Old and New China Meet Along the Yellow River

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A trip along the Yellow River reveals the enormous costs of China's ascent to the ranks of the most powerful nations on Earth, how ruthlessly its rulers have treated their own people and how recklessly they have been in their over-exploitation of nature. But it also shows the enormous amount of energy with which this country -- like the river -- is flowing forward. A trip along the Yellow River also makes it clear that China has confidently resumed its ancestral position after a century of humiliation at the hands of hostile powers.

The trip to the headwaters of the Yellow River passes through Madoi, a small market town on the Tibetan Plateau 4,300 meters above sea level, where the houses are freshly whitewashed and a new police headquarters building is under construction. The Tibetan nomads from the surrounding region come to Madoi to buy grain, medicine and other essential items.

Migrant workers from other parts of China have also made their way to the region, where the thin air makes breathing difficult and too much physical exertion causes headaches. They include people like Li Bing, 23, from Anhui province in eastern China. For the last five years, he has sewn and sold temple decorations and prayer flags in his tiny shop. There is a simple reason, he says, for the fact that he, a Chinese non-believer, sells Tibetan devotional objects: "The Tibetans don't quite get the professional side of it, with the ordering and logistics," he says.

Li has now brought his wife to Madoi and invested the equivalent of about €20,000 ($25,000) in the business. The couple lives in an alcove above the shop, where Li also keeps the sewing machine he uses to make prayer flags. "Life is cheap here," they say. "We won't return to Anhui until we've saved a million yuan." That would be about €120,000, or enough to make Li and Yu wealthy people in China. It's quite possible that they will achieve their goal. An Eternal but Changing Landscape

Many rivulets stream down from the Bayan Har Mountains in the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, flow together and then pass through two mountain lakes, Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake. On a hill above the lakes, the Communist Party has erected a monument to the river that looks like the stylized horns of a yak. The inscription on a copper plaque describes the importance of the river for China's identity: "The Yellow River is the cradle of the Chinese people. The Yellow River region is the birthplace of the magnificent, ancient Chinese culture. The spirit of the Yellow River is the spirit of the Chinese people."

But even here, in this remote place high in the mountains, the world is no longer what it used to be. "It used to be much colder than it is today," says a national park ranger guarding the road leading to the two lakes. "Sometimes the snow was so high that I couldn't open my door in the morning," he says. "Today, it only reaches my ankles." The unpaved road to the banks of the lakes is currently being repaired because melting permafrost has caused the road's surface to sink.

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