Packing it in: Preparing for Fieldwork in the PRC*
Preparation is the better part of success when planning research in China. Scholars who have conducted field research in remote areas are perhaps most keenly aware that being prepared means knowing what to pack. It is not only one's health, but the achievement of one's work that may well depend on the contents of a few duffle bags. Although basic necessities for fieldwork in China may be much the same as those required anywhere, availability of goods, peculiarities of transportation, and standards of sanitation vary significantly among —and often within—countries. Here, I offer advice on preparing for fieldwork in China: not only what to pack, but also how to handle in-country logistics of food, housing, and transportation.
WATER, FOOD AND SHELTER
Fortunately, the pervasiveness of tea-drinking in China and its borderlands means that adequate supplies of boiled water are generally available. On the other hand, fieldwork conducted in areas where local supplies of water are scarce, heavily laced with minerals, or rendered unpotable because of proximity to settled populations requires special considerations. By far, the best way to make all but the most chemically polluted water potable (although not necessarily palatable) is to pass the raw water through a porous (less than 0.4 micron) ceramic and/or activated charcoal filter. The microfiltration systems manufactured by the Katadyn Corporation enjoy World Health Organization and International Red Cross approval but are relatively expensive (individual units cost about $250 and larger filters for base camps
Reprinted from China Exchange News, Spring 1992
are available). The MSR Waterworks, First Need, and Basic Designs systems, though not as efficient or durable as the Katadyn, cost far less and are sensible alternatives. No simple filtration system, including those referenced, can render salty or otherwise mineralized water potable.
Fieldworkers should be aware that simply boiling water makes it relatively safe and potable, but only if it is kept at a full, rolling boil for at least 20 minutes. Limited fuel often makes this water-purification method impossible, especially at high altitudes. Boiling also does not remove the particulate matter, herbicides, pesticides, and some of the smaller microbial agents (such as Giardia and other protozoa and bacteria) as do the Katadyn, MSR Water works, and General Ecology Trav-LPure microfiltration systems.
Treatment of water with iodine or other chemicals is not recommended since these techniques are inefficient water purifiers and some individuals suffer nausea and stomach cramps as a side effect.
The quality and quantity of locally available foodstuffs vary greatly across China, but in general, acquiring fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits is more problematic in the north than in the south, regardless of season. Individual researchers should decide in advance the extent to which the demands of particular field activities will require them to bring quantities of packaged ''backpacking food" from the West. In such cases, primary considerations include whether or not base camps can be established near main transportation arteries, the number of people participating in the fieldwork, and cost, because such "convenience foods" are vastly more expensive than locally available supplies.
While small camp stoves that burn bottled butane are convenient, they should be avoided in China since they cannot be transported by air (intrepid but uninformed mountaineering expeditions regularly have their bottled fuel confiscated by Chinese airport authorities, much to their chagrin) and replacement canisters are not yet available in China.
The new multi-fuel stoves, such as MSR's International and X-GK II or Coleman's Peak 1, are good alternatives to those that burn butane. Multi-fuel stoves have the advantage of being able to burn nearly any combustible liquid, from leaded or unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel to kerosene. One field researcher working in Xinjiang reports he successfully ran an MSR X-GK II stove for an entire field season on low-octane gasoline siphoned from a jeep supplemented with aviation fuel purchased at a local airport! Such stoves are extremely compact, efficient, user-friendly, and relatively inexpensive (about $75).
For base camp applications (not including demanding high-altitude work), another option is to purchase a Chinese-made kerosene (paraffin) stove locally. A wide range of models is available, from Primus
type single-burner stoves to larger models capable of handling several pots at once. Kerosene (shilayou or meiyou) is readily available in most areas of China and the low cost of these stoves may offset their relatively large size and weight. Those unfamiliar with the joys of cooking on a paraffin stove should remember that regular cleaning, maintenance, and general tinkering are part of the regime.
Foreign fieldworkers should expect to negotiate long and hard over the issue of appropriate housing. Chinese are often less willing than their Western counterparts to "rough it" for weeks on end, preferring a proper roof over their heads and a real bed at night. However, the daily 50 to 100 km round-trip commute from a county government guest house will significantly reduce time in the field.
Self-contained base camps notwithstanding, county-level government rest houses in China (called xian zhengfu zhaodaisuo) often are the best alternative for short-term stays in China's back-of-beyond. Most offer reasonably clean rooms and edible food for just a few yuan per day. Given the enormous variability in local conditions, however, it is always advisable to look over the accommodations (and kitchen facilities) before "checking in."
Since most foreigners are technically not permitted to drive in China outside of major metropolitan areas, each field vehicle will necessarily be accompanied by a driver. Driving is considered a highly specialized male skill in China, a fact that occasionally leads to friction under otherwise amiable circumstances. Unfortunately, drivers are often the weak link in the most rigorously planned field enterprises. Even highly respected senior Chinese scientists must be properly deferential to drivers, especially in the field. Among the highest paid of Chinese workers, drivers are accustomed to working relatively short hours. Many drivers are not qualified mechanics (though they may be billed as such), thus the foreign fieldworker should check that assigned drivers possess at least rudimentary auto-repair skills. To be sure, many, if not most, Chinese drivers are competent, cooperative people; however, the choice of who will drive should not be taken lightly and Western researchers should always reserve the right to demand a substitute driver in the event of "irreconcilable differences."
