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Inaugural Lijiang Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Symposium

A Naxi women glances into the lens as street performers attempt to entertain the tourist hordes.

I was invited to attend the Inaugural Lijiang Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Symposium (2010丽江茶马古道文化研讨会) in Lijiang (丽江), Yunnan (云南) from 6th – 8th July, 2010. The event was hosted by the People’s Government of Lijiang (丽江市人民政府) and supported by the Lijiang Cultural Research Association (丽江文化研究会), the Naxi Cultural Research Association (纳西文化研究会), and the Lijiang Tea Chamber of Commerce (丽江市茶叶商会). Once again I was wearing a hat from the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University, special thanks to Professor Mu Jihong. The focus was the tea road and related cultural traditions as they exist in and around Lijiang, so I got a good overview of the cultural heritage issues and history debates from a Naxi viewpoint in this regard (the Naxi 纳西 are the local ethnic group). There were also scholars from other parts of Yunnan, including of course Professor Mu Jihong (who as it happens is himself a native Naxi from nearby Lashi Lake), and of course other provinces and regions where the tea road is of historical and contemporary importance (Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu and so forth). We were also joined by Professor Chen Baoya of Peking University (who announced that Peking University is also establishing a tea road research centre). Professor Mu and Chen were one of the ‘six immortals’ who took part in the historic research expedition twenty years ago on the tea road to Tibet. It was their initial journey and the subsequent publication of the account which really started the research and ‘rediscovery’ of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. I was honoured to be able to spend time with them, and other scholars, at the symposium (more time was spent around the dinner and tea tables, but in reality this is where in Chinese culture you socialise and engage in discourse).

With China's top 'Ancient Tea Horse Road' scholars.

Lijiang was one of the most important, and prosperous, staging posts on the Ancient Tea Horse Road from Puer to Lhasa. Here is another fine example of memorialising the history of the tea road in bronze public sculpture.

Lijiang is an historic staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. The predominant nationality are the Naxi. The history and culture of the Naxi and of Lijiang is incredibly rich. There’s no way to do it justice in just a few words to suffice to say the the old town of Lijiang is listed as World Cultural Heritage. It has undergone tremendous change over the last two decades and has been transformed from a sleepy backwater to a commercially driven and thriving domestic and international tourist destination. The sheer success of Lijiang has had a detrimental impact, many would argue, on the ‘culture’ of the old town. Many of the residents of the old town no longer live there, having moved out to give way to tourism developments. And with all the tourists and noise who would want to live there anyway! But many locals I met, maybe with vested interests in commercial tourism (out of courtesy I didn’t ask), see things differently. They regard Lijiang’s commercial spirit as a continuation of the spirit of trade and entrepreneurship associated with The Ancient Tea Horse Road. Suffice to say that this will be one of the topics for me to investigate more thoroughly in the coming years. You can see where Lijiang is located on Google Maps here. You can see the images taken from this trip on my Flickr website here.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looms large in the Lijiang background, a majestic backdrop that reminds you your well in the mountains now!

Steamed Barley Buns (sweet or savoury), a Naxi speciality.

The night before the symposium Professor Mu kindly informed me that I was going to give a presentation at the opening ceremony. Thanks! It was only ten minutes long (and being a relatively disciplined speaker I kept to the time limit. Out of twenty speakers that day I was the only one to do so! Academics have no sense of time and seem to love the sound of their own voices!). As I haven’t actually done any research worthy of reporting at this stage I spoke about my experience in the Confucius Institute and the links between ‘cultural communication’ and the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ vis-a-vis ‘softpower’. I explained that I see the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ as an excellent platform to promote Chinese culture. As a research area it is extremely colourful and diverse. The inclusion of ‘tea’ is also a real winner as there is not a place on earth where tea is not a welcome beverage. My talk was well received and I had many scholars and officials coming to speak to me over the next few days. I was also interviewed by a number of newspapers and TV stations, they were keen to get an ‘outsider’ perspective for which I was only too willing to oblige. I’m really grateful to be so welcomed and to have so much enthusiastic support from all my colleagues. Now I just have to get some real research done! Easier said than done!

The conference coincided with a large commercial tea exhibition. Tea manufacturers, most of whom came from Puer, displayed their wares and offered tastings to passers-by.  Here a young Naxi lass pours a cup of freshly brewed Puer.

The only way to conduct research ... on horseback! Will have some difficulty getting 'Dali' through the library doors though.

The third day of the symposium was devoted to a field trip to examine the remnants of the tea road around Lijiang. Unfortunately I couldn’t take part as I had to catch a plane to Shanghai in the afternoon. So instead I arranged for a driver to take me to Lashi Lake to inspect the tea road myself. Oh dear! I should have explained myself to the driver a bit better (although Professor Mu did warn me that the actual remnant tea road is not so well known by the locals). Instead the driver took me to the horse riding attraction by the lake. I was a little bit bewildered but not totally lost for words. I asked him how from here was I to get to the Ancient Tea Horse Road? He pointed to a nearby horse. I then examined the noticeboard and discovered that one of the horse trails was to take riders to the tea road itself. Okay, I thought, what better way to inspect the old trail than on horseback! I paid the fee and was introduced to Ms Yang, a local Naxi farmer who was to be my guide. The horse I rode, named Dali (after the town of Dali), also belonged to her. I was assured by Ms Yang that Dali was an obedient steed but he didn’t seem to keen that particular day. Luckily I know a little about horse riding and was able to get him to move in the right direction, which impressed Ms Yang no end! After a few ‘adventures’ on the trail we finally made it to the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’, or so both Ms Yang suggested and the nearby rock engraving declaring the same indicated. I looked around. I even got of the horse and had a quick gander on foot. But to my disappointment I did not see any remnant trail at all! Ms Yang then sheepishly confessed that although this was the original site of part of the trail the stone paving had been removed some years ago to replace stones in the old town of Lijiang itself. Oh dear! The only trail I saw that day was a concrete path the villagers had built as part of the ‘tourist trail loop’.

Ms Yang picking fresh sweet yellow plums from her courtyard tree. That very evening I was enjoying these with friends in Shanghai!

Although I didn’t find the remnant trail on this trip I nonetheless was rewarded with an engaging conversation with Ms Yang and I learnt a great deal about the development and operation of tourism in this instance. Ms Yang explained that when they first developed the horse riding venture it was down on a rather ad hoc and unorganised basis. Different families and villages competed against one another. Prices were not set and altercations with tourists were common. Insurance and liability was also another prickly issue that raised its head when accidents occurred. Finally the local tourism authority stepped in and took over the overall management of the venture, for as Ms Yang explained, ‘We are farmers and don’t have any culture’. Hmmm … Anyway, according to Ms Yang, things are much better. Every household is welcome to join the venture and the tourists are equally distributed. The outside ‘managers’ take a cut to cover administration and so forth. The concrete path was built at the request of many tourists who were intimidated by the mud and dirt, whereas in fact the horses (there are no mules involved) and farmers prefer to ride on the unpaved section. Ms Yang was very kind and we stopped at her house on the way back. She showed me her stables, courtyard and garden. She has two daughters, one of whom is a dance instructor in Chengdu and the other works in store in the old town. She picked a pile of yellow plums from the plum tree growing in her courtyard which I took with me to Shanghai and enjoyed over the next couple of days, each juicy bite bringing back fond memories of equine enjoyment under sunny skies (not a horse or blue sky to been seen in Shanghai!). Anyway, I now have some good openings to persue the topic of tourism and the horse road a bit further, if I so desire.

Whilst in Lijiang I also attended the opening of a 'branch' of the Yunnan University Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute. It is also something of a museum/exhibition with a massive diorama of the tea road from Puer to Lhasa that covers two entire stories.

A bovine hybrid? I'm not too sure ...

I also had a bit of luck of the bovine variety. Whilst in Shanghai a few days earlier I came across a book in which was written: “Long years of training and domestication have resulted in domestic yaks, which may be crossed with oxen to produce a stirile hybrid. Hardy, with a stalwart build and docile temperament, this animal is equally suited for use on the high plateau and in the plains … Their gait over flat land is sure and steady and has earned them the names “ships of the plateau””. As we were passing through Ms Yang’s village one particular bovine specimen took my eye as from all appearances it was half-yak/half-oxen! I asked Ms Yang to verify my suspicions and to my delight I’m glad to report that I think I have now seen a yak-oxen bovine hybrid in the flesh. And what a fine specimen of a beast! I have since discovered that these beasts are known in Tibetan as dzo and that if the hybrid offspring is female it is raised for its milk, if male as a beast of burden. I also suspect that much of the milk that goes to make up ‘Yak Yoghurt’ (a popular dairy product in Lijiang and growing in popularity in Beijing and Shanghai) and ‘Yak Jerky’ is actually derived from these animals. To be investigated!

