Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Ancient Town of Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

(Now back in Thailand China feels a world away and writing about China has been quite difficult. Especially with all the great climbing here, I can not be bothered to spend much time on the computer!  Going to try to catch up on the blog over the next few weeks but with the super slower internet connection it may take a while). 

At the foot of snowcapped Jinhong mountain, Lijiang is one of the major stops along the Yunnan backpacking trail. One of the most visited ancient cities in China and UNESCO World Heritage site we have often heard it referred to as China's Disney Land.  Old Town is similar to the example at Dali with its maze of cobbled streets and ancient rickety wooden buildings.  It's much more likely for one to get lost, as Old Town, Lijiang is much larger than its neighbour to the south and unlike Dali, is not built to a grid system. Its architecture is a blend of many cultural influences reflecting the ethnic diversity and geographical position of the town within Yunnan's borders.  Where Dali is home to the Bai people, Lijiang is predominantly home to the Naxi (pronounced Nah-shi). In 1996 when a earthquake devastated the area, it was noted how well then ancient Naxi architecture held up in comparison to modern structures and millions was subsequently spent in rebuilding the area in Naxi traditional style; cement and bricks being replaced with cobblestone and wood. 

I have used some pretty disgusting toilet facilities over here, especially in China, though never before have I refused to use one.  The toilets at the bus terminal were my first exception and I opted to walk around with a full bladder after a five hour bus ride rather than risk the facilities there.   As we entered the streets of old town in search of accommodation we were discouraged to find prices well above our norm'.  Travelling in low season has resulted in some fantastic bargain room rates in some nice places throughout China, yet this did not seem to apply to Lijiang. We were further put off by notices everywhere insisting tourists pay 80RMB each for the privilege of walking the streets as a mandatory contribution to the restoration and preservation of the buildings (although the cynic in me wonders where the money really goes as another Maserati rolls by).  We wandered narrow cobblestone alleyways with hanging red lanterns and crossed bridges arching over sedate canals, weeping willows sagging over our heads until an hour and many guest houses later we finally put our bags down in a closet of room at the Memory of March YHA Hostel just outside the old town limits.  Our room was actually a converted entrance way, a locked gate acting as a wall which would have opened into the neighbouring alleyway. Two breeze block walls flanked the bunk beds and a single table inside, not offering even enough floor space for the two of us to stand at one time. Here, we were able to avoid the Old Town fee and at 80RMB a night for the room, we were able to stay within budget.  Upon check-in they gave us sheets to make our own bed which, they requested, we strip upon checkout.  It was evident staff here hardly raised a finger but mercifully the beds had heated mattress pads and the cost of the room included a small kitten and two playful puppies to keep us amused first thing in the mornings.

Once again we were a major attraction on the streets of Old Town, Chinese tourists snapping pictures and eyeing us as curiously as we eyed our surroundings.  Restaurants and boutique guesthouses with prices well over our heads were intertwined with shops selling local handicraft, artwork, musical instruments, street food and a random Irish pub.  Despite being low season the streets were rammed with people snaking their way up and down the cobbled thoroughfares and back alleys.  Occasionally horses plodded along the cobblestones with tourists on their backs led by elaborately dressed Yunnan horsemen in animal skins and wide brimmed hats and here and there, beautiful women in traditional dress would charge to have their pictures taken.  We munched on some unmemorable fried street food dripping with oil as we explored the ancient old town, eventually finding our way into the modern new town; a striking contrast with white multi story concrete buildings and where the roads were thick with rush hour traffic as we searched for a pair of socks.  The temperature, noticeably cooling as we make our way further north, has us faced with the harsh reality that our attire suited for the heat of the tropics leaves us chilled to the bone as we climb in altitude and latitude and autumn marches it path through the hemisphere.  In addition, my shoulder was in constant pain, worsened by the cold.  The sporadic pinching sometimes turned into sharp pain, like a knife digging into my shoulder, resulting in numerous painful knots tensing my entire upper body into the base of my skull making the simple action of turning my head just about impossible. 

As we explored an open air food court in search of dinner we were approached by a Chinese man in his mid 50's sporting a angled baseball cap, inviting us to come stay in his home.  Intrigued, we learned he lived in a traditional Naxi village 2.5km from Lijiang, home to 150 families who settled there about 700 years ago.  He and his nephew were in the process of setting up a guest house in the village, inviting foreign tourists into the village for the first time.  The guesthouse is still a work in progress and despite his warnings that there was no running water at all, and electricity only in the main house, we agreed to meet him in the central square two days later. 

The following day was spent entirely walking around Old Town, admiring the low rise architecture, the two market squares and the hill top pavilions which offer views of the city and snow capped mountain peaks beyond. The traditional curved roofed buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, open fronted to the shops on the ground floor. Artists and sales people ply their trades. Local ceramics shops with their beautifully crafted, fantastically shaped vases and plates, glazed in earthy colours depicting scenes from the town or covered with the Naxi hieroglyphics (the oldest pictorial language in the world still in use today) vie for space with the leatherworkers, the weavers, engravers and silversmiths, the wood carvers, candy factories, barbecues, bongo makers, flute sellers and clothing shops. Each junction with the two rivers that pass down through the town provides space for tables and chairs for the restaurants, cafe's and hotels that hold ground for their customers; themselves a constant writhing mass of humanity, creeping aimlessly, vocally and with much gaiety on along the narrow cobbled streets from sunrise to after dark.  One can't help but wonder what happened to all the people who used to live here, and where they had been displaced in preference for all this and we later learned that they were now living very comfortably off the extortionately hight rent prices they can charge for this prime real estate.  North of the old town centre, a majestic gate guards the entrance to Black Dragon Pool Park at which they requested an admittance fee of 80RMB per person.  Shaking our heads we retreated, to be accosted by a couple of middle aged Chinese women (who spoke no english) offering their services as guides around the park.  Not willing to pay the park entrance fee we were certainly not in the market for a guide (especially one that didn't speak english), and playing with the language barrier we invited them to join us for a stroll into the new town for a lunch of  bubbling hot pots down the back streets at a fraction of the prices in Old Town.  Giggling they waved us away and as we smiled in parting, noticing as we did a side street alongside a stream leading towards the park.  Thinking perhaps we might be able to slip into Black Dragon Pool Park unnoticed we followed it only to find it ended abruptly, the stream marking one edge of the park.  As we deliberated our options a local man bounded past, crossed the river and disappeared up the path only to return moments later.  Finding us clearly debating sneaking into park grounds he encouraged us, nodding and pointing to the stepping stones and satisfied with his approval we followed his lead.  

