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Sacred Mount Kawagarbo: Where Tibetan Pilgrims and Han Chinese Hikers Meet

The magnificent peak of Mount Kawagarbo.

The magnificent peak of Mount Kawagarbo. At 6,740 metres it is the highest peak in Yunnan. It sits right on the border with Tibet and deep within the Tibetan cultural zone.

As usual it takes far longer to get these blogs up online compared to the amount of time doing the actually activity the blog is describing. The year 2015 was a bit of a mixed bag for me, some downs but thankfully more ups. And the view from the beginning of 2016 is all up as far as I can see. Hope the view from where you stand is good too. This blog describes a September/October 2015 trip to Beijing, Kunming, Shangrila, Yubeng and Dali (in that order). It was a balanced mixture of research and recreation. Before I proceed allow me to share some thoughts worthy of a New Year.

The drawing of the cards.

The drawing of the cards.

Whilst recently in Kunming – on another trip, a tea tour, details of which will be coming in a future blog – I had a ‘life reading’ by an itinerant Daoist in the scenic Western Hills. He asked me to draw out three cards from a pack of thirty. Each card was marked with a different character. The order of drawing, so he said, accorded with three life stages: early, middle, and late. I drew in order the characters ‘ao’ (熬), ‘jin’ (金), and ‘yi’ (). He said the first character ‘ao’ – which means in this context ‘to suffer’ and ‘to endure’ – referred to the first stage of my life. I’ve had many blessings but it’s true that there were a few challenges early on, but all is hunky dory now. The second character means ‘gold’ and refers to both ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ wealth. Whilst no Jack Ma or Bill Gates I think I’ve done okay. Look around the world at all the suffering and you will pretty soon feel content. Finding the balance between the ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ is also important. I would like to add another element to the ‘gold’ standard, namely, ‘scholarship’. I’m confident of bringing out some interesting research and general musings as time goes on.  I feel I’m just getting into my ‘research stride’ as far as that goes. The third stage, which I feel is beginning to just unfold, is one of ‘friendship and righteousness’. The ‘yi’ character is an important one in Chinese philosophical discussions of morality and sociability. As he stroked his beard, the old man said I would have many friends as time goes by and that seems like a nice way to end, though of course I hope that isn’t for a very very long time. I don’t believe in ‘feudal superstition’, as the Communist Party of China labels it. Nonetheless the reading came at an opportune time just when I have been thinking about what it means to be human, and namely, a partner, a father, a friend, a teacher, a scholar, and never forget, a wannabe bluesman. Hope you all have a great 2016 and may the cards be in your favour. Now on with the show …

Nice day for a white wedding ...

Nice day for a white wedding …

First stop, Beijing. I arrived in Beijing a few days after the big military parade commemorating the Sino-Japanese War (WWII). It was mid-September and the air was relatively clean and the sky still blue. Security was on high alert with police at all major intersections, but maybe China has just joined the rest of the world in being in a state of ‘perpetual alert’ (but not quite yet joined the West in being in a state of ‘perpetual war’). I was in Beijing to attend the wedding of Russell and Xiaomiao. Very happy to see them in marital union and wish them all the best. The reception and ceremony took place at Capital M, where on the balcony you can see the resting place of Mao Zedong in the heart of Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is in effect is the symbolic heart of the People’s Republic of China. A bit macabre to think that it has a cold cadaver at its heart.

The view from Capital M.

The view from Capital M.

Doug joined me in Beijing for the wedding. Doug has been my co-traveler on many China adventures. A true scholar and a gentleman if ever there was one. I never tire of his stories (although sometimes I do remind him that ‘I’ve heard that one a few times already’). We were both on another China mission. Doug to take photographs and revive his passion for photography (before becoming an academic he was a professional photographer in his younger years, in the world of analogue, so he is in the process of learning to ‘go digital’, which is hard for an avowed luddite). I’ve put up a selection of Doug’s photos on my Flickr site here. You can also find in the same album a collection of my own much inferior images. All the images used in this blog are by me unless otherwise stated. My mission was twofold, firstly to scope out a new field site for my research project on ‘China and the return to nature’ – investigating the growth of Chinese engagement with ‘the outdoors’ and other related matters. And secondly, to fulfill a long cherished dream of taking my music to the people. I’m not a professional musician, and not a very good amateur one at that, but I know enough to entertain an audience for a few minutes. I tell my language students that you shouldn’t be shy about opening your mouth. The same goes for playing music. So long as your heart is in it don’t be shy, just know when enough is enough and all will be well. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Ignore music fascists who think they have some given right to tell everyone else what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. How boring!

