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By Mike Brosnan

Striding through China


Talk given to Fendalton Zonta Club by Mike Brosnan 14-08-06, Revised 05-04-2013

Nimen hao ma (how do you all do)
Women dou hen hao (we are all very well)
Wo ye hen hao (I am very well)

(Xie xie) Thank you for asking me to talk to your august company. I feel quite humbled.
My lovely friend Liz, who you know, asked me to talk to you about MY PASSION FOR CHINA.
I will start with some background/credentials for China.

I farmed "Riverside" - 1,500 acres in The Hakataramea Valley, South Canterbury - for 33 years.
My major passion there was organic farming and in particular, dryland conservation, wind erosion, soil movements, moisture retention and the like (I have seen four inches of top soil go out to sea in one night). Working with the then Waitaki Catchment Commission we created a lot of interest, ultimately forming the Haka Kurow Resource Conservation Committee which got the whole district involved, which then attracted interest from government and conservation subsidies.

We had many field days on "Riverside," attracting up to 1,000 visitors a year from NZ and around the world, including the then Prime Minister David Lange, which was instrumental in us getting subsidies for the farmers of the district to re-grass and heal the land from a massive wind blow.

Being a bit of a footloose fellow, I have travelled for up to five months every second or third year, mostly on the conservation ticket, since my wife Fleur left the farm in 1974. Of our four children, Mike, the oldest was working, Marney and Greg were at high school and Jacque was with Fleur in Christchurch.

The field days stood me in good stead, supplying me with addresses from relevant people to use while traveling/working in countries like India, Africa and China, and the fact that I have actually "Kissed the Blarney Stone" it was relatively easy to get invited to work in a particular country. In the case of China, having been interested since the seventies, as a member of the NZ Branch of The China Friendship Society and following the life of Rewi Alley I had some knowledge of the country already.

So around fifteen years ago, after I sold "Riverside" and was on one of my climbing trips in Scotland, I found there was a new Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh. Showing the nice Consul papers I had written and videos of the farm to convince him of what I could do for China, he gave me a six month visa. When in China people would say, "you have relations in China" as I was only supposed to get three months.

My hands had never touched a keyboard up to this date so I thought, "if I want to be in touch with the world, I had better learn". I duly emailed relevant conservation bodies in China and received several replies. I just believed if one accepted me, I could convince them of my worth and the word would pass on. Emailing three organizations of my arrival at Beijing airport, the worry was, would anyone meet me, or worse, what if all three did! Some tense moments but my star was shining again and here was a lovely lady from the China Great Northern Forestry Commission to meet me.
She took me to a hotel, where I received a visit from two men who wanted to take me south to Zhengzhou near The Yangtze River to help with organic ginkgo. That had to wait and next morning I was on my first China Rail trip north to Tongliao in inner Mongolia to work with a Chinese conservation group who were funded by Sweden. Oh, what excitement! Traveling first class has its advantages, being in an enclosed cabin with three others who were fussy little business men not in the least interested in me, busy showing off their newfound wealth. It wasn't till I discovered second class that the fun started (later).

In what turned out to be the norm, I was met at the Tongliao railway station by a bevy of officials in a massive four wheel drive and swept off to their favorite restaurant. The food was mind boggling, so many dishes revolving, wonderful tastes, but "what was it ??!!" Happily munching while talking - "what is that one?" "Oh that's donkey." I just couldn't. "And this one?" "Why, that's dog." - My poor stomach. After that I would ask first!

Now the work there was so interesting. It was semi-desert and in most ways the mirror image of my farm at home, for example the same latitude, 400 mm of rain, but the difference is the people pressure. As with all the indigenous areas (there are 56 minorities in China), the majority, the Han, have infiltrated and grossly inflated the population on the land, so fragile land that should never be ploughed is very quickly reverting to sand. The prevailing wind blows the sand over black soil.
Sand Cover versus Shrub Cover
Good example of bad management, ploughing light land, turning it back into desert

Ploughed for wheat. We are left with sand.
Ploughed for wheat, we are left with sand.

They call it The Rolling Sands, and from good authority, I'm told the deserts which run from Afghanistan in the west, almost to the China Sea in the east are increasing at the rate of 35,000 hectares per year. Hard to imagine!!

