Archive → May, 2010
On the fifth day of our trek the sun rose bright and early. We were blessed with fabulous sunrises for the entire length of our journey. You can see some of the images of the sunrises, and other stuff, at my Flickr website here. The shadows of the night slowly faded as a faint glow in the east began grow. The light was at first pale and grey but grew gradually brighter. On flat open land we would have already been gazing stupidly into a bright sun, but here in the mountains it took some time for it to rise over the mountain tops. In this way each morining was like a long lazy stretch until suddenly the rim of the sun pierced the sky in a blaze of glory. As there was an ongoing drought there was a great deal of dust in the sky which added a magical touch of colour to the morning’s display of natural beauty. The crisp clean air, the blazes of blue, red, yellow and pink of all shades and the anticipation of another day in ‘Shangrila’ (close enough anyway) made each morning seem like an enternity of bliss.
As I noted in the previous post we had pitched camp just outside an Yi village. It was a great spot just next to an ampitheatre (彝族歌舞场) which the villagers use for their festivals, and in particular the famous ‘Torch Festival’ (火把节). The Torch Festival falls on the 24th day of the Sixth Month in the Lunar Calendar. It is a time of celebration, feasting, dancing, bull fighting (in some places) and for young people to seek out prospective partners. As the name implies a lot of the festivities take place at night around a large bonfire. In the main centres of Yi population (and we should note that the Yi themselves are extremely diverse, speaking six different langauges and living in many different locations across several provinces) the Torch Festival has become quite commercial, but I think it would be good to visit this village at festival time as my feeling is that it remains ‘undiscovered’. I’ll aim to do so another time.
With our local guide we headed up the valley with the moutain now looming omniously larger and larger. Even from our campsite we could see that the slopes of the mountain were covered in massive patches of pink (and some white) rhododendrons. What particular species of rhododendrons these are I can’t say, there are over 1,000 species in this genus, with well over 550 in China alone. These were certainly a tree variety, growing to approximately two to three metres in height. At the point where they were flowering most profusely it was about 3,600 metres. Above 3,800 metres there were less flowers and at the highest point of 4,200 metres we encountered an amazing ‘forest’ of ancient, twisted, weathered, lichen covered rhododendrons that were not yet flowering. Ever since Robert Fortune was sent to China by the East India Company in 1848 to collect tea plant samples (which he did ‘illegally’!) botanists have been wandering the mountains of China, especially Southwest China, in search of plant material. In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century many botanists were driven by the growing commercial demand of garderners in Europe and America (I suppose we can include Australia too) to search for new varieties of flowering plants. These were the famous ‘flower hunters’. A few of them made regular visits to this part of Yunnan, quite incredible given how difficult it was to travel in those days! Maybe they even came to Laojunshan? They came in search for orchids, roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, and camelias, and no doubt many other flowering plants. Among them was the famous Joseph Rock who spent more than twenty years in the first half of the 20th Century living in Lijiang and wandering over much of Southwest China. More on him some other time.
At the top of the first peak we were well in Alpine country. Here we discovered a beautiful alpine forest with large what I believe to be fir trees of some variety. Unfotunately quite a few of them seem to have died, perhaps due to some kind of pest. There were also traces of logging here and there. We were also experiencing the effects of the altitude with every step a major effort. Needless to say we took it quite slowly and gradually. Our guide left us at the first peak and simply pointed to the other side of the mountain top indicating that that was our direction. Unfortunately he also seemed to realise that this was not the path for mules! Doh! That was up another nearby valley! So our plans to take the mule team over the top of the range and down into the Shigu (石鼓) valley to the Jinsha River (金沙江) (which becomes the Yangtse further down stream) were dashed! We didn’t give up all hope at this point, but it didn’t look too good either.
We eventually got to the other side of the mountain ridge and entered a steep mountain meadow. It goes without saying that the views were glorious! Unfortunately it seemed that the trail ended at this point, or at least a trail the mules could follow did not seem to exist. Ed, Xiao Ge, San Ge and some of the muleteers went of in search of a suitable trail, but to no avail. Sadly it was decided that the mule team would have to go back down to the Yi village and therefore leave us at this point, but not before San Ge and Xiao Zhao guided us other the top the next day. So we all spent one final cold and windy night on top of the mountain. The wind was quite furious that night, though I was snug and warm in my great little MSR tent!
It turned out that it was a good thing the Mule Team didn’t come with us. First of all there was no proper trail and it would have been very hard going for them. Secondly, the very top of the mountain was a lichen and moss paradise! I’ve never seen anything like it on this scale! The entire area was covered in a thick carpet of moss and lichen. Lichen was hanging from the tree branches (mainly rhododendrons), almost to the ground. There were large outcrops of boulders, also covered in moss. If the mules had have come this way their hooves would have done a lot of damage. We reached the highest point at 4,200 metres. We were all quite exhilirated to be there together. From this point we began the descent, walking through a magical wonderland. Not too far down the mountain side we ran into a local woman collecting ‘catepillar fungus‘ (or ‘insect grass’ in Chinese, 虫草). The fungus infects a host, in this case a moth larvae, kills it and the larvae mumifies. The ‘mummy’ is just below the surface of the ground and eventually the fungus ‘grows’ in stemlike fashion upwards. A trained eye can spot and harvest them. Catepillar fungus are an extremely prized Chinese and Tibetan medicinal component. In Beijing a single specimen can fetch over 100 yuan. Here on the mountain the local woman was prepared to sell one to us for only 15 yuan! Apparently they are now cultivated commercially, but the ‘wild’ varieties attract a much higher price.