The Orange Amp and Yak bone skull that I collected in Shangrila.

The Orange amp from Beijing and Yak bone skull I collected in Shangrila. Yorick, as I call him, now sits on my desk.

This time I brought my beloved fender stratocaster. It’s a Japanese make, about thirty years old. It’s scarred and worn from much love. In Beijing I purchased a small portable Orange amp and effect pedal.  The owner and his goofy long haired assistant asked me what I was going to do with it. I said I was going busking in Yunnan. He grinned and said, ‘You can get some wild weed down there’. I said I never touch the stuff and wouldn’t break the law in China in any case. They laughed. At first Doug and I were planning to go to the Dulong River Valley (独龙), one of the most remote corners of China, but unfortunately the monsoon rain had set in and it would have been rather miserable (not to mention leech infested). So we changed plans and decided to head for the Tibetan village of Yubeng (雨崩) at the foot of Mount Kawagarbo (卡瓦格博) (part of what is known in Mandarin as the Meilixueshan (梅里雪山) Mountains). Mount Kawagarbo is the tallest peak in Yunnan at 6,740 metres, right on the border of Tibet and deep in the Tibetan cultural zone. Kawagarbo is a scared mountain in Tibetan culture and a major pilgrimage destination. You can see where Kawagarbo is on Google Maps here.

Trying my hand a being a tea master. The characters in the background read 'The Way of Tea' (or 'The Dao of Tea').

Trying my hand at being a tea master in Ms Xia’s tea house.

So after Beijing, fender, amp and pedal stowed safely away, and after catching up with various friends and colleagues, we flew to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan and one of the most pleasant cities in all of China. Kunming is also an important hub for tea activity. On this front, whilst in town I interviewed Ms Xia Xue (夏雪), the CEO of Mingzang Tea (名藏茶道) and President of the Yunnan Chamber of Tea Commerce. You can see the interview with Ms Xia here. I also went busking in Green Lake Park (翠湖公园). Not really busking, just getting used to the feel of playing in a public space in China (where opportunities to do so are actually very limited). I was quite chuffed that people stopped to listen and gave me the ‘thumbs up’. I love Green Lake Park. It was the first place I took my sister when she just arrived in China for the first time. I don’t think she will ever forget that experience.


Playing with the Tibetans was quite an experience. The enthusiastic French also made it memorable.

After a few days in Kunming we flew directly to Shangrila (香格里拉). We stayed in Shangrila for a few days to acclimatise (altitude 3,200 metres). I also took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend, one of the local ‘mountain changers’, Ms Cheng (on ‘mountain changers’ and lifestyle migration in China see my paper in Asian Highland Perspectives). Ms Cheng has built a traditional Tibetan style (or more correctly, Shangrila style) house in a village outside of town where she meditates and paints whilst soaking in the beautiful natural and bucolic vistas. Very nice! Even nicer with a few glasses of homemade plonk and local cheese. Thanks! Cheng hooked me up with some Tibetan musicians and they were kind enough to let me play with them in a popular music bar in the old town (most of which is under reconstruction following a devastating fire in January 2014). They were very talented. Tibetan singing is inspiring stuff, the kind of music you only get in the high mountains under blue skies and standing on green meadows. I wasn’t too bad either as some French tourists started dancing when I switched to an open g tuning and cranked up some classic Stones tunes. Maybe they were drunk. We’ll never know. They were French after all. Ha! Vive la France!

Tibetan pilgrims at Feilaisi. Image by Doug.

Tibetan pilgrims at Feilaisi. Image by Doug Smith.

From Shangrila our next destination before reaching Yubeng was the town of Deqin, or in our case straight to Feilaisi Temple (飞来寺) just a few kilometres out of town. Deqin itself isn’t that interesting, although it does have a bit of an ‘old town’ which we visited on or way back to Shangrila. Like ‘old towns’ everywhere across China it was undergoing the obligatory upgrade in the hope of attracting tourists. Interestingly enough there is an archery range next to the old town (archery is common in many areas of Western China among various ethnic groups although the authorities seemed to have asked the locals to hand in their bows and crossbows to prevent poaching). In any case you can’t see Kawagarbo from Deqin, nestled as it is into the corner of a steep valley. Felaisi is the first place where you can get a good view, weather and mountain permitting. Not surprisingly it was in 1924 at Feilaisi where the intrepid explorer, botanist and ethnographer Joseph Rock took the first ever photograph of the seven peaks that make up Kawagarbo (published with much acclaim in National Geographic). Six of those peaks are over 6,000 metres. You really do feel you are on the top of the world, or at least very close to the summit.

