One would be a fool to journey for a year and celebrate the world’s wonders without being struck by its horrors. Ironically this year of adventure has probably lead us to spend more time searching the internet than ever before, researching our path ahead. Browsing blogs and sites for information and inspiration has made me realize just how easily we can tell just one side of a story, or how simple it is to take a pretty photo and block out the destruction beyond the frame. Perhaps we should have shared more of this 'dark side' as we've journeyed instead of lumping it all in here, I don't know. Anyway here’s an attempt at a sobering and honest blog, the dark side, showing some grim realities and sadnesses that should never be ignored. It's by no means an exhaustive list of our challenging experiences and as is the case with so much of what we observe, we are left with many questions and uncertainties. What we observe is just a glimpse, but a real glimpse nonetheless.
Dams, dams, dams. Plenty of them around, some countries seem to have developed a particular obsession for them. As we made our way down this beautiful Georgian Valley the stunning mountain scene was suddenly scarred by this enormous hydro-electric lake. Choked with logs, the water quality plummeted to a smelly brown slop, the water fluctuation level leaving a great scar on the hillside.
Turkey is developing it’s hydro-electric network at a phenomenal rate. All over Eastern Turkey we witnessed dams and more dams under construction. Formerly free flowing rivers have been drowned. The valley upstream from this large project was home to dozens of beautiful villages and orchards which will soon be inundated.
The Nam Na river in Vietnam has been reduced to a series of hydro-electric lakes. The resettlement of people was obvious as we passed by villages of mass uniform housing at the new high water level. At their best the lakes came near to being scenic from a distance, at their worst they were completely stagnant, and full of this oily green slime. I was almost reduced to tears as we passed by a small village whom no doubt used to have a healthy stream running through their centre and now have to eek out a desperate looking life right on the banks of this filth. We passed by here as my bottom bracket broke down, my troubles seemed so measly in comparison.
Sadly there is more to come, roadside billboards mark these proud aspirations. The Gaizi river along which runs the famous Karakoram highway in China looks to soon fall victim.
It is said that Laos aims to be the ‘battery of South East Asia’. With huge river resources at it’s disposal it seems that Laos is very much rolling up it’s sleeves and getting stuck into the work of daming it’s rivers. I thought this billboard gave an interesting and disturbing insight into the mindset and the pride which is taken in these developments. Currently Laos, against all recommendations is planning the Don Sahong dam just a few kilometres downstream from where we stayed on Dong Khong Island. Predictions are that this dam would severely restrict the migration of fish on the Mekong. When one considers the food chain it’s sad to think of the likely outcome for the few Irrawaddy Dolphin and the less famous Giant Catfish, not to mention the 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong basin who feed from this river.
Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have signed up to the ‘Mekong River Commission’, and yet between them are planning 11 dams for the Lower Mekong! China lies upstream and is unwilling to partake in the commission, currently constructing multiple Mekong dams themselves. In a country as heavily touristed and ‘open’ as Laos it’s easy to presume there is a freedom of speech around such issues. Shockingly river protection activist Sombath Somphone was captured at a Police checkpoint in Vientianne in December 2012 and as been missing since.
Right in down town Rome, just a few minutes walk from the Colosseum, the Fontana de Trevi, and the Vatican, while wandering beside the Tiber river these squatters were in full view. The place stunk like piss and the river won’t have to rise much before they’re forced on to other places. To see this poverty in Central Rome caught me by surprise and the contrast with the wealth all around was striking.
Attitudes to rubbish disposal amaze me. It’s hard to figure out to what degree mess like this is a result of inadequate resources for better disposal systems and what is simply attitudinal. Perhaps the careless attitude evolves as a result of not having many better options. It’s hasn’t been uncommon though for us to sit in an eatery that’s floor is completely littered with old tissues, bottles and food scraps. When many people take such pride in tidiness, perhaps sweeping their mud floors with their cane broom, how strange that others can be totally ok living in such squalid mess.
During the Vietnam-American War the Americans were also fighting their secret war in Laos, the full truth of which only began to be revealed far later. Laos became the most bombed country in history and many of it’s forests were stripped by napalm attacks. Doubled with a traditional ‘slash and burn’ approach to agriculture and the hills have been left as a patchwork with enough forest left to show the previous splendor but much of it stripped back to scrubby regrowth.
The far north of Cambodia was a desolate place, the most haunting ride of our journey for me. Cycling through bare land, scorched black from burn off, with huge areas of forest cut down was like cycling through a graveyard, a graveyard of large trees that have been toppled. A few folk live in huts amongst the carnage and for them life looks extremely tough. I have little idea to what degree this depravity was brought about by large scale industry and what was simply local loggers, either way the result is awful, the land laid to waste, now just dead stumps and smouldering ground. The village of Koh Knear sits amongst several palm trees, a tiny island of shade left in this parched land. I looked on in silent disbelief as a man hacked down another tree with powerful swings of his axe, I simply could not understand.
As we rumbled across China by train this scene was repeated literally hundreds of time. The speed of development is outrageously bizarre. Considering they have a ‘one child’ policy the mind boggles as to who these high rise apartments are being built for.
I couldn’t help but think development at this rate will surely leave a great un-used mess in times ahead. Throughout many of the ex-Soviet countries that we visited we saw unused or unfinished buildings, often hospitals, schools and apartment blocks, that may have had their heyday but more recently had been deserted as they no longer had a use or the resources to upkeep them. Will China be filled with vacant or incomplete apartments in the future?
The morning we crossed the border from Iran to Turkey we passed an astonishing number of trucks, all parked up and waiting their turn to cross the border or transfer goods. For 5km on each side of the border they lined the roadside. Much smaller than many international shipping ports it was still a reminder of the huge amount of resource that gets poured into carting our goods around the planet so we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it.
What kind of prick keeps a Monkey on a one foot chain stuck under the table on the floor of a grotty eatery? Looking into the eyes of this little dude was just like looking into the eyes of a little human. His life must be hell.
All this got me to musing - is it not a very scary thought that each new generation sees the current state of the planet as the norm?! How massively important it is that we take some time to dwell on what has already been ruined, to mourn what has already been lost. Not to become incapacitated and depressed but rather to motivate us into some positive response to protect all the wonders that still exist, to remember that carnage need not be the norm! I love this book "Sensational Survivors" by Kiwi author Sandra Morris, it delves into the tragedy of what we have lost forever and the huge sadness of that, while also marveling and celebrating all that still exists. Without remembering the losses we forget the fragility of what we have and the responsibility that comes with being human.