The Chinese answer to this is mainly to plant trees in belts across the wind but the lands are so vast, the belts being about a mile apart, are almost useless. My answer was to do the same as at "Riverside," where firstly we planted shelter belts across the north-west prevailing wind, approximately 300 meters apart (too expensive for China and these vast lands). Finding this not enough, we got into browsing shrub which brought the shelter down closer to the land. Not satisfied with this, we started adding grasses to the mix that created a bunching effect, similar to natural tussock lands, which created sheltered micro climates right on the ground. I was able to show in China where there were a few shrubs, the sand built up around them and stabilized. They had some very small trials but mostly using introduced plants which often died. On looking seriously we found plenty of natural shrubs and grasses that would hold the sand.
Example of shrubs stabilizing rolling sands
Example of shrubs stabilizing rolling sands

I was introduced to groups of leading farmers. This was interesting. They were very nervous of the Han officials, some terrified in fact, and I couldn't talk to them. I had interpreters of course but the farmers could feel me - feel my dirty hands. They could tell I had actually done this, not learnt it from a book. I didn't have a clue what the officials were saying to these farmers, their faces dropped when talked to by them. When I spoke, their faces lit up. We were communicating in a different way. It was then I decided, when back in New Zealand, I would learn Mandarin, as most of the minorities have to learn the national language.

I traveled back to Beijing by sleeper bus. An interesting part of that was that I was taken to many places in China where normally foreigners weren't allowed. On this trip we went through areas where we weren't allowed to get off the bus, or, if you like, "no-no land".

Examining the local sheep
Examining the local sheep
Back in Beijing word had got around. A man came to my hotel and asked to take me back to Mongolia. We drove for a whole day in the traditional, large 4-wheel drive, to a farming area right out in the vast steppe, near the small town of Xilinhot. There we stayed in a collection of buildings which once was a traditional commune. (Mongolia was very influenced by Russia, which isn't far away.) These buildings were the centre for a large farm. There are a lot of sheep in Mongolia, mostly of Russian origin and to us quite primitive, thereby allowing good advice to be given.

The other big industry, of course, is horses. They are an interesting animal, usually short, stocky and very strong. They were so surprised that I could ride (I actually grew up on horses). It was a delight to be loaned a horse and to ride these vast steppes in the gloaming of the evening with not a fence in sight.

Mike with his hand raised in victory           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Mongolian horses           Me riding out into the steppe

The Han official who introduced me to this place, Mr. Hou, was a bit of a character and it went like this. For breakfast, it was boiled mutton, for lunch it was mutton, and mutton with a few vegetables for dinner.
Mike with his hand raised in victory           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Mutton for breakfast           In action

The local drink was a strong, tasteless spirit, often made from potatoes or grain. They drank it at most meals and Mr. Hou was hell bent on putting this puny-looking kiwi "under the table". So this evening, it was obviously a competition. I don't consider myself adept at this but was keen to win. I have a photo of Mr. Hou holding my right arm in the air to my delight as the winner.

Having a drink           Mike with his hand raised in victory
The competition begins           The winner!

I carried my VHS videos with me about my work. The first evening they decided to have a look at these. Being so far out on the steppes, there was no electricity so they fired up a little iron horse motor attached to a generator. This was a delight to behold. Every rev of the engine was a wave on the screen. Some of the message got across.

Students at Hohhot University
Students at Hohhot University
On back towards Beijing Mr Hou dropped me off in the capital of inner Mongolia, Hohhot, at a large agricultural university, where I stayed, slept on the campus and the next day lectured to a large group of students about dry-land conversation. Next day, I bussed back to Beijing, stayed a night, then was helped by an official get a second class ticket to Lanzhou in the heart of China.

This was a wonderful trip. Firstly, I immediately enjoyed second class, where you really get to know the ordinary Chinese person, then the ever-changing countryside, farming, irrigation, little towns, eventually diving into the deep canyons of the Yellow River with their massive loess cliffs, hundreds of feet high, like a giant had sliced with a knife to form them. Loess is windblown particles, blown from Mongolia, settling here. There are dwellings etched into these cliffs everywhere. The yellow clay you see on Banks Peninsula is loess blown from the likes of the Waimakariri River. After two days and nights we arrive in Lanzhou, which is also cleft in two by the Yellow River and its impressive cliffs. Lanzhou is a service town to the vast hinterlands around it, with Chengou to the south, high Tibetan lands to the west, and north the Silk Road and Urumchi.

