Tibetan, Naxi, Bai: Minorities of NW Yunnan

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November 10th 2007
Published: February 8th 2008
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In Tibet's Shadow

Before six the following morning in a cold darkness after the moon sets and the sun rises, four Brits, a Czech and I stand at the depot awaiting a bus that does not come. Shortly past nine we pile into a minivan for the joureny south into Yunnan. We've been warned of a four hour section along an unmettled road and keep an anxious eye out. We climb into the mountains headed west from Xiancheng taking a roundabout seldom traveled scenic route. The slopes shimmer gold and yellow and red. The narrow highway cuts through small villages with the ever present open air billiard halls. The snowy peaks and rough going passes give way to warm soft hillsides covered in pine, and farmed valleys of dry corn stalks. We leave behind the hulking fortresses of Tibetan farmers, to discover in milder climes, wooden homes with tiled roofs. Zhongdian, one of many destinations claiming to be Shangri-La, is at first a mild dissapointment. The highway descends. A lake appears surrounded by marsh, the road winds, enticing hills of yellows, golds and deep green suddenly reveal yet another sprawling cityscape dust bowl, a sharp contrast to the half day's beautiful journey among serene villages tucked in steep gorges or old looking clustered communities basking on sloped pasture lands.

We let out in Old Town, a shocking barrage of tourist kitsch, boutiques hung with silks and handbags, leather goods and jewellery of questionable silver, and to every corner, a cafe, outnumbering teashops in fact. Climb a cobbled path off the market, a cozy fire burns in an old stove, the home and hearth of a sweet local couple and their golden retriever. My freinds and I check in to a row of bare bones doubles in the back courtyard. Evening, the temperature drops. I stay put close to the fire, drink Yunnan coffee and write in my journal, order an overpriced plate of curried rice, scorn myself for not joining the communal repas. I join them later, an agreeable foursome, over a pot of Pu'er tea, two Aussies, a tall, tall Brit and a cute French Canadian named Marco. We are traveling opposite directions and swap the essentials, what to expect, where to stay. With its claim to "Shangri-La", a joint soon appeared and circld the table followed by much laughter, amusing anecdotes, another joint and card games. Into the late night a pot of ulong ginseng tea had me back and forth to the back courtyard johns.

I treat myself to a slow morning of tai chi, scrub the stains from my lifeless wardrobe and wander in my shalwar-kameez, actually in my pyjamas, and bathroom slippers, to a chic cafe, a slice of middle class America behind motion sensor glass doors. Afternoon brings me the length of Changzheng Lu out of town to Ganden Sumtseling Gompa. Diverted en route, first a bakery with strange new enticing sweet breads, a music shop stocked with Tibtan pop, a market serving spicy noodles and lastly a block of silversmiths, their tools tink, tink, tinking away. The Gompa tucked in the foothills north of town, "a three hundred year old Tibetan monastery complex with around six hundred monks, (...) the most important in south west China and definitely worth the trip to Zhongdian," is better appreciated as a fantastic jumble of holy dwellings outside the gates from across the pond and if possible from the back entry way avoiding the ticket booth. I will fill in what the guidebook fails to mention, how endless files of tour groups have aversely affected the temple, now sucked dry of spirit and loving kindness. My ticket does not unlock half the temples within, and those open to visitors bar entry to the upper floors in all but a single temple, where as an independent traveler, I feel like I'm trespassing.

An American, a middle-aged fellow from Sacramento plunks himself down across from me where I sit writing at Noah's cafe, awaiting my breakfast order. Without resorting to rude tactics, he is slow to take a hint and leave so I entertain his twenty questions on Tibet and Sichuan. He asks me what are my plans today and may he join me. Together we hire mountain bikes and cycle out to Napa Lake. My companion tires easily. Perhaps if he ever shut up he'd have more energy but all the same his company proves enthusiastic and adventurous. A dirt track leads off the main drag and meanders acros a peaceful side valley of creeks, marsh and Naxi farmsteads, their homes reveal intricately carved wood poles and curious patterns painted beneath the eaves. Down another track beyond a cluster of farms, their inhabitants out threshing wheat or hanging it to dry on oversized racks, the American and I cross a footbridge onto the pasture lands south of Napa Lake. The valley spreads out in a peaceful green, herds of yak graze beneath a vast blue sky. In the distance a flock of migratory black necked cranes tiptoe in the reeds and squwak with our approach. The dirt track pitters out. Leon and I pedal on along the grass weaving round the marsh patches, reaching the lakeside before backtracking, hemmed in by creeks and a wide marshland. I stop to invetsigate a group of young farmers repairing a stone dyke across the deeper marsh. Leon returns to Old town exhausted. I continue alone across the bridge and expect to reach the valley's far bank where a road circles the lake's north shore. My journey falls short, however, only a couple hundred metres shy of the road prevented by a deep pool, boots and shins already soaked from sudden patches of paralyzing muck and rivulets deeper than they appear camouflaged by flowing reeds and algae.

