“The last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone”

The Old Town that got renamed Shangri-La (& maybe it was), aka Zhongdian, ha burned down. In Yunnan, on the old Tea Horse Road. An electrical fire. Water was shut off– it’s at a frozen 10,000 feet and the BBC reported the town fathers were concerned about burst pipes. (Really?) We visited in Jan., 2012, the empty, frigid winter off-season. Chinese & foreign implants–passionate preservationists– were responsible for restoring this Tibetan treasure, worn down nearly to rubble, finishing in the’00s, explains Paul Mooney (2010, South China Morning Post.)

fire2

And now — ashes. First I heard zongdian11/4 burned; now that most is gone.

I’m so sad.Here are my boys,two years ago, in the Old Town.

A Bengali expat, ecotourism specialist whom Mooney quotes: “How many old towns on the way to Lhasa are still intact? If we don’t save this, the last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone.”

zongdian door

Like most tourists,we came from Lijiang and Dali  — (we blogged about highway and power grid development, how suspect and demeaning our yearning for “Old” felt, finally, although we treasured meeting legendary herbalist Dr. Ho). But I came to this blog to remember Zhongdian–and it wasn’t here. So here it is.

Was.

Some pictures below are the massive Ganden Sumtsaling monastery there — but not in the fire’s path, that I know of.

zongdian women
This is part of the old Kham. These Khampa women were finishing a morning visit to a temple above the Old Town.

zongidan monastery
The Ganden Sumtsaling monastery, which looks a bit like a miniature Potala.

zongdian monatery middledistance
The monastery, Qing era, being restored now for tourism – huge Chinese cranes on the horizon.

zongdian2

zongdian ethanzongdian monast curtains

China Books for Kids

 

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Before we went to China, we started purchasing books to read (& to bring, English kids’ books are hard to find — and if you can, they’re expensive in China). I’ve wanted to share this list for a long time.

Picture books: Nonfiction

A Time of Golden Dragons by Song Nan Zhang & Hao Yu Zhang, ill. A picture book about the millennial year coinciding w year of dragon, most powerful sign

 Chinese New Year Tricia Brown photogr Fran Ortiz. Preparations for, & meanings of, new year in US Chinatowns. Colorful.

Picture books:Fiction (mostly reinterpreted folkore

Little Plum by Ed Young – a Tom Thumb tale.

All the Way to Lhasa A tale from Tibet by Barbara Helen Berger. We enjoy this.

The Hunter A Chinese folktale retold by Mary Casanova Illustrations Ed Young. Love folk tales.

The Beggar’s Magic A Chinese Tale retold by Margaret & Raymond Chang Ill David Johnson

Red Thread written/ill Ed Young.Great one.

The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong. An animal tires of war. A favorite.

Lon Po Po A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (Caldecott medal) Ed Young. Another enjoyable one.

The Terrible Nung Gwama A Chinese folktale adapted by Ed Young from the retelling by Leslie Bonnet Ill Ed Young.

 

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

Middle-grades Fiction

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin We got this graphic novel in China, at the synagogue-museum in Shanghai. (Speakign of graphic novels: highly recommend the award-winning American-Born Chinese, which takes place in America; we read it later). A great book.

Shen and the Treasure Fleet  Ray Conlogue. Kind of slow.

 The Golden Key (Tangshan Tigers)   Dan Lee. I think an Australian series. Not bad.

Young Adult Fiction

Spilled Water  by Sally Grindley–Modern Yong Adult fiction, girl indentured, compares t Hunger Games. Enjoyed this. I think you can call it middle grades.

 Year of the Tiger  by Alison Lloyd– historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Really loved this. I actually would call this middle-grades.

 Dragon Horse  Peter Ward, 10th century China fantasy & adventure, catalog compares to Eragon. We found it slow and decided not to continue. Too many time, place- and flashbacks to ancient times, or myth, too soon.

 Golden Rat   Don Wulffson- Young Adult, dark adventure.