We joined the other tourists in the walk around the edges of smaller ponds en-route to the main Black Dragon Pool, a striking white bridge spanning its width towards a pagoda.  Jade Dragon Snow mountain with its snow capped glacial peaks, the source of this pool, is perfectly positioned amidst the visible landscape making this one of the most photographed scenes in south China, an obligatory snap for tourists and professionals alike.  The park itself was lovely with its clear walkways and manicured flowerbeds, though we would have been disappointed had we forked over 160RMB for the experience. 

My shoulder was so bad that night I couldn't sleep and had to support my head in my hands in order to sit up the following morning.  Richard was expecting to meet us but the pain was so overwhelming I couldn't bear to move and felt seeking professional advice at this point was necessary.  Julian went to meet Richard, explained the situation and upon returning had in hand some herbal Chinese medicine patches Richard had suggested.  On-line I found the address for a Chinese medicine and acupuncture office and we set out to the city in hopes of some relief.  If this place exists I still don't know about it; we spent five hours traipsing around the city in vain.  Overwhelmed with pain we gave up as evening was upon us and returned to the hostel to call Richard in hopes of getting out of the city and into the countryside.  Within 30 minutes, his nephew Thomas was loading our bags into his van and we headed away from the tourists to his village. 

At his courtyard home we were greeted by Ted and Louanne, an American couple from California who have lived together in China since 2008. Ted has been in and out of China for the past 14 years, initially invited by the Chinese government as an economics expert.  Having travelled China extensively they settled temporarily in Litang based on a personal interest Ted developed in the Naxi people. Whilst researching for the first ever book on the people (White Horse - Ted Erskin), he and Richard; a Naxi linguistics expert (who can speak all local Tibetan and tribal dialects in addition to english and who acted as Ted's guide) formed the idea of opening up a guesthouse and guiding service. Also there to greet us was their adult guard dog, Mighty Dog (who stands an impressive 7 or 8 inches from the floor) and a tiny new puppy, Oreo.  Leaving our bags in a simple room with two twin beds, no electricity and plenty of blankets, Ted showed us the upper level.  Upstairs will be the male dormitory with eight wood framed beds with woven rice straw mattresses (which I found to be very comfortable having come to like the harder sleeping surfaces in Asia).  The building itself had been bought and dismantled in Tibet before being transported to the village and rebuilt as a giant jigsaw puzzle on the grounds of Richards family home, forming the second of what will eventually be four buildings making a courtyard house. Upon learning about the stress my shoulder was causing Thomas went about setting up a meeting with his good friend, a master masseuse who would certainly be able to help me and arrangements were made to pay him a visit after dinner. 

Ted and Luanne's bedroom was on the second floor of the neighbouring building and we would share their bathroom on the ground floor.  Running water had yet to be set up; a well in the corner of the yard was the water source, bathing done by mixing boiled and cold water in a bowl.  Of course, as is the same everywhere we have stayed over the last 6 months, there is no heat, and bathing is done as quickly as possible, especially in the cooler temperatures at the eastern end of the Himalayas.  The women living in villages at higher altitudes in the neighbouring mountains would come down to Lijiang once a year in groups, for their annual bath.  

The main house (opposite our own building) was the only room which had electricity. Louanne was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen which has been furnished with a few creature comforts like a single gas burner and a table top combo-oven.  Ted originally built an oven on the front porch and they were the first people in the village to produce baked goods. Of course this has been of great interest to the Naxi though the baking Louanne shares with them is often too sweet for their palates.  Local kitchens here similar to those we have seen in rural villages throughout SE Asia where they cook over the heat of open fires or hot coals set in brasiers.  As Louanne was putting on the finishing touches to dinner we went for a short stroll down the street and Ted told us about this village.  

The village does not have a name itself, indeed one of the biggest issues facing Richard and Ted in marketing the guesthouse is that they have no address. Instruction to future guests are going to be along the lines of: "Take a taxi to the big statue of the horse, then call us!" but therein of course lies part of the charm. Sitting about 3km east of the centre of Lijian, the village contains about 150 homes, each of which may well contain several generations of the family. All the men in the village are related and known by their position within the family rather than by a given name. The women are married in from the surrounding villages and must pass the scrutiny of mothers, sisters and aunts (to make sure their housekeeping skills are up to the task and their personality will be compatible with the women she will have to live with) before any wedding might be blessed. The groom will go to his prospective brides village, with all his important family members and the two families will meet. During lunch, the prospect will serve and clean up, the scrutineers will follow her around en-mass. They will check to see how the house is kept, looking for dust, how the beds are made, the organization within the house and the planning around it. If all is well, the groom and his entourage may stay for dinner too, all the while, the prospective bride (and by implication, her family) are on trial to make the very best impression under the closest of pressures.

The kitchen smelled fabulous upon our return and we were soon presented with an american style home cooked dinner, a very welcome change to the oily, fried Chinese food.  A chicken and yak cheese casserole topped with crunchy bread crumbs and a side of green beans which Julian went head over heels for.  It was fascinating learning about their experiences and getting an inside look at local culture from a western perspective as the first and only foreigners welcomed into this village. 

