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How to Cross A River

20 Oct

I swim in the cool mist of the dark and early morning. The gentle knowledge of an imminent sunrise is tucked back in my heart and mind while the residue of recent sleep tries to wear itself off. My host and I walk through the quiet village and past the temple to the steps above the river – she, a forty-eight year old grandmother and a villager of local repute, and me, a guest whose history and knowledge have no bearing on her acceptance of me. We slowly move down the steps with baskets of goods for the market and step into a long, wooden boat. There, on the river, we sit and wait.

Waiting is one of my favorite activities in this part of the world. I live different lives in different places, and my life in the United States has an impatience for waiting. If I am early or on-time to a lunch appointment and my colleague has not arrived, I feel nervous. I pull out a phone or find something to read, anything to be sure I am not “waiting.” In Laos, something shifts and waiting becomes okay. Perhaps it is how this part of the world helps me remember that I will not die even if nothing is happening.

After some time, my host pulls out her cell phone. The world is still dark but for a flash light from a boat floating down the river about one-hundred meters away. The light reveals more fog upstream, giving the impression we are in a room on the river. She calls someone, speaks a few words about who is coming, where we are, and so forth. Then, silence and waiting on the long, wooden boat.

Thirty minutes or so after walking down the steps to the river, we have navigated our way upstream through the eddies near the bank and are in the middle of the river’s channel, powering forward but going nowhere except to the other side of the river. The pilot, a younger woman in her thirties, has angled our boat 45 degrees off the current, allowing the water to push us to our destination. The boat itself is a sleek craft, one meter wide by almost ten long, allowing it to cut through the water and maintain a rather straight course even when varying currents, boils, and eddies try to push it off.

As we near the other bank, I note nothing that appears to be a destination – no other boats, no break in the trees above, no dock or building. Except for the contours and bends in the river, there is no sign of a landing. But our pilot knows, perhaps by feeling, and we hit the muddy bank just beneath a little trail up to the market. Standing up, my host and I gather our baskets of goods and step onto the muddy shore. She hands the pilot a few bills and mumbles something to me about the mud and its inconvenience. We then begin the slippery walk up the path to the market in the big town above. The soft light of morning opens and the mist locks into its position in the surrounding mountains, as though preparing to fend off the sun.  And I think, this is how someone ought to cross a river.

Two Moments and A River

17 Oct

 Taking time with the small deeds matters. A moment of time spent in the present, experiencing all the rhythms, sounds, and intricacies is often more pleasant than reveries and memories. But occasionally the present might present us with an item – a sound or a perception – that touches something in us. Our mind may sneak its subtle tongue into the world of the present and draw us into the world of the past or future – the worlds of loss and not having. Such is the subject of my own mind in this town, Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang sits quietly by the banks of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan. It is a place visitors often describe with eloquence, naming the various feelings that arise in this town – feelings inspired by ancient temples and palaces, Indochinese architecture, and the town’s welcoming attitude toward visitors. I write this only because I would prefer to skip the pleasantries of introducing “the feel” of Luang Prabang to my readers (a task many others have already endeavored) and move on to my experience of this town almost ten years after my first visit in 2002.

I arrived here several days ago and was surprised that not a whole lot has changed about this town. A few more guesthouses coupled with a few more European bakeries have made it slightly more attractive to honeymooners and vacationers. While China and Thailand, economic powerhouses of the East, might see change on a rapid scale (China far outweighing Thailand), Laos seems to amble along, giving itself time to make slightly more informed decisions about its destiny. In fact, the number of “foreign” consultants working on development projects in this country may be an indication of the government’s practical investment in a desirable future. But I will save my analysis of Laos’ transnational development relationships for another time, and again, if I can, direct my reveries and daydreams into the now.

I am sitting on the main road, which turns into a tourist market at night. Hmong and Lao women are setting up their crafts, and I am penning some words, to the curiosity of an eight year-old boy from a village some twenty kilometers away. He first approached me with a cardboard tray of bracelets to sell earlier today. When I responded in Lao, he seemed interested more in me than selling his goods. He sat down and began watching me intently.  Now, later in the day, he is back by my side.

