Conclusions - The Return of the God(s)
Well - we have been back for nearly a month now and we think that it's probably time to finish off the blog. A few people have asked why things were just left in Hong Kong when we spent a couple of weeks in Thailand on the way back. The reason is that we regarded out stay in Thailand as a bit of a holiday after trekking all the way across Asia. For a start we broke the 'no flying' rule to get there, and all we did was revisit places that we had enjoyed on previous visits and relax by the sea - pretty much a regular holiday. In short we didn't think people would be that interested.
However there are still a few things to say about Asia and the trip which are best done in hindsight. So - what did we learn on our trip?
Well for me the most noticeable thing in all of the countries we visited (with the honourable exception of the Czech Republic) is the re-emergence of religion. With the downfall, or in the case of China, repositioning of the old communist regimes the old religious institutions have wasted little time in re-establishing their respective power bases. You can probably see from our photo's that churches, mosques, monasteries and temples feature prominently. There is a good reason for this, in many towns - particularly across the former Soviet Union, these structures have been rebuilt or spruced up and are often the only points of interest in otherwise drab and uninspiring regions.
Poland supplied the last Catholic Pope, a decision that was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of communism in that country, and by extension the rest of Eastern Europe. The catholic churches in Poland are now packed to the rafters, the congregations spilling out onto the streets. It's very rare to walk down the street without encountering a nun, a monk or a priest. Can anyone doubt that the idea of a German Pope didn't have the same objectives in mind - interestingly in a historically protestant country.
Across the border in the Ukraine the same story applies - albeit with a different church. We found the orthodox religion a little aloof but this could be down to unfamiliarity. However, every town has a skyline dominated by shining 'onion' domes, and again it's not uncommon to see congregations spilling out onto the pavements as the churches are full. Land expropriated by the communists is being returned to the churches and old social systems are re-establishing themselves.
There is a similar situation in Russia, although as most of the Soviet wealth (or what's left of it) has remained in this huge country the influence of the church is less marked. It was also in Russia that we came across our first sizable Muslim populations, who, on the face of it at least, appeared to be living peacefully alongside a mix of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Maybe after George Bush has been consigned to the dustbin of history, the world could look to the citizens of Kazan and Tartarstan in 2006, and use their model of religious tolerance (watch - there will be a riot there now I've said that!!).
Kazakhstan is in a bit of a strange position. The country has been brutally suppressed over the centuries by a succession of Russian overlords (not just communist), and has done well to hang on to any identity at all. Most of the cities are populated by a majority Russian population, who will not answer to being Kazakhs, but Russians with Kazakh passports. These Russians are nominally Christian, but there isn't the same religious revival happening there as in Russia itself. These are the people who were left behind after the breakup of the Soviet Union and if on paper they are dispossessed, they have created a booming economy based on oil and petrochemicals and are now doing very well. What of the Kazakhs themselves - only just a majority in their own country? Again there has been something of a religious revival, although not everyone by any means is buying into it. Those that do seem to be doing so mainly in order to establish an identity that is not Russian. The people we were able to question (if I ever go back I will learn some Russian first) didn't really know much about Islam, but did know the rituals of worship. Not many would be able to recite any of the Koran.
As for China - has there ever been just one religion in a country so vast? We first visited in 2001 and at that time we came across the odd temple open for business, but most were still being used as factories or warehouses. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960's had virtually destroyed the entire social structure of the country and ruined many religious buildings and artefacts. After such complete and wanton destruction the population were understandably nervous about displaying any alliances to anything other than the CPP. This particularly so as the Communist Party is still very much in power and no less ruthless than they've ever been - in spite of not exactly being communists any more.
This time, and we covered a lot more of the country, we came across several large religious groupings - all practising openly, and seemingly devotedly. The far North West is an area which is largely inhabited by Uigur's and Kazakh's and is nominally Muslim. There is a large Han Chinese presence to dilute the native influence and the form of Islam practised observed the religious holidays but little else. For example, were were in Turpan at the beginning of Ramadan where everyone observed the fasting during the day - and then got completely rat arsed after sunset!! We probably liked the Uigurs best of all of the ethnic groups in China.
Further east there are large areas of Hui Chinese, descendants of Chinese converted to Islam after the Mongol invasions of the 12th and 13th centuries. These groups are much stricter in adherence to Islamic principals and not as open to outsiders. These in turn give way to Tibetans - well actually you leave China and move into Tibet for a while. I am happy to report that Lamaist Buddhism is alive and well in Tibet in spite of what you may hear elsewhere. By Tibet I referring to the region of the planet inhabited by Tibetans and not necessarily the 'Autonomous Region of Tibet' which is somewhere we didn't visit (we didn't have enough clothes with us) and only covers 40% of Tibet. The situation there may well be more serious. We visited Labrang where the monastery has been rebuilt and reopened and is now a thriving religious community again. Others at Rokang, Langmu and Zoige were also operating openly, if not yet quite up to full strength. There is absolutely no questioning the devotion of the Tibetan people for their Lama's and for me this was the only religious revival that didn't have a cynical political motive behind it - then again perhaps it does. I know Anne will disagree with that statement.
In 'China proper' (ie east of Chengdu) there has never been just one religion - unless you count money of course, which as alive in China as it is in the west - many would say more so. Traditionally the Chinese have worshipped a strange mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism the boundaries of which blur into politics and daily life. Although these practices are notoriously difficult to nail down there is a marked increase in religious activity in all Chinese towns and cities. It's not all encompassing as it is in Poland, say, and the mix of devotees and tourists looks very incongruous to our eyes but it is there all the same, and there is a lot more of it around than there was 5 years previously.
So - what does all this revivalism mean for the future? Sitting here in England it looks to us as if Communism has been replaced by Islam as the number one evil and threat to world peace. A few people have asked if we were scared when travelling through Muslim areas - the answer to which is of course a resounding no. Ordinary Muslims are as likely to want to kidnap you as the average American would want to drop a nuclear bomb on you, or for that matter an ordinary communist would want to brainwash you or whatever. As always it's the leaders of these movements that are the problem, western as well as eastern. History however can teach us serious lesson here - civilisation has always fragmented on religious grounds as different social control methods vie with each other for greater influence and power. Communism - which can be classed as a religion in terms of power and social influence - united all of the worlds religions against it in a kind of 'Let's get rid of the new kid' attitude. Now that it has indeed been got rid of and there is no longer a common enemy these religious groups are beginning to threaten each other again. This is a bad thing - maybe the Tibetans aren't so innocent after all.