» UNDER THE ETERNAL SKY: Mining Boom Gains Momentum in Mongolia

Khan Kentee Protected Area, Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

by Brian Awehali

Nomadic herder in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 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.

Candlelit Ger/Yurt in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

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.

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Photo Essayby 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.

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


» ENGINEERING WONDERS OF DUJIANGYAN: Irrigation & Secret Detention

Photo Essayby 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.

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

Photo Essayby 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:

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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 AwehaliPhoto Essay“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.

As the article explains,

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