Along the banks of the Yangtze – E6/6 – Motorway to Tibet


This is China’s most beautiful river,
the Yangtze. In two months I travel upstream along
the banks, to capture modern China. This last stage of my journey takes me
to the foothills of the Himalaya. along the banks of the Yangtze This is the most fascinating area of China
because of the rugged landscape… where the river meanders
through the high mountains. For thousands of years,
this part of China was difficult to access. That’s why many different ethnic groups
live along the river… with their own language and culture. But in quick succession, tunnels,
highways, and bridges are being built. With so much construction going on,
will any of these cultures remain? highway to Tibet After two months, I’ve arrived
at the first bend in the Yangtze. It’s an important bend for the Yangtze. The river originates in the Tibetan
Plateau, then flows to the south… but makes a 180 degree turn
and goes back north… and then on to the east
towards Shanghai. Thousands of kilometres away,
where my journey began. If it hadn’t been for this mountain… it would’ve flowed south
and out of the country. China wouldn’t have had its lifeline. The Yangtze River, upon which
hundreds of millions of Chinese depend. Good morning.
Is it dangerous here? Yes, very dangerous.
Especially here. Are you Tibetan or Han Chinese? Han Chinese. I’m from Zhao Tong. In the direction of Kunming.
-Yes, I know the city. That’s a 1000 kilometres away.
-Many Yi people live there, right? Yes, Yi, Miao and Han Chinese. The Han are the largest ethnic group
in China. Nine out of ten Chinese
are Han Chinese. Officially, there are 56 different
ethnic minorities. And most of them live here. I don’t get it. This is where
many Tibetans live, right? Then why have the Han Chinese
come here to build a road? Because they can’t do it themselves. They lack the know-how, you mean? This area is predominantly inhabited
by Tibetans. They have the know-how,
but they prefer agriculture. They earn their money
with growing grapes and walnuts… and by foraging herbs
in the mountains. They don’t need the outside world. This road opens up the area.
It will bring it more prosperity. I think they also benefit from it. We’re actually helping them. So, you think they’ll benefit from it?
-I believe so. Transportation leads to progress.
-Indeed. He talks a lot for his age. I’m in Shangri-La. I’m reading the book
which first mentions Shangri-La. The paradise. The mysterious
mystical paradise on earth. This is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. He describes how four westerners
survive an airplane crash… and end up in a Tibetan monastery,
called Shangri-La, which is paradise. It’s actually all based on
this man’s work, Joseph Rock. He was an explorer, anthropologist,
botanist, and a very good photographer. His work has inspired me as well. A century ago,
he travelled around here for decades. He recorded the lives of the ethnic
minorities who live in these mountains. I hope to catch a glimpse
of what he so beautifully captured. This road used to be much worse, right? This is the old road
from Yunnan to Tibet. It used to be a dirt road. It was asphalted only six years ago. I was here ten years ago.
All the roads were dirt roads back then. Are we going to cross that pass?
-Yes, at the first peak. Tibetans need to pray before
they cross a pass. Why is that? That’s right.
-Why is that? They pray for their safety. Every mountain has its own soul. On the pass,
you can hang prayer flags. What are they doing here? They’re digging a tunnel.
This is the construction site. I see people over there. Hello. What are you doing here? We’re digging a tunnel.
-You too? Are they done now? The work goes on day and night. How many people work here?
-A lot. More than a hundred.
-That many? Why are you digging a tunnel here? It’s for the road
from Shangri-La to Tibet. But why?
-Well… I have no idea.
We just have to build a highway. How are things here?
-Very tough. Why?
-Because we have to live on site. How long have you been working here?
-About five years, no, six. Here? For six years? You as well?
-Yes. Where are you from?
-Shanxi. What is it like to work here?
-Very tough. Because we have to work
at a high altitude. And the climate is harsh.
-What else? And the working conditions.
-The work is physically demanding. What about the money?
