It was seven thirty in the morning and we were already blanketed with a thin film of fine red dust. Any relief the high altitude provincial capital of Phongsali had given us from the mid-May heat was long gone. Our jet black Trek bicycles, gear piled atop them, were orange and silty as we rolled up, unexpectedly, to the behemoth trucks just outside town. Like heliophobic morlocks, uniformed Chinese hydropower workers squatted underneath the hulking truck undercarriages to avoid the morning rays.
The next twenty kilometers we were about to experience were some of the most harrowing, ghastly kilometers of the 1400 km expedition; a bone-jarring descent from the upland capital down almost 3,000 feet to the bottom of the Nam Ou river valley. Preceded by a grunting diesel pulse, trucks would whip around the corner and the three of us, hands clamped to the brakes on this mountainside screamer, would be suddenly engulfed by a plume. Gritted teeth and spandex could only keep out so much of this ancient river sediment. We were being tossed helplessly in a giant wave - except dessicated, and on the side of a mountain - descending towards one of seven remote dams that will soon dissect the Ou River in northern Laos.
As does any compelling adventure, ours started with some bottles of beer, a squatting housemate, and a bit too much screen time at work. In California, things were flat and smooth; friction was on our mind. This friction though, was one we had felt before - and we wanted more. This was the friction of landscapes - a friction that is hard to come by in our normal American existence, where our smartphone prompted SUVs slip across the perfect pavement of multilane highways.
We were after the so-called ‘friction of terrain’. Coined as a concept by the Yale political scientist James C. Scott, friction of terrain describes the encumbrances that separate the uplands from the lowlands. If you have ever tried to claw your way through a bamboo thicket, or trudge up an impossibly steep mountainside, you would know that it’s not necessarily the distance that matters, but more importantly, the terrain. The steepness and ruggedness of the mountains and valleys, the quality of the tracks or roads, the complexity of the topography, the ability to pass unhindered by pests and weather. These vectors all add up to a force - for friction is a force - that opposes smoothness, integration, and assimilation.
In this age of Trans-Pacific trade pacts and multinational organizations, where your consumer product could have travelled across the world a time or two before deteriorating slowly on your shelf, friction is a thing of the past in most places. Where once it took generations, or at least eighty days, it now takes only a few sedated hours to cross the globe. Words and photos, ideas and concepts, these are even less impeded in many places. With a cheap Chinese cell phone and some 3G credit, a Lao farmer in a district capital could know what type of beer I was sipping after work in California, even before my own liver finds out.
Scott talks about our globalized world slowly chipping away at what was a messy vernacular, eroding the specialized and unique, in place of the centralized and default. New Pangea, as some ecologists have dubbed the world as we now know it, symbolizes a new fusion – not of tectonic plates but of culture and peoples. While there are countless benefits to this globalized economy, especially for folks like us, sitting behind air-conditioned screens writing this account, it is worthwhile to consider its consequences.
Zomia, a mysterious upland quasi-region populated by isolated and often unassimilated communities, represents a last refuge of the vernacular. “Few things unite it”, says Frank Jacobs of the New York Times, “except its diversity — religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic… Zomia is a sanctuary, a refuge for isolated, unassimilated communities.”
With the help of National Geographic and a few generous sponsors, we set out to document a patch of these uplands, in the face of development’s long, concrete hand. A controversial proposed high-speed rail, set to connect Kunming with Laos, became our emblem - we would ride the rugged section between southern China’s southeast Asia hub and the northern spiritual outpost of Laos, Luang Prabang. By bicycle, we would truly feel the undulations, understand the friction in our lungs and our legs.
With this high speed rail transect as a primary foci, and friction of terrain the guiding theme, our journey blossomed into an upland exploration of a series of connected lines on a map. Splintering off of each line of development, we came to find, are further lines of impact, connecting geopolitical actors, local people, and ecosystems into a self perpetuating fractal of change. The set of dams we were descending towards and that hellish, dusty road represented just this – a line on the map. This essay is meant to capture a few of these lines - lines that we followed by bicycle (and occasionally other local forms of transportation) and documented over our five-week expedition from Kunming to Luang Prabang.
