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.

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