Category Archives: The Mekong River

The Road to the Source

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, TIbet (Qinghai, China).

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, Tibet.

“Welcome to Tibet,” Tashi said as we walked out of the Xining airport after a 30-hour series of flights through mainland China. A former Buddhist monk turned Tibetan travel expert, Tashi would be our companion for the final leg of A River’s Tail as we made our final approach towards the source of the Mekong at the Lasagongma Springs.

Because of the difficulty of obtaining unrestricted travel permits for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, we’d had to abandon a portion of the Mekong and instead had decided on a more circuitous route to the river’s source. Beginning in the city of Xining, we would make a 4000km overland round trip through Qinghai province. And while the province fell under a Chinese name on the map, we quickly realized that this land was Tibet in all but official title.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet. Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the captials of the Tibetan region of Golok.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet.

After spending a year and a half tracing the Mekong from its terminus at the South China Sea, Tibet was a special place to be ending our travels. Beyond being the literal geographical source of the Mekong, Tibet was also on the front lines of the biggest water-related threats facing the planet.

Tibet possess the largest supply of the world’s freshwater outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, earning it the nickname of The Third Pole. The waters that flow out of its plateau are the basis of all of Asia’s major rivers – the Mekong included – and sustain upwards of a billion lives.

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Over the course of our time in Tibet we would learn about more than just the source of the Mekong. The powerful bonds between culture and the environment, the grave threats to regional water security, and the extreme selflessness exhibited by many Tibetans people in their mission to keep the plateau healthy for the benefit of those who lived downstream were all distinctly Tibetan characteristics.

The Black Tent

“A black tent, a black tent!” Tashi called excitedly as he pointed out the window of our car to a small settlement on the side of the highway. The solitary tent sat at the base of rolling foothills that stretched across the horizon, and apart from lines of prayer flags blowing in the cold wind, was the only feature on the barren winter landscape.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region. Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

“This is really rare,” Tashi explained, “tent culture is dying out very fast in Tibet. Most of the nomadic families these days have Chinese-style buildings at their winter camps. Soon you won’t see this at all.”

As we approached the tent we were too distracted by the monstrous Tibetan mastiff guard dogs (that seemed as though they would gladly eat us for breakfast if not staked to the ground with heavy chains)  to notice what was unique about the black tent. While we were impressed by the toughness of any family who could live under a piece of cloth in the freezing temperatures of the Tibetan plateau in winter, from a distance the tent itself did not look like anything special. It was only when we got close enough to touch it that we realized that rather than a single piece of canvas, the walls were woven from thousands of individual strings of yak fur.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Mastiffs are used throughout Tibet to protect the livestock of nomadic families from wolves and snow leopards.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet.

Hearing the frenzied barking of their dogs, two women emerged from the tent and surveyed us uninterestedly, exhibiting neither hostility or curiosity. Somewhat surprisingly, they made no effort to engage us in conversation or ask us what we wanted. Instead they mostly ignored us, and set to work weaving coarse tufts of yak hair into yet more threads, presumably to expand or repair the existing tent walls.

To be in such close proximity to other people, in their personal space nonetheless, and not interact with them in any meaningful was a strange experience and somewhat awkward for us after having speaking to so many people along the Mekong. Yet these nomadic women didn’t appear bothered in the least and simply continued with their task until we left, seeming neither annoyed or happy.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

We were on our way to the monastery town of Payul (Baiyuxiang in Mandarin), but first we had hundreds more kilometres of grassland to cross through landscapes that were both utterly hostile looking and stunningly beautiful in their vastness. Apart from the periodic groups of pilgrims trudging along the side of the road and an occasional pickup truck loaded with wild-looking racing horses, it was easy to feel like we were alone in the sheer hugeness of the place.

Occasionally we passed more winter camps of Nomad families, most of whom had built permanent structures rather than the black yak hair tents, shielded from the bitter winter winds by head-height walls made exclusively from yak dung. Small children, their cheeks almost artificially red from wind burn as if they had been interrupted while experimenting with their mother’s makeup, stood in the subzero temperatures wearing little more than thin wool sweaters.

It was hard country, and the people who lived on it had to work hard to make it work for them.

Culture on the Move

“Once these people start moving into [permanent] houses the group culture starts to fall apart,” Tashi said as we stood on a bluff overlooking a sprawling complex of uniform single story homes. “Traditionally they live together in tents that are bigger than a house and take years to build from yak pelts. But most of these ‘real’ nomads are already gone.”

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

For nomads, who typically move with their yak herds three times per year between summer, winter, and autumn locations, the residential compound spread across the valley below was essentially an internment camp, a place where culture would suffocate and eventually die.

“In the old days there was no concept of land ownership,” Tashi explained. “Nomad families and tribes used to move together and share land. This started to change in the 1980’s when the government started assigning land to families, and surrounding this land with fences.”

It was strange to think of the impact something so simple as a fence could have on an ancient way of life, but as nomadic families started to think of land as their personal property, disputes and violent conflicts began to increase. People who had defined their culture through the sharing of land and resources for thousands of years were becoming divided. And while it seemed, from a distance, that the vast majority of the government-built housing compound was empty, it nevertheless represented a grave threat to (and possibly even the slowly approaching end of) nomadic culture.

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet.

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family's storage shed in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family’s storage shed in Golok region.

But as ominous as the camp was, for the time being most nomads were not yet abandoning their traditional lifestyle. They faced threats from many angles, including the growth of massive industrial mining operations in the region and the degradation of grasslands so essential to the survival of their herds. But for people living in such relative isolation there was little to be done apart from tend to their yaks and hope to be left alone.

In Tibet, as in countless other places along the Mekong, 21st century issues of climate change, environmental degradation, land development, and the over exploitation of resources were most affecting those people who had done the least to precipitate the problems.

As we would see over the coming weeks, however, Tibetans were not resigned to inaction. Perhaps more so than any other group of people we had encountered along the Mekong, Tibetans were fighting to preserve what they had.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Tibet, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

A Singular Purpose: Hydropower in Northern Yunnan

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in northern Yunnan. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

“If you were born somewhere, how would you feel about having to move to someone else’s place?” Chen Quiangguo asked rhetorically.

After leaving the Tibetan community of Cizhong, we had decided to follow up on some rumours locals had shared that the nearby village of Yanmen was set to be flooded by the reservoir of the soon-to-be completed Wunonglong hydropower dam. Relocating villagers to make way for dams was something we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey, but in this case the residents of Yanmen were not to be given a new piece of land but rather they were to be absorbed into Cizhong.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen, Yunnan, China.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen.

Whereas the most common challenge faced by dam migrants was how to go about creating a new community from scratch – often in an undesirable location far from schools, hospitals, employment, and other important infrastructure – in this case the situation had been flipped. How could an entire village be joined with another without severely straining the available land of the host? Before continuing north towards the Tibetan plateau, we stopped in Yanmen to ask how residents planned to deal with the problem. It was there we met Chen Quiangguo, sitting on a plastic cooler along Yanmen’s main thoroughfare.

“I have lived here my whole life,” Chen said, “and now the whole village is going to be evicted. I am not sure where we will go when I lose my farmland.” His life was in a state of uncertainty, and with Wunonglong set to be operational in 2018, he did not have much time to make a decision.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen, Yunnan, China.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen.

Like the people we had spoken to in Xialuoga who too faced the prospect of abandoning much of their town to a dam’s reservoir, Chen directed most of his anger at local government more so than at the national level.

“I think the power company [Sinohydro] is more powerful than the local government. Whenever we disagree with the company we report it to the local government, but I don’t think they have much power over the company,” he explained. Considering that Sinohydro was a state-owned corporation – and one of the biggest companies of any kind in all of China – he was most likely right.

Engineering Might

20km away along a winding mountain highway, the build site of the Wunonglong dam was not the high security location that we’d expected it to be. Instead of guards and gates a special viewing platform had been build to accommodate tourists, complete with decorative gardens and informational diagrams showing the location of all present and future dam projects on the Lancang. China clearly saw its massive damming projects as a source of engineering pride, something to be marvelled at rather than hidden away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company.

