Chang Tang: Tibetan for ‘the great flat plain of the north’
After light enters the atmosphere, the shorter wavelength of the spectrum is scattered into many directions by the air molecules. It dissimilates. It wanders. It travels together with the sublime, remains deep down and far away, making the sky, the ocean, the distant mountains, the melancholy longings or the cavities of our memory appear to be blue.
I remember the blue
drawing a line between turquoise and sapphire
I remember the fresh smell of Kobresia mixed with animal droppings after that mid-summer hail. We were out on a hike to search for antelopes’ bite marks and to learn which kinds of vegetation they’d prefer. The ice hit us while we were on the ground, looking for the marks leaf by leaf
I remember watching the mountains far away turn foggy and white. The storm lasted probably twenty minutes in total. The blue sky slowly disappeared, re-appeared
The clouds cast a foggy shadow beyond and the coldness gave my exposed skin a prickly tingle
I also remember a different coldness emitted from the solemn Purogangri glacier, brushed against my skin
And the sound from the melting ice gliding through the crevices of the rocks, harmonizing with a plastic flower that played chantings of buddhist prayers on loop
I remember the feeling of thrill and fear when a male wild yak stood on the hill right next to the road. It was startled by our truck, flanking its tail and kicking its hooves, forcing us to back away. And the same thrill and fear I felt when encountering a family of Tibetan brown bear, a mother and two children, while we were on a motor bike
And the tranquility of observing a big group of wild donkeys feasting, mating and an antelope sprinting around faster than any other being on this plateau
I remember our sorrow and apologies, for bringing disturbance and fear
And I remember the blue undulating between here and there
Casting a veil onto the mountains’ reflection and the defrosting land. The colorful vegetation looked like deep-ocean-creatures, but miniature in size, budding from Earth at places they never used to appear. And onto the roads that now are lost.
Sometimes I imagined the lakes and rivers have a blue sheet of glass underneath, silvered by the sunlight at dusk. Reflecting onto the creatures that tread on this ancient soil
the fleeing hooves, the anxiety of a mother, the dry and sharp coldness from the highland moon and the rhythm of ravens’ love song
I accidentally saw a pair of ravens practiced their mating dance in a village that we stayed overnight. At first I only heard them when I was on a walk. I looked around and searched for the source of the sound. It was foreign and beautiful. I was surprised that these large, scary-looking creatures can make such elegant, adorable sounds. I walked around the corner and there they were, in the middle of two mountains of trash disposals. The image was jagged but graceful. They didn’t care about my presence so I stood there along side with a pigeon, and watched them. Soon, I became self-conscious, feeling like an intruder to a private and sacred ceremony. So I slowly walked away. The pigeon stayed.
I was lucky that I encountered this ritual and remembered it. There are many songs chanted on this highland, carried away by wind and devoured by the horizon, extending to infinity.
That I would never hear.
The Third Pole is silent and that silence is the blueness of its soundscape A gift from the boundless flatland hovering over the evolution and extinction below, creating a tint of tranquility
The wildlife patrollers told us many stories of Chang Tang’s trespassers. Some came to conquer the land, some came to test their own limits and some came to seek for an end. In time the past will decay, becoming a part of the blue. Are they all trespassers? Or are some of them just souls pursuing the sublime and longing to be lost? That I do not know.
Rebecca Solnit talked about losing oneself as a “voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”
I stepped on this terrain with (I assumed) ideas and questions that I wanted to pursue. Yet my memories of the world I use to know dissolved a little bit more as more time we spent seeking on this mysterious highland with very little oxygen and traces of people. Without experiences and preparations, I stumbled upon this realm of lost and present and unknown by accident. Chang Tang made me chase the blue and eventually surrender to the present that is now was.
After we came back from Yingjiang with Cloud Mountain Conservation, I asked Liang a question. I wondered, if the population of Skywalker Gibbon is low and the conservators’ chance of reviving the species is minuscule, then what is the purpose of their effort? “I’m not sure” Liang told me at first. He paused for a second and added “but we’ve got to do something now, right? Who knows what will happen in the future. At least we did everything we could.” This very short conversation lingered in my mind while I was at Chang Tang plateau
facing the ancient yet young geography of this northern flatland and the species that will disappear someday or transform into something new
I now understand that he is also a fellow voyager to the far away blue
to the flora
and to the fauna
The trip to Chang Tang, now recalling from memory, feels like a distant past, even though the last night we spent at the plateau was only a week ago.
