Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Walled Culture

I crossed many sites with a plaque saying that the dirt pile next to it was part of the Great Wall, from far back to even older than 200BC to 1400 and further on. It was indeed quite amazing to think that someone that long ago actually was working on what was under my feet. That thought gave me the chill.

And so, in a way, for more than 2000 years, the culture of the “central kingdom”, the culture I was born in, has been building walls. And it seems like the habit continues. Any institution, company, any “unit” has walls around it.

Do we really need these walls?

These walls reminded me of those fences in the desert grassland. They look ridiculous. Sand buried them so easily it became a permanent job to repair them. Had the money used in keeping up these fences was given to the herders, they would be so willingly happy to put a halt on herding, if that’s the reason of the desert degradation — but that isn’t. Those at the bottom, those without a human voice are the easiest target for problems elsewhere.

Mosques and White Caps

At least three mosques in this very small town covered in dust. Their shiny colors stood out especially against the colorless streets and houses.

It was later in the afternoon. From a handful of shops near the market, smoke rose up slowly from the long chimneys sticking way out. I heard some chanting and followed it toward one of the mosques. But, it stopped before I could get there. Very soon, men in white caps came out, some got on their bike, some walked. One biked away slowly in front of me, his white cap covered in thick winter hat.

It is a muslim community. This province has the highest concentration of muslim population in China. Many branches of believes, and for the most parts, they peacefully believe their own chosen sect. It is also one of the poorest part of the country. The land is bone dry and there is nothing much to dig up underneath.

By the entrance to the open-air market was a make-shift slaughter stand. Two sheep carcasses hanged from the hooks, blood still dripping. The butcher took in orders from those walking by.

My knowledge of the Huis, the minority group in which most of them are muslims, was limited to the fact that they don’t eat pork. There was a famous novel called “Muslim’s Funeral” that I found quite moving when I read it in high school. The name “muslim” even sounded mysterious and pure. Nothing more. Now, there are definitely a few versions of what the muslims are really like portrayed by various media. I shall return sometime later to a nearby area where there is a high mixture of people believing in various religious, muslim, christian, buddhism all live in one village. Later though, desert and camel first.

To film or not to film

It’s drier than the desert here. Yellow soil, dust, dirt, more dust. It snowed lightly the night I came here, and that added a sense of sadness somehow. Those who came before me gave this place a romantic sounding name that is impossible to translate, but it would include west, ocean, keeping. No oceans in the middle of the middle kingdom, and water here is so hard to find a village calls itself “crying for water”. It’s the high plateau of the yellow soil.

In the morning, there was no bus going to the ruin I wanted to see because of the icy road. So I just hopped on another bus that took me through the dirty country side, not knowing where its destination was. City scenes gave way to barren fields and brick and mud houses.

Something about this place that made me just want to be silent. I even hesitated to take out my camera.

Aesthetic of suffering, maybe that’s the word, and that’s the question on my mind. Under what situation, is it appropriate to photograph something, a place, people that are suffering? Do I have the right to do that as someone just passing by?

A small town to get off. Squeaking loud horn from big trucks. Dingy repair shops. Shops selling car-wheel sized hard-as-stone breads. Trash frozen in sewage on the street. I didn’t have the courage to photography this desert, a desert even more destitute than the real desert I have just visited, with camels.

So, why I choose these places? Something about the suffering of one place and its people that makes it look beautiful on screen? Was I looking for some sort of village utopia that would only exist in my fantasies? It’s all too easy to beautify, to hero-ize, to sensationalize, and suffer-ize what one sees. In this place and any other places, I am and will always be an outsider looking through my lens, do I have the knowledge and emotional capacity to film it right, without simplifying and generalizing? Do I have the courage to go in and really feel it with my heart? To this one, I have to say no. Maybe when I grow stronger I can, but not now yet. For now, I’m sticking to the real desert. Think those who deal with real sufferings. Hats off to James Nachtwey.

Unexpected encounter

It turns out, my guide to the desert is the son of a lama. During the cultural revolution, all the lamas in the area were let go from the monasteries and went home. Around here, they became camel herders, got married, and were forced to kill sheep and cows. In the 1980s, they were allowed to return. Most of the monasteries have been destroyed during that time. These few years, with tourism money and donation from elsewhere, they are gradually getting rebuilt.