From the lookout perched above the deep river valley where Wunonglong was being built, it was hard not to be struck by the monumental scale of the construction. Hulking industrial dump trucks were reduced to moving yellow dots, and the workers were nothing more than specks identifiable only by their brightly coloured hardhats.

Where the Lancang should have flowed there was instead a plain of gravel and metal scaffolding that covered the valley walls like latticework. Even more impressive was the fact that the river had not been blocked, but rather diverted in its entirety through a tunnel that had been carved through the base of the surrounding mountains. Despite the environmental ramifications of such dams for China’s downstream neighbours and the human cost of flooding huge tracts of land, this manifestation of China’s engineering prowess was truly awesome to behold.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

Scaffolding is anchored into the rock walls of a Lancang river valley as workers carve the rock away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

Back in Yanmen with a clearer visual picture of the source of the village’s destroyer, we spoke to shopkeeper Ge Dacheng about his future plans. Like Chen Quiangguo, he was uncertain as to his future: “I will be evicted next year I think. Because I rent my shop and do not own the land, I do not have as much to lose [as some others in Yanmen], but I do not know where I will go. I’ll have to see what housing is available and what it costs.”

As the current plan encouraged most of Yanmen’s residents (at least those who could not afford to move to bigger cities) to move to Cizhong, Ge and Chen were at least fortunate that people in Cizhong were not unanimously opposed to their arrival. The prospect of giving away inherited farmland to a community of incoming strangers could have sparked deep resentment in Cizhong and made assimilation all but impossible.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

However, when we’d asked 64-year-old wine maker and Cizhong land-owner Zeng Tei how he felt about an influx of newcomers, he responded optimistically.

“I heard they are making this community bigger,” Zeng had said. “I don’t know why these people need to come here, but I don’t think it’s a danger to my family. In the past people here used to be starving, but now things are plentiful. I hope that when new people come I will have a bigger market for my crops – and that they will buy more of my wine!”

Towards the Plateau

While our first reaction to China’s network of dams might have been to rail and shout about the ecological damage being done to the Lancang (and later the Mekong) – as well as the hardships looming for those who had to be relocated to make way for their reservoirs – after spending upwards of a month following the river through Yunnan province, we realized that this would not be entirely fair.

Though the Mekong was a transnational waterway, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia, international borders and the modern geopolitical system meant that governments were prone to put their own national development interests before those of their neighbours. Though after more than a year on the Mekong we had our own left-of-centre views regarding the future ramifications of such insular thinking, this was nevertheless the reality of modern politics.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

And time after time in China (with only a few rare exceptions), we had seen that the Lancang was not a particularly useful river for the people who lived along it. Whereas in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, millions of people fished in the muddy brown waters, irrigated their rice paddies, or transported their goods along the Mekong, the fast-moving Lancing and the hard to access topography it snaked through provided little in the way of direct benefits to Chinese people. We had seen very little in the way of fishing, a mere fraction of the agricultural activity that was present in Southeast Asia, and virtually no transportation was possible due to the river’s rocky bed, untamed speed, and indirect course.

In the largely Tibetan mountain town of Deqin, parts of which sit at nearly 4000 metres above sea level, the practical uselessness of the Lancang was reinforced repeatedly by the people we spoke to. Cili Dingzhu, a Tibetan resident of Deqin replied with an emphatic “no, no, no,” when we asked if the Lancang provided anything for his community.

A Tibetan man drives along the mountain roads near Deqen, Yunan, China.

Cili Dingzhu drives along the mountain roads near Deqen.

In fact Cili Dingzhu had been hard pressed to think of a place anywhere in the area where people lived within walking distance of the river. When he did eventually remember once such village, we had driven through the mountains for more than an hour to reach it and found it to be little more than a cluster of houses perched on the steep valley walls. There were no pipes feeding them Lancang water, and no boats tied to the shore. Almost unnaturally blue and capped with intermittent patches of whitewater, in Yunnan’s rugged north the Lancang was simply an obstacle to be crossed, not a boon to be enjoyed.

In this sense the Chinese government had made the best possible use of the river as a means of developing their country. Other nations around the world had made excellent use of hydropower dams to build their economies and build their energy industries, and it would not be fair to expect China not to do the same. Yet we knew that as practical as China’s treatment of the Lancang might be, there were millions of people living the south who had an altogether different relationship with the river.

The Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

The Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

In an ideal world nations would cooperate to make sure that natural resources were managed with the collective good in mind, but that world did not yet exist.

As we left Yunnan for the final phase of our journey on the Tibetan plateau, we were acutely aware of how much the river had changed since we had begun to follow it in Vietnam, and how greatly its importance in people’s lives varied from north to south.

“Wow, you’ve been on this river for a long way!” Cili Dingzhu remarked when we explained the nature of our trip. “Does it flow through Beijing?”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Tibetan Wine, Tug of War, and a Church in Buddha’s Land

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunnan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Possibly the last thing we expected to see upon arriving in the predominately Tibetan village of Cizhong was a crowd of hundreds watching a full court basketball game. We had come to Cizhong because of its most famous landmark – a century old Catholic church. Built by French missionaries in 1911 after their previous church was destroyed during a Chinese crackdown on foreign religions, the church had become the de facto centre of Catholicism in Yunnan. With a church in the heart of a largely Buddhist region, we had imagined Cizhong as some sort of spiritual enclave where the intermingling of religions was manifested in the streets by solemn monk-priests and billowing clouds of incense.

Whatever we expected, it was not basketball.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament.

It was the middle of losar the 15-day Tibetan lunar New Year holiday – and we had unwittingly stumbled upon the annual inter-village multi-day sports tournament. The women’s teams played first, and despite their general good sportsmanship and respect for the rules of the game, the competition was fierce. Even though it was barely 5º Celsius, sweat poured from the player’s and the spectators screamed encouragement from the sidelines.

At half time it was the middle-aged women of the area that took the stage, not to play basketball, but for a surprisingly intense tug of war competition. Strong and sturdy from their agricultural mountainous lifestyle, they were possessed of formidable stamina and they spared no energy in pulling for the pride of their village. The men in the audience were whipped into a frenzy, many of whom rushed onto the court to spur their women to victory. With multiple switching of sides and several back-to-back rounds, we lost track of which team was which and ultimately had no idea who had won. Judging from the laughter and general good cheer of the crowd, it didn’t seem to matter.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

After the girls finished their basketball game (the home team lost, some of the players visibly upset), the men’s games began. They clearly took the sport seriously, with some of the teams even wearing customized NBA jerseys with their own names printed on the back.

Only when the tournament ended did we understand that there was more at stake than just hometown bragging rights. Numerous cash prizes of increasing value were handed out at the closing ceremony, honouring the winning teams, coaches, and best individual players – the most prestigious of which were paid out at 2000 Yuan (more than $300 USD), more than double the provincial minimum monthly wage.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong, Yunan, China.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong.

The event was brought to a close with dance performances, an alternating fusion of traditional styles and modern pop ballads. There was something surreal about watching a group of children shake their bodies to Gangnam Style immediately after the well-choreographed rhythms of women dressed extravagantly in ceremonial silks, but such was the nature of the globalized 21st Century.

Grapes From God

When we met with Yao Fei, Cizhong’s resident priest who had been sent from Inner Mongolia to be the village’s spiritual leader, we learned that documenting the influence of Catholicism over 70% of the town’s population would not be as straightforward as we’d imagined as no photography was allowed inside the church. But there was another byproduct of the arrival of the French missionaries that was nearly as important economically to Cizhong as the church was spiritually: wine.

A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Yao Fei, A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong.

“The grapes were initially brought here by French missionaries,” Yao said. “At church, we need [wine] for mass. It represents Jesus’ blood. The wine culture started in the church…and now in the village many people make wine themselves.”