Soon after dinner I left Julian in front of the PC with Oreo on his lap and Thomas and I went to see the masseuse who suggested a half hour massage followed by a half hour of acupuncture.  He passed me off to one of his younger apprentices for the first half hour of massage who had the best hands anyone had ever massaged me with (granted, I had only ever gone in for two professional massages in my life, one of which I walked out of five minutes into it).  Then the master came up, his touch far exceeding the younger man as he massaged and contorted my body in ways which shocked me, applying chiropractic methods in with his massage.  He followed this with a series of needles into my neck and shoulders, probably 30 in total, which put me into a trance like state, a tingling sensation through my limbs which was followed by a temporary sense of paralysis accompanied by gentle waves of nausea.  He followed this with a intense massage and more chiropractic adjustments and by the time he was through I felt quite shaken up by the intensity of that hour.  That night, my upper body pulsated with such energy that it kept me from sleeping for a few hours, but for the first time in over a month I was almost free of pain.  

The following morning Ted and Louanne lent us the best maintained bikes we had used in six months and we ventured off into the countryside.  The Naxi farming the land seemed exceptionally pleased to see us and when we greeted them in english they responded in kind with 'hello', followed by a good hearted laugh, pleased and amused to have used the only english word they know.  The obvious pleasure they had in seeing us riding through their farmland was heartwarming as we peddled through their corn fields laced with tall marijuana plants (for their morning tea of course).  In the distance atop a hill, a large golden stupa shone in the sunlight, enticing us in that direction.  

Pushing our single speed bikes up the final stretch of road we found ourselves in a very large, empty car-park, easily capable of hosting a couple of hundred vehicles.  Music drifted from tall whitewashed walls where two monitors showed film images of temple grounds.  Parking our bikes and noticing nobody in the ticket booths we followed a few locals to the huge red doors with golden handles, swung open to revel two duelling dragons and four taoist guardians protecting the entranceway and the multiple turnstiles, taped aside allowing us entry.  Staff in small open tents selling incense to the devoted hardly acknowledged us as we passed, walking the pathway towards a 5m high, golden, fat, laughing buddha, who greeted us whole heartedly.  Chanting Tibetan prayers drifted over our heads from speakers set at regular intervals in the ground as we walked up the steps, spinning the golden prayer wheels and goosebumps erupted over my skin.  Standing in front of a fountain alive with golden koi the stupa which had drawn us here rose in to the north at the end of a perfectly symmetrical pathway lined with green bushes and smaller white stupas. Colourful prayer flags fluttered in the wind adding to the ambience and my eyes well with tears; Julian and I were both overwhelmed with emotion with this unexpected first taste of Tibetan culture and we both felt the need for solitude as this feeling washed over us. 

The Goddess of Mercy, towering above me to the west and still under construction, eyed me watchfully as I circled the fountain towards a smaller temple to our rear, dedicated to her. We crossed a small arched bridge over more water and entered the cool building. Inside another image of the Goddess dominated the space and two life sized statues of monks sat behind to her left and right. The pillars supporting the roof were bound with silk prayer scarves left by worshippers and the scent of incense hung in the air, still burning at her feet. The walls were decorated with murals depicting the Goddess and we spent a few minutes there admiring the artistry and absorbing the feeling of the place through open hearts and bare feet.

Retracing our steps back towards the central fountain and slowly onwards to the main stupa three local woman in traditional Naxi dress walked towards me, their leathery skin, browned and wrinkled from years of working in the fields, and a group of middle aged Chinese men in suits smiled at me in obvious amusement and surprise.  The prayer music drifted overhead as I crossed a small white bridge spanned a trickling stream encircling yet another white stupa, the constant wind playing with more dancing prayer flags providing a constant fluttering accompaniment . 

As I neared the golden stupa the hundreds of prayer flags splaying outwards from it created that sound which can only be associated with flying Tibetan prayer flags, and intertwining with the musical chanting creating an overwhelmingly atmospheric experience. I was approached by  a local Naxi girl; a tour guide here who spoke excellent english.  I learned that this magnificent Buddhist site was still under construction which at the moment was free for local people to experience before the grand opening in a months time when they would start charging 160RMB per person.  In previous generations and for a thousand years only a stone stupa stood here, the last incarnation having been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The most recent renovations, the forth rebuilding on the site, had begun in 2004.  Together the guide and I circled the first level balcony of the stupa discussing Tibetan Buddhism before entering the interior shrine, still under construction.  The stupa and the site are now dedicated to Taoism, Buddhism (both Chinese and Tibetan) and Confucian, and within the ground level of the stupa are a collection of statues dedicated to the 81 gods of wealth and the '18 ways'. This multi denominational and money orientated dedication should if nothing else make it a popular sight for the coach loads of Han tourists that make up the majority of the four million visitors Lijiang sees every summer.

Thankful for her open hearted information and her humble, quiet soul I found out she felt herself fortunate to have inherited the tour guide position here, as generations of her family are buried within the grounds in their own stupa where eventually she will be laid as well.  As Julian joined us he commented that a trip to the gift shop was essential (knowing full well it was not open yet), as the music was so moving he wanted a copy of the CD.  My guide wandered over to her colleagues and soon produced us with a copy of the moving Tibetan chants wafting over our heads and presented it to us as a gift. We parted having exchanged e-mails and Julian and I headed back to our bikes for the ride home in the sunshine. 

Our final day around Lijiang was a relaxing affair before hitting the road once more to continue our journey north. We took a couple of local busses out to the edge of the valley to hike the hills below Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and spent a slow afternoon overlooking the city and the surrounding fields. It had been a most welcome break from the cycle of moving from hostel to hostel very couple of days. Ted and Luanne had made us feel quite at home for a time, providing some relief from the pressures of language barriers, an insight into local culture from a western perspective and some wonderful, most welcome home cooking in a style familiar to us. Well fed and recuperated we were excited to continue further into the borderlands the following day towards the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge and a two day hike through some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. True to form, and after our farewells were all said, Thomas obliged us in the morning with a lift across town to the bus station where we purchased our tickets for a ride into the wild.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Valley of Shaxi, Yunnan Province, China

(Back in Thailand now so able to format as per usual!  Have to admit, as much as I loved Shaxi I had a hard time writing about it and when I passed it on to Julian it was a pretty rubbish entry.  He pretty much re wrote it and now, its brilliant!  Credit goes to him for this one!)