My meeting with this boy was the first of two moments that brought me into my experience, both in my body and in this land. This boy, dressed in an old brown t-shirt and some stained shorts, comes from outside of this large town almost every day to sell these bracelets – he and a couple dozen other children. He said that he can use some of his money to buy himself snacks, and brings the rest back to his “people.” While I wondered more about this boy, I would not pretend to be able to change his situation, and have not yet resolved that it should change. But something inside of me did want him to have more interesting experience with a non-local, and so I engaged him in conversation. We talked about his village, his brothers and sisters, and his bicycle (something he was very excited about, which made me think it might be a new item). He then shifted the conversation to me, wondering if I lived in Vientiane and if I were a teacher.

And then he says this: My father is not here…not around. He has been gone for a while. Won’t be back. A wave of energy seemed to rock my body backwards into the wall behind me. The feeling was palpable, as though a mortar round had sent a powerful shock wave from thirty meters away. It was not necessarily the part about his father being gone that hit me; it was the Won’t be back. At his age, this knowledge seemed powerful.

After he broke the story of his father to me, I gently and slowly found my way out of the conversation and began walking. I walked through the quiet streets of Luang Prabang for two hours, watching, thinking, feeling. I felt closer to people, more open to the world, and yet simultaneously on the brink of tears, like anything at any moment could drop me into the release of sorrow.

Then the second moment came. I had walked into a bookstore, perhaps looking for a slight distraction. Perusing the books, my eyes landed on a murder mystery written by a Bangkok resident. That’s when it all flooded in, my body into itself and the truth of where I was…the truth of where I am. When my father and mother visited me in northern Thailand some five years ago, they brought with them a few books by this author. It was their tradition to read novels that take place in the regions they visit, and the closest thing they found for northern Thailand was this series of crime novels starring a Bangkok police detective. There, in a wooden bookstore in the midday heat of Luang Prabang, the tears came streaming down my freshly shaven face.

It was a grief that goes deep into my existence, a grief that I would argue works deeply into our common humanity, and it was this grief that surprisingly brought me into the present more powerfully than the meditative practice I have held for a number of years. I left the bookstore and the puzzled shopkeeper and headed to a place where the land could hold me: a quiet spot in the shade by the banks of the Mekong. I let grief flood me, and let the river’s movement clean out the grime of suppressed doubts, sorrows, and fears.

I saw how sorrow is attached to change, how in every moment we lose the past that our mind seems to prefer. This is why, when a town changes, when a village outgrows its family-oriented ways, when a city like Jinghong grows to three times its size in a few years and sweeps over villagers’ rice paddies, we feel such grief. The trouble is that we, as a global society, need the physical space and time to encounter this grief. When the human world moves quickly, we jump into the current because it seems to be the only plausible action. We only swim out to the banks when we realize it is too much for us. But this realization does not come regularly. We usually try to find ways of beating the current, which in turn makes the current more turbulent.

This boy, this town of Luang Prabang, this river: they allowed me the space to feel the grief of a lifetime of losses, from the death of grandparents to the death of my father and the loss of my childhood home, to the separation from a dear partner, to the many recent turbulent changes in my life. I saw the boy adjusting to a change and being able to speak of it with a stranger. I saw the river and its ability to move across whatever path the land held for it. If we can speak of our losses and slow down the artificial changes we create, perhaps we will evolve as humans into a place where we can support each others’ losses, reserve human-made change for positive, thoughtful evolution, and move at a pace where our bodies and minds may generate compassion rather than turbulence.

-Max Woodfin

Full Circle

5 Oct


Days ago, I learned of a friend’s death. I was fresh off a bus and eager to update myself on news outside of Yunnan, so I stepped into a small place and looked up the world on a computer. Awaiting me was this news.