Part of the diorama. Here we see yaks (or the bovine hybrids?) taking on the task of transporting tea and goods on the high Tibetan plateau.

Lijiang has become such a tourist 'Mecca' that visitors need to be reminded 'shopping should be rational'!

I first visited Lijiang in 1994. In those days it was still a relatively quiet place with a distinctly bucolic and relaxed atmosphere. Today it is a bustling city with a burgeoning tourist industry. In the past it was the foreign tourist that was the main pillar of the tourist economy, but nowadays, as is the case all over China, it is the domestic tourist which is the driving force. Oh my God! How Lijiang has changed! When I first visited Lijiang there were only a couple of foreign style and Chinese restaurants, and a handful of bars. Now, with the massive influx of Chinese tourists looking for leisure and fun, Lijiang’s bar scene has powered ahead and is really quite something else to see. Here is another topic worthy of research: the emergence of China’s bar culture and proliferation across China.

The old market square of Ljiang, now firmly part of the 'shopping experience', 21st Century tourist style!

The next generation of Naxi women dancing in the market square. Where did the old women go I wonder?

Lijiang also has a strong live music scene. First and foremost are the musical traditions of the Naxi. The Naxi elite imported the musical fashions from the Tang Court and whereas those musical styles have long since disappeared in Han China they still survive in Lijiang. Mr Xuan Ke, a living legend, reinvigorated the Naxi classical music in the 1980s and the orchestra performs on a daily basis, much to the delight of music aficionados and no doubt to Mr Xuan’s hip pocket. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Mr Xuan a few times previously and also saw him in action at the symposium as he reminisced about the horse caravans. He is now eighty-one and still going strong. Mr Xuan urged all the delegates to see the Naxi classical music orchestra, and to do so soon, as the players are aging and ‘disappearing’ one by one. A few younger Naxi men and women have taken up the instruments but only time will tell if it can be truly retained.The Naxi are also famous for their dances. The women folk in particular are fond of getting together in public to dance. When I first visited Lijiang the old women would gather in Sifangjie (the site of the market place in times gone past) and dance for several hours. I notice that this tradition continues today but also notice that the old women have disappeared and have been replaced by a much younger group of Naxi women. Fair enough! I’m sure the old women are still out there somewhere, but probably away from the tourist gaze!

A young Chinese music producer. The next Phil Spector? I hope not!

All the young dudes just doing their bit to make a living! I had fun jamming with them .

In addition to the classical music and the dancing is the live music scene in the bars and cafes. Many of the bars employ musicians to pump out easy-listening pop music, much of which is pretty average. But here and there are some real talented musicians and performers. They come from all over China and included local talent. I noticed a few small ‘music workshops’ in the old town and had a chat to one young music producer entrepreneur. He sells cds of local artists who perform in the bars. He records them in local recording studios and sells the cds to tourists. He recommended a few for me and I was pleasantly surprised and have taken home a pile of stuff to enjoy. I’m also pleased to report that I spent two nights jamming with some dudes in a bar. Of course I’m limited to playing blues and rock, and not very well, but what I had to offer seemed to be a very welcome diversion!! Believe it or not we even attracted passers-by into the bar! But the damn owners still made me pay for my beer! Out bloody rageous! The other thing I witnessed was what I will call the ‘Chinese hippy trail’. I’m referring to young Chinese urbanites who have taken to the road and are travelling throughout western China, with Dali, Lijiang and Shangrila as popular destinations. These youngsters dress just like western ‘ferals’ (sorry for not being more politically correct, but you get the idea), with a major difference that they always were shoes! After playing in the bar I went down to Sifangjie and noticed a whole crowd of youngsters sitting on the steps. One young gentleman was playing guitar and singing a popular Chinese folk/rock song (‘I’m a little bird’). The rest of the crowd were singing along. It was quite amazing to see this and to think of how Sifangjie is now being used as a musical venue!

I’m now all set and well connected to get some serious work done in and around Lijiang. I look forward to get back there and getting my hands dirty soon. In the meantime I will plough my way through the collection of books and articles I have in my study, as well as try to master a few more Chuck Berry licks!

Walking Out of Nujiang, June 2010

The Nu River Gorge in all its splendour.

From the 8 – 15 June I travelled to Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture (怒江傈僳族自治州). My destination was Gongshan Dulong Nu Autonomous County (贡山独龙族怒族自治县). I was hoping to trek into the Dulong River via the old path, but unfortunately this was not to be (see below). Instead I trekked with two Lisu farmers over the range separating the Nu and Lancang Rivers on the remnant horse-mule trail. I also took the opportunity to explore some remnant sections of horse road further up the Nu River and to visit some Catholic Nu communities. Gongshan is also home to a number of projects funded by the Australia-China Education Fund and I spent some quality time with the local liaison, Mr Shi Min and his family. You can see where Gongshan County is on Google Maps here. You can see the images from this expedition at my Flickr website here, some of which I must say are absolutely brilliant!  You can read about the Australia-China Education Fund and its good works in providing ethnic minority women from Gongshan the chance to pursue higher education in Kunming here. This is quite a long blog entry, but one that I have enjoyed writing the most so far. It was one of the most satisfying, although sometimes very frustrating, expeditions (excuse me while I put on my pith helmet)  in recent times. It brings back many fond memories and an urge to get back and into the research as soon as possible! After all these years I think I’m now clear on what I need, and indeed ‘must’, do. So read on … and stay tuned!

Just one of the myriad streams that flow off the mountains into the Nu River. Each one is a little shot of viagra into what becomes a mighty torrent.

The Nu River and surrounding mountains are a world biodiversity hotspot.

The Nujiang (‘Nu River’, or once it passes into Myanmar, ‘the Salween’) is China’s last undammed river (and indeed the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia). ‘Nu’ means ‘wild’ or ‘ferocious’. This is very fitting for the Nu River as it is swift flowing and full of rapids. With a total river length of approximately 2,800 kms it is only navigable up to ninety kilometres from the river mouth, and then only during certain times of the year. The Nu rises in the Tibetan Plateau and flows into Yunnan parallel with the Lancangjiang (Mekong) (澜沧江) and Jinsha (Yangtse) Rivers (金沙江) (which constitute the World Heritage Site of the the Three Parallel Rivers, possibly the most biologically diverse  temperate region on the planet). Nujiang Prefecture is a 400 kilometre gorge (a search of the literature reveals different understandings of how long the gorge is, but here I’m only concerned with the Nu River Gorge as it exists in Nujiang Prefecture). There is very little flat arable land. There is talk of building an aiprot on top of the mountains by blasting a runway out of the rocks. The road from Liuku (the prefectural seat) to Gongshan winds its way along the gorge, following the path of the river upstream. On either side you are constantly dwarfed by high and steep mountains, upon which the locals eke out a meagre existence. On one side is the magnificent Gaoligongshan (高丽贡山) Mountain Range, which makes the border with Myanmar and has been put aside as nature reserve (see The Nature Conservancy website for more details). On the other side is the Biluo (碧落山) Mountain Range which separates the Nu from the Lancang (Mekong). There are numerous villages and small towns along the road, but just as many, indeed many many more, up on the sides of the mountains and up in the side-valleys. The scenery is magnificent to say the least! Definitely one of my favourite places in China. Very special indeed. But also on the cusp of great change.

Mountains and water shrouded in cloud. In this scenery people are small and insignificant.

I took an express coach from Kunming to Liuku. The coach ride would usually be quite comfortable and quick (eight hours?). But as I have already mentioned on numerous occasions, the road network in Yunnan seems to be getting a major upgrade and a large stretch of the expressway from Kunming to Dali (which is the turn-off point to head towards Baoshan and Liuku) was ‘under repair’ and we were forced to take the old winding road through many a village and town. So after much delay (approximately 14 hours) we reached Liuku. Liuku is the prefectural seat and the biggest town in the valley. It is quite a busy little place. The authorities seem to have big plans for the prefecture and consequently there is a lot of building and construction taking place in Liuku itself. At one stage there was a plan to build 13 hydroelectric dams which would have ultimately produced more electric power than the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtse. However, in one of China’s most public and vocal acts of environmental activism, there was a huge outcry from many quarters and the plans have been shelved. But I would say ‘only for the time being’, though I wish in my heart they would keep the Nu River ‘wild’ and ‘free’. We shall see. There is a lot of ongoing debate and discussion about the merits of the dam (personally I don’t see any!). Will it bring benefits to the locals? The valley is extremely poor, that’s true. So some kind of development is needed, and indeed the locals desperately hope for improvements in education, health and so forth. There is a good interview with R Edward Grumbine at China Dialogue here, and a report by CNN here.

Red umbrellas galore, must be market day!

"And then you'll never guess what happened ..."

