CERS has been involved with culture conservation for over two decades. It started as documentation of many indigenous cultures unique to China's minority nationalities, many of which were in the process of disintegration, assimilation, or simply eclipsing in modern times. We gradually moved into the design and implementation of culture projects, at times involving entire local communities. We preserve both material and intellectual culture. In the former we sometimes conserve and restore entire ensembles of architecture, up to twenty houses or more in some projects. In the latter we document and support collections of ethnic music and legends. CERS is also an important repository of many old records, select pictures and films.

Memories of Lhasa in 1946

Her Majesty Royal Grand Mother of Bhutan



Coastal China: Fishing Ports and Scenic Villages

By Wong How Man, San Sha, Fujian

coastal china_cover

Where is this?”... “You left China already?” Such are the questions from a few friends who received my pictures online. Indeed the pictures I posted seem not to be taken in China. One friend thought I am in Mexico City. Another ventured that I must be in Italy’s Cinque Terre. But no, the colorful houses are truly from within China, though somewhat inspired by, but not pirated copies of, the five fishing villages along Italy’s Riviera coast.


With some reflections on trust

By Wong How Man, Hong Kong


I was born in 1949 during the Year of the Ox. But having spent a good part of my life on the high plateau, I prefer to call it Year of the Yak. Better yet, that of the Wild Yak, which I have had the opportunity to observe numerous times in the wilds of Tibet. At times, it seems strange to me that we put so much emphasis on the year of birth, but not so much that of death. But then, people remember someone while living, not so much when they are gone.



By K.L. Tam, Hong Kong




In the ancient world, the most influential cartographer was Claudius Ptolemy who lived in Alexandria in the second century. His most important work is a geography book entitled Geographia, which consists of some 8,000 geographical coordinates of localities. This information enabled a map to be made in 1477 on the eve of European maritime discoveries. After that, a series of Ptolemy-style world maps were produced until the end of the 16th century when actual new discoveries made the old information outdated. However, even then, a lot of the new maps still followed the traditions of the old ones.



By K.L. Tam, Hong Kong

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This is a political map, made in 1879 and published in 1880, in Japan, 70cm x 90cm. Let’s start by looking at the political landscape of the 1880s. This was one of the most turbulent times in modern history. Two continents were in big trouble. In Africa, European powers were scrambling to slice up countries as their own territory. In about ten years, there was no place south of the Sahara Desert that could claim to be independent from European powers.


Milam: Ghost Town of the Pundits

By Kai Friese, New Delhi, India

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Everyone said Milam was a ghost town and it is. Once a thriving summer settlement on the old trade route from Eastern Kumaon to Gyanema and Gartok in Western Tibet, it was abandoned in the wake of the 1962 border war with China. But by the time I got there, after a four-day walk, sweating and cursing on the climbs, creaking and wobbling on the steep descents, I just felt very happy to be alive. It was beautiful: the sunshine poured through the thin mountain air, the Milam glacier glistened on the slopes of Hardeol at the head of the valley. We walked to the glacier snout plucking rosehips and Tibetan seabuckthorn berries and returned to a breakfast of parathas and potatoes garnished with fresh local jimbu or chives. The day before, I had seen the twin peaks of Nanda Devi cresting like frozen waves over another ghost town called Martoli. “This used to be the biggest village in old Almora district,” said Kishen Singh, the chatty old chowkidar at Deepu Guest House, a snug whitewashed cottage at the edge of town. “There were five hundred families here, and back in those days, they say, young brides, who were new to this place, would lose their way in the gallis. They’d go to fetch water from the river, and wind up in the wrong house when they returned.” Kishen Singh’s face lit up at the ancient innuendos of the story. An old wives tale of young wives.


Dumtseg Monastery: A Project, A Memory

By Kesang Choden T., Thimphu, Bhutan

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Dumtseg Monastery - this unusual stupa monastery stands stoically against the soft landscape of Paro valley’s golden rice fields that ripple gently in the autumn breeze. This is how I shall always remember this 15th century structure.

It is a place I associate with my great grandmother and my grandmother, because this is one of their favourite monasteries in Bhutan. From across the river, every time my eyes meet its cream white dome-like shape silhouetted against the red hillock, I am reminded of all that I love about them- their grace, magnanimity, and courage in the face of change.


Saving Culture from Extinction

By An Xiao Ming (Anmo), Alishan, Taiwan

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On October 25, 2011 the Zhou Tribe held its most important Mayasvi ceremony. That night I received a phone call from Miss Dai Suyun. She said someone wanted to see me the next day. That was the first time I met Ah Fang, a native of central Taiwan and a longtime friend of CERS.