Fifty meters away was a stone path. The stone path led to the edge of a large lake, so I walked there and gazed. I gazed long and far, feeling both the beauty and the horror of this life. At once, they merged into a knowing as deep as the lake. It began to rain a cool rain; I stood, soaking in the bounty that life – and life’s eventual ending – bring. This friend had taught so much to the world around him. He embodied the love that many people spend their lives seeking, and pointed toward love’s path for others to follow. And his death has renewed my sorrow for another death in my life – a loss that has forever permeated my choices and perspective in this world.

Death has no boundaries, only circumstance. And in my revery over death, the lake and water provided for me. Two days later, I have come back to the river hundreds of kilometers downstream from where I last left it. The river flows and holds, then flows again. Whether the current catches a large lagoon deep in the tropics or the reservoir of a dam, it eventually falls through its course into the ocean. Or perhaps it ends when the molecules of water rise into the atmosphere, or filter into the earth beneath irrigated farmland. Whatever the case, it ends. But while the river ends in form, it is renewed by the water that it brought to the ocean, whether in four hundred years or four hundred thousand years. The process brings water back to the sky, then back to the earth, and back into the river.

How could life exist without its fin? In fact, life is a series of deaths. Shiva, god of destruction, destroys the universe to make room for rebirth, for the creative powers of the world to grow. In many ways, I have grown through the deaths of life.

Let me explain. Ten years ago, this month, I was in the town of Jinghong in the far south of Yunnan, China. It was a large town then, but now it is a city. The Mekong River, just down from the main commercial area, is an afterthought – a brown torrent in the shadow of a massive bridge and billions of investment dollars. But the death of what I knew – the small town that looked upon the river – has made way for new understandings and new relationships. When I was in Jinghong ten years ago, I was embarking on naïve relationships, experimenting with research, and throwing myself fully into whatever came my way. I hit my own walls and other people’s walls. Those relationships had their own deaths, as did my specific aspirations at the time to pursue studies in development.

This has come full circle. I am in the city of Jinghong teaching development to a group of young people who will surely be successful and influential in their lives. I am sharing my knowledge of both the physical and metaphysical worlds as they relate to this region, the river, and its people. And as limited as this knowledge is, I believe that it is the right direction. Whatever has died in my life has given me much more than the face value of its death. In fact, death has become my ultimate teacher. Those who have left this world are, then, my teachers. As I consider my friend and walk the common path of wondering “where” he is now, “what” he is doing, and “how” life works if it ends, I once again come to love. This feeling of love brings me to the loss that has changed much of how I view the world:

My father never gave shallow words of wisdom to me. Rather, he was like a river; his wisdom was a meandering source of power and strength. And like a river, his nature was often novel. He was full of surprises, usually subtle surprises. And his greatest surprise to me was the depth of power that unveiled itself when he left this world.

A Wise Man and the Mountain

1 Oct

A Cathedral in Cizhong stands high above a road in the making

The old man’s hands reflect seventy years of sun, dirt, and mountain — sinewy veins that ripen when he reaches up for a pear off the tree, or cuts grapes from his vines, or pours yak butter tea into my cup.  And if his hands are not proof of his devotion to the land, a mere glance up to his face would rest the case.  This man had lived the land and knew it.  It was his land, his sanctimony with the gorge and the river and the glaciers, and I was his visitor in this small vineyard town in the Mekong gorge.

After a week in a high, verdant village below the two sacred peaks, we wound our way up to the bustling and aesthetically displeasing county capital of Deqin, and then back down the steep slopes of the eastern Himalaya to a small wine-producing village on the banks of the Mekong. One thousand meters below Deqin, the land felt warm, almost hot. The sun blazed and the flies swarmed, and even the site of bucolic vineyards and walnut trees could not distract me from the initial experience of heat and heavier air. Still, at two-thousand meters (almost 7,000 feet), the nights were cool and mornings pleasant.

Within an hour of arriving in Dalun and upon an invitation, I followed an old hunter through the terraced vineyards, walnut groves, and irrigated mountain streams to his multistory, earthen home. Along the way, he directed me to break off bunches of grapes and pick pears from the massive trees (which, upon pulling, would loose a number of other pears, some of which would land squarely on our heads). Upon arrival at his home, I noticed the massive timber used to build not only the house itself, but also the entryways, animal shelters, and garden walls. And a skilled carpenter had carved elaborate Tibetan symbols into the window frames, doorways, and columns of the courtyard.

