Does this look like it’s the Parisian Eiffel Tower? Take a closer look… Source: The Atlantic Cities and Reuters
Do you ever feel the need to escape from city life, but don’t actually feel like leaving? Try urban camping with Bivouac NYC, a summer rooftop camping experience (and art project!) that has one more session planned in August. Read more about the project and the urban camping phenomenon in America on Grist.
New York’s City Hall Library boasts a collection of 400,000 New York City documents that can be read on-site. Still, few city residents know about the hidden library, due to its lack of clear signage. Read the New York Times City Room‘s description how to get there and some of the treasures that you might find there. (more…)
Beijing’s Newly Installed Bike Share. Source: The People
In early 2013, China was home to 79 bike sharing programs, sending some 358,000 public bicycles to cities that mostly rest on the east coast of China. In a country where bicycles have long been a symbol of under-development, much progress has been made to rehabilitate and modernize their image. Most importantly, this environmentally friendly method of transportation costs little in China, with the first hour free and subsequent hours priced at 1 RMB per hour (~$0.16 USD) in Beijing and Hangzhou.
Still, China lags far behind in the development of bike sharing programs compared globally. The number of bikes has dropped sharply in the past fifteen years in contrast to a more than tenfold increase in the number of cars. The first attempt to develop bike sharing programs in Beijing dates back to 2005, when several private companies began their services separately. These initiatives peaked in 2008. Due to high management costs, low returns, confusing charging standards and few governmental subsidies, these programs proved unsustainable. Beijing only launched its current program in 2012, but it’s still too early to gauge its long-term impact and effect. (more…)
The Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest Sikh place of worship. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
India—the land of Hindu gods, Bollywood, yoga, and software technology parks—was also once a nation exploited by the iron rule of the British Raj, an era brought about by England’s (and other Western European countries’) desire to acquire wealth through trade and colonization of the Americas and other Asian countries. Around the turn of the 20th century, Indian villages were hit hardest by the colonial regime as farmers labored to feed themselves, as well as their nation, while under the oppressive tax burden of the ruling English. Compelled to take out loans, men of rural Northern Indian sought the aid of moneylenders to ease their trouble. Over time, these corrupt and crooked lenders began to alter their books and unfairly hike up their interest rates, forcing men off their farms, taking fertile ancestral land into their own possession. Enraged and dejected, these farmers sometimes succumbed to murderous impulses. A family’s stolen livelihood in exchange for a life.
It is here that Untapped Cities writer, Amrit Chima, begins the story of her debut novel Darshan. One of the main characters in her book, Baba Singh, is inspired by her great-grandfather, Harnam Singh Chima, who is rumored to have killed a man in his village. Chima family lore tells of Harnam Singh fleeing from police—pelting his would-be captors with rocks—to hide in another village where he then eventually married and had children.
ZhangJiaJie National Forest Park in China’s Hunan Province has become internationally renown since the release of the 2009 movie Avatar. The movie was filmed in these mountains, more specifically, the Hallelujah Mountain (of Avatar) was filmed there and the movie’s editing team simply added the mountains in post-production to make them look like they are floating in the air. (more…)
Lijiang. The ancient city’s cobblestone streets stretch back 800 years.
I wake to the distant crowing of a dutiful rooster. Fumbling for my watch, I manage to find the one button that matters in the darkness. The usually benign glow of the Indiglo light attacks my unadjusted eyes. 6am. Time to get up. Stepping outside, I’m greeted by the crisp, cool mountain air. It’s still dark, but a tall silhouette approaches and greets me. Speaking in hushed tones, she leads me down a small winding pathway, past the creaking reeds to the shores of the magnificent Lake Lugu. She quickly climbs into one of the many ancient-looking wooden boats dotting the shore, and begins untying the ropes. In the distance, the rooster continues to call. The mysterious woman is a 58-year-old matriarch belonging to the Moso, an ethnic minority located in this particularly mountainous region in the Yunnan Plateau of China.
Early morning. A driftwood boat sitting on the calm shores of Lake Lugu.
For the past month, I have been living with her family in a tiny village located in a tiny inlet of the lake. I call her “Ama,” which in her native tongue means “mother,” but is also used as a term of endearment and respect towards the older matriarchs. This morning, I’m helping her row out to one of the many scattered islands located in the center of Lake Lugu, in order to catch the sunrise.
