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Chinese Language Teaching in the Digital Age: The Online Cross-Cultural Communication Project

A warm welcome for UWA students from China Jiliang University

Over the course of the last semester (July – November 2010) I worked with my colleague, Ms Pearl Zhang, at China Jiliang University (Hangzhou, Zhejiang) to explore how our students could interact using the Internet and assorted communication software. Pearl teaches in the School of Foreign Languages in a special programme for students taking the teaching of Chinese as a second language. My students at The University of Western Australia are intermediate Chinese language students. So it seemed to be a match made in heaven. And so we launched the ‘Online Cross-Cultural Communication Project’. The emphasis here on ‘cross-cultural’ alludes to the fact that this was not just concerned with language exchange but rather with using language teaching as a medium to enhance cross-cultural awareness. I first visited China Jiliang University in May 2010. You can read about that initial visit here. The ‘Online Cross-Cultural Communication Project’ was built upon that first visit. It was good to catch up again with colleagues I met last time: Professor Li, Dr Chen and the new Dean, Professor Guo, plus the many teachers and students. I must extend thanks to my colleague and friend from Zhejiang University, Professor Wu Zongjie, for helping to make all this possible in the first place. China Jiliang University have written about the visit on their website here.

Finding their partners in the crowd

The project lasted for four weeks (Monday 20th September to Friday 22nd October). Each student in my Chinese Intermediate Two class was paired with a partner at China Jiliang University. Pearl told me that her students were so keen there were not enough of my students to ‘go around’, so participation from her end was very competitive. From my end I made the project a part of the assessment and thereby hoped to use both a bit of ‘stick’ as well as ‘carrot’. The students from UWA were instructed to: ‘engage online with your partner once per week for the duration of the project. Each period of contact must be for at least 60 minutes. You must first email your partner and set the time and date for the first ‘meeting’. At the conclusion of each session make sure to set a time for the next week’s contact period.’ Students could choose which communicatin platform to use: MSN Messanger, Skype, Yahoo or the Chinese platform ‘QQ’. (‘QQ’ is the most amazing online communication platform I have ever seen/used and I will be writing about it later in my research on the Chinese hiking communities which spend more time social networking on QQ than hiking).

Partner found!

The first two contact weeks were devoted to introductions. Students from UWA were instructed to introduce themselves and to interview their Chinese partners. A copy of the dialogue and a written report was required. The last two weeks of contact were given over to the trainee teachers from China to design a specific learning module. As a means of encouraging the students to reflect on the project and their learning both Pearl and I asked them to keep ‘reflection diaries’. These proved to be extremely interesting and informative. It was clear that both sides were anxious about the project not knowing what to expect. My students were nervous and shy. They worried that their Chinese was not up to scratch and would find themselves embarrassed or without anything to say. As it turned out both sides found that had a lot to discuss. Many students reported that they often extended the scheduled online contact time for anything up to another hour. My students reported that their confidence had been given a great boost. They surprised themselves in being able to confidently and competently communicate in Chinese with their partners on a range of subjects (this came as no surprise to me of course). For many of my students it was the first time they had ever communicated with a native Chinese speaker outside of a formal class environment.They same was true for the trainee teachers from China.

Student reports on the project

So I’m pleased to report that the ‘Online Cross-Cultural Communication Project’ was an outstanding success. But that is not the end of the story. In early December a number of the UWA students who took part in the project came to Hangzhou to study Chinese at Zhejiang University. China Jiliang University arranged to bring the UWA students out to the campus (way out in the suburbs of Hangzhou) to meet and interact with their partners. It was quite an experience to say the least. Although they had never met in person before the students had little difficulty in locating each other in the crowd. There were hugs and warm welcomes as they first embraced like long lost cousins (except for poor Philip who’s partner was ill that day!). We then moved to a lecture hall where the China Jiliang University students gave presentations reflecting on the project. It was extremely moving and very valuable. I had really underestimated the impact this project would have on the Chinese students. The UWA students were also in high spirits and Ash and Andrew gave a great presentation in Chinese and English (well done!) introducing themselves and life in Perth. When time came to depart I saw a few tears and sad faces.

