Long known for its natural beauty, remoteness, and abundance of wildlife, the Mekong river basin runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is home to more than seventy million people and has for centuries been one of the world’s richest agricultural zones. Today however it is undergoing profound changes. China’s development policies aim to interconnect the region through high-speed transportation networks and to transform its people into modern urbanized consumers. By 2025 a series of dams will have harnessed the river’s energy, bringing an end to its natural cycles and cutting off food supplies for over half of the basin’s population. Yet there has been little reporting on this monumental change.
In The Last Days of the Mekong, Brian Eyler takes us on a revealing tour of the Mekong and those who depend on its resources. He travels from the river’s headwaters in China to its delta in Southern Vietnam. Along the way he meets the region’s diverse peoples, from villagers to community leaders to politicians and policymakers. Through conversations with them, he reveals how China’s expansionist policies are drasticallyand often literallyreshaping environments. He also highlights the work being done by locals and international groups to save the Mekong and its fragile ecosystem. Eyler makes the case that there are environmentally-sound solutions, but argues these can only come about from serious cooperation and an increased pressure from the international community.
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About the Author
Brian Eyler is the director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program in Washington, DC. Previously, he directed study abroad centers in Beijing and Kunming, China for IES Abroad and led numerous study tours throughout the Mekong region.
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YUBENG: THE LAST SHANGRI-LA
The Tibetan village of Yubeng is hidden halfway up the slopes of sacred Mt. Kawagarbo in China's Yunnan province just a few kilometers from the Tibetan border. Fifty years ago, reaching Yubeng from any nearby major urban area would take months of travel by horseback. No fewer than two decades ago, the only way for someone to reach the trailhead to Yubeng would be to hitch himself and his horse to a line stretching across the Mekong and use a pulley system to traverse the river canyon to the opposite side. Even today, reaching Yubeng is a two-day journey from Yunnan's provincial capital Kunming, 500 kilometers away. A bridge now permits car traffic to reach the opposite shore of the Mekong.
Local lore says Yubeng was "discovered" by itinerant traders leading pack horses along the Mekong in search of food. At the river's edge, a man appeared from the forest, greeting the traders with an offering of barley. In this section of the canyon, no settlements were known to the traders, so the man of the forest caught them by surprise. When they asked the man where he came from, he disappeared into the mountains without an answer. The next time the traders visited the canyon, they came across another man offering barley along the river. This time they were determined to know where the barley was grown. Unbeknownst to the barley seller, the traders poked a hole in his sack and later followed the trail of scattered barley over the mountain. At the end of the trail, in an unknown valley surrounded on three sides by the snow-covered peaks of Mt. Kawagarbo, they discovered the tiny village of Yubeng. The story concludes with a telling of how Yubeng's villagers knew little of the outside world since the surrounding forests and streams provided a bounty of resources and the holy mountain protected their livelihoods. In the hidden valley, all of their needs were met. Yubeng, like many of the remote villages around it, could have easily inspired James Hilton's Shangri-la as he described it in his 1933 novel The Lost Horizon.
Even today, Yubeng's residents prefer the isolation of the hidden valley to what the rest of the world has to offer. However, today's Yubeng is also a burgeoning tourist destination for Chinese and foreign travelers willing to spend a few days off the beaten path and away from Yunnan's overcrowded tourist towns. Yubeng's remoteness and sacred pilgrimage sites are a draw for thousands each year. Many make the journey because they find it hard to believe a place like Yubeng could exist. The village still has no road access for wheeled vehicles. A tourist no longer needs to follow a trail of barley to reach Yubeng, but getting there requires a 9 kilometer, high altitude hike from the edge of the Mekong over one of Kawagarbo's low-lying ridges, no simple feat for lowland city dwellers in search of Shangri-la.
