Thursday, February 19, 2009
Watch to see what's going on in this part of the world
The following video features Alou, the co-ordinator of the WCKA service project in China. Alou is working to organize village waste management in Dimalou, an area affected by a recent "small" hydropower project on a tributary of the Nu Jiang (Salween River).
Just because dams aren't being constructed on the Salween in China (for the moment...), does not mean that the river will remain free-flowing. Chinese and Thai investors/engineers/power companies are currently working with the military dictatorship in Burma to construct 6 large dams on the Salween in Burma. The following video focuses on the cultural and biological losses that will result.
Burma Rivers Network
Many governments and their dam investors use the term "clean energy" to defend major hydropower projects all over the world. What is "clean" about the destruction of fertile land, culture and wildlife? Where is the economic value for locals displaced by such destruction if the power is not made available for them, but is then sold internationally?
Monday, February 16, 2009
Under a delicately suspended wooden bridge, 18 kayakers balance on a steep rocky bank in an equally delicate manner. Welcome to the put in for the Upper Moon Gorge of the Mekong River. Surrounding the put in are acres of terraced farmland pushing high up the gorge walls. In the distance these kayakers can see the Mei Li Snow Mountain Range, which makes them seem miniscule in comparison. Pushing off the banks, World Class Kayak Academy is on a mission to enjoy this mighty river.
Quinn Connell and Erik Johnson double teaming the first rapid. Photo by LJ Groth.
The Moon Gorge of the Mekong River is located in Xidong, Yunnan Province. World Class is staying in a beautiful wood-crafted guesthouse 45 minutes away from the river’s put in. However, the take out is only 10 minutes away. The students (and some teachers) have been waking up in time for head coach Jesse Shimrock’s brutal but rewarding strength workouts. Occasionally yoga is lead by assistant coach Susan Hollingsworth or World Class veteran Kristi Murrin. Yoga is a great way to start off the day, stretching sore muscles and leaving the students relaxed before another epic day of school and kayaking. In order to fit kayaking into a day with limited sunlight and to still include school, World Class has class until lunch, going kayaking, returning and finishing class before a 7 o’clock dinner.
The Mekong River is commonly known as the large Vietnamese river that was so prominent in the Vietnam War. This is the same river. Others may know the river from many dam projects that will be constructed on it in the future. For the time being, the amazing whitewater is not affected. Directly after the put in is the largest rapid on the river. Some of the group has been charging down this rapid, coming out with smiles on their faces. Others portage it and receive a just amount of excitement from watching others. After moving through some wave trains comes the next rapid, a super long one that dispenses crashing wave after crashing wave. Directly after the aforementioned rapid is another similar one, although not as long. It does have a large hole in the middle, which many people have been playing in.
Ben Hurd throwin' down above S-turn. Photo by LJ Groth.
Around the next bend comes, yes you guessed it, another rapid. This one is different though. So different, it’s not even possible to run. World Class gets out of their boats and walks past this rapid, keeping their feet dry. This rapid possesses a hole of massive proportions that no kayaker in their right mind would want to go into (except Ivan). Staring at this rapid for a moment makes boaters feel a surge of respect for the many CFS the Mekong constantly rushes through itself. There is one major rapid left, and it goes by the name of S-Turn. No, not the famous S-Turn of the Alseseca River in Mexico; this one has way more power and volume. S-Turn has a great play-hole at the beginning, which many people have been taking full advantage of for looping practice. After that there are two possible lines. One is to go straight down the center, charging through two diagonal holes. This line has been very popular. The other line is to ferry hard over to river right. This move will take the kayaker to a large green tongue, which shoots out to the pool of flatwater below. Either line is challenging, exciting, and most importantly, fun.
Some smaller rapids follow, but soon enough World Class is at the take out. It isn’t very often that river runners are able to take out in a pine forest leading up to a Buddhist monastery. Bus and truck waiting, World Class scurries back to their guesthouse to finish off a day of school. Mission successful, World Class! Another river to add to the old quiver.
Ivan Stiefel charging. Photo by LJ Groth.
Never before have I studied Algebra II while sitting in front of a Buddha shrine in Tibet. This is an experience that World Class has made a reality for me. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that classes here offer many unique learning experiences.
The past few weeks have been filled with rigorous study and exams. Fortunately we were able to take a three day break from school to go and explore Yubeng, a mountainous Tibetan village. It was an amazing experience that we will all remember for years to come. But soon following the trek to Yubeng, class was back in session.
Currently we are located in Xidong, a village on the banks of the Mekong River. Our geographical location and culture is something that Ivan Steifel, 23 has strongly absorbed into his literature and cultural studies classes. Chinese Cultural Studies is beginning a unit on Tibetan history. “I am really interested in the political and cultural backround of Tibet, and I like to get my students involved with social issues,” Ivan says. Clearly we are in the perfect environment for studying this subject. I asked senior, Dave Meyers, what he thought about Cultural Studies and he said, “Nothing is as unique as learning a subject as interesting as that of the Tibetan culture, while in cultural Tibet.”