After one night in Liuku I caught a local bus to Gongshan. This itself was a another 12 hour ride. The one major distraction after we left Liuku, besides the scenery, was market day in one of the small towns. I have spoken about market-day in rural China previously, but here I would just reiterate its importance and also the nature of a market-day in a gorge. Bear in mind that the public road is the ONLY road of any consequence in the gorge. It is the lifeblood of every community, the only way in and out. Vehicles share the road with all manner of creatures: ducks, chickens, goats, horses, mules, cattle, and of course people. The road cuts right through the villages and towns, and often the vehicles hardly slow down! As I mentioned above, many people live high up on the mountain slopes. It can take anything up to four, five or six hours to walk from the public road to some of the higher and more remoter villages and hamlets. The villages in this case aren’t likely to be coming down to the the road on a daily basis! So the weekly market serves an extremely important function. When market-day falls people come flooding down from the nearby mountain villages. In addition to the serious business of selling their wares and purchasing necessary commodities, there is a real festive air at the market. There are snack food vendors, many restaurants (including many ‘impromtu’ by-the-side-of-the-road style eateries), and entertainment. It’s a great opportunity to catch up with all your friends and relatives, and the latest news and gossip. As I have also learnt, market day is extremely important for young people in finding partners and engaging in courtship practices. So the market performs as much a social function as it does economic. The locals really enjoy themselves, some perhaps over do it and if you arrive at the market late in the day you will see a few of them staggering around.

An itinerant band of acrobatic performers (with live carpet snake!) gave a performance at the market.

Villagers have brought down some freshly harvested produce to sell at the market. Here the 'mule racks' sit by the side of the road whilst the mules take a well earned break nearby.

Upon arriving in Gongshan I met with Shi Min and headed straight for the Nature Reserve offices. The plan was to get a permit to travel through the nature reserve to the Dulong River, home of one of China’s most isolated communities. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, just a mere formality of filling in the appropriate form and paying the fee. But something had changed since my last visit. There is an unsealed road from Gongshan to Dulong. The road was completed in 1999 at a cost of $120 million yuan (AUD$20,000,000). It is a bumpy 96 kilometre road that passes over the Gaoligong Mountains at 4,000 metres. It is closed for anything up to five months a year due to snow and ice. The total population of Dulong is approximately 5,100. That’s a massive investment for  a road open only a few months a year for such a small community! If that’s not enough the road is now also being upgraded to become a sealed road. This will also reduce the total length to 80 kilometres (which includes building a four kilometre tunnel under the pass thereby making the road navigable all year round). I haven’t been able to find the cost of the upgrade but I believe it will be considerably more than the cost of the first road (which by the way also cost many lives during construction). It would be cheaper to move everyone out of Dulong and put them up in small mansions in the Nu Valley! Why are the authorities spending so much on such a small and remote community? Symbolically it is important to the Central Government to link every county via sealed roads to the national road network, just as it is to put a television in every home and get everyone on the mobile and internet networks. The quality of your local road is a sign of ‘modernisation’. But I also suspect something else may be on the cards for Dulong. In any case the Nature Reserve official informed me that I could only get a permit if the local county government gave written approval! So the next day I went to the local county government offices. I was then informed they would give approval if the Tourism Department agreed! Okay, off to the Tourism Department. The Tourism Department said they could not approve without the county government giving the go ahead. Oh dear, Kafka here we come! It was quite clear that I wasn’t going to get a permit to visit Dulong this time! Not to worry, I will try again in 2011 and this time be very well prepared to deal with ‘officialdom’!

The lads from Tibet checking out the scene in Bingzhongluo.

Bingzhongluo 丙中洛

Having given up any hope of getting into Dulong this time I decided to take the old trail over to the Mekong Valley. This was the horse road that used to connect Gongshan to the rest of China before the road was completed up the valley from Liuku and Fugong. The old path hasn’t been used in any significant way for over twenty years, so I was curious to see what state it was in.  Shi Min arranged two local Lisu farmers to be guides and porters. I still had a day up my sleeve so I headed up to Bingzhongluo (丙中洛), the next town up the gorge. Upon reaching Bingzhongluo you are clearly entering the border zone between Han and Tibetan cultures. There are quite a few Tibetan villages and communities around Bingzhongluo. And as I discovered, Bingzhongluo is still very important for Tibetan communities in Tibet proper (the border for which is only about 30 kilometres up the road). Tibetans from Zhaen (扎恩) used to rely on the Bingzhongluo market to get supplies. Up until maybe six years ago they were still using mule caravans. Now the road has been extended all the way into Tibet. On the main street of Bingzhongluo I met some Tibetans from Zhaen who had come down on their motorcycles. They told me many of the farmers have sold their mules and upgraded to small trucks. They invited me to ride with them back to Zhaen, but I declined knowing that it was impossible for me to enter Tibet without a special permit. Next time fellas!

A Tibetan lorry on its way to Zhaen. Notice the blessed ribbons on the front.

The old suspension bridge. The inscription on the tower on the other side reads 'Long Live the Communist Party'!

Bingzhongluo has been designated by the local government as a ‘scenic zone’. It is indeed the starting point for what I regard as the most beautiful part of the gorge. As you approach Bingzhongluo the bus is stopped at a gate and all non-local residents must purchase a 100 yuan entrance ticket (that includes non-local Chinese as well). I spoke to some of the tour operators in Bingzhongluo and they were unanimously opposed to the entrance fee. I dare not say where they think the money ends up! In any case they complain that the tourism plan for Bingzhongluo is poorly conceived and that the tourists are not coming in the numbers they hoped. No doubt the isolation has something to do with this. It is extremely time consuming to get to Bingzhongluo (from Kunming, at least three days by bus). And once you get there you are ‘welcomed’ with a 100 yuan fee! Bloody outrageous if you ask me! After talking to some of the locals I caught a bus heading further up the gorge. I was keen to see the remnant ‘tea horse road’. The Nu River gorge was certainly on the ancient tea horse network, but it was not a main route by any means. Before the new road was built from Liuku to Gongshan the only way to get in and out was on the horse road. In the 1950s they blasted out a path right on the side of some cliffs outside of Bingzhongluo. The local government has stuck a sign up at this point declaring it to be the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’! As I’m learning, there is quite some controversy as to what actually constitutes the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’! In any case the path is spectacular, cut out of sheer rock with some quite precipitous drops down into the raging torrents of the Nu. It does give you a good idea as to how treacherous much of the old tea road was in the mountains and valleys. Many was the horse/mule and muleteer that plunged to an untimely demise. Indeed, I have been told that the merchants used to make sure the tea was wrapped in watertight packaging just in case of an accident, if they were lucky perhaps the tea could be retrieved.

The old horse road from Bingzhongluo to Tibet.

Encounter with a mule team on their way up the valley.

As I was admiring the old path and the old suspension bridge (now sitting decrepitly alongside a new and larger suspension bridge) low and behold I heard the sound of hooves clopping and a bell ringing! I small caravan of approximately six mules and two muleteers was coming up the road from Bingzhongluo! The two young muleteers were from a village further up the gorge. They had just purchased some supplies from Bingzhongluo and were on the way home. Seeing as we were headed in the same direction I decided to join them. Bloody brilliant! I was in paradise, walking up the valley with spectacular scenery on either side, a raging river, mountain peaks shrouded in mist, and a mule team at my side! We were now in Nu (怒族) country. The Nu are a small ethnic group only found in this part of the Nu River. Many are practising Catholics. A German Catholic missionary was stationed in Bingzhongluo for several decades in the early part of the 20th Century. The church and his grave are still there (which I visited on a previous occasion). The muleteers were also Nu. Their village was located up on the old trail to Tibet just beyond my destination of Qiunatong (秋那桶). This is the point at which the old trail leaves the Nu River and begins to climb up the mountains into Tibet. The new unsealed road continues to follow the river. I had a good chat with the young lads about life in the village and the valley. They really impressed upon me the importance of the mules for their livelihoods. They couldn’t afford to buy a truck, and besides, a mule is much more versatile as it can be used around the farmyard as well. I said goodbye to them at Qiunatong, and after some interaction with local village kids, I headed back to Gongshan (via Bingzhongluo of course).

The lead mule (with bell, not visible in thsi shot). When it stops the other mules automatically stop. When it moves, they move. In part they are trained to react to the sound of the bell.

Young Li and Lao Li having a smokko on the morning of the second day with the Gaoligong Mountains way in the background.

