Life in the Heart of China: Part Two
Traveling Through a Desolate Landscape

May 18, 2006
Region: Gansu Province

Imagine your worst nightmare. Imagine a black and gray world that smells of soot and carbon monoxide. Imagine a world devoid of trees, animals and birdsong. This is what most of western China looks like.

The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China -- the air is so polluted it causes 400,000 premature deaths every year.

Xiaoli and I have been on the road 10 hours a day for more than a week now. We are on our way from Yunnan Province to the Arjin Mountain, more than 1,000 miles west. The wilderness area is referred to by many as “the last wildlife heaven in China .” The entire drive will take us around two weeks.

To get there, we have to travel through China’s coal country. Seventy-five percent of China’s energy is derived from coal. It’s a huge concern for environmentalists inside and outside the country. We see nothing but a flat gray wilderness from our window. Stacks from coal-fired power plants and massive ongoing highway construction break up the monotony. According to environmentalists tracking China’s dependence on coal, a new coal-fired power plant goes online every week.

It sounds like an exaggeration and I wish it were, but we see no trees as we drive through Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Thirty years of unrelenting industrial growth not only has destroyed forests but also has polluted the country’s rivers, lakes, farmland and skies. You can drive for days and not see the sky.

This denuded landscape creates its own visual drama and is why China has such a problem with avalanches, mudslides, floods and sandstorms. The University of California at Davis has conducted research that shows that a third of the pollution from China is dust caused by drought and deforestation.

The air around us is heavy and hard to breath. It’s normal to feel like you’re suffocating here. During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, trees were cut down to make way for agriculture. After that, a massive logging campaign took care of what was left.

We see rivers glistening with rainbow-slicked oil residue and blocked with enormous dams at every bend. Over the past 50 years, China has built more than 86,000 dams. More than 20,000 of those account for half of the total number of dams in the world that scale more than 50 feet. To make way for this massive wave of dam construction, 16 million people were relocated, and many of their villages flooded.

Although some villagers remain in the area to help build the dams, living in crude shelter on site, they barely make enough to feed themselves, let alone their families.

China’s pollution has become such a problem it has crossed the Pacific Ocean, according to a story published by the Associated Press in August. Researchers at Mount Tamalpais State Park in California have found polluted air particles from coal-fired power plants, smelters, dust storms, and diesel trucks that have crossed the ocean on air currents. And 25 percent of the famous LA smog is made up of pollutants from China, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Occasionally, we catch sight of verdant strips of green. These are usually rows of replanted trees trying to break the three-foot mark. And there is a fledgling NGO movement in China focusing on pollution, but with such prolific growth and provinces bidding for construction projects to boost their own regional economies, few stop to ask questions about the environmental impact. Chinese environmentalists fear that the volume of pollution will quadruple over the next 15 years.

I know this makes for depressing reading but it’s even more depressing to be driving through it firsthand.

A Bright Spot on the Horizon

The scenic depravation is making this one of the toughest stretches of the journey so far. We live out of backpacks and sleep in shabby hotels. The rooms are dark and dingy, with blood-red tea stains that look like the remnants of a recent murder. Ancient cobwebs stretch across the ceilings. Often, the only sanitation is an outdoor pit toilet that looks even worse than it smells.

We arrive at a typical town, Barkam, in Sichuan Province, after nine hours on the road. The town is split in half by the So-mang River and connected by a series of small bridges, so small we hold our breath as we pass over in our four-wheel drive.

The town is populated with Han, Tibetans and Qiang. Many stand and stare as we drive along the main street looking for a hotel. The Qiang men wear sheep wool-lined vests, and the women sparkle with silver earrings, neck rings, hairpins and brooches.

Unfortunately, there’s a government convention in town, and all the hotels above a one-star rating are full. To complicate matters, I am a problem for our little entourage because only certain hotels allow foreigners as guests (I am required to register as a foreigner at every hotel we stay in). So we resign ourselves to staying in the town’s worst hotel. It’s so awful, no one bothers to ask who I am or where I am from.

During the night, prostitutes bang on our door and call on the phone relentlessly. Xiaoli and I manage a few hours of restless sleep, but our driver Zhongyue Cao stays up all night worried that someone will steal our equipment out of the Land Rover parked in front.

