With additional writing by Will Stauffer-Norris
In five or ten years, we will come back to this place and zip from Kunming to Luang Prabang in mere hours on the new train. Maybe we will take a houseboat out for a spin on one of the Nam Ou dam reservoirs, or a zip line from peak to peak. We will be in air-conditioned quarters, and protein will be more readily available. We will warily pay the ticket price or entry fee, which will trickle down from the coffers of whatever communist or nominally democratic government exists, maybe somehow reaching the household of the Hmong folks that were relocated for a massive train tunnel.
For better or worse, the remoteness of Zomia – the upland region stretching from Tibet to Vietnam – is rapidly being infiltrated by the tendrils of civilization, the very roads on which we cycled. What has been characterized as a semi-autonomous upland region, resistant to the assumptions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ imposed by the lowlands, is faced as always with impending change. Fractals of interconnected infrastructure projects – rails, electricity lines, and dams – emanating from China, Vietnam, and the West are reaching into Laos’ remote uplands. While globalization and big development will surely bring benefits to some, it became clear that these benefits are rarely distributed equitably, and have the potential to radically change the way people have been subsisting in this fascinating region. We ourselves are products of this lowland, assimilated ideology – extracting images and stories from the rugged mountains to circulate freely in the world economy.
So it begs the question, was it really worth it to bicycle through this landscape, instead of taking the bus, the train, a plane? Or simply trolling the internet back home for any scraps of information about the region and its people? Retracing our route on the map – Fuxian Lake, Honghe, Jinghong, Luang Namtha, Muang Ngoi – each of these places, and the gnarled black and brown lines connecting them, brings back distinct memories of how slowly we moved through the mountains, of each hard-won pass and exhilarating descent. The long periods of monotony, endless uphill climbs, the stench of diesel exhaust. The sun rising over thousand-year old rice terraces, and the misty cloud forest fading into a harsh sunbaked river canyon.
Each place is also now populated, in our minds, with distinct faces, staring back at us. These people morph from the distant statistics buried in news articles and development reports into real human spirits – vulnerable, excitable, doing the things necessary to get by. If there is hope for the future of the environment and the people who rely on it, it can be found in the process of coming to know and appreciate them intimately. To know the river, to have sat down with the people who rely on it, is to know that there is value and vitality beyond the currency contracted in geopolitical economics.
When moving slowly, the lines on a map take on a new, more granular reality. The real Zomia comes into being between the cities and the sights, along the hazy sections of hot dusty road that most motorists snooze through. The friction here, though, is real for so many people. In many places we visited, it will be tough to get to medical attention in the rainy season. Daohu’s ambitions to teach English are in jeopardy – will his family have enough resources to send him all the way down the hill to study? What will the boat-driving family do after the imminent Nam Ou dams dissect their route? Trying to comprehend these realities, to find some morsel of shared empathy and understanding in another’s human experience – together, feeling the friction – seems like reason enough to be out here.
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.