There were a few hiccups. Technology and the Internet can be very unreliable and tricky at times. Initially we were hoping the students would be able to use Skype or QQ to talk to each other. But often the network was not strong enough to allow that so they fell back on using text. But that was fine as it gave my students a good opportunity to familiarise themselves with computer based Chinese character input methods. The UWA students also gave me valuable feedback and pointed out a few flaws. Pearl and I, along with Professor Guo and Dr Chen, took the opportunity whilst I was in Hangzhou to have a meeting and work out the strategy for implementing the project the next time. Based on this information Pearl and I are planning to expand and develop the project in 2011. We also hope to publish a research paper on the project in 2012 (plus also present the findings at a suitable academic/teaching conference).

Walking into Shangrila: October 2010: Part 3

The mule team has no problem making its way up the gravel path to cross the main pass at 4,400 metres.

From September 25th to October 5th 2010 I joined Ancient Tea Horse Road researchers and explorers Ed Jocelyn and Yang Xiao, Jacques Castonquay, six muleteers, seven horses and one (very naughty) mule, on a ten day expedition seeking to rediscover the ancient paths and living (intangible) cultural heritage of caravans and ethnic culture on one of the minor routes of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) between Shuhe 束河 (Lijiang 丽江) and Shangrila (香格里拉) (formerly known as Zhongdian 中甸). This is part three of the blog diary. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. You can see the images for this expedition here at my Flickr site. You can see a map of the area for this section of the expedition here on Google Maps.

On the tenth day we left Baishuitai (白水台) and continued to head Northwest towards the county town of Shangrila (香格里拉). Our next goal was the Tibetan village of Annan (安南). Although we had already been in Shangrila and Tibetan territory (still firmly in Yunnan Province of course) for several days, it still didn’t feel ‘Tibetan’ just yet. Sanba (三坝乡) was predominantly Naxi (纳西). So far we only had a few glimpses here and there of Tibetan prayer flags, some Tibetan script carved on rock faces, and of course Tibetan yak butter tea (suyoucha 酥油茶) for breakfast on the day with left Haba Village. Baishuitai was a focul point of the Naxi culture, although with the prayer flags and the offerings people were making at the shrines it was clear that we had entered the ‘Tibetan cultural zone’ (and no doubt Tibetans and other non-Naxi peoples regarded the site as bearing special cultural and religious significance). So I was quite looking forward to reaching Annan and, hopefully, experiencing some real Tibetan hospitality.

Encountering motor tourists from Kunming. Expect to see many more adventurous Chinese motorists taking to the highways in search of leisurely distraction.

China’s National Day had just past (1st October) and the ‘golden week’ of national public holidays was in full swing. The ‘golden weeks’ were created by the government in 2000 as a way to provide a solid block of seven or so days for Chinese citizens to participate in the growing domestic leisure and tourism economy (with a smaller proportion taking advantage to travel abroad). The policy has been hugely successfully in driving the development of mass commercial tourism. But as the leisure economy develops and Chinese tourists become more demanding and sophisticated in their choices there is a move away from the mass tour (characterised by large coaches, standardised hotels, dozens of tourists wearing red hats and a tour guide yelling into a loud speaker whilst waving a little red flag as they charge into yet another temple). In recent years we have begun to witness the emergence of the ‘independent tourist’ (自助游客). On our way from Baishuitai to Annan we had to walk for a bit on the main public road. We encountered many motorists from Kunming who were enjoying the National Day holidays by taking a jaunt in their cars through Shangrila. They looked amused at us as we trudged along in our walking gear with mule team in tow. Occasionally someone would honk the horn with approval or we would get a window down, thumbs up and a yell in something barely intelligible as the car sped passed. The emergence of the independent car tourist, something I have discussed previously on this blog, is quite new in China but it is growing very rapidly indeed. A colleague at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hilary du Cros, is currently working on this topic and I look forward to seeing the initial results of her research. It will be good to compare notes with her on my research on the ‘donkey friends’ (驴友) (Chinese hikers) both of which could be categorised a ‘independent tourists’.

