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Earth Day 2017 – The Earth in Pictures

This year marks the 47th anniversary of Earth Day, and the event’s mandate is to increase environmental and climate literacy across the world. This seems like a nebulous and hard to measure goal, but I would argue that we are living in one of the most dangerous times in history in terms of flagrant lying about the severity of our environmental issues. With Donald Trump doing his best to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency during an age when it is most desperately needed and moving the world’s superpower backwards in terms of its environmental outlook, we as visual communicators need to make sure that people are confronted with these issues on a regular basis. It is all too easy to live with blinders on, ignoring the climate and ecologically related threats facing the planet and to assume that someone else will come to the rescue with a technological solution.

And while this might very well be the case (I truly hope it is), if these conversations fade from the public discourse then the chances of this happening begin to fade away. Human progress, while plodding and often delayed until the last possible minute, is predicated on widespread demand and without this it is unlikely that business and industry leaders will put their efforts into solving the challenges we face. But if we collectively refuse to ignore the problems and continue to demand change then we will hopefully become impossible to ignore.

So in honour of this annual event I’ve put together a selection of my favourite environmental images. They range across continents and feature work from Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, China, Tibet, Bangladesh, Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico, where I am now based. Some show only beauty for its own sake, some depict the planet’s wrath in the form of natural disasters, others focus on pollution while yet more look at our insatiable hunger for resources. But all of them are connected by geography in that they were taken on the same lonely piece of rock and magma flying through space, the only home we have ever known. Whether positive or negative, hopeful or pessimistic, I hope these pictures give a sense of how varied and wonderful this planet is and why, in the face of the current political climate, we need to work harder than ever to protect it.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientiane as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

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

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

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quanitites of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quantities of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city's water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatepec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city’s water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world's largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun. Recycling organic fibres such as these instead of throwing them away develops local industry and reduces waste.

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

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into "the battery of Southeast Asia" by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake’s level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos. Fewer than 400 wild elephants remain in Laos, while many of those in captivity are used for brute force labour.

Women watch as watWomen watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.er leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Women watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City’s water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Children play cricket in a flooded field that has become a dumping ground for garbage and human waste. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

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. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinghong.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as "the third pole" because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as “the third pole” because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States - despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States – despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A tree planter climbs on a "log deck". Canada is one of the world's leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

A tree planter climbs on a “log deck”. Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world's highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world’s highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

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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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Tibet, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Entering China: Where the Mekong Ends

Evening in the city of Jinghong Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Evening in the city of Jinghong.

A cold grey drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane at Jinghong international airport, the capital city of the Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture and the gateway to southwestern China. Despite a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, after months of tracing the Mekong river through the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the chill bit through to our bones and we scrambled to pull jackets and scarves out of our luggage.

Our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, was waiting in the arrival hall. Possessing undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism, she was also a skilled photographer and her spoken English rivalled our own. We were in good hands.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong.

Before long we were bundled into a car and speeding along immaculate highways into the heart of the city. Having never worked in China before, we were simultaneously exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of what was to come.

The End of the Mekong

When we got our first glimpse of the river in Jinghong, it took a moment to process the fact that we were no longer looking at the Mekong. The Lancang river, as it is called in China, was physically the same body of water we had been following for nearly a year, but the change in name signalled that we had entered into a different (and the final) phase of the journey. And as we would learn over the course of our time in China, in many important ways this was a very different river to the sluggish waterway we had come to know so well.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

From atop an impressive cable-stayed bridge that spanned the Lancang to connect the two halves of Jinghong, we stopped to watch the river pass beneath. Cargo vessels pulled in and out of a nearby port, transporting trade goods to and from Laos to the south, while huge leisure ships drifted on the currents. These floating restaurants were some of the largest ships we had yet seen on our travels, further reinforcing that China’s relationship with the river was unique.