It didn’t take long to find locals engaged in the wine industry. 10 minutes into a walk along Cizhong’s main road, a sign mounted to the exterior wall of a house read (in both Mandarin and English), “French style wine available here”.

“My family started to grow grapes and make wine about 10 years ago,” Zeng Alan said. “10 years ago it was very poor here and the government encouraged us to grow grapes as part of a poverty alleviation program. The grapes helped my family to get out of poverty and now we use all our land to grow them. We are much better off.”

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong.

In her early 60’s, Zeng Alan moved around her home with the speed of a much younger woman as she poured out small glasses of the bright red liquid for us to sample. Though not completely undrinkable, the wine bore semblance to French vintages only in that it was red and alcoholic. The sugar content was shockingly high, and it seemed certain that even a small quantity of the stuff would bring about an excessive hangover.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan told us that while her speciality was the fermentation and transformation of the grapes into wine, it was her husband, Zeng Tei, who oversaw the vineyards themselves.

We found Tei on a mountainside above the village wandering through his rows of grape vines, stopping here and there to uproot a weed or pull off wilting leaves. The 64-year-old had married Alan and moved to Cizhong in 1983, he told us, but had only started growing grapes in 2002.

“Growing grapes is just great,” he said cheerfully, “Before I had to do very hard labor with no days off. My burdens are much less now and I have enough money to educate my three sons.”

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

But growing grapes in Yunnan was not always easy. Just a few years after planting his first vines, Tei said, disaster struck. “At first we were very happy with the grapes, but in 2006 they got sick and most of them died. Only one tree survived well and actually produced 2.5kg of grapes.” Without much in the way of formal training, Tei nevertheless guessed that there was something special about that vine. The following season he grafted branches from it onto 10 other sickly vines and to his relief, most of them flourished.

“These new grapes are resistant to disease and have better yields than the original French variety,” Tei said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. “I started with just 10 of these and now I have over two mu (1333 square meters) of vines that give me more than five tonnes of grapes each year.”

This netted the family almost 2500 litres of wine each season, and with a value of roughly $5 USD per litre, this gave them an income well above the average small scale Yunnan farmer.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong, Yunan, China during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

Though by this time of our travels in China we were used to hearing about how little the Lancang provided the people who lived along its banks, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a connection between the river and the Zeng’s prosperity. “The valley created by the river gives us a very good climate for growing grapes,” Tei said. “Even though grapes don’t need much water, the water we use comes from [a small tributary of] the Lancang.” He was quick to point out, however, that like everywhere else we had visited on the river, the water was not suitable for human consumption.

After buying a token bottle of the Zeng’s wine, we asked Tei if he felt anything towards the missionaries and their God for the gift of grapes.

“I don’t like religion. I only like grapes and chess.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Drowning the Valley

Residents of Gongle village, Yunan, China, lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Residents of Gongle village lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level.

“They keep offering us more and more money, but it’s not about money,” the dump truck driver said. He was hauling loads of sand up the narrow mountain roads of the tiny village of Xialuoga to a construction site where he and his family were building a new house. They weren’t doing this because of an increase in fortune or fate, but rather because of the coming flood. Xialuoga’s farmlands were slated for inundation once the Tuoba hydropower dam on the Lancang was completed and residents had little choice but to prepare to move to higher ground, abandoning whatever low-lying assets they had built up over generations.

“Money comes and goes but our families need to be fed everyday,” the driver continued. “Without land, how can we be sure of their basic needs?”

A woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs.

The forced relocation of people living along the banks of the Mekong was a story we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey. From the cheaply-built relocation camps of Laos (needs link) to the Bunong ethnic minority groups fighting to save their land in northeastern Cambodia, the human cost of energy development was high throughout the region.

A father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant.

But whereas in Laos and Cambodia we had been well aware of the situation in advance and had sought out the affected communities to purposely document their struggle, we had come to Xialuoga with the intention of capturing a portrait of peaceful agrarian life in China. It wasn’t until we had arrived and started speaking to locals that we learned the daily life we had come to photograph was soon to be under water.

A Pastoral Postcard

Located across the Lancang from the town of Baijixunxiang and connected to the outside world only by a steel-cabled suspension bridge, Xialuoga was so small as to not appear on Google Maps. Where searching for Baijixunxiang – itself tiny by Chinese standards – revealed a post office, several restaurants, a hotel, and a few parallel roads, the place where Xialuoga should have appeared was represented by only by name and a blank expanse of beige pixels. Only by switching to the photographic satellite view did the village appear, as if to indicate that, although Xialuoga may be physically there at the moment, it was probably best to forget about it.

The village of Gongle, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

The village of Gongle, Yunnan.

On the ground, however, Xialuoga was very much real and the picture postcard of simple pastoral life. While Yunnan had been beautiful in its entirety, the further north we moved, the more dramatic the landscape became. The mountains were rising ever higher as we approached the Himalayas and the snaking valley that held the Lancang correspondingly deepened.

Goats, donkeys, cows, and horses – all manner of domesticated animals grazed on the dry grasses that covered the hillsides, cautious but accepting of our company in the cold, fresh winds that gusted over the mountaintops. Bright yellow canola flowers, used to produce cooking oil and as fattening fodder for pigs, added striking patches of colour to the winter landscape. It was quiet, and incredibly beautiful.

A man walks through the canola fields surrounding the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A man walks through the canola fields surrounding Gongle

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Chao Yunsheng said. A weathered 78-year-old, Chao had lived through turbulent times. “Life is much better now. When I was a boy we often did not have any food to eat. Things are much easier now.”

Over the course of his life Chao had expanded his family’s land holdings to a respectable 20 mu (a mu is an old Chinese system of measurement still used in conjunction with the metric system. One mu equals 666.7 square meters). Though lack of irrigation systems and decreasing annual rainfall meant that he had long since quit growing rice, he nevertheless used his land to good effect by growing corn and grazing a herd of 90 goats.

“I have a lot of land now, and I have given it to my three sons,” Chao said. “My youngest son went to another province to work so I help [the other two] with the farming and animals.” Yet when the 900 megawatt Tuoba dam goes on line, much of his sons inheritance would be lost.

A goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them.

A family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle.

“The whole village will flood and we will have to move higher up the mountain. Out of the 20 mu we have, all but two will be lost. We will be able to keep grazing our goats, but there will only be a small area left for farming,” Chao told us. Considering that his crops account for roughly half the family’s income, the loss of 90% of his cultivatable land would be a serious financial blow.

Compensation, Contemplation, and Corruption

“I don’t know what’s happening,” 75-year-old Li Ruqi said as he sat in front of his small shop overlooking the Lancang. “This dam has been talked about for a long time, but there have been many delays and I have no idea when it will be finished. But if the government says I have to move, then I will have to move.”

Throughout Xialuoga and across the river in Baijixunxiang (the low-lying areas of which will also be flooded by Tuoba’s reservoir), locals shared the same uncertainty as to the timing of their relocation. Referring to the compensation package to be offered for evictees by the government, a hotel owner in Baijixunxiang said “We haven’t signed the deal, and many others haven’t either. We don’t know when it’s going to happen. If we don’t sign, they will probably force us to demolish the hotel anyways.”

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

The hotelier, who was hesitant to share his name, directed the majority of his anger towards local officials, who he accused of corruption. “Even if we get good compensation packages, much will be lost to corruption. [The dam builders] Sinohydro pay the money to local government officials and by the time it gets to us a lot of it will be gone. There have been many anti-corruption campaigns [across China], but this is a very remote place and they can do what they want here.”

Chao Yunsheng expressed similar frustrations, but was quick to point out that this was a problem at the local level and he placed no blame on the larger government apparatus. “The new president [Xi Jinping] is very good!” Chao said emphatically. “He gave out bags of rice to people with disabilities, which is very nice and the old presidents did not do. I have problems with my eyes, so I should have got two bags of rice but I only got one. This is proof of the corruption.”

