Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
33Trip End Nov 24, 2004
"You ask me why I live here in the grey hills.
I smile but do not answer, for my thoughts are elsewhere,
Like peach petals carried by the stream, they have gone
to other climates, to countries other than the world of men."
In a quiet valley near to the place where the Himalayas finally calm down to become merely high mountains, Lijiang has a pretty, touristy old town with a fast-growing modern town attached to it. The town centre is traffic-free and consists of narrow alleys lined with walled family compounds, each centred on a courtyard, and roofed with green tiles and little dragons to scare off demons. A small river runs through Lijiang, and at the top of town, next to a big waterwheel that has been erected for Chinese tourists to have their picture taken next to, the river splits into three, gurgling elegantly along the alleys from thereon. There's nothing spectacular to see (or it has to be the view of snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain roaring up north of town) but after China's identikit big cities it's a delight to wander along something old and peaceful. Until the tourist groups arrive, anyway.
Lijiang, in Yunnan province, is right at the edge of the worlds greatest ethnic laboratory. Nowhere else is there such a variety of ethnicities, languages, cultures and traditions as between here in Yunnan and eastern India. Isolated living, due to impermeable tropical forests or unscalable mountain passes, has led to this jigsaw of civilisations. Lijiang is home to the Naxi ('nashi') minority group, one of the few societies on the planet that is (or was until recently) matriachical. The women were firmly in charge here, responsible for all production, child-rearing and decisionmaking,
leaving the men to do what they do best - work hard for a little while, occasionally procreate, and then play cards and smoke with their friends. Paradise.
Nearly all women in Lijiang and surrounding villages wear traditional costume - a dark blue tunic with a unique cape (attached to two crossed white straps on the front) that has embroidery and fabrics to symbolise the sun, moon, stars and earth. Naxi women carry the universe on their backs all day long. And they're pretty good-humoured about it.
Another cool thing about the Naxi is that their written language is one of the few (or the only one?) that uses pictograms instead of letters or characters. So the 'Tea Horse Guesthouse' (see below) is literally spelled: cup-of-tea-picture, horse-head-picture, house-picture. Wonderful; no dictionary needed. Even the makers of Esperanto never came up with this. It does make typing and jotting down a short message very complicated, but at least everyone knows what you mean.
Relentlessly suppressed during Mao's glorious era like all minorities, the Naxi now have regained their self-conciousness and pride, and have started to cash in big time on tourism. A huge earthquake about ten years ago destroyed part of the town, but most of it has been restored in the old style - a first for post-Mao China, where restoration work is usually done with big yellow bulldozers. However some streets have been rebuilt in Han-Chinese style which is great for the Beijing tourists but a bit of an insult to the locals.
The rest of the town has been done up recently too, and looks nearly too cute. It's somewhat banal during the afternoon when half a dozen tour guides with little flags stand around the tiny reconstructed main square using megaphones to blare their history stories and shopping tips to their assembled audiences. It's so orchestrated that we joked it was a sort of living Disneyland - confirmed by the fact that the garbage trucks that trundle along the streets collecting trash play "It's a small world after all", the Disney international anthem, to get the people to bring the trashbags out. In the evenings, when all restaurant terraces are crammed with merry diners, people buy goldfish or little lotus-shaped boats with candles to chuck in the river. So they can have their picture taken with it, of course. Furtehr downstream, the dazed fish and candle-floats are fished out of the river by the enterprising locals, and resold.
Half a day would normally suffice for wandering around Lijiang, but I was knackered after the hot sticky weather and relished in the cool mountain air. It was also raining, I still had a cold from the Chengdu dorm airconditioning and it was time to do the washing, so I actually did nothing for a few days.
In the local vegetarian restaurant I met Nini, an aspiring Danish opera singer. For some reason, veggie restaurants are always great places to meet nice solo-travelling girls. And this one (the restaurant) served excellent muesli breakfasts too. Nini and I spent a day cycling around the villages in the valley north of Lijiang on a quest for some rurality after so much urbanity.