We also had some primary school children making their way back to the boarding school near Annan accompanying us to Annan. At one point, no names need be mentioned, one of us slipped over on a steep muddy path as we cut our way across the bends in the road as it climbed a hill. The children were at the bottom and had a jolly laugh. They thought this was good sport and that we were following them. So every time we came to another steep muddy path the children were waiting eagerly at the bottom to see if misfortune would strike again. Fortunately it didn’t. But they didn’t seem disappointed. Like children everywhere they seemed to be having a great lark. One of the cars from Kunming gave them a gift of cakes. Needless to say the wrappings soon appeared on the ground in front of us. Still a long way to go to develop some basic environmental awareness. Many primary school children now board at schools. This is a result of a recent policy to centralise educational resources, close down many small village schools and consolidate and expand central schools in the towns and larger villages. It seems to have worked reasonably well but is not without its difficulties. I think the main thing is that parents worry about the safety of their children. The teachers also complain that they are now burdened with looking after the children 24 hours a day. Russell Harwood, a fine young postgraduate I cosupervised who now works for AusAid, investigated this during his research in Gongshan County (贡山县), Nujiang (怒江). The thesis is to be published as a book by The University of Washington Press in the near future. Will let everyone know the joyous news when the time comes.

This cost of construction of this stupa (well over one million yuan) was donated by a Annan villager who has made big money in Shangrila in the construction field. A lot of 'new money' is being pumped into religious, cultural and educational endeavours all across China.

The not quite finished Tibetan style house that served as lodgings in Annan Village.

We finally made it into Annan early in the evening. It had been raining a little bit on and off all day but thankfully we didn’t have to brave the elements and were able to find lodgings in a nearly completed Tibetan style house. The Tibetans in Shangrila like to build very large houses and use a lot of timber in the construction with massive trunks as the central supporting pillars – very impressive. Locals are permitted to harvest timber from the mountains for house building but of course must apply for a special permit before doing so. The owner of the house was a young Tibetan man not yet married, but no doubt the ‘mansion’ was part of the marriage strategy. He is a truck driver but still had a hand in farming and raising yaks. During the course of our interview with him over the life and times of Annan he informed us that the yaks were a very important investment for the locals. Your average yak goes for about 3,000 yuan. So depending on how big your herd was you could have anything up to 40,000 wandering the paddocks (usually higher up on the mountainsides). No wonder they guard the herds with rifles and ferocious dogs.

Tibetan women bid us farewell! And make sure we paid the rent!

At 2,500 metres above sea level Annan is a typical Tibetan village for this region. ‘Village’ here refers to seven ‘natural villages’ which combined make up the ‘administrative village’ of Annan (we stayed in the biggest of these settlements). It has approximately 335 households and a total population of 1,685 (not including any migrant labourers), primarily Tibetan but also Hui and Yi. Actually I have discovered recently that the local Hui in Shangrila are often know as ‘Tibetan Muslims’ (藏回). The annual income is approximately 1397 yuan per household and it is thus quite a poor community (with the exception of our host who seemed to be doing exceptionally well, no doubt due to his ability to work well with his family to capitalise on their labour and sideline activities). Due to adverse weather conditions in 2009 the county government donated 15 tonnes of rice to Annan to help them get over their grain shortfall. There isn’t much in the way of tourism in Annan and it certainly isn’t picturesque enough in itself to become an attraction but it could become an important starting/finishing point for a trek with mule teams across Tianbao Snow Mountain (天宝雪山). Apparently in times past the region around Annan attracted a lot of prospectors, of many different ethnic groups, who opened small silver mines. There was thus a bit of wealth being generated. We recalled the Mr Xu’s (the old muleteer from Haba Village) remarks about the bandits on Tianbao Snow Mountain and things began to fall into place. When we asked our host about the bandits he sheepishly ‘confessed’ that many of them came from his village! As we were to discover over the next few days the mountains of Tianbao are vast and make a perfect location for bandit hold-ups.