Celebrating the “R” in CERS

By Dr William V Bleisch, Luang Namtha, Lao PDR

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CERS has been dedicated to promoting front-line scholarly research in remote areas right from its inception in 1986 as the China Exploration & Research Society. CERS has always had a core group of dedicated research scholars on our staff, and has hosted the best and brightest researchers from the network of scholars interested in the people and environments of the borderlands of China. Over the years, an impressive body of work has been contributed to the world heritage of academic knowledge. The benefits of this work do not just go to the careers of a few scholars. CERS sponsored research has been part of the foundation of the CERS experiential education program and village development projects, as well as being a guide and rationale for CERS’s program of exploration.


Lenggu Monastery

A tiny CERS project hidden inside a sacred mountain

By Wong How Man, Hong Kong


From the satellite image on my iPad, our route is penetrating into the heart of the high snow range surrounding what is Ge Nyen sacred mountain (6204 meters). The circular cluster of snowfields somewhat resembles petals of a lotus. A trail with peaks on both sides was what we used as access into the mountain. Beside it was a clear and pristine river cascading down from glaciers and alpine lakes. Between 2017 and 2019, twice, my team and I entered this remote mountain fastness.


Launch of the New CERS Research & Education Base in Lao PDR

By Dr William V Bleisch, Luang Namtha, Lao PDR

As the small twin-engine prop plane touches down at Luang Namtha Airport, I wonder what to expect. After all, the China border is just one hour away, and there were several hundred Chinese overseas workers there just two weeks ago before Spring Festival, most of them from central China. They come to work building the high speed rail line that will someday link Kunming and Vientiane, or to erect the new modern apartment towers in Moding Special Economic Zone on the China-Laos border. Although inside Lao PDR, the currency of Moding is RMB, the phone signal is China Mobile, and the most common language is Putonghua. The last time I passed through Moding, on my way back to China in December, construction was going on at a feverish pitch.


Island Pursuit – Anxiety unfulfilled

By Wong How Man, Kee Lung, Taiwan


I stand close to the boat’s chimney on the aft deck. It is warming to both body and heart, evoking a nostalgic feeling buried deep inside, which I have totally forgotten for over half a century. I am on a large ferry boat, the Taima Star (Tai for Taiwan and Ma for Matsu), with vehicles underdeck, out of Keelung, the northernmost port in Taiwan. It is late in the evening near midnight when we sail out toward the open sea. The four-year-old boat is 5000 tons with a length of over 100 meters. But my heart goes back to another Star, the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, barely 160 tons and one-third the length. Suddenly my teenage years come back to mind.

For six years, from 1961 to 1967 when I was twelve to eighteen years of age, I sat many times close to a chimney on the under deck of the ferry boat in Hong Kong during the winter months, riding across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon where I attended high school. Occasionally I would bring my ten-speed BSA bicycle along, an eye-catching luxury in Hong Kong during the 60s. In that case however, I would have to take the rival and less posh Yaumati Ferry from Wan Chai to Jordan Road, as the Star Ferry catered to a classier set and did not allow cargo, let alone a bicycle.


CERS Mandalay House

By Wong How Man Mandalay
Along a tributary of the Irrawaddy

Almost seven years ago, CERS launched the HM Explorer, a 106- foot explorer vessel with seven air-conditioned guest cabins. This purpose-built boat allowed CERS to explore waterways of Myanmar, in particular the upper Irrawaddy and its main tributary the Chindwin River. To date, many river trips have been conducted each year, including several cruises involving students and guests.



By Wong How ManHong Kong

A new model in supporting and representing artists



“I appreciate art, but I do not appreciate artists,” I said bluntly to the impassive face of Zwe. He looked back at me blandly as if I was talking to a wall. I double-majored in Journalism and Art in college, and know well how artists are, or pretend to be. For me and most of us, we have the left brain to supplement the right. The better the artist, the more right-brain leaning he or she is, and the harder to manage her or him, if even at all possible. I elaborated on decades of knowing artists with right brain in surplus, and left brain in deficit. In the early 1980s, through the University of Southern California where I worked, I even brought two Chinese artists to the US, resulting in their success and ultimate immigration into the country. Zwe and a woman artist Phyu have been taking up my former residence on the hill here in Zhongdian. The wooden building is a three-story villa looking down on pine forest and fish ponds, the scene descending beyond to an ensemble of buildings, pavilions and kiosks, including a writer/composer residence, a multi-function main premises and a museum. Altogether eleven buildings make up the CERS Zhongdian Center on the outskirt of what today is known as Shangri-la. I have moved down to a small one-room abode which still provides enough sanctuary, but spares me from the ups and downs on the hill several times a day just for meals or meeting visitors.