 Dragonwings  Laurence Yep*- Boys’ historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Part of Yep’s wrote adventure series, Golden Mountain Chronicles. The best. We couldn’t put them down. Set in America, mostly.

 The Serpent’s Children: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1849 Laurence Yep

 Mountain Light: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1855 by Laurence Yep

 Dragon’s Gate: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1867 by Laurence Yep

 The Traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1885 by Laurence Yep

Memoir & Nonfiction

Brothers: A Novel  Da Chen — Moving.

Colors of the Mountain  Da Chen – award-winning memoir. Moving and lovely writing. More so-called “scar literature” which some Chinese today find unbalanced and overly negative. We found it useful to understand earlier generations’ experience, even if it’s not what’s happening right now.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  Ji-Li Jiang.My middle schooler read this. I’d say it’s appropriate for middle grades. Excellent, searing, unforegettable “scar” literature about the damaging experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party  Ying Chang Compestine, modern young adult set in 1972, teen & Maoism, Cultural Revolution. Everythign I said above. Hard to put down.

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: both kids (middle grades) read it & really enjoyed it. Very simply written even though it’s an adult book on a complex topic.

Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy


Driving to Garze (Tibetan autonomous prefecture) over Christmas, for hours each day we passed sawn-off mountains, rock-clogged rivers, half-submerged trees and roads that disappeared into water.

Dams being built.

China is looking here, to Western Sichuan on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where dozens of rushing tributaries of the upper Yangze surge down canyons’ steep vertical rises, for energy. The Dadu River, which we drove along for two days, is said to have 50% more hydropower potential (“exploitable installed capacities”) than the Three Gorges. Reports say there will be 22 hydroelectric power plants along the Dadu, creating flood zones, requiring the removal of something like 100,000 people from valley to high ground. One Chinese environmental group reports that no branch rivers will remain natural, but will become “cascade reservoirs.” No one knows the ecological outcome of such fundamental changes to hydrological cycles, river connectivity and dynamics.


But here’s one idea, from Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration: deadly earthquakes. He says it’s possible dam building caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the one that killed about 70,000, many of them children.
We were heading to Danba, a central town whose satellite villages perch on mountains, where the Dadu crisscrosses 131 other streams and rivers, apparently draining an area of 3,000 square miles. It was an ever-higher drive. Below Danba, we stopped to skim stones in the Dadu; above, to wash in hot springs (geothermal development is likely here). Dam building was everywhere. The car crawled on rutted dirt tracks past roadblocks, mountains of gravel, workers’ prefab housing, giant dust clouds. Because of the long string of dams and power stations, in some places, articles say, the loss of vegetation qualifies as “desertification.” They’ve covered cliffs above the river with a sort of cement (I think) to hold back mud and landslides. A scientific report dryly notes the area’s “partially-destroyed appearance.”


The river’s steep descent in places creates great force, bending and surging through canyons. Nearby is one of China’s two remaining virgin forests. Hydropower is “greener” than the choking black smoke of coal-fired plants. If you buy a “carbon offset” from a broker, it is investing in hydropower on the Dadu. True, there’s no coal burned. But it takes tons of steel, water, and fuel to build 2 dozen hydroelectric dams here.

Villages go under, too. And more. This eastern ‘wall’ of the Tibetan plateau (including the Hengduan mountain range, with peaks reaching about 20,000’) is “a biodiversity hotspot” (with its very own Harvard monitoring project) Wild pandas live in nature reserves here. The Dadu, the upper Yangtze region, is noteworthy for a “rare gene pool”– 342 kinds of herbaceous plants, 57 kinds of woody plants, 233 different species just in Danba, according to a recent scientific survey. Spruces, firs, hemlocks, birches, rare yew and ebony, apples, pears, walnuts, Eucommia (rubber). It’s rich in medicinal plants (227 kinds, the census found) and dozens of wild edible and medicinal fungi (matsutake, morel, yellow wire fungus, tree-ear mushrooms). Likewise, it has many rare animals, not just pandas. The Asiatic black bear, and primates like the Tibetan macaque; more than 60 protected animals.

