CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For centuries the western reach of Chinese culture has been the ragged edge of the Tibetan plateau. There are mountains that have never been scaled. In villages ethnic Tibetans cling to ancient traditions. And some of Asia's greatest rivers originate there. China wants a series of huge parks and reserves in the region, and to help plan them they've turned to a team of Americans. With their Chinese colleagues, they have discovered a unique place where landscape and culture are inseparable. In this NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce joins the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.
JOYCE: You don't have to go to Tibet to be in Tibet.
(Sound of bells ringing; chanting)
JOYCE: This is China, Yunnan Province, on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. The town is Dechen, in the deep valley near the Meili Snow Mountains. At the marketplace, women sell cabbages and live chickens. Monks sit and chant thousand-year-old prayers. This is the true face of Western China, according to Rose Neyu (phonetic spelling). She grew up near here and now works for the Great Rivers Project.
NEYU: This local culture are very colorful, very interesting. They have a lot of philosophies and religion beliefs between the relationship between human beings and nature. Most of the minority religions believe that human beings are part of nature and they're brothers and sisters with the nature.
(sound of bells ringing; chanting)
JOYCE: This region has past from Mongol to Muslim to Buddhist to Communist Chinese. In Yunnan Province alone, 25 ethnic groups have endured the march of armies. This place is Tibetan. The government banned logging here because of erosion. Now it wants parks, wildlife and tourists.
NORTON: My name is Edward Norton and I'm the senior adviser to the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.
JOYCE: Ed Norton works for the Nature Conservancy, the American partner in the project.
NORTON: The landscape of northwest Yunnan is characterized by these four great rivers that plunge off the Tibetan Plateau running north and south and are separated by five high mountain ranges. You have the great variation in elevation and also the other climatic factors. Those combine to create an area of extraordinary biodiversity.
(Sound of automobile horns)
JOYCE: The Yunnan government envisions its own Yellowstone here. Officials convened a conference in Dechen to talk about conservation. Scientists describe the endangered golden monkey and the black-necked crane. Bureaucrats talked about roads and hotels, and Tibetan farmers came with barley seeds still clinging to the cuffs of their woolen trousers. 'Make your maps,' they told the scientists, 'but look beyond what you can see and touch.'
MAH: (Singing in Chinese)
JOYCE: It's time to leave Dechen on a mapping expedition. Our driver, Ni Mah (phonetic spelling) is like most Tibetans. He has a song for every occasion.
MAH: (Singing in Chinese)
JOYCE: In this case, it's a drive on a narrow dirt road with unbelievable 5,000-foot cliffs over the side.
(Sound of singing)
JOYCE: We cross the Mekong River, a roiling tube of muddy water, and more cliffs and eventually, blissfully, the road ends in a simple trail. It's the path pilgrims take to the sacred mountain called Kuwagabo (phonetic spelling).
(Sound of bell ringing)
JOYCE: Expedition leader Bob Mosley (phonetic spelling) of the Nature Conservancy traces our journey on a map.
MOSLEY: We're on the east slope of the Meili snow range. We drove from Dechen this morning around the corner, down into the Mekong Valley.
JOYCE: We follow pack horses up into the mountains. Mosley and his Chinese colleagues will catalog the vegetation and the wildlife here for a conservation plan. Evergreens swarm with parakeets feeding on pine cones the size of pineapples.
(Sound of parakeets)
JOYCE: We struggle up to a 12,000-feet pass, breathless. Giant rhododendrons are draped in lime-green lichen and mist. The trees look almost like wax.
MOSLEY: This is the center of diversity for rhododendrons. This is where --- there is more rhododendrons species in this part of the world than anywhere else.
(Sound of bell ringing)
JOYCE: A century ago, Western botanists were amazed by plants here they'd never seen before. Their stories led to a book and a modern myth about a place called Shangri-La.
(Sound of bells ringing)
JOYCE: We descend, finally, to the village of Yubong (phonetic spelling). Cattle and long-haired yak graze beside the white-washed farmhouses. You can stand here and stare up a valley past the glacier and into the flanks of two 20,000-foot peaks. Mosley and his colleagues set up a table in the middle of a corral and sit with the village leaders.
MOSLEY: Going out into the villagers that ---- (unintelligible) on Kuwagabo to collect more information from the villagers and also from the landscape itself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chinese spoken)
JOYCE: Mosley tells the villagers tourists might come. Village leader Su Ra Nubu (phonetic spelling) likes that idea, but even simple things here can be complicated. Tourists would want toilets, but where to build them.
MOSLEY: So it can't be within view of the Holy Mountain and it can't be near the water.
(Sound of singing in foreign language)
JOYCE: Pilgrims who make the holy trek around these sacred mountains may earn a better life after rebirth. Those who die trying are guaranteed one. That's an appealing prospect. We follow the village leader upward. Bob Mosley is a scientist. He knows plants and animals, ecosystems. This world is more complicated. Here a spring isn't just a spring, it's a cure for infertility. Two caves are entraces to heaven and hell. Religion and science merge.
(Sound of water)
JOYCE: The trail passes beneath a massive rock wall. There's a glacier just over the top. Two streams fall from the precipice, a 300-foot drop that spins the water into mist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (through translator) Buddhists have come to pray here, to read their Buddhist books. This is a very holy place. People come here when their health is bad and they let the water wash them.
JOYCE: Su Ra Nubu walks straight into the mist and emerges into the frigid air cleansed.
(Sound of birds)
JOYCE: Some planners want to put a cable car here for tourists. They tak of scenic values. But for these Tibetans, this place isn't scenery, it's the vessel of their faith. Biologist Craig Kirkpatrick.
KIRKPATRICK: The country itself is mind-boggling, if you will; these really tall mountains covered in snow, these really thick forests. But the real true story is the fact that we have a conservation community growing in China and it's indigenous community that's fighting really tremendous odds.
(Sound of teenagers dancing and chanting)
JOYCE: At the end of our visit, the village puts on a show, a dance in scarlet robes and head wraps. The dancers are local teenagers. So far, few of them have been lured to the outside world. Soon, though, the outside world will start coming to them. For Radio Expeditions, this is Christopher Joyce in Yunnan Province, China.
CURWOOD: Next week the scientific team uncovers the spiritual network that lies hidden within this unique wilderness. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: It's public gardens versus affordable housing in New York City. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
(Music up and under: Ego Plum, "Ebola Music")
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
(Music up and under: River City Brass Band, "Men of Harlech")
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