By the beginning of the last month of the internship, Liang and I arrived at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Situating at 4000 meter above sea level(approximately 13120 ft), Lhasa is the center of temples and Tibetan buddhism pilgrims, the home to Dalai Lama, the intersections of different businesses, the high light of chapters in history books and the holy land of hippies.
It is, also where the headquarter of WCS’s Tibetan branch office have placed themselves. In a two stories apartment-styled home, total number of four employees wrote proposals, had meetings and prepared for their many journeys into the wilderness of Chang Tang.
Lan Zhou Jia and Duo Jie Jia are the two Tibetan employees who had been working for WCS for couple of years. Lan Zhou Jia is a very quiet middle aged man with two adorable children. Liang told me not to under-estimate Lan Zhou Jia’s shyness. “He transforms into a super talkative, passionate ‘beast’ when he’s advocating the importance of conservation to Tibetan nomads,” he said, “the perfect man for community works.” Duo Jie Jia (he preferred us calling him Duo Jie) is relatively younger and came along with us on this trip to Chang Tang. Later on I found out that he is very fluent in English, Mandarin and Tibetan as well as being really knowledgeable in plant species and their latin names. There is also Liang, my supervisor and Jia Jia, a girl from Beijing, who I never had a chance to meet since she had been out on a business trip while I was there.
There were five of us went up to Chang Tang together in total. Liang, Duo Jie, Ling Yun, Ya Ya and I. Ling Yun just finished her postdoctoral position at Beijing University, researched specifically on snow leopards in the highlands and worked as one of the core researcher at Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve that I mentioned in the first blog post. She is now very interested in studying the ecology niche of ‘hoofed’ animals (wild yak, Tibetan antelope, gazelle, wild donkey, argali and Marco Polo sheep) in Chang Tang. Ya Ya (nickname) is from Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region adjacent to Tibet. Started as a bird watching hobbyist, she established a non-profit organization called Wild Xinjiang, couple of years ago. This organization gathered volunteers across ages and disciplines to advocate for the biodiversity on the vast landscape of Xin Jiang.
Being the only person came from a greatly different education background(different fields and educated in a different country), they were very curious about my purpose there. While trying to explain my intension in cross-discipline learning and collaboration, I realized a gap in the communication between my interest and their understanding of contemporary art. Liang thought that after I learnt about conservation in the past month, it would be a good time for me to put together a presentation and show them the world of art that I was interested in.
The presentation was really a tool for igniting conversations, which worked very well among the five of us. That day we spent a lot of time together while in the office, or out for a walk, or over hotpot, talking about Joseph Beuys, social sculpture, performance lecture, pedagogy as art, community, history of science, the collective knowledge, the imagined future……
With a lot of new thoughts and ideas on our minds, we shopped for supplies, packed our pickup truck and soon got on the road to Chang Tang.
At the beginning of each meeting, Liang usually preferred a general information on villager’s perspective of Tianxing’s situation.
Their answer was always positive.
Recent years, Chinese government had been promoting conservation. Meanwhile many Chinese local conservation organizations such as Cloud Mountain started to emerge.
Under the increasing awareness of conservation, villagers had paid a lot more attention to Tianxing for the past years. Forest rangers had detected newborn Tianxing in some of the areas. Every morning, people living around the habitat can hear Tianxing wailing at each other, across mountain ranges (one of Tianxing’s distinct characteristic is that they communicate through wailing at each other far away)
They said hunting in general had disappeared because of government’s strict policy. Poaching or other illegal activities does not exist either. Although in some villages people admitted there are still a few of these activities left.
An overarching characteristic of these villages is that they are all in different levels of poverty. The reason is partially because of the villages being situated in remote areas and enclosed by the mountains. Many of the villages we interviewed had a large population of children or elderlies. Increasing tuition fee for children and medication bills became one of the burdens for every family. Also as the result, young people stayed home instead of working in bigger cities so that they can take care of their children and parents.
For most people who stayed, there are only a few sources of income, and none of them had made enough money for living. Bamboo forests around the villages provide them bamboo shoot for food(yet tall bamboo tree is also an important vegetation for Tiangxing to be mobile in their habitat). Crops like rice, tea (some areas), nuts and sugar cane are planted in the fields for a little income.
Similar to villagers in Myanmar, people in Ying Jiang also cultivate a plant called Cao Guo. It is a ground covering plant, with approximately only 9 ft tall and in the same family as cardamum.