The smooth surfaces and tunnels we had found on the major trunk roads since leaving Laos disappeared. The bus wound its way down narrow lanes more suited for traffic levels of several generations past, overtaking transport trucks, tractors and ox drawn carts carrying oversized loads of dried corn stalks. Motorbikes and men carrying barrels of hay on their shoulders or women with large bags of rice still in their husks upon their backs, the weight on their necks and shoulders supported by padded head slings, mingled with the heavy traffic passing through. Watching the fields through our bus windows was like stepping back in time. Thousands of people in woollen jumpers, home-dyed blue skirts and straw hats tended the fields with axes, hoes, sickles and machetes or ploughs powered by yaks or oxen. The chinese introduced the concept of farming crops in rows as well as iron tools and animal powered ploughing around 2500 years ago and when you have a population of 1.3 billion, labour intensive farming holds fewer problems than finding other jobs for the populous. Over a decade into the 21st century and mechanized vehicles barely make an appearance here. To be sure, the roads are clogged with vehicles going from one town to the next but 10m off the highway and nothing has changed in two and a half millennia. Vendors lined with streets offering fruits of the autumn harvest, fresh red apples and pink peaches whetting my appetite for a taste of a most refreshing season as we peered through the glass on our way north. 

A new road is in the process of being constructed around the flanks of the mountains and on flyovers through the valleys.  This highway will soon drastically change transport here. For local farmers I am certain it will come as a welcome relief as the pace of life reverts to the seasons rather than the modern rush to be somewhere and it will become much faster and easier to cover these long distances for goods being transported in and out and for the tourists alike.  Despite the slow and bumpy ride through the countryside we were pleased to be here before the opening of this new road. The experience will soon be drastically different; most modern in a sense. Part of the drive to be in China now is the hope of getting these glimpses of ancient traditions before influence from the west pours in, even to these far reaches and that infernal quest for greater productivity and profit margins destroys a way of life long since lost in our homelands. Chinas headlong rush into modernity, their acceptance in the last few years to the IMF and the WTO is a double edged sword and all too soon I fear these scenes will be consigned to the history books, as they take on the mantle (however it may be perceived) of Superpower.

As we weaved up and over a pass offering views of the farmland in the valley below my breath caught in my throat and I poked Julian in the ribs, turning his attention to the horizon.  Above the rolling foothills sharp snow covered peaks contrast against the clear blue skies; our first glimpse of Himalayan mountains proper.  Despite being the smallest, southernmost peaks the tallest of these stretches to nearly 7000m above sea level and my heart raced in anticipation. The love in my soul for dramatic mountain landscapes and having long since dreamed of wandering through the highest range on the planet. I felt a surge of emotion comparable to how I felt as my Mum and I first drove west out of Calgary years ago, the Rocky Mountain range drawing nearer.  The energy of ancient traditional ways,  the golden autumn colours of the harvest and the cool, crispy air driving off the snowcapped Himalayan peaks surged through me and I buzzed as the bus descended into the valley below to Jianchuan where we were to catch our final connection to Shaxi and the village of Sideng. 

Thankfully everyone figured we were en-route to Shaxi. We were thankful that is, as every person and every sign used only Chinese dialect and characters. The people were quite obviously used to the dazed looks upon backpackers faces as they try to figure out just how to ask the usual 'Where?', 'When?' and 'How much?' questions.  We were ushered to the front of the station where mini buses were waiting to fill. We loaded our luggage, secured our seats and were encouraged to enjoy a bowl of noodle soup from the stall in the mini-bus lot which turned out to be flavoured beautifully and spiced very mildly for a change.  Julian gushed on to our chef in english, complimenting her on making the best noodle soup in Asia (a bold statement and exceptional compliment indeed (and a warranted one … Ed)); if only she could understand his words.

We turned southwest with the snow capped peaks unfortunately disappearing into the distance behind us and after a nauseating bus ride up and over two winding foothills we dropped down into a flat bottomed valley.  Approximately 150km2 Shaxi is home to around 25,000 Bai people, one of the 56 minorities spread across Yunnan province. They live in small farming villages of anywhere from 30 to 150 homes dotted throughout the valley, interspaced with fertile farmland. Just a few weeks ago the fields would have rippled in a breeze; lush and green but harvest time is upon us and the colours now are gold and brown in the main. We were dropped off in the central market village of Sideng, the larger community here stretching to maybe a few thousand souls and we were left to find our own way to the guesthouse we sought. The owner of said guesthouse, a man who single handily created the tourist industry in Shaxi, deserving of two full pages in our (three year old) Lonely Planet, apparently speaks impeccable english and offers guided tours of the area.  Arranging a cab to take us to his guesthouse in a neighbouring village we were disappointed upon meeting him to find that since then, he had changed the name of the property, fully renovated and doubled his prices. He no longer caters to the backpacking crowd and was unwilling to negotiate to anywhere close to our budget, despite having an empty guesthouse and it being low season.  There is a brand new 4x4 truck in the driveway and this man of the hills was dressed impeccably in fine city clothes. Clearly he was doing very well for himself and had no desire to accommodate the likes of us any more, no doubt concentrating his efforts these days on the more lucrative wallets of the nouveau riche from Bejing and Shanghai or the more adventurous coach tours looking to leave the beaten path for a day or two between Dali and Lijiang.  