After waiting some days there, I was wined and dined, then grilled by Tibetan chiefs and eventually asked into their vast areas. These highlands had stock changing from sheep and cattle and as we got higher, to half bred yaks, then to cope with the cold, pure yaks.

Having a drink           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Migrating a home on the back of yaks           Tibetan tablelands

Naturally higher rainfall here, so my work was more showing them good old Kiwi fencing and pasture management. I visited many farming families, so hospitable, forcing down Yak yoghurt and rotten smoked cheese which hung everywhere from the ceiling. The Yak is the staple animal, producing milk, cheese, rope, tents, clothes, all from this versatile animal.

Having a drink           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Warm Tibetan hospitality           Milk for breakfast

This was a beautiful part of the trip, very green grasslands at about 3,000 meters, black, low tents woven from yak hair interspersed between thousands of yaks. Around every corner seemed to be a monastery which we visited. The one-child policy seems not to work there. I saw up to eight children per family and one was always destined for the monastery. I saw several wolves here and stopped where a group of men were mole hunting. These large mole hills dot the land everywhere. They dig out these quite large animals and they are used medicinally for rheumatism. There were great hills of skinned mole bodies.

A huge heap of moles
The mole hunters

More moles.
Moles, moles and more mole bodies!
Used in Chinese medicine to treat rheumatism


Ploughed for wheat. We are left with sand.
My dancing partners


The last little town we got to, high up amongst mountain meadows, was Luqu. It always seems to get out that I love dancing so one night there the officials of the town arranged a party for me. Lo, when I walked into the hall all these women (their wives and girl friends) were seated around the walls and I was told I had to dance with all of them. After an embarrassing start, I got the others up and we had a right old time.

Ploughed for wheat. We are left with sand.
Pollution: the price of progress







This was about where I could stand between and see both tributaries of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. I was amazed at the pollution even this far upstream.










On the way back we visited a sheep research place trying to breed Merino sheep. Very much in the first stages of this, they had bought two Merino rams from Australia. We asked the shepherd to catch a ram from the half dozen sheep and he proudly presented me with an ewe! A lot of scope for education there!

Having a drink           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Ram not ewe!           Good looking wool

Back in Lanzhou I visited "The Baillie Oil School" Rewi Alley's last school. This school has been visited by many from Christchurch as Lanzhou is a sister city. It was interesting to see photos on the wall of previous and present dignitaries from Christchurch city council and others. I lectured to the to the students there about dry land conservation.

I was now ready to travel north up the Silk Road. I joined the throng to board the train to Urumqi. The ethnic people there are the Uyghur, a war like people who hate the Han and that station was the only place in China I witnessed fights.

Now again, the delights for me of second class trains. All along one side are three tiered bunks, six people in a cubicle. Not even a curtain facing the aisle, so if you need privacy, don't go! Being in a top bunk, one spends the day in the aisle on tiny flip up seats facing out the window. You might be the only white person on the train. It's so sociable, all wanting to share their food. Nihau, Nihau, and walking along the whole train, you might find one person who will want to practice their English on you, an ever-changing delight.

I had a break for a day at Shandan, the site of Rewi's second school. Back on the train the next day, and on up the old Silk Road with remnants of the Great Wall still showing as we chugged by. Next stop off was Turpan, 300 feet below sea level and on the edge of the Takelamagan desert, the largest desert in China. Very hot there and enough underground water to be one big garden of citrus and exotic fruits.

And so on to Urumqi, the most northern stop on the line, populated mostly by Uyghur and some Kasak, and Han of course. After spending some time in the town, getting to know the war-like Uyghur people who the Han were forever wary of, I was taken out to these vast plains where the Kasak people farm.

Again, this country was similar to my "Riverside," even to the extensive use of lucerne. I really took to the Kasak people. They are very pleasant people, not looking like Chinese, they have features more like us. I believe they come from Kazakhstan to the east.

In a Kasak home
With the local Kasak people in their home



In a Kasak home
Inspecting my potential 5,000 acres!

This land The Takelamagan, I can really understand and they were so interested in me that they offered me 5,000 acres to keep me there.




In a Kasak home
Kasak farmers and irrigated sweet clover












In the summer the Kasak drive their sheep to the far off mountains for summer grazing. They are trying to change that by growing more feed on the plains, largely with irrigation.




