March 16, 2013

MUSE: China is the Planet's Panda Bear

A friend of mine followed his heart recently all the way to Cixi, a rapidly growing area just outside Shanghai, China. With the magic of Skype, we chatted laptop-to-laptop recently, a surreal experience that had me shaking my head in wonder. I couldn't smell his aftershave, and yet there he was - his laughing and life-size face not two feet from my own. I was able to "tour" his girlfriend's apartment, which is sleek and modern, full of light and huge panes of glass, in one of the iconic high-rises dominating China's urban landscapes. What a leap for my friend! He is celebrating his 6th decade with panache and many new adventures.

Our conversation covered many topics, but what interested me the most was his report that most people in that economy own several residences, the way a North American family might own several cars. Apartments are bought and sold as a form of stock, as this is the easiest way to make money from their quickly-growing economy. Cixi is also a major manufacturing centre; it ranks third among the top 100 Chinese cities in terms of economic development and output. It is home to over 2.04 million people sharing 1,361 square kilometres (to give you a comparative, metro Montreal is 4,259 square kilometres, so about 4 times larger with roughly half the amount of people). Very crowded, very fluid, always changing. Cranes fill the air to accommodate endless construction. China is in its era of boom and balloon.

My curiosity piqued, I then took in six episodes of Wild China, a BBC production that does an excellent job of introducing neonates to this incredible, sprawling communist-ruled country. It's been a gap in my education; up until now, and dependent on the thin gruel of mainstream media, this vast country has never been in my focus outside of literature.

Did you know that the Tibetan plateau, for example, is one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world? The runoff from its glaciers feeds rivers and brings fresh water to almost a third of Asia's population - billions of people, animals and farmland. Environmentalists are keeping a close eye on its glaciers as climate change continues to punch holes in both the ozone layer and the thickest denials from idiotic politicians.

The series focuses mainly on the battle to feed China's staggering population without devastating its diverse resources. Over thousands of years, rice paddies, tea fields and now wheat (more profitable than rice) have etched out landscapes completely redefined for agricultural needs, forcing natural plants and wildlife to be relocated and, increasingly, trapped in small areas that may or may not be protected from future ravaging. As a result, there are many endangered species, eroded hilltops and changing ecosystems silently crying out for help.

In the meantime, a schism between old and new vibrates with frantic energy as past and future clash angrily. My friend spends many mornings hiking in the rugged hills nearby, and is eating sumptuous food in quantities he never imagined. He is learning mahjongg skills and a new language; although he says that everyone wants to practice their English, so they generally end up conversing in his language anyway. Below is a beautifully-detailed photo from one of his hikes, and you can enjoy more of his incredible photography here.

Robert Knight, Photographer. All rights protected.

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