The hotel owner said he would give us a substantial discount on our dinner if I played for his family and guests that evening. Given that he was charging exorbitant tourist prices for everything it turned out to be quite a good deal. I actually found it quite hard going given the elevation of 3,500 metres.

The hotel owner said he would give us a substantial discount on our dinner if I played for his family and guests that evening. Given that he was charging exorbitant tourist prices for everything it turned out to be quite a good deal. Apologies for the blurry image. Apparently the iPhone was struggling with the altitude too.

Given the rise of tourism and the number of Chinese hikers and Tibetan pilgrims Feilaisi has become a bit of a traveler trap. Perched on the side of a mountain there is only one viewing platform which charges 160 yuan for the pleasure of gaining an adulterated view of the mountain (travelers on tight budgets can walk down the road to find a vantage point, but of course the viewing platform is in the prime position). Assuming of course that the mountain is cooperating and not covered in cloud. After one month of rain and cloud, on the day we arrived the peak did show its snowy head just as the sun was going down behind it (not ideal for photographic purposes). The next morning dozens of Chinese and foreign photographers (including Doug) got up early to witness the sunrise, praying to the mountain gods to let the peak be visible. Unfortunately it wasn’t, so they could only sigh and look at each others equipment and work out who had the best and most expensive setup.

Feilaisi. Traveler trap on the way to Yubeng.

Feilaisi. Traveler trap on the way to Yubeng.

Feilaisi is at 3,500 metres and looks down into a steep valley where the Mekong River cuts its way through deep gorges. The seven peaks of Kawagarbo are on the other side, far away, but the sense of space makes them appear much closer than they really are. It was on the viewing platform that we met our first pilgrims from Tibet (I have a feeling they get a substantial discount!). I’ve never been to Tibet. I’ve always wanted to go but the thought of restrictions and having to apply for a special ‘travel permit’ have always been a huge disincentive. Whilst many Chinese tourists now visit Tibet, and quite a few younger people have undertaken the arduous bike ride from either Chengdu or Shangrila to Lhasa, foreigners in Tibet are quite rare. So it’s not surprising that the Tibetan pilgrims were just as interested and curious to see us as we were them. The pilgrims were traveling in groups, often groups of family and friends. Some of them were being spiritually guided by their own Rinpoche, a learned Tibetan lama. I found that many of them either didn’t speak Chinese Mandarin very well or were rather shy. I regretted that I can’t speak much Tibetan. So we resorted to the universal human language of smiles and gestures and took a few obligatory photographs together.

Tibetan pilgrims on the trail to Yubeng. Image by Doug Smith.

Tibetan pilgrims on the trail to Yubeng. Image by Doug Smith.

As already noted, Kawagarbo is the site of an important pilgrimage which takes the form of a circumambulation, that is, the movement around the a holy mountain visiting sacred sites and temples along the way. The term in Tibetan is kora. There are two kinds of circumambulation: inner-circumambulation [neizhuan 内转] and outer-circumambulation [waizhuan 外转]. The former, as the term suggests, is a circuit close to the mountain base and one which you can typically walk. The latter, so I discovered from talking to some pilgrims, seems to be a more modern invention and involves moving around the mountain in vehicle from town to town or village to village, stopping in certain places to walk into the ‘inner-circumambulation’ (such as is the case with Yubeng as I will explain below). This is obviously less arduous than the full inner-circumambulation, so it is much more accessible to folks of different ages and fitness levels.

Tibetans love their bikes just like they love their horses. Of course now they don't tend to ride horses long distance. But they have taken to decorating their motorcycles with all manner of protective charms and, not to be outdone, strapped on speakers for blasting out Tibetan pop songs. Note that the crooked cross has long been a Buddhist symbol.

Tibetans love their bikes just like they love their horses. Of course now they don’t tend to ride horses long distance. But they have taken to decorating their motorcycles with all manner of protective charms and, not to be outdone, strapped on speakers for blasting out Tibetan pop songs. Note that the crooked cross has long been a Buddhist symbol.

