Life in the Heart of China: Part One
INTRODUCTION: Why China, And Why Me!
Growing up in rural Ohio surrounded by cornfields in the heart of Amish country,
I never imagined going to China. But these days I always seem to find myself
in unexpected places.
In 2004, I fell in love with Xiaoli Zhou, a talented television
producer from Shanghai. We met at the journalism school in Berkeley, California,
where we were both studying for our master’s in documentary filmmaking.
Xiaoli was my first real introduction to the mysteries of this
tightly controlled country.
In late 2005, we met Wong How Man, a native of Hong Kong and
president of the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS). He was looking
for a filmmaking team crazy enough to spend six months or more traveling through
China’s remotest corners to shoot and produce five documentaries for
the Discovery Channel. The themes of these films would vary from endangered
exotic animals to vanishing minority cultures. During those six months, we
would be traveling the entire western perimeter of the country and back again.
The scope of the project was daunting, but I knew it was a challenge I couldn’t
How Man would supply us with a vehicle, a driver and essential
survival gear, including professional expedition tents and clothing to stay
alive in high altitudes and freezing temperatures. He was also
connected enough to get us into areas normally off limits
to Westerners and Chinese alike.
We broke the lease on our comfortable apartment in Oakland,
California, and sold most of our belongings.
Our cars went back to the dealership
and we put the remaining tidbits of our lives into storage. I packed
film equipment and a supply of Thomas Mann novels and took a
15-hour flight to Shanghai.
It’s perhaps naïve, but I try to live my life in
the vein of a favorite quote of mine by poet John Berryman:
“We must walk in the direction of our fear.”
The Mysteries of the Wa
February 10, 2006
Region: Yunnan Province
Xiaoli and I are filming the Wa ethnic minority in a remote
part of southwest Yunnan, close to the border with Myanmar (also known as Burma).
When we rolled into a small Wa village in our red Land Rover, Wa children,
like most Chinese children in rural villages, stopped in their tracks as they
caught sight of me through the window.
It’s fair to say that this village hasn’t seen many
foreigners—with my pinkish skin and reddish brown beard, some of them
wanted to reach out and touch me to check I was real.
Wa men have long jet-black hair and the women exotic Burmese
faces and beautiful almond shaped eyes. The straw thatched huts of their villages
remind you more of Africa than of China.
Given the remoteness of the region, these tribes have lived
relatively unchanged for thousands of years. As part of their animist culture,
they still practice sacrificial ceremonies -- although they’re no longer
the head hunters they’re ancestors used to be -- and many of their traditions
are displayed on ancient murals painted in blood and iron on several cliff
faces nearby. But with the spread of Buddhism and Christianity their numbers
are dwindling. And as China continues to develop, elders are finding it harder
to keep the younger generations from leaving for the big city.
The legacy of the Cultural Revolution still hangs over many
of the minority groups in China. Terrible punishment was inflicted on those
who were caught practicing their faith during the revolution, when all religious
practices were banned. Today, many still fear that oppression will return.
There are 55 ethnic minorities in China, and the Wa people are
the only ones who don’t have a written language.
(Even though an alphabetic script was created for the Wa
people in 1957, many tribes don't use it.) Important political,
legal and romantic messages are conveyed using small foot-long sticks.
Tribal members communicate by cutting small, but precise slits
into these sticks, which they always carry with them. The carvings and the
way the sticks are arranged provide a wide, but exact range of meanings, from “I
love you” to “I detest you and want to kill you.”
Many Wa villages are teaming with water buffalo, a sacred animal
in their culture. Buffalo reliefs are embroidered into men’s jackets,
and the skulls of sacrificed animals hang in the houses of the village chiefs
Back in the days when humans were sacrificed, the head of a
bearded man was considered the ultimate sacrificial offering. Wa shamans believed
the growth of a beard would greatly increase crop yields.