The next day I met Shi Min early in the morning and bought some supplies. Old Li (老李) and Young Li (小李) joined us shortly after the provisions were purchased and we hired a van to take us back towards Liuku, travelling approximately 13 kilometres to a roadside village which was the point at which we were to begin the ascent. Upon arrival I asked Lao Li if there was anything else he wanted to get for the trip as this would be the last chance. ‘Ah yes’, he said, as if I had triggered his memory. He went off to the local store and came back with six packets of cigarettes and a bottle of strong baijiu! ‘Now were ready’ he proclaimed! Old Li and Young Li (not related) are Lisu farmers in a village just outside of Gongshan (actually on the old path leading to Dulong). Old Li was sixty years old. He was full of memories and stories about ‘them old days’. It was damn hard trying to work out what he was saying most of the time as he spoke in a thick accent. Remember that Chinese is not his native toungue. But with the help of Young Li (whose Chinese wasn’t much better by the way!) we managed to communicate fairly well. Lao Li and Young Li were great travelling guides and companions. I learnt a great deal from them and was able to share a lot with them as well about Australia (though I’m not sure how much actually made sense to them). Anyway, I digress. We headed up the path. It was very tough going, very steep and muddy in places (there had been a lot of rainfall in recent weeks, in fact it had rained almost non-stop for more than two months! I was very lucky indeed to have relatively fine weather). We passed a few farmers, with mules, along the way and went through many small Lisu hamlets. We stopped off in one farmhouse to have tea (of course) with the local farmer. After about five hours we finally got to the remnant old path (in many cases any old paths near human settlement will invariably be ‘robbed’ of their stone by the locals). There was one section which was very well preserved, but wouldn’t you know it I didn’t take a picture being under the false impression that it would be like this all the way! Lesson learnt! For most of the time the old path was a stoney mess. You could clearly see the old path and steps here and there. But once the new road up the valley was built there was no longer any need to maintain the old path, so it naturally fell into a state of decay. Lao Li used to travel on the old path quite a lot in the old days (about 25 years ago) and had a lot to say about how they did things better back then. Yes, it seems to be a universal trait of old men that no matter where or when things were better in ‘their day’! Although to tell the truth life is no doubt much easier in the present, but still by all accounts, no picnic.

'That tent does look tasty ...'

We found a relatively flat space a few kilometres below the pass (which we planned to assail the next day). At this point the views back up the Nu River gorge and across to the Gaoligong Mountains were incredible! One of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen! We had to camp on the path itself much to the annoyance of the local cattle who were coming down from the higher grazing slopes and looking forward no doubt to going ‘home’. But with our camp in the way they just stood there gazing blankly at us. Old Li and Young Li, who were sleeping in their ‘tent’ right across the path, spent much of the night yelling at the cattle who one by one came up to ‘investigate’ this hitherto unforeseen obstacle! Luckily I was in my little MSR tent off the path itself and only had a couple of instances of ‘close encounters of a bovine kind’.

Erecting the shelter. Step 1: Drive bamboo poles into the ground.

Shelter Erection, Step 2: Throw the plastic sheet over the bamboo arches.

I was very impressed with Old Li’s bush craft. For their shelter all they brought was a large plastic sheet. They went off into the trees with their machetes and came back with six young bamboo ‘poles’. They stuck the poles into the ground in three rows of two and then simply tied each pair together to make three arches, over which they threw the plastic sheet and tied it down with some rope. Hey presto! A shelter! Actually some of the bamboo poles still had young tender leaves and some of the cows came over later in the night to ‘eat their tent’! They lit a fire on the path and got dinner ready. There were a few holes in the plastic sheet to let out the smoke. At about this time an old Lisu man, barefoot and bearing a fantastic old blade, came down from the mountain. He had been gathering a particular kind of ‘wild vegetable’ (unfortunately the name escapes me at the moment). He stopped for a cup of tea and a fag. Lao Li was deep in conversation with the old gentleman and when he left he gave Lao Li some of the wild vegetables. So for dinner we had pork soup with wild vegetables and rice. Very plain, but after five hours hiking absolutely delicious. And of course we used chopsticks carved out of nearby bamboo as well, truly environmentally friendly! Where would Chinese civilisation be without bamboo I wonder? I did take it very easy on the baijiu as I knew there was a very full day of hiking ahead the next day. And it turned out Lao Li didn’t drink (well, not any longer as he has high blood pressure, which doesn’t seem to have stopped him smoking like a chimney, including a passion for rolling his own ‘homegrown’ tobacco!). So Young Li did the honours and did very well when I examined the half empty bottle the next day! This I know is an old muleteer/mountain habit to have a few good swigs of liquor after a hard day’s yakka (work), and I totally understand.

This Lisu gentleman presented us with some wild vegetables.

Log path still looking good after many years of neglect.

Early on the morning of the second day we set out. The Nu River valley was shrouded in cloud and mist. As we gained altitude the mist and clouds began to recede somewhat giving us patchy vistas of the valley drapped in morning glory.  As we got higher we re-entered the world of mist. Everything everywhere was dripping with dew. There was a long stretch of bog in one section, fortunately the old wooden logs laid down long ago had not rotted away and served us quite well. I kept out a constant eye for leeches, fortunately I only had one such ‘leech incident’, so I count myself lucky. Here and there were a few patches of open meadow. Some cattle greeted us with curious gazes whilst the young calves frolicked on the dewy grass. After about three hours we finally reached the highest point. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing how high that was, but I guess it to be somewhere around 3,000 metres. Just below the pass was a large open meadow with some cattle and horses roaming freely. Would have been a great campsite!

Wild flowers at the mountain pass.

A fresh, clean and very cold mountain stream!

The forest was nothing like that which I encountered on top of Laojunshan, but it was impressive none the less. But the thing that most caught the eye was the profusion of flowering plants of all varieties, right from the smallest plant hanging for dear life onto some ‘barren’ rock to large rhododendron trees. Perhaps it would have been even more spectacular under a bright blue sky, but the mist did give the whole place an ‘enchanted’ kind of ambiance. At the top of the pass we travelled along a stretch of relatively flat path meandering its way through the flowering wonderland. The two Li’s powered ahead but I took my time to enjoy the scenery, God only knows if I’ll ever get another opportunity! There were a number of small streams coming off the mountain peaks. The water was clear as it was cold. Finally the Lancang (Mekong) River Valley came into view. At this point we left the old path and descended along a new gravel road which had been constructed to access a local tin mine. Indeed I discovered that there was quite a bit of mining going on in the Lancang Valley, the mining boom is not just isolated to Western Australia. This particular mine was no longer in operation and the road was ‘broken’ in many places so that not even a four wheel drive could get through, but on foot we had no problem. Actually, it is a pity we didn’t try to take the old path, but I was in a hurry to reach the public road down at the bottom of the valley. I had heard (correctly as it turns out) that the entire length of the road in Diqing County was being ‘upgraded’. Yes, we know what that means! I was told the road was basically ‘closed’ from Sunday to Friday and only open for public access on Saturday. Well it was Saturday as we descended. We still had a long way to go to the road. In fact, it was too far. By the time we finally reached the road it was too late. The road was closed! Some locals suggested I stay in the local ‘hostel’ for six days … my God!

First close view of the Lancang (Mekong) River.

Blasting a new road along the Lancang (Mekong), higher up the gorge, in order, dare I say, to avoid the inevitable flooding brought about by a future dam.

So on the third day, pondering the possibility of staying beside a dusty road construction site for six days, we camped by the banks of the Lancang (Mekong). As it turned out I was able to hire a minivan the next day, but only after walking another twenty kilometres down the valley to a particular town. After the trials and tribulations of dealing with the road construction issue (!) I finally said goodbye to Old Li and Young Li. We promised to meet again in Gongshan and go explore more of the old paths here and there. Old Li kept sighing, wishing he could take me hunting, ‘Like in the old days before the nature reserve’, truly a top bloke as we say in the Australian vernacular. I had a nightmare of a journey to Weixi (the local county town). I won’t go into any vivid details suffice to say that this was probably the ‘wildest’ ‘wild west’ town I have visited so far in China … and after all the places I have been to, that’s saying something! I’ve learnt that Weixi is definitely worth a return visit as it is surrounded my many different ethnic communities and some biodiversity hotspots. I now have a botanist friend in Shangrila who will take me there. Weixi also seems to be a mini-hub for the manufacture of ethnic clothing (and not for tourist consumption but for the the locals). One ethnic clothing store I visited had samples of clothing for Tibetans, Pumi, Lisu, Bai, and Naxi. The bus ride from Weixi to Dali (through Eryuan) was absolutely beautiful, rolling hills, bucolic scenery, through beautiful Bai villages and towns. I was very happy to eventually (after another 12 hour ride!) arrive back in Kunming to a little bit of luxury (bacon, eggs and coffee … I’m easily pleased). But this trip to Nujiang has certainly got me thinking about many things. Out of all the places I have visited in Yunnan it seems the least ‘touched’ by the current road construction frenzy (other than the road from Gongshan to Dulong). But times they are a changing. I think Nujiang will be an excellent site from which to view the transformation of peripheral China over the years to come.

