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Life in the Heart of China: Part Three
Thoughts from the End of the World

By Brent E. Huffman

Baby Antelope
 

June 10, 2006
City: Qinghe County
Region: Northern Xinjiang (Arletai Area)

I have just arrived in Qinghe County in Northern Xinjiang, near the Mongolian border. Xiaoli and I are here to film the little-known Asiatic beaver that lives in the waterways here.

The Buergen River Nature Reserve reminds me of the winding Black River that ran behind my childhood home in Ohio. Here in the reserve, many rivers snake through lush green cow pastures.

The place also reminds me of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. I've always identified with Huck -- a social outcast on a journey through a troubled world. Both of us left behind our sad pasts in search of something. And right now, as I stand in a literal cloud of mosquitoes, I wonder what that something is.

Apparently this is the worst season to be here, as the mosquito larvae have recently hatched and are ready to feed. I've been bitten all over.

In the back of my mind, I worry about malaria. (This is the same part of my brain where I store worries about the deteriorating state of my teeth.) When I was filming in Afghanistan in 2004, I took anti-malaria medication, as there are infected pockets in lowland areas. But for me, the side effect of the drug was a debilitating depression.

As a person who already suffers from depression, I felt the effects tenfold and vowed never to use the medication again.

The accommodations here in the reserve are basic, something I should be used to by now. With no showers, after a couple of days I stink of dirt and bug spray. I've been on the road for months now, living out of backpacks and tents, and I feel physically and emotionally fatigued.

Filming the beaver will be another tricky assignment. They generally come out in the evening to take a dip, eat or carry something back to their nest. I get lucky and film a couple of them fighting over territory. (You can see them squaring off in the accompanying slideshow.)

Dr. Hongjun Chu, the region's beaver expert, is very passionate about these furry, athletic creatures. As soon as he spots one, he runs toward the riverbank pointing and shouting with enormous enthusiasm.

June 11, 2006

Xiaoli has just left for the United States to accept an award in Los Angeles. Her FRONTLINE/World broadcast story, "The Women's Kingdom," has just won a student Oscar. This leaves me alone, with my limited Chinese, which doesn't extend much beyond "I want" and "I don't want." My new companions are mainly Chinese government officials. Groups of them are stationed in the region, running various protection offices.

The closest I get to understanding them is at the local drinking sessions, where a dozen or more men cram into small, bare rooms with no ventilation, and smoke and drink until they are incapacitated. I was invited to many of these rituals and, from what I could gather, those lower on the totem pole drink themselves into a stupor for the amusement of their seniors. Here in Xinjiang, everyone drinks 55 percent-proof rice wine. After any of these marathons, I rarely made it back to my room without throwing up in some side alley.

I heard many stories about the role of alcohol in Chinese rural life. One local farmer who needed help from a government official had to drink four bottles of rice wine before the official would even speak with him -- at which point the poor farmer couldn't speak a word.

This is how politics works in China.

Corruption infiltrates every aspect of Chinese life. If you want something, you bribe someone. If you want your children to get into the best school, you pay someone off.

If you can't pay or you don't have family influence, then it won't happen. I was surprised to read in the China Daily about government employees who kill their bosses to get their position.

In the name of conservation, there's a wilderness site where the wealthy can pay $10,000 to kill a bighorn sheep. The shooter gets only one bullet -- therefore, only one chance -- to kill the animal. His fee is supposed to go toward funding the various protection offices in the area, but it more likely winds up in some official's pocket.

Only once in my six months at various protection sites across western China have I met a government employee doing conservation work who didn't appear to be on the take. Hongzhong Yu is the director of the black-necked crane site in Shangri-la. He didn't drive an expensive SUV with tinted windows, like many of his peers. Instead, he drove a borrowed, beaten-up '79 Honda and lived in a small mud house near the reserve. The government, angry with him for his views, took away his car.

I felt that Yu was doing genuine conservation work. He went public with a statement that the hotel chains in Shangri-la were dumping pollution into the water supply. He said that the government had punished him after he told this to a TV crew from Hong Kong investigating China's pollution problems.

I saw the water at the crane site. It looked like a mix of oil and detergent, with everything from used tires to plastic Coke bottles floating on the surface.

"I see the future... it is murder."

June 15, 2006

Xiaoli has just returned from the States. She barely recognizes the pale, thin ghost that picks her up at the airport. But she hugs me anyway.

After a brief break in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, we'll be heading back to the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve to film the calving ground of the Tibetan antelope.