The region’s tourism director, Yunjiang He, informs us
that Wa women are famous across China for their “great beauty and loose
sexuality.” Some of this reputation comes from a ritual they perform,
where two women sit on a man’s lap and force-feed him gasoline-strength
rice wine. Our driver, Zhongyue Cao, offered to take part as long as we promised
not to tell his wife and 12-year-old daughter.
He confided later that the ritual had changed. In the past,
the women would feel under your shirt and you were allowed to do the same in
return. These women, he said, do not wear bras.
Not surprisingly, this activity has been exploited into a lurid
tourist attraction. The ritual we were invited to was still rowdy, with much
drinking but little else. Those looking for more are pointed to the nearest city of
Nansan, where there are sex parlors and hotels, lit in neon
red, catering to the sex trade.
Our driver also told us that in the nearby “Golden Triangle,” where
the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, he was once attacked by a group
of prostitutes. They carried him down a back alley and proceeded to molest
February 17, 2006
Xiaoli and I have been filming the Wa people for a week now.
Tonight, for the first time, I ate dog. It was served in a rich, dark-colored
stew. I had just gotten my palate prepared to deal when I saw someone root
around in the broth for the snout. Finding the orifice, the man chewed it with
the delight of finding a rare delicacy.
Dessert wasn’t a whole lot better. We ate fried pregnant
wasps that were about four inches long. The food in these parts was proving
a little rich for this Ohio boy …
The Yunnan Province is home to a dramatic network of underground
caverns. Today, we explored one more than seven-and-a-half miles long and close
to 330 feet high. It was pitch-black inside, but our flashlights found deep
reddish brown earth and towering stalagmites and stalactites. It was incredible,
like walking on Mars during an eclipse. I thought what a great place it would
be to shoot a science fiction movie.
I was there to film several families of bats and some large
cave crickets. A slick layer of mud coats the floor of the caves and filming
inside was quite tricky.
Tourism has become an increasingly lucrative business for China as the country
embraces capitalism at 100 miles an hour, and the government is interested in developing
the caves for visitors.
I read in the China Knowledge Press that
China’s tourism industry was worth US$60 billion in 2005 -- and
it’s growing. The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that by the
end of 2006, the sector will employ 10 percent of China’s work force --
some 77 million people.
With the rate of change here, I’m sure unexplored caves
like these will soon become rare as government agencies convert the caverns
into fully lit spectacles with concrete walkways, underground rest rooms, and
full-service restaurants. Another vast cave, at Sigangli in nearby Cangyuan
County, is already being developed this way.
We found out that a few of these caverns lead into Myanmar from
China and decided to hike through one of them to see what it was like on the
other side. It should be noted that the Myanmar side looked identical to the
Police checkpoints were everywhere, searching vehicles for drugs.
Even though security was tight, we found numerous spots along the border fence
where wide holes had been cut, and like many border crossings, there were plenty
of brothels and cheap hotels to choose from.
We leave the Wa village tomorrow. Xiaoli and I are off to spend
the next month filming the extremely rare snub-nosed golden monkeys of southern
Death on the Road
March 5, 2006
Region: Yunnan Province
What follows happened two days ago. Every time I close my eyes,
I replay the event in my mind. I’d better just get it out of my system
and onto the page.
Driving back from the Burmese border to Shangri-La, we came
upon what at first appeared to be a traffic jam in a poor farming town. We
got out of our Land Rover to investigate and discovered a grisly traffic accident.
A small van in the left lane had collided with a massive dump truck. The people
in the dump truck were fine.
Those in the small van, a cheaply made Chinese model, were not
so lucky. The driver was a horror. It looked as if someone had peeled back
the older man’s face to reveal the muscle and gore underneath. His left
eye was obliterated, and his lower torso was smashed into the thickness of
a sheet of paper. At first he seemed to be alive, but on closer examination,
it was apparent that the twitching was merely severed nerves acting out. Next
to him was a young woman who was, perhaps, unlucky to be alive. Her legs were
also crushed, and her face had large open cuts from hitting the windshield.