Li Ruqi expressed even more faith in the national government, telling us that “I have no concerns for the future of my six children. The government will look after them.”

A woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle.

Though almost everyone we spoke to in Baijixunxiang and Xialuoga said they had been visited by surveyors who took measurements of their property, none had a clear picture of how much they would be compensated. Chao Yunsheng, however, said he thought he knew the value of at least one thing – his family’s ancestral graves. “I heard that we will be paid 1200 Yuan (roughly $185 USD) per grave.”

While Chao’s prediction about the value of his ancestor’s remains were unconfirmed, one thing was certain: when Tuoba’s 60m deep reservoir arrived, life in Xialuoga would change forever.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Entering the Year of the Monkey

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

The bus passed through an endless series of bleak frontier towns, grey and featureless and devoid of all character. The dead-brown of winter rice fields filled the gaps between industrial yards and tenement apartment blocks, which were the only types of buildings we had seen in some time.

“This is where I would come if I wanted to write a book about loneliness,” I commented to Gareth.

In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year – also known as Spring Festival from the literal Chinese translation – making travel plans had become increasingly difficult. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were leaving the cities for their home provinces in the largest human migration on earth. Even in Yunnan, far from China’s urban super-metropolises, busses had been sold out and the prices for hiring private cars had risen to extortionate highs. We knew that mobility would become even harder once the holidays began, so we had held an emergency brainstorming session with our Mandarin-speaking travel companion, Yan.

We wanted to avoid getting stuck in a big city where the soaring cost of accommodation would wipe out our budget in short order, and likewise we feared getting trapped for a week or more in the tiny villages that lined the Lancang as we had been told that most local bus services would be suspended.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

Ultimately we decided that it was best to veer away from the river for a short time and headed for Mt. Jizu, famed in Buddhism as a holy mountain and topped with richly decorated pagodas. But before we could see it for ourselves, we had to pass through some of the least inspiring scenery imaginable.

“Life would have been very different if you were born here,” Yan commented.

Offerings for the Gods

The rooster clucked nervously from inside a wooden crate that was piled in the van under the passenger’s luggage, and considering that animal sacrifices were a traditional part of Lunar New Year celebrations, his apprehension was justified.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

When we finally drove into Shazhi, an ancient market town at the base of Mt. Jizu, the cloud-topped mountain backdrop provided a welcome change from the sub-urban dreariness we had passed through for the best part of the day. With a population of just 700 people, Shazhi was the perfect place to get an intimate look at how the New Year was celebrated in Yunnan, but because of Mt. Jizu’s spiritual significance, it was a popular enough destination so as to stay connected to the outside world.

“This place is very popular for New Years celebrations because we have so many temples on the mountain,” Li Zhangqing said. An elderly incense vendor who had lived at the base of the mountain his entire life, the customers looking over the massive quantities of fireworks on display in his shop foreshadowed the nature of the festivities to come. “This was one of the first places Buddha’s disciple visited when he came to China from India, and [where] he founded the first temple.”

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, to make offerings for the lunar New Year.

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu.

Though the most famous of Mt. Jizu’s temples were located high on the surrounding mountainsides, after the long trip we had just completed we didn’t have the energy to begin the trek. Luckily Shazhi had its own temples at a mercifully lower elevation, and the locals were putting them to use.

At the town’s central temple, families were arriving and departing steadily to make offerings, and nearly all of them came with a rooster or two tucked under their arm. The birds, heads on a constant twitching swivel, took in their surroundings with great suspicion – and for good reason. Feathers covered the walls of two small shrines near the temple’s main gate and the concrete beneath was splattered with blood.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, Tibet.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

After stepping into the temple itself to offer prayers, the families returned to these shrines to light incense and offer envelopes stuffed with (mostly fake) cash to the gods.  The roosters, seeming to sense their mortal danger, shifted uneasily under the firm grip of the hands that held them.

With practiced surety, each rooster’s neck was twisted to the breaking point before their throats were slit with cleavers or long knives. As their blood drained and they convulsed in the throws of death, their sacrifice was acknowledged solemnly by the families, who knelt around the shrines in prayer. No one, not even the smallest children, looked away from the gore, which added a layer of respect to the ceremony and demonstrated an understanding of the connection between death and food that has been largely lost throughout the world’s most developed countries.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony.

Though it is never pleasant to witness the killing of a living creature, the process was humane; far less cruel than the horrendous conditions endured by animals in the battery farms of the modern world as they make their way to supermarket shelves.

Explosions Under the Holy Mountain

When the fireworks started to go off along Shazhi’s main street the sun was still high in the sky and we knew it would be a long night. The children started first, beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of an entire evening dedicated to blowing things up. There were even special children’s edition fireworks on hand, bearing brightly coloured designs from DreamWorks’ animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and other Hollywood hits.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family plays with sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As soon as evening fell, the momentum began to build. It seemed as though every child in Shazhi was on the streets, flinging m-80 crackers into drainage ditches and firing bottle rockets haphazardly in every direction over the roofs of the town. From time to time one would emerge with a chain of 1000 or so firecrackers joined by a single fuse which, once detonated, choked the streets with acrid smoke. But the adults had yet to join in the fracas and were gathered calmly around small fires in front of their homes. From the way they doled out huge quantities of fireworks to the children, we knew that they were sitting on massive stockpiles and were almost certainly saving the best for last.

Starting at 10 p.m., an odd calm settled over the town. We stopped for tea at a small restaurant owned by 26-year-old Yang Zhong and asked tentatively if the celebrations were over for the night. “No,” he laughed, “they are just watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV. At midnight it will start.”

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

 

Ostensibly a variety comedy program, the annual TV special was sprinkled with factual educational messages from the state. One particularly long skit featured a People’s Liberation Army officer being reprimanded repeatedly for not marching with his legs at regulation height, meant to reassure citizens that even generals were expected to work hard.

But as we checked some Chinese social media sites, it was clear that not everyone was sold on the show’s realism. “This is not a spring festival gala, this is an annual conference for the party!” commented one user on WeChat.

At a quarter to midnight we found the most dedicated celebrators gathered in Shazhi’s public square, and between them they had amassed a formidable arsenal of explosives. From five kilogram coils of crackers to one metre long cardboard tubes that spewed flaming balls high into the night sky, once they started lighting things our ears didn’t stop ringing until well after the new year had passed.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As we walked back towards our guest house, the red husks of thousands of explosives crunched under our feet.

Early the next morning the town had reverted to some semblance of normalcy. The streets were still littered with debris and there were black scorch marks burned into the pavement that would likely not disappear until the next rainfall, but in all other respects the place was calm.

With the year of the monkey having begun in style, we left Shazhi and headed back to the Lancang to push further north, towards the great river’s source.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Lancang River Fishing

A view of  the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

A view of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

The first thing that grabbed our attention as we stepped off the bus in the tiny roadside community of Jinglin River Bridge was the richness of the Lancang’s surreal blue colour. Though we had noted the changing characteristics of the river since entering China, the narrow and swift flowing aquamarine channel at the bottom of a deep mountain valley was so utterly different to the lazy brown Mekong that we had known for the last year as to be nearly unrecognizable.

Later we would learn that the unnatural colour of the river was largely due to the loss of sediment because of China’s hydropower dams along the Lancang. But in our initial ignorance we did little but stand and stare down at the alien waterway, speechless as we took in the vast landscape.

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, CHina

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China

The naming of Jinglin River Bridge was both literal and appropriate. Derived from the blending of Jinggu, the name of the county the town was located in, and Lancang, the community was visually defined by the impressively stark concrete bridges that spanned the river in several places. Though utilitarian and without ornament, the bridges were a reminder of the scope and scale of China’s infrastructural engineering projects. In Laos or Cambodia, with their aging and potholed highways, such roadworks would have been among the best in the country; but in China, even in an out of the way backwater, they were unremarkable.