Returning disheartened in the cab back to Sideng we passed over 10RMB to which our driver responded by shaking his head and holding out his hand.  We realized that he expected 40RMB for the 3km drive, 10 times as much as we believed we had agreed upon for a one way trip and almost as much as we might expect to pay for a nights accommodation. We were outraged, having been cheated in one way or another by every cab driver (bar one) who we have ridden with in China and the conversation quickly heated. It was soon interrupted by a english speaking Chinese tourist who translated on our behalf.  Having only 20RMB in our pocket the driver agreed and accepted every penny we had and we stormed off down the street. This interaction and the outdated information with our choice guesthouse, all tied in with the emotions of the first three days in China to slightly taint our feelings of Shaxi in that moment. 

A guesthouse boasting room prices well within our budget caught our attention and we were offered what we think must have been the 'family suite' with three beds and large bathroom, shutters opening to allow warm sunlight to flood the room.  In the courtyard below hung bunches of bright yellow corn, free of their husks and drying in the sun to be used for animal feed. Above, from the eves, there were large bunches of drying red chilli peppers and hanging from the washing line; a fish.  With no need of so much space we asked to see a smaller room which no doubt would have been cheaper, however were told there were none.  It was clear later having seen many empty rooms, they simply wanted to up-sell to us as much possible, but we were pleased with the large space, advertised at 130RMB yet offered at 80RMB in this late month.

Enjoying an evening walk we wandered through the market square; an area in front of a two tiered, 600 year old theatre standing opposite the Taoist temple of similar age flanked on one side by an enormous tree. The sand coloured flagstones are unevenly set, and the entire square sags towards the centre of one side with narrow alleyways and a cobbled street leading out from the four corners, two downhill and two up. The surrounding buildings are predominantly wooden and appear straight out of a Ming dynasty epic movie and indeed this square has certainly been in some. As the sun begins to set behind the hills and the new moon rises into a clear sky, we can all but hear the clatter of horses hooves as the hero (no doubt) canters in from stage left to dispatch the band of intruders single handed and free the simple farming village from bondage. 

Leaving the square by a downhill alley and an arch in the old town wall, we found ourselves on the banks of a river where a group of people are working, some raking out rice to be dried, others bagging dried rice and another women who was shifting bags of rice from one pile to another.  Watching her carefully place a rope around the bag, position the bag squarely on her back and resting the padded headband across her forehead she stood, marched across the pavement and rolled the bag to one side and off from the support around her head, dropping it onto the heap.  With Julians encouragement I approached her, asking if I might have a go.  Slightly unsure she had interpreted my request properly, I repeated my question and hand gestures until slightly bemused, she handed me the headband and helped me position the rope around the bag.  It was lighter than I expected, about 25kg, and I mimicked her actions holding the headband next to my ears, taking some of the weight of the bag onto my arms. I marched it across the square much to the amusement of the woman and the work party.  They nodded their approval with wide smiles as I returned across the square, handing Julian the headband to have a go.  At this point, it was certainly impossible not to finished the job, and we moved all the bags from point A to point B between the three of us in less than a third of the time it would have taken her on her own.  As the sun set we walked along the banks of the river and over an ancient arched bridge overlooking the residential walls of the old town.  

Returning to our hotel to add on a few layers to compensate for the surprisingly cool climate we met an American man who was on a generally south bound route.  We enjoyed a meal at the only obvious place in the market square serving food, sharing travel stories and eventually, he inspired us to venture future north into China's Sichuan province, north of Shangri-La (our intended turn around point) and on towards Litang. Here apparently we would find Tibetan culture is more alive than in Tibet itself.  Inspired and intrigued we spend a couple of days mulling over ideas and possibilities and realized that Litang actually sits on the highway from Sichuan to Lahsa.  Should Tibet be open to tourism at the moment, we might just be able to yet again alter our route heading through Tibet and Nepal and dropping down into northern India, therefore overcoming the most complicated part of our overland journey, the route between the SE Asian peninsula and India. Intrigued, we opted to speak to as many people as we could find to learn about possibilities for this route. 

Temperatures dropped considerably overnight to close to freezing and I woke to an empty room, Julian having already gone out.  I laid out my yoga mat, though I was unable to warm up, feeling rather distracted by the frigid temperature and further confused by a series of fire crackers being set off.  Moreover, a few weeks ago in Lunag Prabang during my practice I felt something in my shoulder give pain and stiffness which has only gotten worse with time despite attempts to yoga, massage and heat the knots free.  I was in a particular amount of pain this morning, feeling a constant pinching sensation in the shoulder blade and was not at all disappointed when Julian came for me, heralding a gathering at the temple in the square.  I happily threw on every layer in my bag and followed him into the sun. 

Men held large suspended drums whists other beat upon them with leather bound sticks.  A choir sang as pallbearers carried a plain, wooden, black painted casket from out from the temple,  female family members dressed in white on their knees in the cobblestone courtyard, mourned their loss.  Having seen a similar event in Hoi An, Vietnam we recognized this as Taoist funeral, and admired the bright colours and beautiful sounds of the choir.  In Vietnam, we didn't join them to the burial site though this time our interest got the best of us and feeling comfortable with the local people, felt it acceptable to join them.  We followed the procession through the narrow cobblestone lanes and eventually into corn fields, tall golden-brown stalks towering above our heads.  Cocking our heads curiously at each other we followed them deep into the corn fields, being offered handfuls of roasted peanuts and cigarettes by members of the procession en-route.  The group broke into two lines and we picked one, following it to small clearing in the corn stalks, to a set of six tombs.  It wasn't long before Julian pointed out that I was the only female present here and I immediately felt self conscious and unsure as to whether or not my being there was acceptable.  I was soon offered a bottle of water by one of the men when they were being passed around which helped melt away some uncertainty. 

