Christa Paula was a student of history and archaeology specialising in Central Asia, and thirty years ago she travelled there to see some of the sites on the ancient Silk Road, the main trade route between the Roman Empire and China. At that time China only allowed limited travel to foreigners and the restrictions increased after the Tianamnen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. Pro-democracy demonstrations were more successful in Paula’s own country, Germany, and she had news of the fall of the Berlin Wall while on her travels.
Many of the sites she most wanted to visit, including Miran itself, were in restricted areas, and she was arrested a couple of times, and often had to sneak into places on the principle that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
The book alternates between descriptions of contemporary travel and life in Western China (Xinjiang), and historical descriptions of ancient kingdoms on the Silk Road, based on the archaeological sites Paula visited or tried to visit. She hooked up with a Chinese friend, Chang, who helped her a great deal with arrangements for accommodation and travel.
One of the things that struck me about the book was the similarities between Communist China and apartheid South Africa. Encounters with the police, travel restrictions and requirements for permits sounded very familiar indeed, and very similar to Namibia when it was ruled by South Africa. Some of her descriptions of how she had snuck into places when she couldn’t get permits were very similar indeed to Namibia under South African rule. And in many ways the apartheid was the same too. There was, apparently, quite strict apartheid between the Han Chinese and the local Uighurs they ruled. Some hotels were for Han Chinese only, as were certain events at which local people and foreigners were not welcome.
Central Asia is far from southern Africa, and to me a rather unfamiliar part of the world. In the centre of the area visited by Christa Paula is the Taklamakan Desert, described in another book as The Worst Desert on Earth. To the south lies Tibet, to the north-east Mongolia, and to the north-west Kazakhstan. One of the few works of fiction I’ve read dealing with that area is Water touching Stone. The Uighur people living there are mostly Muslim, but in the historical period studied by Paula most were Buddhist, but since it was a major international trade route the main towns were fairly cosmopolitan.
I’ve written a few more comments on this book on my other blog here.