We had stopped in Jinglin for two reasons. The first was geographical: this was the only major crossing point over the Lancang between the larger cities of Pu’er and Lincang, and the only route to access Yunnan’s mountainous north without suffering a lengthy detour to the east. The second reason was less practical and more hypothetical. Since arriving in China, we had yet to meet anyone intimately or directly engaging with the Lancang on a daily basis.

We had encountered tourists and retirees who enjoyed the river as a source of relaxation, farmers who irrigated their crops with its waters, and sand dredgers who plied its currents on immense metal hulks to bring its sandy bed to the surface, but none of the artisanal fishermen that had been so prevalent in the lower Mekong basin. If we were going to find such people in Yunnan, we reasoned, what better place to start looking than in a small village that had incorporated the river into its name?

A Revolutionary Welcome

“This revolutionary area welcomes you!” the Mandarin characters carved into the side of a large stone monument proclaimed in a historic reminder of the town’s political past.

Once the site of an important salt refinery, the area had been ground zero for the rising wave of discontentment among China’s lower classes over the inequality of wealth between themselves and their Kuomintang rulers. When the prices of salt rose to unaffordable levels, the rural poor formed themselves into small Communist militant groups which would later coalesce under Mao and take part in the Cultural Revolution that changed China’s political system forever.

Now, however, there were no signs of insurrection or rebellion, and the memories of those turbulent times were evidenced only in stone. It was the smell of fish, not class warfare, that permeated the morning air as we searched for a path down the steep mountain valley to the Lancang below.

A small market was spread out along the highway, offering travellers an opportunity to pick up fresh seafood before reaching their ultimate destinations, and the gathering of their parked cars gave the false impression of bustle to the town that was only transitory. The fish were live, splashing feebly in a few centimetres of water at the bottom of plastic buckets, and so we knew that fishermen could not be too far away.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When we eventually found our way down to the river’s edge, however, the fishing boats that lined the banks were devoid of crew or cargo. Instead we found a family of local tourists who had stopped to enjoy a picnic and some recreational fishing on the Lancang.

“I don’t really catch anything,” the father of the family said when we asked about his fishing rod, “it’s just for fun. If you want to see real fishermen, you could try coming back in the morning.” His teenage son, seemingly embarrassed by his father’s repeated attempts to offer us cigarettes and food, hurried away down the beach so as to not be drawn into the conversation. Having both survived the terrible awkwardness of being teenage boys, we empathized with his unease and left the family to their lunch.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen's morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen’s morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

“The fishermen leave early in the morning,” 52-year-old Zhang Yun said in front of his hotel. We had left the river banks and returned to the town to see if someone could introduce us to an active commercial fisherman, and had gotten lucky when we met Zhang.

“They only started fishing here three years ago,” he continued. “Before the dam [near Simaogangzhen] was built the river moved too fast. 20 years ago if you jumped in here the currents would carry you away. It has changed a lot.” With that he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and made a call to a friend.

“Go to the river early tomorrow morning and he will meet you there,” Zhang said. “He can take you fishing.”

Unnatural Stilness

Though the sky was still dark and the rising sun obscured by the high valley walls, the banks of the Lancang were a hive of activity compared to the previous afternoon. Boats were already returning from the day’s fishing and the small crews worked together to weigh and sort their catch.

Fishermen weigh their morning's catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen weigh their morning’s catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

“This has only been possible since the dam,” a husband-and-wife fishing team told us as they hefted baskets of tiny shrimp and whitefish onto a set of digital scales, confirming what Zhang had said the previous day. “Before [the dam] you couldn’t catch anything. We worked as sugar cane famers, but this is better money. We work for two or three hours and can get 30kg of shrimp a day and sell them for 24 Yuan per kilo.”

If what they said was accurate, a morning’s fishing could earn the couple more than $100 USD – vastly more than the small scale river fishermen we had encountered earlier in our journey who often survived on just a few dollars a day.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When Su Youdong, the fisherman Zhang Yun had called for us the day before, arrived at the river’s edge, the sun had not yet risen high enough to lessen the bite of the morning chill. As we boarded his boat to set out on the Lancang, the cold metal benches stung our legs through the fabric of our pants. An ethereal mist blanketed the water, and the mountains rose on both sides of the river valley to create a sense of place that felt prehistoric. Only the sound of the boat engine and the presence of the concrete bridges far overhead reminded us of the modern world.

“I’ve been fishing since the dam was built,” Su said as he worked the outboard motor to manoeuvre around unseen nets submerged just under the river’s surface. “I’ve got ten nets in the river, and I still catch plenty of fish. But the rare and expensive species are gone – now I catch mainly common species, like tilapia and carp. There are more and more people fishing here, so we catch less.”

As Su’s boat navigated the Lancang, there seemed to be fishing vessels around every bend. But if there was any animosity between fishermen over the dwindling species diversity, they did not express it. Instead they called out to each other cheerfully and chatted in passing about the quality and quantity of their catches.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

This was not a traditional source of livelihood, passed down through the generations as was the case for families on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake or near the Khone waterfalls and 4000 Islands of southern Laos. This was a recent and unnatural boom made possible by the taming of the river’s currents by hydroelectric dams, and local residents were taking advantage of the bonanza while it lasted. We knew from previous conversations with biologists that dams almost always disrupted the migration of river fish and that once depleted it was unlikely that stocks in the area would rebound. But for now, Su and his friends were enjoying the unexpected boon and not dwelling on thoughts of the future.

This would be the first and only time we encountered Lancang river fishing in China on any sort of scale, and we knew that if we returned in ten years it was unlikely that this pop-up industry would still be thriving. In China, we were continually learning, the Lancang was not a source of primary livelihood for individual families, but rather a force to be tamed for the development of the nation.

But from where we sat, watching the fishermen pull their nets from the piercing blue water, that knowledge didn’t make the landscape any less beautiful.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , |

Pu’er Tea: Worth Its Weight in Silver

Tea fields in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Tea fields in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

“If you bought this in the store, it would cost you hundreds of dollars,” Luo Jie said as he poured out small cups of steaming Pu’er tea. “It has been aged for more than 10 years, and it is some of the most expensive in the world.”

A thin, soft-spoken 40-year-old veteran tea picker, Luo had invited us into his home at the base of Pu’er’s rolling hills where some of China’s most prized tea is grown. With premium varieties of regional tea being worth more than their weight in silver, the fact that Luo was refilling glass after glass of the stuff was an act of generosity not lost on us. The tea was so valuable that armed citizen militias have built checkpoints in certain key areas to police its movement.

But we had not come to Pu’er to buy (or steal, for that matter) tea. We had come only to observe, deviating from the Lancang for a few days to learn how one of the world’s most popular teas was produced.

The Rise of Pu’er

“Pu’er has changed so much,” Luo said, constantly monitoring our tea cups and refilling them whenever they were less than half full. “The buildings used to be small and simple, but now there are high-rises everywhere. But in all that time, the process of picking tea has not changed.”

Luo’s home, provided by the tea company he worked for, was a modest concrete structure and one of many in a long rows of identical units that housed a variety of tea workers from pickers to packers. While not squalid by any means, it was clear from looking around Luo’s home that tea picking was not a particularly lucrative profession.

Luc and a friend prepare to make Pu'er tea.

Luo and a friend prepare to make Pu’er tea.

Yet over the course of the hour we spent talking with him, he offered us nearly every conceivable consumable item he possessed – chilled coconut water, fried pork, cigarettes, sunflower seeds, and, of course, tea – with a hospitality bordering on obsessiveness.

“Because I’ve been working here so long [the company] allows me to take time off to go work another job so I have enough money,” Luo said. After spending for most of his youth as a construction worker in Laos and Myanmar, he returned to China and the tea plantations 10 years ago, and had been picking ever since. Despite his seniority, however, his salary was just 1000 Yuan (roughly $150 USD) per month – a meagre sum with which to support a family in the increasingly expensive economy of modern China. He and his wife (also tea picker) had to work second jobs in order to provide for their children. “My children are teenagers, so they need money. Teenagers always need money.”