Following the apparition of a proposed high-speed rail proves to be a challenging prospect. We gawk at the landscape - imagining the sheer engineering challenge it will pose to lift and burrow an 180km/hour train over, around, and through the hills and valleys of southern China. Bicycling among this landscape gives us a true appreciation for its texture. Often we look upwards to spot the faintest glimmer of a raised road, teetering on concrete pylons, slicing through the hillsides hundreds of meters above. Psychological warfare of the first order - it is hard to imagine how our bags and bikes, us atop them, will pedal to such a height. A high-speed train seems an equally daunting challenge.
An inter-asia railway is not a new concept - the British and French imperialists spent decades trying to connect railways between various colonial holdings - and a Kunming to Singapore line was considered as early as 1900. A renewal in high speed rail interest came in 2006 in the form of the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement. The 262 mile stretch between Kunming and Vientiane would be one of the crucial, and most challenging segments, finally securing overland high speed transport between China’s eastern metropolises and major ports of southeast Asia (Bangkok, Yangon, Singapore). Whereas it might currently take you the better part of a dusty and potholed week to travel overland from Kunming to Singapore, a high-speed rail could make the trip a mere 10 hours.
After peppering the locals with questions about the new rail in southern China, and receiving vague and uninterested responses, we finally found something to sink our teeth into. At the Mohan-Boten China-Laos border, we saw the first concrete signs of the ASEAN rail project - literally concrete. Huge swaths of what appears to be shopping, hotel, and tourism complexes rose from the jungle. New roads were being laid, and a procession of massive Chinese trucks rolled in and out constantly.
The construction site was plastered with renderings of ultramodern shopping centers and, for the first time, this bullet train - a symbol of ensuing development in the uplands. These types of digital renderings are ubiquitous in southeast Asia - classy looking characters ambling through vast international food courts along an unbelievably turquoise river, for example. They often depict some futuristic urban utopian fantasy that’s glaringly at odds with the semi-rural, cattle strewn road below.
But here at Mohan, it seemed different. Construction of a massive new shopping plaza was well underway, and while this was not the largest or even close to the most spectacular Chinese construction project we’d seen, the location made us speculate. Here, at one of the farthest corners of the Chinese empire, with no major population center for hours’ drive along the highway, they’re building a grand shopping center? When the train is completed, the Mohan station will be the gateway into China: a place to showcase the glory of the most powerful country in the - (insert continent or planet, as your world view allows).
As we weave through hordes of money changers, crossing through the liminal space between the two nations, we take a moment to reflect on this intersection. The population of the entire country of Laos, 6.48 million, is almost exactly the same as the population of the city of Kunming, as of 2011. Yet the vast majority of the burden of responsibility for the ASEAN rail project between the two countries would fall on Laos, not China. Even the Asian Development Bank warns that the project would prove “unaffordable for a small economy of six million people, who mostly rely on agriculture to make a living.” Mainland southeast Asia, as Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak sees it, is “completely in China’s orbit.”
Here in the wild uplands of southeast Asia, it is hard not to harken back to a conception of America’s manifest destiny in the wild west. Just as with the transcontinental railroad in America granting land on either side of the track to private companies, it is hard to see how the Chinese would forego a claim to the valuable rail-side land. There is no question, however, that the Vientiane depot will be smack in the middle of ‘Newtown’ - a Lao government chosen term for Chinatown - on the outskirts of the sleepy Mekong-adjacent capital of Laos.
And just as in the American example, the local inhabitants subsisting on the land through which a major new infrastructure project passes may suffer. Among other things, the transcontinental rail brought settlers, permanent bridges, a standardized time and post system, and drive-by buffalo slaughter. In the decades that followed, the Native Americans were cordoned off into reservations. Lao’s ambitious rail project, funded entirely by Chinese banks, may share some of this fallout.
The friction of terrain in northern Laos, as we saw firsthand, will not be easy to tame. It is estimated that 76 bridges and more than twice as many tunnels will need to be engineered to smooth the route. The bananas and rubber, which blanket the north of Laos and the south of Yunnan, may catch a more efficient ride to the economy that is destined to suck them up, but it is not yet clear how this will benefit the Lao people, whose country is prepared to take out a loan on a scale close to the entire nation’s GDP to fund this project.
With freshly stamped Lao visas in our well-worn passports, we headed south on Laos’ main highway - a rambling, pot-holed, two lane road through upland agricultural fields. The juxtaposition with the raised two-lane speedway on the Chinese side is stark, although the parade of Chinese cargo trucks has not waned.
