an easy trip. The Corridor funnels in between the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi desert, and merchants had to travel four thousand kilometers only to reach Central Asia. My journey had been slightly easier: after a stopover in the capital city of the Xinjiang province, Urumqi, another night on the train had brought me to the last of Chinese cities, Kashgar. What I found though, wasn’t Chinese at all. A mosque established the city centre, sand colored buildings surrounded the market in which mutton stew has substituted steamed dumplings. The male inhabitants of this town had a darker complexion than their fellow countryman, wore funny square hats, had long beards and didn’t even speak Mandarin. The situation for the women was a bit different: the short skirts of Shanghai’s Bund had disappeared under thick veils that allowed only imagination to guess who was under it. Kashgar was as Chinese as Beijing on the map, but in reality it seemed liked somewhere else.
To be more precise, this region is what the local Uygur population would like to be East Turkestan. Of course the presence of oil under the ground, the strategic position – few hours drive and you could be in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and, a little further, India – are inconveniences that will never allow for China to give up this slice of land. I didn’t know much about the issues of these territories before my arrival, but the news of terror attacks in different parts of Xinjiang functioned as a pretty effective wake-up call. Just a couple of weeks prior a bomb had killed fifty people in the city center of Urumqi and just a day upon my arrival thirteen people had been shot dead while they were trying to attack the local police station, just outside Kashgar.
Had I just ended in a war zone without noticing? How did that happen? No, it didn’t seem that bad. Some tanks were patrolling the city of Urumqi, but overall I felt safe walking around. Safe enough. But then, if this wasn’t war, what was it? When does a war start? Is it when an ideological conflict is in place? When the first bullet is shot? When the media decides to cover it? For us in the West, war only exists if someone tells us about it, but not all wars are as loud as others. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to listen, does it make any sound? China knows how to take power silently and the formula has worked over and over again, in Xinjiang as in the more publicized Tibet: incentives are set in place for Han Chinese people to move to these remote areas. Jobs, tax allowances, business opportunities push the dominant ethnic group throughout the country, diluting the local populations up the point when the power is lost. In Kashgar a ring of freshly painted buildings, new roads, offices and a giant statue of Mao Zedong saluting the traffic surrounding the compact Islamic town centre. The Uygur people have tried over the years – and probably will keep doing so – to fight for their independence but this slice of Earth is too valuable for China to abandon.
The Uygur people are caged in their own landscape. But, one could argue, who isn’t? According to Tim Marshalliii, author of recently published Prisoners of Geography, we all, to some degree, are. Moving through the pages of Marshall’s work, we come across ten maps that explain how many of today’s issues in global politics are in fact caused by the shape of our planet. Why does Russia want Crimea so badly? Because Sevastopol is the only warm water port in its vicinity. What does China need Tibet for? The Himalayas are the best form of protection from ever-expanding India and that’s the exact reason why these two great powers have never fought each other. And why do the Middle East and Africa always seem so far from peace? Because borders created after colonial periods don’t respect geography.
It’s not as simplistic as it sounds. In Marshall’s words “The Middle of what? East of where? The region’s very name is based on a European view of the world, and it is a European view of the region that shaped it. The Europeans use ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood”. Marshall is referring to the Islamic State tentative to reform a Caliphate and overrun what, according to the group, is the cause of all the problems in south-western Asia and, as a reaction, in the rest of the world as well: the Sykes-Picot agreement.
At the end of World War I, with the foreseeable break-up of the Ottoman Empire, England and France signed a secret contract that established how the middle-eastern lands would be partitioned once the Turks were out of the way. With the assent of Russia, the two authors of the agreement, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot drew a neat line from the city of Haifa (today part of Israel) to Kirkuk (today part of Iraq), and decided that everything north of that imaginary divider would be under French influence, while everything south of it would be under British control. In Prisoners of Geography we read “There was violence and extremism before the Europeans arrived […]. Nevertheless, as we saw in Africa, arbitrarily creating ‘nation states’ of people unused to living together in one region is not a recipe for justice, equality and stability. Prior to Sykes-Picot (in its wider sense) there was no state of Syria, no Lebanon, nor were there Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel or Palestine. Modern maps show the borders and the names of nation states, but they are young and they are fragile”.
In antiquity this region was shared between Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer. With time the northern and more mountainous areas came to be inhabited mainly by the Kurdish people, while after the ideological split of Muslims between Sunni and Shia followers, the first group became the dominant one west of the Tigris river, while the second started to spread on the eastern side. While conflict is not new, the Ottoman Empire, just as the Greek Empire and the Persian Empire before, ruled this space accordingly to its historical layout. Europe, on the other hand, managed to disregard completely the different tribal heritages present in the region and cut territories by size, causing a development of despotism in which leaders inflicted the beliefs of the religious group they belonged to, to the whole population within the newly set borders. Traditions that didn’t match were constrained to live together and the results have been disastrous ever since.
Iraq was officially off limits. Just a few weeks before my arrival into Iran the Kurdish area of Iraq was considered safe to travel and a 10-day visa was given for free at the border to most visitors wishing to cross. With the expansion of ISIS this wasn’t the case anymore and I had to find an alternative route. I had left Kashgar behind by entering Kyrgyzstan, where a month of bureaucracy and paperwork had left me stuck in a country where mountains populated by horse riding nomads surround ordered soviet style cities in which Islam is the national religion while vodka is a dollar a bottle at the shops. Call that an ideological conflict. Another country with geometrically excellent borders, this time USSR’s legacy, had followed: I had entered Uzbekistan with two weeks left on my permit, most of which used to apply for the subsequent visa, the one that allowed me to cross, but not to visit, the sunny lands of Turkmenistan. Unfortunately that permit was never received and after almost being arrested at the border of what has been called the North Korea of Central Asia, I thought maybe it was for the best to run to the closest airport and get the hell out of there. That airport was in Tashkent, 700 kilometers away. In the opposite direction, obviously.
When we look at maps we are looking at people. We see unions of freedom with freedom of movement and invisible enclosures in which humans are trapped. We feel proud for being born on one side or the other of non-existent lines as it was a choice and feel sorry for those who in their containment can’t find peace. It also works in the opposite way: not only countries are made of people, but people cannot be without a country. To be borderless, to be born outside the box, is to have no identity. No passport, no healthcare, no name. If who we are is established by society, before you can even be someone you need to be somewhere. It’s that somewhere that makes you a citizen or an asylum seeker, a soldier or a terrorist, an expat or a refugee.
I hadn’t been home in a long time. Five years, almost. But there I was, after having spent some weeks in Iran and crossed Turkey on a bus, on the deck of a ship on the Adriatic sea. To be back felt good, but at the same time the town I had grown up in seemed to have come to a halt. Perhaps, I had outgrown it. Once routine started to kick in I didn’t last very long and it was a matter of months before I found myself on the move again. Not even home was a certainty anymore. What to expect from a new city I wasn’t sure of and neither if a city was the right place for me to go to. And what are cities really, besides signs and arbitrary boundaries?iv