So, when I asked to pay a visit to the monastery, my guide took me to visit his father, and his mother too, who now live there together. The old lama has an amazing look with smile on his face. I would love to know more of his story. Over cell phone, he takes in calls from his patients and prescribes traditional Tibetan medicine. Jars of powders on the small table in his small room, high in the Helan Mountain. Lots of crows flying around.

Ships of the desert

Their eyes are moist and shiny, quite tender-looking but when you get close enough, they make sure you know they don’t belong in a fence.

The moment the herder let me grab onto the hump of one of his camels, I fell in love with them. The hair was so nice to the touch and even in the -10C -ish temperature, it didn’t feel cold at all. They walked very smoothly and it felt really safe sitting between the two humps. How lucky I was. I didn’t come here for the camels, and I didn’t even know they have camels here until I entered the desert.

On the way here, we saw a herd already. My guide told me that that was a group of female with one mating male, who was responsible for taking care of the girls. During the mating season, the chosen male will get on a trance-like period that could last two months long, without eating and drinking so he gets thin enough to mount the girls. “Mad” is the word the herders use to describe the state. Not sure for the lucky male camel, that’s a blessing or a mission impossible.

Two-humped Bactrian camels here are semi-domestic, semi-wild. In the winter time, they stay close to the herder’s home. The mating group stay together, the pregnant females stay together, and the herders use the time to train the other males. In the old times, the camel caravan would set out during winter, trading salt from nearby salt lake for grains from trading posts on the silk road. When spring comes, the females give birth. And after their hairs were cut, the camels would set out on their own, far into the desert, sometimes hundreds of miles away and won’t return home until winter comes again. From even the foot print, the experienced herders can tell if that’s from one of theirs.They use their camels to forecast the weather; they sing to them if a young mother rejects her calf; they talk about their camels as if they are their children. When the buyer comes, the camels know and cry, big tears coming down from their eyes, I was told.

The camels used to be the main livelihood for the herders, their clothes, their dwelling, their transportation, food, all came from camels. The desert needs the camels too, trimming help the grass stays healthy, their long hair help spread the grass seeds, their big feet help cover the holes of the rodents so their number is kept in check. Some of the desert plants are so high in salinity they can only be consumed by camels. Through camels, the herders actually take an important role in the health of the desert ecosystem. That’s an inspiring thought for me, that there is a role for us human for the well-being of the ecosystem other than minimizing our impact and calling others to minimize their impact, and that our participation does not end at solely benefiting and sustaining ourselves, and that there are places on the planet where we are needed and we can be a vital link in the ecosystem, where we could be a positive, contributing player.

How special these camels are.

Something about desert from people living in the desert

What I’ve learned so far:

Desert people don’t look at sand as annoyance, instead, sand is vital to the desert ecosystem. They transport water quickly down; many plants in the desert need sand to help them spread; there is a big difference between healthy desert with a combination of stable and moving sand and other landscape turning into desert. Beneath a healthy desert here in Alxa, it is not uncommon to dig a small hole of a foot deep and find water. When it looks like rain is coming in the spring, herders would bury their sheep in the sand up to their neck so they won’t freeze to death.

There are so much life in the desert. The plants here have evolved to have so many ingenious ways to survive. And it is not necessarily a good thing to have more plants especially trees in the desert. A sparsely vegetated desert where camels come and trim regularly stays healthier than a deserted desert. When sandstorms hit big cities hundreds of miles away, please don’t blame the camels who graze here, think whoever that hijacked the water source that feeds the desert from underneath.

Nomadic culture has survived on the desert land for thousands of years and there are good reasons why. It is a moving culture and a culture of rounds — gers, fences, and of adaptations. The agricultural ideas are sedentary, squared — plot of land, houses, and built upon modifying nature, to however degree. It’s not really wise to apply agriculture concepts to nomadic land, but it is happening here in the Tengger desert and elsewhere. Herders are encouraged to give up camel herding and turn into farmers, even though the water usage of farming could be hundreds of times higher that of herding; the used-to-be open pastures where camels could roam freely and rotate their feeding grounds were separated into individual properties that eventually led to degradation. When people equate nomadic with backward and “underdeveloped”, they are letting go of thousands of years of wisdom. What is behind a cellphone is advanced technology, and what is behind how to live in the desert is advanced technology, too, one herder said to me.

