Daily Picture Show

What Big Highways Mean For China's Small Villages

  • Torukun, the eldest daughter of the Kuruman family (third from right), with her father, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and nephews, poses for a photograph outside her house. Torukun raises cattle and lives in a village away from her parents.
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    Torukun, the eldest daughter of the Kuruman family (third from right), with her father, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and nephews, poses for a photograph outside her house. Torukun raises cattle and lives in a village away from her parents.
    Go Takayama
  • Usunai, the Kuruman family matriarch (center), celebrates a family wedding. The ceremony takes place in a two-bedroom apartment in a newly constructed compound in Wuqiaxian — according to Takayama, a quickly expanding town along a planned highway.
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    Usunai, the Kuruman family matriarch (center), celebrates a family wedding. The ceremony takes place in a two-bedroom apartment in a newly constructed compound in Wuqiaxian — according to Takayama, a quickly expanding town along a planned highway.
    Go Takayama
  • A sequestered valley of Kyrgyz nomads is more than 9,000 feet high in western China's Tianshan mountains. The Kuruman family daughters spend about four months here before relocating in the spring.
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    A sequestered valley of Kyrgyz nomads is more than 9,000 feet high in western China's Tianshan mountains. The Kuruman family daughters spend about four months here before relocating in the spring.
    Go Takayama
  • Barukuli, the youngest daughter of the Kuruman family (second from left), and relatives gather for the one-year anniversary of her brother's death, who was 10 years old when he died.
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    Barukuli, the youngest daughter of the Kuruman family (second from left), and relatives gather for the one-year anniversary of her brother's death, who was 10 years old when he died.
    Go Takayama
  • A newborn sheep, found early in the morning, is taken inside a mud-and-thatch house and laid on a carpet by a fire stove. A baby sheep born during a cold winter requires intensive care.
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    A newborn sheep, found early in the morning, is taken inside a mud-and-thatch house and laid on a carpet by a fire stove. A baby sheep born during a cold winter requires intensive care.
    Go Takayama
  • A Kyrgyz grave is seen on a hillside slope near the Kuruman family's village. The Kuruman parents, retired from the nomadic life, stay in a village of mud-and-thatch houses with a small herd of livestock.
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    A Kyrgyz grave is seen on a hillside slope near the Kuruman family's village. The Kuruman parents, retired from the nomadic life, stay in a village of mud-and-thatch houses with a small herd of livestock.
    Go Takayama
  • The Kuruman family lives in a village in a remote part of western China's Xinjiang region. The harsh environment has, until now, preserved their community and culture. The construction of a highway could change that.
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    The Kuruman family lives in a village in a remote part of western China's Xinjiang region. The harsh environment has, until now, preserved their community and culture. The construction of a highway could change that.
    Go Takayama
  • Some relatives of the Kuruman family stay in the same mud-and-thatch house throughout the year. For a regular Kyrgyz family in the region, Takayama explains, aging parents will descend from the mountains and move to a more permanent village home, while their children continue the nomadic way of life.
    Hide caption
    Some relatives of the Kuruman family stay in the same mud-and-thatch house throughout the year. For a regular Kyrgyz family in the region, Takayama explains, aging parents will descend from the mountains and move to a more permanent village home, while their children continue the nomadic way of life.
    Go Takayama
  • Photographed at dusk, the mud-and-thatch house of Jimira, the third daughter of the Kuruman family, is situated high in the Tianshan mountains.
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    Photographed at dusk, the mud-and-thatch house of Jimira, the third daughter of the Kuruman family, is situated high in the Tianshan mountains.
    Go Takayama
  • The kitchen inside Jimira's mountain home. Naan and mutton are part of the staple diet of Kyrgyz nomads. There is no running water and no electricity. Firewood stoves are used for cooking and for heating the space.
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    The kitchen inside Jimira's mountain home. Naan and mutton are part of the staple diet of Kyrgyz nomads. There is no running water and no electricity. Firewood stoves are used for cooking and for heating the space.
    Go Takayama
  • Jimira's husband, Kapan, and a relative carry firewood by camel, carefully traversing a path of sand and soil across a frozen river to avoid slipping.
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    Jimira's husband, Kapan, and a relative carry firewood by camel, carefully traversing a path of sand and soil across a frozen river to avoid slipping.
    Go Takayama
  • Relatives of the Kuruman family wash carpets by hand. In the background is Wuqiaxian, a growing town along the planned highway. According to Takayama, many of the traditional mud-and-thatch houses will be demolished, and the communities will become more fixed in an urbanizing town.
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    Relatives of the Kuruman family wash carpets by hand. In the background is Wuqiaxian, a growing town along the planned highway. According to Takayama, many of the traditional mud-and-thatch houses will be demolished, and the communities will become more fixed in an urbanizing town.
    Go Takayama
  • New residents of an apartment building in Wuqiaxian play pool outside. Some youth see a new highway as an opportunity, Takayama says. It will generate inward and outward fluidity of people, goods and culture.
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    New residents of an apartment building in Wuqiaxian play pool outside. Some youth see a new highway as an opportunity, Takayama says. It will generate inward and outward fluidity of people, goods and culture.
    Go Takayama
  • By motorcycle, the trip from the mountains to the town of Wuqiaxian takes 9 1/2 hours through a snowy valley.
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    By motorcycle, the trip from the mountains to the town of Wuqiaxian takes 9 1/2 hours through a snowy valley.
    Go Takayama
  • The Kuruman family's mud-and-thatch house is one that will probably be demolished. They — and their entire village — will be resettled in the town of Wuqiaxian.
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    The Kuruman family's mud-and-thatch house is one that will probably be demolished. They — and their entire village — will be resettled in the town of Wuqiaxian.
    Go Takayama
  • Daniel, the oldest son of Arima (the second daughter of the Kuruman family), and his younger brother walk back home after setting up a bird trap on a hill in their mountain home.
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    Daniel, the oldest son of Arima (the second daughter of the Kuruman family), and his younger brother walk back home after setting up a bird trap on a hill in their mountain home.
    Go Takayama