From Feilaisi the next stop was the Tibetan village of Yubeng (雨崩). Yubeng is an important pilgrimage stop for both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ circumambulation of Kawagarbo. This once isolated village now not only welcomes thousands of Tibetan pilgrims each year but also a growing number of Chinese hikers (the so-called ‘donkey friends’ (lvyou 驴友), see my previous post on the subject of Chinese hikers; plus a paper co-authored with Ed Jocelyn on the same subject). From Feilaisi you take a minivan to the trail head, the village of Xidang (西当). It’s a short journey of approximately forty minutes, but it takes you from an altitude of 3,500 metres at Feilaisi down to 2,450 metres at Xidang. For those afraid of heights and scary mountain driving I advise not taking a window seat (Doug is in this category so I’m always on the window, which is just fine). Along the way you cross the Mekong River (or the Lancang River as it is known in these parts). At the village of Xidang the hike begins. If so desire you can hire a mule to ride for 400 yuan. If you’re over 90 kilograms you have to hire two mules (hence Doug’s new nickname, Doug ‘Two Mules’ Smith). I hired a mule to take all my gear and make the act of walking more enjoyable.

'Two Mules' Doug is born. And a vision of Get Yer Ya Ya's Out is too.

‘Two Mules’ Doug is born. And a vision of Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out is too.

So we ended up with our own mini-mule-caravan of three mules and two muleteers. There were quite a lot of people on the trail too, so lots of hikers, pilgrims, muleteers and mules. But it wasn’t so crowded as to be annoying. Anyway part of the mission was to see and experience the trail when it was relatively busy. The trail is a well maintained dirt road up and over the mountain, the only road into Yubeng, so it has to accommodate both walkers and vehicles. Fortunately during the day vehicles and motorcycles are prohibited so as not to scare the mules and also to provide a better environment for all the walkers. This is an excellent arrangement. Villagers from both villages – Yubeng and Xidang – are part of the ‘mule riding cooperative’ and they have a system in place whereby every household that participates gets its fair share of customers. There is a good mixture of male and female ‘muleteers’ too. Upon talking to the muleteers that were with us I discovered quite a few actually came from other locations. So even in this rural setting there are migrant labourers. Our muleteer came from the historic village of Cizhong (茨中), famous for its church and its vineyards (both are contributions of 19th and 20th Century French missionaries). She told me she was eighteen years old and was paid one hundred yuan per day (which includes food and accommodation). She can walk for up to four months per year. Let’s say conservatively that she can pocket 7,000 yuan during the hiking season. Compared to the income she can make at home growing maize and potatoes and raising pigs – approximately 1,000 yuan per year – this is quite a lot of money. Sometimes the guests give tips. Also, if she personally carries a backpack for a guest she is free to negotiate a price. Most can manage at least two trips per day. Sometimes those based in Xidang arrange to change mules with those from Yubeng at the pass (especially if it is getting late in the day). I also discovered that there were many migrant workers working in the hostels of Yubeng, more on this below.

We stumbled into Yubeng and more or less stumbled into the first hostel we came across. Most of the hostels seem to be owner operated, that is, by local villagers. But as I noted above there is also a lot of external migrant labour doing the cooking, cleaning, muleteering and other work. Most of the migrants are only in Yubeng during the summer months when the tourists are in larger numbers. In our hostel a young Tibetan woman who I will call Lamo hails from the nearby Tibetan village of Yanjing (盐井) (the Chinese name for the village, which literally means ‘salt wells’ – the village is famous for its salt production and was an important part of the local trading network; the village is across the border in Tibet proper; it’s a pity that foreigners are prohibited from visiting). She was introduced to the hostel by her cousin who is also working in Yubeng (an example of chain migration). She is eighteen years old and sheepishly informed me that she never went to school. Nonetheless her spoken Chinese was very good. She told me she learnt it by watching television, especially Korean dramas. She was a big fan of a Korean boy band called TMD (which incidentally in Chinese romanisation comes out as ‘tamede/他妈的 – ‘damn it!’) and had a self-made tattoo dedicated to them on her arm. Her ultimate dream is to visit South Korea. As I keep saying, this just goes to show that you don’t even have to leave a remote village to get in contact with the outside world, it comes straight into your home via satellite television. I was also quite happy to be educated about Korean popular music by a Tibetan village girl.

Plenty of hostels in Yubeng. All of them are operated by local villagers. They also employ migrant labour.

Plenty of hostels in Yubeng. All of them are operated by local villagers. They also employ migrant labour.

