Some Rambling Thoughts on the Unassuming Passport

passport, travel

Thin, unassuming, a small book of varying colors – what the modern passport lacks in physical grandeur it more than compensates for with indispensability. There are few things more precious to travelers – recreational, professional, refugee or other – than the passport, a piece of official documentation which sometimes confers upon its bearer the diplomatic heft of a home country (or simply entitles return to a country of origin). It is the most basic symbol of international travel, a universal totem of personal identity and nationality and a near-absolute customs requirement, but the passport as we know it is barely a century old, seeing widespread implementation throughout Europe and the United States from the late 19th century through the pre-war decades of the 20th century as national governments struggled to deal with massive population shifts.

Although the modern passport is a relatively new invention, the evolutionary history of entry, exit, and ‘safe conduct’ documentation is quite long, and the most distant phylogenetic forebears of our coveted stamp books date to at least biblical times. Until the late Middle Ages paper ‘pass ports’ were typically issued by a king or caliph or other such luminous monarch as a letter of protection, a way to provide messengers and other courtiers with safe passage through foreign territory, and they were quite uncommon. In fact, for the majority of human history, people wandered about the globe without need of official, internationally recognized identification. One could almost say without the burden, hindrance, of a passport.

As the modern nation state began to emerge from medieval feudalism, the use of international forms of identification became more commonplace, and then, the French Revolution. Prior to upheaval, in France as in much of Europe, peasants and serfs were required to possess documentation for internal movement. Ordinary workers faced a daunting proposition if they wished to relocate – acquiring the appropriate paperwork through legitimate channels was quite difficult. For this reason, identification requirements were often understood as oppressive measures designed to restrict movement of lower class people, and were thus abandoned in 1792. Revolutionary zeal quickly gave way to a reconsideration of liberal travel rules when it was discovered that royalists, moderates, and other members of the aristocracy were escaping abroad.

By the 20th century the passport was still largely considered a bizarre requirement, disparaged by upper-class travelers angered at having to prove identity at borders. Today however, the story is much different. Two cataclysmic world wars, and a variety of American military misadventures generated millions of displaced peoples and thus the need for large international agencies to deal with and administer to the needs of refugee populations; coupled with Cold War paranoia, the 1900s saw steady increases in the types and sophistication of tools by which nations catalogued and monitored their citizens. By the end of the 2oth century passports and visas had become the global standard for anybody wishing to cross a national boundary. The terrorist attacks on September 11th intensified the militarization and securitization of sovereign borders, and now, in our present day the passport has evolved into a RFID equipped, smart-carded, security apparatus, less an exotic collectible and more an absolute necessity if you’d like to, you know, move around the planet.

Confronting the history of the passport reveals a paradoxical relationship between our favorite document and the freedom of movement: as travel and communications technologies and infrastructure have rendered broad swathes of the globe more open and accessible, the same forces have simultaneously given rise to a network of sovereign borders with increasingly stringent requirements for entry and exit. In short: the passport has evolved alongside the nation-state not at all as a mechanism to facilitate a truly open world, but as a way to monitor and control populations and the movement of people across borders. Many nations are now using biometric data, such as digitized facial features, and storing this data on ‘ePassports’.

Our adventurous predecessors, setting out for Baghdad, or the Levant, for the far east or the New World were in many ways freer to exercise an inalienable right to movement than we are today. This of course doesn’t address implications of class or status, and early travelers faced a much, much rougher journey then (how many passengers still die of scurvy aboard ships these days?), yet it is still interesting, and in many ways alarming, to consider that the metaphorical walls are rising all over the world as nations continue to react to global forces like terrorism, immigration, and economic pressures. There are also some bright spots: the Schengen area provides almost 500 million Europeans with the freedom to travel visa and passport free through 19 countries (and more planned in the future).

We may be heading for a one-world dystopian police state, one in which the passport and new forms of wireless, networked, biometric identification and monitoring will evolve into ever more coercive governmental tools. We might not be. The securitization and garrisoning of borders seen over the last decade may ease, especially as national budgets continue to be squeezed. All or none of this may happen, but one thing is for certain: I still enjoy my passport, with its stamps, and yes its security features, and its worn cover, and that dumb picture of me as an 19 year old heading off to Europe for the first time.


Movement as Human Right

Travel as a Human Right

Whether most of us realize it or not, we’re part of a privileged global demographic. We possess enough freedom, enough opportunity, and most importantly, enough money, to travel recreationally; we travel because we can, and because we enjoy it. Those of us who read and write and document the experience of travel are most likely educated, relatively affluent, and are almost certainly from a country with few restrictions on movement or political affiliation. For millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world, movement and travel is not a happy concatenation of exploratory pleasures and mild inconveniences. For the vast majority of human beings travel is frequently an act of desperation, a last resort in the face of war, natural disaster, economic hardship, oppression, resource depletion, gentrification, on up to things as horrifying as genocide. It is also not easy for most people, who are typically confronted with a variety of structural and social obstacles rendering attempts at relocation a dangerous and exploitative experience. Think Palestinian refugees, migrant Chinese laborers, American farm workers, or one of the tens of millions of garment workers in India or Bangladesh who have joined the rural to urban migration.

