Category Archives: Portfolio

Rowing with his feet and other Vietnam water scenes

Pix man rowing with his feet

Local rowing with his feet in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A quick break from kayaking in Lan Ha Bay (Pix Alison Bate)

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A fine mist filled the bay, as we went kayaking near Cat Ba Island in northeast Vietnam. Most people go to see the spectacular vertical mountains dropping into the sea, but actually I spent more time looking at the boats.

Cat Bay harbor itself is full of colorful wooden boats flying the Vietnamese flag, and in Lan Ha Bay, I enjoyed seeing this guy rowing with his feet. It was also a lot less touristy than nearby Ha Long Bay.

We also saw loads of fish farms, each with a little hut on it and a long pier guarded by yapping dogs.They guard the crop while the family is out fishing, often overnight, and seem to harvest lots of mussels and other shellfish and catch giant jellyfish.

(Posted by Alison Bate, Marhc 24, 2012)

Pix eulachon

The monster of Kitimaat and other tales at Enbridge hearing

Everybody loves a good storyteller and I’m no exception.

Last week, I listened to some of the live streaming of the Enbridge hearings from Kitimaat, the First Nations village a few clicks outside the company town of Kitimat in northwest B.C.

It was the tail end of the first day and the Haisla’s Chief Councillor, Ellis Ross, was telling how Kitimaat was founded and the stories of betrayal over the years.

Now I’ve been to nearby Kitimat, and my memories are of a blue-collar town dominated by the blazing hot furnaces inside Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan);  the Eurocan Pulp and Paper mill spewing God knows what (now closed); and touring around Methanex  (also closed).  To be honest, I never even saw the native Indian village, on the east side of the Douglas Channel.

I’ve always known Kitimat and nearby Prince Rupert as shippers of the “dangerous and the dirty”.  If Enbridge has its way, shipping bitumen and condensate through the long fiords embracing the Northwest Coast will continue that tradition, managing to combine the  worst of both worlds: the dangerous (for the environment) and the dirty (heavy oil).

But Chief Ellis Ross and other members of the Haisla Nation took us back eloquently to the time before the “dangerous and the dirty”, before pollution wiped out the eulachon runs and when whales chased herring all the way up the Douglas Channel.

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Fight over Arctic shipping routes

Pix two ship

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy mapping together in the Arctic (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley)

By Alison Bate

In September 2009, two German heavylift ships dropped anchor at Novyy Port after a historic trip, transiting the legendary Northeast Passage over the top of Russia.

After discharging 44 cargo modules in the Siberian outpost, the MV “Beluga Fraternity” and “Beluga Foresight” sailed on toward Rotterdam with the remaining 3,500 tons of construction materials.

The ships left Ulsan, South Korea  on July 23 and 28 respectively, and although accompanied by Russian icebreakers for part of the journey, only met small ice bergs, ice fields and ice floes on what used to be an impenetrable route.

Traditionally, these ships would have traveled from Korea through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and finally the Atlantic –  roughly 3,000 nautical miles longer than using the Northeast Passage or so-called Northern Sea Route.

As commercial trips like these become more common – due to global warming – the world’s major players are jockeying for position to exploit the Arctic for their own interests.

Geopolitical, economic and environmental issues are all at stake, not to mention changes to the way of life of those living in the Arctic. The five Arctic nations include Canada, the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland), but other countries such as China are also hovering nearby.

The Canadian Navy’s Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific discussed these thorny issues at the recent Association of Canadian Port Authorities conference in Prince Rupert, B.C.

Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile said that while Canada’s government has pledged to build more ships and increase its Arctic infrastructure, very little has actually happened. Meanwhile, Russia is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to its Arctic ports as well as flexing military capability.

“We (Canadians) aspire to be an Arctic nation, but Russia is,” he said. “Why are we not paying attention to the Arctic?”

China is also engaged, renting space from Norway for a permanent ice weather station in the Arctic, sending research ships for the last eight years, and now developing icebreaker ships.

In the U.S., Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is also concerned and has introduced a bill, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Implementation Act of 2009, to improve shipping safety and include funding for navigational aides, vessel tracking, oil-spill response, search and rescue capabilities and ice-breaking escorts.

At the Prince Rupert conference, Pile showed pictures of the Arctic icecap in 2001 and 2007, noting that one-third of the ice had disappeared in just six years, Of the three possible shipping routes, the Northern Sea Route over Russia would be the first one to truly open up, he suggested.

The second route, through Canada’s Northwest Passage, opened up for the first time in 2007, but its potential is a bit of a red herring, according to Pile. “It’s difficult to get through; more like a backroad detour,” he said. The third route, the Trans-Polar, will be the last to open up.

Pile said the Arctic is also attracting attention because of its vast untapped amounts of oil, gas, gold, zinc, and other minerals. A U.S. Geological Survey report in 2008 estimated that the Arctic has about 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil; 30 per cent of the undiscovered natural gas; and 20 per cent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids. More fish are also likely to migrate north, due to global warming.

Pile didn’t discuss the legal issues, but ownership of the Arctic waters is hotly disputed, and a fascinating race against time is under way.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each country controls resources up to 200 nautical miles offshore, but its territory can be expanded if it can prove that underwater ridges and rock formations are connected to its continental shelf.

Russia, Norway and Denmark have already made submissions, while Canada has until 2013 to submit its scientific data. The U.S. has not signed on to UNCLOS, but is working with Canada to locate the outer edge of the North American continental shelf.

For the second summer in a row, scientists on board the U.S. Coast Guard cutter “Healy” have been mapping the Arctic seafloor with their counterparts on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker “Louis S. St-Laurent”.