The swarms of water taxis that plied the floating markets in Vietnam were absent, and the omnipresent wooden fishing boats that dotted the river throughout Cambodia and Laos were nowhere to be seen. Even the water’s colour had changed perceptibly from the murky brown of the lower Mekong basin to a more pronounced blue that flowed with surprising speed.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

For the roughly 2000 km we had still to travel before reaching the river’s source on the Tibetan plateau, we would not see the Mekong again as we knew it.

A People’s River

As we walked along the banks of the Lancang, one thing felt familiar; the river served as a public gathering space; a place to socialize, exercise, and enjoy.

Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops overlooked a well maintained stone pathway, which in turn overlooked small communal farm plots that locals used, rent free, to grow vegetables and bananas. Joggers made use of the long, straight track, and more than a few times we noticed people walking backwards at full speed – a practice said to have originated in ancient China – which while supposedly being very effective at targeting seldom used muscles, was nearly impossible to watch with a straight face.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang.

Further along we left the water’s edge, lured to a small park by the sound of birdsong. Dozens of small cages hung from the trees that lined the public space and were inhabited each by a solitary huamei – a small Chinese thrush-sized bird most similar to a North American robin, but made distinctive by its spectacle-shaped eye markings. Groups of men stood in clusters, appreciating the birds according to some criteria that we did not understand, smoking furiously as they listened to their song. While the birds were certainly beautiful and the cages perfectly crafted from painted wood, seeing the jittery imprisoned animals gave us little joy.

Caged songbirds in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Caged songbirds in a public park.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park.

It wasn’t long before we started to attract considerable attention. Though Xishuangbanna was a popular destination for Chinese tourists, we hadn’t yet seen another foreign visitor, and the locals seemed excited to chat. Before we knew what was happening we were drawn into a group of men who asked us standard questions – where did we come from? How did we like China? – before thrusting large bamboo water pipes into our hands.

A cigarette was wedged into a small spout at the base of the pipe, and with much effort and a massive amount of lung power we were encouraged to haul repeatedly on the tube until we were coughing out great clouds of smoke. Though not unbearable, the experience was by no means pleasant, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our unshaven faces made it impossible to form a tight seal around the mouth of the pipe. After we each finished and entire cigarette in this fashion, lightheaded and dizzy, the men immediately tried to restart the process. Only by distracting them with our cameras did we manage to escape additional rounds.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park.

Fleeing to a nearby stone pier that extended a hundred meters into the Lancang, we noticed a pair of men emerging from the river. Though the air temperature was chilly by our standards, the water was nearly freezing, and we approached the men to compliment them on their toughness. “This isn’t cold,” one of them said proudly. “Where I come from [north of Beijing], it is much colder than this.” Wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit, he rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco he said he’d brought from his home province. Bundled as we were in thick fleece and thermal under layers, we felt decidedly un-tough.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

As the sun set we made our way to a stony beach where people were gathering to enjoy the evening light. Some waded into the water to take selfies, while others played with their children or talked on the phone.

One particularly friendly group of tourists who were skipping stones across the Lancang shouted an enthusiastic ni hao (hello) and beckoned us over. Once again we were reminded that temperature was relative: “We’ve been here for more than one month. We come here for the warmth and to get away from winter!”

Tourists gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Tourists gather along the Lancang.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

While we had left the Mekong behind to start our journey up the Lancang, in one way at least China was consistent with the other countries we had traveled through – be it known as the Mekong or Lancang, fast flowing or slow, blue or brown, the river attracted people. Regardless of name or geography, people were drawn to its banks.

A River’s Tail is a multi-year 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

The Power of Power

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine.

When the light turned on in Si Tach’s living room, the whole family paused what they were doing to watch the process. As he screwed in the bulb and the blueish light flickered and then lit the space, there was a general feeling of relief mixed with little bit of wonder at the magic of the technology. Over the four days that we spent in Khoc Kham village, each time this process was repeated the mood was the same.

