LEE'S TRAVELS: DESERT FIRE AND THE YELLOW RIVER

Hey AWS,
One of the Chinese participants who visited the Anacostia with me back in March is the deputy director of water resources in Alxa, which is the western most section of Inner Mongolia. He was able to pull together many of his colleagues to hold a small conference before we left. It was really great to be able to interview each of the local government officials regarding wastewater treatment, drinking water, industrial waste water disposal, and reforestation/ revegetation efforts. Later that day we traveled out of Inner Mongolia to the Ningxia province to a small town called Zhongwei. It was a long and beautiful bus ride through sand dunes as far as the eye could see. 

We also saw camels and some goats in the more vegetated areas. Once in the town of Zhongwei we sat down for dinner and met Mr. An, who is an official at the Provincial Governmental level, who is in the Environmental Protection Ministry in Ningxia. He is also a good friend of Michael who pulled Mr. An into the project to show us around and teach us about the province and what he does. At dinner Mr. An made numerous toasts in Chinese which Michael translated for us.  Later that night he hopped onto our bus and showed us around town. He is one of the wildest Chinese people I've ever encountered. No, actually he is the wildest and most spontaneous person I have ever met! 
He smokes like a chimney and is extremely direct and honest, almost to the point of being abrasive. Although I can't understand what he says, his personality transcends the language barrier. I really like this guy! He brought us to see the sunset on the Yellow River. Even though we showed up a half hour late it was still very beautiful. Here is a picture of me playing guitar by the river.

Then Mr. An wanted to show us the locals, so we went to a place that I gather is similar to a bed and breakfast in the United States. It turned out to be a peasant house where people from the city visit to spend a weekend in the countryside. When we showed up to the house Mr. An got out and spoke loudly with a woman there. 

Only a few of us understood what was being said, but there was one phrase that someone translated for me.  These are the words of the peasant woman, who so far on this trip is the only peasant we've encountered: "The great dragon is no match for the local snake."  Immediately after these words Mr. An got back on the bus, talked to the driver and we rode away. Michael announced that we were going to have a campfire in the desert instead of hanging out with the peasants. We pulled over next to a large sand dune, got out and walked into the desert.  I left my shoes on the bus. There were a few people there who worked for Mr. An and maybe some of them were his friends as well.  They gathered things that would burn and started a nice fire.  It was cold in the desert and the fire was a welcome contrast.  Once the fire was big and ablaze Mr. An proceeded to leap over it and since he made it look like so much fun I followed suit.  I sat in the sand with a guitar I had bought in Beijing for 300 Yuen (like $50) and his people brought out beer.  We drank to our health and I played every song I could remember.  At the end of the night we all improvised a song we later called "the yin and yang blues."
The next morning I got up for an early run around the small town and encountered a couple hundred people in the town square doing tai chi together and on the outskirts I saw some younger people kicking around a feathered hacky sack.

The Yellow River, which gets its name from the color of its water, has not reached the ocean since the 1980s. The color is due to fine sand particles suspended in its water. The Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers begin very close to one another in far NW China, separated by a mountain range. Here is a picture of the Yellow River near the town of Zhongwei. In this picture notice that you can see the tops of the mountains in the distance but you can’t see the bottoms.  This is due to the air pollution from heavy industry, mostly electrical production in the town.  The pollution just hangs around on a still day. 

As we got closer to the river I realized that it was flowing pretty fast. 
In this picture there are rafts made of wood and sheep skin balloons. People get on these rafts and float down the Yellow River.  We also visited a small dam which is used for hydro power and also serves to break up and divert much of the water in the yellow river for agricultural and other purposes. The pictures below shows a dam which generates electricity and the other shows water being diverted for various uses.

We sat with Mr. An and a few people who work with him for a question and answer period. Mr. An helps run a research center on environmental issues in his province. It is a major national lab on desertification.  There is a train track that successfully travels through this desert region. 

Mr. An and his group make this possible by controlling sand drifts with matted straw grids that are built primarily by migrant workers.  The project is so successful at keeping the railways open that it has won many environmental awards in China.  We asked Mr. An many questions such as "If this is a great model where else in the world is it being replicated?"  It seemed as if it wasn't being replicated anywhere else, although with a language barrier it is sometimes difficult to get the answers.  I asked what was being done to engage the community in these environmental efforts and Mr. Ans immediate response was "why are you concerned with ethnic minorities?" (this was translated for my by Liz who was sitting next to me).  I think the question carried a lot of baggage that I wasn't thinking about.  I've gathered that there isn't much effort in public awareness and empowerment, but rather a philosophy that punitive measures will achieve the necessary results, such as charging a fee for using more water than you've been allotted by the government.  I believe that it is impossible to control what 1.3 billion people will do and that in addition to such punitive measures there also needs to be a certain level of empowerment given to the people to take conservation efforts into their own hands.  My impression from talking with people here is that it is something that the government is apprehensive about, but I think there are ways to make it work for everyone.  Again I'm looking forward to the symposium in Shanghai.

      

Signing off,

Lee

June 17, 2010

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