Chapter 9

Dragon on a Diet

In the spring of 2011 Old Zhang limped out of his ramshackle homestead, a long fishing pole in hand, just as he had nearly every morning of the past twenty years of his retirement. He picked his way down to the Nanpan River. Born and raised in Luliang County, Yunnan province, he had always had the Nanpan as a constant companion: as a child running along the shores of the mighty offshoot of Himalayan glaciers, shouting rudely at fishermen; then, as a husband and father, plying a fishing boat in the Nanpan’s swells. Over the last handful of years, though, along with some of his elderly neighbors, the Nanpan had passed away. Still, every day, Zhang went down to visit what remained of a reservoir of the once-mighty tributary. When he was younger the reservoir had held over more than 1.5 million cubic meters of water. Luliang had for decades been the province’s most water-rich plain, providing irrigation resources throughout the state. The only reminder there had once been a reservoir in Luliang were the small cigar-sized fish, flash-dried in the cakes of mud hardened by sun and wind.

Zhang now was no longer sure where the bank ended and the riverbed began. The entire area was terra-cotta red, the land so dried and cracked that spaces had opened up in the ground that could fit a big man’s hand, fingers splayed wide. Some crevasses ran as deep as a meter. The breadbasket of Yunnan Province had not seen rainfall for more than four months. Luliang had fallen ...

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