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Travels in Central Asia

 

In June 2018 we travelled to China before joining an organised tour in Central Asia that, except for a sojourn in the mountains of Tajikistan, followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo along the Great Silk Road. 

 

 

 

The Silk Road

The term ‘silk road’ was first coined by a 19th century German historian and has stuck ever since to a series of somewhat flexible overland routes across Eurasia extending 11,000 km (7,000 m), a third of the way around the world, from Xi'an in China to the Mediterranean Sea.  It linked on en route to the other great trade route that went to India, through modern Pakistan from Afghanistan, via one of five 'invasion routes' that included the Khyber pass and up the Kabul River valley, that rises very close to the upper reaches of the Indus near Rawalpindi (and modern Islamabad).  Today this whole network is called the Great Silk Road. 

The ancient silk road is by far the longest and oldest overland trade route in the world. Chinese silk has been found in the hair of Egyptian mummies that were embalmed around three thousand years ago, arriving there by some arcane series of trades.  But by Roman times, trade along the Silk Road was more organised, as the Roman historian Pliny wrote: 'so Roman women may expose their charms through transparent cloth'.  At that time (c 78 CE) the very long lived Han Dynasty ruled China and China's military and trade influence extended as far as Transoxiana, the region between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers that run into the Aral Sea, now mostly in Uzbekistan, while the Roman Empire extended to a port on the Caspian sea, just a thousand kilometres away, less than the distance from Melbourne to Brisbane or New York to Charleston or John o' Groats to Land's End.

Under the Tang Dynasty Transoxiana would briefly become Chinese territory but in 751 CE it would fall to the Arabs with the assistance of the Mongol Empire, ending Chinese expansion west for the next 1,200 years.

Trade with the west grew in the 13th century after Genghis Khan followed by his son, Ögedei Khan, conquered Central Asia (including Tibet) and China in addition to: Eastern Turkey, Belarus and most of Russia, part of Romania, all of Iran and  Eastern Iraq (Persia). Thus creating the largest contiguous land Empire the world has ever seen.  Yet, hidden behind the veil of that great and feared Mongol Empire the existence of China was almost forgotten by medieval Europe, so that many believed that silk originated in India. 

But hidden knowledge was bread and butter to Venetian traders, like the family of Marco Polo. Between 1271 and 1295 this young man, travelling with his father and uncle, followed the silk trade all the way to China. After his return he was taken as a prisoner of war by Genoa, where he related his experiences to Rustichello da Pisa who was amazed and wrote them down, publishing them as the Travels of Marco Polo, around 1300. They found an equally amazed and incredulous European audience particularly at/by the young man's experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, who as we will see later, was one of Great Khan’s grandsons, now at the head of the Yuan Dynasty.

It was Kublai Khan who had commanded the systematic mapping of towns along the Silk Road to facilitate trade, connecting the far flung reaches of the Mongol empire with commerce and information along which the traders travelled.

But it was the Travels of Marco Polo that are credited by some historians with kicking off the European Renaissance and the collapse of monasticism, leading to the Scientific Revolution and the modern world.

The Travels also inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by opium, to write a famous poem by which the name Kublai Khan is perhaps best remembered:

Kubla Khan

Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...

...It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772 - 1834

 

The opium poppy (papaver somniferum) would in time play its part in both the devastation and the development of China and latterly of Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan.  In the 19th century the Chinese would attempt to stop the British East India Company trading in Indian grown opium for Chinese manufactured domestic goods and silver, draining the Imperial Treasury, and a century and a half later the US and her allies would attempt to stop cultivation in Afghanistan.

Oddly, in the 21st century the largest supplier of legal, medical, opium in the world with 85% of the market is Tasmania, Australia.

Today China's President Xi Jinping is keen to revive the Great Silk Road with a special eye to oil and gas reserves in Central Asia.  In 2013, he unveiled his 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative, also known as the 'New Silk Road', to invest in transport infrastructure all the way to Europe.

Pakistan has already been promised an initial $50 billion to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has declined to participate but 65 other countries have expressed interest and the European Union has set up the 'EU-China Connectivity Platform' to coordinate the European response.  As we learned on this trip, like Pakistan, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, along with several other 'Stans', are already in receipt of substantial Chinese infrastructure assistance.

 

The New Silk Road
The New Silk Road - following the old - as envisioned in Uzbekistan
Xi Jinping has a grander scheme in mind - projecting China's influence across Eurasia to the EU

 

As have our travels elsewhere, this trip would again challenge a number of the simplistic assumptions with which I grew up.  As this website suggests, despite my inevitable prejudices and unfounded assumptions I try to apply a sceptical filter, taking nothing for granted, and to:  ...weigh everything.

 

 

Comments  

# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50
Richard

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.



A very interesting part of the world.



Richard Walker
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Travel

Israel

 

 

 

A Little Background

The land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, known as Palestine, is one of the most fought over in human history.  Anthropologists believe that the first humans to leave Africa lived in and around this region and that all non-African humans are related to these common ancestors who lived perhaps 70,000 years ago.  At first glance this interest seems odd, because as bits of territory go it's nothing special.  These days it's mostly desert and semi-desert.  Somewhere back-o-Bourke might look similar, if a bit redder. 

Yet since humans have kept written records, Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Ottomans (and other later Muslims), British and Zionists, have all fought to control this land.  This has sometimes been for strategic reasons alone but often partly for affairs of the heart, because this land is steeped in history and myth. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

The new James Bond

 

 

It was raining in the mountains on Easter Saturday.

We'd decided to take a couple of days break in the Blue Mountains and do some walking. But on Saturday it poured.  In the morning we walked two kilometres from Katoomba to more up-market and trendy Leura for morning coffee and got very wet.

After a train journey to Mount Victoria and back to dry out and then lunch in the Irish Pub, with a Cider and Guinness, we decided against another soaking and explored the Katoomba antique stores and bookshops instead.  In one I found and bought an unread James Bond book.  But not by the real Ian Fleming. 

Ian Fleming died in 1964 at the young age of fifty-six and I'd read all his so I knew 'Devil May Care' was new.  This one is by Sebastian Faulks, known for his novel Birdsong, 'writing as Ian Fleming' in 2008.

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Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What you should know

Most of us already know: that we all start as one unique cell from our mother called an ova or an egg.  And as in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication.

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

Each of us like all animals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father and our genes come in equal proportion from both.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

Most of us also know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (see below) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


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