The black pearl of Bhutan – first contact with the Monpa people

By Astor Wong Hong Kong

The first thing that came into view after the plane soared
through layers of thick cloud was the snowcapped
mountains. Traces of snow sprawled from the top of the
hills to the foothills, eventually melting into rivers - the
arteries and veins of the country running through and
nourishing the land. Welcomed by a gust of cold wind after a few hours’
flight, I wrapped myself in a thick scarf to keep warm. It was early
December, the prologue to a few months of bleak cold winter in Bhutan.


The honey hunters of Palawan By Astor Wong Hong Kong


The Batak’s traditional practice of honey collection dates back in history. Though it is uncertain when did they learn and started practicing honey-harvesting, honey certainly plays a vital role in their livelihood, contributing to both subsistence - as a nutritious food source - and cash income. Successful honey collection requires in-depth knowledge about bees and their behavior. The Batak people have a diverse range of bee knowledge,


My Journey of Auspicious Coincidences

By Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuk Thimphu, Bhutan


CERS and my own office, the Buddhist Art & Cultural Conservation Centre, have one thing in common - a commitment to ensuring the preservation and continuity of cultures and the arts of the Himalayan region.


First Decades of Exploration Highlights

By Wong How Man


I have just turned 70, and my exploration has reached five decades. It seems proper to say I began my real exploration in 1969, when I left home for America and college.
Curiosity notwithstanding, throughout my upbringing for the first two decades of my life, I could only explore around my immediate vicinity of Hong Kong. It was when I left home that I could physically explore beyond the place of my childhood. And that, I did.
Looking back on fifty years, I reminisce some of the highlights, both in years, months and days. The rainbow of colors and memories are too rich to recount in detail. Through pictures however, I felt such recall could be captured to a degree of time past, and be shared with a few friends.


A token of my friendship and gratitude for your 70th birthday

By Katia Buffetrill Zhongdian, Yunnan


I first heard the name of Wong How Man through a common friend, Stéphane Gros, himself a researcher, colleague and friend at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Knowing that my research on pilgrimages around sacred mountains was going to lead me to make the pilgrimage around Kawakarpo Mountain in 2003, he put me in contact with How Man. In fact, that year was a water-sheep year, considered to be the most auspicious one for the Kawakarpo pilgrimage, since it is said to be the mountain god’s birth year and the sixtieth year in the Tibetan sexagenary calendrical system. I thus met How Man, a man of immense generosity and faithful in friendship at a very auspicious time. Not only did he open to me the doors of the CERS Center beside Napa Lake, close to the city of Gyalthang, but he also invited me to participate in the program he had conceived for the pilgrims journeying to Kawakarpo mountain in that very special year. CERS first took care in repairing the wooden bridge across the Mekong, and built a tea house and a clinic next to the bridge, a compulsory passage for all pilgrims. With the help of a team of young Tibetans and Chinese, we were in a perfect situation not only to offer tea and first aid to the pilgrims but also to count the pilgrims (daily from 6AM to 8PM) and to ask a series of questions that had been chosen by How Man and the team.



From Missionary pilot to Mercenary pilot By Wong How Man, Milwaukee, Wisconsin



His fingers are long, slender and frail. Felix Smith held the pen firmly and with slow but determined movement he autographed his book for me. “For How Man, withanks for all of the good things you have contributed to the history of CNAC and CAT. Felix.” So it reads now on the inside cover page of the book, China Pilot, flying for Chiang and Chennault. That’s the first time I saw someone short-cut the words “with thanks”. For Felix however, his life had no short-cuts, but instead was long and distinguished.



By William V. Bleisch, Palawan



On 2018 Nov 26 a Monday, we travel from Shek O to the CERS Maoyon base in Palawan. Late that evening, at 23:00, several of us travel to Barangay Tagabinet to attend the wake for Ardes F. Cayaon (Dec 15, 1976 to Nov 21, 2018), caver, river guide, explorer, and friend. He will be missed. When it was my turn to stand in front of the coffin, its glass top fogged up with condensation from the refrigeration, a large cricket hops down onto the top of the casket directly over Ardes’s mouth, then hops on to the back of my neck as I turn to leave.



