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Guest Comment: Why I quit HK for rural China after Lehman collapsed

I was hiking in the jungles of Borneo two years ago when a headhunting friend texted me the news about the fall of Lehman Brothers. I had already been considering taking time out of the markets – something which I had prior form for, having spent a number of years as a PADI divemaster in South America during the early noughties.

For me, the collapse of Lehman was a clear indicator of coming turbulence. I saw the opportunity to use the economic hiatus to my own ends by pursuing a different type of adventure.

This time I wanted my career break to be more “meaningful” and I was lucky enough to stumble across an opportunity to spend several months in Xinjiang province in Western China. I was tasked with collecting, collating and editing oral-tradition stories told by Tajik storytellers who reside in the highlands close to the stan-country borders and the lowland Uighur Oasis in the Silk Road city of Kashgar.

The effort was part of a corporate social responsibility project sponsored by the Swire Beverages Group, which had built a library in the Tagharma Valley, just outside Tashkurgan in the Tajik Autonomous Zone of Western Xinjiang.

The Tajiks in the region have no written language, so I was working to create a children’s storybook (translated from the oral language into Chinese, Uighur and English), which I hoped would make a meaningful contribution to the preservation of a unique culture.

And you thought banking was tough

In early April last year I found myself alone in minus-20 conditions, 3,600m above sea level and 120km from the Pakistan border. All I had to do was find some storytellers, get them to tell me some stories, translate said stories into three different languages (two of which I do not speak) and then find local people to illustrate them in a manner attractive to children!

It was not an easy task, but the following four months of endeavour were one of the most rewarding times of my life. Finding storytellers and stories was relatively easy. The Tajiks and Uighurs are incredibly hospitable and love nothing more than retelling raucous (and often very long) stories. However, finding tales that were appropriate for children was another matter entirely.

As for translation, well needless to say my Uighur, Tajik and Chinese remain rudimentary at best, and the book could not have come into being without the support of very talented trilingual local people who viewed the strange English girl living in their midst as an oddity, no doubt, but one to be helped out. In fact, I may have even become a minor local celebrity thanks to my weekly jaunts up from Kashgar to Tashkurgan to check on the progress of the library.

Tashkurgan (and Kashgar) are probably unwittingly known by many people because they formed the backdrop for much of The Kite Runner movie – Xinjiang standing in for Afghanistan, which was too difficult to film in. This is a much loved fact by locals, who all seem to have jobbed on the film in some capacity or another.

Heading back to Hong Kong

After many adventures, which included slightly illicit mountain horse riding in the Pamirs, hitchhiking along the friendship highway, and almost marrying a Uighur (a story in itself), the manuscript was finally ready.

The books were completed in Hong Kong in the late summer – Tales of the Karokoram Volume I and II – and donated to the villagers of Tagharma when the library opened this spring. Hopefully they are a testament to the proud and fascinating culture of the mountain and oasis people of this province; just two of the wonderfully diverse 55 minorities that constitute the People’s Republic of China.

And now, some months after a further fabulous experience of working closely with the first soup kitchen in China, I have returned to the dramas of the Hong Kong financial markets with only an enduring aversion to lamb kebabs as a lingering memento of my Xinjiang adventures….

Amanda Lote, managing director, Lote & Partners

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