She was obviously on her way to bleeding to death. She seemed to drift in and
out of consciousness and would yell out, “Hurry, get me out. Please help
me.” She didn’t seem to be affected by the sight of her dead companion
A crowd had gathered around the smashed van. Most Chinese men
were carelessly smoking cigarettes around the wreckage. We saw puddles of leaked
gasoline on the ground and quickly backed up our vehicle.
Police arrived, but they had no equipment to cope with the wreckage.
The crowd managed to pull the broken bodies into the street, using crowbars
and their bare hands. It was about 45 minutes before the ambulance got there.
The driver of the van had a half-empty bottle of Chinese rice
alcohol in his pocket. Locals recognized him as a drunk. So it seems perhaps
his fate was destined. The female passenger probably did not survive, though
at this point we have no way of knowing for sure. Unfortunately, we couldn’t
stop and follow her to the hospital. We had to continue to Shangri-La. I can
still see her when I close my eyes.
I describe this scene because such is life on the highways in
a country with the highest number of accident-related fatalities in the world.
According to research conducted at the medical school of Jinan University,
in Guangzhou , the death rate in China per 10,000 people is eight times higher
than in America, where there are far more vehicles on the road.
Now I always wear my seatbelt.
The Mighty Mastiffs
April 18, 2006
Region: Yunnan Province
I am writing this from a mastiff kennel high up the village
of Gujiu, close to Tibet in western China. When I say high up, altitudes in
the region range between 12,000 and 17,000 feet, and it’s home to many
Tibetans. We’re here to make a film about the Chinese mastiff, which
is under threat. There are 14 adult dogs and three newborn puppies at the center.
The mastiff is perhaps China’s oldest breed of dog. Tibetan
nomads used them to guard livestock because of their ability to endure the
harsh Tibetan climate and because of their fierce temperament. The dogs were
used to fight off wolves and snow leopards, and unscrupulous thieves and poachers.
Fewer than 100 purebred mastiffs remain in the world today,
according to a recent story in the People's Daily Online, over
the years, breeders have mixed the dogs with other breeds to create a more
docile mastiff. Purists feel this has ruined the mastiff’s unique traits.
Wong How Man, from CERS, is trying to reverse this trend. The
dogs have been brought to the center from high plateaus across Tibet. How Man
wanted only the best mastiffs the region had to offer.
A true mastiff has a big head, nearly twice the size of a human’s,
and the males grow what appears to be a full lion’s mane in the winter.
Genuine mastiffs also have an extra toe on their hind paws, a feature that
time has yet to evolve away.
It took a superhuman effort to transport these huge and unruly
animals on a weeklong drive from Tibet to the center here in Gujiu Village.
During the journey, the dogs bit several Tibetan handlers, and many became
ill, as they were not accustomed to riding in bumpy vehicles at lower altitudes.
How Man hopes to breed enough mastiffs to replenish the population
in Gujiu. He will give one purebred mastiff to each family in the village.
But they are not allowed to sell them to a breeder.
April 20, 2006
Today, an enormous and vicious mastiff lunged for my throat.
The animal had choked himself violently pulling at his metal leash until it
snapped in two. With that, he shot at me like a bat out of Hell, clearly after
blood. His jaw was a mere 12 inches from my neck.
The foaming beast, named Renruo, had already bitten Bainiu,
his caretaker, three times. Bainiu finally grabbed the beast by the fur, but
was bitten again on the hand and had to let go. In that split second, the dog
went for Xiaoli and me. We ran for our lives and barricaded ourselves behind
the door of our lodging.
For some reason, we brought out the fury in Renruo.
I must say I have to respect a dog that wants to kill me. He
has become my favorite of the dogs here.