Its hard to imagine a sleek high speed train whizzing by, through vast stretches of country that still lack basic necessities like electricity and healthcare. Compared to China, the road here is not wide, and the path forward is not totally clear. Which is why the billboard back in Mohan is so ominous. The futuristic high speed rail zooming in from the right brings a message. It proclaims, ‘Strategy is the wide path, fortune is the wide future’.
What would Daohu think? This question stuck with us through the days and weeks after meeting such an ambitious and inquisitive Hmong youth, at 3600 feet, on the side of a mountain, without a place to stay for the night. We were seated in miniature plastic chairs, eating cucumber, the only alternative to the ubiquitous processed Chinese snacks sold in rural roadside shops in Laos, waiting for the village headman to return from the upland rice field. After consuming our fill of cucumber, it appeared that this may not happen, and we approached some patrons outside the village shop to inquire about a house to stay in for the night.
There was hemming and hawing, various forms of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘we don’t have rice’. We offered to pay, of course, as we always do when burdening a local family, but no one wanted to make a decision about the smelly foreigners on bikes. Then Daohu rode by, overheard the conversation, and invited us in. Just like that, we had a Hmong household in which we could hang our hammocks for the night.
The Hmong are an upland people group that can be found throughout southeast Asia, often inhabiting the highest elevational gradient, engaged in shifting cultivation on the painfully steep hillsides that are all that exists in the high uplands. Daohu was especially inquisitive, showing us some snapshots taken on his basic cell phone, explaining his efforts to study while still taking part in his family’s subsistence economics - farming one of these steep upland rice fields.
When he asked for my equivalent cell phone shots, I could only point at the photos of me skiing, with my family at the beach, working on my parent’s shed - which must be as large as Daohu’s family’s shared sleeping quarters. My recreation decisions seemed feeble compared to the daily calculations Daohu’s family was performing in order to eek out enough rice and cucumbers to feed the family for the next year. The bathroom facility in the village was the adjacent forest, potable water was carried who-knows-how-far back to the house in worn plastic jugs, and homework was done by the single LED ray from the butt end of a car battery-charged cell phone. Even the faintest glimmer of light, a clean lick of liquid, was incredibly precious.
Despite the seemingly intact electrical lines above the road, there was no fie faa, or sky fire, here. ‘It will come in a few years’, the local people told us. But at times that was hard to believe. Along our journey, there seemed to be a distinct elevational pattern - the higher up the hillsides we traveled, the less likely the villages were to have electricity. More than 30% of Laos lacks electricity, despite the considerable foreign investment in the country from all directions. Compared to rural southern China, where it is tough to get a photo without strings of electrical lines criss-crossing the frame, or Thailand, where one Bangkok mall uses as much electricity as an entire rural Lao province, Laos is in the dark.
Rolling into Namo, a small district capital ostensibly along the future high-speed rail route, and making our now familiar pleas for a guesthouse to stay in, we spotted the large red billboards of foreign development. New high voltage chinese-constructed electrical towers were going up. Despite hesitations from local shopkeepers at the quality of the dirt track exiting town, one of our handful of onward route options, our dirt road debate was clinched. In the morning we followed the road, and the power lines that skirt it, north towards Phongsali Province.
It doesn’t take long for the friction to crop up after leaving the main road. In fact only a few kilometers in we hit the soup. Flamboyantly colored Chinese trucks were wallowing in the mud, like massive orange elephants cooling off. Our bikes proved more wieldy - the friction of terrain slowed, but could not stop our progress.
Skeletons of power lines were going up along the length of this dirt track. Where once there were forested ridgelines, there are now virgin electrical towers, still waiting for the cables that tether them to each other, and beyond. From the packed trucks of laborers, to the lone man teetering above it all, balanced on the top of a metal tower, it was clear that this was a Chinese endeavor. This line would no doubt fortify the electricity grid connection between northern Laos and southern China. We knew one end would make it to the Mohan border, from where we came. As for the other - we would soon find out.
Running the length of remote northern Laos’ Phongsali Province, the Nam Ou River is one of the Mekong’s largest tributaries. But the river that provides protein and transportation to people throughout this largely roadless watershed is about to be transformed. The Lao government has contracted a Chinese company to construct a cascade of seven hydropower dams that will slice this river into eighths - eroding not only the local livelihoods but the ecosystems upon which they rely.
