Down from the Mountains

China’s Muslim Dongxiang minority emerge from isolation – Joshua Bird

“Be sure to try the potatoes, they are world famous,” encouraged Mr. Ma, the owner of the newest restaurant in Dongxiang City, home of the Dongxiang ethnic minority in the Linxia Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province. As he hovered over us, his first customers, we dared not disappoint him.

We had endured two hour’s drive up and down the dizzying roads that snaked through the high mountains encircling Dongxiang City in western China, which – complemented by the Yellow, Lintao and Daxia Rivers – had provided the city and its people with a comforting isolation over the centuries. Yet while the mountains have allowed the Dongxiang minority to preserve their unique cultural and religious identity, it has also left them relatively ill equipped to take advantage of China’s economic growth.


Out of the Ger

Joshua Bird reviews Ulaanbaatar Beyond Water and Grass by Michael Aldrich

For much of recent Asian history, Mongolia has been an afterthought. An entry point into China, or a convenient stopping point on the Trans-Siberian railway. While hundreds of new books on China and its mega-cities hit the shelves every year, the number of tomes dedicated to its neighbor to the north can be counted on one hand. Even where Mongolia is the primary subject of writing, it is the grasslands and open plains that capture the western imagination. Ulaanbataar (UB), Mongolia’s capital and largest city, where mentioned at all, is depicted as a tainted place that one must escape as quickly as possible on the journey to the “real” Mongolia – compromised, ugly, a foreshadowing of the disappearance of rural Mongolia. It is therefore surprising to find a travel guide dedicated to the city.


At the Edge

Joshua Bird reviews China at its Limits, by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang


China shares its borders with 14 other countries, more than almost any other nation. Its near neighbors represent a diverse collection, from dominant powers such as Russia and India, to the smaller emerging nations of Laos and Bhutan. Throughout China’s history, it is through these borders that the influencing forces of trade, ideology and imperialism have traveled. China’s border regions have resumed their importance in recent years, with political protest among the country’s ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative – which seeks to further bind China’s neighbors to its economic agenda through the creation of a “New Silk Road.” China’s borders represent an opportunity for trade and cultural exchange, but also a risk for political agitation, terrorism and even military conflict.