Inside the ‘factory of the world,’ there is still a corner untouched by machines

Even in China, one of the most hyper-industrialized societies on Earth, our correspondent found a fading corner where modernity hasn’t yet replaced ancient ways.

Workers pluck marigolds for essential oils and traditional Chinese medicine near the southwestern town of Tengchong. In rural Yunnan Province, age-old labor skills are vanishing, with migration to cities and the building of new highways and rail lines.
Photograph by ZHOU NA

Having dedicated the past 10 years of my life to walking across the Earth, I’m sometimes asked, “How do the big issues of our day look—from boot level?” Or, “Has walking changed the way you weigh current events?” Or put more simply, often by schoolchildren, “Any surprises?”

Some questions I can reply to handily: The answers have been juddering through my bones, sure as a metronome, over the past 25 million footsteps, or more than 12,000 miles of global trail.

Viewed at the intimate pace of three miles an hour, for instance, I can confirm that Homo sapiens has altered our planet’s ecology to such a radical degree that we should be suffering from mass sleeplessness—not just from bad consciences but from genuine dread. (In more than 3,500 days and nights spent trekking from Africa to East Asia, I can tally, depressingly, the number of meaningful wildlife encounters on my fingers and toes.) The most corrosive injustice encountered, up close, in every single human culture I’ve walked through? That’s easy: the shackles that men lock, cruelly, arbitrarily, on the potential of women. (Who’s always underpaid? Who’s typically undereducated? Who wakes up first to a morning of toil? Who’s the last to rest?) Meanwhile, climate worries haunt trailside chats with everyone from grandmotherly Kazakh farmers to gun-toting Kurdish guerrillas.

Yet there’s another unexpected, perhaps no less poignant, human development I’ve come across on my project, a slow storytelling journey called the Out of Eden Walk whose object is to retrace our ancestral dispersal out of Africa in the Stone Age. It’s the extinction, after thousands of years of continuity, of humankind’s muscle-built landscapes.

By this I mean the fading corners of the inhabited Earth still not subjugated to—or transformed by—the demands of our machines. Call it the handmade world.

Paradoxically, this archaic human geography is often so subtle, even close up, that I only truly realized its existence when I began to register its absence. As a distinctive space, it only loomed in my consciousness once I began hiking into the most hyper-industrialized society on Earth, China, the 18th nation along my route and the so-called factory of the world.

I’d never stepped into China before. Like many a visitor’s, my head was packed with a clichéd pastiche of hyperactive megacities, punctual bullet trains, overlit malls, and robotic ports: a tireless, machine-powered society given over wholly to sating humankind’s mammoth appetites for cell phones, plastic toys, solar panels, clothing, and other articles of industrial mass production. (Need a laptop? China exports more than 20 million a month.)

Much of this concrete-hive stereotype is warranted, of course. Nature and those living close to her were the losers in China’s boom years. Which is why, shouldering my rucksack in the southwestern province of Yunnan in October 2021 and pointing my boot tips northward from the border with Myanmar, formerly Burma, to begin pacing off 3,700 miles of the Middle Kingdom toward Russia, I was boggled to find myself straying into panoramas lifted from medieval Chinese scrolls—tableaux of pleated valleys and scarps, where the body provided the prime scale of the human imagination and where an economy of tinkers-tailors-and-candlestick-makers still crafted slow lives.

“You’re starting in absolutely the best part of China,” a mountaineering friend from the megacity of Chengdu had exulted, learning that my starting line was the rugged western half of Yunnan. “Things get dull after that.”

She was imagining the wild ice peaks of the eastern Himalaya. Yet it wasn’t aloof wilderness that amazed me most in frontier Yunnan. It was almost precisely the opposite: a rare accommodation between people and landscape, and the all-but-forgotten possibility of humans and nature coexisting in a compact approaching harmony.

Narrow roads in Yunnan moved like lines of music over a scenery shaped yet by living sinew. Stone-dressed wells. Apple orchards. Blue mountains beyond. Every footfall seemed improbably familiar—as if I were stepping into the oldest of possible homes.

The first road I walked in Yunnan was handmade. It was built for war.