Sunrise on Lake Lugu.
Tucked in the southwestern-most corner of China, the province of Yunnan borders Tibet to the north, and Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos to the south. This relative isolation from the rest of China has allowed Yunnan to develop outside of mainstream Chinese thought and politics for an extended time, leading to a province far different from the rest of China. During the dynastic periods, Yunnan was known as a “land of barbarians”-an untameable place far outside imperial jurisdiction. Banished government officials, criminals, and soldiers were exiled here with little hope of ever reaching civilization again. Known by many names and home of many kingdoms since ancient times, Yunnan was so far removed from the rest of imperial China that Han scholars dubbed it the land “Beyond Mount Yun” in 109 A.D., but the interpretation “Land Beyond the Southern Clouds,” or ” Yunnan” (äº‘å—), stuck, and it has been called that ever since.
Ama, one of the matriarchs of Lige Village in Lake Lugu, and my personal guide into the world of the Moso.
For the past ten years, policies promoting economic development and tourism have increased in western China, and as a result Yunnan’s star is fast rising. It is routinely rated by Chinese citizens as one of the most livable provinces in the nation, and certainly one of its most unique travel hotspots. The headwaters for the Mekong and Yangtze River create flourishing ecosystems that vary from tropical rainforests, to lush highland plains, to jagged snow-capped mountain ranges. Yunnan’s relative isolation from the rest of the country has given it legendary folk status throughout China as a place of untamed beauty. It is also home to nearly half of the 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, each with languages, histories, and cultures that differ significantly from the majority population of Han Chinese. Yunnan’s ethnic minorities, specifically the matriarchal Moso people of Lugu Lake, is the reason I’ve come this far. I’m here to make a documentary introducing their unique culture, which is at a crossroads now that economic development has finally reached their isolated location.
Rice fields just outside of Lijiang, on the way to Lake Lugu.
In order to reach Lake Lugu, I took a plane from Kunming, the fair-weathered capital of Yunnan, to Lijiang. The most well-known tourist gateway city to the countryside, Lijiang is home to a well-preserved ancient town complete with flowing waterways and picturesque bridges. This Old Town, as it is known as by the local Naxi ethnic group, is a UNESCO Heritage site, with a history dating back nearly 800 years. Once an important trade outpost along the Tea Horse Road (Yunnan’s closest equivalent to the Silk Road), Lijiang earned its namesake from the Naxi traders and their pack horses that rounded out harrowing mountain passes in order to transport temperamental teas–the kind that only grow in certain hard-to-reach places–to the rest of China. Think of it as an ancient version of “Deadliest Catch,” China-style. On any given afternoon in Lijiang, you will find groups of boisterous tourists walking along the brightly lit waterways and alleys of the old town, passing endless rows of small shops selling everything from loom-made scarves to hand-forged silver jewelry and cured yak jerky.
Lijiang: a view of the small streets you may find yourself lost in.
Like Venice or any other tourist-laden town, if one wants to escape the crowds, simply wander a little off the beaten path. Within five minutes of ambling along the ancient pebbled streets, you can find yourself in an unknown section of town, admiring the wondrous Naxi architecture as you stroll through river-lined neighborhoods and alleys that seem locked in a centuries-old time capsule. Elderly Naxi women pass by, sporting the traditional garb that their ancestors have worn for hundreds of years. The sun sets, and the red lanterns dotting the cobblestone paths are lit. Led only by the sound of trickling streams and the faraway bustle of the center of town, you find your way back into the fray of lights, people, and the overwhelming sensation of color and sound unique to evenings in Lijiang. As the gateway city for tourism in Yunnan, an itinerary to Lijiang is as unavoidable as the crowds that line it’s bustling Old Town, but the experience is memorable and worth a couple of days’ stopover.
Some Naxi minority people still live inside the ancient walls of Lijiang’s Old Town, but don’t let the shabby exteriors fool you. Many a Naxi household leads to large courtyards filled with cherry trees, small streams, and ornate interiors.