With a few days' break and a little hotel comfort in Urumqi, I've started to put some thoughts down about why I have this impression that being in China is like being at the end of the world -- in a civilization built on a cliff, overlooking a vast expanse of nothingness.

I know that being on the road for a long time, away from familiar things and creature comforts, can play havoc with your worldview. But traveling through some of the desolate factory towns in Gansu Province, I begin to feel that this is where culture, humanitarianism and concern for the environment come to their end, crushed by an industrial machine so large that it consumes everything in its path and greased, for the most part, by a patriarchal establishment based on corruption, alcohol and prostitution.

But, in reality, China is just following America's lead. America is the fat, spoiled child China wants to emulate -- a culture that has done, and will do, pretty much anything to maintain its consumptive lifestyle.

What I have seen in China, after months' traveling deep into the heart of the country, isn't rosy. Even as a filmmaker hired to cover China's efforts to protect its dwindling wildlife reserves, I see endangered animals being killed by poachers and their habitats encroached on by factories and mines.

As Leonard Cohen said, "I see the future... it is murder."

Since I travel with an iPod, it seems fitting that I should tell you what I've been listening to as I travel to the end of the world thinking these gloomy thoughts.

Belle and Sebastian -- Fuck this Shit
Arcade Fire -- No Cars Go
David Bowie -- Five Years
Leonard Cohen -- The Future
Music from The "Undertow" Soundtrack -- The Chase
Tom Waits -- Five Magic Bullets
Joy Division -- Glass
The Stooges -- We Will Fall
Guided by Voices -- I'll Replace You With Machines
The "Candyman" Soundtrack -- Floating Candyman
Patti Smith -- Pissing in a River
Radiohead -- Polyethylene (Parts 1 and 2)
Wolf Parade -- Same Ghost Every Night
Type O Negative -- Glass Walls of Limbo
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- Death Is Not the End

Fistfights and Gold Mines

Area: Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region/Western China

June 21, 2006

Tensions are high on the cold and empty Qinghai Plateau. We are more than 16,000 feet high, in the western part of the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve, an area closed to anyone without a permit.

Tent life, car trouble and subfreezing temperatures are beginning to take their toll on our work for the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS). We've come back to the Arjin Reserve to film the calving ground of the elusive Tibetan antelope.

On this part of our assignment, we're a motley crew of 20 that reminds me of the movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I've cast myself as the sensitive, brooding Willem Dafoe character, and Wong How Man, president of CERS, as the womanizing adventurer played by Bill Murray.

Our group includes some invited filmmakers, some high-paying tourists, some animal researchers and scientists, and assorted support staff. Judging by what happened today, I should be making a documentary about the team, not the disappearing wildlife.

A fistfight broke out at lunch over a woman. Ayah Shifu, a Tibetan driver, insulted Berry Sin, who helps coordinate these trips for How Man. Shifu accidentally broke some photography equipment while he was trying to reassemble the back seat of the Land Rover.

Some of the equipment belonged to Berry, and she began yelling at him, to which Shifu responded, "Shut up, you bitch."

When Chih-hong Wang, the editor of the Taiwanese magazine Rhythms Monthly, tried to defend Berry, the two men lunged at each other, pulling each other's hair and shoving one another like a couple of kids in their first fight.

Shifu looked heartbroken later, when How Man told him to pack up and leave the expedition. I know he was looking forward to going to Tibet with us to see Lhasa, a deeply spiritual place for all Tibetans.

June 25, 2006

It's midsummer, and we've been through three snowstorms in the last few days. Our vehicles are constantly getting stuck in the mud or having a flat. It took us four days to drive on rocky, unpaved roads from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, 400 miles away. Several crew members are already so sick from the altitude that they've had to use the portable hyperbolic chamber to readjust.

Altitude sickness brings on a number of unpleasant symptoms, including crushing headaches, chest pains, vomiting pink foam and death. Somehow, it's the pink foam that seems the worst.

Two of our drivers and a Taiwanese cameraman have been inside the chamber several times. The cameraman is a six-foot-four, fit and muscular guy, but he's completely incapacitated and spends the entire trip flat out in his tent.

Xiaoli and I are lucky, as our symptoms are no worse than first-night headaches. For me, the high altitude kicks me onto an entirely different plane. I am in a constant state of hyperalertness, spewing all sorts of philosophical thoughts about life, capitalism and film theory, most of it to Dr. William Bleisch, the only person on the expedition I can talk my niche nonsense to. We share a love of literature and Thomas Mann. A tattered copy of Dr. Faustus is my nighttime entertainment.