I remembered back to our time in the high village of Hongpo where people had stretched cables nearly two kilometers down a mountain. They used these cables to send these large pieces of wood from the forests above. But around Dalun, there were no forests on the surrounding slopes. In fact, the slopes were barren except for some small shrubs and nopal cacti. Between patches of green were deep grooves where rainwater and landslides had continually cut into the mountains. The wood, I thought, must now be brought in by truck.

As noticeable as it was, the deforestation in Dalun paled in comparison to the construction projects surrounding Dalun. Above, below, and around the village, laborers and machinery were cutting deeper into the earth to build roads. To the northeast, laborers are upgrading a roadway that stretches all the way to Lhasa; this will soon be a Gaosu Gonglu, a “superhighway” of sorts. To the southwest, a road cuts to a touristy village on the western banks of the river; and the road to this village is the road that will continue along the Mekong hundreds of kilometers, opening the Tibetan world of Deqin County more directly to the Mekong basin of southern Yunnan.

And today, I sit in another village across the Mekong from that road, sixty kilometers south of Dalun. From a rooftop in Cizhong, I can look down over a nineteenth century missionary cathedral toward the road. The greenery of a steep mountain slope abruptly ends where the gash of a roadway begins. In fact, the gash starts anywhere from thirty to one-hundred feet above the road surface itself, and debri from the project spills another hundred to two-hundred feet into the Mekong.

When I first sat down in the old man’s Tibetan household in Dalun, I was more taken by my own indulgence in the resources of the village – grapes, wine, apples, pears, greenery, streams, friendly dogs and kittens, and walnuts – than by the impact of development. But the longer we stayed in Dalun, the more I could feel the approach of development’s low roar. It was as though I were in an open canoe, floating slowly on a meandering river before hearing the distant warning of an impending rapid. At first, it is a distant white noise; I might think that my ears are playing tricks. But then, as I round a bend, the whirring, wrathful voices of water pouring over rocks and into holes becomes louder. My eyes dilate, my heart quickens, and I prepare for the inevitable. And finally, when I’ve done all I can to prepare, I am above the roaring drop where, despite all my preparation, the unpredictable power of water has its say in my fate.

Only on the river, I have practice. I have prepared many times for the descent. A village like Dalun does not practice approaching development a number of times before perfecting it. A village like Dalun has only one chance to get it right, and much of its fate depends on the external forces of development rather than its internal knowledge and leadership. On a river, I know I can scout a rapid, use my previous experience, and read the river so that I might make an evolving set of decisions. These decisions will hopefully allow for my survival, and perhaps for my own evolution as a conscious human. Will Dalun have this opportunity to preview the world twenty years from now? Does this old man, now my friend, have the wisdom to encourage his fellow villagers to put on the brakes and consider their fate?

Fortunately, he does. But this old hunter, now devout Buddhist, is one of the rare few who has experienced enough to see the big picture. That his mountain, the massive snow range called Khawakarpo, is worth our homage. That it is more important to develop internally than externally. That when death approaches and our life becomes a timeless spark in the combustion of the cosmos, what does it matter that we can buy a flatscreen television just an hour away in Deqin? That ultimately our own awareness and consciousness can do more to evolve humanity than the antiquated practice of building stuff* in the same way, over and over and over again.

*After seeing this building of “stuff” for every day of three weeks in some of Yunnan’s most remote terrain, indeed it begins to seem like “stuff.” At Mingyuan Glacier, across the river from Dalun, we encountered, at the top of a steep climb, a set of stairs and platforms for tourists to view the glacier. Yet there was no educational or interpretive infrastructure. This, when the glacier has receded nearly two kilometers and one thousand vertical feet in the past forty years (one third of its size). This is to say that I believe, and regret, that we are building “stuff” without the stuff of consciousness.

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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