The alpine forest on this side of the mountain (which you access from Lijiang) was in much better condition than the other side. The forest was very impressive indeed. A bit further along we came across a wild looking Lisu man (傈僳族) with a homemade crossbow and bolts. He said he was here to gather catepillar fungus and that the crossbow was ‘just for fun’! The Lisu tend to dwell in the hills, like the Yi. They are famous for their hunting skills, especially for the use of the crossbow. Some of their crossbows are quite large and used in conjunction with a certain kind of homemade poison are said to even take down fully grown brown bears (you would hope so as a grumpy wounded brown bear can do a lot of damage!). Actually, that was one thing I noticed in the forest here, it was much quieter than in an Australian forest. I could hear many birds, but not so easily see them. And it was rare to see any wild animals. With a Lisu hunter wandering around I think we can guess why! [Update – 04/11/2010 – Joseph Rock writes ‘The Lissu, wildest of the tribes to be found in Yunnan, have settled in this vicinity [Nu River Valley]. Like the Lutzu, they are dexterous in the use of the crossbow and are skillful hunters. Every living creature, from the smallest bird to the bear or traveler, serves as target. Their arrows are very strong and the points are poisoned with the root of aconite [wolfsbane]. This undoubtedly accounts for the few birds one finds in this romantic region, which should swarm with feathered songsters’ (Rock 1937 China on the Wild Side, p. 56). In any case he was very friendly and agreed to guide us down to the nearby road where our vehicle was waiting. He stopped occasionally to crouch on the ground and search for catepillar fungus. What more can I say other than that this man was a ‘real’ hunter.
We finally made it to the road and the end of our journey across the Laojunshan Range. We didn’t find the correct mule path over the range to Shigu, but that didn’t worry us too much. To quote a well worn saying, ‘It is not the destination but the journey that counts ‘. I really need to express my sincere thanks to Ed, Xiao Ge, Tina and the Mule Team for making this possible. Special thanks also to my fellow travellers for being such great companions and sources of inspiration. The journey was also extremely informative and I gathered a great deal of knowledge about the Chamagudao, the kind of first-hand knowledge that you can’t get from a book. Even though the journey has ended I feel that I have embarked on a larger journey within myself. Where it will take me I’m not certain, but I will cherish every flower, every sunrise, every star, every bubbling brook and every chance encounter with wonderful people along the way.
On the third day our plan was to cross back over the mountain range into Yangcen (羊岑) and from there head directly towards Laojunshan. You can see the images from this part of the expedition at my Flickr website here. We continued to follow the Misha River, tracing its course further and further upstream. As we left the stoney river campsite and travelled on the road adjacent to the river we noticed many locals busily walking in the same direction and numerous vehicles full of people, some in colourful Yi clothing, overtaking us and hurrrying around the many bends in the road. After we crossed a large ridge we saw what all the fuss was about. We had stumbled onto another market day, in this case the Misha Market. Since arriving in Dali this was my third market (and it wasn’t to be the last one!). The Misha Market is similar in scale and content to the Shaxi Market. Probably some of the same travelling merchants who were in Shaxi were now in Misha. The Misha Market was quite attractive as it occupied a large open space in the river valley. Once again the weather was spectacular and the festive mood of the market put us all in a very good spirits. These traditional market days are extremely colourful and a feast for both the eyes and the senses. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few market days in different parts of Yunnan and each time is like the ‘first time’ if you now what I mean. It’s a kind of sensory overload what with the sights, smells and sounds. The word ‘exotic’ seems to be very apt in this case as many stalls and merchants sell items that only a trained botanist could recognise!
It was very appropriate that our mule team should pass through the Misha Market (and San Ge took the opportunity to purchase some provisions for his muleteers, as did we also). It was through the mule teams and especially the trade in tea, but also other commodities, that the development of market towns across southern China (Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Tibet) was able to take place. It was through trade that market towns were able to grow and prosper and in turn provide a conduit for other ‘commodities’ such as religion and culture to travel on the Chamagudao. It is pleasing to see that although the mule teams have had their day the importance of the weekly market continues.
I’m quite fascinated by the itinerant merchants who work at these markets. I don’t think much research has been done on their lifestyles. I always like to take a chance to chat to a few of them and find out where they come from and where they are going. They are generally extremely friendly. In Misha one kind merchant insisted I have lunch with himself and his partners, but I had to decline. I met one merchant who I believe encapsulates the sense of innovation and entreprenuralism of provincial China. This gentleman is a merchant from Jiangxi Province, a very long way from Misha! He was selling music compact discs. Each disc contained somewhere between 100 – 300 songs! No doubt there are some copyright issues here! In any case he was selling them rather cheaply (approximately 15 yuan per disc). In a remote place like Misha which is still relatively poor this represents a good bargain and great value for money. But what was most interesting was the special contraption he had created to ply his wares. He had modified a small two wheel trolley into a mobile ‘boom box’! He simply put in a disc and wandered through the market playing music and inticing potential customers to part with their hard earned yuan.
We left the Misha Market and continued to follow the Misha River finally beginning to wind its way down from the hills. There was a little bit of traffic on the mountain path that day. There were some locals transporting timber down the mountain. During the 1980s and up until 1998 China’s forest resources were not managed very well. On this mountain we walked on some of the old logging roads, quite well constructed and obviously made for small trucks. In 1997 there were massive floods and many experts pointed the figure at the destruction of the mountain forests. So in 1998 the Chinese Goverment issued a national ban on logging. The logging ban seems to have been very effective. Large scale commercial logging is no longer, so the mountain forests have had a chance to rejuvinate (and there has also been quite a bit of replanting as well, including policies which aim to convert mountainside farmland to forest 退耕还林, but more on this some other time). Unfortunately the Chinese demand for timber has not declined, on the contrary it has continued to rise, which means the timber has to come from somewhere else and it seems Myanmar is a major provider (more on this in a future blogpost on my trip to Longchuan County 龙川县 in Dehong Prefecture 德宏州). Of course the locals are still permitted to use the local timber resources for building houses and so forth. To do so they should apply for a permit. And of course the trusty old mule comes in very handy indeed when transporting the timber down the mountain.
We ran into some poachers who had been hunting in the mountain forests. One of them had a rifle which he quickly hid behind some bushes when he spied us. Once they realised we were not from the forest department they relaxed and actually tried to sell us their trophies. They had an eagle and a pheasant. The eagle would be sold for medicinal purposes, the pheasant for its beautiful plumage. They had already consumed the pheasant meat (along with quite a bit of baijiu as well!). They told me they would try to sell the pheasant for 80 yuan. It was really distressing to think that such a marvellous creature was sacrificed for so little. Of course to the poachers 80 yuan is nothing to scoff your nose at and would be a sizable supplement to their income. Unfortunately the poaching of protected animals is quite common. The forestry authorities do not have enough resources to engage in policing, the sheer scale of the mountains and mountain paths is an obstacle in itself, and the locals are just too poor and illinformed, in many cases, to be able to resist. The poachers were typical mountain people, very tough and hardy folk. They had with them some trusty hunting dogs.
