Red light (part 1 of 3)

### Lausanne / Zurich, Switzerland ###

I was recently having a beer with M. from Madagascar, a tandem partner for language exchange. We were talking about Africa and all the different countries there.

-- "Ah! Did you know Malawi is full of marajuana? It is a pot smoker's heaven!"
-- "Really?!" I was very surprised by this. I'd imagined it to be forested place full of wildlife and lakes, not pot heads.
-- "Yes! And Egypt has the highest number of prostitutes in the world."

I was even more surprised by this. It couldn't be right, Egypt is (was) under a dictator, prostitution is illegal, and the state religion is Islam, which is pretty strict regarding these things.

The conversation reminded me of when I came to Zurich two years ago. I arrived by train into Zurich Hauptbahnhof, a giant shed which is constantly full of people walking in non-parallel straight lines. The old guy at the tourist office directed me to a youth hostel and gave me a map, and as I exited Hauptbahnhof onto Bahnhofstrasse I was astounded by how clean and wealthy this city looked. The pavements gleamed, the buildings hewn from smooth, solid rock.

[Caption: Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse on New Year's Day(!) Alfred Escher standing at the far end.]

Outside HB, there stands a statue of Alfred Escher, of whom I found out later (after about a year) *wasn't* related to the artist Escher, but is actually the guy who built all the railways in Switzerland, founded Credit Suisse, Swiss Life (an insurance company), and financed the Gotthard tunnel, thereby opening Switzerland to immigrants from the south like me. Alfred Escher was the leading Swiss industrialist of the 19th century, and if Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zurich, are buried under the Grossmunster, then Herr Escher the money-man is probably buried under Paradeplatz, next to thousands of tonnes of gold bullion (Paradeplatz is the headquarters of the big Swiss banks, such as Credit Suisse and UBS).

[Caption: Paradeplatz, Zurich. Sitting on top of Ali Baba proportions of gold.]

I took the number 7 tram out to Wollishofen, and alighted 2 stops from the terminus to walk to the hostel. It was early evening, some of the dusk still lingered. It was quiet down this street, clean and without any other people. The 3-4 story buildings on either side were made of large stone blocks, like the ones from the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. Then as I walked a bit further, two ladies appeared on the opposite side of the road, walking towards me. They were about middle age, one had a leopard skin miniskirt with leggings. I looked at them and they looked at me. Then one of them grinned, but it might have been a sneer, and they both started cat calling. Apart from the old guy at the tourist office, they were the first "Zuerchers" I met.

[Caption: Just below from the ETH and University of Zurich. Zurich has the second highest number of prostitutes in Europe, after Amsterdam.]

### BaYi, Tibet ###

On the first of August, 1927, the 2nd Front Army of the Chinese National Party forces in NanChang rebelled, marking the founding of the People's Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, the name "BaYi", which means "August the first", is in widespread use these days. For example, the "BaYi Rockets" (a basketball team), the "NanChang BaYi" football team, the BaYi aerobatics team, etc. A town which is named BaYi is located in eastern Tibet, about 300km east of Lhasa. I passed through BaYi back in 2006, just before the tourist rush, as the railway line from the north hadn't yet been completed.

[Caption: The town of BaYi in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.]

It was on a whim really. I stood in the line at the bus station in LiJiang town, in the province YunNan (which means "South of the Clouds"), and was planning to take the short bus ride to a nearby lake called "LuGuHu". The local population at this lake (the Mosuo) still kept a matriachal society, which meant that the females were the leaders and made the decisions and that there were no marriages between men and women. Instead, if a lady wanted to make babies (or whatever), she chose a guy for the night, and the next morning the guy was kicked out of the hut. I had planned to go see that place, but my mate in Australia had also been egging me on to make it to Tibet and see Mt. Everest. At the last minute, just as the lady at the counter asked for a destination, I said "DeQin", the last border town before the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

[Caption: The old roofs of LiJiang, YunNan province.]

DeQin sits under the MeiLi snow mountains, a chain of permanently snow capped mountains of which the highest is the Buddhist sacred mountain "Kawagebo" at 6740m. It is the home of a warrior god, who would leave if any human set foot on the summit. The last major attempt was in 1991, when 17 mountaineers were swept away by an avalanche. As of 2011, the peaks have yet to be summited.

[Caption: MeiLi snow mountains at the border between YunNan and Tibet.]

So I went to DeQin, without a valid permit for the Autonomous Region, but fully prepared to bribe the border guards. I had with me three shirts, which I wore all at the same time, football shoes, a straw hat, and in DeQin picked up a fake leather jacket which turned white in the rain. The bus from DeQin to Lhasa only ran for 3 months of the year, and every year something would happen: rock slides, road closures due to rain, accidents. The total journey took 4 days, and cost about $70AUD, and every night the bus stopped and we all (there were 3 drivers and about 30 passengers) had to stay in a hostel. The road was basically a track cut into the side of a cliff. The main road connecting eastern Tibet to China didn't go through YunNan province, but instead went through SiChuan province. That road was well maintained and "tank friendly".

The road from YunNan was part of the old Tea-Horse trade route ever since Tang dynasty times. In ancient China, silk was traded to the west (i.e. to Turkestan) for horses, as they were vital to keeping the state and security of the empire. For example, at the end of the weak Sui dynasty, the state had a mere 3,000 horses, while during the reign of the Emperor GaoZong of the Tang dynasty there were 706,000 horses. By the time of the Tang, the silk trade was slowing, as the secrets of silk and the Chinese monopoly had already been lost. Horses were still needed, and so that other precious commodity, tea, was traded. At that time the First Empire of Tibet had just been established, and to develop trade ties Princess Wencheng of China was sent to King Songtsän Gampo of Tibet as a bride. Princess Wencheng brought Buddhism to Tibet, and is still sometimes worshipped as the goddess of mercy. As Tibet became more and more powerful, tea was more and more sought after.

[Caption: The road to Tibet crosses steep gorges and is only open during summer.]

The road we took was part of this trade route for thousands of years, and followed the upper reaches of the Mekong river. This area contains the headwaters of three great rivers: the ChangJiang (or "Long River") which divides China into "north" and "south", the Mekong (or "Khong, mother of waters", where "Khong" is derived from the word "Ganges", that other great river of Asia) which flows to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Thanlwin (or "Olive") which flows into Burma. All three rivers have different names in the upper reaches, the ChangJiang becoming the JinSha river (meaning "Golden Sand" river), the Mekong is the LanCang (or "Turbulent Waters"), and the Thanlwin is the NuJiang (meaning "Angry river"). In these upper reaches, the ChangJiang is gold, the Mekong is red, and the Thanlwin is olive.

[Caption: The upper reaches of the Mekong river.]

We reached BaYi on the third day, and having settled into our hostel a few of us wandered about town during the evening. There was a big square at the center of town, where the local people were dancing. About 30 or so Tibetans were formed in a large circle, linked in arms, and shuffling slowly around all together. Occasionally a young man would dance alone, springing and twirling, showing his martial prowess. His legs were bent a little, like a horseman.

Now, prostitution in China is illegal, but it's fairly common. There are these roadside shops that look like salons, with a couch and a coffee table with magazines, and a few hookers hanging around looking bored. You'll find them in any district town or city. The light is always red, so they're pretty easy to spot. There were three of these shops across from the main square at BaYi, where the Tibetans were. It was approaching dusk, so the red lights stood out glaringly against the otherwise dark buildings. A few of the prostitutes stood outside, wearing miniskirts and were doing the hoola-hoop. Either they were bored or that was how they really tried to entice customers. The hoola-hoop.


[Caption: The Meili snow mountains of YunNan.]

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