Hard by the Yunnan-Myanmar border, in the village of Yusan, I shuffled past men and women dressed like medical orderlies in blue plastic aprons. They were picking acres of yellow marigolds. The flowers are used in essential oils. Trillions of fallen petals laminated the roadbed gold. This was the Chinese leg of the old Tengchong cutoff, a branch of the notorious Burma Road wrestled by 200,000 Yunnanese men, women, and children—the nameless, limpet-hatted extras in jaunty U.S. newsreels—through the killing fields of World War II.

Eighty-six years ago, working tirelessly seven days a week, this civilian army chopped a 717-mile truck route through some of the rainiest, craggiest, most malarial terrain on Earth to bring war-crippled China desperately needed munitions, food, and medicines via British-ruled Burma.

The Burma Road was among the greatest engineering feats of the bloodiest conflict in human history.

In his lively memoir, The Building of the Burma Road, an engineer named Tan Pei-Ying wrote how a carpet of hand-crushed gravel 23 feet wide and more than 600 miles long was carefully laid, entirely by human fingers, across three wild mountain ranges in Yunnan: “The picture of these millions upon millions of stones all put in place individually” memorialized for Tan “the tremendous mass effort on the part of hundreds of thousands of obscure toilers that went into the construction.” Gangs of workers yanked monstrous limestone rollers up the roadway’s mud-greased slopes. Sometimes their grip slipped, loosening the five-ton cylinders to crush people below. By the time the U.S. Army showed up with bulldozers to build supplemental roads, at least 2,300 villagers had died working on the project.

“It was very hard,” allowed Xu Ben Zhen, a former schoolteacher in a village outside the trading town of Tengchong.

Handsome at a hundred with chiseled cheeks, watery hazel eyes, and thick, snowy hair, Xu, who has since died, was one of the last surviving laborers of the famed Burma Road. At 17, he was dragooned into the legions of citizens who, armed with little more than shovels and rattan baskets, thwarted the coastal blockades of the invading Japanese.

“I was like any other country boy,” Xu insisted shyly of his backbreaking contribution to the war effort. “Nothing special.”

Today the Burma Road in most places is paved. The wartime track sinks under concrete superhighways throbbing with traffic. But in the volcanic hills around Tengchong, it still sways atop the land like a dancer, past tile-roofed villages and the green green panes of rice paddies. Walk its verges to their ultimate terminus, and they dead-end, like all vernacular architecture in Yunnan, in the corrugated palms of a human being.

Sitting stiff in courtyard sun at his century-old farmhouse, the old teacher Xu lapsed into silences. He stared down at the hands in his lap. Their pale blue corded veins. Skin blotched by sun, thinning to tissue paper. Map enough there of a vanishing Yunnan, with antique roads whorled in the fingertips.

See the Yunnan farmer’s hands. Thick with callus. Strong as hammer and vise.

Watch her hoe rise and fall on a high ridgetop north of Old Dali. How often have such powerful hands repeated this chore? Tens of thousands of times? Hundreds of thousands? Yet each of Wang Liusui’s swings is unique, incapable of replication. She is not a machine. Over the course of 50 years, she has never used her tools the same way twice. Her subsistence farm was imperfect, eyeballed, MacGyvered, original, homemade.

“We buy our baijiu from the town,” Wang said, grinning under her sunbonnet, listing the most important mass-produced purchase she and her husband consumed, a factory hooch that numbed the lips on contact.

Farmer Wang was an artificer in a world that has spanned 11,000 years, from the dawn of agriculture in the Jordan Valley during the Neolithic roughly until the 1840s, when steam engines began to replace human and animal labor in Europe’s fields. Lumpy western Yunnan is that long era’s gloaming.

Wang concocted her own fertilizer from pine needles and pig waste. A whittled stick functioned as a corn degrainer. Handwoven rattan baskets stored her potatoes. Even the geometry of her farm mocked the rectilinear shapes imposed by tractors: Too steep for machines, her fields dribbled down the green mountainside in amoeboid lobes.

Why these lifeways survive in Yunnan is complicated. Geology offers a fractional explanation. The Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide in southwestern China. That impact has knuckled up barricades of mountains that have slowed the tsunami of industrialization transforming the rest of the country. Likewise, western Yunnan’s crumpled surface has also fostered a mosaic of cultures. Nearly half of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups are still holed up in Yunnan. Crossing each new forested mountain pass, I could descend into an abecedarium of possible languages: Bai, Dai, Lisu, Mandarin, Naxi, Tibetan, Yi. Historically poorer than China’s majority Han population, these mountain peoples clung to their manual pursuits. (Wang is ethnic Bai.)

