Archive | September, 2011

Origins of the Sacred

29 Sep

High above the Mekong on a wild and cascading stream in a narrow, green valley, lies a Tibetan village.  Above the village to the east, looking over the narrow, green valley, stands a broad series of brown and gray stone mountains. One of these, Jala Chumi, is home to the village’s mother deity. Directly across the Mekong gorge lies another sacred mountain, Khawa Karpo, home to a sacred union between the masculine and feminine. From these sacred peaks fall enormous gray and white glaciers, and from these glaciers, trickles turn to raging torrents. These raging torrents spill from their sacred origins down cliff faces and through narrow gorges into the mighty river we call the Mekong.

The Mekong — Tsa Chu in Tibetan, Lancang Jiang in Chinese — finds its origins both in myth and some of the earth’s most foreboding terrain. Its headwaters form in the vast marshes and lakes of a high plateau in Qinghai, Tibet, and tributaries spill in from eastern Tibet’s great mountains. Most notable of these great mountains is Khawa Karpo, the peak currently shrouded in storm clouds across the river gorge from this village.

The source of this particular village’s stream lies in the sacred lakes of Bai Ma Shan, the smaller but nonetheless breathtaking mountain across the valley from Khawa Karpo. From Bai Ma Shan, two streams, one named the White, the other the Black, merge as one and continue down the valley, eventually spilling their sacredness into the Mekong.

This village, a refuge for walnut, peach, and pear trees in a formidable mountainscape, gains its aesthetic value from its vineyards, terraced fields of corn, lettuce, and other greens, and the massive white and maroon Tibetan compounds that each stand solitary amid the irrigated greenery. Behind this superficial view is a complex network of tight irrigation ditches, water mills, and small concrete reservoirs. Water, and the human system developed to manage it, has allowed this village to produce food across the narrow swath of relatively flat land lying between the steep slopes of Jala Chumi’s shoulders.

Tashi, my friend who grew up in this village (and has since moved to a bigger town eight hours east), explains that residents consider the water to be on the same level as their parents. It is a deep, familial respect that goes to the substance that has enabled their plentiful harvest. She continues by explaining that they must manage the water like an aging parent – that it takes care, love, and skillful thought to be sure that the water source stays healthy and full. The village offspring of this water-parent has been divided into seven sections, each of which has their own mill and small reservoir. Members of each village section discuss, debate, and eventually agree on when and how each household (and its adjoining croplands) will receive water from the reservoir.

In fact, it seems that much of communication throughout the village revolves around water. “We are beating walnuts from the trees and don’t want them to fall into the gushing ditches. Would you please close the irrigation gate for the morning?” “We need just a few minutes of water this afternoon to fill our household water tank. May we open the gate to our ditch before you flood your fields?” “Hello!!! We are opening the third gate now!!!” And so on. Tashi elaborates that they do not pee or defecate in the water, that they make their best efforts to not pollute the water in any way.

The irony of our experience in this remote settlement is that we are, according to most official records, not here. While this village has electricity (as of ten years ago) and an elaborate and adequate water infrastructure, it is protected by its status as a “closed” village – that is, a village which, by government decree, is not open to tourists or, in theory, overnight visitors of any sort. By “protected,” I imply the possible fate that many villages as visually stunning and tranquil as this one have already suffered: gawking travelers, rows of guesthouses, narrow-road traffic jams, obnoxious easterners (from China’s big cities), and ignorant westerners (we recently ran into a traveler who asked, after several weeks in these parts, where he could find “the real Tibetans”). While the government may have various reasons for keeping this village “closed,” I have my reasons for supporting it. There is nothing wrong with slow, thoughtful, well-informed development processes.

This is not to say that we should cordon off places that we – the visitors – find fascinating. It is to say that every human community has the right to develop itself with a wealth of information. I have no illusions that a community cut off from the world’s communication and transportation infrastructure is better off, but I do hold the ideal that a community’s self-determination is valuable and only truly possible when it has access to information, decision-making power, and time to experiment before the swell of outside development comes crashing in.

The questions arise: Is sacredness timeless? Or is it a human construct to be washed over by a new, modern devotion void of spiritual value? Can we be connected throughout the world via fiberoptics and smooth roads and still slow our lives enough to deepen our souls with the rhythms provided by mountains, streams, and rivers? Can we have both?

Down below, the Mekong meanders and roars. Up above, Khawa Karpo and Jala Chumi watch from their glaciers. In between, Tibetan villagers waver between the sacred and the progress. Perhaps, like the White River and Black River of this village, the sacred and the progress will one day merge as one, uniting our spiritual power with our worldly ways, opening our vision to a new way, a new map for living and adapting to our ever changing circumstances.

