» RABBIT, NUN & POWERS IN TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Rabbit, Nun and Powers in Tibet

Tibetan nun and rabbit, alongside Han Chinese roadbloack heading into Tibet. Photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

There’s really only one highway going from southwest China to Tibet, and it’s long, uneven, often blocked or jammed by convoys of military vehicles or commercial trucks, and subject to periodic closures.

It’s a sparsely populated area, but you can tell that the Chinese have big plans for it. Enormous electrical power lines lope over the hills, and in spots unpaved road gives way incongruously to new four-lane highways.

TibetHighwaySignThe picture at the top was taken at a routine road block that’s set up en route to Lhagong, which the Han call Tagong. If you can read Mandarin, the sign to the right will tell you all about that roadblock. There’s just a gate they drop over the road at a standard time every day, and everyone piles out to stretch, mill around, or stare at a handful of the locals. This monk was just standing around, smiling like some obnoxiously enlightened* being, looking radiant alongside the martial roadblock, as this rabbit followed her around.

At the daily roadblock into Kham. (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

As counterintuitive as it might seem, I don’t think the Han Chinese stand a long-term chance against this kind of power (or altitude), though they’re probably more than willing to dispossess, torture and murder thousands of Tibetans in order to prove this kind of wishful or hopeful thinking wrong.

Horse at Golden Hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས)

Horse and prayer flags at golden hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས) – photo (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

* Is there a word for the complex of resentment/hatred/suspicion a person from an “inferior race” experiences when encountering people they see as better or purer? I feel this should have shown up, maybe somewhere in James Baldwin’s writing. I don’t actually believe in purity or race-based superiority, but I’m talking about what might have been at play, for example, when the mass of mostly poor and desperate Euroamerican settlers came to North America and encountered civilizations largely without body shame, economic poverty in any real sense, or all kinds of disease?

» THE TWIN ENGINEERING WONDERS OF DUJIANGYAN: Irrigation & Detention

by Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan is a system of irrigation channels largely responsible for the renowned fertility of the Chengdu basin, in southwestern China. This elaborate engineering wonder, built about 2300 years ago, and still in use today, is what makes Sichuan province the most productive agricultural area in China. Most contemporary dams use a big wall to block water, adversely impacting the natural flow of fish and other marine life, but the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation works lets water and fish continue to flow.

I have no idea how old the statue above is (2300 years?), but the colossal millipede nestled in this gargoyle’s ear looks old and big enough to be from an entirely different geologic era.

Dujiangyan is also home to another old and elaborate example of Chinese engineering: the Dujiangyan Detention Facility, one of many outposts in the sprawling Chinese police state. Literally countless dissidents, political activists and otherwise problematically outspoken people have been detained, tortured and interrogated at these facilities.

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

A lot of even modestly well-informed Westerners don’t know about the full scope of China’s police state, it’s laogai prisons or its contemporary forced labor practices. One reason for this ignorance is simply that the Chinese government works very hard to control news and information about its internal security apparatus, but another reason surely has to do with just the sheer size of the apparatus.

Continue reading

» OF BICYCLES, BIRDS & SPICES: A photo walk around Chengdu, Sichuan

by Brian Awehali

Pedal-powered creative re-use artist in Chengdu - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Pedal-powered creative re-use artist in Chengdu – photo (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

The scale of things in China - (c) 2012 Brian AwehaliCar ownership is on the rise, but bicycle culture in Chengdu, and China generally, remains amazing. Many, perhaps most, main roads have dedicated bike lanes, and it’s really common to see things like hard-working (and exhausted) trash recyclers carting Seussian-levels of stuff around on pedal-powered vehicles (above), or a lone cyclist pedaling calmly through a terrifyingly busy intersection (left).

Fan of Babeel, former striker for Liverpoot? (Chengdu) - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

I’m sure lots of the Chinese (Mandarin) lettering on t-shirts I see in the U.S. is mangled or just downright wrong, but since I can’t read traditional or simplified Mandarin, that’s nowhere near as funny to me as the botched English translations I saw everywhere in Chengdu. There’s quite a lot of emulation and outright copying of Western culture — especially consumer culture. This teenager stalking into an underpass near the Chengdu bus station might be expressing his esteem for striker/winger Ryan Babel (not Babeel), the Dutch football player who used to play for… Liverpool (not Liverpoot)… but it’s just as likely that the kid just liked the way this looked.

At Chengdu International Airport, the wheelchair-accessible stalls in the men’s bathroom have the pictograph you might expect, with Mandarin lettering and then, below that, in English translation: “Deformed Man End Place.” Picture after the jump:

Continue reading

Featured

» CHINESE PIGEON RACING & CONFINEMENT IN CHENGDU

by Brian Awehali

Kitebird at People's Park, Chengdu, (c) 2012,  Brian Awehali

Kitebird flown at People’s Park, Chengdu in 2010. – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Seemingly querulous racing pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali“I’m very worried,” said Mr. C., our interpreter and guide, as our driver pulled into the courtyard. His eyes were wet. “Only two of my pigeons have returned from the race two days ago.”

Mr. C., a thin man with a sweet face, had arranged through a friend for us to make a weekend visit to a Chengdu suburb for a tour of a pigeon racing club and one racer’s private coop.

“How many pigeons did you release?” I asked.

“Ten,” he said mournfully. As we piled out of the sedan into a courtyard, he ran ahead.