I yo-yoed almost 600 miles through the Himalayan fringe of Yunnan. I began keeping a list of vintage occupations.

I met roving pot menders near the Gaoligong Mountains, bare-chested walnut oil pressers in Lujiang valley, squinting eucalyptus oil distillers along the Nu River (they employed bamboo steamers), and thick-armed chili grinders pounding out their red-hot wares around Old Dali. I greeted workaday basketmakers, mule packers, wild mushroom pickers, backyard textile weavers, and axmen who specialize in chopping beehives from old hollowed-out trees.

Craftwork cropped up everywhere on my zigzag path.

Along the upper Jinsha, or “Gold Sand,” River, the big, meaty hands of stone setters—village masons—had erected courtyard dwellings that were in fact habitable sculptures: every wall and corner different and never quite plumb. The masons’ tools were often handmade. The lanes between homes were built for pedestrians and were exactly one human arm-span wide. For reasons I can’t fully explain, it was a comfort to walk them. House doorways were often sized to the homes’ residents. To step through such a threshold, with its duilian, or good-luck couplets, stenciled about the red doorframe—“At countless homes a new day dawns / Old peach wood charms are replaced with new”—was a gift of intimacy. It was architecture that revealed a single human life, not a demographic of millions.

In Yunnan I walked through modern cities too, down in the flats.

This was the China that bureaucrats were proud of. In Baoshan and New Dali you could rent electric bikes on a whim with one swipe on your mobile phone screen. It took barely 14 seconds for an ATM to fork over yuan from my bank account located at the far side of the planet. I even sat in a Starbucks that was cloned down to the last coffee bean. But this homogenized glass-and-steel habitat of our globalized cities seemed oddly provisional after walking hundreds of miles in the highlands of western Yunnan. I felt as if I could thrust my hand through each cookie-cutter building, as in a hologram. The factory-made world seemed that fleeting.

This was an illusion, naturally. Cell towers camouflaged as polymer pine trees and blocky, prefabricated housing were sprouting all over Yunnan’s remote cosmos of makeshift villages. It was Yunnan’s older, crooked heaven that was ghosting away.

Accompanied by local walking partners, I have traversed a patchwork of human environments on my global trail. Only a few were still handmade.

Escaping the void of Saudi Arabian highways, I dropped like a stylus into the snug and irregular grooves of camel trails worn a yard deep in solid rock by 1,400 years of Mecca-bound caravans. The difference with Yunnan? These ancient Saudi features were dead already—museum artifacts.

In the southern Caucasus, meanwhile, little Georgia bewitched me. Its farmlands were a primitivist painting: all exaggerated crags and naive valleys. Back roads were dirt (or mud) and only accidentally straight. Slapped-together houses slanted this way and that. Door handles were made of baling wire. At one roadside spring, someone’s cunningly whittled water dipper, made from the elbow of a tree branch, added pleasure to the act of drinking.

By contrast, across the border in oil-rich Azerbaijan, the countryside was tidier, more gridlike, and extensively paved. House doorknobs were mass-produced. The doors themselves closed flush within precise, factory-made frames. Such rote flawlessness—the hallmark of all machined surfaces—tended to blunt human senses. It was as if you were touching life through cellophane. Was Georgia better than Azerbaijan? Of course not. It was probably a matter of caprice. Georgia reminded me of the handmade, corn-belt villages of my central Mexican childhood. But I will tell you this: In memory, it is Azerbaijan that slips away. And it was only in Georgia where I felt invited to lay my open palm on the face of another human being.

Mother nature constantly hand-remakes the planet.

She experiments obsessively, scavenging up old accidents of evolution, recycling bones and molecules. Her Yunnan workshop is especially volatile. Its fickleness adds a rare ingredient to the inhabited landscapes: human humility.

Stooping down through walnut orchards, I walked remnants of the Tea Horse Road—a centuries-old trail system once plied by mule caravans trading jade, tea, and silk from Yunnan into South and Southeast Asia—to the destroyed town of Yangbi. An earthquake months earlier had cracked open houses like so many eggshells. People were still living in tents. Temblors in Yunnan have been followed by foot-deep barrages of ping-pong-ball-size hail. Monsoon rains can plummet like buckshot, regularly blasting away roads, bridges, and fields. Partly because of this unruliness, Yunnan offers a glimpse of the world as it once was, a vault of biodiversity.