They also had some cow felt coats (披毡). These felt coats are made from cow hair and typically by the Yi people. The coats are quite heavy but very versitile, good for keeping warm on cold nights and the waterproofing keeps one dry in the rain (although they don’t seem to have anything other than a headdress for keeping their heads dry). Very handy for life in the moutains, especially for those out hunting, gathering food or herbs, and keeping an eye on flocks of goats, cows and/or horses.
We found a great campsite further up the mountain, with much thanks to our local guide, Mr Li. The campside was a narrow valley and when night fell it was a bit like being in a well. As a result the star display was brilliant and enjoyed gazing at the stars and thinking how remote we were only to be interrupted by a passing satellite!
The next day we continued up the mountain and passed over the top into the neighbouring valley. We passed through a number of Yi hamlets and finally into the Yangcen Valley, which was still firmly in ‘Bai country’. Not too much to report other than that we finally saw the Laojunshan Mountains, and they still seemed quite a way off! We camped that night outside Yangcen in a hillside graveyard. In rural China the hillsides are often given over to graves. This is better than using valuable flat arable land and it usually also results in better fengshui (风水). Given that the valley was quite populated and every speck of flat land was used for some or other purpose we had no choice but to camp on the hillside. Needless to say we were very respectful and made sure to leave everything as it was when we left.
After camping in the ‘dead centre of town’ we trekked across the valley to the foot of Laojunshan. We met an intereting old gentleman by the name of Mr Yang just outside of Yangcen. He was nearly 80 years old and had spent much of his life in the People’s Liberation Army. He fought the Japanese, the Nationalists, the Koreans, the Americans and the Vietnamese! He was lucky to have made it this far! He invited us into his lovely Bai courtyard house and gave us a brief overview of his life and times. Qutie fascinating. I really hope to return to interview Mr Yang again.
After a few more wearing hours of trekking we finally made it to the physical border separating the Bai and Naxi peoples, the Laojunshan Range. We camped that night just outside an Yi village and found, at the recommendation of the local Party Secretary, a young lad willing to take us up the mountain the next day. We were entering the final two days of the expedition to find the tea road over Laojunshan. We really had no idea what to expect or what we would come across the next day. Would we even be able to find a track suitable for mules and horses? It had been quite a few years since anyone had attempted to take a mule team over the range and who knows what state the path would be in, assuming that we could even find it.
We set out from Shaxi on 29th April. You can see the photos from the first two days at my Flickr site here. It was a beautiful sunny day with white fluffy clouds sailing across a blue sky. We gathered at about 8.30 am in the Market Square, after a sumptuous breakfast that would have even satisfied a hobbit, to await the arrival of the Mule Team (马帮). Sure enough in a few moments we heard the pleasant tinkling of bells, a sound that was to accompany us on the entire journey and one which I found very soothing, as the mules and horses were led by their owners down the narrow streets of Sideng. As we were gathering in the Market Square quite a curious crowd of locals and other visitors were looking on. It has probably been quite a long time since a mule team congregated in the Market Square. It is absolutely fantastic that Ed and Xiao Ge are reviving this important cultural heritage and much kudos they do deserve.
There were eleven equine members of the Mule Team, eight mules and three horses. Many of the mules and horses were working together for the first time. They seem excited to see each other and no doubt began working out the pecking order. Some of them actually got quite ‘frisky’ and were biting and jostling with one another. I will share some other observations about equine/mule behaviour later. Suffice to note for the moment the difference between a mule and a horse. A horse is, well, a horse. The horses in Southwest China are small in stature. We might call them ‘ponies‘. They are intelligent, strong and very sure-footed on the mountain paths. Indeed the horses of this region, and Tibet, were highly prized by the Chinese military for many many centuries (hence the importance of the ‘horse’ trade). A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. The muleteers say that mules are more docile, obedient and reliable than horses or donkeys. They make excellent beast of burden. In Chinese a mule is called a ‘luozi’ (骡子). Each Mule Team had a head horse or mule. This animal was usually a very experienced trekker, one which had walked the trail many times, so it knew all the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of the route. It was always an intelligent creature very sensitive to its surroundings and would sense danger and altert the team. Some of the mountain paths are very narrow and ‘collisions’ between mule teams were to be avoided at all costs! The head horse therefore played a very important role and was treated with special care and attention. In days gone past the head mule or horse would have been elaborately decorated with fancy headgear which included a bright red pom pom on the forehead. At the end of the day the mules and horses were always watered and fed first, before the muleteers. Which was indeed also the case on this trek.
Each Mule Team had a Head Muleteer (马锅头). The Head Muleteer was responsible for organising the Mule Team. Our Head Muleteer was San Ge (三哥), who I have already introduced. All of the muleteers on our trek were hired by San Ge. It seems most of them came from his village and were also surnamed Zhao (赵). San Ge made all the muleteers sign a detailed contract outlining their duties and responsibilities. Ed kindly gave me a copy of this contract which I treat with great respect as an authentic item of ‘Mule Team Culture’ (马帮文化). San Ge had a heavy responsibility to ensure the mule side of the trek went smoothly. In this regard he did an outstanding job.
Once the mules and horses had their packs installed we were ready to set off. We exited via the south gate of Sideng and pretty soon were walking down the main Shaxi Valley road. As I have already noted Shaxi Valley is very beautiful, very bucolic. We were making our way to a village down the road which was the point at which would ascend the mountain range and make our way over to the Misha River Valley (弥沙). Along the way we passed the ancient Chenghuangmiao (City/Town God Temple; 城隍庙). The front wall is extremely impressive although quite dilapidated. The locals still seem to pay respects at the temple as the bottom of the front wall was dotted with incense sticks. The sidedoor was locked, but looking through the gap I could see an amazing mural from the Maoist period so I knocked loudly and low and behold a young gentleman emerged and kindly let myself and Xiao Ge in. For myself and Xiao Ge the very large mural of Marx, Lenin and Mao is also a ‘cultural treasure’.