We had dinner one evening in a small restaurant operated by a Lisu (傈僳族) chef and his daughter from Weixi (维西). He said he has been working in Yubeng for two years and that there are three peak seasons: May (which coincides with the ‘Labour Day Golden Week Holiday’); June/July (the summer months that coincide with the university vacation period – many of the Chinese hikers are university students); and October (coinciding with the ‘National Day Golden Week Holiday’). He said he returns to Weixi during the slack season (November to March). Thus I gathered a preliminary sense of rural to rural migration in Yunnan and the important role that the growth of outdoor tourism is having on this phenomenon.

This is Counch Man. A Han Chinese pilgrim from Guangzhou. A business man out on the trail with his Tibetan Rinpoche. He blasted the counch on the pass. These days not all the Buddhist pilgrims are Tibetans, many Han Chinese are now joining the ranks.

This is Counch Man. A Han Chinese pilgrim from Guangzhou. A business man out on the trail with his Tibetan Rinpoche. He blasted the counch on the pass. These days not all the Buddhist pilgrims are Tibetans, many Han Chinese are now joining the ranks. Image by Doug Smith.

A few words of the notion of ‘pilgrim’. Even the Chinese tourist hiker can be regarded as a kind of pilgrim if they themselves regard their activity as more than just ‘tourism’ and a way to ‘reconnect with nature’. They come in all shapes and sizes. There are young hikers geared up to the max looking for adventure. There are older hikers enjoying a leisurely walk and the challenge of a decent hike way beyond the city limits. There are also those who regard the hike as their own form of spiritual challenge. There are many Tibetan pilgrims. Some are lone lamas. Some are in small groups of lamas and nuns. There are family groups, some of whom have an accompanying lama or two (who may be either one of their kin or a spiritual guide). They consist of all ages, from mothers carrying infants to one elderly woman in her eighties complete with hunch and walking stick and toothless grin. All of the Tibetan pilgrims greet you with a smile, hands raised palms upwards and a tashi delek (བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས)! Or a jiayou (加油) in Chinese! Some of the more outgoing will reach out to shake your hand and wish you well. The Tibetan pilgrims seem to stay mainly down at the trail head in Xidang and hike in and out of Yubeng on the same day. That’s quite a long hike considering they will also visit the sacred waterfall another ten or so kilometres out of Yubeng.

We met a lot of interesting characters in Yubeng. Doug took these portraits. The chap in the middle is from Muli. We are now mates on WeChat. Technology is amazing and can truly help us connect. But it can also enslave us. Even Yubeng is now within its limits.

We met a lot of interesting characters in Yubeng. Doug took these portraits. The chap in the middle is from Muli. We are now mates on WeChat. Technology is amazing and can truly help us connect. But it can also enslave us. Even Yubeng is now within its limits.

There are two main attractions near Yubeng. One is the sacred waterfall. This is the focus for the Tibetan pilgrims. Many hikers and pilgrims actually hike out in the afternoon and stay at the waterfall for the night. The other attraction is the ‘frozen lake’ higher up on the slopes of the mountain. This is a new attraction and not regarded a sacred. It is mainly visited by Chinese hikers. We didn’t visit either site this trip as Doug’s knees were playing up. But we were quite happy to just mooch around Yubeng. Mooching is a long standing tradition in our travels. Doug is one of the world’s greatest moochers.

Playing in the hostel. Curious and bewildered pilgrims aren't sure if they dare cross the threshold. Image by Doug Smith.

Playing in the hostel. Curious and bewildered pilgrims aren’t sure if they dare cross the threshold. Image by Doug Smith.

In 1991 a group of Chinese and Japanese mountain climbers (from Tokyo University Mountaineering Club) attempted to climb to the summit of Kawagarbo. They failed and many died, the bodies were not recovered (some years later a few were discovered). The weather changed for the worse at the time of attempting the summit from the third camp. They were 240 metres from the summit. They retreated back to the third camp. All seventeen climbers attempting the summit perished in the snow storm. The remaining club member came back for a final attempt in 1996 (which was part of the original agreement with the Chinese authorities regarding the number of climbs permitted). Once again the weather was not cooperative and they gave up the attempt, the memory of the previous tragedy still very fresh. Climbing has since been prohibited since 2001. There is a Yunnan Television documentary on the tragedy here [in Chinese only].

We walked down the valley to have afternoon tea next to a mountain stream. Good thing to always have your outdoor tea kit handy.

We walked down the valley to have afternoon tea next to a mountain stream. Good thing to always have your outdoor tea kit handy.