Nam Ou #6: Dust
We are covered in dust. Dropping off the top of a mountain, down a terrible corkscrewing dirt road, we see the sign: Nam Ou 6. It’s down there somewhere. Massive blue Sinohydro trucks rumble by us, carrying rock from a mountainside quarry to the river valley. Just upstream, the Nam Ou #7 will create a reservoir backing up into the Phou Den Din National Protected Area. Although this is purportedly against the environmental policy of the hydropower company, that’s not stopping anyone around here. We bump down through a blizzard of dust, joints groaning, hands aching from clenching the brakes. Finally we reach the humid river town of Hatsa - a rare moment of relief. The rock filled trucks go upstream toward the dam site and we head down.
Nam Ou #5: Belly of the Beast
After a bit of haggling (bike boat cargo conversions), we buy tickets in Hatsa for ourselves and our bikes, and stuff them inside the narrow watercraft, lashed down by our tired multicolored bungee cords. After the last 20km of rugged jostling, we’re suddenly zipping smoothly along through a gorgeous jungle canyon, river breeze drying the encrusted red sweat that covers us.
The captain skillfully pilots the slender, 40-foot long boat through impossibly narrow channels, barely missing every rock in the river. The occasional wave splashes over the sides, soaking the breastfeeding Lao women in front of us who are returning to their villages, accessible only by boat. Here, the Nam Ou runs through the semi-wild, roadless heart of Phongsali Province. Boat life is serene; we are in river-trip elation.
Three hours later, scars of civilization reappear. Riverside deforestation precedes the concrete monolithic wall that looms in front of us: the Nam Ou 5. Not quite finished, the river has been squeezed into a tube and boat traffic is now prohibited. Ironically, dam workers on lunch break swim and seine for fish in a lovely tributary that will be under 200 feet of water in a year or two, thanks to their hard labor. We take a dip, retrieve our bikes off the boat, and start riding up a steep hill through the intense midday heat. Soon we come upon the raw bustling center of the construction zone, above the dam’s solid concrete heart; it’s heartbreaking and fascinating and unbelievable.
Humans are shrunk by the height of the wall to the size of mites. Workers suspended from scaffolding stack rebar forms in preparation for cement; backhoes, cranes and heavy machinery of all kinds squeak and trundle along, reconfiguring mined-out parts of the earth to build up the forbidding wall. We stop at one lookout point to take in the industrial boomtown. Our boat driver has made the pilgrimage up the hill to this point, silently taking in the new boundary of his route
A truck full of waving helmeted workers passes us, followed by a pristine white pickup with tinted windows and Lao government plates. We ride a few yards further and look out at the downstream side of the dam. Far down below, at river level, two open concrete tunnels still allow the river to slither through. We can only wish upon the waters our condolences in the final vestiges of free flowing bliss. As we continue to take in the overwhelming scale of the project, the same Lao pickup truck drives past for a second time. Our status as camera-wielding foreigners in a location not wholly approved by the communist regime for tourism convinces us that it is time to ride on.
Nam Ou #4: The Plot Thickens
While dipping our sticky rice into some spicy paste at a local restaurant, we spot a falang, a few tables over. He’s an independent consultant for several NGOs and has lived in Laos for years. He prefers to remain anonymous, but gave us the lowdown on the dam situation: Laos borrows money from Chinese banks to build seven large dams. Laos contracts with Sinohydro, a Chinese company, to construct the dams. Sinohydro hires only Chinese and Vietnamese workers at the dam site. The best jobs Lao people can hope for is clearing brush. Sinohydro owns the dams for a period of 30-40 years, during which time they split the profits from the electricity sales with the Lao government. The power gets somehow split between domestic and international consumption.
Why on earth would Vientiane agree to this? The consultant’s theory is that the Lao leadership are relics from the 1970s Communist takeover; they were the military commanders, not the political leaders. The visionaries of the Communist revolution are immortalized on currency, but the country has been inherited by politicians concerned mostly with personal graft. As tends to occur in developing, resource rich nations in the global south, land and water resources become trading pieces – ecological pawns in a game of immediate gratification.