Its likely that few among the mobile class even think much about freedom of movement issues beyond the airport security queue. We get visas (and are therefore legal residents or visitors), we spend money, or we’re expatriate workers. We are walking, talking, money-spending resources and therefore we are mostly spared the hassles of travel and movement. It isn’t always a story of laissez faire journeying;  at times politically open, industrialized nations and regions have leaned on governmental authority and the administrative reach of the state to restrict the ability of individuals to move freely both inter- and intra-nationally. In 1950 the United States government, under the Subversive Activities Control Act, made it illegal for members of the communist party to seek or obtain a passport. The Jim Crow south incorporated a brutal system of vagrancy laws, debt entrapment, and prison labor to proscribe the movement of blacks. An argument could be made that the documentation costs associated with international travel are themselves itself a kind of de facto barrier to exit or entry for people below a certain economic threshold.

Despite these and other examples there is, in fact, a long history of positive affirmation of the right to travel, or the ‘right to movement,’ in the western legal tradition, reaching back at least as far as the Magna Carta, Article 42 of which states:

“It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.”

Now, there are certainly caveats, but, BUT the freedom of movement, to leave ones country, indeed to set out by land or sea (no Cheap-O Air or yet), was granted and affirmed. And the Subversive Activities Control Act? Fourteen years after it was passed, in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 6 of the act, the section limiting travel, unconstitutional, finding that it violated fundamental liberties guaranteed by the fifth amendment. Other documents have since categorized movement as a fundamental right. From Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

And from Article 4 of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility reads:

“Every African intellectual shall enjoy the freedom of movement within his o her country and freedom to travel outside and re-enter the country without let hindrance or harassment. No administrative or any other action shall directly or indirectly restrict this freedom on account of a person’s intellectual opinions beliefs or activity.”

The European Union, and this is true, declared in April of 2010 that travel and tourism are fundamental human rights. Unwilling to stop at declaring such activities basic rights, the EU then introduced a plan whereby program-eligible recipients would be granted a 30% subsidy for travel costs allowing people to visit places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. A pilot will run until 2013 after which it will become official. Typical Euros.

While the rights to movement and travel both within and without a home country have been written into the canon of various international organizations they certainly aren’t static. Restriction regimes are always changing, and, in a post 9/11 world with the specter of transnational terrorism driving the increasing militarization of borders, its going to get more difficult (at least in the foreseeable future) for everyone, for us, the mobile class, and especially for those who lack even modest resources. This is an important debate especially suited to those of us who travel frequently. The rise of the security state, the seemingly absurd truth that capital can migrate freely (and indeed is pulled as often as pushed) while people are often trapped by emigration or immigration policies, the causes and consequences of human migration, our own responsibilities related to these issues – all of these are things we should can and should talk about, more often than we do.


The Ruins of Guyaju (And the Future Ruins of Jackson Hole, Beijing)

Guyaju, China, Beijing, Travel, Tourism, Photography

That’s me! My awesome beautiful girlfriend took the picture from a rocky lookout point about half a klick away by foot.

Dongmenying village, a part of Zhangshanying town, lies in northwestern Yanqing County, one of Beijing’s 16 administrative districts. And once you’ve waded through the confusing strata of prefectural and subprefectural nomenclature, and have conquered the incomplete or deficient maps, and have pushed on in the face of wrong turns and vague directions – once all that is done and you arrive in Dongmenying village you will find just beyond its drowsy outskirts the ruins at Guyaju, China’s largest network of ancient cave dwellings, which I will address shortly. But First:

It is not, in fact, as difficult to find the cave complex as I’ve colorfully exaggerated, provided of course one is armed with a friendly, knowledgeable driver from Beijing, and are in the company of people who speak Mandarin with conversational proficiency. Meet those two prerequisites and the caves can be reached from the city center within two hours. There are several straightforward alternatives, it’s not all ordeal, but some of you enjoy ordeal and self-discovery of routes and locations and transportational methods, so the easy ways are at the bottom.

And now the relics:

The ruins at Guyaju are truly fascinating. 170 caves and more than 350 rooms make up this 1000 year old community and although they’ve been uninhabited for centuries the structures are extremely well preserved. The two-story buildings are connected by carved stairs and steps, and presumably by ladders at some point, which could’ve been withdrawn to delay anyone looking for free livestock and women (that last thing, about the ladders, is an assumption and not historically proven, it would’ve made a lot of sense though right? and probably a great setting for an epic battle scene in a subtitled Chinese film).

Other features that make total sense: differentiated rooms for livestock, cooking, storage, living, communal events, royal quarters, and religious rituals; drainage and water storage systems; a network of elevated, defensive observation posts carved in what should be impossible locations. Rooms, doors, and windows of varying sizes that open into 100 meters of air.