I never imagined I would like the desert so much, without even mentioning its aesthetic attraction. It is a book I feel like I’ve just opened page one.

Ruin in the Desert

The ancient Hun people built the Tongwan city from around 400AD in a pastureland, now part of the Maowusu desert.

It was hard to imagine the old glories that happened here in that bitterly cold winter day. The white walls stood out eerily in the greyish yellow desert surroundings. It is said that they were made from a mixture of boiled rice starch, limestone powder, and sands. They were so hard at the time soldiers used them to sharpen their knives. True or not, they are still here, bearing witness to the rise and fall of a civilization that spanned hundreds of years. From the deafening roars of the soldiers who used to train on the drill field, songs from the king’s palace, the drum beats calling out to a battle, to the cries of the defeat that left pieces of shattered potteries still visibly around, to the symphony of the sandstorms, varying from violently loud to silent. Most of the cities are no more. The sand is the ruler now.

I walked the foot-wide walls to the highest point of the ruin. Pigeons and flicker-like birds now build their houses even higher than that for the king. Is it true that in the long run, nature always find a proper way?

First Glimpse

Beheaded willow trees lined the paths to the countryside.
Sand dunes sat motionless in the winter, under a thin layer of snow.
Here the desert is like a sleeping giant, tamed by the gentle touches of the grasses and low shrubs.
It is no longer the monster it once was.
– a first glimpse at Maowusu

Two giant tubs of preserved cabbage, the kind of tub that only exist in the distance memory of my childhood.
Two firewood heated beds, the locals call them kangs.
Two old persons, a sick man and a very wrinkled woman stood by a small stove, burning corn husks.
It was a typical house in the countryside.
Mud houses were replaced with brick blocks, featureless and dull.
Sheep are no longer allowed to roam the fragile land.
And people are left with no music to sing but only TV to watch.
– my first village stop

One next to another,
coal mines.
One after another,
big loaded trucks.
By the ruin of the ancient walls,
the development machine marches on, powering the civilization in the city, perhaps the light on my desk right now, and this computer.

In the old town, by the brightly painted drum tower, the dark-faced coal seller peddled hard on his tricycle.
His load must weigh a ton.
Around his nose, all dark.
He remined me of an old poem.
– my first walk through the old town of Yulin

The coal mines, the source of wealth and warmth for the city, is also collapsing the water table under this unique desert.

I need to go further. Fancy dinner with government officals in a smoke-filled room doesn’t inspire anything out of me.

Why Desert

Just like I couldn’t quite understand why I began to make documentary films, the idea of shooting something about deserts arrived without any sense of reasoning. One of those days, images of ancient ruins half buried in the sand came and got a hold of me. That was enough.

My soul is more in tune with mountains. It takes no effort to feel good in the mountain, like it takes no effort to feel good getting pampered by everything one loves. But all that that makes me feel comfortable seems to be gone in the desert. No singing brooks, no moss-covered tree trunks, no smell of the pine tar.  It takes extra attention to find beauty in the desert. I want to practice that kind of attention.

There are wisdom of resilience in the desert, no matter what medium it is carried through,  two-legged, four legged, moving or stationed. How to survive and live happily in the scarcest of condition? I want to touch the still standing remains of a tear-drop tree, hoping that it will take my thought back to it’s beginning days a thousand years ago and tell me stories of its journey. The desert is not to be fought, but to be lived in with patience, persistence, and joy. I want to feel that joy, down to the very basic of our existence, the kind of joy that came from embracing the unchangeable ugliness of our lives.

The deserts are expanding in many parts of the north and northwest China. What does it mean to be facing the probability that one’s home will be buried in the sand? So many civilizations came and gone within the life-time of one tear-drop tree. I want to show some images of this glimpse of civilization.

Have I lost my mind?