Travel is all about widening horizons and yet it’s a curiously solipsistic world, that of the traveller. I’ve been so engaged in just being in China, taking in new sights and sounds and tastes, trying to at least begin to understand the language, the culture (the languages, the cultures) that the rest of the world has receded into the distance.
I wave to my family on the Skype video and try hard to imagine snow and Christmas carols in England; I wish friends round the world Happy New Year, and learn that Sayana has fled Moscow because of racist violence and I ask stupidly – what’s happened? Something in particular apart from the usual background of racist violence…?
This is what happened. Sayana, who was studying in Moscow, is from Tuva, which became a Russian protectorate in 1914 and has been influenced by or a part of the Soviet Union/Russia ever since. Her passport is Russian; her face is Asian. She’s already been attacked once by skinheads in St Petersburg. Who can blame her for finally having had enough?
Another Tuvan friend, Saizana, is studying in Shanghai. In China everyone assumes she is Chinese, and it’s an effort for her to explain that no, she’s Russian despite her looks, that there’s this small place called Tuva that no one’s ever heard of… In China, no one glances twice at her (well, maybe they glance twice but that’s because she’s so pretty). It’s a safe country anyway, but for Saizana it provides the added protection of anonymity.
Not so in Russia, where Russian is her native language, where she’s lived most of her life. Saizana has just flown to Moscow to stay with her family for New Year. I hope she’ll be safe there. Sayana is wandering around Europe, looking for a safe haven; I hope she finds one.
In Tuva, one of the most famous shamans has just died. She was in her early forties – that’s the average life-span of a Tuvan. There they don’t die of racist attacks, but of alcoholism and related violence, poor medical services and a kind of terrible carelessness. I heard some details of how the shaman died; it’s too horrible to repeat here.
A sad post for the festive season… Sometimes it’s easier to let the rest of world recede far away.