Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
In May of this year, 18 months ahead of schedule, the Chinese-built Madaraka Express traveling between Nairobi and Mombasa opened for operation. President Uhuru Kenyatta touted the project at its grand opening, which also happened shortly before national elections in August, which as of this writing remain disputed, with a re-vote scheduled for later this month. Kenyatta specifically contrasted the new railroad with the “Lunatic Express” which the British built in Kenya during colonial days, suggesting that China was altogether different from and superior to the colonial powers of yore.
I recently took this train from Nairobi to Mombasa. The Nairobi SGR (“single-gauge rail”) station stood some miles outside of town, and to me it looked exactly like many newly built stations in provincial capitals across China, modern and metallic but somehow a little sad and gray. The paper ticket had the same format and font as tickets sold in Beijing. The onerous security procedure for entering the station was much like in China. And when I finally got to the train I found the names of Chinese companies on every component. The interior of the train was identical to numerous trains I’ve taken in China, down to the amount of space between seats facing each other (slightly too little) and the baby-blue curtains. The fire extinguishers had instructions in Chinese — which might not have been the best thing from a safety point of view. At the station I saw Chinese staff checking tickets and standing on the platforms alongside their Kenyan trainees, and onboard I saw a Chinese technician pass through my carriage.
The Kenyans I rode with wore smiles of excitement. Can’t blame them — the train still has the new car smell. And whereas the old train took 16 hours to get to Mombasa, the new one takes 5. Although by Chinese standards this would only be a “fast” train, not a “high-speed” train. The highest speed I saw it registering was only 110 KPH, far slower than the several lines spidering out of Beijing and Shanghai.
The line also travels past several national parks. So the dramatic colors of East Africa unfolded before our eyes as we moved, the rust-red earth, the beige bare boughs of the dry acacia trees, the greens of the leaves, the sapphire sky, as well as the undulating hills. The occasional elephants appeared, grazing in the savannah a stone’s throw away from the rail tracks, eliciting cries of excitement.
And when we got to Mombasa, a spectacular space-age-looking station, more impressive than the Nairobi one, revealed itself.
The train had departed on the dot, and it had arrived early. Among the alighting passengers, I saw the first Chinese travelers I’d seen anywhere in the world with the red hammer-and-sickle flag sewn on their backpacks, as Americans sew the Canadian flag onto theirs.
For some time I have had this theory that the developing world looks to China as a new champion in part because it is not a “white” country. Centuries of colonialism has left many peoples doubting whether they can do anything substantial themselves without the involvement of white Westerners. I suspect that even well-intentioned Western aid projects unfortunately reinforce this idea. But in China the developing world has found an example of a non-white nation that was once on the receiving end of colonialism but is now powerful, in many ways beating the former colonial masters at their own game. To many once-colonized minds, China must seem like a source of inspiration.
But, as the expression goes, beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I fear that one day there will be an African proverb that says, “Beware of Chinese bearing construction loans.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."