The images we see of China on the news – and even in documentaries – are nearly always of the populous, fast-modernising eastern plains and seaboard: the great urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These are cities with bristling skylines, lit up at night with vivid neon displays, where traffic roars 24/7 and commuters and consumers hurry to work and to play. This is certainly where the majority of Chinese people live – or aspire to live. And it’s the economic engine of the country. But there is another China that many visitors miss entirely. The fact is China is vast. Beijing to Guangzhou takes 8 hours, and that’s on a high speed train whizzing at 300km/hour. To travel from Shanghai on the East Coast to Kashgar in the West takes over seven hours on a plane – that’s the same as flying from Europe to the USA!
And many parts of China are so cold in the winter; or so mountainous; or so inhospitable that travelling is quite hard, even today. It was only in 2013 that the last county in China was connected to the national road network. Before 2013, the only way to reach Motuo was on foot, 10 hours over a mountain pass.
So that’s why I love this timelapse video. It gives a tiny glimpse of China’s geographical variety – and makes me dream where I might visit next…
Up in the far north, where the Heilongjiang river marks the border with Russia, people cope with Minus 40 degrees in mid winter and hack holes in the river ice to catch fish to vary their diet. nearly 4000km to the south, Hainan island is a total contrast – a tropical paradise. Inland, karst geology makes for giant caves and fantastical rocky outcrops, all draped with jungle vegetation; while along the coastline, holiday-makers surf and scuba-dive and locals fish and make sea salt in giant natural salt-pans of volcanic basalt.
High up on the Tibetan plateau in an area known as Khampa, locals race their sturdy mountain ponies – that were once the basis of trade between Lhasa and the lowlands. Tea from Yunnan especially, and from Darjeeling in India, was compressed into “bricks” and transported on people’s backs up onto the plateau. On the return journey, they brought sturdy mountain ponies, in demand for their sure-footedness and their endurance.
In south-west China, over more than a thousand years, locals have sculpted terraces from the hillsides to grow rice.
The terraced fields need to be kept full of water or there will be landslides, so they have created an extraordinary system of water management that ensures every field on the mountain side is kept irrigated at just the right level. This method of rice growing also contains a virtuous ecological circle. Fish swim in the rice paddy water alongside the seedlings, eating insects; while ducks eat the smaller fish and fertilise the soil with their waste.