Guyaju, Ancient caves, china, beijing, travel, photography

Looking up into one of two primary living networks from the main ‘square’, a flat area of rock about 150 meters off the canyon floor. Behind and below-left of the camera is the ‘throne room’, an area with carved columns and 4 alcoves, two above and beside the main dais. This area is large, with rooms and windows and tunnels set at least a hundred feet up in a narrow slot canyon.

These ancients, which some archeologists believe were Xi people escaping raids and banditry during the Liao dynasty, lived a vertical lifestyle, nestled into hand carved warrens high and safe above the waning edge of the North China Plain.

A second exercise in historical supposition: it is easy to imagine the residents of Guyaju cautiously shepherding animals through the narrow enfiladed and defiladed canyon entrance to their village and out onto the spacious grassland a mere 2 kilometers away. Coincidentally, that grassland is in possession of a once broad river that most likely watered their crops, animals, and selves. I say once broad because it’s been diverted and dammed and poured onto industrialized orchards and cornfields so much that it doesn’t really exist anymore.

What else is important to know about Guyaju? It’s 20 kilometers from Badaling, the most Chinese and foreign tourist infested stretch of Great Wall in existence, including any single kilometer or individual site on the primary, secondary, or tertiary walls and other structures.

beijing, Guyaju, Jackson Hole, suburbs, china, travel, photography

Looking out from the highest accessible point at Guyaju. One of the northernmost open spaces of the North China Plain can be seen, as can the ideologically ironic Jackson Hole, Beijing resort. This monster of a vacation home complex will probably demand more water than the region can possibly supply, and appears to be replicating not only the American propensity for residential spread, but the prototypical American disregard for environmental carrying capacity. Also: a firm belief in the impossibility of real estate bubbles. In the foreground is the uppermost slopes of the narrow canyon by which the ruins can be accessed.

Do not go to Badaling (unless you want to see a Nixon-eye view of China circa 1972). Go to Jiankou, which is also close to Guyaju, and camp there and feast your eyes on the unreconstructed grandeur of a hand built rock highway that has laughed and laughed at brutal winters and sweltering summers and wars and a revolution predicated entirely on demolishing evidence of China’s history for something like 2000 years.
China, Longqing Gorge, Travel, Photography, Beijing

A smoggy day at the Gorge, but not smoggy enough to entirely obscure the epic scale and impressively jagged scenery.

Longqing Gorge is a half hour jaunt by car from Guyaju, and despite the fact that it’s now a giant resevoir, it is absolutely spectacular. Go ahead, Google picture search ‘Longqing Gorge’ and see what I mean. I suppose that’s pretty much it for the ruins of Guyaju.

Is it worth your time and more importantly, your money? Yes I say. 200 kuai (32 dollars at current exchange) per person will get you a driver for the whole day who, should you choose your driver wisely (check or for references), be able to navigate anywhere you want to go without getting lost for more than 15 minutes. There are entrance fees at all interesting locations, but they’re marginal, and if you forget food and water, snack and drink stands are ubiquitous throughout what is probably the entirety of China. You will survive as long as you have a few crumpled bits of Chinese currency. A hilarious……..thing is also available for visitation and its barely a half kilometer from the entrance to Guyaju. It is called Jackson Hole, which you might rightly argue exists in America, but now, thanks to the triple marvels of international trade, a status hungry Chinese upper middle class, and a bunch of Americans looking for work abroad because the domestic economy is flatline, there is a new, even cheesier and wasteful attempted replica of Jackson Hole in the scrubland of northern Beijing. I’ll let this Foreign Policy article do the talking:

Wild, Wild East – lots of pictures here illustrating the ridiculous, yet humorous, existence of a symbol so overtly capitalistic right in the heart of the ChiCom empire.

Less cheekily: Guyaju is a pretty incredible place, hewn from granite, hundreds of meters tall, vertigo inducing in some places. It is surrounded by some of the most rugged scenery near Beijing, great hiking, and faultlessly hospitable people who will feed you until coma. There are nearby attractions, and it is an objective fact of the reality we all inhabit that the air out at Guyaju is probably fifteen hundred times cleaner than inner city particulate soup. If you’re in Beijing and you have a day to plan and a day to wander, go see Guyaju and the wall and the gorge. It’ll be fun.

And a final note: check any of the activity schedules on the following sites and you may be able to find a guided tour of the area which will also be conspicuously affordable.

Culture Yard – An esoteric collective of young people who wander all over Beijing and its environs. Very cheap, well organized, lots of different activities all the time.

Beijing Hikers – The best, most organized, oldest, most respected group of outdoors enthusiasts in Beijing. Probably one of the best guided outfits in the capitol city. Always bilingual, accommodating, extraordinarily well organized and probably thousands of trips worth of experience. This group is almost solely devoted to hiking, although occasionally other activities make it to the events lists.

China Culture Center – A bit pricier than the others, but very professional, lots of different activities, they are primarily concerned with your comfort. If you see any trips with Andy that look interesting, take em’, he is an awesome guy.