A group of about five of the men trampled cornstalks at the edge of the clearing and sat smoking and talking. Somebody broke out a deck of playing cards and a game got underway. The coffin was laid alongside the grave, already dug under a family tomb and the bright paper banners placed over the top of it, effectively masking it from our view. We picked a vantage point between two of the other graves, about 10m away to one side of the freshly dug earth and settled in to watch. The mood, if not quite a party, was light and there was much chatter and laughter among those present with cigarettes constantly begin passed, baked pastries and drinks of water or hot green tea too. A fire had been lit and upon it rested a much blackened kettle containing tea which too was passed freely and often. About half a dozen men centred their attention on the grave where a man (we assume, the son) of about 25 years old made preparations to the final resting place. Banners were burnt, prayers said and measurements taken (to make sure the coffin would fit) before two long bamboo poles were split with a hammer and laid to act as runners. 

The chinese gravestones cover the entire length of the grave and the earth is dug out from in front and underneath for the coffin to be received down a slope and in through the 'front entrance'. The others gathered themselves from the card games (for there were by now a couple going) and a collective effort was made to slot the coffin and its contents into its final resting place as firecrackers were set off a few metres away to scare off any remaining evil spirits. The bulk of the men (including the 'son') then retired to the edges to continue the card games as a few remained to seal the grave. Two young men arrived with a shoulder pole between them upon which was slung a barrel of water. This was mixed with a bag of cement in a shallow hole quickly scraped in the ground next to the burial site and a stonemason bricked up the entrance with rocks from the field; the deceased forever entombed in the ground they worked their entire lives. The sloping hole in front of the site was then backfilled by three of the younger men. The stonemason meanwhile slotted in a new embossed gravestone in from the top and cemented that too, in place. He followed with small rocks, passed up to him from the men still in support and bucketful's of cement, tapering off the top of the tomb neatly and finally taking a tussock from the field and embedding it in the very middle to begin the growth over the grave and return the body to the land from whence it came.

When all the practicalities were concluded and as if by magic (but more likely summoned by cellular network) two women appeared bearing a tray of food. This was laid in front of the grave and various offerings, tea, cigarettes, incense and the colourful banners that remained were placed around and upon the grave. Some no doubt as gifts to the spirits, or wards against others, some I assume for the dead, a last reminder of the earthly pleasures of this life before the wheel should turn again. The grave was tidied and the others tended to by those present and then we left them. I do not know how long the vigil beside the grave would last, maybe the rest of the day, I had no way of asking, but with nods of acknowledgement we left them to their bereavement, a little wiser, a little privileged to have been allowed this cultural glimpse, but with grumbling stomachs and things to see, we could hardly stay and play a game of cards with them, for we did not know the rules.

A main attraction in this valley is the Stone Treasure Mountain Grottos in the Laojun Mountain range, a group of three temples which include some of the best Bai stone carvings in China dating back to 9th century.  We were disappointed to find that not only was a guided tour of the area well beyond our budget but admittance to the trail itself was 50RMB each, which isn't exactly atrocious but counting pennies as we are, we planned instead a leisurely cycle through the valley, visiting neighbouring villages for the following day. 

Julian had managed to wake before sunrise and sneak out for an early morning hike in effort to capture a picture of the Shaxi valley in the dawn light.  He had left the town and headed directly for the steep hills flanking the valley where he found a packhorse route up to the ridge beyond. He looped over the top for about a kilometre or so before dropping back down into Shaxi flushed and happy for the exercise in the morning sun in time for our usual shared breakfast around 10.  During his return he was inspired by something which appeared to be a temple entrance three quarters of the way up a hillside and we were soon upon poorly maintained bicycles, cycling through neighbouring villages, uphill and to the mouth of a ravine at the head of the valley.  A concrete path sporadically stepped upward, gradually ascended the ravine, red sandstone outcrops bulged from the cliff faces above.  A Buddha carved into the red rocks greeted us as we crossed a bridge spanning a trickling stream and Julian realized that we had by chance stumbled upon the Grottos back entrance.

He enthusiastically tackled the steps up the hill while I opted to carry my bike, not being much of a mountain biker myself, and eventually locked it and left it behind as the steps became more numerous.  As I walked I admired the rock formations; the red sandstone swelled and cracked with centuries of freezing seepage, appearing like the back of a turtle shells. The ravine warmed by the heat of the afternoon sun.  Finally, the sun actually felt good, unlike the intensity of the tropics.  A Chinese man eyed Julian upon his bike curiously as he tackled a couple more stairs, wondering where he was planning on going with it.  "Up!" Julian told him with a smile. 

About 100m further on and around a rocky shoulder, we found the mans curiosity was justified as we approached a flight of steep stairs rising up towards the doors of what we assumed was a temple about 150m above us and the second bike too was abandoned.  Climbing stair after stair we were soon offered fabulous views of the ravine and the valley of Shaxi beyond, the countryside rich with rice, corn and vegetables yet to be harvested and dotted with attractive villages.  Julian commented that it felt like home, similar to the Whiltshire country side, similar even in age with its ancient stone buildings.  I disagreed on instinct, feeling that England and China were a world apart.

We found the wooden slated gates padlocked and upon peering through the crack found it was not temple entrance but an ornate cover for three rock carvings, surely historically important and were interesting in themselves being ancient rock carvings.  However to our uneducated eyes the carvings were carvings and apparently didn't make much of an impression. As I reflect writing this, neither of us can recall what the carvings depicted.  We followed the path up and then along the mountain side drinking in the refreshing sunlight, admiring mountain top pagodas.  We eventually came across an empty car park with a somewhat confusing map on a wooden board confirming the fact that we had indeed stumbled upon the Grottos.  

Following a path weaving around a hillside The Stone Bell monastery (though at the time we had no idea what it was) sat terraced on the opposing hill.  The pure remoteness and exposure, the peace of the hills in the late summer sun was absolute magic; not a soul on the trail with us nor apparently wandering the grounds opposite. 