In a Kasak home
Such great hosts!








This was one of the loveliest times as these gentle people hosted and feasted me.









Back to feisty Urumqi, then off by train southwards again to Lanzhou with some free time to "just be" in the township, studying the culture and eating the lovely food, which is mostly vegetables.

Time to head off in the train down through the Yellow River gorges, then across to the Yangtze river and on to Zhengzhou to work with the organic ginkgo people, who were the ones who came to see me that first day in the hotel in Beijing. Ginkgo is grown for the first seven years in the mountains, then brought down to the plain and grown on. I knew nothing about growing gingko but they were interested in me more for general knowledge about organic farming.

Mike with his hand raised in victory           Mike with his hand raised in victory
Amongst the ginkgo plants           The ginkgo team

Prostitution is rife in China. In fact, it's hard to get any sleep in middle class hotels due to the vibrations through the walls on either side of your room and the incessant telephone calls from young ladies wanting to visit you in the night. The two respectable male owners of the Gingko business were very keen to take me to this place where we viewed through one way glass, about a hundred attractive young women where one could pick his choice. I found this repugnant, which they couldn't understand and to their dismay I left without female company.

From there, on along the banks of the Yangtze to Nanjing which is the centre of the organic farming movement in China. From their main office they helped me get accommodation on the local agricultural university campus, where the highlight was giving an address to a large group of agricultural PhD students, a very interesting and intelligent group, mostly composed of women.

Before I left New Zealand, David Musgrave of Waihi Bush Organic Flaxseed Oil in Woodbury Geraldine had asked me when in China to look out for organic hemp seed. Nanjing was the place for this.

Now in history, Nanjing is known for the massacre of 30,000 young men by the Japanese when they sacked, raped and slaughtered the town. There is a macabre memory to this where I visited a very descriptive museum surrounding a massive mound where most of those bodies are buried. Other than this, I enjoyed Nanjing.

Next Shanghai, and from the train windows it was obvious that a big flood was building up on these lowlands, there was water everywhere.

I liked this town, more so than Beijing. There's a lot of recent history where so many imperial powers started in China. The promenade on the banks of the Huangpu River passes many imposing European buildings from when Shanghai was beholden to these powers. On the other side of the Hang Pu are gleaming skyscrapers of the new area. I stayed and enjoyed the old quarter, tucked in behind the massive imperialist buildings.

I can't remember the names of the lovely couple who hosted me there, and their organic business.

I always enjoy Shanghai and will be there again in a couple of months.

Leaving there in the early morning by train south, it was tragic to see farmers walking through crops, spraying 'willy nilly' with a lot of the spray landing on them. Shades of Sue Kedgley and her comments on lindane in Chinese food.

One night spent in Guangzhou (the old Canton, where Cantonese is still spoken). This is just a large town that didn't interest me that much.

And - on to Hong Kong. I first went to Hong Kong en route on my first trip to Europe in 1974. It was a new experience in Asia and I loved it. I made friends with a Chinese couple who took me in to their large family and introduced me to Chinese ways. I met them on the Star Ferry and we kept in touch for years. The father managed a pottery factory and the sisters were all professionals and school teachers. They took me to posh back street restaurants where not another white person was to be seen. This was such a new experience to me (the boy from the farm in Hakataramea).

By now Hong Kong was vastly different, highly built up, wealthy and expensive. After the wilds of northwest China it was a disappointment to me. So much for Western type "progression".

The pollution in the developed parts of China, largely the east and south, has to be seen to be believed. China wants what we (the West,) have got. China, like many other Asian countries, hates America, but they are aping them as fast as they can and who are we to tell them otherwise. We have no right to stop other nations doing what we have done. Many of our families have two cars and a mansion. If all of China, let alone Asia, does that LOOK OUT PLANET!

Observations about what makes China hard to rule:

I see China as managed by three things, none of which the majority like and they don't work very well.

Communism: Doesn't mix well with the new capitalism

Bureaucracy: Bleeds the country.

Beijing Government: China is such a vast country with many different peoples, let alone 56 minorities. Between the vast distances and ideologies (example the Uyghur) it's hard for Beijing to keep control.

While soaring into the sky from Hong Kong Airport, I look down and think.

What an amazing country, and what experiences you have given me, China.

I will be back, and have been.




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