-Max Woodfin, 24 September 2011

To Learn from the Water

12 Sep

A View from Shaxi's Cultural Center

I have been sitting next to a small, brown river, looking across the way to a half-moon shaped bridge. The rain is a light drizzle, and my heart has softened. At just over 7,000 feet, Shaxi is a temperate, green, lush, and settled village that has been occupied for over a millennium. Its shrines, temples, and grottoes date back to the 8th century Nanzhou Kingdom – a Chinese kingdom whose history is swollen with Tang, Tibetan, and possibly even Indian influence. For centuries, Shaxi stood as a waystation on the Tea and Horse Caravan trail between Tibet and Southeast Asia, supplying traders with food, whiskey, and lodging as they moved north (to trade tea for horses) or south (to trade horses for tea). Tibetans, Tai, Chinese, Yi, Bai, Naxi, and many other ethnic groups played their role in the great web of mountain trails that fed the Tea and Horse Caravan. And Shaxi was a village at the heart of this great network.

As I sit in one of Shaxi’s teahouses, I imagine what it would have been like to bide my time while waiting to join one of the caravans passing through town. Perhaps I would have seen a Tibetan horseman riding into town with seven or eight head, having traversed Kham for several days and woven his way down the Mekong basin and back into these mountain valleys on the Hei Hui tributary. It would have taken him a bit over a week to make it from Tibetan territory into these lower hills, though the journey would have been arduous. I imagine the teahouses at dusk, slowly devolving into alcohol laden taverns as traders disband their woes into drink and occasional violence. I imagine bandits riding round the outskirts of the village, finding the hills south where they might purposely get lost and reappear to the southeast in Dali in order to spend their spoils. But then I imagine the morning mist rising from the cobbled pathways and above the ceramic rooftops until they form low clouds on the green mountains that flank the Shaxi valley.

Perhaps I paint an overly romantic image of this place, an idealized – maybe even fetishized – western dream of the east. Indeed, that is what might eventually turn Shaxi into yet another casualty of tourism and eager development. But the image I paint in my mind of yesteryear is actually not a far cry from what I experience of Shaxi now. Its cobblestone pathways are as bright and intact as ever; the ceramic rooftops are clean and well-maintained. The new handcarved doorways simply replace some of the old handcarved doorways. Turkeys wander the streets, men smoke cigarettes and drink tea by the side of the roads, and traders sell wild mushrooms (a delicacy and a large contribution to household economy in this part of the Mekong basin). Travelers do, indeed, wander into town in the late afternoon, but the few of them that make it here are Korean, Chinese, or European tourists. Rarely do they come to sink their woes into a drink, which is fortunate for Shaxi (other towns, developed for their “quaint” characteristics, have become the scene of heavy travel-drinking). For now, the drinking economy is reserved for local officials and their late-night meetings. Rather, the travelers come to bask in their idea of tranquility, their longing for an agrarian life from which many of us humans have descended.

Over the past decade, a Swiss urban design group found their way into Shaxi and dreamt up a plan to renew, revitalize, and preserve Shaxi as a cultural heritage town. In 2001, the World Monument Fund designated Shaxi as one of “100 Most Endangered Sites” worldwide. Since then, the town has won almost one award per year for its efforts to maintain its historical facade. In 2010, Lonely Planet published the town in its China guidebook, opening Shaxi’s door to the ever-swelling stream of backpackers through eastern Asia. Now, its designation as a “Most Endangered” place is attracting the very interest that has sent so many other Chinese towns into objects of development. And to aid in this process, more and more travelers will discover this temporary provision of tranquility.

I, too, arrive here and feel a sense of tranquility. And although I am here to lead an expedition of eight travelers, I desire to stay longer, write more, and sink into the riverside peace of this place. So rather than attempt to analyze our human tendency to emphatically pursue technological progress and then demand regress – in the form of vacation, holiday, retreat, escape, or mid-life crisis – I seek to embrace the deep desire I have to find my own ground, my internal peace.

A small town by a river can provide me with a space in which it is possible to turn inward while staying in relationship with those around me, and I believe it can provide others with that space as well. When we can walk out of a door or gate and into a street where others are slowly strolling, where the streets are not built for speed but as meandering pathways with many destinations, where the wind and water can move freely around corners and brush up against our being…it is here that we can begin to feel how we are the cause of our own anxiety. We have choices, despite the overwhelming pressure for us to merge into the raging waters of commerce, international conflict (and attempt at resolution), and materialist passions.

On a river, the raging waters always eventually flow into a meandering system of eddies and stillwater. The channel always slows down and picks its relative side of the river. When running a river, however wild, we almost always have an opportunity to find a more direct path through the tongue of a rapid and take refuge in an eddy behind a rock. From our place of inner calm, we can watch the many boats that blindly seek the biggest water and disappear into holes, reemerging in a raging torrent and finally falling, broken and exhausted, into the swirling currents below. Outside of the thrill seekers, the most competent boaters I know are those who pick their line and gently adjust their way through the whitewater, enjoying every paddle stroke and watching as their own nervous system responds to the potential consequences. They have fun, but they know their way, and they slide into the stillwater and bathe in its depth.