Tea pickers wash their clothes from a well provided by the tea company. Despite the great value of Pu'er tea, the workers live with very little modern conveniences.

Tea pickers wash their clothes from a well provided by the tea company. Despite the great value of Pu’er tea, the workers live with very little modern conveniences.

If Luo felt any sense of moral outrage about having to work multiple jobs despite the huge value of the crop he picked, he did not express it. Instead he refilled our glasses, and continued to offer us any and every edible item on hand.

Away from the plantations, in the heart of Pu’er city, the Cha Yuan (tea source) market was mostly empty, with the majority of customers having left the city in the days leading up to the lunar new year. Despite this relative quiet, the booming business conducted around the buying and selling of tea was still apparent.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu'er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu’er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu'er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu’er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Small-scale vendors sat in the open air displaying plastic sacks filled with loose-leaf teas of varying quality. The most expensive tea, however, was sold in larger shops that ringed the market, packaged imperiously in velvet-lined boxes and commanding prices into the thousands of dollars depending on the age of the leaves. Three grams of tea dating back to the Qing dynasty was reportedly sold at auction for around $30 000 USD.

All manner of accessories were also on sale. Entire warehouses were devoted to the selling of tables, presumably intended for tea services, from small ornate squares that were just tall enough to sit cross-legged around, to enormous five meter long varnished slabs of wood hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Delicate porcelain tea pots, decorated with intricate brush work stood on display stands, clashing strangely with counterfeit Nike-branded kettles.

A vendor sits by her wares at the tea market in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A vendor sits by her wares at the tea market in Pu’er, Yunan province, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

In Pu’er, tea meant money for those who knew how to capitalize on it.

No Water, Just Tea

There was no denying the scenic beauty of Pu’er’s tea plantations. Whether grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, or Japan, the best teas only flourish at high altitude. Though perhaps not as spectacular as some of these tea growing regions, such as the mountainous foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, India, Pu’er’s rolling green hills lined with orderly rows of tea bushes were quiet and peaceful, bathed as they were in warm evening light.

Tea fields in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Tea fields in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

Small groups of pickers moved between the rows, woven baskets slung across their backs that they filled with one handful of tea leaves at a time. They chatted and joked as they worked; like Luo Jie they exhibited no signs of discontentment at the hard labour they were required to perform in exchange for nominal pay. There was work to be done year round, they told us, and only in December did the picking stop for a month when the bushes needed to be trimmed. The rows were weeded and pruned constantly to ensure that the maximum amount of nutrients reached the vibrant green leaves.

Despite being almost 100km from the main channel of the Lancang, Pu’er was still connected to the river. The Simao river flowed along the western edge of the city, which linked to the Pu’er river to the north, which in turn connected to the Xiaohei river, which was a tributary of the Lancang. But as we spoke to the pickers, trying to establish a connection between the Lancang and the world-famous tea, we learned that the hardy plants did not need much help from rivers to survive.

A worker picks tea in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A worker picks tea in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

A worker shows some harvested tea leaves in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A worker shows some harvested tea leaves in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

 

“Only young plants need irrigation,” 56-year-old tea picker Li Guang Fu told us. Resplendent in a spectacular fur hat, Li had been working in the tea fields for more than 20 years. When he first moved to Pu’er there were only two types of tea grown, but now, he said, there were eight varieties – none of which needed much help in the way of water. “We pipe in water from an underground reservoir for the young plants during the dry season [in February and March], but the old plants are fine without it. We get enough rainfall here.”

The water from this reservoir was not safe for human consumption, Li said, and instead drinking water came from mountain springs, pure enough to be drunk directly from the tap. But the freshness of the mountain water didn’t matter to him, Li said with a grin.

“I don’t drink water. Only tea.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China Tagged , , , , , |

Bananas on the Lancang

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

When we piled into the tiny boat that shuttled passengers across the Lancang between Simaogang and Mengkwang villages, we thought we were setting out for a walk in the mountains. But as had happened so often on this journey, the day had other plans for us.

“We’re all going to pick bananas,” one of the other passengers said, “why don’t you join us?”

We’d seen the vast plantations lining the river banks during the several days we’d spend documenting the process of dredging sand from the Lancang, and had already decided to have a look at them eventually, but the unexpected invitation changed our timeline.

We could see lengths of pipe running from the rows of banana trees to the river below, so we knew that there was a connection between the water and fruit. And since we’d decided at the project’s inception that we would remain flexible to whatever opportunities presented themselves and not adhere too rigidly to any sort of schedule, accepting the invitation seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

Picking Season

“We can only pick for half the year,” a worker said as we walked through the outskirts of the plantation, “so you came at a good time.”

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

After another 10 minutes of walking, the trees parted to reveal a sheet metal shed that served as a bunk house for workers that had no homes in the nearby village. The sun was still not yet fully above the horizon, and once the sleepy workers had gotten over their surprise at seeing two foreigners emerge out of the gloom, they returned to their morning routines. Some brushed their teeth in silence using water from a tap that gushed fresh mountain spring water (water from the Lancang was good for watering crops, they said, but too dirty for human consumption) while others sat wrapped in blankets sipping tea and eating steamed dumplings. The atmosphere was more like a large extended family waking in their shared house than a job site, and it seemed as though this group had been together for some time.

“This is collective work,” said a young manager named Wang Jing. “We move between plantations when there is picking [to be done], and we get paid based on how many trucks we can fill in a day. The price per truck is 100 Yuan (around $15 USD at current rates), and in a good day we can do 1.5 trucks.”

By 8 a.m. the morning’s eating and grooming had finished. A large open topped transport truck reversed into the clearing and the whole team sprang into action, loading it with tightly wrapped bundles of straw from a storage building attached to their living quarters.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

“It’s cold now, so we have to cover the bananas when they are transported,” Wang said in explanation.

Once the truck had been filled with enough straw, the workers jumped on board for the ride to the plantation. A few minutes later, no one seeming to mind being tossed around violently as the vehicle bounced over holes in the narrow dirt road, the truck arrived at the plantation’s central packing house and the team spread out to their various stations.

The pickers, exclusively men who wore military style camouflage jackets, fanned out into the tree line and we struggled to keep up, stumbling repeatedly on the uneven ground. The trees were heavy with bananas, the bunches wrapped in layers of insulation and plastic to keep them protected from the cold and hungry insects. The fruits inside were perfect looking (albeit not yet ripe), the text book image of what a banana should be shaped like.

By contrast, those few bunches that were not wrapped in the plastic had been ruined by the winter air. Shrivelled and pathetic looking, mottled with black spots, and a fraction of the size, they did not look fit for the shelves of the world’s supermarkets and the demanding preferences of the modern shopper.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Though the mechanics of getting the bananas from the trees were simple, the strength and stamina of the pickers was impressive. For every 10 men, one was equipped with long shaft of wood tipped with a dangerous looking curved blade. The men readied themselves under the low-hanging bunches, testing the weight on their shoulders, and then called out for a cutter who would appear instantly to hack deftly at the tree until the fruit fell free. Pausing only for a moment to get their balance, the men sped away with the 25kg loads, showing no outward signs of strain.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker chops a bunch of bananas from a tree using a curved blade attached to a pole.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker slides bunches of bananas along a rail that leads to a nearby packhorse.

A network of metal arches joined by a greased rail snaked through the plantation, and the senior man on the crew stood by with inverted hooks mounted to a base of small wheels that fitted onto the track. One by one the men attached the heavy bunches to the hooks and after hearing a monosyllabic bark from their foreman, let their burdens drop to sway beneath the rail. Periodically the bunches were pushed forwards along the track, which wound its way through the rows of trees until eventually reaching the packing shed.

Stopping once an hour for a five minute cigarette break, and for an hour at lunch, the team otherwise worked without interruption from sunrise to sunset. As we rarely lifted anything heavier than a camera for any length of time, we were more than a little impressed by their endurance.

