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… Continue reading
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.
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.
by Brian Awehali
After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.
The seemingly infinite Mongolian sky also hangs over the largest mining boom on the planet.
On my flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a miner named Tim. Tim had a wife and two children back in Nova Scotia, with another on the way. He was trying to convince his wife to relocate to Mongolia, but she wasn’t going for it yet. So his mining career kept him away from his family as he traveled to Colorado, Nevada, Australia, and now Mongolia. Tim kept his taupe outdoorsman’s hat on for the entire flight, but I forgave him for that because he shared his Lonely Planet Mongolia and enthusiastically told me about his work at a new copper mine in the Gobi Desert.
“It’s just a camp now, but we’re investing $40 million this year alone, and when it really gets up and running, it’ll probably become the second largest city in Mongolia,” Tim told me. “It’s going to be huge.”
Car 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).
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:
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by Brian Awehali
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.
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:
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.
As the article explains,