Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China

Yunnan Province is a remarkable place. Sandwiched between Vietnam, Laos, and Burma; in many ways it has more in common with its Southeast Asian neighbors than the rest of China. You find incredible diversity everywhere here with the variety of people, language, food, landscape, climate, flora and fauna. While many in the west associate China with crowds and massive, polluted cities it's also a country of staggering natural beauty and unique geology. Tiger Leaping Gorge is a massively deep river canyon in a remote part of western Yunnan near the Tibetan border. In contrast with many other places in China, here the air is clean, crisp, and invigorating. After spending two weeks in Beijing when there was record high pollution, I have a new found appreciation for air quality. Additionally at this high altitude, the quality of light and cloud is almost painterly. Yunnan is the only Chinese province where ethnic minorities outnumber Han people. In and around Tiger Leaping Gorge has been inhabited since antiquity by Naxi, Bai, and Tibetan people which adds another interesting layer to the region. 

The main trail trough the gorge is an 18 mile two day trek climbing over 9,000 feet. 

Naxi guides on hand to prevent any oblivious photographers from taking a spill off the cliff. 

Many thousands of feet below is the river that over eons cut its path deep through these mountains. 

Where the path summits there are hundreds of beautiful, wind-worn Tibetan prayer flags. Most of the people in this region are Buddhist and there are many incredible temples throughout. 

A virtually inaccessible Naxi village along the trail. And a great place to spend the night!

Outside the villages there is some evidence of environmental abuse. Here, there's some kind of mining happening upstream that's depositing salt ad sand all over this ravine. China has a ways to go with the whole "stewardship" concept. As does the United States for that matter. I'm cautiously optimistic progress is being made in both countries. At least there's increased awareness.

Not too far from the gorge is Shibao Mountain featuring many ancient Buddhist temples like Baoxiang, some of which are carved directly out of the rock face.

Stunningly beautiful Bai Buddhist artworks.

1200 years ago the Goddess, Guanyin, was carved directly out of the side of the cliff. The hole in her chest is she reached in and pulled out her own heart to show her devotion to the Buddha. 

This region is also home to one the most entertaining and bravely curious creatures, wild macaques!

Chinese Megascale

Chinese Megascale

The Chinese have always had a knack for projects that should be completely implausible. Like building a 5,500 mile long brick wall. In the 15th century no less! Or displacing millions of people to dam one of the world's most treacherous rivers creating enough energy every day to power two New York City's. It seems no matter how preposterous the idea and however high the human and environmental cost may be, things happen in this country on an absolutely massive scale. 

I saw the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province first and then a few weeks later saw the Great Wall at Mutianyu. I connected the two immediately. These are human endeavors the scale of which you really can't get your head around. Even seeing in person, they leave you somewhat in disbelief. What both have in common is an absolutely enormous human cost. In China the Confucian value of society before the individual is deeply ingrained and national development and progress will cost what they cost. The evidence of this is virtually everywhere here in 2014 with four megacities whose populations grew to over 20 million in the past thirty years, 160 more with populations over 1 million, air you can barely breathe in some places, water you can't drink without boiling, and innumerable scarred landscapes. I find it all to be equally inspiring and terrifying. 

View of the locks at the Three Gorges Dam. From this altitude you really feel the industrial haze that hangs over much of central and northern China. You also get a sense of how vast areas of the natural landscape here have been radically altered by this project.

Pixel level of the previous shot. For scale, in the center you can see three men standing where the Yangtze river meets the lock. 

Central Meat Market, Yangshuo, China

Central Meat Market, Yangshuo, China

If you have a western concept of animal cruelty you will find these images extremely graphic and upsetting. Proceed at your own risk. 

I'm in China right now. Everyday something reminds me how little we in the west actually know about this remarkable place. Many of the things we think we know are simply incorrect. Or unclear. Or incomprehensible from our perspective.

One of the questions about this country I've heard again and again is, "Do the Chinese eat dogs and cats?"