Many years ago, Myanmar had a big snow storm that killed most of their Cao Guo, which then led to a price bloom for this plant in China. Cao Guo had dominated villager’s income. As the result, people in Ying Jiang had increased their Cao Guo’s cultivation area and led to disruptions of Tian Xing’s habitat. Cao Guo also requires abundant water, not too high in altitude, and tall trees (so they can be shielded from the sun.) Because the plant is relatively low to the ground comparing to the trees Tian Xing relies on, the plant itself isn’t completely a direct emergent conservation threat to Tian Xing, but there might be many potential indirect threats as the consequence of cultivating Cao Guo.
The bubble of Cao Guo economy popped therefore the price dropped significantly, Unfortunately 2019 had been a drought year, which resulted in very minimum Cao Guo harvest right now. The villagers’s general income had decreased by a lot.
On top of that, winter in Ying Jiang is very cold due to high altitude. Every family in these villages has elderly and children. They are desperately in need of logs to get through winter. Some spend money to purchase logs in the village. Yet with the un-diversified sources of income on top of decreasing value of Cao Guo, many villagers sometimes do not have a choice other than make lumber for themselves.
Similar situation happens to house constructions too. Under poverty, some villagers cannot build houses that are made out of concrete. The cheapest way is to go into forest, cut down some trees and build the house by themselves.
Therefore, when their will of saving a species is confronted by practical income and basic survival, who are we to criticize that they choose to survive a winter instead of saving a tree or two for the animals?
Liang and Cloud Mountain Conservation’s job here is to find possible solutions, that these villagers don’t have to rely so much on cultivating Cao Guo; don’t have to cut down trees to have warmth in winter, or to have a comfortable home; don’t have to worry so much about not be able to pay for their children’s school, or pay the medical bills for their elderly. And still many more questions asking to be sought out.
After we came home from this field trip, I had a long conversation with Liang, talking about our general understanding on conservation, as well as the phenomenons that him and I had observed in the past few days.
From what I had discovered, in a general picture, a conservation organization’s job is to design structures based on the state of the habitat and analyze the possibilities of each different outcome in the process of conservation. In Ying Jiang, they first came up with assumptions of possible conservation threats (Cao Guo cultivation as one of the many for Tianxing, for example.) Then, with the threats identified, to raise questions like ‘how is cultivating Cao Guo a threat or ‘is the threat coming from the location of the crops or the methods of growing.’ Having these question in mind, the organization then needs a methodological way to find out answers to these questions.
The structure of conservation strategies is like the heart of the project that also has its own fluidity. Designing it should consider not only science (biology, environmental science, microbiology, botany etc) but also sociology, humanity, history, economy, psychology, art and much more. Each action might have multiple potential outcomes that then determines which actions might be better for that specific time and place. It is fascinating to see the factors of certainty and ambivalence, which seemingly are opposite to each other, be synchronized and be harmonious with each other. The push and pull is achieved by a repeated process of raising and resolving questions that derived from a pool of cross-discipline knowledge.
I couldn’t help but wonder— under the umbrella of conservation strategies, what is the perspective of art? Does art, as a potential element in a conservation plan, only engages at a certain stage of this plan? Or maybe art has the potential to understand the unknown a little more with imagination. And while navigating through a void of incognito future echoing with questions, maybe imagining the beauty of uncertainty and possibility is a piece of gracefulness that art can bring to the table of humanity?
After I have done some general research on the spectrum of elements involved in conservation, the rest of July proceeded into the next stage of learning: field observation. Through first hand experiences, the goal is to understand more deeply into NGO’s role in conservation. I am learning an organization’s way of gaining information on the species that it is studying and the methods it uses to construct conservation strategies specifically for the area of interest.
Liang recently had been collaborating with another Chinese local conservation organization Cloud Mountain (Yun Shan), as their conservation expert counselor.
Cloud Mountain has been working with one critically endangered species called Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). As one of the few species named by Chinese, its major habitat is situated in western part of China and some part of Myanmar that shares a boarder with China. Yet due to unstable political situation in Myanmar, the status of this species in Myanmar remains unclear. On Chinese side of the boarder, Tianxing is distributed in 17 fragmented forests, with less than 150 individuals left in total (there is a chance that these Tianxing are the only ones left in the world.) For this field trip, we focused on a county called Ying Jiang, where it shares this boarder with Myanmar.
This species is named Tianxing because it spends most of its life on top of trees, rarely coming down to the ground. Tianxing’s habitat requires a healthy ecosystem and because of that, it is almost impossible for the animal to be raised in captivity. Therefore, the presence of this species in an area is also a symbol for high biodiversity.