-We don’t earn that much. We can just about support our families. We’re away from home for years,
so we can’t help much at home either. Our families complain about that
sometimes. But thanks to their support,
we can keep on working here. Are there mostly Han Chinese here? No, different ethnic groups
work together here. This is Tibetan territory. There are
Han Chinese here, but also Tibetans. Take him for example, he’s Tibetan. Can you imagine working
at 4000m altitude… and living in these barracks
for years on end. And that you’re only allowed
to visit your wife and child once a year. In this area, there’re hundreds of these
makeshift villages next to building sites. Construction goes on around the clock. This shows the rush
to make this area accessible… and to get it on board of the country’s
economic growth and prosperity. Hello. Where to? My back hurts. Can you take me to a doctor? A doctor? I don’t understand Chinese very well.
-You don’t? I am Tibetan.
I never went to school. Can you understand me?
-If you talk slowly, I can. Where has the most development
taken place in this area? The past years… many of the houses in this town
were demolished and rebuilt. Is this the place?
-Yes, this is Deqin’s hospital. The Tibetan clinic is
on the second floor. Can you wait here for me?
I’ll go and have a look. Hello. Hello. Are you doctor Yima?
-Yes, that’s me. May I come in?
-Of course, what’s bothering you? If you need treatment, you’ll have to wait.
I’m seeing this patient right now. I have to wait. It’s your turn now.
What’s troubling you? My back aches almost every day.
-Have a seat. When does it hurt? When you’re asleep
or when you’re walking around? If I walk too long, it starts to ache. But it does feel better… when I’m moving or exercising. It doesn’t bother me much
when I’m sleeping. These are traditional recipes
from Tibetan medicine. It looks old. How old is that? This dates back to the beginning
of our medical science. More than 2700 years old.
-Really? Almost 3000 years old. It’s a long history. Please, lie down. Very good.
I’m going to touch your back now. Tell me when it hurts. Does this hurt? No. How about here?
-A little. And here?
-A little. Here?
-No. Do you come across
these symptoms often? Yes, due to the altitude and climate,
we have many patients like you. I’m going to put cups on your back.
-Alright. Here we go, guys. I think he’s going to put
one of those cups on my back. For a brief moment, it’s very hot. They have to stay in place
for five minutes. Can you lie down for that long?
-Yes. In the meantime,
I’m going to see other patients. This is going to take five minutes.
I hope I can make it. Somehow, I feel beat. Oddly enough, my backs aches more
now than before he applied the cups. It should be better by tonight. And now for your medication.
-What are those? One line means… take it in the morning. Two lines is for the afternoon
and three is for the evening. The number of dots indicates
the amount of pills you have to take. We do it like this,
because most Tibetans are illiterate. This means five pills in the morning. This is a perfect blend
of medicine and religion. They’re praying for a swift recovery
and for the medication to kick in. With my rational mind, I think praying
might help, simply because its exercise. It could even help my aching back. I’m back again. The Tibetan cab driver
has invited me to his home. A half hour’s drive out of town.
He comes from a family of farmers. I’m surprised by the beautiful
location of his home. Is this your house? May I go inside?
-Yes. Shall I take my shoes off?
-No need. Come in.
-This is truly gorgeous. Get out of here, this is outrageous. Everything is made of wood,
decorated and painted. The house is a piece of art. Who built this house? A Tibetan carpenter. How do you make a living?
-Mostly with cattle. Like yaks and buffalo. And by making yak butter,
milk, and cheese. We do that mechanically now. In the fall, we harvest the wheat. This is where we lay it out to dry. This is where you dry it?
-Yes. The road to this place
was paved this year. The government spent 140,000 euro
to asphalt the road. Our country is better off now. It gets better every year. There used to be only one
elementary school for the kids… from the lower and higher part
of the mountain. Our kids left in the morning
and came back in the evening. So did I.
-We’re the same. Since two years, there’s a boarding
school. That has changed everything. Now we can only visit once a week.
That’s hard to deal with. Some parents complain about it. The school used to be 3-5 kilometres
from your home. But for the villages further away,
it’s now more than 30 kilometres. At least we can visit them every week.
Most people can’t. Are those sweet potatoes?
-Yes. On a sunny afternoon,
it looks like paradise here. But what I’ve seen and heard,
has got me thinking. Just like the other minorities
in the area… Tibetans have an ancient culture
and their own language. What’s troubling you? The Tibetan doctor in Shangri-La
is better. Really? The children are now required to go
to a Chinese-speaking boarding school. Sure, compulsory education certainly
helps to prevent illiteracy… but Beijing decides
what the children learn. The Tibetans are the most well-known
minority and they are the largest group. But there are also Miao, Yi,
Naxi, and Lisu people… and on our way we encounter a festive
gathering of a very obscure people. Hello.