By Astor Wong, Hong Kong


The waters of the Sulu Sea during winter, under constant attack by typhoons, are notorious for being perilous. Even skilled and experienced fishermen avoid setting sail during this time of the year and seek other ways of livelihood. There was but one exception. At dusk on a November day; on the vast and boundless ocean, one could only see two boats, fearlessly cleaving through rough waves and tough winds, determined to get to an off-the-grid island named Cawili regardless of the potential hazards. In the name of exploration, a diverse group of passengers, from the United States, the United Kingdom, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Kunming, and the foothills of Tibet, with a local Filipino boat crew, daringly sailed against the strong currents while being assaulted by aggressive gusts of wind.




On January 19 we set off from the HM Explorer berthed on the Chindwin River just below Khamti town. We switch from the comfortable boat to two modified pick- up trucks for the road ahead into to the north and west. While intern Charlie Brown, film-maker Xavier Li and Myanmar Coordinator Daw Sandra sit in the “air seats” bolted to the cargo bay of the truck, enjoying the dusty view, I opt for the more confined but less dusty cab, riding shotgun with the young Naga driver. The driver and I make small talk on the way in broken English and Burmese. His father is a soldier stationed near the town, and we stop briefly to meet him. The son is obviously proud of his new job as a driver, and he calls out the names of the towns as we travel through them. At Lahe town, 1,005 m above sea level, it is already 13:40 and I am hungry. Howman knows this town well, since it was the scene of the annual Naga Festival last year when he attended. This year the festival is in a more remote location, and we have decided to follow another route instead of attending the somewhat staged assembling of the tribes. We stop to have a quick lunch and register with the police, then get back in our positions in the pickup trucks and continue on, passing some nice patches of forest, but there is progressively less forest as we continue on travelling west. Instead, we pass very large swidden clearings, where the trees and brush have recently been cut and are now drying before burning. The brush will be burned to release its nutrients, and then a mix of crops will be planted in the ashes – hill rice, beans, Job’s tears, pumpkins and gourds




It feels like I have been around for much longer, but in fact this trip to Palawan was indeed my third time on a CERS expedition. I was never the athlete type; I have trouble walking on concrete without tripping over my own feet. CERS’s explorations, as far I was told, would not be trekking-oriented. Yet somehow someone frail and physically inept like me wound up on three expeditions that involved hardcore hiking. And the five-day expedition to the source of Maoyon River was by far the most strenuous one I have ever participated in. Allow me to briefly outline my outlook on anthropology as a discipline, so as to explain my role and expectations for this fieldtrip. The beauty of anthropology is the ‘bottom-up’ approach that we adopt in academic research. Unlike other social sciences that are more preoccupied with grand narratives and theories, anthropologists celebrate cultural diversities, appreciate deviations from ‘norms’, and reflect upon and challenge “the ordinary” embraced by mainstream society.




Growing up, I disdained reading stories with sad or tragic endings. So, I formed the habit of reading the last chapter of a book first. If a happy ending was not assured, I would not commit my time to reading the front part, thus saving myself time, emotion, and a few tears. But today, I cry even reading a comic. Every book I read is like a sad story, bringing tears to my eyes. With any reading that extends beyond twenty minutes or so, my eyes automatically start watering, an annoying byproduct of ageing, at least in my case. So, it is with such strained eyes that I review photographs I took in 1977 in Hangzhou, now stored as low-resolution images in my computer. But this time, tears came to my eyes both from age, as well from my sweet and beautiful memories being abruptly taken away.




My hands are frozen and numb. My camera has gone wild, taking photos in delayed mode a few seconds after I push the shutter. Then it momentarily dies and I have to reboot it. The wind is blowing and the temperature must be below zero as rain turns to hail. It must be the altitude, 4821 meters in elevation. Otherwise it has to be the river god, as my team and I reach the watershed and source of the Irrawaddy River. “This is it,” I gave out the order, marking a small drop- off where two tiny streams trickle downward joining each other. Beyond and above are marshes with water holes, merging to become the source stream. My iPad has been on all morning, with my special App tracking our route, time, distance and several other crucial data from our basecamp to here. “Let’s mark the spot with the prayer flag,” I give out another order to my team. Soon three poles are stuck in the ground and a string of colourful flags span the source of the Irrawaddy. My next move is almost like clockwork, something I had dreamed of, as well as performed, several times before, each time when I reached the source of a great river; the Yangtze, Mekong, Yellow River, or Salween. I kneel down striding the creek, and with my two hands I bring the water to my mouth. Drinking from the source is always a very sacred moment, especially for an explorer. I make several screen-shots on my iPad satellite image to record the necessary data, most importantly, the coordinates of this spot – 28°44’04”N 97°52’35”E. Time of arrival is of course noted. My Omega says 10:38. It’s been almost three hours of continuous riding on horseback since we left basecamp at 7:48 this morning. Next my team passes me three Aluminium water bottles which I use to collect the source water for later analysis back home. Our caravan helpers are watching with amazement. Why do these people make such a big deal about a tiny stream?