He was given to CERS by Zum Kang Tashe, a direct descendant
of the seventh Dalai Lama. Most people just call him the Rinpoche, (“Living
Buddha”) for short. He’s a rebellious soul and is protected by
his status as a high-ranking religious figure. He is also a devoted animal
lover and activist who likes to visit and pet every mastiff, even the vicious
While visiting the center, the Rinpoche, who lives in Sichuan
Province, told us about a controversial event he had organized the previous
month. He had summoned people from his hometown to burn thousands of rare and
endangered animal furs. The Dalai Lama had already ordered Buddhists to stop
buying furs, but he hadn’t ordered the furs to be destroyed.
The Rinpoche took his directive one stage further bringing nearly
30,000 Buddhists together to burn tiger and leopard skins, mink stoles, and
other rarities. The massive bonfire literally burned green as thousands of
furs went up in flames.
Furious over his actions, the Chinese government sent officials
to threaten him with imprisonment. “Go ahead,” the Rinpoche replied,
and the government thought twice about throwing a descendant of the Dalai Lama
We spent a few days with the Rinpoche and interviewed him for
our film. He later showed us a homemade DVD he shot of the furs going up in
For more information on the fur burning, visit this link (the
site is one of thousands blocked by the Chinese government, so I can’t
access it myself):
The Last of the Hunters
April 22, 2006
I want to backtrack a little and mention that before arriving
at the mastiff center, Xiaoli and I spent a month at a rural Lisu tribal village
in Yunnan Province , inside the beautiful White Horse Snow Mountain Nature
Reserve. It felt very remote -- no phones, no Internet, no toilets.
We were shooting a documentary about the relationship between
the endangered Yunnan snub-nosed golden monkey and the equally endangered Lisu
hill tribe people. There are only 1,500 golden monkeys in the world, most living
in the Yunnan Province in southern China. This affords them Class One Protection
status in China.
Like the monkeys, the Lisu hill tribe is
under threat – not in numbers but in their way of life and ancient hunting
traditions. As outsiders encroach upon their world, many of the Lisu have
started to assimilate, adopting more of the traditions of Tibetans and Han
Chinese. The first thing I noticed about the tribe is how short they are --
about four inches shorter than your average Han Chinese.
With so much of their identity linked to their role as hunters, they've become
pale reflections of their former selves. Yet, even without the ban,
they never hunted the golden monkeys, whom
they believe to be their ancestors. The tribal elders told us the legend of
the young Lisu boy who gets hopelessly lost on the mountain. Soon white hair
begins to grow all over his small body. His clothing rots away from exposure
to the elements. The little boy is afraid to leave the mountain, as he fears
the Lisu will no longer accept him. He has become a snub-nosed golden monkey.
The Lisu now survive by collecting highly prized morel mushrooms
on the mountain and honey from beehives they keep near their houses. Three
pounds of the dried morel mushrooms go for nearly US$100. Lisu men also make
extra money by working as rangers in the White Horse Snow Mountain Nature Reserve
protecting the golden monkeys from wild dogs and poachers.
Although the golden monkeys are matriarchal and generally relatively
peaceful, we caught on film a rare fight sequence between two adult males.
They would furiously slap each other for about 10 seconds and bound away,
then return to repeat the performance. Later, we saw the energetic babies play-fight
with one another, imitating the adults.
The chief of the Lisu village, Yu Xuelang, has a wonderful sense
of humor, and at 54, the energy of a teenager. He accompanied us every day
into the jungle to film the elusive creatures.
During our time with the Lisu, Xiaoli and I slept in a traditional
log cabin that had a single shower.
The shower was broken half the time, and the cabin became infested with fleas.
(For some reason, the tiny insects did not bite me, but they loved Xiaoli,
leaving huge, red, itchy welts all over her body.) We were happy to leave that
Despite the living conditions, the Lisu village is astonishingly
beautiful, with snowy mountain peaks and lush green jungle surrounding it.
It’s my favorite of the CERS protected sites.
Next we are off to Xinjiang Province, an Islamic area in the
far west of China, to film the hatching process of the black-neck cranes inside
the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve.
This high-altitude reserve will be a true test of our stamina,
as living and working there is extremely difficult. We will also be traveling
through some of the most polluted landscapes in China.