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Trans-Alpine Landscape: Exploring China’s high mountains in transition

Type of project
01.09.2015 -> 31.03.2021

This project has been completed

About the project

How is urbanization transforming a high mountain territory in China? While heavy urbanization has already happened, how can a landscape informed perspective open for an alternative way of reading and intervening in vulnerable alpine landscapes?  

Trans-Alpine is a PhD project observing urbanization phenomena and processes in China that is happening in the territories of high mountains and alpine zones, with a transareal vision on referencing other high geographies – the Alps, the Scandinavian mountains, the Andes. Taking Mount Gongga – the highest in the Hengduan mountain ranges as a case, the project makes an in-depth reading on landscape spaces and landscapes of practice along the mountain routes that are affected by heavy urbanization. Furthermore, it suggests a lighter approach by revealing the landscape qualities of the high mountain. The reading and revealing process is done through five travels and walks in Mount Gongga, supported by field research and visual methods, in which photography and cartography play a significant role. The findings around the case of Mount Gongga point to an alternative set of visualization – a lighter approach for intervention in the high mountain.

High cold mountains in China had long been the “white spots” on map and imaginations in literature and painting. Early modern travelers were botanists, cartographers, geologists, mountaineers, who attempted to understand the white spots through journeys of walking, collecting, measuring and later photographing. One of the high mountains – Mount Gongga, the highest peak of the Hengduan mountain ranges in Southwestern China, embedded expedition stories in 1930s with Europeans and Americans – chasing floras, calculating the height and summiting the peak. With limited facilities to support the travels, those landscape explorers had to carry on equipment, search for routes and challenge the elevations. Today, we can observe infrastructures in construction and burgeoning tourism all over the territory of Mount Gongga. An elevated highway shortens the time of travel between the metropolitan Chengdu Plain and the high mountain; mountain roads enhance the mobility around the alpine zones. The region has become a destination for massive urban explorers searching for exotic landscapes, of its snow cover glaciers, abundant flora and fauna, high elevation and thin air, ethnic villages and organic food, rivers and deep valleys.

The PhD project is an article-based dissertation. The first article (published 07-2016) contextualized the urbanization phenomena in the Hengduan high mountain ranges through the perspective of travel culture, referring to Switzerland’s heavy strategies and Norway’s light ones. The second article (published 12-2017) discussed a visual method that involved photographic imagery representing alpine landscapes across geographies, using materials from the AHO-Oslo studio course Behind the Hill. The third article (published 10-2018) presented a field method that involved cartographic mapping, transects, photography and other media in recording and categorizing the knowledge of alpine landscapes, using materials from the AHO-Tromsø studio Trans-Alpine. The fourth article (planned to be submitted in 02-2019) debates the findings of both heavy and light intervention already in place through categorizing the landscape spaces and practices that are affected by urbanization processes in Mount Gongga. This discussion will be supported by the fieldwork findings and the visual materials. The article will conclude in a suggestion of a light footprint approach in future development.

The PhD supervisors are Janike Kampevold Larsen and Karl Otto Ellefsen from the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape in the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

This project is part of the Urbanization of Rural China.