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Rural Research in Russia and China

Rural Research

From tortuous mountain roads to embedded ticks and respiratory infections, to campfires and Karaoke it was a busy and productive summer as Liz Mendelson and Blair Pleason, both seniors at Pitzer, joined me for a research trip to two wetland nature reserves: one in the Russian Far East and one in southwestern China. Our research, funded by the Freeman Program on Asian Political Economy, examined how economic reforms in China and Russia were affecting land use in remote rural areas. We began by flying from LAX to Beijing. Next, two overnight trains, a ferry across the Black Dragon River (the border between Russia and China) and a bus ride from the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk took us to Muraviovka Park, in the Russian Far East. At Muraviovka Park, a wetland that is a major breeding site for endangered red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, our days were spent interviewing farmers, residents and government officials in villages bordering the park. While I translated, Liz and Blair carefully took exhaustive notes. Each day after finishing our interviews we helped out at an English-language environmental education camp for local schoolchildren. This was usually followed by a campfire with the kids and the removal of the occasional tick. It was, after all, a marsh.

After two weeks of research around Muraviovka we started making our way to southwestern China. A ferry, a train, two flights and another train eventually brought us to Caohai Nature Reserve in Guizhou Province. During our stay at Caohai, most days were spent bouncing and wobbling and tilting and sliding in an old jeep on mucky red-clay roads that snake through small villages around Caohai Lake. While Liz thought our adventures jolting up and down these dirt tracks reminded her of Indiana Jones, I was always relieved when we reached our destination. Our interviews, with me translating from Chinese to English, were conducted in homes in the small hamlets that are located within the nature reserve. Each day we would sit around someone’s coal-fired stove, dipping roasted potatoes into ground chili pepper and asking people about their livelihoods and how their economic activities have changed over time.

After our last evening in Caohai, which we spent crooning in an underground Karaoke bar with colleagues from the nature reserve, we made our way back to Beijing by train and plane and headed back to California for the task of analyzing all of our interview data.

It was a great experience for me to work so closely with undergrads. In spite of the long waits at the border, several bureaucratic hassles, separation from loved ones, fears of avian flu, the inevitable respiratory and intestinal infections and the frustrations associated with working in another language, Liz and Blair showed tremendous diligence, patience and flexibility. Most importantly, they always maintained their enthusiasm for challenge and adventure and a marvelous sense of humor that enabled us to survive.

—Melinda Herrold-Menzies is an assistant professor of
Environmental Studies.