Once we left the road we hit the local mountain trail and began to climb. We passed mainly through pine forest. The view from the top of the first ascent of the Shaxi Valley was outstanding. After lunch we continued to gain in altitude and the forest also began to change somewhat. We finally reached the village of Mapingguan (马坪关) at 3,000 metres above sea level. It is one of the only villages in Jianchuan County is not connected to the road network. Mapingguan used to be a very important ‘custom point’ between Misha and Shaxi, mainly I gather for the salt trade. Lucy got very excited by the sight of bee hives and hunted down a local woman willing to sell us some ‘wild honey’. Mapingguan is certainly worth spending a few days to discover its hidden treasures. Definitely on the agenda next time!
As we got higher the pine trees began to make way for other varieties. Many were covered in lichen and moss. The presence of lichen, some of which was hanging down from the branches almost to the ground, indicates a very clean environement as lichen is very sensitive to pollution. This was the best part of the trek. Since Mapingguan we did not encounter any more villages. Finally we reached a wide mountain meadow with a bubbling brook and a mare and foal quietly grazing. This is were we set up camp. Spectacular! Actually, there was a small hamlet behind the trees and an elderly Bai man came over to see what all the fuss was about. He was calling out to his goat flock, calling them back home to be safely fenced in overnight. It was amazing to see the goats materialise and come over to him and off up the hill ‘home’.
The next day we made our way down the other side of the mountain into the Misha River Valley. This part of the trail included a very well preserved Chamagudao stone path. Just try to imagine how many mule teams have passed this way over the centuries! This really is a national treasure. We also passed through some amazing forest. As we got lower we hit the pine forest again and began a rapid descent into the valley.
Finally we made it to Misha. As I have already noted Misha was an important salt production site. Althoug its glory days have certainly passed you can still spy out a few grand old houses that are the last vestiges of ‘glory days’. The ‘salt well’ (盐井) is still in existence although no longer mined. It is housed in a temple to the ‘Salt Goddess’ (盐神母). One of the locals was kind enough to let us in to have a look. It seems that the temple is still actively used for ceremonial purposes, which is good to see.
We camped that night next to the river. Unfortunately the river is very polluted. China has a lot of work to do to clean up the environment. Nonetheless it was a good campsite and we all looked forward to the next day’s journey, even the grumpy mules!
On the 19th of May I visited China Jiliang University (中国计量学院) in the Higher Education Zone of Hangzhou in Xiasha (下沙). This was my first visit to Xiasha and I didn’t realise how big Hangzhou has become until I took the bus to the China Jiliang University campus! It took about 40 minutes from downtown. The new subway line will extend to Xiasha so that should make life a bit easier for all concerned.
China Jiliang University is a relatively new institution having only been established in the historic moment of the birth of reform in China in 1978. It has particular strengths in quality supervision and inspection and quarantine. The institution is also relatively small by Chinese standards with 15,000 students (full-time undergraduate and postgraduate). The new campus in Xiasha is very impressive with a massive library and modern state-of-the-art teaching facilities. At the time I visited many of the students were about to graduate and were strolling the campus in their academic gowns taking pictures. It made me think of how they must be looking forward to the next stage of their lives and the challenges that lay before them.
I was invited to give a lecture on my current research project on ethical tourism and China’s ‘Donkey Friend’ (驴友) phenomenon by my friend and colleague Professor Wu Zongjie who is the Dean of the College of Foreign Languages. Professor Wu is also an academic at Zhejiang University in the School of International Studies. Professor Wu has done some outstanding research, and practical work, on the recovery of cultural memory in rural Hangzhou. I now have a great big research report on Dongwu Village to work my way through thanks to Professor Wu! I also had the pleasure of meeting Professor Li Yuanjiang who is the Vice-Director and Secretary of the Party Branch. I gave my lecture to the students in the ‘Teaching Chinese as a Second Language’ major, so I also took some time to talk about my experiences in teaching Chinese in Australia and establishing and developing a Confucius Institute. The students and teachers were kind enough to laugh at my jokes. They also paid close attention to what I was saying and asked some excellent questions. As it happens I also met a few ‘Donkey Friends’ and have some additional interview subjects at my disposal!
After the lecture I had a very productive meeting with the teachers and scholars in the College of Foreign Languages, including Professor Wu and Dr Chen Hong (Director of International Relations). This is the college where the teaching of foreign languages such as English and Japanese is located. The College also teaches in the fields of cross-cultural communication, literature, and interpretation and translation. There are plans to establish a China Research Institute in the near future. Interestingly enough the Teaching of Chinese as a Second Language is also based in this college. Apparently there are some other Chinese universities where this is the case, but in the majority of cases the Teaching of Chinese as a Second Language is located in the Chinese departments (中文系). We discussed in detail the strengths and weaknesses of this arrangement. I also learnt a lot about the diverse fields of research activity in the College ranging from second language acquisition to cultural discourse studies. We also discussed plans for collaborative teaching and research. I’m very much looking forward to this and hope to make some special announcements later in the year.
I found the staff and students of the College of Foreign Languages at China Jiliang University to be extremely enthusiastic and bright. It is evident there is real drive and passion here. They made me very extremely welcome. Hopefully this is the beginning of a productive and long term relationship.
As noted in the previous blogpost I travelled to Dali to join the team undertaking an exploratory expedition on the Chamagudao (The Ancient Tea and Hourse Caravan Road) (茶马古道). The expedition was organised by Edward Jocelyn and Yang Xiao (杨肖) from Red Rock Expeditions. Ed is a well known ‘explorer’ (though he doesn’t wear a pith helmet, alas) of China’s western regions. He is only one of a handful of people in modern times to complete the Long March, quite an amazing achievement (he has published a book on the journey). He is currently researching and exploring the Chamagudao in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. Yang Xiao is one of China’s most famous outdoor adventure enthusiasts, well known as ‘the gear guy’. Xiao Ge (‘Brother Xiao’) can tie a knot and erect a shelter in seconds flat in pitch dark with a howling gale in his face, quite incredible. Both Ed and Xiao Ge have intimate knowledge of the region, its peoples, history and cultures. I was very honoured to be in their company and I learnt quite a bit along the way. As Confucius once said ‘With three of us together the other two can certainly teach me something’ (my translation of 三人行，必有我师焉). This expedition was aiming to find ancient Chamagudao paths from the Shaxi Valley (沙溪) in Jianchuan County (剑川县), Dali Prefecture (大理州) to the town of Shigu (石鼓) over the Laojunshan (老君山) Range. The Laojunshan Range is the major physical and cultural border between the Bai people and the Naxi people. Did we make it? Did we find the path? Well, you’ll just have to stayed tuned to find out! Anyway, as Ed was kind enough to remind me, ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey’.
