Speeding under Baima Snow Mountain along the banks of the Jinsha River in Yunnan, a group of students, enthusiastically asked Dr. Bleisch what ‘expedition’ meant for him – and this was the biologist’s reply; “No permanent address.”
In January 2021, fifteen undergraduates from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) went to Shangri-La, China, for a two-week expedition with CERS. The team was warmly greeted by mother nature on their arrival day at the Zhongdian Centre: a freezing day of minus 16 degrees Celsius, accompanied with heavy snow. Altitude sickness and the frozen roads did not shrink the excitement of the students. Everyone was curiously exploring the Tibetan areas and the facilities of CERS. It is worth emphasizing that those 15 students had never heard of CERS, nor did they know of the mysterious explorer behind this institution.
One week before departure, the selected students were invited to watch several documentaries, including one about The Society’s Palawan Caving Project and another about its Batak Cultural Preservation Project, both on Palawan Island in the Philippines. The viewing was hosted within the shelter of CERS’s Shek O 1939 Exhibit House in Hong Kong. HKU students were amazed by the fact that cultural conservation, together with nature conservation, poverty alleviation, and ‘adventure’ per se could all go hand-in-hand in the projects run by CERS. Some NGOs, as the students voiced, fail to consider the heritage of traditional culture and the potentials of its inheritance when doing poverty alleviation. Some, unfortunately, do not consider the practical livelihoods of villagers when doing environmental protection. The effort of striking a balance can be compared to a ‘stubborn will’ to be ‘greedy’ – ‘greedy’ for making things sustainable, practical, yet not losing a sense of personal touch.
Students were warned: ‘CERS is not a travel agent; participants are not expected to act like tourists. Self- motivation and quality work are the keys. This is not a project for fun.’
Rare Tibetan Mastiffs, alongside biologist Dr. Bleisch, geographer Prof. Zhang and Tibetan educator Tsering Drolma, stood by the Zhongdian Base as the team arrived. Not long after, students were challenged to climb the snowy mountains in the dark at Xiangguqing at the southern edge of the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve – not for the purpose of leisurely competitions, but for the scientific research of monitoring the behaviors of the Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkeys. After students recorded the movements and posture of the monkeys every 15 minutes, they were able to compose a statistical report that will help with the scientific endeavors of keeping track of the animal’s behavior, ecology and its surrounding habitat. Further interviews with the local Lisu protectors (who were once hunters) were conducted to learn about the changes in local villager’s lives and their animal protection initiatives.
Xiang-gu-qing is a deep mountain valley in the Jinsha River basin; the place where we lived, albeit briefly, in a traditional-Lisu wooden-house revitalized by CERS. Many Lisu people have abandoned their original tribal culture and moved house to live in Han-style or Tibetan-style residences. To my amazement, students were sentimental about the diminishing tribal culture, and more so at the villager’s willingness to toss away, at least partially, their indigenous identity.
While we tasted barbecued wild matsutake mushrooms with villagers and experts, CERS members shared with the students;
‘Modernization is happening fast. It is so often the case that by the time we want to revisit something or save something, it is no longer possible. As a non-profit group, we choose to preserve things people may not appreciate at the time. In the future, when it becomes the last piece of something surviving, the value will blossom.’
CERS arranged for a talk with a Lama at the Damo Academy of Tibetan Buddhism and to discuss the ‘philosophy of life’ – certainly a challenging subject to talk, and to think about. As students pondered their life goals, they were then invited to see the historic Cizhong Centennial Catholic Church in the Tibetan area on the banks of the Mekong River and to participate in a religious Mass. Students were at first startled by the polarized exposure of various religions, but after another deep conversation with the priests, students realized the possibility of religious harmony – as long as the faiths guide people to the right and spiritual path. The students were surprised to find that a few years ago, CERS carefully arranged for the old Swiss priest, who was the head of this church in the 1940s, to reunite with the villagers in Cizhong. Of course, the students did not miss out on the Shangri-La wine, a tradition handed down from the Swiss priests at that time – an indispensable part of a serious investigation!
As we undertook another bumpy journey back to the CERS Zhongdian base, we finally met Dr. How Man Wong, the explorer himself; who desired to host a meeting with style – in a yak-tent.
A student asked Howman, ‘CERS does so many things, what is your Vision and Mission? What do you want to achieve?’
‘In the beginning, there was not any or much of the so-called mission or philosophy. You just feel the urgency of if you could do a little, do a little to help.’ HM replied and added: “I focus on delivery of results, not promises of what we set out to accomplish. In fact, often the best work is accomplished through surprises along the way, especially as far as exploration is concerned.”
Another student asked, “Thank you for the kind arrangement in the past 10 days. There are both academic and adventurous learning aspects with first-hand experience. Please tell me, though, what makes you an ‘explorer’?”
Howman responded, ‘You show me a 3-year-old kid, I show you an explorer. To me being an explorer is having the curiosity of a 3-year-old child. That is the drive. To seek the unknown. I think if one could keep that alive, he or she could also be an explorer.’
This two-week trip to Yunnan might be the beginning of the encounter between HKU students and CERS. The epidemic might have prevented us from immediately conducting student activities at the expedition bases in Myanmar and the Philippines, but we learned to adapt to the situations; we hosted the ‘Documentary Night’ regularly on the campus at HKU, and we led students to the CERS 1939 Exhibit House and library in Shek O. During the epidemic, CERS, as a forward-looking and proactively-evolving NGO, carried out their first local cultural conservation project in Hong Kong to retrace the history of the “Three-Planks” (sampans) in Hong Kong – and they identified an ancient sampan that was gifted to the Tai O Cultural Association for educational and exhibition purposes. HKU certainly did not miss this rare opportunity, as we led a group of students to South Lantau to inspect the sampan, as well as explore the local history, art and culture around the neighborhood in the summer of 2021. Students learned how to ‘sway in the waves’ on the wooden sampan like their fishing-ancestors in Hong Kong.
If you browse the CERS website, you will find that CERS puts ‘Expedition’ in the first place, followed by ‘Preserving Culture,’ then ‘Protecting Nature’ and ‘Research,’ and finally ‘Education.’
But do these labels cover the breadth of CERS’s scope of work? We, alongside our students, learnt that we simply cannot be restricted by the labelling of a “permanent address:” ‘Expedition,’ ‘Preserving Culture,’ ‘Protecting Nature,’ and ‘Research’ are in essence, various manifestation of education. The key to a sustainable education, after all, is to be able to maintain the curiosity of a three-year-old.