Nam Ou #3: Banana Pancakes
Another boat ride, another set of friendly negotiations. We play the ‘we speak Laos’ card, and after some laughs and haggling, it works. Once again, the river goes through a long roadless stretch. This time the boat is packed full, mostly with falang heading to the backpacker paradise of Muang Ngoi. We tie the bikes precariously on the back, and stuff in with an impressively diverse crowd. There are two Frenchmen, a Brazilian woman, a Peruvian with a motorbike, a couple of Israelis, and three teenage Lao monks within arms reach. We’ve intersected with the so-called ‘Banana Pancake Trail’, a loosely defined series of routes criss-crossing Southeast Asia, frequented by international backpackers whose tourist dollars sprout restaurants, guesthouses, and trekking guides in their wake.
After weeks of riding through rural Yunnan and Laos, in places mostly devoid of foreigners, it feels odd to be part of the crowd again. Muang Ngoi is not the ‘real’ Laos, we sneer, self-righteously. But damn is the food a lot better. A hedonistic afternoon of fruit shakes, hammock reading, and eating ensues. The chef of a local restaurant we patron is from the metropolis of Luang Prabang, our final destination, and has since opened an upscale restaurant in this relaxed riverside village. We order river weed, a crunchy fried flake that’s harvested from the banks of the Nam Ou. Our dinner is Mok Ba, a steamed river fish wrapped beautifully in a banana leaf. This river, on the verge of being dissected, is still providing, as it has done for so many inhabitants in its watershed
The feeling of unease sticks with us, as we leave town heading downstream. In not so long we would require scuba gear to witness the remains of these hillside villages that climb from the banks of the river. Naked children splash in the eddies, between long wooden boats, likely oblivious to the fact that their entire river will become a series of flat, sediment-hoarding lakes lapping at denuded hillsides. The river’s voice, that vernacular of hydromorphology, will soon be drowned out by the distant drone of exported electricity.
In five or ten years we will come back to this place and zip from Kunming to Luang Prabang in mere hours on the new train. Maybe we will take a houseboat out for a spin on one of the Nam Ou reservoirs. We will be air conditioned, and protein will be more readily available. We will warily pay the ticket price or entry fee, which will trickle down from the coffers of whatever communist or nominally democratic government exists, maybe somehow reaching the household of the Hmong folks that were relocated for a massive train tunnel.
For better or worse, the remoteness of Zomia is rapidly being infiltrated by the tendrils of civilization, the very roads on which we cycled. Fractals of interconnected development projects, emanating from China, Vietnam, the West, are spreading into Laos and beyond. We ourselves are products of this lowland, centralized ideology - extracting images and stories from the rugged mountains to circulate freely in the world economy.
So it begs the question, was it really worth it to bicycle through this landscape, instead of taking the bus, the train, a car - or just trolling the internet back home for any scraps of information about the region and its people? Retracing our route on the map - Fuxian Hu, Honghe, Jinghong, Luang Namtha, Muang Ngoi - each of these places, and the gnarled black and brown lines connecting them, brings back distinct memories of each hard-won pass and exhilarating descent. The long periods of monotony, endless uphills, the stench of diesel exhaust. Watching the sun rise over thousand-year old rice terraces; misty cloud forest fading into a harsh sunbaked river canyon. The screeching city transitioning into desolate mountain top village. Dancing with rural youth on a hydraulic disk at a gaudy club in Chengjiang.
Each place is also now populated, in our minds, with distinct faces, staring back. These people morph from the distant statistics slung among news articles and development reports, into real human spirits - vulnerable, excitable, doing the things necessary to get by. If there is hope for the future of the environment and people of these resource-rich, underdeveloped places, it can be found in the process of knowing them and their ways of life. To know the river, to have sat with the people that rely on it, is to know that there is value and vitality beyond the ones contracted in geopolitical economics.
When moving slowly, the lines on a map take on a new reality. The real Zomia happens in between the cities and the sights, along the hazy sections of hot dusty road that most motorists snooze through. The friction here, though, is real for so many people. In many places we visited, it will be tough to get to medical attention in the rainy season. Daohu’s ambitions to teach English are in jeopardy - will his family have enough resources to send him all the way down the hill to study? What will the boat driver do after his route is dissected by the dams, and tourists no longer flock to the limestone karst covered by reservoir? Trying to comprehend these realities, to find some morsel of shared empathy and understanding in another’s human experience - together feeling the friction - seems like reason enough to be out here.