Artificial Perfection and the Cycle of Trade

As the bananas arrived at the pack house, the place buzzed with activity. In one corner a group of young women worked robotically to assemble cardboard boxes that would hold the bananas for their trip to market, wielding their industrial tape guns with practiced speed. The bulk of people, however, had formed into an assembly line to process and pack the fruit before loading it onto a waiting truck.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

As soon as the bananas were pulled from the track, they were set upon by knife-wielding workers who hacked the bunches into manageable sections. These were passed down the line to others who had donned thick rubber gloves before submerging them in a noxious grey-tinted chemical bath.

“It makes them turn yellow,” Gao Yanhong, the owner of the factory had told us after seeing our confusion. We’d watched several men that morning empty packets of an unknown powder into the tubs, but hadn’t understood their purpose until now. As with most fruit destined for far away consumption, the bananas were picked prematurely and were still a deep green colour. But green bananas are harder to sell than vibrant yellow ones, and the chemicals ensured that by the time they reached the urban supermarkets near Beijing they would have transformed to meet the taste of buyers.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process.

While we too were guilty of preferring yellow bananas to green ones, and had come to expect near perfection from the produce we bought, this was a part of the agricultural process that we wished we had not seen. We had no idea what chemicals were being used, but we resolved wash our fruit more carefully in the future.

Shining and wet from their ripening bath, the bananas were then placed into boxes bearing the elephant logo of the fruit company and stacked in the bed of the truck. When full, five or six hours later, the truck would depart for the megacities of the east.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to market in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to markets.

In fact, the cycle of transport was surprisingly complex. These bananas, which began their life in the small village of Mengkwang, watered by the blue-grey water of the Lancang, were destined for Shanxi province, located just to the west of Beijing, nearly 3000 km away. Once the bananas were offloaded in Shanxi, the truck was refilled with apples, which do not grow well in the hotter provinces to the southwest. Then, 1200km to the south, the apples were sold in Hunan province and the truck loaded once again, this time with oranges. The oranges then travelled more than 1300km to Kunming, the largest city in Yunnan province, where the cold winters prevented the large-scale growing of citrus fruits. With this cargo safely offloaded, the truck drivers would then collect local mail from the post offices of Kunming before returning once again to Mengkwang to start the cycle over again.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Though perhaps this process was nothing out of the ordinary in the modern age of globalization and international trade, as we sat under the shade of a banana tree on the banks of the Lancang, it seemed incredible nevertheless.

Moving into the future, we resolved, we needed to be more cognizant of the incredible journeys our food underwent before reaching our tables. That, and to always wash our fruit.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , |

Dredging the Lancang

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang.

In the golden light of dawn the rusted bolts and gears of the ship’s aging crane screamed in protest as load after load of wet Lancang sand was lifted into the hold of the dredging barges. All along the waterfront of the small town of Simaogang dredgers of differing sizes worked the river’s banks. From atop a concrete wall high above the thrum, the company’s owner, Mr. Shen, watched his fleet begin another day.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Mr Shen (left) surveys his dredging fleet.

The decision to visit Simaogang, like so many we had made during the production of A River’s Tail, was made more or less at random. We had left the major city of Jinghong so we could follow the Lancang north towards the border of the Tibetan autonomous region, but among the many towns that lined the banks of the river in Yunnan province we had been at a loss for where to go. Online searches had given us little insight into which would be the most suitable places to learn about contemporary issues facing the river, and so we had settled on Simaogang simply because a decision had to be made.

After a day of travel on a series of local busses, we reached the small town and headed to the river to see if our decision had been a good one.

We’d already seen the potential effects that sand dredging could have on riparian communities when we’d visited a Cambodian village that was literally dropping into the Mekong one meter at a time, so when we saw the dredgers arrayed before us in Simaogang, we knew we had found a story.

Sunup to Sundown

As the sun rose at 8 a.m. (all of China operates under the same time zone as Beijing, resulting in especially late mornings in the country’s western provinces), workers gathered at the river’s edge to sip tea and chat before taking to their boats. Many had their hoods drawn tightly around their faces to ward off the morning chill, most chain smoking and not yet fully awake.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day's work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day’s work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.  The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning.

The process of dredging the Lancang’s sand was a relatively simple one. Whether by sucking the sand from the river bottom through snaking lengths of piping or simply lifting it up between the teeth of metal buckets, the methods employed by the crew of Mr. Shen’s boats to get sand out of the water and onto land were little more than the industrial manifestation of a playing child’s imagination.

At a signal from Mr. Shen, the day’s work began. Those standing on the river banks climbed aboard their vessels and moved below decks to start diesel engines that rumbled to life, shattering the morning quiet. The largest of the dredgers slipped their mooring lines and reversed slowly into deeper water while smaller boats stayed close to land, their cranes swinging in and out of the water with practiced speed.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A supervisor shouts instructions to boat crews from the shore.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Workers move across their boats.

Huge conveyor belts mounted on steel dollies were shifted into position until they overlapped perfectly, creating a continuous moving pathway from ship to shore. Teams of two used long metal shovels to feed the sand accumulating in the open air holds onto the first belt in the chain. The belts were angled upwards at roughly 40 degrees, and along them the sand travelled into the air until reaching the terminus and falling 10 meters below to the next belt.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

At the end of the chain the sand was piled in great mounds, cascading down the sides in a series of endless avalanches. A steady stream of motley vehicles – from full sized dump trucks to small tractors with homemade buckets welded to their chassis – queued along the wharf awaiting their turn to be filled with sand by the single ceaselessly working bulldozer.

Mr. Shen paced along the waterfront throughout the day, supervising the operation and ordering adjustments to the position of the conveyor belts when necessary. Apart from a short break for noodles and tea at midday, the work continued uninterrupted until the sun set at 7p.m.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand.

The workers were not locals. Most were, like Mr. Shen, from Kunming – 500km to the northeast – and so had no close friends or family in Simaogang apart from their fellow labourers. The small rooms they lived in, while fairly well built and tidy, were not exactly homely and so the men (the operation employed no women save a single cook) spent most of their free time in the communal dining area drinking tea or clustered around a shared mahjong table.

At night most ventured into the town to play pool or drink a few beers, but the tiny town did not offer much in the way of nightlife. When we asked the men how they felt about living and working away from their families, the company’s accountant spoke for the group: “It’s a good job and it is only 6 hours back to Kunming. I used to work in Laos, and that was much further.”

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday.

We left the men to their pool and smoking, knowing that we would see them all again the next morning when the dredging began anew.

Outpacing Demand

Sand, one of the planets most unglamorous resources, is something most people pay little attention to. It is unremarkable to look at and seemingly everywhere in great quantities and so its importance is often overlooked. But without sand, there can be no concrete, and without concrete, there are no new apartment buildings for the world’s increasingly urbanized population to live in. And contrary to to how it may seem while sitting on the a beach, it is not available in limitless supply. It is a finite resource like any other and it must be collected from somewhere before it reaches the world’s construction sites.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand on the banks of the Lancang.

“Sometimes the river moves very fast, and it is harder to collect the sand,” Mr. Shen said as he watched his ships perform the monotonous act of bringing the Lancang’s sand to the surface. The 53-year-old had worked in a wire factory in Kunming for most of his life before starting the dredging business several years earlier, seeing an opportunity to supply the building material so essential in a nation that has some of the highest rates of urban construction in the world.

With around a dozen vessels of varying sizes under his command, his company seemed to have grown incredibly quickly in its few years of existence. But Mr. Shen seemed reluctant to reveal how he had built such a substantial enterprise in such a short time on the savings of a factory worker, so we did not press him too heavily for this information. However he had done it, his ships were extracting more than 1500 tonnes of river sand each day, year round.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

While some of this sand was needed for local construction purposes, most of it was transported to the regional capital, Jinghong, to fuel China’s massive housing and infrastructure building industries. However, Mr. Shen said, these sectors were slowing, and bringing his profits down with them.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road near Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road.