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

The owner of this private coop, who was meeting us inside, was the editor of a newspaper, and also a prominent local member of the Communist Party. Most officials of any substantial-sized business in China probably are, and one might consider it an occupational hazard.

Ah, sweet release:

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengu pigeon racing club - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengdu pigeon racing club – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

» THE WINGED SIN-EATERS: Vultures & the Vital Importance of Scavengers

by Brian Awehali

Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…

As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

A truly fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, by Meera Subramian, and with gorgeous photos like the one below, by Ami Vitale, goes into a lot of detail about the vital role of vultures and scavengers, and the alarming decline of their species on the Indian subcontinent.

Vultures scavenging human remains left at the burning ghats on the banks of rivers in India – Ami Vitale / Corbis

As the article explains,

Continue reading

» MISADVENTURES IN “ORGANIC” FARMING IN TAIWAN

by Brian Awehali

Daikon drying in the sun

A while back, I had a great time traveling through all but the southern portion of Taiwan. I’d gone for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and to do a bit of work trade with a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming)-affiliated farm on the outskirts of Chunan (or Zhunan, depending on your preferred system of romanization).

The farm itself was mostly a disappointment to me. There is no internationally consistent standard for measuring what is and is not organic. Even in the U.S. (granted, no paragon of truth in labeling) the labeling of organics is tricky, often misleading and inconsistent [see an in-depth article from my former magazine, "Organics: Meaningful or Market Niche?").

Sweltering farmland in Chunan

Seed trays soaked in water and sun

This farm, in Zhunan, in the province of Miaoli, was nestled right up against a major highway flyover, and perhaps one hundred yards from two tall, constantly belching industrial smokestacks. The smokestack exhaust might well have been filtered or non-toxic, but anyone with common sense who’s ever actually lived next to, or looked at land immediately adjacent to large highways, can tell by the sooty residue of automobile exhaust and dust that there’s nothing organic about the ground in these areas.

My host was really more interested in the local promotional opportunities of having travelers all the way from America coming to work on, and promote, his farm. After picking us up in his van and driving like a maniac back to his place (with his un-seatbelted young son in the front, many sharp-pointed tools laying unsecured on the floor), my host spent a good deal of the next ten days pressuring us in various forceful ways to appear on a television interview with him for a local news station where his wife worked, and to be a very public face for a farmer’s market he was trying to launch, on the grounds of a swank mountain restaurant.

I declined, repeatedly, and with less and less patience, explaining that I hadn’t come to WWOOF so I could be paraded around town to impress friends or appear on local television news programs I wouldn’t even understand. After several rounds of requests, I further explained that, by my standards, his farm actually wasn’t organic, and I didn’t want to publicly support it. I’d come, I said again and again, to learn more about farming.

Continue reading

» GOLDEN HOUR THOUGHTS IN LHAGONG, KHAM, TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Golden Hour Thoughts in Lhagong, TibetTraveling through Kham, in what’s called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), I had the considerable pleasure of staying in Lhagong. Chinese people will tell you it’s named Tagong, but re-naming is just one strategy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Approaching this “stupa” on the edge of town during a clear moment in an otherwise rainy day, I couldn’t decide which idea held more magic for me: that this was a giant fortification full of monks and nuns who, not fearing death, were more than a match for any earthly army or floodtide of settlers, or an immense palace full of exquisitely beautiful people of belief, happily lashing their souls to some great transcendent hum.

GO >>

» THE DEFINITION OF SCARY: China’s Cancer Villages (癌症村, Aizheng Cun)

by Brian Awehali

I woke up this morning and considered going outside. Lately, I have been avoiding the outdoors here in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, because I fear the industrial haze and the cough I seem to develop whenever I spend more than a few hours out and about. There are ominous smells here: acrid metallic clouds of gas with something like formaldehyde that have me breathing as shallowly as I possibly can when I pass through them.

Despite this, last night I was reconsidering my aversion to the Chinese outdoors, wondering if I was being paranoid. Sunlight is still moderately healthy. And after all, I drink heavily filtered water, wash any fresh vegetables I buy several times (they recommend using diluted bleach as well, but I refuse to trade one poison for another), and I live, sleep, run and work out in a heavily insulated building with industrial grade air filters going 24/7.

I also drink lots of coffee, which I seem to remember reading somewhere renders me all but impervious to cancer.

But then, after my coffee, any anticarcinogenic confidence I had evaporated when I sat down to check email and a friend of mine had forwarded on a ghastly article entitled “Made in China: Cancer Villages,” by Lee Liu, from Environment Magazine. The article goes into great depth about China’s unprecedented levels of cancer and the “grow first, clean up later” approach to industrial development driven largely by the forces of economic globalization.

Continue reading

» APPROXIMATE DEMOLITION IN CHINA

by Brian Awehali

Approximate Demolition in Chengdu, by Brian Awehali

THE CHINESE ARE VERY SECRETIVE ABOUT THINGS WHEN THEY GO WRONG. You can’t just go online or read a paper to find out what happened with this gloriously wrong-looking demolition in Chengdu. I heard that one or several people were injured by debris, for example, but there seemed to be no way to confirm or disprove this. The site was fenced and there were multiple sentries posted throughout the day to keep people out, so this was taken at around 4am, while carefully avoiding the tents of full-time on-site workers, and using only the ambient light of Chengdu that reflects nicely off the ever-present canopy of mostly industrial smog.

Chaotic Demolition, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, at 4am