When I set out on a morning in June 2015 to make my ascent to Yubeng, I walked among 30 or so Chinese tourists bedecked in hiking fashion's brightest colors. The tourists gave an impression that one could not make the journey if it couldn't be done in style, and recent years of high economic growth in China provided the incomes to invest in pricey outdoor gear. Some who could not endure the climb had already saddled up on mules to be led over the ridge to Yubeng by local Tibetan men. In addition to the hikers, families of Tibetans wearing woolen robes were making their way up the trail to Yubeng. They chanted Buddhist mantras as they spun hand-held prayer wheels. From them I learned of a sacred waterfall located somewhere in the mountains behind Yubeng that was a side stop on the Mt. Kawagarbo's kora, a religious hike for Buddhist pilgrims circumambulating the entirety of the mountain. Because Mt. Kawagarbo is known as one of the most sacred Tibetan Buddhist mountains, ranking much higher in local spiritual hierarchy than Mt. Everest, Buddhist pilgrims revere the kora around Mt. Kawagarbo as a ritual act. Those who are able-bodied come from all over the Tibetan world to make the journey.
Completing the entire circuit of240 kilometers takes on average 2 to 3 weeks, and pilgrims stay at local lodges offering basic room and board along the way. In recent years, as Tibetan Buddhist beliefs gain more followers among Han Chinese, more of these new believers are also choosing to make the arduous journey around the mountain. Indeed, some Chinese hikers and even a few Europeans and Americans that I passed on the hike to Yubeng sought to complete this spiritual quest. Many pilgrims were quick to note how completing the kora in 2015 was even more auspicious, since this was the mountain's birth year which occurs every 12 years according to the Tibetan zodiac calendar. In the Tibetan world, all inanimate objects, like mountains, trees, and lakes, are possessed or personified by deities or spirits, all deserving of pious worship. Mt. Kawagarbo is the spiritual abode of an eponymous Tibetan warrior deity. The mountain deity grants protection from illness, disasters, and other evils to those to pay their respect. Pilgrims who walk around the mountain are awarded with spiritual merit. Those who violate the mountain and its customs are punished.
At 6800 meters, the highest peak of Mt. Kawagarbo is far from the highest in the Tibetan Himalaya. In fact, it does not even rank among the top 100 highest peaks worldwide, but its 6 peaks covered with permanent snowpack are among the world's most stunning and have long been a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts and mountaineers. At the turn of the new year in 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers from Kyoto University and 6 Chinese climbers attempted to be the first to successfully summit Kawagarbo's highest peak. Despite protests from local Tibetan communities claiming the attempt to conquer the mountain was an act of sacrilege and disrespect to local belief, the team embarked for a journey from which none of them would return. Because their bodies were never found, little is known about the fate of the 17 climbers, but locals believe a freak avalanche swallowed the team as they were descending the summit on January 3, 1991. Since the disaster, which ranks as one of the worst in mountaineering history, none of the mountain's 6 major peaks has been summited, and in 2001, the local government banned all future attempts, citing religious and cultural grounds.
After a 3 hour uphill hike through old-growth forests of conifers and rhododendrons, I stopped at an open pass where two of Mt. Kawagarbo's peaks, the fluted Goddess Peak and the broad, Giza-esque General Peak, came into full view. A middle-aged Tibetan man, who introduced himself as Asheng emerged from a shed that served as a rest-stop for hikers and pilgrims. He was holding a bunch of white thistle plants in his hand which he told me were snow lotuses, a rare medicinal herb that grows only in high-altitude areas and is known locally for its anti-inflammatory and youth-preserving qualities. I learned from Asheng that he was a native of Yubeng and had lived in the hidden valley all his life. Asheng disparaged city life, citing bad experiences from visits to Kunming. In the mountains, he could enjoy a life of liberty, maintaining a living selling the highly valued snow lotus and other treasures of the forest like matsutake mushrooms and caterpillar fungus, all of which fetch high prices in the outside world. At the end of a 5-minute conversation, he laid claim to being the happiest man on earth. He encouraged me to drop what I was doing and move to Yubeng to find true freedom. I told him I needed to walk on and see for myself.