On the 30th April we left Dali Old Town for Shaxi Valley. Shaxi is a valley in the eastern part of Jianchuan County. Click here to see Shaxi on Google Maps. Jianchuan is quite famous for its kilns, salt production and buddhist grottoes. Shaxi is a beautiful valley mainly inhabited by the Bai people. It is quite idyllic and bucolic. The village of Sideng Street (寺登街) is located in the Shaxi Valley. Sideng is one of the best, and most unspoilt, Chamagudao staging posts in Yunnan. A sealed road from Dali was only completed four years ago and so it is yet to see large scale tourist development (but rest assured that the tourist hordes will be coming!). I should also note that the team included Jacques (a gentleman seventy years young!), Simon, Tina, Rebecca and Lucy (aka ‘Little Lucifer’) – all of whom turned out to be fine travelling companions (and some of them are damn good cooks too!). The images of the visit to Sideng and the Shaxi Valley can be found at my Flickr site here.
A little background to the Ancient Chinese Horse and Tea Caravan Road is required. Trade has been conducted between the regions and peoples of Yunnan and the outside for thousands of years (check out the excellent display in the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming if you get a chance). The so-called ‘tea trade’ begins in earnest during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Ancient Chinese Tea and Horse Caravan Road begins to develop (henceforth I will refer to it as the ‘Chamagudao’ (dao = dow) (茶马古道)) at this time. The Chamagudao is an extensive network of trading routes connecting the major centres of trade in Southwest China, Sichuan and Tibet. There is actually a lot of current debate as to how extensive the Chamagudao is, some even claim it goes all the way to Russia! Suffice to say that it is particulary important in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. The route between Puer (pooh-r) in Yunnan to Lasha in Tibet is particulary well recognised and famous (Puer produces the famous ‘puer tea’ and tea can be considered a ‘staple’ of Tibetan people). One could equally argue that the Chamagudao extends to India and Mainland Southeast Asia as well and therefore has an international dimension just as significant as the much more famous ‘Silk Road’.
The main form of transport on the Chamagudao were pack animals, mainly horses and mules. In some places on the Tibetan Plateau yaks were used instead of horses due to the high altitudes. Different ethnic groups, including the Han of course, had horse teams (马帮). When I say ‘horse’ here I also include mules, let’s not get too confused. The main ethnic groups were the Bai, Tibetan, Han, Naxi and Hui (muslims). There may be others (still trying to find out, actually I hope to conduct a detailed interview with Professor Ma Jihong soon, he is probably China’s foremost expert on the Yunnan Chamagudao). The actual horse teams could be out on the Chamagudao for anything up to six months at a time, even longer. So quite a sophisticated and complex culture around the life and times of a Horse Team developed (including what we might refer to as ‘Chamagudao Technology’).
In addition to tea , the trade in salt was extremely important. In our modern day and age we forget how valuable a commodity salt was for much of human history. Just consider the importance of salt in the process of preserving meats and vegetables in the days before refridgeration. Salt was therefore a major concern of government (a major source of tax revenue and in China for much of its history a state monopoly). In fact to this day some very remote and poor communities in China do not have enough salt in their diet and the resulting iodine deficiency can lead to serious physical ailments. Other commodities traded were silk, felt (made from cow hair), precious stones, and medicinal components (plant, animal and mineral). Indeed sometimes the Chamagudao is known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’, but it appears that silk was not as important as the other commodities. Apparently there are good Chinese dynastic government records at some of the trading posts tallying the quantities and items being traded. I hope to see some these one day.
Walking through the streets and alleyways of Sideng doesn’t take too much time. It is quite a small village. Nonetheless it is evident from the architecture and buildings that at one time Sideng was a major Horse and Tea Caravan staging post. Certainly it is clear that Sideng has seen better days. In fact it was quite a flourishing staging post throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was only in the 20th Century with civil strife and war and the gradual development of modern transport and road networks that Shaxi began to decay and stagnate. Many of the buildings are in need of urgent repair and restoration. I guess one benefit of mass tourism is that there is now a major incentive for the Jianchuan County Government to undertake this very large and expensive project. Fortunately the Swiss Government has come to the table and has generously donated funds to begin the restoration, and more importantly in my view, undertake a detailed study and produce a restoration plan for the town. The Shaxi Restoration Project is a joint undertaking between the Jianchuan County Government and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich. Full details are on The Shaxi Restoration Project website.
We stayed in an ancient Horse and Tea Caravan Hotel (马店) now called the Laomadian Traditional Guesthouse. This is one of only a handful of remaining Horse and Tea Caravan Hotels in existence (I believe there is another near Lijiang which is now a restaurant). This is probably the only one still functioning as a hotel. Often these hotels were set up and run by retired/successful Chamagudao merchants. Most of the time the Horse Team would have simply camped out on the road somewhere (near a clean water supply preferably). But I’m sure they looked forward to getting into town at some point to enjoy a few luxuries and get some entertainment. The Laomadian Hotel has been tastefully refurbished and restored by a Taiwanese designer. It consists of two major courtyards and several buildings. I counted at least four wells on the premises. I stayed out in the back rooms as did Tina and Ed. Ed explained that in the old days this is where the Horse Team leaders would reside, so I felt quite privileged.
The Laomadian has a fantastic location right next to the Market Square. The Market Square is one of the finest examples of a traditional market square that I have thus far seen in China. It is quite unique insofar as on one side there is an ancient temple – Xingjiao Temple (constructed during the Ming in 1415) – and directly opposite the temple an open air theatre stage which has been fully restored. The theatre stage is quite exquisite with a fantastic ceiling mural (a classic dragon and phoneix motif, see my Flickr site for this image). Imagine the muleteers and locals sitting in the square enjoying local operatic performances (and no doubt performers from Lijiang and elsewhere). I wonder if they ever had an ‘open mic’ night? Did they ever hear the ‘Mule Team Blues’?