As comfortable Lijiang was, I still had one more stop on my itinerary, Lake Lugu. The trip from Lijiang to Lake Lugu took me roughly 200 kilometers deeper into the interior of the Yunnan Plateau, and to a place few western travelers know to explore. Since arriving at Lake Lugu, I have spent one month living with the Moso people, working on field research and preparation for filming. Largely matriarchal with no traditional institutions of marriage, the unique culture of the Moso is at a crossroads now that China’s trickle-down economic policies are slowly seeping into their sleepy villages, potentially transforming Lake Lugu and its surrounding areas into a tourist mecca. But for now, would-be tourists are still largely discouraged by the tortuous journey from Lijiang, a rickety six hour bus ride (previously eight before the roads were completed) through seemingly endless mountain ranges that threaten to wind, dip, and climb their way into the psyches of even the most seasoned travelers. Though road conditions have improved, several kilometers along the route still consist of gravel and dirt roads, and during the rainy season, rock and mudslides along the mountain passes are frequent, even expected.
Lige Village, Lake Lugu.
Travelers brave enough to sit through this endurance test are rewarded by some of the most spectacular views rural China has to offer: the raging turquoise glacial waters of the Jinsha River (a major headwater of the Yangtze), rural mountain outposts occupied by ethnic Yi people, picturesque valleys filled with lush green terraced rice fields, and finally the pristine shores of Lake Lugu. There are several Moso villages along the lake; Da Luoshui and Lige Village are more tourist friendly, with hot water and Internet standard in their inns. Smaller villages tucked in between the larger tourist-friendly villages may or may not be accustomed to accommodating overnight tourists, but are friendly, and for a filmmaker like me, absolutely pivotal in terms of understanding the cultural roots of the Moso.
A view of Lake Lugu, near the Yunnan-Sichuan border.
Throughout mainstream Chinese media, the Moso peoples’ matrilineal society’s ancient practices, most notably involving “walking marriages”–where Moso men and women engage in what is inaccurately perceived by Han Chinese as wild one-night stands–have been the object of intense interest and scrutiny. In reality, the Moso practice what can be considered as a unique form of serial monogamy dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Victorian ideals of marriage and partnership changed the western world, and by extension, our very own personal conceptions of love. Due to this unique aspect of the Moso people, interest towards the Moso has grown, and tourism is becoming increasingly popular.
Still dressed in traditional garb, the older generation of Moso are the gatekeepers to their unique culture.
Though tourism threatens to bring in outside influences and to erode their culture, the Moso have been incredibly resilient and creative in adapting their culture to the changing cultural landscape. The Moso family that I have been living with in Lige village is a perfect example of this. Of Ama’s four grown children, all of them have walking marriages–but one of them has a walking marriage relationship with a French national, and resides in Paris. Her four year-old daughter speaks both perfect French and Moso. Her three other children live in the village; two have moved out, the youngest daughter remains with her in their traditional wooden house, which now boasts a refrigerator and a flat-screen television, as well as the traditional fire-pit and cured whole-pig, all in one room. As Ama tells me this, she points to her North Face vest, which is layered on top of her traditional clothing. Beaming with pride, she tells me her daughter bought it in France for her, and it helps her keeps her warm as she rows the traditional zhucaochuan boats on chilly mornings. She gives a hearty laugh as she slaps my knee. Even she sees the irony. The fire in the middle of the room crackles and pops as we savor the momentary silence. Then, I ask her, “Is it possible that I help you row tomorrow morning?”
“Be up at six, and meet me outside the courtyard.”
Ama’s household dog keeps watch in the early morning hours, as she sets off to the boats.
And so in the dark hours of the morning, we row to one of the scattered islands in the middle of the lake. The sky above has slowly transitioned from shades of velvet to a fiery orange. We finally reach the cliff-facing shore of the island, known by locals as “Camel Island” for its vague resemblance to the humped ungulates found nowhere in this area. We disembark, and begin climbing up one of the camel’s “humps.” A small rocky pathway leads up to the top of the cliff. Grabbing the stalks of small bushes to maintain my balance, I look back; Ama’s 58 years seem to be of no impediment as she nimbly climbs up, humming along the way. Finally, we come to a small clearing. At the top, a small white stupa greets us, along with an unobstructed 360 degree view of the lake. Strings of Lung Ta-style prayer flags flutter in the wind. The Moso people have their own unique system of beliefs that draw from Tibetan Buddhism and their own shamanistic religion, called Daba. As I sit down on the yellow earth and begin filming, Ama begins her ritual, burning pine needles inside the stupa as she recites her prayers aloud. The fragrant smell of pine smoke delicately wafts into the eastern sky, where I could see that the sun was rising out of the mountains.
With Ama on the lake.