It wasn’t that Si Tach and his family were members of some un-contacted hill tribe who were seeing electric lighting for the first time. They’d had power in the village for nearly a decade by the time we came to visit. But unlike Laotians living in cities who could simply flick a switch without much reason to think about where the current came from, the people in this remote mountain village had built their power grid from scratch and cared for it in the same way a farmer does his crops – constantly and attentively.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

With our time in Laos drawing to a close, we had travelled two hours up the Mekong by boat to reach Khoc Kham, hoping to gain some insight into the relationship between Laos’ remote communities and electricity. As the country works to transform itself into the battery of Southeast Asia, exporting power generated from the Mekong and its tributaries to its wealthier neighbours, we wanted to know what that meant for people like Si Tach who lived on the fringes of modernity.

These were people who hunted with slingshots and homemade muskets and hadn’t experienced electric light bulbs until well into the 21st century. Were they benefitting from the damming of the national waterways, either financially or in terms of infrastructure? How was the rush to develop natural resources affecting their traditional ways of life? What did the future hold for such communities?

Let There Be Light

“The first time I heard about this technology was from the people in the next village,” Si Tach told us in his living room after screwing in the single lightbulb. As there were still several hours of daylight left, the act seemed to serve more to prove to us that it worked than to provide needed light. “Before we used to use oil lamps, which were hard to see by. Now some of us can even watch TV.”

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river.

Considering there was not a single road or even a dirt path connecting Khoc Kham to Luang Prabang (the nearest city), the ability to read by electric light – let alone watch the news – was no small luxury.

Removing the bulb from its socket and wrapping it in a protective piece of cloth, Si Tach gestured for us to follow him. Only a few minutes had passed since we’d arrived in the village and sat down in his house, but already a sizeable group of villagers had gathered. With Si Tach in the lead and us trailing behind, the entire crowd set off along a jungle trail towards the sound of running water somewhere in the valley below. 20 minutes later we were standing on the banks of a small but swiftly flowing creek.

“I’m not sure where the idea came from,” Si Tach said by way of explanation, perhaps sensing that we didn’t fully understand what we were looking at. “The people in the next village said they heard it from the people in the village next to them, and those people said they learned it from the next village, and so on.”

Wherever the idea came from, it was a deceptively clever way of generating power with a minimum of technology. A single propeller spun in the current of the stream, which turned a long metal shaft that was connected to a small generator. In essence it was a boat engine working backwards.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

“At first there was only one of these in the village, and it was shared between two families,” Si Tach said. “People used to come to us and rent single lightbulbs for their houses and we would charge by the month. Now [ten years later] most families have their own.”

As night fell, the extent to which the generators had impacted life in Khoc Kham became apparent. A blue-tinted glow shone through the doorways and window cracks of nearly every home, and groups gathered under the bare bulbs. While the lights had made night time socializing a more pleasant experience, it was in the village’s cottage economy that the power of electricity was most felt.

“2-3 years ago I was using a lamp,” 57-year-old That Mee said, sitting cross legged on the floor of his one room home. “These lights have made a big difference. We make bamboo baskets to sell, and now it is possible to work at night.”

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

Xieng Pai, a 54-year-old shopkeeper who lived around the corner echoed what Mee had said. “Having lights makes it possible to count money at night, so I can keep my shop open,” he said, in a tone that let us know how obvious and silly he thought our line of questioning was. And he was right, it was obvious: life was easier with lights.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine  uses oil lamps to light their home in Khoc Kham, Laos. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine uses oil lamps to light their home.

The World Approaches

Waking on the floor of Si Tach’s living room under an expansive white mosquito net, the sounds and smells of cooking enticed us into movement. The breakfast spread, while an incredibly thoughtful gesture, was eclectic to say the least. Next to the usual fried meats and woven baskets of sticky rice we had come to love during our time in Laos was a selection of what must have represented all the imported foods available in the village. A tin of sardines in tomato sauce, bowls of Chinese instant noodles, a tube of Oreo cookies, packets of instant coffee mix, and several bottles of Mountain Dew.