As the trail from the pass snaked down a steep ridge, the Yubeng Valley came into view. From above, the sun reflected off the gold-trimmed roof of a Tibetan Buddhist temple nestled in the flat, lower portion of the village. Steep escarpments covered in lush vegetation surrounded the valley and hemmed in manicured fields of barley. Rolling mountain streams fed by the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kawagarbo formed a cradle of deep valleys before flowing into a small river bisecting the valley center. Two-story Tibetan homes, encircled by plank fences for housing pack mules and other livestock, were more densely concentrated in the lower portion of the village than the upper portion where the homes hugged a ridge alongside a dirt path. A string of multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags several hundred meters long provided a spiritual link between the upper and lower villages. Tibetan prayer flags are commonly found throughout the Tibetan world. Prayers and blessings are printed on the small white, yellow, red, and blue flags. When the wind blows, the prayer flags are believed to bless the areas around them.
* * *
In the late 1990s, a slow trickle of outdoor enthusiasts from Japan, Europe, and the United States began making their way to Yubeng. Most were backpackers on their way through Yunnan and Southeast Asia traveling on a shoestring budget. At that time, much of Yunnan was not officially open for foreign tourism, meaning hotels and guesthouses did not have regulatory authority to house foreigners. So the earliest foreign backpackers offered small donations to whichever local households in Yubeng would take them in. They were in search of a rustic Tibetan experience in ethnic Yunnan and had little expectation of comfortable amenities. One of Yubeng's first guesthouse opened under these circumstances when a local man named Ahnazhu began hosting foreign tourists in his home. To start, he offered housing and food to the outsiders for free in the same way that he would host pilgrims set on the kora around the mountain.
Ahnazhu was the only villager who could speak Chinese and thus the only villager who could communicate with the few incoming tourists who could speak Chinese. Though development of his language skills came from inauspicious circumstances, his linguistic abilities then landed him in a position later in life which made him the village's most wealthy and influential resident. Not having a formal education, Ahnazhu learned to speak Chinese while serving a prison sentence for accidentally killing a villager with a rifle while hunting in the surrounding mountains. After serving his time, he married a local woman and put his newfound language skills to use. By housing tourists, he became the family's breadwinner. Through the early 2000s, Han Chinese tourists started to augment the flow of foreign tourists. These new arrivals came most frequently during the three Golden Week holidays of Spring Festival, Labor Day, and National Day, and because of this, more locals began to convert their homes into guesthouses. Ahnazhu followed suit, building a six-room guesthouse called Trekker's Inn. In those early years of low tourist flows, villagers charged less than a dollar for a night's stay and shared their income with the rest of the village in a collective fashion. Yubeng's villagers had always shared their resources, and at first the new income from tourists was no exception. Ahnazhu managed the income distribution network, and for a few years the system worked. Even though not all households took in travelers, all of Yubeng's villagers were profiting from tourism.
However, as notions of private property increased and households sought to isolate income from those who had not transitioned to hosting tourists, the villagers introduced a rotation system to reward only those who hosted tourists. Participating households were assigned tourists and then did not receive overnight stays again until the entire pool of households had received an overnight guest. The villagers figured that since such a rotation system had worked for years for transporting tourists over the mountain via mule, it could work for housing tourists as well. But the ballooning number of Chinese tourists, particularly during the Golden Weeks, made the rotation system difficult to manage. Some families had homes that could house 30 guests, while others only could house 10, and some villagers claimed not to be properly compensated for their time and energies. A handful of entrepreneurial villagers spruced up their homes. Some guesthouses were more comfortable than others and offered better scenic views. Tourists complained about how the mandatory rotation system forced them to stay in less appealing quarters for the same price as those with spectacular mountain views.
