The Daxinganling forests lie in the extreme north of China, where temperatures drop below negative 40 degrees Celsius in winter. Spanning Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang provinces, this forest is estimated to hold half of China’s lumber supply, but since the establishment of forestry divisions there in the late 40s, it has lost nearly all of its primeval forests to logging.
For over six decades, the people of A’long Shan prospered by felling the forest that held them. In 2015, the Chinese government established Daxinganling as a “strategic lumber reserve” and prohibited logging. Since then, the town has lost three-quarters of its population, including most of its youth. Once 40,000 strong, the town of A’long Shan is home to only 7,000 residents today. Like dozens of other lumber towns in the region, A’long Shan must find a way to thrive with the forest instead of at its cost or face certain ruin.
大兴安岭林区在中国最北边，跨内蒙古、黑龙江两省，纬度高，严寒，冬天气温经常在 –40℃ 以下。曾经，中国有一半的木材供应量都来自这片森林。上世纪 40 年代末，这里设立了林业部门、开始大规模伐木。阿龙山人也因此得以靠伐木起家。在过去 60 年里，镇上人吃的是“伐木”这碗饭。而时至今日，大部分的原始森林都被砍伐殆尽了。
直到 2015 年。
大兴安岭林区被定为国家木材战略储备基地，禁止采伐。从那时起，这个小镇流失了四分之三的人口，年轻人几乎全体“出逃”。这个曾拥有 4 万以上人口以上的阿龙山镇，到如今只剩 7000 多人。和大兴安岭林区其它几十个曾经的伐木重镇一样，阿龙山必须找到一条与森林共繁荣的路。
I grew up reading about the majesty of Daxinganling. I had imagined fields of thick pines stretching into the horizon but when I looked out the window of our jeep as it cut across the mountain, I saw trees tall and lanky in a forest sparse and frail.
“How old are these trees?” I asked Zhang, my local friend, thinking they must be in their teens.
“About thirty years old.” He answered. “Trees grow real slow here.”
He had caught the disbelief in my eyes.
“We chopped down this one tree before that was about this thick,” he outlined an imaginary bowl with his hands. “It was filled with rings. A scientist used a microscope and counted to about 300 years! This small,” he motioned again. “Three-hundred years! That must’ve killed his eyes.”
He watched the young forest spreading on the distant hill like an overgrown crew cut, and continued, “This area’s been cleared three or four times already. The old forest is long gone! You might still find some if you go real deep.”
Zhang used to work in forestry when it was still the lifeblood of the town. He saw trees so thick they took five men to cut; he saw the mountain swallow work teams two hundred strong and spit out truck after truck piled high with logs. Back then, he had thought the forest infinite. Back then, he had kept his friends stocked with meat and booze and had kept the numerous roads clear for their trucks. Now, only one road remains.
“We cut down too many.” Zhang sighed. “It takes so long to grow but we cut one down in ten minutes. The government’s doing the right thing protecting the forest.”
He fell silent and watched the forest fly by.
The forest needs time to recover. But since the sudden demise of forestry, the townsfolk have found nothing with which to replace it. Stuck in this quagmire, they wait, some for a chance to leave, others for miraculous release from their predicament. Like all those who have surrendered their fates to powers greater and more mysterious than their own, they pass their time with cheap entertainment and gossip, believing that in the end, all will be well.
Every night, over glasses of baijiu (a strong Chinese spirit made with grains), Zhang and his underlings – Jin and Gu – share news on which drunkard had frozen to death after falling asleep in the snow. Besides gruesome deaths by the cold, they liked to talk of one other thing: foraging. It was only through their descriptions that I could imagine the forest in summer and fall – in a sea of green, wild berries and nuts of all colors ripen and release their fragrance. Out of work, many of the townsfolk spend the entire fall foraging for savory wild mushrooms, blueberries, “red beans” (which turned out to be cranberries), and unctuous pine nuts, all of which can be sold to collectors at decent prices. Some make 40,000 yuan a year foraging. They passionately described the times they discovered hidden treasures in the forest – bushes laden with “red beans” or patches of open earth covered with the best kind of wild mushroom, still untouched, of harvests so plentiful that they had to haul 50 kilogram sacks back to town.
他们兴致勃勃地讲述在丛林中发现“秘密宝藏”的旧事，那是长满红豆儿的灌木丛，或是长满了顶级野生蘑菇的开阔草地，收获如此之丰，他们有时要把 100 多斤的麻袋运回镇上。
“What if you started a factory here?” I suggested hopefully. “To make dried wild fruits and nuts? They’d sell for 50 yuan a bag in Beijing! People there love the organic stuff! And that would give people here the incentive to protect trees.”
What excitement remained was immediately extinguished by looks of pity.
“We tried before. It doesn’t work.” Zhang shook his head.
The topic was changed before I could ask why.
Though Zhang was born in A’long Shan, his family came from Penglai, a town by the sea in Shandong Province. Part of a massive movement to populate and develop frontier provinces, his father migrated here in the 1950s with many of his townsfolk.
In his early 50s and rapidly balding, Zhang has spent his entire life in the forests of Daxinganling and is due to retire in a few years. “After I retire, I’ll go south and live by the ocean with my daughter! Maybe manage an Airbnb or two.” He beamed with drunken bliss.
“要是在这开个工厂呢？做野生果干和松仁儿。到了北京一包能卖 50 块钱呢！北京人可喜欢这些野生的东西了。这样，这儿的人也愿意保护树了。”我满怀希望地建议。
I stayed at Long Shan Hotel, one of the taller buildings on the south side of town. The hotel is on the main street along with all other buildings of import, surrounded first by a ring of bungalows that thins with each passing year, then a ring of abandoned log factories and ruined train tracks leading south, and finally, a chain of small hills on which animal tracks become more common than human ones.
There is a tension between the town and the wooded hills that look down upon it. A definite border divides their territories. Upon exiting A’long Shan, the territory of man immediately thins to about two meters – between the edges of the only road through the mountains.
我住的龙山饭店（Long Shan Hotel）在小镇南边的大街上，是座高楼。这条“中心大街”
Inside the forest, towers are the only human outposts. There are two close to town, each on its own hill: a radio transmission tower and a fire watch tower.
The sun skirmishes along the horizon from east to west and calls it a day. Its light always hits at an angle so, parts of the forest hidden within taller trees never see the light. In such spots, snow stays all winter and is dyed blue by the shadow. Smaller paths leading into the depths of the forest are marked in this way by a deep blue hue.
I can see all this from atop the tower and more. I can see the moon just above me, rising to overtake the sun; I can see the dying light tracing the pale skin on crowds of young, white birch; further, I can see the town rolled out beneath the moon.
The forest grows stronger with each passing decade, but where I see life and opportunity, the townsfolk see cold and bitterness. What use are thick trees if they can’t be cut and sold? What good is a strong forest if A’long Shan no longer exists?
That those who know the forest best are often the most willing to harm it once puzzled me. Now, I see – the townsfolk had not accepted that their fate and the forest’s had long been bound together.
In recent years, growing flocks of urbanites pass through A’long Shan on their way to “experience the Russian border” in Mohe. As China’s metropolises explode from overpopulation and as their overstressed inhabitants stream into nature, desperate for breaths of fresh air, A’long Shan has an opportunity to reposition itself as a haven for the city-sick and a base for trekkers.
What it needs is investment and some small success to show its people it is possible to thrive with the forest. What it needs most is for its people to start acting to improve their own lives instead of continuing to rot, waiting for change that may never come.