-Hello! What is going on today? We’re playing poker.
-Poker? I can see that. Do you mean the Harvest Festival?
-Harvest Festival? That is what we are celebrating. The fall harvest is in. Why is this holiday celebrated today? That’s decided by the elders by looking
at the time and the horoscope. If it’s an auspicious day,
we go outside. The young and old gather
at our place of work… and the Harvest Festival begins.
-Harvest festival. We celebrate that a year of hard work
has paid off. May I ask which ethnic group you are? The Malimasa. The Malimasa people?
-Yes, Malimasa, the Malimasa people. Are you one of the 56
officially recognized ethnic groups? No. Do you have your own language?
-Yes. How many Malimasa people are there? About 2000, I believe. So few?
-Yes. But our language
is slowly disappearing… because of the influence of the other
ethnic groups. This is very serious. Therefore our language
has slightly changed. That’s why the older people… are trying to pass down
old traditions to us. Like our traditional dress
and our language. That must be preserved. There used to be no electricity or roads.
-There was nothing at all. When was this road built? This secondary road? Three years ago.
-Only three years ago? It’s noticeable in our daily lives. We don’t have to worry about our food… or about our clothing. We even have some money
in our pockets. We are happy now. We’re not starving.
-The living conditions have improved? So you think these changes are good?
-I do. But your Malimasa people
will disappear, right? Yes, the Malimasa will disappear. Isn’t that a great shame? No, because we are
a disadvantaged group. A group without education
are a disadvantaged group. We don’t have any civilisation,
so we don’t have to regret it. That’s the way it is. Tough luck. It’s all true.
The new roads, tunnels, bridges… and increased tourism lead to
more prosperity in this area. This progress is stimulated
for a reason. The government would like to see
all the ethnic minorities… slowly become
one homogeneous Chinese group. That’s why native people receive grants if
they marry a Han Chinese, for example. Good morning. What is that?
-Those are bones. Are these all used to make medicine?
-Yes. This is qingui, that is chuanxiong… Where does it come from?
-We get it from the mountains. It’s only found high in the mountains,
under the edge of a cliff. 30 cents per gram of elephant skin.
That’s bizarre. I think that most of what
this chemist has to offer… is completely illegal. Do you have caterpillar fungus? I still have a few. Is that caterpillar fungus? This is caterpillar fungus,
a rare plant from Tibet. It’s apparently effective against
many diseases, like kidney diseases… but also erectile dysfunctions. I don’t need it. There are a lot of strange things here. Can I have a look.
-Yes, sure. The belly of a turtle. Turtle…. It’s all a bit grimy. Do you collect this yourself? I’m sorry?
-Do you collect this yourself? It’s good for your stomach, legs,
and back. At the market one man stands out. At first I think he doesn’t speak Chinese,
but it turns out he’s stone-deaf. After the market, I’ll go with him
to his house high in the mountains. An hour’s drive from the river. Do you need any help? Do you need any help?
-You can’t do it. He’s going to do it himself.
Is that such a good idea? Is that going to work? Wait for me!
-Okay. We have a visitor. Hello. Take a seat.
-Thank you. How beautiful.
Take a look inside. Come inside. This is crazy. While you’re looking at a lifestyle
that’s centuries old and traditional… there is a television inside
blasting a popular song. The song is called:
‘where did the time go?’ where did the time go? before I finally saw you
I had a veil before my eyes I’ve wasted away my days
for half my life So, this is where you cook?
-Yes. Where do you keep your medicine? Do you have a storage area?
-That’s where I keep the medicine. We grow it ourselves
and store it up there. Up there?
-It’s hanging there. Is all of this medicine?
-Yes, all of it. What is this? A porcupine. Are they rare? Certainly, but sometimes
you still find one. It’s good for the stomach. This is a porcupine turned inside out.
It doesn’t smell pleasant. How old are you? I’m 86. Where did you learn all this? From my parents, it’s passed down
from generation to generation. My mother learned it from her parents
and she passed it on to me. I started growing medicine
when I was twelve. I gathered medicine
and looked after the cattle. I’m the sixteenth generation.