As business picked up, the villagers then agreed to a new system which allowed tourists to choose their lodgings. Neighboring households banded together in groups of four and pooled income to be distributed evenly among the four households. This way a lite version of the equitable, community-based tourism model could be preserved. But villagers began to lie to each other about how many tourists they were housing. Conflicts flared when neighbors showed up to count the number of tourists staying next door. Mutual distrust and greed — sentiments previously unknown to the villagers according to those who retold the story — caused a system designed with the best of intentions to fall apart. The system was entirely disbanded in 2009 when a state-owned tourism company from Kunming purchased the rights to develop and maintain the village and the valley's scenic hotspots for the price of an admission ticket. The company also required room prices to be set by market demand. Those households with better views and better service charged more. Amongst the villagers, competition for Yubeng's tourists was now in full swing.
* * *
Yubeng now receives an average of 100 visitors each day, and during major holidays, these numbers can increase tenfold. Most of these tourists are Han Chinese. A contributing factor to the rapid growth of Han Chinese tourism is the tripling of incomes in China over the last 20 years. More importantly though, Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular throughout China. This new wave of spiritual interest came in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Unlike most other parts of the world, the Chinese economy sailed through the 2008 crisis, buoyed by a series of stimulus packages and tight currency controls which awarded government officials, state-owned enterprises, and private export firms with windfall profits. Prior to the Global Financial Crisis, a nouveau riche class was emerging in China's urban areas, but the wealthy class really came on the scene after 2008. Among other superlatives, China's fattened upper crust has since become the world's largest consumer of luxury items.
Social status in modern China is conspicuously displayed by the brand name of luxury fashion items you wear and the sticker price of cars you drive. It is also flaunted by the quality of one's political and social connections. Social upward mobility is not determined by what you know, but rather who you know and your ability to make those high-powered connections work to your advantage. When it comes to social customs and gatherings, Han Chinese prefer extravagant banquets and overproduced weddings attended by hundreds to demonstrate status and power. An anthropologist would call this a kind of social performance purposefully orchestrated to separate the "haves" from the "have-nots." One might think that China's newfound interest in Tibetan religion was a reaction against the material excesses of the late aughts, whereas in reality it emerged as a way to further separate the "haves" from the other "haves."
John Osburg, author of Anxious Wealth:Money andMorality Among China's New Rich said of the emerging phenomenon in a 2014 New York Times interview, "If you can't [distinguish yourself] from the rest of the herd with luxury consumption, then you look elsewhere." For many Han Chinese, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, which at its core asks practitioners to relinquish notions of self and social hierarchy, is turned on its head as a mechanism for social climbing in urban China. Historian Jeremiah Jenne, a long-time Beijing resident and witness to this spiritual revitalization calls the new obsession with Tibetan Buddhism a kind of "internal orientalism." He believes the trend is akin to non-Native American's embrace of Native American culture, religion, and aesthetic as a "lifestyle choice" without the internalization of tortured history between whites and Native Americans.
This newly adopted lifestyle choice sends Han Chinese pilgrims to far-flung monasteries in Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces where religious restrictions are more relaxed compared to Tibet proper. There they compete for the attention of high lamas called "Living Buddhas" who are the earthly representatives of powerful deities from the Buddhist pantheon. Daniel Smyer Yu, an anthropologist who specializes in China's post-Mao era religious revitalizations, claims Han Chinese are not attracted to these Living Buddhas for their wisdom or charisma, but rather for the status of the particular buddha that has reincarnated into their bodies — the higher ranking the buddha in the pantheon, the better the social appeal. As a demonstration of status, Han Chinese believers are quick to share their encounters with spiritual ritual and enlightened Living Buddhas through sharing photos and thoughts on social media sites.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last Days of the Mighty Mekong"
Copyright © 2019 Brian Eyler.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps and Figures ix
1 Yubeng: The Last Shangri-la 21
2 Damming the Upper Mekong 43
3 The Erhai Valley 67
4 The Akha as Modern Zomians 91
5 The Golden Triangle in Transition 119
6 Laos as a Contested Space 147
7 Damming the Lower Mekong 177
8 Phnom Penh and Boeung Kak Lake 219
9 The Tonle Sap 247
10 Whither the Mekong Delta 285