“X! Hurry up! We are not movie stars;” How Man, leader of the expedition, shouts out loud. The whole CERS team is ready to conduct the ceremony of throwing longest prayers at the source of the Irrawaddy River, altitude 4821m. It is cold and windy, and nobody wants to stay there for any longer than necessary. I am still calibrating the DJI drone camera that I plan to fly above the team as they throw out the light paper slips printed with prayers. It would be a great shot of a great moment to be captured forever. I move my freezing cold fingers fast. As expected, the remote controller reacts a bit slower than it should. GPS signal is strong. The gimbal camera, however, detects an under-exposed image quality, probably because of the dull sky with white clouds beneath it. Fog spreading around has also confused the camera sensor as to whether it is bright or dark. The monitor reveals very low visibility. I have to switch all settings to manual control and hide myself in the down jacket to protect the remote controller. Adding to this hectic rush, rain starts to fall, occasional changing to hail. Drone cameras are not supposed to fly in rain. The four electric motors of the propellers are easily short circuited if penetrated by water. A tiny drop on the camera lens will ruin the image and the list of possible damage continues. What the hell, there is no time to reason with nature.


Last season of a nomad camp


The low shrub above our basecamp is changing a coat of colours, into yellow, orange, and crimson red. We are at 3900 meters. It indicates that frost has arrived at 4000 meters, thus the foliage change. Not far from our camp is the high pasture for the Tibetan yak and zho (a hybrid between yak and cow) grazing ground. Tseren Sangmo and her aunt Yishi Lacho are the only souls at this high pasture. The log shed they built some seven years ago can be considered the first household at the Irrawaddy source. Here they would spend two months of the year, from August to early October. In another five days, their family members, perhaps three men, would arrive from home, four days march away, to help them decamp to go home. For the previous two months, June and July, Sangmo and Lacho were at a higher camp, another 200 meters higher, at another grazing ground. There, they live in a shed similar to this one. Back home in the village of Gula, pasture is scarce and thus kept only for winter grazing. They herd their livestock here to the adjacent Quwa village and paid a fee to use their pasture for summer grazing. For each animal, they would pay 30 Yuan for seasonal usage. Herding over 30 animals belonging to three families from their home, they would pay upward of a thousand Yuan.




Knowing I was going to visit China Exploration & Research Society (CERS) in June, my proctor Valerie Ma spent one of the last night’s of study hall before school’s end sharing stories about her time as an intern there the past few summers. She pulled up pictures and described a summer spent on a boat in Myanmar with a community of enthusiastic explorers, spotting snub-nosed monkeys for the first time on Baima Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province, and lazier, enjoyable days spent with other interns playing cards in between diving into research articles for her culminating research report on opium. As a global studies educator and curious traveler, I had so many questions: “How were you inspired to research opium? What are some of your most powerful experiences you’ve had in the internship? Tell me more about the places you visit.” Valerie’s eyes would light up as she described her engagement with people, place, and community across China and the value of CERS, led by charismatic explorer How Man. While I had an impression of my future visit, I remained curious and excited as I anticipated my arrival.


About a month later, I was at the Zhongdian Center of CERS with four other Deerfield Academy faculty members: Michael Cary, Emma Coffin, Cindy Feng, and Will Speer. A professional development experience, our travels had already taken us to Beijing and Lhasa to deepen our understanding of China’s rich histories, cultures, and landscapes. With our visit to CERS, we aimed to better understand their important work, learn more about rural China, and imagine what it would be like to bring a group of Deerfield students, there.


Tibetan Architecture & Its Significance


On a whim last quarter, I took a class called Introduction to World Architecture. As an intended Mathematical and Computational Science major, I am not usually inclined to take that kind of class, but I decided to go for it because it sounded interesting. Although I enjoyed the class and the variety of buildings included in the course, I was disappointed in the lack of diversity in the architecture. The discussions we had about Western architecture were fascinating, but we did not spend as much time discussing non-Western architecture as I would have hoped. Seeing the architecture of the local Shangri-la region firsthand only confirmed my suspicion that there was a large portion of non- Western architecture that my class did not cover.
Tibetan architecture is fascinating to study because architects in this region have to be resourceful when it comes to finding building materials and figuring out how to stay warm. This resourcefulness results in a great variety of building styles from region to region. The architecture of this large region of cultural influence is very diverse. Therefore, I think it is best to talk about the architecture in terms of common themes and ideas as opposed to specific elements.