Leave Your Troubles behind or Naxi Pizza: 500m ahead

The last morning in Zhongdian I take a walk in the hills behind the old quarter following a path part way to a monastery hidden somewhere over the next ridge. A side path descends into the wooded slopes for a view over Guishan Gongyuan, its three storey prayer wheel glistens above the tiled roofs in morning mist. By noon I board the cheap coach to Qiaotou, the jumping off point for the much talked about Tiger Leaping Gorge. After some confusion a local shop owner directs me across the river to the entry ticket office. Beyond lie a group of guesthouses where it's been recommended I leave my rucksack at Jane's and carry only the essentials for a three day trek. The big buzz in these parts, "did you know Jane is a guy?" We don't meet until my return visit and being a long estblished member of the gay community, the novelty of spotting a tranny has long warn off. The afternoon is delicious and walking higher and higher above the Yangzi, above the vegetable plots and old courtyard farms full of dryings cobs of corn and cheerful pumpkins, I sense the world and its endless noise, emotion and tension recede behind. Jagged white peaks like a dragon's back rise above the trees, nearly 4000m climb from the churning river rapids below. I reach Nuoyu Village within a couple hours, follow the arrows and signs painted on rock faces that lead below the woods and skirt the terraced fields, to a quiet guesthouse. The paved courtyard shines with dried corn cobs. A young white pup, a nervous kitten and a frantic hen play their games while the proprietor fetched me a cup of hot tea. The sun falls in the sky, shadows rise from the gorge and climb the peaks, twisting, falling, maneouvering over ridges and up icey flanks. I sketch until my hands turn numb and the farmers turn in. A simple meal of generous portion comes served with a bottle of beer finished by candlelight. Night falls with a shuddering thud encouraging an early retreat under warm blankets.

A porter from Pakistan or Nepal would laugh at Tiger Leaping Gorge. A walk in the park, they would say. I hike alone almost without stopping for six hours, arriving on the low road by Tina's Guesthouse early afternoon. A troupe of middle aged French women passed me headed in the opposite direction and one or two locals returned waves. Otherwise I managed somewhat of a communion with nature, a few birds, a whistling wind, rustling bamboo, cascading waterfalls, rock after rock advertsing 'Naxi pizza 500m'. At Tina's I bump into a young couple from Plymouth I traveled with earlier in the week but feel undesirous of their company, or their search for the valley's best pizza or hamburger. Disappointed with the lack of challenge along the trail and presented with the prospect of either paying to descend and view a not so unimaginable rapids or continuing along the paved road to a series of guesthouses full of Tracys, Sharons and Dwaynes recollecting at day's end their travel companion's antics in Walnut Grove, I choose instead to retreat. With another fellow who thankfully speaks English and the local Naxi tongue, we barter down the taxi driver and are soon on our way. In hindsight, a rusty spring blade I seldom admit to, I wish I went with my tent and supplies into the back climbs to take advantage of the fair weather and explore the limestone terraces of Baishutai, to later reach Lijiang by the lesser traveled route through Daju and Yak Meadow.

Lijiang is a shock. Behind the bland new town, tucked bewteen two temple topped hills, Shizishan and Black Dragon Pool Park, lies Old Town, a Chinese Disneyland of cobbled alley ways, hung lanterns, water channels and old wells once servicing a cozy community of Naxi folk but now an endless row of overpriced eateries and trinket shops stuffed full of cheap handicrafts, run by swindling shop owners. The pedestrian centre is something of a funeral procession, rubber necked tour groups gaze spell bound overwhelmed by poor quality silk, a profusion of key chains, cushion covers, handbags, all of it for sale in any province of China. I pass into one small shop where the walls are hung with ink portraits of minority folk, wrinkled old Tibetans, smiling Naxi mothers. "Did you paint all these?" I ask the boyish looking proprietress who stands up from her desk, cluttered with brushes and ink bottles, nodding. Her asking price is oddly affordable. Tucked in a back road the other side of town, in a small shop run by a middle aged man, hang the same very paintings which miraculously entered this artist's head. Evening, I throw myself into the open-air shopping mall in search of a cheap meal. Crossing a bridge over the cannal, I find myself on a quiet block of forgotten restaurants, much of the neighbourhood owned by a jovial petite Mama Fu. Inside a lively lodge of backpackers, I discover Dave and Sandy of Manchester, conversing at a table of westerners surrounding a sea of green Tsingtao bottles. Sandy shares tales of her strange experiences as an identical twin. When her sister was pregnant, Sandy suffered two months of morning sickness. She and Dave are younger than myself and celebrating their ten year anniversary as common law partners. Well rehearsed in pub culture, their dry wit goes well with a pint. A couple young Dutch guys in advertising talk with a Greek Australian construction worker to my left discussing employment opportunities, suba diving and marijuana. The Aussie invites us back to the verandah of his guesthouse for a smoke of what turns out to be an overpriced and poor tasting cigarello.