Expecting the entrance to this magnificent, seemingly sacred settlement to be beyond our reach, we were pleased when after just a little search we found the path leading to its doorstep.  It was instinct to remove hats and sunglasses out of respect as we climbed the narrow, winding stone staircase upwards.  We were greeted by three guardians who requested 80RMB to pass through the red doors into the hillside temples, home to the most important and well preserved of the carvings.  Unwilling to pay $25 for an afternoon stroll through the mountains we turned around and found our own way through paths up the rear of the monastery. Julian somehow deciphered the carved maps which still didn't make much sense and which appeared to be orientated at random, founding our way back over the top of the hill and down to our bikes.  As the sun set upon the valley we cycled out of the ravine and home to our courtyard guesthouse.

It wasn't until we were on the mini bus leaving Shaxi, as I watched the people working the fields and wandering through the ancient villages, that I realized how much this place did actually resemble the English countryside.  Although the crops are different, the fields smaller and the tools more primitive, the farmhouses are still flanked by barns, the winter feed still collected and the hay stacked. Farming is farming and ruled by the seasons and a farmer from these remote chinese provinces in the borderlands would have more in common and more understanding with his brethren in Wiltshire than in Beijing.  Sometimes it's the similarities between people and places that amazes me far more than the differences.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Ancient City and Rural Countryside of Dali, Yunnan, China

We clambered through the train carriage with awkward backpacks through a narrow hallway we found our cabin and were disappointed to find our berths were in separate cabins. A moment later a Chinese women, travelling alone, was happy to switch with us.  An english accent greeted us from above in the third (upper) bunk of the cabin, Alex from south London, recently graduated in economics with a first from Oxford, taking some time out before commencing work in October.  There was no need to go out for a cigarette before turning in for the night as the second hand smoke hanging in the air was enough to satisfy anyone.  Slipping my face mask and eye mask on under my headphones I must have been a ridiculous sight yet I slept better than I anticipated on the eight hour journey. 

Julian, Alex and I were the last off the train and my breath hung in the air with every exhale.  I inhaled the cold air deeply, only to find myself choked with yet more cigarette smoke (every man, woman and child smokes excessively here and my refusal at ever offer of one is met with looks of confusion).  Still, the cold air is enough to satisfy and I smile as I slip on my hooded sweater.  Avoiding the trough stye toilets I waited for the men outside before we refused the offer of a 50RMB cab ride into the old town, opting to take the bus instead.  Turns out, 1.50RMB (US$0.20) each got us 30minutes down the road to the ancient city where Alex and we parted ways in search of different hostels.  

The beautifully named Colours of the Wind Hotel was unfortunately full and we paused our search for accommodation for a bowl of freshly prepared noodle soup with a handful of spring onions and dried beef, spiced (though Julian might disagree) to perfection.  As I finished my bowl of soup Julian set off in search of a guesthouse and soon returned with a twinkle in his eye, unwilling to offer any details.  Half a block away he lead me into a stunning traditional courtyard house into one of the most beautiful rooms I have stayed in for 80RMB. Once again our timing appeared impeccable and we had hit the winter season price, a huge drop from 278RMB in high season, almost had the hotel to ourselves and the weather was still warm enough for T-shirts and my Laos sarong during the day.  A rooftop terrace offered views of the rolling foothills of the Himalayas and surrounding rooftops, stunning in their own right.

After a refreshing hot shower and a cup of Chinese black tea we set out for a walk in the old town, passing through a park where locals engaged in thai-chi, badminton, enjoyed a game of cards or played traditional instruments.  Children in their blue and white school uniforms, typical of the communist regimes as we saw in Poland, Vietnam and Cambodia, although here the boys wore Mao style, high collard over shirts, buzzed through the streets on their way home, bowl of noodles in hand.  Bamboo baskets of dim sum and vats of boiling broth steamed the air, chefs needing dough and stretching noodles long.  Stalls and shops line the streets tended by women in traditional tribal dress, some of their patterns recognizable to us as the H'mong or Akha as we had seen in northern Thailand and Vietnam, along with many other designs not familiar to us.  Yunnan is home to more than half of Chinas 56 ethnic minorities, and here we meet the Bai people with their pinks, puffed arm white shirts and wonderful headgear.  Silversmiths beat their material flat with hammers on anvil at 100 shop doorways, making me cringe with every strike, wondering how these people were not wearing earplugs while they worked.  Hand weaved shawls and skirts, jade in every shape in size from necklace pendants to large intricately carved tables, jewellery and paintings.  The place was busy with Chinese and Koreans in large tour groups, being led by women in yet more traditional attire.  We would have to move to the side of the street to allow the big groups to pass us and we pleased that we were here in low season, wondering how packed the streets must get in high season. 

We bumped into Alex again, and as we stood talking we drew many stares, some sneaking pictures of us from across the square, some pretending they were shooting something behind us, others raising their cameras up only paces away and some coming and putting their arms around us, posing for pictures with the white skinned foreigners, stroking the arms of Julian and Alex, as Chinese men don't grow much body hair and tend to shave with tweezers rather than razors.  It was an amusing 20 minutes as we chatted and had random requests for photos, enjoying the good natured fun of it, as we were as much an attraction as the city itself.  Dali is one of the biggest travel destinations for the Chinese for its traditional architecture and large percentage of minority people, and everyone; on holiday and a tourist themselves, were in good spirits and the place was buzzing with fun energy, some dressed in the finest attire, taking as many people pictures as shots of the city.  The three of us agreed to meet the following morning for breakfast and and cycling tour of the countryside. 

Following Alex's advice, as we approached the next gate south we turned and followed the high stone old city wall west and up a set of stairs, avoiding another fee.  We followed the top of the wall hand in hand, admiring views of the city and greeting others as they passed.  A couple; him in a cowboy hat and her head wrapped in a red headscarf, were a particularly attractive and flamboyant pair.  A group of men sat smoking cigarettes, staring at us as we passed though refusing to greet Julians repeated greetings, some in mandarine, some in english, german, french and eventually in laos and thai, still they didn't mutter a word.  As we neared the eventual end of the wall overlooking the main highway, tour groups beneath us boarding a bus raised their cameras at us.  The men had continued their walk, wandering behind us and as we passed them on the way back, finally returned Julians persistent greetings with rueful grins. 

