Two years ago, Brice Mathey traveled to northwest Yunnan and saw the mountains of the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas for the first time. He was led on hikes over 4,000-meter passes and through forested valleys near the Nu River (怒江) until he reached secluded Dimaluo Village (迪马洛村), nestled in the mountains of the northern Nu River valley.
During his trip, Brice — who prefers the use of his given name to that of his surname — met A Luo, a man who supplements his family's income by guiding hikers. A Luo often begins his guided tours through the mountains from places like Gongshan (贡山), stopping to visit the area's many restored churches along the way. An idea began to percolate in Brice's head, one that would take a few years for him to put into action.
What Brice had envisioned was a place for hikers to stop and rest comfortably as they walked through the mountains. He also wanted to build something that could be used as a tool for the development of local tourism, but one that would embrace and compliment nature and not detract from it. Eventually, this idea developed into what Brice has named The Shelter Project.
Originally planned to be built entirely out of earth, The Shelter has evolved into a more complicated effort. Brice is an artist and sculptor and came to Yunnan to write about his passion, clay architecture. The Shelter incorporates elements from this style of building while also trying to utilize as many locally-produced components as possible.
Work on the project began in June 2013 — a time Brice refers to as "chapter one". Along with eight volunteers and four local workers, he began clearing a 14-cubic meter section of hillside. Excavated materials were separated by hand into piles of clay, rocks and grass. All of which will be incorporated into the new structure.
Stones will be laid for the structure's foundation and flooring. The clay will be used to construct the walls and also be mixed with bamboo as part of a the roof. To provide waterproofing, tire rubber will be laid down over the roof with dirt and finally grass placed on top to provide insulation.
Support for the roof will also come from posts made of locally-logged timber. Workers from Dimaluo are also using some of the wood to make doors, window frames and furniture.
Everything used in The Shelter's construction has to be produced locally or brought in by pack horse. Early in the project, Brice ruled out bringing in concrete or any equipment larger than a chainsaw and small lathe. If a tool or machine was deemed to unwieldy to be hauled up on horseback, it would not be used.
Chapter one concluded in early July when Brice returned home to France for a month. He has now come back to China for the second chapter and expects to finish The Shelter before cold and snow close the mountain passes. Although much work remains, Brice is confident everything can be completed by mid-November.
When finished, The Shelter will have a living area of 27 square meters as well as a small porch. It is expected to comfortably sleep four in bunk beds — six in a pinch — and also have a small sitting area as well as a stove and kettle. Plans are in the works for an unattached, and permanent, bathroom.
The Shelter sits on land managed by Brice's friend A Luo. It is utilized from May to November as grazing land for livestock owned by local Tibetan, Lisu and Nu villagers. If all goes to plan, Brice will turn ownership and management of The Shelter over to A Luo for use as a waypoint when he guides hikers over the mountains.
Both men hope the project will raise a bit of money for locals as they sell supplies to people visiting the region. If the project proves beneficial to the area's tourism economy, the believe The Shelter Project can be duplicated with minimal affects to mountain ecosystems.
As of this writing, Brice has just made way back to the project site so he can return to work. He has arranged to employ local stonemasons and woodworkers but is also looking for volunteers. Daily life at The Shelter obviously involves intense physical work. In addition to pounding earth and moving rocks, each day laborers must collect firewood, boil water and cook group meals.
Brice has said anyone is welcome although he hopes people who do make the trip can devote more than one week of their time — simply because travel to the site can take so long. The trip may take a bit of time, but considering the location — an area containing some of China's richest plant and animal biodiversity — Brice thinks it is worth the sacrifice.
The Shelter Project can reimburse volunteers for their bus tickets to Gongshan and help arrange transportation to Dimaluo. From there, a guide will be provided for the half-day hike to the building site. Once at The Shelter, food, tents, mattresses and quilts will be made available to volunteers.
You can volunteer or contact Brice for more information by writing him at bricemathey [at] yeah [dot] net. Keep in mind that cell phone service and internet access are limited at The Shelter and it may take a few days for him to answer.
Images: Brice Mathey© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.