Asian Geographic: Spanning Space and Time

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

Now and then I post tearsheets from my portfolio online, but those tearsheets are frequently low-resolution copies that are difficult to read. I thought I’d start posting some of my articles in a format that won’t strain your peepers. 

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 7, 2012: Bridges.

I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.

 ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012


By Flash Parker

The world is full of astonishing bridges. Some are famous, some are infamous, and countless others attract no attention at all. Millions of tourists visit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco each year, but how many of them have ever heard of Japan’s Kintai Bridge, a 17th Century marvel that offers stunning views of Mt. Yokoyama and an ancient castle from atop its sturdy wooden arches? Folks the world over have heard that the London Bridge is falling down, but where were they when the Kutai Kartanegara Bridge in Indonesian Borneo crumbled into the Mahakam River?

Travelers embark upon the great train journeys of Europe, the thrilling hikes of Africa, and the serendipitous highway adventures of America, yet few ever consider crossing a continent bridge by bridge. Asia in particular is home to countless bridges that act as a sort of historical connective tissue, linking culture, politics, and economics across physical spaces. Without them there would be no way to get from Point A to Point B, while the journey from the tropical waters of the Laccadive Sea to the frigid tundra of Siberia wouldn’t be nearly as fun. On a trip from Sri Lanka’s southern tip to the Russian port city of Vladivostok, these are some of the bridges that can’t be missed.

Adam’s Bridge, Sri Lanka-India

Adam’s Bridge isn’t just another border crossing. Hindu’s believe that the bridge was built by Lord Hanuman and his Vanara ape army at the behest of Lord Rama; the Vanara used the bridge to cross from India into Lanka to retrieve Sita, Rama’s consort, from Ravana, the king of Lanka who sought vengeance from Rama for disfiguring his sister, Surpanakha. In the Indian epic Ramayana, Adam’s Bridge is known as Setubandhanam, or Rama’s Bridge. Some of the most famous bridges in the world were built to serve a tactical purpose, but Adam’s Bridge holds the rare distinction of being built by militant monkeys.

Adam’s Bridge spans a distance of roughly 30 kilometers, and seems like an ancient engineering feat on par with the construction of the Pyramids of Giza, but has more in common with Mount Olympus. Geological evidence suggests that Adam’s Bridge is a loose collection of shoals and sand and is more than 3,000 years old, born of a series of natural phenomena. The bridge links Rameswaram Island in India to Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island, and, in a feature unique to bridges throughout the world, has served to hinder more transportation than it has helped. Adam’s Bridge was passable on foot for a few hundred years, but sometime in the 15th Century, a cyclone slammed the shoals and destroyed parts of the bridge. The shallow waters of the Palk Strait have made navigable passage difficult for all but tiny skiffs captained by pearl fishermen, but in contrast to their monkey counterparts, human engineers conquered the strait in the mid-20th Century when they build a rail-and-ferry system that transported passengers all the way from Chennai to Colombo. That bridge was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964, while politicking, civil war, and natural disasters have conspired to wreak havoc on Adam’s Bridge ever since. While bridges are constantly being built and crumbling, Adam’s Bridge may cease to exist altogether in the near future, as plans are currently being drawn that would see the strait dredged in order to allow large commercial shipping vessels access to India. Better start your journey.

The Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge, Tibet-Nepal

The Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge stands tall at upon the planet’s apex, overlooking China, Tibet, and Nepal. The bridge was built as part of a joint effort to link Kathmandu with Tibet at a time when Sino-Nepalese relations were strong, and tensions between Beijing and Delhi were high. The bridge was finished in 1967, though by that time trade relations between Nepal and China had cooled (China became involved in the construction of the bridge under the pretense of providing aid), and Kathmandu would reap no rewards for its tremendous efforts in building the highway to Lhasa and the Friendship Bridge. However, the bridge has always held extreme tactical significance for China, as it serves to link two Chinese military installations to one another. How’s that for amity tactics?

As China has eased restrictions on trade, the bridge has been used as a conduit for aid, resources, and tourism. Surprisingly, the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge is a popular place for bungee jumpers who don’t mind staring the icy waters of the Bhote Kosi River square in the face. The bridge has also become important among Tibetan pilgrims, who use the highway to reach Lhasa, and is noted for its scenic beauty – it is possible to glimpse Mount Everest from the highway, in addition to the peaks of some of the other highest mountains in the world. The bridge cuts a striking figure as its blue steel connects one mountain to the next, the river raging below. Few bridges on earth can rival the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge for scenic beauty, while fewer have been built under such falsely magnanimous circumstances.