Xiaoli and I wake up with fresh mosquito bites covering our faces.

But it’s not all bleak and depressing. We can hardly complain the next morning after we see Tibetan Buddhists making their long treacherous journey into Tibet by foot. Many start from small towns in Yunnan Province and are heading to the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet, hundreds of miles away. They travel in small groups of four or five, carrying their supplies on their backs.

The pilgrims wrap themselves in plastic to stay warm in the subfreezing temperatures. On this journey their suffering is marked as a sign of their faith. They take a step, kneel into the mud with arms outstretched pushing their face into the dirt. Wearily they stand up, take another step and repeat the process.

Our journey seems pathetic by comparison.

Heading toward Xinjiang, we travel along the border of the Gobi Desert. We hit a dramatic sandstorm and suddenly lose all daylight. Sand begins to bury the Land Rover, but luckily, it starts to rain, then hail, and we plough through into the daylight again.

Many of the villages along the roadside lie in ruin, abandoned by residents in search of work in nearby cities. Those who remain mostly work in small, dirty factories, or you see young men, wearing yellow jumpsuits, making their way to and from the neighborhood coal mine. I see a crippled man in his underwear lying as if dead next to a pile of rotting garbage. The only movement comes from the slow rise and fall of his chest. Development and modernization have left these people behind.

May 21, 2006
Region: Border of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

We are finally closing in on Xinjiang. We could have gotten here by air, but we are driving because of the huge amount of film equipment we are carrying.

Perhaps the notion of traveling along the Silk Road, made famous by 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, also swayed our decision. In reality, much has changed since then. Today, the 7000-mile-long trade route -- through China at least -- is a series of expensive highways.

Xinjiang is the Islamic region of China, and we’d read reports that many of China’s minority cultures had been suppressed into a meager and quiet existence.

Like the Tibetans, China’s Muslims fought hard for independence and attained it with the founding, in 1933, of East Turkistan in western China. But East Turkistan was squashed by Chairman Mao’s Red Army in the 1950s when the Communists took control of China .

“Be afraid -- these people steal and can be violent,” Han Chinese warn me about the Muslims. I hear this so often that I start to worry.

The Hui are one of China’s largest minority groups, totaling more than 10 million people. You can distinguish them by their small white caps, and the old men usually grow long white beards.

We pass through many small Hui farming villages heading west. Xiaoli would translate Chinese propaganda messages painted on the mud walls of many of their houses. One hand-painted sign reads, “Join together to fight against AIDS.” Another reads, “The government wants citizens to fight to prevent the spread of AIDS.”

We wonder if these messages will help in China’s fight against the AIDS epidemic or just confuse poor minority people who may not even know what AIDS is.

A Relative Paradise

June 5, 2006
Ruoqiang County
Region: Xinjiang -- Uighur Autonomous Region

Alive like few other places on Earth, Arjin Mountain is China’s last untouched wilderness. We arrive to an apparition that shouldn’t exist through a trail of choking pollution.

But it does -- and it’s the last of its kind.

Xiaoli and I are here to film the nesting site of the endangered black-necked cranes. The cranes chose this dangerous and hostile land for laying their eggs.

This protected region, which is bigger than Taiwan, is a strange combination of Sierra-like deserts, vast swampy wetlands and Alpine snow peaks. Never having been fully mapped, it is one of the few places on Earth still holding on to its secrets like a terrified mother in the company of wolves. And it is obvious that the “wolves” will take over some day -- there are already numerous mines and factories surrounding the perimeters of Arjin.

Many lose their way in the vast desert of the park, and quite a few have died here, including two in a recent car crash. After getting hopelessly lost, a utility vehicle veered off a mountain road and plunged into a rocky ravine.

Water is scarce here and the ground is littered with the bones of dead sheep and yak. (Xiaoli and I are already filthy brown from the sun, dust and dirt.)