A yak looks yakishly as we pass on our way up from Annan Village into the vastness of the Tianbao Mountains.

The mule team leads the way.

The next day we began to make our way up Tianbao Snow Mountain. Our host, after some delecate negotiation concerning price, agreed to be our guide (although not for the entire trip over the mountain, just to the foot of the lower pass). I don’t think any of us realised how big these mountains are and how many different paths and passes criss-cross the area. The highest peak is 4,750 metres and certainly not the highest in the Shangrila. It is however spectacularly beautiful and relatively unspoilt. There was quite a bit of logging in times past and the locals are still harvesting for local use. But large scale commercial logging was banned in 1997 (as it was across much of Yunnan and China). There are massive granite outcrops and many peaks (a result of glaciation) over 4,000 metres, patches of wide open grassland, virgin rhododendron forests with trees well over 200 years in age, myriad mountain streams, massive spruce and fir forests covered in lush lichen, moss and fungi, and even the odd flock of birds here and there (a very rare sight and just showing how little the area is frequented by poachers). The most spectacular ‘discovery’ was a pristine alpine like (called a haizi ‘海子’ by the locals) which is surrounded by granite peaks and came with a herd of yaks and Tibetan prayer flags. We spent two days in the heart of the mountains and didn’t see another soul. We were not expected to be confronted by the enormity of nature so close to the county seat. Once again it was a prime opportunity to spend quality time with the mule team and observe their animal handling and life on the trail.

Lingzhi (灵芝) a well known and highly prized medicinal fungi.

Much of the forest is covered in lichen such as this specimen dripping with dew.

We also kind of got ‘lost’ as the instructions given by the host/guide were a bit vague. We were aiming for Dabao Temple which is one of the well known landmarks that Mr Xu noted his caravan used to pass as it came out of Tianbao Snow Mountain. In the end we were very close but in a place with some many valleys a distance of only ten kilometres can be well over a days walk, especially if the trails are not clear and you have to get mules and horses across. Not to mention that we were also running short of supplies and some of us had planes to catch in Shangrila. As it turned out we ended up coming out at the Tibetan Buddhist temple of Yangtangdeji (阳塘德吉林寺) in Xiaozhongdian (‘Little Zhongdian’, the settlement on the Zhongdian basin just before the county seat proper). This turned out to be quite appropriate as this temple is the first temple you enter Zhongdian from Lijiang (if you are taking the main route). There were several lamas and a group of local villagers in the temple and I spent some time talking to them about temple life and so on. It helped me a lot to understand some of the major issues confronting the religious practice of Tibetans in contemporary China, a topic being persuied by one of my postgraduate student, so quite handy.

Dejilin Temple eqipped with ferocious Tibetan mastiff seemingly safely isolated to the roof.

After visiting the temple we continued on our way till we hit the nearby highway (214国道), the main road between Shangrila and Lijiang. We still had 25 kilometres to travel to the old town of Zhongdian. Jacque and I opted for the easier option of modern transport. Ed and Yang Xiao kept solidarity with the mule team and did a marathon to the ‘finish line’. Although everyone was pretty well exhausted we had a sumptuous final meal together. I learnt a great deal from this expedition about the intangible cultural heritage of the small caravan. I located a number of excellent sites for future fieldwork and made the appropriate contacts. I think there are also some good postgraduate research projects here and will try to drum up some interest. I’m in awe of Ed and Yang Xiao for what they are doing and very privileged to be a part of it in some modest way. Whilst in Baishuitai I interviewed them both and the transcript will be up on the blog soon. Quite interesting material and an important lesson in the growth of ‘recreational activism’ in China. Stay tuned!

Walking into Shangrila: October 2010: Part 2

Boundless blue skies and ever hopeful of what tomorrow brings. That's Shangrila.