Beyond making for a strange flavour combination, the meal reminded us that Khoc Kham did not have much interaction with the outside world. We were just the third group of non-Laotian outsiders to visit the village in living memory after a school-building missionary group and a team of Vietnamese engineers who had constructed their own concrete house in the village to use as a base of operations while they scouted the area for suitable dam-building locations. But we also knew that the outside world was coming to them weather they wanted it to or not. Once Mountain Dew appeared, the hydro-power survey teams could not be far behind.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Outside, another indicator of the approaching global economy greeted us in the form of a truly bizarre spectacle. Somehow during the previous night, a boatload of plastic animal masks had arrived in Khoc Kham and seemingly every child in the village had adopted the cartoon faces of rabbits and tigers.

“Before we were separated from the outside world and people just lived for themselves,” Si Tach said in explanation, sensing our confusion at the strange menagerie running through Khoc Kham’s dirt roads. “Now with the help of boat engines, we are connected to bigger villages that we can trade with.”

When we followed up by asking if he worried about the future of his community as it became more and more connected his answer took us off guard, though given what we’d seen already in Laos, perhaps it shouldn’t have. “Oh yes, we are very worried. When the dam is built we will have no choice, we will have to move,” he said. We had come to Khoc Kham to learn about electricity in remote communities; we hadn’t even known a dam was being built in the area.

“We’ve been living here so long, everything is here,” Si Tach continued. “When we move, we will have to start over.”

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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

Land of a Million Elephants

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about elephants. I was a little afraid of them,” Son Phet admitted. A 24-year-old mahout, or elephant rider, Son Phet did not look afraid of the giant animal anymore as he stood fully upright on its head. Khoun, the 47-year-old female he was partnered with, hardly seemed to notice his weight.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

After the last week of investigating the impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams on the local populations, we had come to an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang to try and learn more about the relationships between people and animals along the Mekong. We had seen shockingly little wildlife during the the last months of travel.  Apart from a brief visit to a national park and bird conservancy in Vietnam, most the animal populations and habitats we’d encountered had been in bad shape. We needed to be reminded that the Mekong was a river that was not solely the domain of humanity.

Admittedly, visiting a man-made camp where elephants were closely tied to their human partners was not the purest means of learning about the lives of the animals. But as Laos had an estimated population of just 400-600 wild elephants remaining, with our limited resources we stood little chance of interacting with them in their natural environment. Even with this compromise in mind, we felt it was important to try and gain some understanding of the enormous mammals’ situation in 21st century Laos.

After all, the country’s historic nickname was Lane Xang – the Land of a Million Elephants.

Courting an Elephant

“I heard that one of the older mahouts had a motorbike accident,” Son Phet explained when we asked what prompted him to become a professional elephant handler. “I knew about this place because my village is quite nearby and I had played with elephants a little before, and so I decided to apply.”

The process of learning to control with an elephant, Son Phet told us, was an involved one. Captive elephants form a special bond to their handlers and will stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone they do not know. They are highly intelligent animals and can remember and understand a surprising variety of command words, but if they don’t trust a person they project an air of quiet indifference and simply will not move. And weighing at roughly 3 tonnes, there is little a person can do to compel them against their will, save extreme physical violence.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

For Mahouts like Son Phet, whose job security depended on being able to control his elephant while keeping it in good health. Abusing the extremely valuable animal (buying an adult female can cost far more than a luxury SUV) would be a sure way to get fired. On top of this, beating an elephant into submission could create short term acquiescence, but in the long run made sure the mahout would live in perpetual danger.

“Elephants hide their emotions,” Son Phet told us when we asked him about the risks involved with his job. “It can be very difficult to tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. If you treat them badly they will hide their feelings, but they will never forget. They will wait and let you think everything is ok, but they might wait until you are alone with them in the jungle and then kill you. They don’t forget.”