I think to move to Mama Fu's but despite the lack of popularity at First Bend Inn, I stay put for three nights, encouraged by the arrival of a handsome couple of guys from Provence. The two strorey guesthouse is tucked away off the road, a half dozen rooms facing onto a courtyard filled with large potted plants. On the raised stone verandah fronting my room stands a table and chairs crafted from an old tree stump. In the mornings following tai-chi I sit with my instant coffee and a novel waiting for the sunlight to slip over the roof. Headed for the communal showers I meet the first of my two neighbours, a lanky Algerian Frenchman. He is stretching against the verandah's beams, topless, his dark olive complexion coats a six pack, a tuft of hair marks his nipples. He raises his head, a thick bush of dark curls and smiles good morning with dark brown eyes. A cliche come to life, he takes my breath away. I meet his room mate in the afternoon outside town. I am cycling to a temple below Snow Mountain when our paths cross. I shake hands with them, Fetrie and Roman, the latter, a buzzed blond with bronzed biceps and hazel eyes, before going our seperate ways. Pedaling a rented mountain bike I reach Yu Feng temple, tucked inside a canopy of tall pines, and what I expect is an idyllic escape from the congested streets of zombie tour groups. Entry costs more than a night at the Inn, and proves to be probably the worst tourist scheme I've fallen prey to. A group of Naxi women in traditional blue and black dyed costumes sing and dance hand in hand by the gate as a group of unsuspecting tourists approach, misleading most that the temple is worth a visit. I am grabbed by the hand and copy their two step for a half minute until they smile and point to a donation box. I'm taken aback by the smile, for the hand clasping mine belongs to an old minority transvestite. Inside the grounds, beyond the small temple painted in bright reds and yellows, a mix of Tibetan and Chinese influence, a garden path leads to the famed Camellia Tree of 10,000 Blossoms, a tangle of branches guarded by an old man.

I tear off into the fields bouncing along the rice terrace dykes, pleasantly unaware of the impending tourist traps below. Back on paved surface I reach Baisha, a small community of quaint farmhouses, its centre refitted with a miniature version of Lijiang, overpriced noodle shops, cafes catering to western palates, embroidery shops and tables heaped with 'antiques'. I order a stir-fry from an unassuming restaurant, pronounce correctly the Chinese for beef and eggplant, pointing at the vegetable. I am served cauliflower and mushroom and leave it half eaten, point with a dumbfounded expression to the eggplant still in the fridge and pay the disgruntled woman accordingly. Further down the road past wood farmhouses, their verandahs hung with decorative bunches of dried corn, lies Shuhe, a village turned tourist park with fewer visitors to patron the endless rows of empty stylish cafes and bars, modern ideas of rustic past, smooth wood surfaces, embroidered cushions, ratan armchairs, internet access, Heineken, Chinese pop music competing with its ambient neighbour.

Is there no adventure to be found in Lijiang? Roman and Fetrie, although very much 'boys', enjoy dressing themselves, fusing their latest oriental achats with their native clubbing wear. I join them for an unexpected night on the town, begun in the main square at a popular barbecue joint, where the servers sparkle in pink cherry blossom mao coats and prove themselves utterly incompetent, displaying not even the slightest degree of organisation. Down the channel light by rosy lanterns where countless couples block the path posing for romantic pics appears a row of bars pumping out Chinese techno. Ducking inside the livelier locale, we purchase a round at European prices and find a square foot of space on the dance floor. Roman and Fetrie, both 23 year old ravers turn to me raving "how fun is this club! Back home," they confide, " the crowds are snobbish and fashion conscientious." "Are you ready!?" they chant to the others on the dancle floor, jumping, jesting, cheering everyone into smiles and crazed excitement.

My complaints of Lijiang's crowds, endless trinket shops and inflated entry fees are consoled with reports of a more laid back old town, Dali. Aboard the coach I encounter the handsome couple from Plymouth. We arrive in the rain and I help them with directions into the walled city centre where we soon lose each other in search of affordable accomodation. There is little eveidence of a local way of life apart from the tourism business. The puddled roads are lined with guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, their signs in English, advertising western dishes. Beneath dim light bulbs lurk minority women in colourful head dresses, knitting, offering 'antiques', approaching young backpackers outside the Bad Monkey, "Ganga, ganga? Smokey, smokey?" Dali does not offer the packaged romance of Lijiang but even in the rain tourists crowd the main streets, wander from museum to temple to resturant posing en route in front of the pagoda and the water fountain with a troupe of costumed young Bai women. I am advised to leave out a visit to the Three Pagodas, currently charging 100RMB, and instead rent a bike and tour the lake, explore the countryside and the markets and maybe wander into the mountain trails where huge swaths of marijuana grow wild. I explore the backpacker district for the tastiest menu and richest coffee, awarding cafe de Jack first prize. Like elsewhere and everywhere the service is less than satisfactory but is thankfully forgotten considering bang for your buck, the variety of foreign beer, the variety of dishes and the quality of the local Bai cuisine.
Mornings are slowly unraveled over coffee and pages reporting on an early twentieth century Lijiang where lived a prosaic German for five years, who established local co-ops for the mine, for wool weaving and various other industries. Afternoons, I hop a bike and descend the valley to the lakeshore, to investigate a simpler way of life, a web of narrow roads connecting communities of fishermen and farmers, a system of dykes and channels and quiet markets where village elders gather like Sicilians, their wives chatting in the general store.

Additional photos below
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the trek beginsthe trek begins
the trek begins

an awesome view of Jade Dragon Snow Mtn

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