For the past many years, Cloud Mountain had been focusing on scientific researches of Tianxing. Around their research base, they familiarized two Tianxing in order to study and observe closely.
Even though some of Tianxing’s families are surviving in the protected forests, where human disturbances are forbidden by law, many of the families are still active in forests around villages, outside the protected zones.
Meanwhile, villagers’ lives are also dependent on those forests. With large overlaps with Tianxing’s habitats, a healthy balance of co-existence between human and animal became a major concern for Cloud Mountain Conservation. For this field trip, Cloud Mountain planned for an early-stage, community-based investigation on villager’s and government’s understanding as well as concerns around their shared forests.
Between July 15th and 19th, we first went to Bao Shan(city) outside of Ying Jiang and met with their government’s deputy director of Preservation branch. Then we drove to Ying Jiang county town, where we also met with Ying Jiang’s deputy director of Preservation (the meeting happened on the very last day). The town acted as a base for us to visit four villages—Jing Po, La Hong, La Ma He and Xiang Bai. These villages are more remotely situated in the mountains, which each required us driving for couple of hours.
In those villages, we first hiked around to check out the habitat and some of Tianxing’s monitoring spots planted by the local forest rangers. (I was very out of shape for those hikes but afterwards, we were usually treated by the villagers with really nice food and very ripened jackfruits.) We then sat around and had conversations with some families all together.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
A Sand County Almanac
On July 1st, the first day of my internship, I met with my WCS supervisor Liang in Dali, Yunnan, (an adjacent province to Tibet) where my first part of internship took place. Liang established a plan in the first month, aiming for an immersive understanding of conservation and its systems. In these first 10 days, I was assigned to dive in to books/articles and a presentation, in order to get an overview of wildlife conservation’s broad spectrum. For me, this part of research is constructed on an awareness of ‘Landscape’— its broadness, diversity, inclusiveness and the problems that it’s encountering.
Geographically, Chang Tang is an area covers not only northern part of Tibet, but also western Qinghai Province, and the southern part of Xinjiang. At North, it goes as far as Kunlun mountain range and Kekexili; at East it includes Sanjiangyuan (literally means the source of three rivers, which are Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong.) Water flowing out from this region of Tibetan Plateau goes through China and countries of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Vietnam.
Larger than 270,000 square miles, Chang Tang’s land is like a vessel, encompassing mountains that expand to neighbor countries, glaciers supporting human and wildlife as well as regulating temperature of the area, animals that are migrating or dispersing, and human being, who has been living in some locations for generation after generation.
Tibetan’s lives are deeply interlocked with the wildlife and the environment up at the high lands.
Permafrost [rocks and soil that contains ice] determines distribution and quality of pasture, which determines the well being of herbivores like domestic yak and sheep, wild yak, chiru [Tibetan antelope], pika, Marco Polo sheep and more. These animals then affect carnivores such as wolf, Tibetan brown bear, fox, snow leopards and tigers. Glaciers, lakes, mountains and valleys create important habitats for migration and breeding.
Speaking broadly, pressing problems come from two major perspectives— climate change and human activity. Warmer temperature from climate change, a phenomenon that is responsible globally, creates negative feedback loops on the environment that supports life, affecting both domestic herds as well as wild animals. Melting glacier increases glacier avalanche that destroys animal habitats, meanwhile causing water level to rise up in lakes, flooding pastures and roads. Retreating glacier also leads to water shortages in villages that are dependent on it as water source. Increasingly warmer winter decreases vegetation’s growing season as well, contributing to pasture/meadow’s degradation.
Human activity on the other hand, such as hunting, mining, increasing population, as well as constructions like roads, fences and settlements are obstructions among wildlife habitats and migration routes. Developments that help improving the local living standards are crucial, nonetheless sometimes these developments can negatively affect human just as much as wildlife. Decrease in wild herbivores due to human activities mentioned above, results in carnivores preying on domestic herds, which leads to revenge-driven huntings toward carnivores. And this phenomenon is only one of the many.
Therefore, I think maybe to conserve a species, is to preserve the soil that it’s stepping onto—the same soil that we are also standing on; to vitalize the food that it’s seeking for, and to understand the people whom it’s living with—the people who plays a crucial role in conservation with their behavior and awareness.
Human is an element of an interlocked, interconnected, interactive system that consists of many other elements. While we are affecting non-human entities, the consequences also reflect back to us. The first step to understanding conservation is to discern interconnected elements of the land— from ground to sky, from the disappearing animal to local government politics, from ecology to anthropology.