Since there are no car and truck rental agencies per se in China, most foreign fieldworkers will enter into a contractual arrangement for the use of vehicles with a local governmental organ (generally the Foreign Affairs Office of the county or district-level People's Government) or branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Charges for the use of field vehicles are highly negotiable in China and subject to rapid inflation; thus, foreign researchers are advised to pay particular attention to the following points:
Are vehicle use charges set according to a daily fee (regardless of the number of kilometers driven) or is there a strict per-kilometer charge? The usual practice is to charge a flat daily fee (say, Y240) that includes a set number of kilometers (often 100). Additional mileage is charged per kilometer (say, Y1.00) beyond whatever maximum is established in advance.
If a "per-kilometer fee" is charged, is the rate the same for on-road versus off-road use? Be certain that the definitions of "on-" and "off-road'' are explicitly understood and agreed to in advance. Who will be responsible for keeping track of mileage—each driver, an expedition team member, or some other designated authority?
Is the cost of gasoline/diesel and insurance included in the vehicle charges? What about the drivers' food and lodging expenses? How many days per week or month will the drivers expect to have off? Who pays for spare parts and repairs? Always arrange for a substitute vehicle and driver to be made available in case of illness or vehicle repairs requiring more than one day.
There is an increasingly wide range of mostly Japanese 4x4 field vehicles available in China (Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero, Isuzu Trooper). Most are gasoline powered, although a small number of diesel Land Cruisers seem to have been imported in the early 1980s.
The short wheel-base Beijing Jeep (especially the 212 and its re-engineered successor, the 2020N, both unabashed copies of the somewhat superior Russian GAZ Jeep) is generally a cheaper alternative to the Japanese vehicles that might be available. This machine, which rides like a buckboard and is invariably too hot or too cold because of improper ventilation, is also extremely reliable and simple to prepare. Many fieldworkers find that a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Beijing Jeep are a winning combination for field parties of six to eight people since the Land Cruiser's relative comfort and superior visibility make it a natural for transporting people while the smaller jeep can be used to haul luggage and equipment and carry out reconnaissance, often at a lower per-kilometer charge.
Some Chinese work units, concerned about their foreign colleagues' physical comfort, will offer the notorious Beijing Jeep Cherokee (BJ 2021) for use. This pretty, gentrified vehicle is of no more value in off-road conditions than the family station wagon. It is admirably well-suited for surviving China's pot-holed paved roads, but its very low clearance and underpowered engine prevent it from being a serious
field vehicle. In addition, the Cherokee's "black box" electrical, ignition, and fuel pump systems make in-field repairs nearly impossible. Remember, the Cherokee is not an Everyman's Range Rover-the BJ 2021 will extract a very high price in terms of reliability for a dubious increase in comfort.
Chinese gasoline (qiyou; called benzene in the Turkic-speaking Northwest) is generally of very low octane; frequently, it is degraded locally to 75 or less and is often quite dirty when dispensed out of corroded drums. As a result, it is wise to bring a large number of high-quality replacement fuel filters (the simple, universal in-line variety). One advantage of both the Beijing 212/2020N Jeep and Toyota Land Cruiser is that their float-bowls are readily accessible and can be cleaned with minimal difficulty in the field.
Maps pose special problems for fieldwork in China. The general rule, passed down from the 1970s, is that foreigners are not allowed access to maps with a scale of 1:400,000 or less. Obviously, maps of such coarse scale are of only limited use to most field projects.
Topographic maps (defined by Chinese agencies as maps of any scale with contour lines indicated, regardless of interval) are considered neibu: for internal (i.e., limited Chinese) use only. Foreign researchers often find that, once in the field, they are given relatively free access to maps that were off-limits back in someone's office or library. This access is accompanied by the responsibility, on the part of the foreign researcher, not to abuse the privilege by publishing such maps or even discussing their existence widely.
Chinese authors themselves must have maps approved by the National Bureau of Surveying and Mapping (Guojia Cehuiju) before they can be published, indicating that maps are very special, closely controlled items in China.
Basically, three characteristics are evaluated in deciding whether or not particular maps can be made accessible to foreigners:
the map's scale,
the presence of topographic features (contours), and
the geographic location depicted by the map (border area, military zone, etc.)
Satellite imagery, derived mostly from the American Landsat and Space Shuttle, the French SPOT, and assorted Russian systems, continues to be a sensible solution to most field cartographic needs.* Obvi-
Satellite imagery should not be displayed, let alone declared, at Chinese customs on entering and leaving the country.
ously, the cost of satellite imagery generally precludes optimal detailed coverage, but in many cases, one or two scenes are superior to even the most detailed of available Chinese maps.
In the past five years, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have begun to augment, if not replace, more traditional compass-based orienteering techniques in the field. While GPS continues to be a relatively expensive technology, prices are rapidly dropping; some systems (such as the AccuNav by Eagle) sell for under $900. In areas such as China, where high-quality maps are largely unavailable, the combined application of satellite imagery and GPS technology may ultimately prove superior for nearly all cartographic needs.