Most of the time, we live inside indestructible orange tents that can withstand any amount of wind, sleet, snow and rain.

Xiaoli and I blow our brains out trying to inflate our sleeping mats, before we learn that they are "self-inflating." The sheer frustration of it all causes a fight, and we start yelling how this wouldn't have happened if the other wasn't so retarded.

Working with your spouse in prolonged conditions like this is a surefire way to end a marriage. And it's not as if I don't know my own limitations. I am a perfection-loving ultraserious German, who can't help but find fault and it's generally me that I get angry with.

June 29, 2006

We're lucky to film three newborn calves today. The brown, wet lumps are extremely difficult to spot, hidden among rocks and sagebrush. The calves look just like "Bambi," with their big, innocent black eyes and soft, velvety fur. According to reports by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Tibetan antelope is fast disappearing. There were several million of them 100 years ago but fewer than 75,000 today. Babies like these are becoming a rarity.

Dr. Bleisch, here to study the antelope, notices a sharp decline in their numbers this year. He says it's because of poaching, even though the government has cracked down on both poaching and illegal gold mining in the area.

Dr. Bleisch first visited the calving ground with CERS in the early 1990s. On return visits, he and his group made gruesome discoveries -- piles of dead infants and mothers killed and skinned for their fur. Unborn babies are even ripped from their mothers' wombs for the fur off their bodies.

The antelope's fur is used to make the highly prized "shahtoosh" shawl. It takes two or three pelts to make one shawl, and some shawls fetch as much as $20,000. I am not exaggerating. Even though the shawls are now banned in China, there's a thriving black market for these prestigious fashion items. The pelts are smuggled from China to India's Kashmir province, where the shawls are woven. Unfortunately, the shahtoosh trade is a legal and viable business in Kashmir.

The shawls and other shahtoosh products are then illegally shipped to Delhi and, from there, to the world fashion centers of London, New York, Paris and Milan. There's also a steady illicit trade over the Internet.

On this trip, the team doesn't find any direct evidence of poaching but does discover that the three gold mines in the reserve, right next to the calving ground, have expanded rapidly.

Miners here dig directly into the earth, not into rock, creating miles of earth with scars hundreds of meters deep. These vast earthmoving operations appear to yield only small amounts of the precious metal.

Xiaoli and I interview some of the workers, Hui Muslims, who are paid a meager salary to leave their families and live on site. The mines are big operations, approved by the Chinese government and run by local authorities. They run 24 hours a day, and each miner works a 12-hour shift.

The young mine workers seemed thrilled to see us -- a relief, no doubt, from the monotony of the work and the sheer isolation of this place. Most are boys or men around 15 to 25 years old. To pass time, they wrestle each other on the dusty desert floor.

The mines are a haven for poachers and also provide roads by which they can enter the reserve. Otherwise, they would have to live out in the open desert and trek cross-country into the reserve. The mining has created havoc in the antelopes' habitat, dumping huge amounts of toxic pollution and garbage into the area, and driving enormous trucks and SUVs straight through the calving areas.

Little did we know, but Tusen, whom we met while filming the black-necked cranes, used to work for the poachers by skinning dead antelope.

I've seen pictures of slaughtered mothers and babies in the hundreds, lying in massive, bloody heaps. It's a shocking sight. Still, the ridiculous amounts of money to be made are enough to lure even good people like Tusen into the work.

There are two 17-year-old interns with us in Arjin. They are a part of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO). For you to be a member of the group, your family must own and run a business with a net worth of more than $10 million.

The girl's father is the founder and president of a well-known clothing brand. The boy's father created a famous software product. On average, these YPO trips cost $15,000 a person.

I learn that "Erica" and "Thomas" go to private college-like high schools and live in their own apartments, even though they are still teenagers.

Erica tells me that her mother made sure she learned French, because "It is the language of the aristocracy, while Spanish is the language of the migrant workers." "It's dirty and unsophisticated," her mother told her.

Growing up poor, while raising my younger brother in Ohio, I can't help but despise these kids (in theory anyway). They are funny and friendly enough in person. Both of them found out about the trip in an email sent by their parents' secretaries.

After this excursion, Erica was off to Switzerland and Thomas to Hong Kong.

Xiaoli and I are off to remotest western Tibet.

China Diaries: Part Four  Go

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