World’s Highest Airport Opens

World's Highest Airport - Air China
Flickr, Erik Tomer

China claimed a new record for world’s highest airport when Daocheng Yading Airport opened this week in the Tibetan province of Sichuan, taking the title from Changdu Bangda Airport, also in Tibet. The new airport is at an elevation of 14,472 feet above sea level, 253 feet higher than the previous record holder. There is a single Air China flight scheduled for now, from Chengdu, with additional domestic flights planned in the coming year. The flight cuts travel time from the provincial capital from a two-day bus ride to a one-hour flight. The airport is close to the Yading Nature Reserve, known as the last Shangri-La. Daocheng shouldn’t rest on its laurels long, as Nagqu Dagring is planning an airport to open in 2015 at an altitude of 14,554 feet.

The airport is controversial, as part of China’s plan to increase tourism in Tibet, which Tibetans feel deepens Chinese rule on the autonomous region. China also opened the world’s highest railway in Tibet in 2006, much of it on permafrost, which many felt would threaten the local environment and culture.

Balochistan, The Unluckiest Corner Of The World

The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.

That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008’s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.

Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.

I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.

I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.

But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.

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[Photo credit: Jae Pyl, Adam Hodge]

Undiscovered New York: Exploring New York’s Chinatown(s)

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. Considering this past Monday was the traditional start of the Chinese New Year, now seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of New York City’s most interesting and diverse neighborhoods: Chinatown.

Upon moving to New York, my initial impression of Chinatown was an overwhelming feeling of the unfamiliar and mysterious. Everything about it seemed so at odds with what I knew and what I understood: huge piles of fish and strange produce glistening on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes, the pungent smells, impenetrable language and strange customs.

Yet as I grew more comfortable with this intriguing neighborhood, its many charms were slowly revealed. It was no longer an area of cheap designer knock-off handbags and pork-fried rice. I saw it as an indispensable part of my city – a neighborhood that was just as integral to my view of New York as the Statue of Liberty or the East Village.

What I also soon discovered is that the Chinatown in Manhattan is only one of three distinct Chinatowns in New York City, with another in the Flushing section of Queens and the newest slowly expanding in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Each of these three Chinatowns is a unique city-within-a-city, offering a completely diverse array of regional cuisines, interesting stores and unique sights.

Want to learn about some out-of-the-way spots in all three Chinese enclaves? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to exploring the Chinatown(s).
Manhattan’s Chinatown

Centered just east of Broadway and Canal, Manhattan’s Chinatown is definitely New York’s biggest and also its best-known. But there’s still plenty of secrets waiting for the interested visitor. Given the timing of this post, it’s only fair that we mention the Chinese New Year festivities taking place this coming weekend. The big event is arguably the Dragon Parade on Sunday 2/1, which features dancers parading in elaborate dragon costumes down the area’s sidestreets.

Anybody with a hankering for some authentic Chinese food need only point his nose towards one of the area’s many eateries. Dim Sum is one Chinese tradition that’s not to be missed. The meal typically features a variety of small plates like dumplings, spare ribs and Jin deui served in a communal, buffet-style setting. Head over to the Golden Unicorn, grab a seat and watch the servers roll by in a constant parade of carts with interesting foodstuffs. Joe’s Shanghai is another area favorite – they’re known for their soup dumplings filled with steamy broth. Make sure not to put the whole thing in your mouth all at once!

It’s often said that the Chinese are experts in non-traditional herbal medicines. If you’ve ever been curious about Chinese herbal remedies, Chinatown is a great place to learn more. Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy markets itself as the “Largest on the East Coast.” The store feaures over 1,000 different traditional Chinese herbs and ingredients as well as treatments from a licensed acupuncturist.

Queens’ Chinatown
Though Manhattan may have the most famous Chinatown, Queens’ Flushing area may have its most diverse. The area boasts residents from neighboring Taiwan and Korea as well as areas of China as far-flung as Fujian to Lanzhou. One of the best ways to experience it all is by stopping in to one of the area’s numerous food courts. The Flushing Mall features a particular favorite – this otherwise mundane shopping mall features a mouth-watering food court in its basement spanning Sichuan, Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisines.