Above the Temple is a small shrine to Kuixing (魁星) which is the deity of essay writing. In his had he holds a calligraphy brush (the ancient equivalent to a ‘ball point pen’). You can access this shrine via the Chamagudao Exhibition which now occupies the theatre building (see the image on my Flickr website). The exhibition is quite small and doesn’t have very many artifacts but is certainly worth a visit.
The day we arrived was the weekly Shaxi/Sideng market day. This was the weekly market. It used to be held in the Sideng Market Square but has been moved to the ‘new’ section of the town in order to preserve the buildings in the square. Fair enough. No doubt the Market Square will return as a ‘tourist’ market square one of these days. The market was very colourful. As usual there were many Bai and Yi women in traditional garb. These local markets are extremely important to the local people. There are no supermarkets in the mountains and remote regions so people depend on these markets to sell and buy produce. They are also a colourful distraction from the mundane routines of rural life. This market was of course nothing like the scale of the Dali Third Month Street Festival market (which is actually as the name suggests a ‘festival’ and therefore rather special). But in terms of basic commodities it was well supplied.
It’s early spring so a walk in the valley fields revealed a lot of activity as the transplanting of the rice seedlings into the paddy fields had just begun. The canola crop had come and gone, and the wheat crop was coming along very nicely. Rice is such a labour intensive activity. As is often the case there also seems to be a clear gendered division of labour. The men it seems are responsible for plowing the fields (this is done in various stages) and for diverting the water into the fields to make the ‘rice paddy’ (稻田). The women take on the hard task of removing the rice seedlings from the ‘nurseries’ and transplanting them into the paddy field (although I did see the occasional man doing this as well). From what I saw in Shaxi most of the plowing is done by tractors. In some of the poorer valleys we visited the trusty water buffalo was still being deployed. Unfortunately the transplanting of rice seedlings is still done by hand. This is back breaking work.
The next day we hit the road and began the actual trek. We were six days and nights on the trail. Yes, that’s right, no bathing for six days! I will provide details in three installments. Stay tuned!
I travelled to Dali, Yunnan, on the 28th April to join the team undertaking the exploration of the Ancient Tea and Horse Road over the Laojunshan (老君山) Mountains (more about this in the next blogpost). As it happens the timing couldn’t have been better as the annual ‘Third Month Street’ festival (三月街) (sometimes rendered in English as the ‘March Street’ festival) was in full swing. This is the most important festival of the Bai people (白族). The Bai people are one of China’s 56 officially recognised ethnic groups with a population of about 1.8 million. They reside predominantly in the Dali Bai Minority Prefecture and the surrounding areas. The Bai people are quite fascinating and a lot could be said about their history (but I don’t have space here!). Although their culture is very sinified (and that’s not a criticism by the way!) they still retain many of their own cultural beliefs and practices. The Bai also cook some of the best food in China. The images for this blog are at my Flickr site here. A map of where Dali is located in China can be found here at Google Maps. The old town of Dali is on the west side of the Erhai Lake (look for Dalizhen).
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Dali quite a few times. My first visit was in 1990 and was quite memorable given that my passport was pick pocketed and I had to abort all plans to reach the then legendary town of Lijiang and return instead to Shanghai (the home of the nearest Australian office for consular affairs). I’m older and wiser now and took special care to not let that misfortune repeat itself. In those days it took about 17 hours to travel from Kunming to Dali. How things have changed. It now takes about four hours on the new expressway. Needless to say there is now an airport as well (which is surrounded by high mountains, the planes have to literally pull straight upwards after take-off, quite exhilarating and nerve-wracking at the same time!).
Dali has a special place in the annals of Australians ‘watching’ China. The famous explorer and journalist George Morrison passed through Dali in 1895 in his overland trek from Shanghai to Mandalay. He wrote about his journey in An Australian in China, well worth a read if you get a chance. C. P. Fitzgerald, one of the founding fathers of Chinese Studies at The Australian National University, spent one whole year in Dali observing the Bai people (which in his day were called the ‘minjia’ 民家’) in the late 1930s. His book The Tower of the Five Glories is a classic work in Chinese ethnography and I read it a few years ago with great joy. His descriptions and stories constantly come back to memory. In his book Fitzgerald actually describes the ‘Third Month Festival’ and notes its importance as an annual market for procuring the various necessities of life, and of course as a great excuse for an enjoyable day out (although I don’t have a copy to hand here in Hangzhou to verify exactly!).
The old town of Dali is reasonably well preserved. It has been spared the dramatic scale of commercialisation that has wrecked havoc on Lijiang. Dali Old Town is still a functioning town. It has tourist zones of course but also many back alleys and streets where mundane residential life continues as per normal. Dali sits at the crossroads. From here you can travel north to Lijiang, west to Baoshan (and then to Burma), and south-east to Kunming. Other options will take you to nearby Sichuan. Thus Dali has always been an important trading post and a major conduit for commerce, ideas, religion, culture and so on. Of course, it was a major stopping point in the Ancient Tea and Horse Road (more about this in the Laojunshan Expedition blog coming soon).
The ‘Third Month’ refers to the Chinese Lunar Calendar which explains why a ‘third month’ festival was taking place at the end of April. The festival is held on the 15th day of the Third Month and lasts for five to seven days (this year it was held from 28th April to 4th May). It is a very ancient festival that some claim stems back to the Tang Dynasty, but according to one academic paper the earliest written record only dates back to the Ming. The festival is said to have been first instigated as a form of worship of the Bodhisattva Guanyin and may have developed as a temple fair at first (so it is also known as the ‘Guanyin Festival’), later becoming a full-scale market fair (one of the biggest in China).
Although today’s San Yue Jie is nothing like that described by C. P. Fitzgerald all those years ago, I think that if he were to return he would recognise many features. First of all, it is still an outdoor market which takes place outside the city walls (which have now been mostly removed) at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains. The Cangshan Mountains are the magnificent backdrop to Dali and the fertile fields that rest between the mountains and the Erhai Lake. In terms of Chinese fengshui (风水) Dali is very well endowed. No doubt the festival is much bigger than it was in Fitzgerald’s day. In fact now it is so huge it really takes a full day just to get around all the stalls which occupy quite a few blocks outside the western side of the old town. Two days would probably be need to do it justice. Beware of the crowds! And as I learnt many years ago, watch out for pickpockets!