Like these boaters, I seek the conscious pathway far from the chaotic pursuits of modern progress. Shaxi sits by a river, and I, sitting by the river in Shaxi, come to this once again: We humans can take some hints from the way a river runs by a town, and the way a town can sit by the side of a river. Ten years from now, this town may not be here in such tranquil form, and the river may no longer flow as it does now, but one thousand years from now, a river will likely flow again, and the ruins of this town may sit deep beneath the rubble of a 30th century civilization. And this year, I sat by what would be that rubble: a beautiful collection of homes and people that stands in the September mist of a river valley in the mountains of northern Yunnan.

-Max Woodfin

Perspectives on a Region

6 Sep

Southeast Asian Projection

It is a map, a representation of space and time. The space is obvious. A map provides us with a scaled orientation to the world, waypoints pinned to our interpretation of reality. The time is less obvious, but the deeper we look into a map, the more it becomes both a snapshot of the world in which it was made and a chart of what our past has brought to us.

A China Projection

But the map I am studying at this moment is more. It shows the Mekong River basin from China’s perspective. It not only shows the historical names of towns and cities; it shows proposed dams – a proposed history. The names of the dams are in blue, but they are written as though they are already there. What strikes me about this map and its projection of the future is that it reflects China’s confidence that these dams will soon be a part of China’s great history of progress. And what strikes me even more is how appropriate this confidence is. Despite the People’s Republic of China’s many mistakes, mistakes it occasionally admits to (such as the destructive aspects of the Great Leap Forward), this nation’s ability to build infrastructure on massive scales far surpasses that of the United States and other democratic nations.

Just yesterday, my colleague and I observed several such projects here in Kunming, Yunnan. We were driving on one of the main corridors in Kunming from the airport to the northern quarter of the city when she, an engineer by training, stated, “They must be building an underground rail line.” While I had noticed the government’s advocacy for this project in the form of billboards and signs, my colleague had noticed the enormous red gantry cranes used to lower materials into shafts leading to the main project. While in the United States a project like this might make national news (such as Boston’s Big Dig), this is just another project like thousands across China. 

Just minutes after making our observations on the rail line, we happened upon Kunming’s new “Metropolis Center,” a multi-building construction project that begins with the demolition of multiple neighborhoods. To call this a “multi-building” project, however, is an understatement. There are actually many highrise buildings involved, including the proposed 333 meter “South Asian Gate,” a building that was turned down by Kunming’s Department of Construction three times due to its location in a seismically active region.

Kunming is a growing city. Already there are 1.2 million motor vehicles packing the streets for a population of just over 3 million (in urban zones). This, in a nation where public transportation and bicycles is (or was) the norm. Kunming is, as some China-based magazines and development authorities have dubbed it, the “Gateway to the South.” Indeed, it will be home to China’s second largest airport terminal in several months, and serves as a transportation center for roads south into Southeast Asia. According to the Yunnan Airport Group (Co, Ltd.), one goal of the airport is “to build century project, to reach thousand-year achievement, to create China No. 1.”  You get the point.

In four weeks, we will be in the southern city of Jinghong, China’s “Gateway to Southeast Asia,” which sits neatly against the Mekong River. Arguably, and depending on most organized data collected by regional development organizations, this region is growing faster than most of mainland Southeast Asia. China’s ability to build large infrastructure projects quickly and without the blockades of consensus and democracy allows it to become dominant in the development story of the Mekong River basin.

Perhaps this explains why a country like Laos would decide, against its agreements with the transnational Mekong River Commission, to commence work on a controversial Mekong River dam in the province of Xayaburi. What downstream nation would not feel the looming shadow of China weighing down from above, an upstream torrent waiting to flood its economy with commodities, people, and propaganda? In one and a half months, when our expedition enters the land of Xayaburi in the small nation of Laos, we will certainly need to consider the weight of China’s pressure before becoming enraged by the Lao government’s contrary behavior.

So it manifests in a map, this history of development and “progress.” The future is marked as history, something for the world to know. And the world knows it indeed. Just browsing the bookshelves of experts on China would reveal titles such as China, Inc. and  The Rising Dragon. The cliches may run deep, but so does their reasoning. While China may one day come crashing down, it continues to stand as a development monolith, casting its shadow downstream into the swollen monsoon waters of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This shadow is not drawn onto the map, but its outlines are vaguely discernible. Perhaps in several years, a new map will reveal these lines more distinctly, and the palpable bloodflow of this economy will be written on paper.

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