From September 25th to October 5th 2010 I joined Ancient Tea Horse Road researchers and explorers Ed Jocelyn and Yang Xiao, Jacques Castonquay, six muleteers, seven horses and one (very naughty) mule, on a ten day expedition seeking to rediscover the ancient paths and living cultural heritage of caravans and ethnic culture on one of the minor routes of the Ancient Tea Horse Road between Shuhe 束河 (Lijiang 丽江) and Shangrila (香格里拉) (formerly known as Zhongdian 中甸). This is part two of the blog diary. Part one can be found here. Part Three can be found here. You can see the images for this expedition here at my Flickr site.

Once we crossed the River of Golden Sands (金沙江) (and entered Shangrila Tibetan Autonomous County 香格里拉藏族自治县) and met the new mule team we made our way to a nearby village where we stayed the night in a local family operated  hostel that caters for the hikers that come and go on their treks through Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡). It was very simple lodgings but as with all things after days of deprivation it seemed like paradise. Even the air seemed sweeter in Shangrila, and glory be, the beer was cold. After a restful night we started on our first full day with the new mule team (more details on the team below). The goal of the first day was to reach Haba Village (哈巴村). Haba Village rests at the foot of Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山). You can see where Haba is on Google Maps here (if you zoom in you should be able to locate Haba Village/Habacun). The main peak is 5,396 metres.

One of the dozen or so lodges in Haba Village.

It terms of climbing difficulty it is one of the more accessible mountains in China and has become a major destination for climbing enthusiasts (as will be explained below however, tragedy is never far away). ‘Haba’ is Naxi for ‘golden flower’ and is believed to be the ‘brother’ of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Tiger Leaping Gorge, which in places is as deep as 2,000 metres,  runs between the two ‘brothers’. The sides of Haba Mountain are covered in an assortment of fir and spruce forests through which run many mountain streams, some literally springing from the ground whilst others are fed by the Haba Glacier (the southern most glacier in China). The scenery is indeed very spectacular and it is all protected under the auspices of the Haba Snow Mountain Nature Reserve (哈巴雪山自然保护区).

Maize is an important staple in much of western China. In many mountainous regions there is not much room for paddy fields, so maize is crucial. It is not only used for human consumption (and making maize liquor) but more importantly for the raising of pigs. Dried maize preserves very well and can be stored for many months. There is much academic speculation that maize made its way into China via the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Joseph Rock on maize: 'Strange as it may seem, the most important crop grown by the natives of the Mekong Valley is Indian corn. It is the staple food of the Miaotze tribes, both in Yunnan and Kweichow, and also of the black Miaos in northern Siam. Is it possible that corn was known in Asia before America was discovered? As the aborigines have no written records it is difficult to decide this puzzling question'.

Because there is no bridge from Daju over the river to Haba tourists have to either take the ferry or go all the way to Shangrila (the county seat which is still referred to by the locals as Zhongdian 中甸). The latter is a nine hour bus ride (there is a road through the gorge but it is frequently cut by landslides and is not suitable for large vehicles). Hence the tourist buses prefer to return to Lijiang as it is somewhat difficult to get a forty seater coach down to the river on a very narrow and steep path let alone onto a small ferry. Then why don’t they build a bridge I hear you say, that would enable tourists to travel directly in comfort from Daju to Haba? Ah, well, now we get to the heart of competing administrative jurisdictions within the Chinese political/governmental system. Daju lies within the precincts of Lijiang, which is a relatively prosperous city (‘city’ in the Chinese sense of a ‘rural city’, and ‘prosperous’ in terms of strong gains from tourism into the local government coffers, for of course as we have seen many farmers still struggle to make ends meet). The other side of the river is Shangrila County, part of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (敌情藏族自治州) and much poorer (tourism taking off later when compared to Lijiang). The tourist buses make their way up to the Lijiang side of the Tiger Leaping Gorge and it is possible they could do a loop around the mountain to Daju. Surely if there was a bridge they could then continue into Shangrila and visit the scenic spot at Haba and the very important centre of Naxi Dongba culture at Baishuitai as they head towards the county seat. But for the Lijiang operators and beneficiaries of tourism it is better for the tourists to return to Lijiang where they have to pay for hotels, food, entrances tickets and so on. So there is some reluctance to connect directly to Shangrila. Or at least this is how it was explained to me, and it seems to have a ring of truth given what we know about administrative rivalry in the Chinese system of local government. But I will make further inquiries into this matter over time.