I found this old rusty horse shoe high up on the pass. How long had it been lying there? How many steps had it taken? Where was its master?

The Western Australian Zhejiang Business and Culture Promotion Association

On Sunday 18th July I attended a luncheon function held by the The Western Australian Zhejiang Business and Culture Promotion Association (WAZBCA). The WAZBCA was founded in 2009 and seeks to promote business and cultural links between Zhejiang Province and Western Australia. Zhejiang Province and Western Australia are also Sister States/Provinces (with over 25 years of exchange). The WAZBCA hopes to do its bit to further promote the growing bilateral relationship.

The luncheon was held to celebrate the first year of achievements in establishing the Association and running a number of cultural and business events. The luncheon was attended by Association members and supporters including representatives from local, state and federal government, such as the Honoural Judy Moylan, Member for Pearce. Vice-Consul General Ms ZHANG Hong was present representing the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China.

I’m very honoured to have been invited to be the ‘Honorary President’. I have a great passion of China-Australia relations, and especially for relations between Western Australia and Zhejiang. At the luncheon I gave a very brief overview of Hangzhou and Zhejiang and related some of my more recent experiences whilst residing in Hangzhou. I will be organising a lecture function with the Association, scheduled for later this year. Stay tuned!

Lecture at Zhejiang University: Globalisation, Chinese Softpower and the Internationalisation of Chinese Mandarin

A young graduate posing at the main entrance to the Zijingang Campus. Good luck!

I was invited by Professor Huang Jianbin (黄建滨), Director of the Chinese Culture and International Communication Centre (中国文化国际传播中心主任) and Coordinator of the  International Chinese Language Teaching Programme (汉语国际教育专业负责人) in the School of International Studies (外国语言文化与国际交流学院) at Zhejiang University (浙江大学), to give a lecture on the topic of ‘Globalisation, Chinese Softpower, and the Internationalisation of Chinese Mandarin’. The lecture was held on the afternoon of Friday 2nd July. Zhejiang University is one of China’s top research intensive universities, consistently ranked as the top third or fourth institution of this kind in China. It is a member of the prestigious C9, a consortium of China’s nine top research-intensive universities (a bit like our Australian ‘Group of Eight’). It is a very large university with five campuses and nearly 40,000 students. I have had great pleasure in working with colleagues across different Schools (Faculties) and getting to know some of the students. I’m particulary fond of all my colleagues in the International College (国际教育学院).

View from the hills behind the Yuquan Campus of Zhejiang University. You can see a bit of West Lake up in the top right-hand corner. As beautiful as Hangzhou is it can't escape the haze that envelopes most Chinese cities on the eastern seaboard.

A Buddhist sculpture in one of the many grottoes at Lingyin Temple. This parituclar sculpture was made during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368).

As many of you will be aware, I have spent the last six months in Hangzhou as a Senior Visiting Scholar at Zhejiang University. A few brief words about Hangzhou, my adopted home for the last six months. It is the provincial capital of Zhejiang Province and is strategically located in the rich and prosperous Yangtse Delta, only a few hours drive away from Shanghai. Hangzhou is one of China’s most liveable cities, it is certainly one of the most beautiful. It is fortunate to have fantastic natural scenery and many parks. There is the famous West Lake (西湖) to admire and the many hills surrounding the lake which are covered in forests, streams, tea plantations (form which we get the famous ‘Dragon Well Tea’) and Buddhist temples (and the odd Daoist one as well). Hangzhou has a very long history. The city itself goes back well over 2,000 years. For a time it was the a dynastic capital (during the Southern Song Dynasty, 1127 – 1229, during which time it was most likely the largest and most populous city in the world). It has been admired and rendered into poetry and painting by many famous Chinese artists such as Li Bai and Su Dongpo (both of whom were also local magistrates, ‘Governors’ if you will, in Hangzhou). It has been a very important centre for Buddhism, being home to the Lingyin Temple (灵隐寺), one of China’s largest and wealthiest temples. It is also the starting point for the historic and strategically vital Grand Canal (大运河), an 8,000 kilometre network of canals, lakes and rivers that brought tribute rice from the fertile Yangtse Delta to the granaries of Beijing (the capital of China for much of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties). There is simply not enough space here to list all of Hangzhou’s historical and contemporary merits, suffice to say that if you visit China and don’t include Hangzhou on the itinerary your missing out (or have to plan another trip!). The West Lake is currently on the Tentative List for World Cultural Heritage at UNESCO. I certainly hope it makes it onto the permanent list. You can see where Hangzhou is located on Google Maps here.

Picking 'Dragon Well Tea' in fields just behind Lingyin Temple.

With students and teachers outside the lecture hall.

The lecture was presented, in Chinese,  to the Masters students taking a course in the ‘Teaching of Chinese as a Second Language’. There were approximately forty students present. Most of them were from different parts of China, but there were also about 15 international students from countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand. As China continues to ‘rise’ it is crucial that more students around the world begin to learn Chinese Mandarin. Indeed this trend is already well underway with large increases in the number of students studying Chinese in many countries. In order to make sure students keep up their language studies and attain a desired level of proficiency it is also crucial to ensure that the teaching methods and pedagogy continually develop and improve. The Office of the Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), where I was a visiting Foreign Expert (外传) for four months in 2009, has funded a number of such Masters programmes in institutions all across China. It is encouraging to see a new young cohort of enthusiastic teachers being trained. It is also very encouraging to see that international students are also getting in on the act. Indeed, we need a good balance of Chinese native speaker and non-native speaker Chinese language teachers. Both have the capacity to teach Chinese to a high standard and both bring something different, and valuable, to the classroom in terms of cultural and social knowledge.

Flower and main administrative building of Zhejiang University in background.

Another batch of graduates, the 'Class of 2010'.

In my lecture I outlined what I understood by ‘softpower’ and also the way in which ‘softpower’ is understood within China. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, in a nutshell, ‘hardpower’ refers to the physical infrastructure of a nation – the military might, the economic muscle, the research capacity, and so on. ‘Softpower’ is a bit more nebulous as it refers to concepts and more intangible phenomenon such as ‘values’ and ‘spirit’ that create a sense of inspiration and awe. It may for example, include normative notions of political participation and democracy. It certainly includes the capacity for creativity and innovation. Most importantly it suggests that the more and better (?) softpower a nation has the more likely other people around the globe are to look upon you in favourable terms. Ultimately a ‘super’ sense of softpower is one that can be ‘exported’ to different social and cultural contexts (such as the ‘American way of life’, for better or ill!). In Chinese debates softpower is all about promoting Chinese culture and an awareness of China that creates long-lasting goodwill. The Confucius Institutes are one of the key institutions in this regard (and I know a little about that as I was Director of a Confucius Institute for five years).

I concluded the lecture by talking about some of the challenges they may face as Chinese language teachers teaching in a foreign context. Many of the Chinese teachers were keen to apply to join Hanban’s ‘volunteer teacher’ programme (which sends Chinese language teachers abroad) and listened very carefully to all I had to say. They asked me some good questions as well. One student went a little bit off topic and ask me if Kevin Rudd had been dumped as Prime Minister because of his close ties to China! I told him that that was absolutely not the case at all, and that the relationship between Australia and China, whilst no doubt bumpy at times, would continue to develop as it was in the mutual interests of both parties (both government and business). Professor Huang invited me to come back and lecture again at the end of the year and also to hold a joint function with Chinese language students from UWA (and other parts of Australia) and the Chinese trainee language teachers at the end of the year during the ‘China Study Tour’ that I am coordinating.

Sunset at Yanggongdi (杨公堤), a section of canals and lakes at the back of the main West Lake. My favourite part of Hangzhou lies here.

Visit to Puer Tea Markets, Thailand Street, and the Kunming-Bangkok International Expressway, June 2010

This gentleman is Kong Ming 孔明 (181-284), more well known as Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), an historical figure now with a legendary status as a statesman and strategist. His deeds are recorded in the classic 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' (三国演义). He led his army as far south as Simao and is credited with encouraging the locals to cultivate and drink tea. He is revered as a 'Tea God'.

During the Puer Forum (2nd – 4th June, 2010) I took the opportunity to investigate the town of Simao. From an administrative viewpoint Puer is classified as a ‘city’, but it is really what in Chinese administrative parlance is know as a ‘prefectural level city‘. ‘Simao’ refers to the actual administrative area where the government is based. ‘Autonomous’, by the way, refers to counties or regions (such as the Tibet Autonomous Region) in which the non-Han population is greater than 50% of the total population. These ‘autonomous’ areas nominally have greater autonomy when compared to Han Chinese dominated areas. With nine autonomous counties Puer has a large number of non-Han ethnic groups, namely, Ha’ni (哈尼族), Yi (彝族), Lahu (拉祜族), and Wa (佤族). Simao is the only part of Puer where the Han predominate. I will save the discussion of what ‘autonomy’ really means for another time.