Secondly, this is still a very important market fair. One thing that is clear from observing the festival in its contemporary incarnation is the extent to which Dali is now integrated into the Chinese market economy. There are literally hundreds of shops and stalls open in the festival grounds selling all manner of commodities: foodstuffs, tea (doh!), medicinal products, clothes, household items, jewellery, musical instruments, farm equipment and even horses and mules (I overheard some locals bargaining for a horse, the price was about 3,000 yuan!). The festival has certainly become very commercial and merchants come from all over China to take place (some even from Myanmar). Many of the major Chinese corporations in the fields of food and beverage and telecommunications were present, actively advertising their products (and giving away prizes etc). According to the Chinese media for the first time the festival also had a special motor vehicle display. There are also dozens of itinerant merchants wandering through the festival selling bits and pieces (as well as those who set up impromptu kitchens to cook fast food on the pavement).
What I found interesting is that many of the people with stalls actually live in them for the duration of the festival. A bit like camping out. At the back of the festival in the livestock section some of them even have campfires and the billy on the boil.
Thirdly, the event is still very important to the locals. There is a real festive atmosphere and many people are dressed up in their ‘Sunday best’ so to speak. You can see many Bai women in traditional costumes. Many young men attempt to outdo each other in the latest ‘bad boy’ style fashion. Many of the other nearby minority people, such as the Yi and Hui (muslims), also show up in their finery (only the women folk, the men folk of most minorities have adopted modern Han dress). The Yi women have some of the most beautiful clothes and really stand out in a crowd.
Actually, as I found out, there are also quite a few Tibetans, some from Yunnan and some from Tibet proper, at the festival who have a special section devoted to the selling of Tibetan goods (mainly medicinal components of a botanical and zoological nature, but also yak butter and other Tibetan goodies). They travel annually to the festival to ply their wares, another indication of the importance of the festival and of Dali as a trading port.
And a fun time can’t be had without good festival food and ‘sideshow alley’ entertainment. There are a lot of food stalls (selling deep fried chicken drumsticks in batter which seem to be the equivalent of the Australian ‘dagwood dog’), rides and games. In this regard the festival reminded me somewhat of our Australian ‘Royal Agricultural Exhibitions’. Oh and yes, some people set up ‘impromptu’ sideshow games on the pavement. Some of these may be a bit ‘dodgy’ and I noticed the local authorities checking them out.
Fourthly, in addition to the commercial activities there are quite a few cultural and recreational activities celebrating Bai culture. There are several venues where Bai music is performed (duet singing and orchestra). I believe there are also displays of Bai handicrafts such as wood engraving though I didn’t come across them. There is a very popular horse racing carnival taking place at the same time with teams of horse racers from those regions where horse riding is well established. Other displays of archery and the Bai sport of ‘the swing’ (see the pictures!) are also in action.
I really enjoyed the horse racing. The crowd getting in was incredible. The police officers on duty where yelling at people to line up and be orderly but to little effect! Once in the grounds it was a bit better.
This year there were 14 horse teams with approximately 150 jockeys and 130 horses. The horse teams came from various places in Yunnan (Dali City, Eryuan County, Jianchuan, and Shangrila) and around the country (Beijing, Inner-Mongolia, Sichuan and Guizhou). Of course given this is China there was no betting (not in public at least!).
Overall I found this festival well worth a visit. It still retains many features of traditional festivals whilst at the same time it is clearly evolving many ‘modern’ features as well. The atmosphere was extremely festive (though crowded and hot in the afternoon). People are very friendly and happy (so quite willing to strike up a conversation, and I had quite a few of those with people from all over Yunnan and China). This was not however to be the last ‘market’ I visited on this trip to Yunnan. In the days that followed there were a few more surprises. This all provided a great contrast between the large ‘San Yue Jie’ festival of Dali and the importance of smaller markets in mountainous areas (but more about these later).
From 11 – 12 May I visited The University of Nottingham, Ningbo Campus to give a lecture on my ‘China Routes’ project. Nottingham Ningbo is only one of two foreign universities to have fully operational campuses in China (the other is based in Shenzhen and technically speaking is not ‘foreign’ but rather from Hong Kong). I believe more foreign universities will be following this pattern in the near future. Nottingham Ningbo is still quite small with only 4,300 students but that’s to be expected given that it is a very new venture. The university campus is located in the higher education zone of the city which, like most such zones in Chinese cities, is a fair way from the city centre. The grounds are very attractive. The staff and students were very warm and welcoming. I definitely felt like I was visiting a ‘foreign’ university as the staff were much less formal and casual, it felt a bit like being back in Australia! Click here to see where Ningbo is located (Google Maps).
Ningbo is a very prosperous city on the Zhejiang coast just south of the Hangzhou Gulf (only about 1.4 hours from Hangzhou via the fast speed train service). It has always been a major centre for trade and commerce, traditions which continue to this day. In fact people have been farming and living in the area since at least 5000BC as the remains of the Hemudu Culture (河姆渡文化) only a few kilometres from Ningbo testifies.
Most recently Ningbo became famous for a ‘handsome’ beggar who was dubbed by the netizens of China as ‘brother sharp’ (犀利哥). He was also called the ‘Beggar Prince (乞丐王子) and ‘Handsom Vagabond’ (英俊的流浪汉). Many netizens romanticised ‘Brother Sharp’ and his apparently bohemian lifestyle. Some even took the opportunity to cash-in and come up with fashion items imitating his so-called ‘vagabond chic’. It turns out in fact that this young man of 35 years is suffering from mental illness. His family in Jiangxi had lost all contact with him for some time. One positive outcome I guess is that he is now reunited with his family and can get appropriate treatment. Unfortunately many people in China with mental illness end up on the streets just like ‘Brother Sharp’ and their lives are far from glamorous. The stark contrast between Ningbo’s wealth and the inadequate state of social support services for people like ‘Brother Sharp’ reminds us that China still has a long way to go before becoming a truly ‘harmonious society’. Unfortunately Australia isn’t a fine example either!