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Over the past decade, China has been on an infrastructure tear, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in transportation expansions. According to The Wall Street Journal, some 30,000 miles of expressway were paved in the 10 years before 2008, and future plans indicate China's highways will stretch 53,000 miles by 2020 — surpassing the 47,000 miles of interstate currently in the U.S.

While some focus on what these roads will bring to China's economy, Japanese photographer Go Takayama is more interested in what that means to people — especially those in some of China's most remote western regions, like the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Many ethnic minorities there, such as the Kyrgyz, have sustained a traditional nomadic way of life — until now.

Takayama had read an article about plans for a highway that would stretch through western China into Kyrgyzstan. A few months later, he was driving toward Kyrgyzstan and picked up a hitchhiker "on the terms that I could follow him to his destination," he says.

That's how Takayama first encountered the Kuruman family, traditional Kyrgyz nomads, whom he has been documenting for the past two years. The family consists of a mother and father who have retired from the nomadic life and settled in a mud-and-thatch village; and their four children, who largely continue a life of movement, spending winters high in the Tianshan mountains and relocating again in the spring.

According to Takayama, villages like the one where the Kuruman parents have retired are slowly being transformed into towns with "fast-developing residential apartments, high-end housing and new factories."

Essentially, he says, the Kuruman family, descended from generations of nomads, will soon be living within an urban community. "They will be given an address and probably a mailbox for ... [an] apartment with running water for [the] kitchen, toilet and shower."

To document the Kuruman family's story, Takayama treks up into the mountains to spend time in their mud-and-thatch houses heated by coal stoves. He joins them on a motorcycle descent through snowy valleys into small villages and attends weddings in apartment buildings — in what he describes as fast-growing towns.

The photo essay presented here barely scratches the surface of a big, complicated story. It's a glimpse at a place you might never have otherwise seen, and a cursory introduction to the people who live there. But below the surface is a universal take-away, which Takayama finds resonant with his own culture.

"The other day," he says, "I was wondering how many of my Japanese friends know or care about how to make traditional Japanese-style hairdos. I believe it ... might be none. I know things don't stay the same. I'm not there to make my own judgment, but rather to document what's about to happen."

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