-The sixteenth? All doctors, for sixteen generations. I have more medicinal herbs
in the garden. We can have a look. Shall we go?
-Sure. Which ethnic group do you belong to?
-I’m a Miao. Do you grow this yourself? Yes, all by myself. What is this?
-Red ginseng. What’s it good for? You have to cook it and then eat it. If you’re grey,
it helps you get your black hair back. Really? Do you use it as well?
-Certainly. My beard isn’t white, it’s brown. This is how he boils water,
with solar energy. The tea will be ready in 20 minutes.
-So soon? That’s fast. Do you recognise this? You can see three different
ethnic minorities here. Tibetans, Miao… and the Pumi. Life was very hard back then. There was no road.
Nobody was working on infrastructure. We built our own water reservoirs
and watermills. So life was hard back then?
-Very hard. And now?
-Now it’s better than ever. President Xi’s leadership is very good. We have plenty of food and clothes. I can take the bus anywhere. Before, we didn’t have any shoes.
We walked around barefoot. We used to look like that. Aren’t you afraid that your culture
and traditions will disappear? Not at all. I’m old, I’m going to die anyway. Everybody dies, don’t they. You will too, one day. Me?
-Yes. Right? But nobody knows when.
-No. How do you see the future?
-Our culture is disappearing, changing. We are all becoming one.
That’s the change. When I was here ten years ago,
I took photos of a so-called sky burial. Whereby, according to Tibetan tradition
the body of the deceased… is chopped into pieces by a designated
person and offered to the vultures. For us westerners,
this is a macabre thought. My driver tells me
that ritual burials still take place. Are sky burials still performed here? They are more popular in Shangri-La. About eighty percent of the Tibetans
have water burials. Eighty percent? Have you ever seen it? Yes, many times, but from a distance.
I don’t like watching it. That man lives behind this house
on the hill. Are we there?
-Yes, I think so. He’s coming.
-Is that him? Have you ever seen him before?
-Yes, I know him. Hello. He must have buried
hundreds of people by now. Hello. Do you speak Chinese?
-No. What is this?
-Qingui. I’ve seen sky burials in Litang. There were many vultures there.
More than a hundred vultures. Sky burials were more popular
when he was young… because there were more vultures then. Nowadays, there’re almost no vultures left.
Less and less. On the plateau where the sky burials
are performed… the trees are too high
for the vultures to see. That’s the reason why even
high-ranking monks… request water burials. Are water burials always performed
in the Yangtze? Yes, always in this river. What about sky burials?
-Those were at the top of this mountain. How is the ritual performed? What do you have to do? You start with someone’s neck.
You chop it off and work your way down. He starts with the neck…
-From behind? And then slowly he works his way down
along the back. Towards the elbow?
-No, you follow the vertebrae. And then you move to the front. After the vertebrae,
he removes the organs at the front. After that he throws barley flour… over the severed body parts
and throws them in the water. He is the only one who can do this. Is it down this way? Water burials are performed
at the bottom of this hill. What are those flags for?
-That’s where people were chopped up. He chops them into pieces
along the river… and throws them in, one by one.
-Normally, the water level is higher. Do families attend the ceremonies? Yes, but only the men. Why?
-Women are not allowed to see it. Why not? Women aren’t allowed to see it.
It’s taboo. Taboo, it’s taboo. When the ceremony is over… they throw the hatchet and knife
into the river. There must be many hatchets in there?
-That’s right. Maybe even hundreds. One hatchet and one knife per body. Are these yours?
-Yes. It was thrown away
when he was finished. They’re above the water now.
Should we throw them back? No, you can only throw them in once.
Not twice. There is a reason
why this is done in the Yangtze… why we sacrifice our bodies here
after we die. It’s every Tibetans greatest desire
to go to the sea. And the Yangtze flows to the sea. In Buddhist belief,
we long for the sea. The river as bearer of the soul.
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? That this river exists to fulfil
the last wish of these Tibetans. And that the thousands of miles
I have travelled upstream… are covered by them
in opposite direction. From high in the mountains,
slowly streaming downwards… to finally flow back into the ocean.
Back to the very beginning. It’s such a ridiculously large thing. What a rollercoaster. It’s surprisingly high. That was totally amazing.

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