“Two years ago a ton of sand used to sell for 40 Yuan (roughly $6 US), but now the price is just 24 Yuan. We used to ship it all by boat [along the Lancang] to Jinghong, but now there is no demand. I hope it will go back up after the new year.”

With ghost towns of hundreds of thousands of empty apartments sitting on the outskirts of many major cities, it was difficult to know when China’s construction market might rebound, but for the time being, Mr. Shen and his fleet would continue to bring the Lancang’s sand to market.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, Water Tagged , , , , , , |

The Packaging of Culture: Dai on the Lancang

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A thick mist settled over the highway as we drove out of Jinghong, and only through short patches in the haze could we see the extent of the vast scenery we were passing. We were headed to the southeastern edge of Xishuangbanna prefecture, just 30km from the Burmese border to visit several communities of Dai people.

An ethnic minority, the Dai people were part of an ancient culture that inhabited what is now China’s Yunnan province until political chaos and wars forced them to disperse south. Now spread across China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, the roughly 60 million Dai are divided by modern international borders.

As we wound our way along the mountain road that would take us to the Dai villages we passed through dozens of small villages, catching fleeting glimpses of people walking through the blanketing fog, heading to their farms or leading their livestock to feed. It wasn’t until we arrived at Olive Dam – so named for it’s resemblance of an olive from the air, and the word dam meaning “basin” in Mandarin – situated at the bottom of a deep valley, that the sun fully rose to burn off the mist.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The Jinuo are an ehtnic minority found in western China.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village.

Packaged Culture

Though we knew the area was advertised heavily as a tourist attraction, the extent of the commercialization of the culture was seemed excessive. Gift shops and souvenir stalls lined a large parking lot where tour busses had already gathered, despite the early hour. An information pamphlet welcomed us to the “Dai Minority Park”, and we began to suspect that the day’s cultural experience might be something less than authentic.

Through our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, we learned that in fact the park was owned by a private real estate developer that had consolidated several Dai villages into a single tourist destination. In exchange, a portion of the income was given back to the Dais in the form of jobs, infrastructure, and possibly cash. While we decided to reserve judgement until we had seen more of what lay inside, we immediately began referring to the area as “the theme park”, and the immaculately paved roads and manicured gardens further increased our skepticism.

As we walked through the community, it was clear that the residents of the minority park were far better off financially than those in the less developed villages we had passed earlier that morning. Most of the houses were new looking and well built with concrete and finished wood, and newish looking cars and motorcycles were parked in front of the majority. Living in the theme park was apparently not without benefits.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

In the distance the thumping bass of loud music drew us deeper into the village until we reached a large open area, packed with people. In the centre Dais, dressed in brightly coloured silks, splashed in a shallow pool of water encircling a fountain and tourists ringed the outer edges, cameras at the ready. The event was a reenactment of the annual water festival celebrated in April of each year, held twice a day for the enjoyment of visitors. And while the whole affair was a rehearsed performance, the Dai actors were clearly enjoying themselves as they hurled buckets of water at each other, and occasionally those tourists who ventured too near the water’s edge.

After half an hour of the playful display, the crowd migrated towards a nearby stadium, stopping to buy snacks of fried vegetables or spicy papaya salad. A solitary caged elephant stood by, and some visitors opted to climb a metal staircase onto its back to have their photos taken. Since spending a great deal of time earlier in the journey learning about the precarious relationship between humans and elephants in Laos, we were especially sensitive to the plight of the animals and the sight somewhat dampened our spirits. However we knew there was nothing to be done about it, save staging an ill-advised prison break, so we resigned ourselves to muttering an impotent apology to the animal as we joined the flow of people entering the stadium.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

For the next hour the audience was treated to a variety of Dai traditional dances and calligraphy displays. While the dances were impressively choreographed with dozens of young women in beautiful silken dresses and the calligrapher mesmerizing to watch as he smoothly painted characters onto large parchments, we knew we were learning about as much about the realities of modern day Dai life as a trip to Disneyland could teach us about film production.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village  in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the Dai Minority Village, and obviously it had brought security and prosperity to the communities. Dancing was surely a nicer way to make a living than toiling in the fields, but we wanted to get away from the canned performances to see what normal Dai people did in their everyday lives.

The Opposite Bank

After waiting for the arrival of a small ferry boat to shuttle us across the Lancang to the Dai village of Manhenuan, the difference was immediately obvious. Unlike in the Minority Park with its expansive paved roads, there was a stone beach with a rutted motorcycle path that lead inland. Locals sat along the water’s edge, casting fishing rods into the river and waiting patiently for bites that did not seem to come.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

“Here we grow many things like bananas, corn, rubber, and beans,” Yu Yinghan said. A young woman in her late 20’s, we found Yu fishing with her husband on the river’s edge and had stopped to ask her about the differences between Manhenuan and the nearby cultural park. “We have what we need here, so we don’t want to work full time for a big company. We would rather work for ourselves.”

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village.

Further inland, the rockiness of the Lancang’s banks gave way to bright green expanses of farmland, set against the backdrop of the rolling mountains on the horizon. Moving between neat rows of string beans, we met Yan Wenxiang and decided to switch gears to ask about the role of the Lancang in the daily lives of Manhenuan residents.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I water my crops from the river, though it’s too dirty to drink. Usually there is enough [for the crops], but sometimes because of the nearby dams there is not. Yesterday there was enough, but not today.”

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village.

Unlike those across the river, the Dais of Manhenuan lived a more traditional lifestyle and relied on the land and its natural resources as their primary source of income, instead of the tourist dollars that supported the Minority Park.

While we watched labourers heft 60kg sacks of picked beans onto tractors to be sold for 2-3 Yuan (roughly $0.50) per kilogram, we chatted with them and reflected on the strange paradox of development. As outside observers, the rural lifestyle of Manhenuan’s farming Dais conjured words like “idyllic” and “natural” in our minds. Friendly and laughing the whole time they worked, it would have been easy to assume that this way of living was inherently better than allowing a real estate company to turn their village into a theme park.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village.

But at the same time, as we watched the workers sweat under the weight of the beans, it was obvious that this was not easy work – either physically or financially. As always, we had to remind ourselves not to judge the quality of the lives of others based on romanticized notions of simpler times.

Following a dirt road for a few kilometres, we reached the centre of Manhenuan town and immediately realized that the community was already on its way to following in the footsteps of the Minority Park. Multiple construction crews and 70 tonne excavators were busily tearing up the small roads and preparing them for paving. Building sites were everywhere, and the extent of the bamboo scaffolding indicated that the new structures would almost certainly dwarf the existing ones.

“Soon a new bridge will be built and it will allow tourists to come here more easily,” Yan Ying said. 52 years old and sporting a magnificent Soviet-style winter hat, Yan explained that Manhenuan was preparing to follow the example of the Dai across the Lancang and convert itself into a tourist attraction. “Many things are changing.”

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.  With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village.

Currently living in a small makeshift shack with his wife and daughters, Yan had torn down his house in order to build a more modern structure in its place. “I thought about building a traditional style house, but I decided to use bricks so I could rent out the rooms to tourists,” he said.

When we asked him several loaded questions, trying to gauge if he felt any anger about the immanent commercialization of his village, he didn’t express any personal misgivings. “I don’t own any land, and since there is none available to buy, tourists will be the best way for me to earn money to give to my children.”

“Some people are arguing with the company,” he admitted after continued probing, “They think we aren’t being paid enough. But for me it’s good.”

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village.

As we left Manhenuan, we couldn’t help but feel saddened by the knowledge that the little village would probably be unrecognizable if we returned in five years. But at the same time, it was more than understandable that Yan preferred the thought of his daughters working in an air-conditioned hotel instead of labouring in a sweltering bean field.

For better or for worse, the modern world would march on. We could only hope that in the process Dai traditions would not become just another packaged culture for the convenient consumption of those who could afford the price of admission.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

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