Friction of Terrain

a pedal-powered exploration through the heart of Zomia

a pedal-powered exploration through the heart of Zomia

What did we do?

We did an upland mountain bike transect from Kunming, China to Luang Prabang, Laos, through the heart of the remote upland region of Zomia. The expedition occurred in April and May, 2015.

Who cares?

This region, historically isolated by the rugged mountain terrain, is rapidly changing as roads and cell phone towers penetrate farther and farther into the forest. Laos and China will soon begin construction on a new high-speed railway linking Vientiane and Kunming, connecting China's burgeoning eastern metropolises overland to the Indian Ocean. This railway will significantly reduce the barriers between upland, autonomous people and lowland state power.

What is friction of terrain?

The upland peoples of Southeast Asia have been, for much of modern history, a highly mobile people. Many groups began migrating in the 18th century from southern China into the northern mountainous regions of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Their histories have been shaped by a history of mobility and struggles for autonomy in a steep, upland terrain.

'Friction of terrain' is the idea that geographic barriers (not just distance) separate these upland groups from the state core, facilitating the autonomy that these cultures have flourished in.

What is Zomia?

Zomia is an area on the borders of many Southeast Asian nations, characterized by steep upland semi-tropical mountains and small, dispersed, populations.

Who are the riders?

Check out our profiles here.

Why bikes?

We chose adventure touring bikes in order to feel as directly as possible the undulations of the landscape, as well as to gain access to some of the most remote areas in this region.

What will we create?

Our journey has been documented with an emphasis on capturing the friction of terrain through photos and prose - what are the encumbrances, physical and abstract, which keep these groups in isolation? How are these eroding with the infiltration of globalization?

Following the general path of this new high speed rail, we spent five weeks documenting a transect of the subsistence agriculture lifestyle of upland people groups from Kunming to Luang Prabang.

Currently, we are working to create a narrative, non-fiction, multimedia essay that captures the themes of our journey.

FRICTION OF TERRAIN is supported by the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant program.