In November 2009, with a number of students from UWA then currently studying at Zhejiang University, I hiked over part of the Tianmushan Range between Anhui and Zhejiang via the ‘Ancient Anhui-Hangzhou Road’ (徽杭古道) (to see the images from this initial trip visit my Flickr page here; the images from this trip are here). It is not a very difficult hike and could easily be completed in one full day (approximately 25 kilometres), but we broke it up with an overnight stay at the top of the pass. Prior to this I didn’t even know that such an ‘ancient road’ existed (although careful reflection will reveal that people have been moving around China for thousands of years and there are bound to be some traces still left in the modern era!). So as part of my new project (China Routes), when I recently had the great pleasure to visit Anhui (see my previous post), I added a special trip to Jixi County (绩溪县) to conduct a preliminary investigation. Click here to see Jixi County on Google Maps.
As I noted in my last post Anhui is extremely rich in culture and history. That sounds like a bit of a cliché in China where you only have to turn over a stone to find the remnants of human activity stemming back hundreds if not thousands of years. But my feeling from my trip to Anhui, and especially to Huizhou (which is now called ‘Huangshan City’), is that here still resides some of the essential features of Chinese culture and society that foreigners typically associate with ‘traditional’ China, and in particular landscape, culture and cuisine. Allow me to explain. The physical geography of Huizhou (which includes Huangshan City and Xuancheng City) is primarly hills, mountains and valleys. Myriad streams and rivers criss-cross the region. It is extremely pictureseque. Humans have been living here and cultivating the land for thousands of years. The mountains and hills are still quite well forested whilst the valleys and any availble flat land has been turned over to agriculture. The land is dotted with numerous towns and villages, many of which still have retained many traditional structures (which alas have been lost in most of the big cities of eastern China in the rush to ‘modernise’ the urban landscape).
As far as human habitation is concerned it is extremely tough going as there is little arable land relative to the size of the population. These conditions of a large population and limited agricultural land meant that the people of Huizhou had to use other talents in order to make a living. As it turned out the people of Huizhou were good at business. The men of the household often engaged in various forms of commercial activity. This of course meant leaving Anhui. Thus the term ‘Walking out of Anhui’ (走出安徽) was used to describe the development of the Hui Merchant Culture (徽商文化). There are water routes that connect to the Yangtze, Qiantang and other rivers. But for many Hui Merchants the simplest thing to do, especially those residing in Jixi County, was to walk over the mountains into Zhejiang and seek opportunities in Hangzhou and the other prosperous cities of the Yangtze Delta (including Jiangsu of course). There is a famous saying that says ‘A town is not a town without a Hui merchant’ (无徽不成镇).The Hui Merchants were very successful. They dominated trade and commerce in China for much of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. This was quite an achievement in itself given that Confucianism tended to stress agriculture and restrict commercial activity. They dominated the lucrative salt trade (which makes for an interesting connection to my recent exploration of the Yunnan Ancient Tea Road where vast quanties of salt were produced. Stayed tuned for the next blog post!). Trade in important commodities such as tea and wood were also on the top of the list and they were strongly engaged in basic financial institutions such as pawn shops. Many Hui Merchants amassed great fortunes which they used to good effect in their home villages and towns to build beautiful houses, ancestral halls, schools, academies and so on. Hence this is partly the reason why Huizhou is such a treasure-trove of Chinese culture, cuisine and architecture. Many of these ancient structures have survived, partly due to the relative isolation and slower paced of ‘modernisation’ in Anhui.
Given the strength of education within Confucianism it is not surprising that the people of Huizhou produced many outstanding scholars. Amongst the most famous is Zhu Xi (1130 -1200) who developed the key tenents behind ‘Neo-Confucianism’ (which was basically the guiding state philosopy/statecraft until the early 20th Century). In addition to commerce, education was extremely important as a means of social mobility. If successful one could pass the civil service examinations and join the Chinese bureaucracy.Anhui is also famous for its cuisine, which is one of the eight families of Chinese cuisine. Professor Huang explained to me that the origin of Hui Cuisine was Jixi County. He noted that the county was famous for its chefs who in the past would ‘Walk out of Anhui’ to ply their culinary skills all across China. Professor Huang took me to a small non-descript restaurant and I have to agree that the food was outstanding! Certainly the best dumplings I have ever had the fortune to consume! I have the details of the restaurant for future reference!
With the local County Party Secretary and Village Committee Head, we walked up the first section of the Ancient Anhui-Hangzhou Road. The pathing dates back many hundreds of years. Professor Huang pointed out various historical monuments along the way, the most significant of which was an engraving from the Song Dynasty. The engraving basically celebrates the reconstruction of the road and outlines its importance to the local people as a safe route for trade and commerce. Given that it was early spring the hills beside the path were covered in azaleas (杜鹃). Later we had a chance to taste these flowers in one of the local dishes, in a deep fried batter of all things (see below).As I noted above when referring to Hui Merchants we are typically talking about the men folk. Confucianism is particularly patriarchal with women designated to specific roles within the household. Neo-Confucianism took this even further making an almost cult out of the ‘virtuous wife and good mother’ (贤妻良母). Given the many men of Huizhou left for extened periods to engage in commerce it is not surprising that given the law of probability that some never returned due to whatever misfortune. Wives in these cases were expected to remain ‘virtuous’ and not remarry. Such widows were held up as models in a ‘cult of chastity’. Some of the more famous widows were granted ‘memorial arches’ (牌坊), some of which were even approved by the Emperor himself.
The fengshui (风水) of Jixi County is pretty good. It is a relatively narrow but fertile valley. Its most famous village is Longchuan (龙川) (which also refers to the the local river too). This happens to be the ancestral home of President Hu Jintao’s family! It is home to forty-eight generations of the Hu family! In fact many Huizhou villages have such longstanding families and the geneaological records (家谱) are well preserved (Huangshan University has an extensive collection and continues to track them down for preservation and research rather than letting them fall into the hands of collectors). Longchuan is indeed a very well preserved Huizhou village and this in its own right would be enough of a reason to visit. The Hu family have also produced many outstanding scholars, officials and merchants. In fact it is well known as a ‘village of scholars’ (进士村). But given that it has produced someone now sitting on the ‘dragon throne’ (metaphorically speaking of course!) it has become a major tourist attraction!