Haba Village is quite a fascinating place. It rests at 2,600 metres.  Administratively it is part of the larger Sanba (Administrative) Village (三坝乡) which is predominantly Naxi (in fact the only officially designated ‘Naxi’ administrative village in Shangrila). Haba Village (哈巴村) consists of three natural villages in close proximity: a Han village, a Hui (Chinese Muslim) village and an Yi village a bit further up the hillside. According to my preliminary research all three of these ethnic groups say they originally come from Sichuan. Most likely the Han and Hui came to the region during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D). The Yuan, founded by the famous Kublai Khan (although being quite filial he attributed the founding to his grandfather Genghis Khan), was ruled by the Mongols and their armies had a very diverse ethnic make up. Kublai Khan encouraged the Muslims (not known as ‘Hui’ at this time, Marco Polo describes them as ‘Saracens’) to work and settle in Yunnan. In 1274 he appointed the famous Muslim general Sayyid Ajall as governor of Yunnan who was instrumental in establishing the Muslim presence in Yunnan and domination of the caravan trade. There is a good introduction to the Hui and their important role in commerce in Yunnan at the CPA Media webisite here.

Just on the outskirts of Haba Village is a beautiful grove of old pine trees with a few large springs literally gushing pure water out of the ground. You can see here in the foreground a contraption made by the locals in which they store their yak butter. A kind of natural refrigerator. Very clever!

No breakfast in Shangrila would be complete without Tibetan tea. The tea churn is in the foreground.

That night we rested in Haba staying in one of the hostels that are run by the locals. Although there is some income generated from tourism (mainly in the form of climbers/hikers on their way up to Haba Snow Mountain) the locals still gain most of their income from agricultural pursuits. Winter is quite cold and the mountain not possible to climb all year round so tourism is quite seasonable. For those of you who can read Chinese there is a copy of the outline of the ’12th Five Year Plan’ for Sanba on the web here which gives some indication of socio-economic conditions in Haba. We took the opportunity in the last hour of sunlight to visit a fascinating grove of ancient trees just outside the village at the foot of a large hill. To do so meant walking through part of the Hui village and past the newly completed mosque (in Chinese architectural style, from the outside you wouldn’t know its function) and I took the opportunity to chat to a few villagers and school children making their way home (yes, the kids have very long days at school in China not matter whether in the city or the country!). There is also a local madrassa (Muslim school) and whilst in Haba we were able to meet the students and imam. In the evening we had a fascinating interview with Mr Xu Xinmin, an old muleteer who led caravans to Lijiang and Shangrila for longer than he can care to remember. The interview was very broad ranging and provided a wealth of material and insights into muleteering and caravan life. Mr Xu was primarily involved in the small-scale local caravan, not the large commercial operations that plied the major routes. Mr Xu also gave us instructions for our journey to Shangrila giving us very route options (he told us that they always had to have a few different options so they could avoid bandits!).

I was fortunate to meet and interviewe Mr Xu Xinmin, an old muleteer who had a lot of experience in the caravan trade. A transcript of the interview will be available soon.

One of the horses with the muleteers sorting the gear in the background.

On the second day in Haba the mule team assembled early. The mule team consisted of Xiao Ling (Han) and three muleteers (two Han and one Naxi) and three horses and one mule. Xiao Ling, the Chief Muleteer (马锅头), is a very young chap only recently married. His family are of course farmers but are also branching out into the tourism area by providing lodgings, a general store/restaurant, mules/horses and guides. Xiao Ling proved to very competent and eager to learn, it will be valuable to monitor his progress as he makes his way in the world.  Given that mules and horses are still an essential part of rural life in Haba and are used both for riding and transporting goods up and down the mountain the muleteers have retained their skills and we didn’t have any issues with packs falling off or anything like that. But we did have a ‘mule mutiny’ as I will explain below!