Over the course of the trip Biology class has had and ongoing experiment. We have been focusing on water quality throughout China and Tibet. This experiment is just a small part of Biology’s study on the Three Gorges dam and how it will alter its surrounding environment. We have witnessed villages and towns that will be greatly affected due to the dams. One Yangtze riverside village in particular, Baoshan, will lose 60% of its valuable farmland. We have much more interest and first-hand knowledge of the damming and its negative affects after living there for several days. This first-hand learning is something I never would have experienced in a regular public school.
World Class’s next and final stop is the Salween. We will be taking another three-day break from school for travel. Although it is the last stop, we will have nearly a month of classes and kayaking there. School continues to be a mind-blowing experience, and unique learning opportunities continue to arise through out the course of the trip. I am excited to see what the Salween has to offer.
While driving to our next destination, the Mekong River, we stopped for the night in the town of Shangri La. Upon arriving in Shangri La we visited a large monastery. At the entrance there were several locals with tables covered in cheap Tibetan paraphernalia, eager to sell it to the enthusiastic tourists. We climbed a hundred and fifty something steps up to the temple. Inside was a very elaborate giant golden Buddha, in front of which people had left offerings of food, money, photos, and trinkets. Visiting the monastery was a very cool experience, and our first look into Tibetan culture.
The monastery outside of Shangri La. Photo by Jason Cohen
We arrived in Xidong on February 4th for a week of paddling the Mekong, hiking, and absorbing the culture. Although we are still within the borders of China’s Yunnan province, the people in the Mekong valley are Tibetan. They speak a Tibetan dialect, so the few Chinese words we have learned are somewhat useless here. Xidong is a very small town with one dirt road that runs through it. The people here farm on terraces and produce most of the goods they need. The night we arrived we attended a Tibetan New Year’s Party. Young girls dressed in elaborate and colorful outfits and performed dances. Several village elders sang traditional Tibetan songs. We were asked to sing a song in English, and chose “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin because it is simple to translate and everyone knew it. I found it particularly interesting that while performing everyone is expected to face a portrait of Mao Zedong. I have since learned more about China’s control over Tibet and the importance of Mao Zedong’s photo in small Tibetan towns. Mao is viewed as a hero and great leader by rural, agrarian communities like this one. The locals do not choose to view him as this but are forced to act as if they did by the Chinese government. They do not have extensive formal education, if any at all. When I asked Zachary, our Tibetan translator, about this he said that the people here would get in a lot of trouble for taking Mao’s picture down if the Chinese government found out. He also said that he could get in trouble for even talking about the China-Tibet issue with the locals.
Our hosts from Xidong in traditional clothing. Photo by Jason Cohen.
Perhaps our most unique cultural experience was our brief stay in the mountain town of Yubeng. Yubeng is a small, roadless Tibetan village nestled beneath the Meili Snow Mountains. After driving a couple of miles up the road from our guesthouse in Xidong, it was about a three and a half hour hike to Yubeng. The hike started with a 3,500-foot climb that leveled off at an elevation of 12,000 feet. Hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze created a peaceful atmosphere at the top of the ridge. As we climbed over the crest we were stunned by the spectacular view of a massive snow peak pushing 20,000 feet. Yubeng is in a valley with an elevation of about 9,500 feet. We stayed there for two nights and enjoyed a day off from school. During our day there we hiked up to the base of a very large snow covered peak known as Buddha Head. Thousands of prayer flags hanging from the trees and bushes made for some excellent photos. At the top of our day hike we filled our water bottles with clear, refreshing glacial water. It was the most beautiful hike I have ever been on. When we were not exploring we were chilling in the sun playing cards, hacky sack, reading or just enjoying the scenery. The food in Yubeng was excellent and we had quite an appetite after so much hiking. We tried yak butter tea, which is popular throughout Tibet. When the tea is brewed a chunk of yak butter is added for a creamy, salty flavor. Some of us really enjoyed it while others didn’t care for, or had a strong dislike for it. Yubeng was an incredible experience and well worth the intense hike in.
View from Feilai Si. Photo by Jason Cohen.
After Yubeng we came back down to Xidong to paddle and finish the week of classes. With our translator Zachary’s help I was able to interview the native family that owns the guest house. Ci Li Zong is the grandmother of the family. She was born here in Xidong and has lived here all of her life. They started the guesthouse in 2003. Many of their clients are foreign tourists that hike to Yubeng or other destinations in the area. Other guests include people traveling through or Buddhists on a pilgrimage. They said that foreigners are easier to entertain because they are cleaner and easier to please. Apparently some Chinese guests are less environmentally conscious and tend to leave trash lying around. Foreigners are usually here to experience the culture so they are less likely to find things to complain about. When I asked Ci Li Zong how often they leave town she said only about once a year. For most of the year they are very busy tending crops. We got to know the locals in Xidong better than in any other town we have visited yet. Tomorrow we are starting our three-day drive to the Nu Jiang, or Salween River. Although it is sad to be leaving Xidong and the Mekong Valley, I am excited for the next adventure on this incredible journey.