At an average  elevation of 1,500 metres and at low latitude, Simao has very moderate weather all year round. Indeed the elevation is said to be particularly conducive to growing tea as it slows the growth and produces better flavour (although I’m not sure if this claim has been ‘scientifically’ proven, but certainly many high quality teas come from mountainous areas). With a total population of approximately 200,000, Simao is a very pleasant place. It is small enough to explore on foot in one day, and no traffic jams or road rage. There is a relatively vibrant ‘downtown’ shopping area. Restaurants and eateries are almost on every street corner, with much alfresco dining bearing testimony to the favourable weather. There are also many ‘rustic’ style restaurants (农家乐) in the nearby hills, a phenomenon that has grown with the increases in private car ownership. And here of course you can sample many different local ethnic dishes. And I have to say that the food is very good with a lot of organically grown vegetables and many ‘wild’ plants, mushrooms and so forth that grow in the hills. Not too big, not too crowded, not too hot, and not too cold. A relaxed atmosphere with good tea (of course) and excellent cuisine. A steady source of Western Australian wine would certainly add the finishing touches to ‘paradise’! Unfortunately there isn’t much of ‘old’ Simao left, but you don’t have to travel too far to find some beautiful villages and sites of historic/cultural interest, indeed the whole of Puer is literally dotted with them.

Yours truly with tea plantations and Simao in the background.

Simao is located in a small basin surrounded by luscious hills. The hills are a mixture of forests and tea plantations. Indeed some hills are entirely given over to tea. The plantations are very impressive both from a distance and viewed up close (many of the townsfolk take late afternoon constitutionals up amongst the tea). Unfortunately, like much of the Chinese countryside these days, the view of the hills is marred by mobile phone towers and high voltage power-lines! I’ve already recommended to the officials I met in Puer that they consider moving the power-lines over to the other side of the hill, and also follow the lead of Hangzhou which camouflages its mobile phone towers as ‘trees’ (not that anyone is likely to take notice of anything I say!). That may sound a bit tacky but trust me, from a distance, and even up reasonably close, you can’t tell if it is real or fake. A sign of our postmodern times!

Two different cups of puer tea. On the left a 2004 vintage and on the right 2007. Different styles of processing, different methods of aging, and so on, give different colours and textures.

Puer can be compacted into any shape or size. There is now quite a market for 'artistic' and 'decorative' puer, some of which is very expensive indeed.

Puer is famous for its tea, Puer Tea (普洱茶) (sometimes also rendered in English as Pu-erh or Bolay), one of the major commodities traded on The Ancient Tea Horse Road (indeed, some argue it is the ‘key’ commodity). Indeed Puer claims to be the place of origin for the human cultivation and production of tea. It is certainly true that the tea tree, camellia sinensis, grows wild in the forests. Many of these ‘wild trees’ are still harvested for their tea leaves. The oldest verifiable tree goes back some 800 years or so (according to my sources). The Ha’ni and Bulang peoples in particular have a veneration for such wild trees and will perform special ceremonies in honour of the ‘tree spirits’ before harvesting. The main thing to note about Puer in relation to the long-distance tea trade is that it is readily compacted into brick form. It keeps very well and is easily transported.

Sorting loose tea.

Up until a few years ago Puer tea was not even very well known even within China. Then from 1999 up to 2007 there was something of a ‘Puer Tea Rush’. Puer suddenly became very fashionable in eastern China as the middle-classes sought new ways to enjoy their disposable income (this obviously coincides with the proliferation of tea-houses in many cities as well). Like its more famous cousin ‘Green Tea’, Puer tea is not only pleasant to drink but is also believed to have numerous health benefits (such as reducing cholesterol). The other virtue of Puer is that it is readily stored and the only tea, I believe, that actually ages and improves over time (like wine, but of course, like wine, only good quality Puer will age well and if stored in the right conditions). Therefore, Puer became an attractive source for investment. In China, the opportunities for investment are rather limited. Most people plough their money into real estate (which in part explains the property bubble), but the government is making that difficult in an effort to control property prices. Like gold, Puer was suddenly seen as a ‘safe’ investment that you could keep and resell at a later date. The price of Puer skyrocketed and whilst times were good a lot of money went into building new tea plantations, processing plants, exhibition centres, and so on. Investments were made by all, from the small-time farmer puchasing minivans and equipment to the wealthy urban investor pumping money into ‘get rich quick schemes’, many of which were quite shonky and dishonest. Then the bubble finally burst in 2007 and many people, big and small, lost a lot of money. There is a good report on this in The New York Times. The Puer crash was now a few years ago and I was told that the market was recovering and that many had learnt hard, but valuable, lessons. This time round hopefully the growth of the Puer market will be more ‘rational’ (but don’t hold your breath!).

This lady was host at the last tea stall I visited in the market that day. It must have been my fiftieth cup of puer. Next stop ... well, you can guess!

Simao is home to two large Puer tea trading markets. These are wholesale markets which consist of many stalls in which you can purchase Puer tea, and tea related paraphernalia (such as tea sets).  I strolled around the markets visiting various stalls. This is a very pleasant thing to do as you are invariably invited to sample some tea! I found the merchants to be extremely relaxed and friendly and was under no obligation to buy anything. To prove the point I think I spent two hours in one stall talking about all manner of things whilst being served cup after cup of fine Puer. When ‘nature’ told me enough tea had been consumed to ‘put the pressure on’, so to speak, I literally had to beg the stall holder to let me go!

In amongst the tea stalls were a number of small to medium-sized warehouses selling timber furniture. The timber comes mainly from Laos (which is only a few hours drive away). Some of the tables were made from trees over 2,000 years old! It was very disturbing to see these timber ‘corpses’ on display. One of these will set you back 200,000 yuan (34,000AUD). One of the timber merchants tried to console me by suggesting it will be all over in a few years, they won’t sell any more Laotian timber … why … because it will all be gone! The furniture can only be sold in China as there is no way they can get an export license (as it can’t be verified to have been ‘sustainably’ harvested, but I guess if it’s converted into wood-chips and made into cheap furniture there is no way of knowing). There is a good report from Global Witness on the China-Myanmar illegal timber trade here (couldn’t find anything on the China-Laotian timber trade, but the picture is most likely very similar to Myanmar). There is a Washinging Post article about the state of illegal logging around the world here.

This is one piece of solid timber! Perhaps thousands of years old!

Cosmetics from Thailand in 'Thailand Street'.

The other interesting ‘discovery’ in downtown Simao was ‘Thailand Street’. This is a small alleyway off the main shopping thoroughfare devoted to small stalls selling wares from Thailand (and some items from Myanmar). The main commodities are cosmetics, clothing, footwear (shoes and thongs), and traditional Thai ‘candies’. This gives you a good sense of how close Puer is to Southeast Asia and the long history of trade with that region. The trade is likely to continue and expand, especially once the Kunming-Bangkok International Expressway is completed. This is the first ‘international’ expressway that China has been involved in. At approximately 1,900 kilometres, it starts in Kunming and passes through Laos, then into Thailand where it terminates in Bangkok. The expressway is jointly funded by China, Laos, Thailand and the Asian Development Bank. The Chinese section reputedly costs 25 billion yuan (3.5 billion U.S. dollars) and will reduce the trip to Bangkok to twenty hours (approximately forty hours at present). The Chinese authorities are actually building quite a bit of the expressway in Laos itself, including a major bridge over the Mekong between Laos and Thailand.

No doubt, at least on the Chinese side, you will be able to drive on expressways all the way to Beijing (indeed I have since discovered that is certainly on the planning books!). Big changes are coming in the way Chinese people and the economy make use of new road and transport networks. I predict that we will one day see the first signs of the ‘Chinese Campervan’ making its way down the expressway with ‘grey nomads’ at the wheel on their way to the beaches of Puhket!! I suggest we encourage the building of an exrpessway, somehow or other, to the Australian mainland!! That will keep our caravan parks viable for decades and decades to come. We won’t be worried about ‘boat people’ anymore, but welcoming the ‘grey nomads from the Middle Kingdom’!!

More seriously, the expressway will bring many economic benefits in the way of cheaper commodities. But it will also bring many ‘side-effects’ in the way of drugs, prostitution, HIV AIDS and so on. Local rural communities will have to compete against cheaper imported produce. A report (date 21st March 2008) from the Xinhua News Agency (新华社) claims that the Chinese section of the expressway (from Kunming to Mohan) as already completed. Looking carefully at the pictures I took at Ninger I doubt any vehicle is going to be able to drive on concrete stumps! No doubt some official thought ‘near enough is good enough’, and it is helpful to be able to report ‘completion’ to your superiors (just make sure they don’t insist driving all the way to Laos! There is an interesting article, once again, on the expressway in The New York Times here.