Jutting 16,000 feet into the turbulent sky like the prow of a giant ark, the jungled Gaoligong Mountains shelter one of the richest lodes of botanical DNA left on Earth. Almost 5,000 species of plants lord over the massif’s accordioned slopes. (This is roughly a third of all the native plant species in the United States.) Three Chinese friends and I slogged over the range.

We pushed through trillions of wet leaves: magnolias, laurels, oaks, ferns, scores of rhododendron species. We stopped and listened to mostly unseen birds. Warblers. Bulbuls. Flycatchers. Blue-winged minla. Every cicada in the world drilled our eardrums with a metallic trill. Torrential rains collapsed our cheap umbrellas. The Gaoligong nature reserve was alpha wilderness.

“I got stranded once in the Gaoligong,” said Zhang Qing Hua, one of my young walking partners. “I couldn’t move.” An amateur naturalist, Zhang closed his eyes reverently at the memory. “It was the salamanders. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. If I moved my feet, I would step on them. They covered the forest floor, coming out to mate.” He tiptoed down surging creek beds to avoid disturbing this carpet of life.

Let there be no doubt: The 47 million people inhabiting Yunnan Province, which is bigger than Japan, have ravaged their environment, just like the rest of us, with the usual plagues of the Anthropocene. Industrial pollution. Melting glaciers. Sterile tides of concrete. But in Yunnan nature pushes back hard.

Humans were in serious retreat from the Gaoligong. Strict ecological protection zones had been set up, expelling local farmers from their fields. Many had departed voluntarily—part of the exodus of more than 220 million Chinese stampeding over the past generation from rural life to government-financed “new villages” and cities. These final geriatric agriculturalists of the Gaoligong enjoyed piped water and electricity in machine-built houses down in the valleys. A few recidivists insisted on stabling their last cows in car garages. Most seemed content and tended to watch a lot of TV.

But it was hard, resting under a tree in an old quince orchard heavy with unpicked fruit, not to ponder the trade-offs in one emptied hand-built village. Sandstone millstones and huge ceramic grain pots lay scattered about in the rising bush. Handmade tiled roofs were already collapsing, releasing a thousand years of memory. I wondered: Who would remember how to subsist this closely with the environment ever again? It was easy, as I listened to flies snarling in still courtyards, to imagine a world without us.

I know. 

Do not romanticize poverty. Do not exoticize underdevelopment. Do not indulge in naive fantasies about the hardship of preindustrial life. (Full disclosure: I have sweated for years as a migrant farmworker picking apples, pears, grapes, and oranges, and a homicidal ranch mule once pranged my spine as I wrestled shoeing it.)

Yet surely, the bigger fantasy is believing that humankind’s addictive, exploding, mass-produced economy, as configured today, is anywhere near sustainable. Or that age-old, hand-built systems of knowledge have little value in an era of environmental collapse.

“The Indigenous people here have a lot to teach us,” said Liu Zhenhua, a former educator from the megalopolis of Guangzhou who, with his musician girlfriend, lived in an old ethnic Bai farmhouse near Old Dali. “They know how to cooperate with nature and not fight against it.”

Liu was among the growing ranks of millennials washing up in Yunnan to seek alternatives to China’s grueling “9-9-6” economy (working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week). With its new vegan restaurants and poetry readings, “Dalifornia,” as it was called, was an emerging destination—like Tuscany or Darjeeling—where the handshake between humans and landscape kindled a limbic euphoria.

But most of pre-mechanized western Yunnan would never be boutiquified.

I walked on to Lijiang, where ethnic Naxi families were out harvesting their red pears in flame-colored autumn orchards. I climbed up into the piney Tibetan zone at Yongning, where shepherds in greatcoats guarded their sheep against bears. And in the Diancang Shan range I allowed an aging Bai mule wrangler to haul my pack atop one of his glossy hayburners.

“Ten years ago, I had 10 mules, and now I have only two,” Luo Siming said, shrugging wistfully. Luo’s fingernails were like flint, and his shovel-size hands carried every scarred lesson back to the domestication of animals.

Luo explained how he had earned a small fortune lately, packing jackhammers and bags of cement into his formerly isolated nook of Yunnan. These cargoes were building new car roads, and putting him out of business.

Documentary photographer Zhou Na lived in Yunnan Province for a time as a child. Photographer Gilles Sabrié is based in China.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.

This story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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