Tajik–Afghan Friendship Bridge, Afghanistan-Tajikistan

A bucket list of adventurous journeys often includes trekking up and down the world’s tallest mountains, fording crocodile-infested waters in weather-beaten canoes, or traversing sun-scorched desert terrain in search of a glimmering oasis. Bridges seldom make lists compiled by the adventurous, yet when a bridge connects one of the most dangerous places on earth in Afghanistan with one of the poorest in Tajikistan, the crossing of it suddenly seems rife with adventure.

The Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge connects Northern Afghanistan with the city of Khorugh in Tajikistan by crossing the Amu Darya River, providing a physical link between some of Central Asia’s starkest alien moonscapes. The bridge was built in 2004 at a cost of $500,000 USD as a result of cooperation between the Afghan and Tajik governments, in addition to the Aga Khan Development Network, opening a much-needed gateway to a region desperate for aid, relief, and social assistance. Additionally, the bridge has greatly improved commercial and trade links between the two nations. The 135-meter suspension bridge was built over difficult mountain terrain, and stands as something of a modern engineering achievement, considering a nearby bridge spanning the Panj River was built in 2007 at a cost of more than $30 million USD. Hitching a ride on a forest green Turkmen Railways locomotive and rumbling across the galvanized steel bridge as men in ushanka hats wave at heavily armed military personnel hunkered behind sandbagged turrets as a sign welcomes the uninitiated to Afghanistan certainly belongs on any courageous traveler’s itinerary.

Can Tho Bridge, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

A cross continental journey wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Mekong Delta, perhaps the most iconic representation of South East Asia for an entire generation of men and women. The delta conjures visions of fisherman hauling nets off the sea floor, endless swathes of rice paddies, and Mekong moonshine. And since 2010, one of the most stunning bridges ever built.

At a cost of $342.6 million USD, the Can Tho Bridge is by far Vietnam’s most expensive, but it is also one of the most aesthetically stunning bridges ever erected in Asia. The bridge is 2.75 kilometers long, has space for six lanes of traffic, and has more than 40 meters of clearance which allows large sea vessels to pass underneath. The bridge is viewed by many as a testament to Vietnam’s explosive growth and financial successes over the last three decades, and is also an achievement in industrial design; some consider the bridge as beautiful as anything ever built in Europe or the Americas, with its two massive white towers shining brightly at night against the dark blue sky.

The cable-stayed bridge suffered a catastrophic accident on September 26, 2007, when a section of ramp fell more than 30 meters to the ground, killing more than 50 of the 300 engineers and laborers working under the structure. The local community rallied together to assist wounded survivors and search for the bodies of the fallen. The completed bridge now stands as a memorial to the dead, and a testament to what individuals can achieve when they band together.

Tumangang Rail Bridge, North Korea-Russia

In 1952 North Korea and Russia connected the Russian town of Khasan with the Korean town of Tumangang via a wooden rail bridge that spanned the Tumen River, ignoring all standard conventions of industrial design in the process. The Koreans wanted their half of the bridge to be the tallest. The Russians wished for the same. Locked in a perpetual pissing match of international scale, engineers built each half of the bridge independently, without consulting their cross-border contemporaries. The resulting monstrosity was a mismatched iron gangway that stood a few feet taller on the Russian side, and featured a break-of-gauge that rendered the bridge all but useless. Meanwhile, the Chinese were angry that the bridge had not been built tall enough to allow their commercial fleet access to the Sea of Japan – the bridge had been built at a point along the river where the three borders converge – effectively blocking Chinese access to the east. Leave it to the North Korean military regime to build a useless, hideous bridge in the middle of nowhere that served only to piss off the two most powerful nations in the region.

In 1959 the Tumangang Bridge was upgraded with metal trusses so that it would be able to service both road and rail traffic, though it was never officially opened to commercial or civilian vehicles. The bridge remains the only serviceable land connection between Russia and North Korea, its rusted steel trusses strike an awkward, imposing figure as it juts out over the river. Assuming that you can get into North Korea in the first place (Americans and South Koreans need not apply) crossing this bridge en route to the Russian port city of Vladistovstock serves as the final exclamation point on the great Asian bridge expedition. Another notch on your belt would have you crossing the Bridge of No Return that spans the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, between North and South Korea, though legally crossing that border poses a unique set of challenges. Best to stick with the Tumangang, Asia’s quirkiest bridge.

A journey from one corner of Asia to the other by way of the continent’s most unique bridges proves that these structures have not been erected over physical space alone, but time, history, and culture. They are embedded in the minds and the milieu of the spaces they inhabit, and offer a fascinating glimpse at the way people live, move, and wander. Most important of all, bridges show us that the world isn’t nearly as big as we think it is; if we can travel from the southern tip of Sri Lanka all the way to Vladivostok by way of this bridge or that bridge, we may be more connected to one another than we ever dreamed.

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