The newly completed (!) Kunming-Bangkok International Expressway.

Visit to Longchuan County (龙川县), Dehong Prefecture (德宏州): Part 4

Timber from Myanmar. The forests of Southeast Asia continue to fall.

After the morning visit to the primary school in Husa we once more travelled back over the range, this time with an even longer ‘traffic jam’ and delay due to road construction than the previous instance! Travelling in Yunnan certainly teaches you the virtue of patience! Our destination was a Jingpo village located up in the hills behind Zhangfeng (following the course of the Longchuan River). Once over the range we dropped off Xiao Yu and Xiao Feng in Zhangfeng as they decided to ‘go partying’ in Ruili rather than spending a night up on the mountainside. Xiao Yu gave us explicit instructions to ‘behave ourselves’. We said our goodbyes and headed up into the Longchuan River valley making our way to the Jingpo village of Jueyeba (蕨叶坝). You can see where Jueyeba is located on Google Maps here. You can see the images relating to this trip on my Flickr website here.

Villagers presenting a gift of 'home grown' tea, including some 'wild bush tea' picked from wild tea trees.

Proud grandmother with daughter, ready to 'rock'n'roll' Jingpo style!

The Jingpo ethnic minority (景颇族) number about 132,000 according to the 2000 census. They mainly reside in Dehong. There is a large population in Myanmar where they are known as the Kachin. There is some controversy concerning the ‘categorization’ of the Jingpo. As with many other large ethnic groups the ‘categorization’ is sometimes a bit arbitrary. The Jingpo, for example, speak a number of different languages which are mutually unintelligible. Some of the customs also vary from region to region. They tend to reside in the mountains and, traditionally, engaged in slash and burn agriculture. In some places where water is readily available rice paddies can also be found. In China the practice of ‘slash and burn’ is not longer permitted, although it still seems to be practiced here and there. The Jingpo of Jueyeba are from the Shidong (石东) group which in their language means ‘big mountain’. The ‘village’ consists of three actual villages separated by short distances (which invariably means going down and up a hillside!). Two villages are pure Jingpo villages whilst the other is a mixture of Jingpo and Han Chinese households. The main crops are maize, yam, vegetables and tea (including the harvest from ‘wild’ tea trees). The villagers have some terraced paddy fields down in the main valley, but the plots are very small and certainly not big enough for a tractor. Hence water buffalos are still kept by every family. In order to save labour and costs some village families join forces to cooperatively share a buffalo. Unfortunately rice production is not enough to satisfy their own needs and therefore they receive some rice subsidy from the local government to make up the shortfall.

Mr Zhou and the lads, all with fresh cigarettes to enjoy!

Upon arrival in the village we were greeted by Mr Zhou, the Chair of the Village Committee (组长). We were taken on a quick tour of the three villages that make up the ‘administrative village’ of Jueyeba. In each village we stopped at several houses to have tea and a chat. I think life on the mountainside can be a bit dull at times, so everyone was very glad to see us. So I learnt a great deal about conditions, crops, family and so on, all over a cup of home-made tea. We finally made our way to Mr Zhou’s house where we had a traditional Jingpo meal. No alchohol was consumed! Apparently, as Mr Zhou explained, the women folk of the village have put a ban on baijiu consumption (festival times excluded). Or maybe they were just being kind and didn’t want to get me plastered! Whatever the case I was very grateful! Of course smoking was still permitted and the first thing Mr Zhou did upon arriving home was to give every man (there were quite a few of them joining us for dinner and waiting in his living room) a cigarette. This is a social custom that is very common in Yunnan (and no doubt in much of western China). Giving someone a cigarette is a form of social inclusion and salutation. If your trying to give up smoking, don’t come to Yunnan!! You’ll be bombarded by cigarettes from all directions!! The Jingpo are very found of swords and knives and Mr Zhou had a good collection on display. Many of the swords were made in Husa.

'You call that a knife!'. A bit rusty mate!

Village women in Jingpo finery doing the 'Munao'.

Following dinner we went to the old school building (the children now go to school outside of the village) for a song and dance performance from the local villagers. The Jingpo claim to have migrated to Dehong (and Myanmar) from the Tibetan Plateau, and most of the scholars I spoke to about this tend to agree. There seems to be some evidence that they are related to the Qiang ethnic group (which are still found in the highlands of Tibet and Sichuan). The Jingpo describe the story of their migration in song and dance. The most famous dance in this regard is the Munao Dance (目瑙纵歌).  Munao is transliterated from Jingpo and means ‘dancing together’. The villagers insisted that Mr Diao and myself  ‘dress up’ in Jingpo costume, swords and all! Needless to say I’m not posting any of those pictures (except one of Mr Diao!). Many of the villagers came to the event in traditional clothing. Extremely colourful and exotic to say the least! To accompany the dance the villagers play an ‘African’ style drum and bamboo flute. Mr Zhou put on some colourful robes and strapped the drum around his neck. He proceeded to get the rythm going with the flute player joining in. He shuffled and shook to the beat and the villagers formed a ‘conga’ style line behind him, following his ‘migration’ from Tibet to Dehong. As is always the case the locals insisted we join in the dancing. Once again no footage is available, how sad! The dancing went on for quite a while. The ‘drummer’ changed a few times during the course of the performance and the ‘circle’ for the ‘conga’ gradually got smaller and smaller until everyone was moving in a tightly packed circle. Once they were finished we shook hands and thanked every single dancer, as is the appropriate custom.

Mr Zhou and the village drum. Mr Zhou was the first to carry the rythm that night, many other village men followed. Definitely a gender specific activity!

This gentleman was tasked with the job of setting up the 'lighting' for the Munao dance peformance. A little to the left ... higher ... lower ...

At the dance we also met the local village Dumsa (董萨). A Dumsa is a part-time religious practitioner. Traditionally the Jingpo are animists. But many have also been converted to Buddhism, and in more recent times to Christianity. Nonetheless even with such conversions the Jingpo still retain a strong belief in the spirit world. The physical and supernatural worlds do not seem to be separated for the Jingpo. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors live in the world around them. The Dumsa are a kind of ‘in-between’ spiritualist who placate angry spirits and make the world safer for the living. The Dumsa of Jueyeba was a fine gentleman. He was wearing some traditional clothing. But what really stood out was his blue clip-on tie! He said the tie, made in Myanmar, was a gift from the Longchuan County Party Secretary in return for some special ‘spells’. So our Dumsa is very well connected in both realms of the living and the dead! He greeted us with a traditional Dumsa greeting in his local dialect. A villager explained it was a wish for us as guests to have a safe and pleasant visit. The chanting went on for quite some time and eventually I began to realise he had switched to Yunnanese/Mandarin (with quite a heavy accent). I was picking up the words ‘Mao Zhuxi’ – ‘Chairman Mao’ – on a consistent basis! Mr Diao was beginning to smile and chuckle. ‘He’s reciting the ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao’!! It turns out that during the Cultural Revolution the Dumsa were not permitted to continue their traditional practices. The only ‘safe’ thing for them to ‘chant’ were the sayings and writings of Chairman Mao! As I have explained previously, ‘Chairman Mao’ is a revered figure who also possesses ‘magical qualities’, so it is not surprising to see his ‘spiritual’ influence linger into the present.

The Dumsa with psychedelic tie, very appropriate I think for someone with one foot in the spirit world.

Life in an isolated village on top of a mountain can be a bit dull. Television is one of the most popular forms of entertainment. It is a bit surreal watching television with poor villages, especially all the advertisements of luxury products they will never be able to afford.

Jueyeba is a good study in how the developing road and transport infrastructure brings about social and economic change in once isolated communities. The village used to be very isolated. Up until recently there was no road into the village, only a track suitable for mules and motorcycles. The local government provided the funds to build an unsealed road. The villagers provided the labour. The road is approximately seven kilometres long and winds its way down from the main road (which itself is very rough). It passes through dense forest and over numerous streams. During the rain season it is often cut off due to landslides and flash flooding. Nonetheless, as Mr Zhou explained, the road has made a huge difference. First and foremost, it has meant a dramatic drop in the price of basic commodities as with modern transport the villagers can purchase in bulk at reduced cost. Secondly, it has made it much easier for the children to attend school in the nearby town. Unlike Husa the village here does not have its own primary school. It did have one up until a few years ago but as part of the new basic education policies, some village schools, especially those which are quite small and isolated, have been consolidated into larger schools in the towns and larger villages. This means that many of the children have to board at the school and only return home on the weekend.

Before the road was built almost every family had a mule or horse for transportation purposes. Now the entire village only has three mules.

One of the more interesting instances of 'cross-border' tourism.