We also passed through Tianquan, another town along the way where, I read, several generators have been built inside a nature reserve.

There’s a trade-off, with generating needed energy. Infrastructure is for the greater good. You will devastate some land, some species, some livelihoods. Local input may be ignored in the U.S., too. But from what I can tell, China, with rule-of-law and regulatory problems, with a centralized regime and yet many overlapping bureaucracies, where the rural poor have little power, the situation is much worse.

Early on driving up one of many canyons, we stopped for lunch in Luding, where tall buildings crowd the river in a steep valley. The dam there, under construction, was shut down for a while for failing an inspection. Critics say it exemplifies the power stations’ lack of integrated planning, operation, and management. That so many different agents are involved, without coordination, may help explain the “over-exploitation” – why there are too many dams, when prominent scientists say hydroelectric construction should be scattered and small-scale, not concentrated in a single river basin.
The state-owned Dadu Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., which expanded to take on the dam-building, calls it ‘the enclosing of water resources. Its corporate website explains it tapped other companies (China Datang Cooperation, China Huadian Cooperation, Zhongxu Investment Co.) to “exploit several new sections” of cascade power stations. We hit new company boundaries every few hours, marked by gates of steel poles and flapping flags.

Up until now the area was well-preserved because it was remote and transportation impractical. “The construction of many hydroelectric power stations in [eastern Tibet and western Sichuan] represents a terrible ecological disaster,” says The Decade River Project, a group of concerned scientists and citizens.

“If construction plans are followed… hardly any the species of fish found in the river will be able to survive.” That’s because reservoirs storing water along the way alter “the flow pattern, velocity, and temperature of the river. Fish can not adapt.” Fan is chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration. Fan was the first geologist to suspect that Sichuan’s Wenchuan earthquake (the massive 7.9 earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people) was linked with to dam-building and reservoirs, particularly the Zipingpu hydroelectric station. It’s not hydropower that’s unacceptable, he says, but this pattern of over-development.

At the Sichuan Provincial Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Zhang Qiujin, Director of the Ecology Institute, agrees that the hydropower construction here will likely completely ruin aquatic and dry-land ecological systems–the whole riverside area’s natural environment.

Those are big names, I think.

There’s often talk about “reform” in China. When you start looking at hydropower, you hear the term “Reforming water governance.” Quickly, the focus becomes, at least for me: Dissent. Local voices, heeding scientific experts outside state-owned companies, & hearing citizens pursuing their rightful interests. The Tibetan woman whose home we stayed in, near Danba, said the destruction would take a long time to heal.

Look at dams here and the path leads, at least for me, back to the question of the government’s fear of change–fear of social instability.

Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua, a dam expert, also writes about China’s “unbalanced interests”–the lack of justice for minorities in the face of such a gigantic national infrastructure program. Reformed governance, stronger rights protection for dissenting citizens, would be powerful forces for social stability in China, not destabilizers, as China pursues energy development with dwindling arable land, clean air, water, and food. So says Guo. They would ease, not worsen, today’s conflicts and tensions.

“The greatest error in current thinking and models about maintaining stability,” Guo says, “is to put the interests of people and social stability on opposite sides.”

It’s something to ponder, as I recall how every few hours we passed under a new gate of steel poles draped with tenting and flags, flapping to announce the new firm responsible for that stretch of dam construction, & heralding the bright future with slogans in Chinese such as, “Build a harmonious society with hydropower,” with mountains razed above, the river diverted below and debris — scrap stone, waste sand, disintegrating boulders – all around..

Tibetan Buddhism (Ate My Children)

I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.

I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.

Trek past stupas, Kham (E. Tibet)

Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.

Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.


Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.

Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.

Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.

Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.

When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.

The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.

Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).

Do they get that? We’ve talked about it a little but… no. They simply loved, without complication, and were moved to pray, in the mountains and under the blueness.

Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.

The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.

Kenny

Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.