Just an hour's pedalling northwest from Lijiang, Dr Ho holds practice in the pleasant one-street Naxi village of Beisha. He's an acknowledged expert on Chinese natural healing, in the herbal sense. He spent years trudging through the mountains around Lijiang searching for specific plants, and has developed a range of teas and herbal-based remedies that surprisingly even work for sceptics.
Dr Ho is a funny old chap who speaks wonderfully mangled English, and who went through hell during the cultural revolution when he and his family were the most obvious 'bourgeois counterrevolutionary elements' that needed to be denounced, ridiculed and punished in jail. Now he and his doctor son receive dozens of foreign visitors every day, and Dr Ho busily scurries around, handing out his famed 'healthy tea' in exchange for a donation, and proudly showing off newspaper cuttings about himself and thank-you letters from cured patients.
I mentioned to Dr Ho that I was ill (the Chengdu hostel airconditioning syndrome) and he grabbed my arm to feel my pulse, peered at my tongue, made me say argh and then started scurrying around the dozens of colourful boxes of dried and ground herbs in the room, creating a special melange of anti-airco-flu tea for me. Unfortunately, I can't report on its effectiveness as mother nature had cured me that evening before I even had time to test Dr Ho's herbal tea.
Dr Ho became famous when Bruce Chatwin (the first, possibly the best modern travel writer) visited the village in 1986 and dedicated a short story to Dr Ho in his book 'What am I doing here'. The story, 'Rock's World', actually focuses on Joseph F. Rock ('Lok' to the natives), a seclusive, angry Westerner who lived near Lijiang catalogueing the amazing local plantlife for more than two decades before he was kicked out by the Commies in 1949. Dr Ho was described as an old frail-looking in 1986 - and now eighteen years later in 2004 he was still around, frail, wispy-bearded but with beautiful twinkly eyes. He knows something we don't.
About the Red Guards who destroyed Ho's house, practice and life, Chatwin recites the poet Lao-tze:
"How did the great rivers and seas
gain dominion over the
hundred lesser streams?
By being lower than they."
HIKING THE TIGER LEAPING GORGE
English mistakes are as hilarious in China as they are in India, but of a completely different nature. While Indians have chosen to create a new language using English as a base material, the Chinese are liberally experimenting with word order (and with the letter order within words). So, one day a long time ago in this distant land, the three Chinese characters used to name this particular gorge two hours north of Lijiang were translated literally into English, without paying heed to the order once the spelling was double-checked. That's why the Leaping Tiger Gorge is strangely, irritatingly and persistently called Tiger Leaping Gorge. This particular gorge is one of the deepest in the world, and in some places it's so narrow that local legend has it that a tiger once leapt across it while being persuited (probably by a pack of hungry Chinese who wanted to see how it tasted shredded with noodles,peanuts and a light soy-chilli sauce). The phrase 'Tiger Leaping Gorge' of course insinuates that the gorge is called 'Tiger Leaping', or that the gorge is itself busy performing 'tiger leaps' just like it would frog leap. Oh well.
The cool thing about TLG (that's better) is that it offers a relatively wild and unspoilt trekking opportunity along well-kept paths, and that foreigners can stay in nice village homestays, which surprisingly is very scarce in this huge country. Perhaps most importantly, the ever-present Chinese flag-tagging mass tourism is completely out of sight, being limited to the road far below the hiking path. The Chinese mass tourist (CMT) hates to leave the tour bus or souvenir shop out of sight for more than the time it takes to aim a camera at a family member blocking the view of something old or rebuilt. As a result, the hiking paths are void of them, and most trekkers are beautiful, young, healthy, nature-loving foreigners. Plus the odd Dutchman.
You can do the whole walk along the TLG path in a day, but Nini and I were in a particularly lazy mood, and decided to take it as easy as possible. So, after two hours of easy hiking on the first stretch, we sagged down in the courtyard of the Naxi Family Guesthouse, ordered stacks of fabulous local food, and did nothing for the rest of the day. Shower - nap - read - eat - read - sleep. Fabulous.
Here the gorge was already getting impressive. The Yangtze river travels southwards from its source in Tibet in a huge arch for hundreds of kilometres before doing a dramatic 180° turn just before the gorge. It changes from a placid 40m-wide river into a churning 10-15m wide rapid for most of the 30 kilometres of the gorge. The river is at a height of about 2000m here, while the jagged peaks of the Jade Dragon Mountain range that rears up right behind it only stop at 5500m, the 3500m difference making it one of the deepest gorges around. 'The deepest' say the Chinese, but they haven't been to the 4500m-deep Sutlej gorge in northern India, eh. The hiking path is narrow and easy going, and every few hours there's a tiny village or farmhouse with accommodation and food - some of the best nosh I've had on the trip I might add.
In China, eating alone sucks even more than elsewhere. Dining together with people you meet along the way really pays off, as Chinese food is made to be eaten by (surprise surprise) groups. The more the merrier. You just order a whole array of different dishes, sometimes with seemingly clashing tastes, and share, ordering more of what you like as you go along. It's all made super-crunchy-fresh and fast. Surprisingly, the rice usually gets served at the end of the meal, as it's more of a filler for truly hungry people than something that you eat together with the meat or vegetable dishes.
Chinese food here is different from the mix of regional cuisines we call Chinese back in Europe (and especially the Netherlands, where it gets an Indonesian twist). Along the TLG trail we'd usually get some kind of vegetable dish, of which I loved the versions with bitter melon (a weird kind of cucumber). The steamed cabbage dishes are very tasty too - I don't know what method they use to make this infamous vegetable taste so good (but someone please get the Chinese to tell the Eastern Europeans how). Then we'd add a few meat dishes: fried bits of pork or chicken or veal in soy sauce or covered with sesame. The local speciality was the salty, dried veal meat that went very well with the bitter
melon. Man, this stuff is so good, I'm thinking of switching to being a full-time food critic.
After we managed to tear ourselves away from the Naxi Family Guesthouse table the next day, we made it to the wonderfully named Tea Horse Guesthouse. The Chinese characters for house and horse are apparently very similar and are liberally mixed up. Lunch was so good that we were nearly enticed to stay the night there too. But on we went, together with two Greek hikers (the first Hellenes I met on this trip) to the aptly named Halfway Guesthouse for more good food. A late departure the next day brought us along the most
dramatically steep parts of the gorge via Tina's Guesthouse to Sean's Guesthouse. The fourth day we made our way back to Lijiang via a short walk along the road to the end of the valley, a ride in a taxi, a puttering ferry across the Yangtze and a private bus through the undoubtedly beautiful but completely fogged-up Jade Dragon Nature reserve.
I already told you about the ethnic mosaic in this region. Hop on the bus for the three-hour ride south along another good highway to Dali, and you'll see the local folk costumes change twice along the way.
Dali, set at about 1800m, is a cool hill town, sandwiched between a large lake and a 5000m mountain with forest-clad slopes. It's reasonably popular among foreigners, as it's low key compared to Lijiang and more touristy destinations, with no astounding highlights, but with a nice relaxed atmosphere and plenty of travellers' cafes and shops. Quite a few foreigners work here, opening up small bars or teaching English. At Jim's Peace Cafe I met Andy, a young dreadlocked Englishman who was English-teaching himself
across China, making enough money to support himself and stay in interesting places for a few weeks to months each time. It's a way of life for many foreigners here.
Renting a bicycle, I pedalled past the huge medieval pagodas around the town. Freshly renovated and adorned with an absurd 50 yuan entrance fee, I think they're best viewed from outside the gates, from a distance. I visited the cattle market where women with amazing local headwear (a kind of white crown with tassles) dropped pigs into a large basket for transport to their village. I cycled down through the Chinese quarter of town, the streets lined with baskets and buckets of vegetables, meat, wiggling crabs and shrimps.
Rolling on, down through the paddy fields, across the new highway and further on to the villages lining the shore of the lake. Here, some fishermen had a line-up of about ten large cormorants perched on the side of their wooden rowing boats. The birds would dive into the water, chasing after large fish. The cormorants would just love to eat them, but a cunning bit of string around their necks prevents them from swallowing; instead, they get a small fish from the fisherman as a reward. They're completely domesticated and don't flap off - food is guaranteed here. After the work is done, the birds are grabbed, squawking, by the necks and deposited on a horizontal stick to dry, wings spread out, in the sun.
And it's off again, on the night train to Kunming, Yunnan's capital. The trainride confirmed my theories about Chinese group mentality. The train was the flashy new double-decker I mentioned before. Very high, with four-bed compartiments on each of the two floors. Unfortunately, there was loud soggy music (think: Chinese instrumental version of the Titanic warble), no knob to regulate the sound, no door to shut it out, no lightswitch, no individual reading lights, and no buttons to adjust the air conditioning. But it was spanking clean, and a bargain at 120 yuan. The lights went out at 22:30, to
come on again together with some merry marching music at 06:00 in the morning.
Kunming, like Chengdu, is a scarred city. While in Europe we can usually blame our messed-up cities on other countries, here in China the destruction is usually completely home-made. Once a very pleasant city marked by elegant old buildings, Kunming doesn't have much to show any more. Most of the worthwhile temples and monuments were so badly damaged during the madness of the cutural revolution that they were scrapped altogether in the years afterwards. More recently, in the last 20 years, many remaining old residential areas have been bulldozed to make place for commercial development and wider roads for wider traffic jams. A large horticultural exhibition in the 1990s was even a reason for the city government to speed up the removal of old, unprofitable areas. I wonder if the Chinese will ever look back and regret what has been lost in the name of progress. They're selling their cities to the real estate mob and property developers at an alarming rate, and nobody is stopping to see what's going on.
Still, Kunming is a pleasant place compared to other cities. It used to be different - positioned at the edge of the 'barbarian' mountainous areas it was a place of exile for political offenders during Mao's enlightened years. Kunming improved its image vastly with many deportees preferring its relaxed pace to their crowded east-coast cities, refusing to return.
In between rainshowers, I spent time in a large park with lakes full of blossoming lotuses, and hundreds of excercising citizens. Chinese like to move, and parks are always full of people of all ages (but mostly the elderly) doing elegant tai chi movements with a golden sword, swinging their arms, clapping, revolving silver balls in hand (magician-style), aerobics and ballroom-dancing. The dancing involves several pairs around a cassette player, all doing the same moves together - it's a group activity of course and you're not supposed to have fun. 'Social dancing' was even banned during Mao's days, as it was considered a deplorable bourgeous individualistic activity, probably from the West. Also here, the presence of a foreigner sometimes raises eyebrows, and children will be whispering 'laowai!' (foreigner) to their mothers when they spot this strange-looking guy with funny hair and a big nose.
I spent an afternoon along a large lake south of Kunming, where a lush hill with several old Taoist temples rears up 300m from the lake shore. Walking up through clumps of bamboo and beautiful forest with shy squirrels, the walk was beautiful. Most Chinese Mass Tourists preferred to zip through the uneventful natural bits to get straight to the temple at the top. Even I succumbed to CMT temptations a few kilometres before the peak, taking the chair lift to the top. Great views, but I was deposited in the middle of a maze of stalls selling the worst tourist trash, and with purring golf carts carting in the groups. I made my way off this desecrated mountain as soon as I could.
Next up: Buddha-caving my way to Beijing.
Currently reading: Wild Swans, still. Shocking. Incredible that China seems to
have skipped a period of soul-searching (or lynching) after this terrible
period, launching the country head-first into unabashed commercialism. Time
will tell what effects this have.
Stomach status: happily filled with bitter melon.
Signs Of The Day: "Rubbish spot"; "Do not use while stabling" (train signs).