The next morning we said our farewells and travelled to Ruili where we rejoined Xiao Feng and Xiao Yu. The girls seemed to have had a good time in Ruili! We went to the border crossing with Myanmar and observed the local border trade. It is not possible for foreigners to cross at this point. But local Chinese and Myanmarnese can cross freely with a special ‘day pass’. It is also possible, but not recommended, to cross over the border illegally. There are many places where the only thing separating China and Myanmar is a ditch. There are several well known spots for such crossings. Crossing the border to Myanmar is quite attractive for many Chinese tourists as there are quite a few casinos and gambling institutions on the other side. Needless to say I noticed a few public service signs highlighting the negative consequences of gambling! At the border crossing I also met a so-called ‘lady boy’ from Myanmar who was offering to let tourists take a picture with him/her for five yuan. I took some potrait shots of this young man/woman. I felt a bit uncomfortable about doing this but the images seem to me to really capture the sense of be the subject of ‘the gaze’. Something to think about.

Mr Diao and I discovered quite a lot of ‘gems’ on this trip to Dehong. I have since been in communication with Mr Shao from the Husa primary school. I’m quite keen to see what we can do to help some of these children with their education. I hope to revisit sometime later this year or in 2011.

Eedeeba eedeeba eedeeba ... dat's all folks!

Puer Ancient Tea Horse Road Cultural Heritage Forum – June 2010

The characters read 'Xi Gelun', my name in Chinese.

I visited Puer City (普洱市), Yunnan (云南), a prefectural level city (地级市) (more a collection of counties and towns rather than a ‘city’ in the sense most of us understand), from 2nd to 4th June 2010 to attend an important meeting on the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) convened by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics (国家文物局) and the People’s Government of Yunnan (云南人民政府). The meeting was titled ‘China Cultural Heritage Protection: The Puer Forum on the Ancient Tea Horse Road Heritage Protection’ (中国文化遗产保护普洱论茶马古道遗产保护坛).

A bronze public sculpture in Puer depicted a young lad (with crossbow!) tending a few unladen horses.

Puer was first established as an administrative district during the Qing Dynasty in 1729 (actually at what is now called ‘Ninger’, see below). It was renamed Simao (思茅) in 1950 after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It is 45,000 square kilometres, has a population of approximately 2.57 million, and fourteen different ethnic groups. In 2007, keeping pace with other ‘cash in on tourism and marketing name changes’, it was renamed ‘Puer’. Puer, and the surrounding region, is well known as the ‘Birthplace of Tea’ (茶之源), and in particular ‘Puer Tea’ (普洱茶) (which I will write about in a separate blogpost), and also one of the major starting points on the Ancient Tea Horse Road (道之始). You can see where Puer is located by visiting the link to Google Maps here. You can see related images on the meeting and excursion in and around Puer on my Flickr website here.

An amazing performance by a pair of Lahu (拉祜族) entertainers. A definite Western 'gospel' influence is present (no doubt through the efforts of missionaries past and present).

This was the first meeting ever convened to specifically discuss the cultural heritage protection and preservation of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, so it was quite an historic event. Delegates came from local government, research centres and various local, provincial and national levels of the cultural heritage protection authorities from Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Qinghai and Tibet. The first day of the meeting was devoted to reports from the various levels of the cultural heritage system. The Department Head of the China National Relics Department, Mr Shan Jixiang (单霁翔), gave the opening address in which he outlined the overall case for ‘World Heritage’ and the steps that would be involved to reach the point of a formal application (which is quite a complex process). The various representatives from around China gave reports on the state of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ in their respective jurisdictions. I learnt a great deal from these presentations about the history and scale of the road network and some of the challenges facing preservation in the contemporary period. On the morning of the second day various scholars in the field of cultural heritage preservation discussed and compared the proposed ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ application with existing examples in other countries, and also of course the famous ‘Silk Road’. This was extremely informative, although sometimes we suffered from PPT overload!!

A map of the Ancient Tea Horse Road at Nakeli which has five major routes starting from Puer: Lasha, Beijing, Guangzhou (Hong Kong), Myanmar and Vietnam.

Billboard advertising the 'Inaugural China Puer Ancient Tea Horse Road Festival'. Some time in 2010!

On the afternoon of the second day we made a field-trip to the neighbouring county of Ninger (宁洱). The official administrative title of Ninger is ‘Ning’er Hani and Yi Autonomous County’ (宁洱哈尼族彝族自治县). Ninger is marketing itself as the ‘birthplace of tea’ and the ‘starting point of the Ancient Tea Horse Road’. (‘Ninger’ used to be referred to as ‘Puer’ but changed names at the same time ‘Simao’ became ‘Puer’ in 2007 to avoid confusion). A tourist development plan has already been completed and it seems the first stages are in implementation. Ninger has announced that it will host the ‘Inaugural China Puer Ancient Tea Horse Road Festival’ (首届中国普洱茶马古道节) later this year (but other than that I have not been able to get any further details, including dates!).Whilst in Ninger County we visited the village of Nakeli (那柯里). Nakeli is famous for being a major staging post on the tea road. It is strategically located between Puer and Ninger. To this day it still sits on an important transport route. Standing on one section of the old Tea Road you can see National Highway 213 (213 国道) on one side, and further up on the hill the Kunming-Bangkok International Expressway (昆曼国际大通道) in the final stages of completion. Unfortunately, Nakeli is also well known for a devasting 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck the region on 3rd June 2007. Most of the village houses and buildings were damaged beyond repair and were destroyed, to be rebuilt using modern materials. At the point of the staging post (驿站) nothing remains, so they have rebuilt a number of buildings in the ‘old style’. The feeling is distinctly ‘theme parkish’ and is nothing like Shaxi (for example) (see my earlier post on Shaxi here). Truly a great shame but I nonetheless wish them all the best with their tourist venture! No doubt the strategic location will pull in the tourist buses and, in the future in increasing numbers, the ‘self-driving tourist’ (自驾旅游者). Actually, after a quick search I see that the ‘self-driving tourists’ have already hit the road, you can see a report (in Chinese) here.

'Reconstructed' water powered mill in Nakeli.

A musical performance depicting an Yi tea ceremony.

That evening the local Ninger County Government treated delegates to a banquet and cultural performance on the theme of, you guessed it, tea and the tea road. The performance was by the local Ninger Yi and Ha’ni Song and Dance Troupe. The performances were excellent and extremely professional, but to tell you the truth I prefer to see ‘real’ performances out in the villages by so-called ‘amateurs’. I gather that to this date nobody has yet undertaken a systematic study of the musical culture of the tea road. There are probably quite a few songs out there in the mountains waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately those old enough to remember them will be fading into the dim light of the next world and maybe the music will be lost forever.

The meeting was followed by a two day training session (茶马古道遗产保护及培训) for cultural heritage officials from the grassroots. Some excellent general lectures on ‘cultural route heritage preservation’ (文化线路遗产保护) were presented along with a great lecture by Professor Mu Jihong (木霁红) from the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Institute of Yunnan University (who kindly gave me one of their ‘places’ to attend the event). Professor Mu is one of the famous gang of researchers cum explorers who first began to ‘rediscover’ the tea road in the late 1980s. It is has been the tireless efforts of Professor Mu and others that has put the tea road ‘back on the map’. His knowledge of the tea road, especially as it relates to Yunnan, is absolutely remarkable.

Professor Mu Jihong (木霁红), Director of the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Institute at Yunnan University.

Preserve and Protect the Ancient Tea Horse Road Public Signing Ceremony.

Whilst in Ninger there was a public signing event devoted to urging the authorities and general public to work towards raising the profile of the Ancient Tea Horse Road and ensuring its preservation so it can be enjoyed by future generations. Indeed, the most important outcome of the meeting was the drafting and publication of the ‘Puer Declaration’ (普洱共识). This document was ratified by all the delegates and I’m proud to say that I was the only interntional representative to have the privilege to do so. The ‘Declaration’ basically calls upon all levels of government and society to join forces to work towards the preservation of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (if I find time I will translate into English, unless of course some students of Chinese would like to have a go?). Of importance to myself and other foreign researchers is Item Four, which I translate here in full:

“Strengthen international exchange and cooperation in the protection of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Learn from the successful experiences and advanced models of cultural heritage route protection (文化线路遗产保护) in China and abroad. Raise both the level of international awareness and protection of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. At the same time actively persue the preliminary research and preparatory work for the World Heritage application.”

I came away from the meeting very excited about these developments. I also came away with the proceedings and all of the powerpoint presentations, many of which include fantastic maps and images. A golden haul! I also made many new friends and contacts all of China, but especially in Puer. Puer will definitely be revisited!

The crew from the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Institute (from left to right): Ling Wenfeng, Yang Haichao, Zhou Chonglin and Zhang Juan.