We decided to return home to freshen up and change, as our current backpackers attire and Julians unshaven face was hardly up to the regular photo-shoots.  Clean shaven, showered and me in my Laos sarong we felt more up to the task and enjoyed the evening wandering the streets of old town, alongside trickling streams with stepping stones to pagodas under weeping willows, admiring handicraft we couldn't afford (though my mind wheeled over a gorgeous skirt for our entire time there), drinking Yunnan coffee and munching on street food, avoiding "Foreigners Street" with unique restaurants and high prices and instead, followed the school kids to find a meal. For US$2 we filled two bowls with the numerous dishes on a buffet, lots of veggies, spiced (as usual) hotter than Julian cared for.  Dishes in this part of the region are spiced fairly hot, being meshed between India and Sichuan (Sechwan) and pretty much everything is seasoned with grated chilli as a minimum. 

We met Alex under the south gate in the Old Town and after a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast, hired out some bikes; Julian and I sharing (for the first time) a tandem.  Cycling down cobbled streets towards Chinas second largest lake, Lake Erhai, the skies were a brilliant blue, the air crisp and sun warm.  We shared the road with many other cycling tourists, all waving as we passed, that same infectious energy as was in Old Town the previous day.  On the shores of the lake we filled a bag of unknown, sugared, sun dried fruits at a small market by the ferry dock.

The once brilliant green rice paddies were now a faded gold, rich in autumn colours. Fields just recently harvested, the stubble standing at just a few centimetres where a week or two before the crop had been waist high and rippling in the breeze.  We have now observed an entire rice season, starting with the newly planted fields around Paula's stone house in Pai, northern Thailand, the growth of the stalks throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, the smoke drifting south into Laos from the Chinese burning the first of the stubble in the north and finally, the cultivation of the harvest and replanting of the seeds in in Yunnan province.  Dried rice stalks were being chopped down with dajas; scythe like tools with a handle around 50cm long and a wicked looking curved blade at the business end. The farmers wearing traditional dress, western style having influenced only a portion of population in Yunnan's countryside, stacked the stalks in sheaves after threshing or once dry piled them high upon small three wheeled trucks, handcarts and trailers pulled by oxen, bicycles, tricycles, husbands and wives.  

Fishing nets were laid on the pavement, the aroma of drying fish lingering in the air. We came across whitebait farms, four or five people working each net, gathering and beating alternately to bounce the small fry together at the bottom of the net. On the lake, the occasional flat bottomed, high sided row-boat plied the shallows for a days catch. All along the roadside rice, chills, corn and winter feed was laid out for drying under the late summer sun and everywhere people tended the fields with hand tools, the passing of centuries barely noticed. As the paddies were cleared from the seasons crops, in places already we saw the planting underway, digging stick in one hand punching a hole, then the seed dropped in with the other. Repeat until field is full! 


Small villages dotted the countryside; each home of traditional courtyard style with elaborate gateways, some in various stages of decay, many of the outer walls lined with painted chinese characters and gong-bi style landscapes.  

Guarded by two stone lions, we paused in front of a small temple in the midst of one such village. On one side, a basketball court temporarily commandeered for drying rice grains whilst to the north side, several men of advancing years sat enjoying the warmth of the day and each others company, no doubt putting the world to rights with their discussion, maybe to exercise the mind a little later with a game of mahjong, Chinese chess or a few hands of cards.

It was all very relaxed in the late summer afternoon until a gaggle of school kids making their way home paused where we were, their laughter and chatter breaking the peace of the place and we continued on our way. We rode through the fields, interspaced with small farming communities briefly joined by another group of (Chinese) tourists as we made our way up the lakeside before one of them succumbed to a passing motorbike which clipped him, sending him over the handlebars and forcing his friend behind to take avoiding action into the ditch. We left them to gather themselves and patch up any scrapes, our language and first aid skills of little use once we had seen the riders were conscious and cursing the motorcyclists dust. In Asia it is not the done thing to stop at an accident if you are at fault, the result can be expensive or painful and the chances of getting away great and easy, especially in rural areas, especially when motor power is pitted against pedal power.

On we rode until we came to a small town and protesting stomachs persuaded sustenance sought. We found an establishment to suit our needs and were treated to a wonderful (if somewhat expensive) spread by the proprietor and his daughter before heading off for a wander around the surrounding streets. Finding a barber of which Julian was in desperate need, we stopped in for a head chop and for US$2 he managed to strike gold with a wonderfully skilled woman, cutting with absolute professionalism, fading the cut and even after a little persuasion, trimming his bushy eyebrows. Making our way back to the central square we met up with Alex who had gone in search of some socks and we sat and ate a couple of wonderful, thick pancake made from corn flour off a street vendor, obviously a local speciality, before remounting for the ride home. Mindful that it had taken us nearly three hours to get this far and our hire time for the bikes was due, we opted for a return route along the main highway, Julian setting a fast but consistent pace, encouraging me to keep up as he called into the wind at me and farmers we passed, greeting them in mandarine. Many of them well older than retirement age in the west would rest their spades just for a moment and glance up, smiles spreading across their faces, returning our greeting as we passed, pedalling with ferocious energy.  We returned to the confines of Old Town in under an hour, breathless and buzzing from the strenuous blast.

The following day Alex departed north for Lijian whilst we lazed around the city and enjoyed its charms for one more day whilst making our own plans to leave the next day for Shaxi. It should have been relatively straightforward to get from our hotel to the bus station; we had instructions from the hotel both in english and chinese but still managed to make a mess of things. We caught the local bus from Old Town with no problems but had already passed the north bus station and were heading into the new city before we realized and had to backtrack some two or three kilometres on the return route, passing a particularly strange sight on the way; a Walmart.  We were pleased to find our favourite bus ride snack and bough a bag full of longan berries we initially fell in love with in Vietnam for our bus trip north.