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Kyle Hemes pushes his bike past giant Chinese trucks stuck on a steep, muddy back road. Kyle Hemes biking the transect among upland communities from Kunming to Luang Prabang. Photograph by Will Stauffer-Norris.

Biking the Course of Southeast Asia’s Future High-Speed Railway – Part 1/5

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Kyle Hemes and Stew Motta pass through a mosaic of rice terraces and mountains, part of the Yuanyang UNESCO World Heritage site; Photograph by Will Stauffer-Norris

It was 7:30 in the morning, and we were already blanketed with a thin film of fine red dust. Any relief the high-altitude provincial capital of Phongsali had given us from the mid-May heat was long gone. Our jet-black bicycles, gear piled atop them, were orange and silty as we rolled up, unexpectedly, to the behemoth trucks just outside town. Uniformed Chinese hydropower workers squatted underneath the hulking truck undercarriages to avoid the morning rays.

The next 20-kilometer stretch we were about to experience was one of the most harrowing and ghastly of the 1,500-kilometer expedition—a bone-jarring descent from the upland capital down almost 3,000 feet to the bottom of the Nam Ou River Valley. Preceded by a grunting diesel pulse, trucks would whip around the corner, and the three of us, hands clamped to the brakes on this mountainside screamer, would be suddenly engulfed by a plume of dust. Gritted teeth and Spandex could keep out only so much of this ancient river sediment. We were being tossed helplessly in a giant wave—except this wave was desiccated, and on the side of a mountain—descending towards one of seven remote dams that will soon completely dissect the Ou River in northern Laos.

Like any compelling adventure, ours started with some bottles of beer, a squatting housemate, and a bit too much screen time at work. Things were flat and smooth; friction was on our minds. This friction, though, was one we had tasted before—and we wanted more. This was the friction of landscapes—a friction that is hard to come by in our normal American existence, where our smartphone-prompted SUVs slip across the perfect pavement of multi-lane highways.

We were after the so-called “friction of terrain.” A concept coined by the Yale scholar James C. Scott, friction of terrain describes the encumbrances that separate the uplands from the lowlands. If you have ever tried to claw your way through a bamboo thicket, or trudge up an impossibly steep mountainside, you would know that it’s not necessarily the distance that matters, but the terrain. The steepness and ruggedness of the mountains and valleys, the quality of the tracks or roads, the complexity of the topography, the ability to pass unhindered by pests and weather. These all add up to a force—for friction is a force—that opposes smoothness, integration, and assimilation.

In this age of trans-Pacific trade pacts and multinational organizations, where your consumer products can travel across the world a time or two before deteriorating slowly on your shelf, friction is a thing of the past in many places. Crossing the globe once took generations, or at least 80 days; it now requires only a few hours. Words and photos, ideas and concepts–their flow is even less impeded. With a cheap Chinese cell phone and some 3G credit, a Lao farmer in a district capital can know what type of beer I sip after work in California, even before my own liver finds out.

Scott talks about our globalized world slowly chipping away at the vernacular, eroding the specialized and unique, replacing them with the centralized and default. New Pangea, as some ecologists have dubbed our current world, represents diverse places and peoples fused back together. While there are countless benefits to this globalized economy, especially for folks like us, who are sitting behind air-conditioned screens writing this account, it is worthwhile to consider its consequences.

Zomia, a little-known upland quasi-region extending from Tibet to Vietnam and populated by isolated and often unassimilated communities, represents a last refuge of this vernacular. It is a clumping of disparate ranges, rather than any traditionally defined administrative jurisdiction. “Few things unite it,” says Frank Jacobs of the New York Times, “except its diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic.”

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Using Chinese road maps and iPhones, the team plans the next day’s cycling route; Photograph by Will Stauffer-Norris

With the help of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant and a few other generous sponsors, we set out to document a patch of these uplands facing development’s long, concrete hand. A controversial proposed high-speed rail, set to connect the southern Chinese city of Kunming with Laos, became our focus in this eroding friction of terrain. We would ride the rugged section between southern China’s southeast Asia hub and the northern spiritual outpost of Laos, Luang Prabang. By bicycle, we would truly feel the undulations, and understand the friction in our lungs and our thighs.

With this high-speed rail transect as primary foci, and friction of terrain the guiding theme, our journey blossomed into an upland exploration of a series of connected lines on a map. From the apparition of a high-speed rail, to high-voltage power line totems lining the dusty track, to a series of seven dams dissecting a Mekong tributary—these lines intersected in complex and profound ways. We came to find further lines and impacts splintering off each line of development, connecting various geopolitical actors, local people, and ecosystems into a self-perpetuating fractal of influence and change.

The set of dams and that hellish, dusty road represented just that—lines on the map. This series of National Geographic Adventure posts is meant to capture a few of these lines on a map—lines that we followed by bicycles (and occasionally other local forms of transportation) and documented over our six-week expedition from Kunming to Luang Prabang in spring of 2015.

See part two tomorrow.

This expedition was supported by the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant program. Kyle Hemes and Will Stauffer-Norris would like to thank their friends and families, Stew Motta, Simone Phillips, and their generous sponsors—Trek, Bontrager, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Maui Jim, Dali Bar, and Mountain Gear—for making this expedition and series possible.