The best glimpse we had of Mount Haba.

The day we set out there was a very large group of Chinese journalists on a special North Face sponsored event. Certainly well over 50 people. Many it seemed were going mountain climbing for the first time. Most had decided to ride to the base camp (4,200 m) on mule or horse thus denying themselves a good chance to get fit and acclimatise. Even though Haba Mountain is known as a relatively ‘easy’ climb it is nonetheless not to be taken lightly. Perhaps because it is seen as ‘easy’ it lulls people into a false sense of security. Over the last ten years a number of climbers and hikers have lost their lives on Haba Mountain (including one Korean in 2006). As we were on our journey, which happened to be 1st October (China’s national day), two climbers (a woman from Sichuan and a man from Kunming) tragically died on their way down from the peak. We were told they were inexperienced (you need basic crampon walking skills as the snow/glacier slope at the top is very steep) and that the guides had too many people to look after. You can read about the disaster here (in Chinese). As China’s outdoor adventure and hiking industry expands the issues of safety, legal liability and insurance are beginning to be taken more seriously. This is something I’m exploring with a colleague, Joyce (Jia) Min, at China Jiliang University in relation to the growth of China’s ‘donkey friends’ (驴友). I’ll be writing about the ‘donkey friends’ in the near future so all will be explained. Suffice to say here that ‘donkey’ refers to hikers who, like donkeys, carry their loads on their backs when hiking.

A young family descends the mountains with fodder. The animal is a yak/cow hybrid. In Tibet these bovine hybrids are known as 'dzo'.

Big Boy was also very handy with a machette and cutting a path through trail in places over grown with trees and shrubs. In many places the old paths if no longer used are not easy to find and indeed no longer suitable for mules and horses.

Following Mr Xu’s instructions we made our way in a north-west direction seeking the pass over to the next valley along the old route that Mr Xu and his mule team used to take when travelling to Shangrila. It was relatively uneventful and we finally descended into Majia Village (马家村) very late in the afternoon, pitching our camp just outside near the banks of a noisy mountain stream. That night I got to know the mule team a bit better and in particular one gentleman who goes by the nickname of ‘Big Boy’ (大个子). Big Boy did most of the cooking for the muleteers. His speciality was the muleteering favourite, the ‘big pot’ (大锅菜), something like a stew. Over the coming days Big Boy and his comrades would be on the lookout for wild vegetables and pick a few to add to the pot as their supplies dwindled. They also had a big slab of preserved pork that added richness and flavour, and of course lots of herbs and spices. Big Boy owned the only mule in the team. It turns out that he had only acquired the mule several days ago and it was the first time he had owned such a beast (in the past he was strictly a ‘horse’ man). It set him back 3,000 yuan which for the locals is a very large sum roughly equivalent to 3 – 5 months salary. It was only after starting this research on the Ancient Tea Horse Road that I began to realise the significance of the mule not just for Yunnan and Western China but for anywhere people lived in mountainous regions. Where would human mountain civilization be without this equine hybrid?! I was told from the outset that mules were preferable over horses because they were more docile, obedient, larger, stronger, harder working and so on. Well Big Boy’s mule seemed to be on a cause to prove that wrong! I did suspect something as the mule was always muzzled and I was told a few times to ‘keep a safe distance’! Actually if you approached this mule from the front its ears would be drawn back and it would start to turn its body to have its hind legs facing you ready for action!

Big Boy cooks up a Big Pot.

