The history of the ancient trade routes now known as “The Silk Road” is a tale of profound cross-cultural influence among peoples – Chinese, Turks, Persians, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Europeans, Malays, Tibetans, Egyptians, East Africans. It was multicultural before there was anything labeled multicultural.
Of course, it was a silk road long before it was the Silk Road, a name given to multiple East-West trade routes by a European geographer in the 1870s. The Silk Road. It’s a good metaphor for an interdependent modern world that grows smaller and more complex all the time.
The view from the Silk Road also gives a good perspective on the transiency of empires, on the laughable arrogance and self-delusion of one people imagining they can forever subjugate other peoples, live eternally or dine with the gods. Travelers on the Silk Road have seen many an empire’s swollen fools disappear like the lost in a Taklamakan Desert of time.
Every cruel and pompous dream of domination fails, the fantasists of empire doomed to misery, paranoia, and, finally, dismay that they too will die of dysentery, typhus or the assassin’s blade. The fantasists shouldn’t be surprised. History, literature and art confirm the truth. It may yet take some time for the poor to inherit the earth, but all dreams of empire damn sure disappear into it.
The greatest thing about the human spirit is its persistent and undaunted drive for freedom, self-discovery and happiness. We migrate despite borders. We make love with those we are commanded to hate despite racial or nationalist taboos. We trade ideas despite censorship. We worship forbidden gods and reject gods we are ordered to bow before. The spirit outlives genocidal colonialists and totalitarian thugs despite all their efforts to snuff it out. Every wall falls.
It is China that provoked these thoughts, this time. Jonathan Green has written an account of the cold-blooded shooting of a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso, by Chinese border guards as she tried to escape into Nepal in 2006. On my birthday, September 30, it turns out.
Green’s book, Murder in the High Himalaya, tells several stories at once: the bittersweet escape of Dolma, best friend of the fallen Kelsang; of the 100 or so international mountain climbers who witnessed the murder (and the handful who dared report what they saw at the top of the world that day); of a Chinese government so disconnected from reality and humanity that the gruesome picture of a Chinese soldier kicking the dead teenager in the snow ought to become the symbol on their flag.
Above, you can see Kelsang fall before the gunfire in the trailer for the movie, Tibet: Murder in the Snow. Her murder was the first confirmed, photographic evidence in 50 years of the brutal Chinese treatment of Tibetans.
Sophisticates often criticize human rights advocates and rationalize their own profiteering ass-kissing of bloody tyrants as simple realism or pragmatism. They’re betting wrong, because today’s tyrant is tomorrow’s forgotten moral imbecile, his courtiers, allies and apologists little more than abandoned, hungry cattle egrets fluttering around the carcass of a dead, decaying bull.
What does not change, the poet Charles Olson said, is the will to change. Despite the temporary smugness of the sophisticates, it’s smarter, then, to wager on the human spirit. It may take extra innings, and much tragic suffering may be endured along the way, but ultimately it wins every game.
Kelsang’s death became an international story in the fall of 2006. The Chinese government denied it, then claimed Kelsang and the others were firing upon the soldiers, and then shrugged it off as a border mishap. Romanian newsman/ mountain climber Sergiu Matei’s video of the murder puts the lie to all that. He had been there on the mountain that day, smuggled the tape out of Tibet, and aired it on Romanian TV. He was nominated for an Emmy.
Your heart will fall with Kelsang in the snow. But ahead of her, on the trail across the high mountain pass to freedom, her compatriots – small, frail figures in single file on a great expanse of ice and snow — continue on, as the human spirit always will, on a road not made of ice, but silk.