Despite working together, the two countries are at odds over who owns the Northwest Passage. Canada claims that the seasonal shipping lane is internal Canadian waters while the U.S. and others argue that it is an international strait. The U.S. and Canada also disagree on how the border should extend into the ocean between Alaska and the Yukon.

However, while some Canadians view the U.S. as a danger to their sovereignty, Pile doesn’t see it that way. “We will present our views, but we aren’t going to go to war over that,” he said in an interview. “It’s in both our interests to work together in the Arctic.”

Note: This article first appeared in Cargo Business News

Ancient Kashgar destroyed for “safety reasons”

Uyghur men in Kashgar souk
Uyghur men in Kashgar souk

By Alison Bate

When I visited Kashgar just over three years ago, I was disappointed at first.

The road in from the airport passed concrete roundabouts and boring buildings typical of the modern Han Chinese city. There was even a giant Mao statue close to the bus station.

Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter

Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter

While Kashgar – or Kashi as the Han Chinese call it – is inside China, people don’t visit the city to see its Chinese culture. 

Like me, they come to see the ancient Silk Road city famous for its Uyghur market, rabbit-warren streets, donkey carts and the largest mosque in China.

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Kicked Out Of The Karakoram

How we were turfed out of a village in remote China

It was late January, the start of Chinese New Year, when Chris and I decided to escape the coal pollution, dirty snow and concrete overpasses of Urumqi.

We were teaching English in the capital city of China’s remote northwestern province of Xinjiang. Tired of the daily grind of teaching, drinking Wusu beer and watching DVDs, we caught a flight to Kashgar, close to the Chinese border with various -stans: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrghyzstan, and even Afghanistan.

Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)

Coalman in Kashgar (pix: Alison Bate)

It really felt like frontier country as we headed up the Karakoram pass for eight hours on a rickety local bus. Stark snow-capped mountains reached 7,500 metres high, and we passed loaded camel trains, and scattered villages with small herds of yaks, sheep and goats. It was a chilly minus 25C, and the villagers wore a fascinating array of fur hats: Snoopy hats with long ear flaps, upsidedown flowerpot hats and flat fur hats with woolly bits on the outside. While we were busy staring at them, the locals were equally busy staring at us.

“It’s because you wear such bright colors all the time,” Chris insisted, glancing at my bright blue jacket.

“Maybe it’s because you’re a 6′5″ American,” I retorted.

 Villagers in Bulunkol valley

Chris with the villagers in Bulunkol valley (Pix: Alison Bate)

But never did they stare at us as much as near the hilltop village of Bulungkol, where we stayed for two nights on the way back to Kashgar. As we hiked up a side valley, men, women and children literally ran out of their houses to look at us.
A family of Kyrgyrs, one of the semi-nomadic ethnic groups in the region, invited us to stay in their simple home, for a fee, of course. So that night we settled in comfortably while they watched local XJTV2, Chris read Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha” (in true backpacker style), and I updated my diary. Come nighttime, the family pulled colorful eiderdowns out from behind a curtain and we all lay down to sleep on the carpeted floor, packed together like sardines.

After a breakfast of yak milk tea and nan bread the next day, we went walking again, but Chris was itching to play soccer. We’d seen a wonderful soccer pitch carefully cleared of stones, and headed there again.

“Any of you guys play soccer?” he asked the villagers, miming in true ESL teacher-style. An impromptu game began, with more boys and men joining in all the time, while the women gathered around me. After several minutes of action, though, the ball was suddenly kicked away and everyone disappeared mysteriously.

 Bulunkol valley

Iced-over river in Bulunkol valley

A little uneasy, Chris and I carried on walking across the ice-filled river valley. I started a rambling story about my scary experiences in Kashmir, and how I’d run into a risky situation after being out after curfew. Perfect timing, as just then a police jeep came bumping along a dirt road toward us.

“Hope that’s not for us,” I said half-joking.

Unfortunately, it was. Four uniformed officers got out, along with one of the villagers who’d been watching the soccer game. He gave us a long, long stare before slipping away.

“Where are you staying?” asked one of the officers politely, after they’d checked passports and herded us into their vehicle. He was a good-looking Han Chinese guy in his mid-20s, with pretty good English. Foreigners were not allowed to stay in this border village, he told us. As they grilled our hosts, and we worried they would get into trouble, he played the good cop, while a veteran Kyrgyz officer played bad cop, exchanging harsh words with the feisty lady of the house. After long discussions in the local language, which we couldn’t understand, the tension eased, there were smiles all round, and we were told to be ready to leave in the morning.

They came for us the next day, the same young Han Chinese officer and a different colleague, and for the next 90 minutes, we sat chatting in the back of the police car.

The officer talked about growing up in China, studying English at university, and how he wished he’d been posted to a city where he could meet foreigners. We were the first foreigners to stay there for two years, he added. I practised my shaky Mandarin, and he was thoroughly charming.

Every now and then, he remembered he was a police officer, and became more menacing. He checked the digital photos we’d taken, and there was an awkward moment when he saw that my “Lonely Planet” guidebook marked Taiwan in a different colour from the rest of China.

“Taiwan is in China. Why is it a different colour?” he asked, suddenly angry. We could see he was caught in a dilemma: very proud of his country, but also wanting westerners to enjoy themselves in China.

Finally, a private vehicle came down the lonely mountain road, and the men inside were ordered to take us to Kashgar. As we said goodbye to the young officer, his last words were: “When I’m in Urumqi, I hope we can meet up again.”

Sadly, he never did call to meet for a drink. It would have been neat — to visit with the guy who kicked us out of town.