The muleteers take very good care of the horses and mules. Not only are they extremely valuable but a beast that is not well watered and fed isn’t going to be very happy. Campsites are always chosen with a view to pasture and water. And generally, especially after a hard days work (and what we were doing was much harder than the normal routine) the muleteers supplemented the diet with a feed of meal/oats mixed with water. They also seem to let the animals wander around the nearby pasture at night as it seems normal for them not to wander off too far (and the wearing of the bells helps with location later). However, on the following morning as Big Boy and the others were getting the team together they noticed that the mule had absconded taking two of the horses with her. Big Boy and one of the other muleteers took off in pursuit. In the meantime we packed up and headed off thinking it wouldn’t be too hard for them to get the animals back. We went through Ma Jia village and talked to one of the young Yi villagers, a young man who had been all the way to Shanghai to work in a factory. He did that job for a year and decided to come home as it was just too tiring and difficult. He said maybe he will give it another go later. This kind of itinerant labour mobility is something you seem to see quite a bit in Yunnan. A few hours passed and the mules still hadn’t turned up and the muleteers were not in mobile range. So we walked up to the next nearby village of Lujia (陆家). As is the usual practice we asked a local farmer about the pass over the hills on the other side of the valley to Baishuitai (白水台), our target for today. He shook his head and said that since the road was completed they no longer use the trail and it overgrown and impassable. So we had to reconsider our options and find an alternative route that took us partly via the road and partly on the edges of the hills above the road.

Ed gets the news that the old path is no longer accessible.

In the home of Mr Shen.

Still anxious for the mule team to show up (with our stuff!) we ended up staying for a few hours in the home of an Yi family who had recently been relocated to Lujia Village. Their original homesite was deemed unsafe due to possible damage by mudslides (we walked past a stream which had been the site of a large mudslide only a few months earlier and saw the damage it sucha force of nature can inflict). Mr Shen and his family were extremely hospitable. Once again I took the opportunity to talk to them about life in the valley and the changes they had witnessed over the years. I especially enjoyed talking to Mr Shen’s mother. Admittedly her Chinese was covered thickly in the local Yi dialect but we managed to communicate. And she cooked us up a fresh batch of freshly harvested potatoes!

The only bandit we met on this trip! Fortunately he was satisfied with the clip-on koala and our heads were safe!

Big Boy secures the 'naughty mule' and thus ended the 'mule mutiny'.

Well it turned out that the mule had led the horses all the way back over the pass and down into Haba village! So the poor muleteers had to go all the way back home to fetch them and then back over the pass and all the way to Baishuitai (2,380 m) where we were waiting. And they did it in record time coming into our lodgings in Baishuitai at about seven in the evening. Incredible endurance! The mule did not look very happy and from that point forward Big Boy was sure to securely tie her up! Although she caused the muleteers a lot of pain I grew to like that mule … she has personality! But I did keep my distance!

I was very excited to have visited Baishuitai and based on this initial foray believe it to be an ideal location for tourism/cultural heritage related research. As I noted above due to the lack of a direct route from Lijiang (by vehicle you must travel up through Zhongdian, the trip for Zhongdian to Baishuitai is itself three hours), Baishuitai is quite difficult to reach. So at this stage it seems that tourism development is a bit sporadic. There are two major attractions at Baishuitai. The first are the limestone terraces which are formed as spring water flows down from the mountain, leaving crystallized sodium carbonate formations along the slopes. They cover an area of approximately three square kilometres. The terraces are a sacred spot for the locals and there are a number of ‘altars’ at the back where they make offerings and ask the spirits for favours (safe journey, pass an examination, fertility etc). The site is held to be the home of a female spirit as parts of the limestone flows resemble female genitalia and is a popular place to pray for success in child birth.

The Baishui Terraces, a sacred site in the Naxi Dongba culture.

The second attraction is Baishuitai’s claim to be the origin and home of the Naxi Dongba culture. The first Dongba, Dingbashiluo (东巴什罗), settled in the region and taught a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and local Naxi indigenous belief practices. His disciples invented and developed the famous Dongba pictographic script. Definitely worth returning to find out what is left of the local Naxi culture. Would be a great site for a postgraduate project!

Two local Naxi lasses have just finished making an offering for a safe journey back to school in Zhongdian.

The final leg of this expedition took us from Baishuitai to Zhongdian over Tianbao Snow Mountain. We spent a night in a Tibetan village that used to ‘produce’ the local bandits. I also witnessed the incredible versatility and endurance of the mule team as we went over a 4,400 metre pass and spent two days in rugged wilderness. Part Three can be found here.