Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Over the next few days I hope to get some decent reports up for you of our trip to the southwest (or further into the southwest, I suppose, since we already live in SW China). The plan is:

1)      Yangjuan

2)      Driving to Zhongdian

3)      Zhongdian

4)      Driving to Yading (Daocheng)

5)      Yading

6)      Driving home

Lots of driving. You've seen the map already (I hope), so you can reference that for where we are. This first post is for the 10 days starting after my post about the drive to Xichang and being stopped for the crime of "driving in a construction zone while foreign".

The drive from Xichang to Yangjuan was relatively non-eventful and doesn't merit its own post, so we'll move on to our visit to Yangjuan.

Yangjuan is the site of numerous UW faculty, grad student, and undergrad research projects. Both individual and collaborative, interdisciplinary projects are taking place here. It's also the site of the Yangjuan Primary School and where the Cool Mountain Education Fund ( helps support the school and gives scholarships to students attending secondary school. The village is a Nuosu village set right on the edge of some hills, next to a river, and overlooking a limestone plateau of sorts. The area is quite poor (it's actually an officially designated poor county by the government) and nearly all people over 16 and under ~50 have migrated to cities to look for work. The result is that there are lots of kids living with grandparents and few people of an in-between generation. It's a bit strange but very common for rural areas in China.  The landscape is really beautiful – a mix of dry pine forests and wetter mixed forests in the mountains.  At some point we will get our pictures up to our webpage, but I don't know when that will happen. You'll have to just get the text for now.

When we are in Yangjuan we stay at the school in teacher's dorm rooms and are fed by Jzjz, the local mother to all UW folks who work here. Since there were only 4 of us, she fed us in the courtyard to her house rather than at the school. Generally we ate Sichuan food for dinner and buckwheat rolls or pancakes with congee (rice porridge) and boiled eggs for breakfast. She insisted we carry huge quantities of pancakes or rolls for lunch. We supplemented these with peanut butter, honey, and other treats we carried from Chengdu.

Our team of 4, 3 geologists plus a driver/jack-of-all-trades (that would be Josh), was headed to Yangjuan to follow up on previous geomorphological studies in the area. Specifically we are interested in the broad question of unraveling the relative effects of modern Chinese policies and long-term indigenous land use practice on environmental degradation in the region. Our days were divided into the following tasks: river valley mapping (cross sections and GPS mapping of landforms), sample collection, and digging soil pits to document soil changes with distance from the village. The soil pit digging took most of our time. Near the village there is little to no soil and so the scratch in the dirt "pits" were pretty easy to complete. Further away from the village the soils were over a meter deep and so I spent many days with my head in holes in the ground trying to dig deeper or to pull out samples to describe. We all learned a lot about how to describe soils in the field and feel like we got pretty good at it. The surveying and GPS work are normally restricted for foreigners to do, but we have a good relationship in the area and so we're able to do it. We have been trying to figure out how much soil came off of what parts of the hillsides and where it ended up in the valley bottoms. And when all this happened. That's what the sample collection part of the trip was for – we will date samples to determine when things happened. Mostly we are using Pb-210 (a naturally occurring radionuclide), Cs-137 (a nuclear testing nuclide which marks surfaces from the late 1950s/early 1960s), and C-14 (radiocarbon, which dates when wood/charcoal died). The dates will take a bit longer to pull together, but the rest of the story seems to fit pretty well, so far.

While we were in Yangjuan the power was only intermittent and for the first few days our room had no power at all. Finally someone replaced the wire to the breaker for our room and that helped a lot. At least we could charge stuff in our own space without having to find someone to let us in to the teachers' office. We lived in a little dorm area of 3 bedrooms and 1 common room. Each room had a bed with no mattress (planks of rough hewn wood with cardboard on top), a blanket, a pillow, and a desk. In Josh and my case we donated the desk to communal use because we had a spare bed which Josh assembled and we used to store group food on. Liz had the only outlet. Actually, it was a power strip hard wired into her light. She had to unscrew the light bulb in order to get overnight power.  Flies were abundant. Josh and Liz got really good at killing flies. They even could kill them on the ceiling using a 5-meter-long meter stick.  

The water system broke a while back because the guy in charge of maintaining it didn't bother to use the money (20 RMB from each family each year) to keep it up and instead either bought animals or used it to support a mistress (or something else… those are just the stories we heard). There is a pump for the school but the principal doesn't like to use the power to pump water from the river. This area had been really affected by the drought in SW China and so the water source tributary was dry anyway. They are supposed to get a new water system but the money has gotten lost somewhere between Chengdu and the village.

After a few days with no water and then a big rainstorm, Josh decided that something needed to be done about the water system. He walked the whole system and then had the production team leader for the team who gets the water walk it with him. Then he went to town with Liz (1.5 hr drive away to the county seat where there are stores) and bought 35 m of pipe. Should be enough to at least keep it running until the new system goes in. He ran out in 1 afternoon and went back a day later (again with Liz) and bought over 100 m of pipe which he also used up. In the end there was no water in the tributary when we left and Josh had (with the help of a lot of villagers) fixed about ¾ of the system. The water pipe turned out to have been hugely degraded, so every time they pulled on it to get water flowing, it broke. Most needed to be replaced. Apparently the pipe had been buried but got pulled up by the manager to fix something and he never buried it again. The locals say they will bury it again because it won't fall apart that way and that they aren't going to bother with the position of water manager anymore because the guy was such a slacker. Easier to go with common maintenance than to deal with him.  It was raining when we left, so hopefully they have water by now. We were bummed to not fix the whole system, but we ran out of time and pipe.

Another interesting thing going on there was a reforestation project for the valley bottom.  Apparently there used to be trees lining the river but they are pretty much gone now. So people have been fencing off sections of the common grazing ground on the valley bottom and planting trees. Even though there has been the biggest drought in 100 years, areas with well maintained fences are growing beautiful tall grasses and even some reeds and some really nice poplar trees. The quality of the regrowth seems to be dependent on someone monitoring the area. In the best maintained area there is a grandpa (Apu in the local language) who patrols the fence daily. He has taken the fencing and vertically woven sticks through it so animals can't get through (this common, but his is the best done), then wired logs to the bottom of the fences and stacked rocks against those. He patrols the fence non-stop every day and repairs sections, chases out animals, and has really done a nice job of showing how the valley would look if there weren't so many animals in it.

After 9 days with no shower and eating approximately the same thing every day, we were ready to move on. We left 1 day early (which turned out to be a good idea due to bad roads on some driving days, making some days 2 full days of driving instead of 1) and started the drive to Zhongdian.

I hope you're all doing well.


Amanda :)

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