Throughout the desolate mountains of western China, an epic struggle is being played out between ancient cultures and the machine of the modern world. Small villages that have sat for centuries on vast reserves of resources are being displaced by unstoppable extraction and exploitation projects. It’s hard to describe the feeling of an ageless and powerful place that is in the process of having the energy bled from it to feed distant progress.
13 hours in to an 8-hour bus ride over the passes out of Zhongdian, we came upon one of the remote hydro/mining towns that lurk throughout this part of the world. Xiangcheng is an old Eastern-Tibetan village that has been overrun by Han-Chinese come to work for the resource extraction projects. The same noble Khampa houses from the mountain passes stood neglected along the road, stained grey from the dust of a thousand trucks rumbling by with loads of minerals dug from the hills. Cheap new dormitory block housing stood in contrast, the haste of construction visible in how rapidly it had already decayed. In the distance a mountainside was being eaten away by giant machinery to remove the valuable earth within. Alongside the road, the river was taking it’s last free breaths before a new dam plugged its course – to drown the canyon and all that once lived along the shores. Feeding the machine, of which I am ultimately a part.
But perhaps the best illustration of a dark and conflicted energy was the hotel, a stones throw away from the bus station, that gave us shelter for a few short hours during our stopover. The worst room that we had in 9 months of 3rd world travel, the dank basement shithole had no windows and only a dim naked bulb to illuminate the stained and filthy space. It showed no signs of being cleaned since it had been converted to a small dormitory a year or two prior. But before laying down for a miserable and sleepless night, we climbed the ladder out of the basement to find that we were in the dungeon of a deserted Khampa house – again of the style that we had seen on the mountain passes all day.
Throughout the house, almost every surface of every wall was covered by beautiful hand-painted images in the classic Thangka style, telling the stories of Tibetan Buddhism. All of the trim was intricately carved and painted in the elemental colors of Yellow, Green, Red, Blue and White (Earth, Water, Fire, Sky, and Cloud respectively). The ceiling was covered in tin, hand-formed in to intricate shapes and textures to complement the decor. For three stories it continued, until we were standing on the roof looking out into the beautiful moonlit valley of a noble, proud, and ancient people.
In the morning after a horrible night in the dungeon, the images of what we had seen above felt like a distant dream. We dragged out the door into a dreary pre-dawn rain, back to the bus station to continue our trek into the unknown.