This topic is taboo in the western world as our dogs and cats are regarded as beloved members of the family and the thought of harming them in any way fills us with horror. Because of this, when the question comes up with the Chinese it's usually with some controversy. I've heard many different answers from people both here and living abroad.

"No, that's horrible! We keep them as pets, like you."

"Some do, but I don't!"

"Only in some provinces do they do that."

"We have a special kind of dog for eating."

"It's tasty. You should try it."

I realize I run the risk of being accused of cultural insensitivity by publishing these images and sharing my point of view. The answer to the above question is yes, dogs and cats are consumed in this country. Most Chinese, particularly the growing urban middle class, are very much against it but the reality is that the meat is readily available. But why when there is so much high quality meat from more "conventional" sources available. China has endured numerous horrific famines throughout its history and perhaps this practice is a vestige from more difficult times. Or maybe not. The average Chinese lives on less than 3000 USD per year so could equally be for economic reasons. It's with such ambiguity that this topic is even discussed.

I suppose it's really not much worse than the industrial rearing and slaughter of the animals we deem culturally acceptable to eat in the west. The main difference being you can't walk into a slaughterhouse in Texas and see how the sausage is made whereas here the death of living things is much more present. The brutal reality of where food comes from is something many in China are confronted with in a way that we're simply unaccustomed to in our part of the world.

A TYPICAL MEAT MARKET IN GUANGXI PROVINCE:

In the beautiful mountain county of Yangshuo, Guangxi behind an unassuming entrance off the main road is the large central market. Here fresh vegetables from surrounding farms, fish and plants from the Li River, and local meat is sold.

The meat market is a large open arcade selling live animals, on-site killing and butchering, and various fresh cuts. Note meat sold in open markets in China is not refrigerated. 

Beyond these meat counters are stalls containing various livestock.

Food rabbits.

Hens crammed in a tiny cage.

You can pick out a bird and these folk will kill it, dress it, and chop it up for you. Now that's fresh chicken buddy!

Beyond the more pedestrian fare lies the real horror show. In the back of the building is an open room where live dogs and cats are killed, butchered, and their meat sold. Anyone walking by can clearly see what's going on. 

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Look in the bottom left corner of this image. 

Behind the pile of chopped up dog you'll notice stacks of crates holding live animals awaiting slaughter. I was chased off before I could get a better shot of them unfortunately. The dogs sold at this market are definitely not bred for consumption. They are strays; homeless, desperately sick, and now subjected to one last bit of bad luck in finding themselves in this awful place.

These cats are barely alive. Dehydrated, malnourished, diseased, and now dinner. I'm no expert but having seen the level of pollution in Chinese urban centers, no one should be eating any animal that's been surviving in these conditions.

If you're feeling peckish, you can even sample some of the cuisine right at the market. 

Many Chinese do keep family dogs and you see plenty of loved and well cared for animals here. 

After visiting here I began researching this topic extensively and started watching out for "香肉 xiāng ròu" or "Fragrant Meat" on menus throughout the country. Guangxi, the province in which the rural county of Yangshuo is in is actually famous for its dog meat consumption. The nearby town of Yulin is notorious for its annual Dog Meat Festival in observance of the summer solstice. Guangxi is one of China's several ethnic Autonomous Regions, home to the majority of the Zhuang people, China's most populous group behind the Han Chinese. While the inhabitants of this province, both Zhuang and Han, are well known for their love of "fragrant meat", this practice is by no means exclusive to this area. I've seen dog meat restaurants in at least 10 cities and towns between Hong Kong and Beijing. 

"Reality" is relative to the culture of the observer. I find myself unable to shy away no matter how much something like this conflicts with my own values. I hate to end on a judgmental note but strong opinions are occasionally unavoidable. I find the practice of consuming dogs and cats to be uncivilized and inhumane. My western conditioning won't let me get beyond the sympathy I see in a dog's smart eyes.

I'll never be able to look at a Chinese man ominously selling puppies on the street in the same way again!