Flushing also boasts all kinds of quirky shopping sure to please even the most jaded visitor. Magic Castle is a Korean (one non-Chinese pick, sorry!) pop culture store that sells Korean pop music as well as stationary and toys like Hello Kitty. World Book Store features all the latest magazines straight from the Shanghai newsstand.

Brooklyn’s Chinatown
New York’s “newest” Chinatown is probably also its least-visited. Tucked into Brooklyn’s more remote Sunset Park neighborhood it tends to escape notice from visitors but is still well worth a visit.

Like the other Chinatowns, one of the principle attractions is the amazing, authentic Chinese cuisine. Start your visiting by gawking at some strange Chinese foods at the Hong Kong Supermarket, one of New York’s biggest Chinese supermarkets. Sea Town Fish & Meat Market is another interesting local retailer, offering one of Brooklyn’s biggest selections of Chinese specialty seafood items. When you get tired of “looking” at Chinese food and want to eat some, make sure to visit one of the area’s many street vendors for some authentic street food.

Dispatch from China: Tracking and playing with pandas (part 1 of 2)

On a single-lane dirt road wending between misty crags deep in Sichuan Province, traffic has slowed to a crawl. Hundreds of dump trucks and steamrollers are expanding the only road to Wolong Nature Reserve into a modern freeway. Conservation biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City was the first Westerner to study giant pandas in China when he came to Wolong, about 500 kilometers southwest of Wanglang, in 1980.

Now, more than 100,000 tourists every year flock to Wolong, the country’s most famous panda reserve, to see its 120 captive-bred pandas, the largest such population in the world.

On a March afternoon, there are so many pandas in the “kindergarten pen” here that it’s hard to keep track of their antics. One is attempting a handstand while three others are playing king of the hill. These carefree cubs, a record 19 from Wolong’s breeding season, are part of the dramatic comeback for a symbol of conservation: the giant panda.
The toddlers may one day follow Xiangxiang, the first captive panda released into the wild in April 2006, as part of the campaign to prop up the wild population, estimated at 1,600 in 2001. China’s central government has increased the number of reserves from 13 a decade ago to 59 this year, with two to three coming online every year. The reserves cover 50% of the panda’s habitat and 75% of the population. The government has also banned logging of natural forests and started a “Grain for Green” campaign to encourage farmers to restore the native habitat.

Wolong will soon build a new captive breeding facility that can house 300 pandas, a goal that would ensure the survival of the captive population for 100 years and maintain 95% of its genetic diversity.

Almost two-thirds of captive panda births each year happen at Wolong, thanks to the reserve’s obsession with perfecting artificial insemination over the last 15 years and discovering in 2000 how to keep twins alive by removing one of them from the mother.

A decade ago, the captive birth of a single cub would cause a huge media sensation. Back then, if a mother bore twins, she would invariably abandon one and raise the other. In 2000, breeders figured out how to raise twins by allowing one cub at a time to stay with the mother and raising the other by hand. They frequently swap cubs so both learn survival lessons from mom. Now Wolong is trying to outdo last year’s record number of births by artificial insemination.

The reintroduction campaign took a serious hit recently when a rival male badly injured Xiangxiang. Because of his mild manners from a captive upbringing, he has been having a difficult time fitting in with the wild crowd. And earlier, rangers lost track of him when his GPS battery died.

The size of that population, it turns out, is a bit controversial. One Chinese research team recently published a study claiming the population might be double the estimate of 1998’s Third National Survey. Using DNA fingerprints collected from fresh feces, they were able to identify 66 individuals in a key reserve. The Third National Survey found just 27 in 1998.

If this controversial study turns out to be accurate, pandas would be off the international list of endangered species. But perhaps they’re not out of the woods–or shall we say bamboo forest–yet. Read part 2 tomorrow to find out why, as I go panda tracking with a Chinese guy named Chuckie.

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