Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A road trip through incredible geology

Dry mountains tower over trees in the Yellow River valley.

Up on the hills overlooking the site where China did much of its early development of its nuclear arsenal, and with cooling towers set firmly in the valley, the herders still collect the dung from their yak herds, and stack it to dry in piles, or in rows along a convenient wall. Perhaps a trite example, but China is a much more complex, and diverse society than most folk realize. The wave of prosperity is still surging in this part of the country, but outside the cities there are some harsh realities. Drive up the Yellow river and the thin band of green beside the river is dwarfed by the dry mountains on either side. Drought is an ever present concern, and just across from a fertile field by the lake are rolling sand dunes.

The mountains themselves present a serious challenge to economic growth in the province (and in Tibet which is right next door). With their height dominating the landscape, historically there has been considerable isolation of individual communities. It is true of rural economies everywhere, but there is an aggressive program to change this, and a network of roads is being driven over and through those mountains. But with the terrain being so mountainous much of the construction requires much more concrete than a normal road, and tunnels also have large construction costs.


New road construction, the blue is the kickoff point for a tunnel going into the mountain at the back, where the road currently switchbacks its way up to over 3,000 m.

The gain in access will open up an opportunity for business and travel that is now much less present. What that means for the local economies is, of course, another story. The government seems aware of the problem, which has complex nuances in a multi-cultural society.

Already restaurants that used to be purely local are attracting a tourist trade (and when more guests show up, a quick call to a local farmer can bring in extra supplies of yoghurt for desert, in panniers on his bicycle and served within an hour of arrival – delicious). Given their remote locale they can probably hold off the chains for a fair while, and serve only local produce. (Including yak, lamb and fish from the Yellow river). Vegetables come from both the fields and greenhouses, still in operation in mid-June.

Power seems freely available, though the Concert last night shut down power to one of the local hotels, where some of the performers were staying. Yet up and over the mountains, paralleling the road, is a new gas pipeline – I still have to work out where it comes from and where it is going.

Two of the folk at dinner tonight had been caught in the big earthquake last year in China, and described the harrowing experience of trying to find loved ones in the chaos that originally ensued.

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