Watch a teaser trailer for Ricky’s new film concerning the Moso, “Under One Roof”
A stunning panorama view of an area the locals call the Shashan and Shahu, or Sandy Mountains and Sandy Lake.
When one thinks of China, often the first things that come to mind are pandas, kung fu, the Great Wall, mountains shrouded in mist, bamboo forests…bamboo forests covering mountains shrouded in mist…I digress. Recently the media’s portrayal of China’s rapid economic expansion has given the world a different set of images: sleepless megacities seemingly built up overnight, humanity bursting forth from every corner, an indistinguishable sea of faces that portray a seemingly unified front. This is the new century, the media tells us. This is China.
But a little known but important fact of the matter is that China’s landscape is still vast and relatively undeveloped, its peoples varied. Take Xinjiang, the rarely mentioned frontierland in China’s northwest; so little of this place resembles what we have collectively come to know as China. Boasting a size nearly four times that of California, Xinjiang (which means “new frontier” in Chinese) is home to an eclectic mix of races: Uyghur, Mongol, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz and now more than ever Han Chinese.
For centuries, Xinjiang was a place far removed from civilized Chinese society. It was a mysterious land occupied by a number of nomadic peoples, a place of exile for imperial officials and a refuge for criminals wishing to remain incognito. But perhaps Xinjiang’s biggest claim to fame was its role in the legendary Silk Road. For centuries, the town of Kashgar, a small western oasis, sat as the gateway to the Far East. Tucked between the Taklamakan Desert and a literal maze of mountain ranges leading to Pakistan, Tibet and subsequently the Himalayas, Kashgar served as an important stop for weary traders trudging along this particularly treacherous path of the Silk Road. In August of 2010, I had the privilege of traveling to Kashgar and traversing up the Karakoram Highway, the highest paved road in the world, toward the borderland between China and Pakistan. The people I met and the landscapes I saw opened my eyes to the true vastness of China. Far away from the neon lights and shopping districts of Beijing and Shanghai, along a sparsely populated mountain route, I had found something that will forever shape my idea of what and whom China is.
One of two minarets of the Id Kah Mosque, the central point of religious activities in Kashgar.
The dominant religion among Uyghurs is Islam.
An Uyghur man sits in resigned contemplation. Uyghurs have called Xinjiang their home for thousands of years, but increased migration of Han Chinese has made life here increasingly complex, with racial tensions reaching a boiling point in the riots of 2009.
CCTV Police Cameras and armed Chinese SWAT (not pictured) watch over a community of Uyghurs observing afternoon prayertime in the Erdaoqiao area of Urumqi, the focal point of the riots.
Kashgar, old district. A man laughs as his picture is taken.
Two Uyghur girls peek outside of their house in the old district of Kashgar. Some Uyghurs shave the heads of babies, a pre-Islamic shamanistic practice to scare away baby-stealing spirits.
A quiet moment between a fruit vendor and his grandson. Fruits, especially melons from Xinjiang, are widely known throughout China. The Chinese term for honeydew (Hami Gua) derives its eponymous name from the oasis town of Hami.
Much of Kashgar’s old town is being razed in order to make way for new land developments. Kashgar was recently named a Special Economic Zone by the central Chinese government, which has led to much needed funds funneling into the area. Here, two men continue their fruit vending business in the old district of Kashgar, which may very well be gone within the year.
The Sunday animal bazaar in Kashgar draws farmers, shepherds and spectators alike. Here two men shear their livestock.
Sheep lined up for potential customers and curious camera-toting tourists.
The view (1) at 6am outside of Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway.
The view (2) at 6am outside of Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway.
Wild camels roaming the desert landscape along the highway, two hours outside of Kashgar. The signature red earth of the canyons in the Gez River Pass display their full splendor at sunset, turning the landscape fire red.
As one ascends the Karakoram Highway, deserts make way for imposing mountains. This is the area where the Tianshan, Hindu-Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges begin to converge.
A stunning panorama view (2) of an area the locals call the Shashan and Shahu, or Sandy Mountains and Sandy Lake.
The turquoise waters of Lake Karakul are a welcome sight for weary travelers. Two Kyrgyz settlements dot the shores of the lake, and for a small fee they are willing to house travelers in their own homes for the night.
The eternally snowcapped Mt. Muztagh Ata, 43rd highest mountain in the world, watching over the lake.