The thought of such a powerful creature biding its time behind a mask of calm until it could exact the ultimate revenge on an abusive human was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Of course Son Phet was taught this when he accepted the job, and so knew that the only way to gain real control required time and patience.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

The basic formula was simple: stay in nearly constant contact with them for roughly a month until sufficient trust was earned. That contact involved everything from feeding the elephants, playing with them, and bathing them in the Mekong to keep them cool and clean. Except for when the elephants were taken into the jungle where they slept for the night, the mahouts were seldom out of sight of their animals, even long after a trusting relationship was established. Yet like any relationship, complete control was always out of reach. “You can never really have 100% control,” Son Phet explained. “The best you can do is maybe 95%. They can always choose not to listen.”

When we asked Son Phet to describe how he felt about Khoun after spending more than a year together, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

Beasts of Burden

As much as we were moved by the close relationships between man and elephant we had witnessed over the last few days, we knew that Khoun and the other animals at the Luang Prabang camp were not free in the true sense of the word. They were treated with absolute compassion and kindness, but still they remained indentured to their owners and spent nearly every day carrying tourists on their backs. Yet from our research and pre-trip conversations with elephant experts, we knew that employment in the ecotourism industry was far preferable to the other jobs elephants were often forced into.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants employed by the logging industry in Laos than there are wild. Laos is rich in valuable hardwoods such as teak, and its mountainous terrain and the low budgets of many logging operations mean hiring industrial machinery is not always the most effective option for harvesting lumber. Elephants, with their enormous strength and ability to navigate both on land and in water, are often recruited into the labour force.

The owner of the camp where we’d been staying agreed to show us where we could see the use of elephants in the logging industry for ourselves, and so early on our final morning in Luang Prabang we were dropped off at a small crossing on a minor tributary of the Mekong.  As we sat in a leaky fishing boat that served as the only means of crossing we could hear the distant sound of something crashing through the water well before we saw it.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

When the elephant, a 35-year-old female names Seub, round the bend in the river, it was a truly awesome sight. Outfitted with a thick harness it dragged a massive section of a freshly felled tree at the end of lengths of heavy looking chains. It was the first time we had actually experienced the full extent of the animal’s power; with each determined heave forwards it was apparent just how strong it was as it heaved the log over a sandbar and into the flowing river beyond.

Its mahout sat cross-legged on Seub’s head just above the river’s current as the elephant swam steadily across to the opposite bank, the weight clearly much easier for her to manage with the aid of the water’s buoyancy. Once ashore, the mahout barked commands to the Seub, provoking the final burst of power needed to beach the log. Seub was then unhooked from her chains and let to a thicket of dense grass to graze for a while before heading back across the river to haul another section of teak.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

In all, Seub would be able to make roughly 10 of these trips in a day, earning around $150 for the loggers for every cubed metre of lumber she delivered. If she wasn’t sick or tired and worked at maximum speed, her mahout told us, Seub could pull more than $10 000 worth of wood across the river in an 8 hour work day. It was difficult and dangerous work for both the elephant and her mahout, and since many small scale logging operations were illegal the risks were substantial.

Back at the Luang Prabang camp, we talked with Son Phet about what we had seen. “I’m a bit worried,” he said about the future of elephants in Laos. “We used to be ‘the land of a million elephants’, but now we’re just a few thousand. They can be valuable, and people sometimes hurt them [while trying to earn money with them]. When I see this I wasn’t to tell people to stop so that we can keep elephants in Laos for future generations.”

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day's tourists have left.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day’s tourists have left.

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Note: We had not gone to Luang Prabang to pass judgements. In an ideal world elephants would be left alone to live without human interference, but reality is not ideal. As populations grow and forests are cut, the habits of humans and elephants are coming closer and closer together, and it is likely that the best hope for a thriving elephant population in Laos is through captive breeding. From what we had seen, the life of an ecotourism elephant was far preferable to that of a logging elephant. 

For anyone looking to get involved, the Elephant Conservation Center works to repurpose logging elephants into the ecotourism industry, expand the country’s elephant population through breeding programs, and protect the habitat of the wild elephants remaining.

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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , , , , |