The Land of the Bai People

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Thursday, May 19, 2005

The last four days, I've been exploring around Dali, not just an old town but a whole prefecture of over 2 million people nestled in the foothills of the Hengduan Mountains. It's hard to call these peaks "foothills", as the massifs surrounding the lake here rise to over 13,000 feet, but the Hengduan Mountains further to the northwest are a massive north-south range with snow mountains over 25,000 feet tall. They form the eastern boundary of Tibet.

Here, just north of the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border, west of Han China, and east of Tibet, the Bai ethnic group lives in the valleys and mountains. Their language and culture is unique, yet shares characteristics of Tibetan, Burmo, and Han language and culture--Dali is a melting pot.

At the center of Bai culture is Erhai Lake and the old town of Dali. It is here that I have been meeting all kinds of people: dancing the Raoshaling Bai folk dance, cormorant fishing, and hanging out with marble sculptors. Here in Dali, fun-loving policemen get drunk in public with "massage therapists," farmers replant their rice, craftspeople sell their wares, throngs of Chinese tourists and a constant sprinkling of western travellers pass through the narrow streets lined with old stone houses and shops. An old wall and gates in the cardinal directions frame the town. The north and south gates look lengthwise along the pear-shaped valley into farm country. The east gate looks towards Erhai Lake, which spans most of the valley. The west gate frames the tall 13,000 peaks above Dali town.

Heading out the south gate, I went in search of marble sculptors. I had seen them on the bus ride into town: it piqued my interest. What were they doing? First, marble is plentiful throughout the land here. Marble mines exist throughout the mountains, although most of the large boulders are gone--already used. The active mines appear to be on the east side of the lake. As marble is metamorphosed limestone it all started making sense as I recalled Yangshuo--the land of limestone mountains. In the Hengduan Mountains, massive uplifting has occurred, which heated up the limestone here, melted it, and thrust it into the air thousands of feet. When I reached the marble sculptors by bike, one young novice sculptor with three years of experience was working on a large guardian lion from one of the few remaining large boulders of white marble. As Dali marble is known throughout Asia, it was likely going to be one of a pair of guardian lions for the entrance to a skyscraper or government building somewhere at the cost of 100,000 yuen.

The marble is a simple reflection and picture of life on earth for the Bai people and is a pure art of nature. Marble is selected and classified based on the veins in the art and the color of the rock: the four seasons, mountains-rivers-grass-trees, birds-animals-feathers, fairy-Buddha-spirits. Colors are: jade rimmed with gold, autumn flower, grape flower, ink marble, and verdure flower. Thus each marble tells a rich story and is interpreted and classified. For example, one marble scene may be a tree on the border of a mountain river where a woman is resting under the tree, all in jade rimmed with gold color.

Out of the east gate, I headed to go Cormorant fishing, which I'd heard about for a while but never experienced. Long ago, fishermen came up with the assinine idea of training cormorants to fish for them. Actually they only had to rely on the hunger of the male birds. At the edge of Erhai Lake by his houseboat, I met Zhao Yi Zhou, the cormorant fisherman. In preparation for the fishing, Yi Zhou tied the lower necks of the cormorants with reed grass so that they could not swallow a fish, yet could store about ten fish in its gullet. Rowing into the lake, Yi Zhou pushed the cormorants, sunning themselves wings outstretched, off the boat and called them to fish--pounding the bottom of the boat and yelling commands: "He, Hei!." The cormorants, with their oily feathers, were excellent underwater swimmers and soon came up with fish. Seeing one with a fish, Yi Zhou enticed the cormorant to approach with another small fish then grabbed the cormorant out of the water and forced the fish out of its gullet into the boat. "I sell the fish for 5 yuen each in the local markets," says Yi Zhou; the smaller ones are a meager reward to the cormorants for their part.

Along the edge of the lake, farming villages, rice paddies, and vegetable fields rise to the edge of the steep mountains. On the mountains are more terraces and the land is unimproved pasture for grazing goats: basically grass interspersed with cedars and rocks. Up here at 6,000 feet, the farmers are tilling the soil and replanting the rice. The rice is first grown in small dense paddies to ensure successful weed free germination. Once a larger field is prepared by hand hoe, oxen plows, or roto-tillers, the dense rice is sparsely replanted in rows. Hundreds of farmers are involved in this work, and weeding the fields, and applying pesticides, and selling the food in markets.

Through the northern gate, I traveled to the Yan Family House to partake in Yang Folk Dancing. Three-course tea, a metaphor for Bai life and a traditional greeting ceremony, accompanied the dancing performance. The first tea is bitter, the second tea is sweet, and the third is an aftertaste: "life is bitter in the beginning and sweet in the future. One has to be industrious to have a happy life". I enjoyed this tea with several busloads of Chinese tourists. At the end the dancers went into the audience and being a little different looking, all the Chinese next to me were prompting me to go up there. So I did a couple of dances, getting all the steps wrong of course, to the laughter of the audience. I was not alone, however, and managed to get my neighbor up dancing as well.

Through the western gate, I left the next day, heading by bus towards Lijiang.
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Comments

jraleigh
jraleigh on

Fascinating reading!
Lloyd,
When we got to GF's farm the first thing that he said after 'hello' was 'I have been reading Lloyd's writings sent by Jennifer!' Ed and I are enjoying following your trip.
Call us again to see if Skype works still...

Love MOM

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