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mountainss.jpgBY BRIAN E ROBINSON

  • 4 - IonE postdocs
  • 400 - meters of solid elevation gain covered with rice terraces
  • 70 - kilometers of karst landscape biked
  • 20 - million people in Beijing
  • 30 - sticks of assorted savory-spicy grilled xiaokao consumed
  • 8 - micro-brewed beers sampled in a traditional Beijing neighborhood hutong

And that sums up the two weeks IonE postdoctoral fellows Brian Robinson, Jill Baumgartner, Kate Brauman and Stephen Hawley spent this summer in China.

Last spring Jill and I traveled to Beijing to collaborate with some of China's leading researchers on ecosystem services and rural energy technologies, respectively. Capitalizing on the opportunity to visit places where they have free travel guides (and dear friends!), Kate and Stephen first took in Hterrace.pngong Kong for a few days and then met Jill and me in Guangxi Province, home to China's famed karst landscape and some of the most amazing rice terraces one could ever imagine. Two themes ran throughout our travels: water's influence on the landscape and food.

Our first stop was the "Dragon's Back" rice terraces in northwestern Guangxi Province. This area is mountainous with narrow valleys, but water consistently flows from seemingly hidden forested watersheds above. Over time the villages in this area have transformed the mountainsides into a dizzying stack of rice terraces, with intricate but low-tech water engineering. For example, extended diversions bring water to the back side of its original drainage basin, bamboo pipes extend water to the tops of otherwise waterless hills and a complicated drainage network keeps water flushing and circulating rice paddies at just the right times. This impressive infrastructure was built over long time scales, and much ongoing effort is put forth to maintain the terraces. The view of these "thousand layers of heaven" from above was breathtaking - for me, a rare example of aterrace2.png human-modified landscape that still exhibits profound natural beauty.

Water was also the main architect of the next unique landscape where we spent some time - a sleepy village outside the tourist town of Yangshuo, also in Guangxi. Here the shores of the Li river and its tributaries boast one of the most iconic images of China's natural beauty. These mountains formed over time from water eating away at soft limestone, leaving one of the most famous examples of a karst landscape in the world, characterized by sinking streams, odd crater-like depressions between mountains, and mountains that rise unexpectedly from flat, silty soils. The valleys were best explored on bicycle, and on karst.pngbicycle it was best to explore the valley on off-the-beaten-path farm roads. After living and working in China on and off for the past 12 years, this is one of the most memorable places I have been.

Back in Beijing, Kate and Stephen took in some of the city sites, but I think most our days - in fact, I think whole series of days - were planned around meals (as most good travel itineraries are). On the list were Beijing specialties, namely roasted duck and dumplings, and journeys into China's regional cuisines, of which Beijing has plenty to offer. I have a personal penchant for Sichuan food, so we sought out the hotel owned by the Sichuan Provincial Government - figuring their restaurant would know how to do things right. Indeed, they did.

In Beijing we are also reminded of the role of water on the landscape. Beijing gets two-thirds of its residential water from groundwater sources; in addition to facing a plummeting water table, the city is also starting to experience land subsistence (sinking) in some parts. This puts special value on more renewable surface water reservoirs, which is the subject of some of my research here with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In China blog installment #2, to follow in a few weeks, I'll talk about the challenges that face the Miyun Reservoir and emerging trends in China's approach to solve some of these problems.

Photos courtesy of Brian Robinson; Chinese translation for "Invasion of the Postdocs" courtesy of Ryan Loomis

1 Comment

I can't say enough great things about IonE - it's not every workplace where you make friends close enough to invite you to China, and then to have those friends want to geek out with you about irrigation systems is about as good as it gets. Brian and Jill introduced us to some of the fascinating and important work they're doing, and to some of the best food around.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Hoff published on July 24, 2012 7:57 AM.

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