Xinjiang is home to much of China ’s Muslim population. Many from the Uighur ethnic group live in the region and survive as sheep herders. We watched one day as a large male sheep was slaughtered. Blood splattered across the sand as his throat was slit. Amputated hoofed legs from former victims are scattered everywhere. The Uighurs’ primary food source is tough gamey mutton. They grip the meat in their teeth and pull at it with all their might. Most meals are chased down with large quantities of rice wine, which is about 55 proof.

At an altitude of 13,000 feet at its lowest point, Arjin towers above most of mainland China . Our driver, despite being toughened by years military service, began suffering from altitude sickness after the first day. His skin turned gray, his hands began to swell and he itched all over. He looked like he’d aged 20 years in one day. With the nearest hospital three days’ away, we had to use local remedies to treat him and give him plenty of rest. But he was bedridden for most of the trip.

You are pretty much on your own out here -- no medical facilities, no phones, no showers, no toilets. That’s a scary number of “no’s.” Just as the nearest hospital was three days’ away, so is it a solid three-day drive to the nearest town for supplies. This is clearly not a tourist destination. In fact, Chinese who want to enter Arjin must apply for a permit, pay US$600 and be traveling with a registered tour company.

We cook all our food using well water that gives me a terrible bout of diarrhea, so bad that I just stop eating. Luckily I have some power bars to survive on. I am worried I won’t have enough to last me through our two weeks here. (Needless to say, I’m losing weight.)

We set up camp in a fairly new building, which, thanks to a generator, provides a few hours of electricity during the day. We use this luxury to recharge all our camera equipment.

The Uighurs are a tough desert people. Kuerban, a friend of the family living next door to our camp, is a short muscular man with small black eyes. He always shows up wearing a fake leather jacket and matching pants. One night we saw him grip his wife by the throat and proceed to choke her. He yelled something into her ear, then smiled as if he’d just told a great joke. She forced a smile as he grabbed her neck. Her dyed red hair flew violently around her head. I stared in astonishment. I guess I wasn’t in on the joke.

My helper, Tusun Sawuti, another Uighur man, has a sweet smile and a gentle temperament. He trudges through the marshes each day with me to reach the nesting sites of the black-necked cranes. There are no trees to shield us, so within about 200 feet the cranes are on to us. Each time we approach, males and females alike tilt their heads skyward and let out a shrill call, as if to say, “We see you!”

Tusun curses in Mandarin about how smart and wily these birds are. “Ta ma de! Wo hen hei jing he!” he says, which Xiaoli roughly translates to “Shit! I hate these cranes!”

The black-necked crane pairs for life. After “falling in love,” they head to Arjin Mountain to lay their eggs in what may be the last safe place in China, far into the wetlands on a little nest surrounded by three to four feet of water. This protects them from bears, hawks, wolves, foxes and humans. The female lays only two eggs a year and are neurotic about protecting them.

We have to wear rubber-fishing pants to wade through the deep muddy water. The suits are hot and hard to move in. Thick clouds of insects fill the air, so many that it’s hard not to swallow them.

Tusun is tireless as he meanders slowly through the marsh. But I’m exhausted walking long stretches this way at such a high altitude. And each time we get close enough to film, the cranes take flight.

I basically shoot blindly with a hidden camera an hour at a time. I have to run and hide some distance away and watch through binoculars -- praying to all the gods I can think of to just let one crane return to the nest. I often feel like the like the inferior species as I try to film them.

In the wetlands, between tape changes, wet, muddy, and exhausted, I have an epiphany. Perhaps it was the sun slowly cooking my brain, but in my exhaustion I “saw” Arjin Mountain for the first time.

I had been lying in a hole for nearly an hour, hiding from the watchful eye of the cranes. And as I lay hidden, the environment around me came alive. Birds came past me like crashing World War II fighters. The clouds above me froze in a sea of deep azure blue. It seemed the season had changed from midsummer to midwinter before my eyes. The ground and swamp water was alive with spiders and shellfish; then, as the sun slipped under a cloud, all life vanished. In the distance I could feel the wind from tornados, building as they tear across the desert landscape.

I felt so alive and aware sitting in my hole, outsmarted by the cranes. It was wonderful feeling so completely unburdened. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a few hours.

Such was the strange and wonderful gift of Arjin Mountain.

Thirteen/WNET PBS