One of the local Tibetans told us that the villagers are very pleased with the prohibition on climbing to the summit. The mountain is regarded as the home of Kawagarbo, an important Tibetan deity. He said that rather than trying to conquer nature the Tibetans believe people should live with it. I wholeheartedly concurred and said that the outside world can learn much from this philosophy. Two days prior to our visiting Yubeng a black bear attacked and killed a lone mule that had wandered into the hills. So there are very wild and dangerous animals out there. A few years ago all guns and crossbows were confiscated by the authorities (in efforts to reduce hunting). These days the villagers can only collect mushrooms and the famous caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis).

Our moochings took us to a small temple on the way to the sacred waterfall. The temple is looked after by a lone lama. At the main alter I was surprised to see a picture of the Dalai Lama, knowing that all such images are prohibited by the authorities. The lama took me around the temple and patiently introduced all the deities. I showed him a picture of the DL on my iPhone, he took the phone, looked at the picture and raised it to his forehead in veneration.

Our moochings took us to a small temple on the way to the sacred waterfall. The temple is looked after by a lone lama. At the main alter I was surprised to see a picture of the Dalai Lama, knowing that all such images are prohibited by the authorities. The lama took me around the temple and patiently introduced all the deities.  Image on the left taken by Doug Smith.

We stayed in Yubeng for three nights and had good exchanges with the locals, pilgrims and Chinese hikers. I’m definitely keen to return to Yubeng. Our hike out of Yubeng was uneventful although it was very painful for Doug and his gammy knee (he decided to spare the poor mules any suffering and walk out on his own two legs). We made our way back to Shangrila. We stayed in a hostel run by a chap from Kunming called ‘Kevin’. Kevin is quite a character and fits into the category of ‘mountain changer’, or more specifically a seasonal migrant (most of the ‘mountain changers’ in Shangrila are in this category as the winters are cold and bleak). He spends the spring and summer in Shangrila running the hostel, and then closes it for winter whereupon he returns to his home in Kunming. He likes to travel and has been to most of Tibet and Xinjiang. He was a wealth of information on the changes taking place in Shangrila. He confirmed something I’d long suspected. He told me during the course of many cups of tea that:

“Many young people from eastern China come to western China looking for something to fill the gap in their lives, but they don’t necessarily know what they are looking for. Their lives in the cities are materialistic and hedonistic, and some bring that lifestyle with them into the mountains”.

Kevin’s birthday took place during our stay and he kindly invited us to join in the festivities. After Shangrila we bypassed Lijiang and headed straight for Dali. I’m not going to say too much about this visit to Dali as it was mainly for the purposes of recreation. I did however interview Brian Linden of the Linden Centre in Xizhou (the interview will be up on this blogsite soon). Brian has some good insights into the transformation of Dali from a sleeping backpacker haunt to a thriving tourism Mecca. I’m also publishing a paper on Brian and his cultural heritage activism in the near future. Very productive mooching. Thanks Doug! The only thing to note here is that after playing in several venues in Dali I finally got the chance to play in the Bad Monkey. The Bad Monkey is something of an icon in Dali. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but after more than ten years it has become an institution. I played with my young Chinese friends, a guitarist and beatboxer. I’d never played with a beatboxer before. He was bloody good! I wasn’t really in a good state and it wasn’t my best performance. It’s a rather long story but all I want to say is that Kawagarbo might have had something to do with it. The next day I was inspired to write a short piece in Chinese, something that doesn’t happen very often. I’m not going to translate it into English (let Google do it for you!). And this is where I will leave you for now:

昨天朋友问我是否山里有神仙。我想了一会儿想到几千年前觉得该有,想到几万年前觉得一定有,可惜随着现代化的进步和游客脚声代替马夫的山歌的大跃进山里的 神仙哪儿能平静?我和他解释我的观点突然举头看望了苍山上向着我微笑的一条云龙。过一会儿我两个朋友变成了古罗马的战兵陪着我走人民路的上坡,吉他变成了 耶稣的十字架,慢慢地通过人民路的人山人海,千万个眼球盯着鹤立鸡群的血汗包袱。复兴路口 – 也是地理性的十字架 – 现在设立了麦当劳,西方现代文化符号工厂。我非进去拜麦神不可。那是一种又超越空间又被空间绑住的感觉和融合。外地的游客也进来了摸摸熟悉,这家大使馆到 底是属于哪国的?店里有个毒品叫做可口可乐,是拜麦神的重要礼品。是麦神和他的毒品赶走了山神吗?喝了一口可乐又拿起十字架来一步一步的向前进。人民路全 是刺激,琳琅满目的诱惑和喧哗,no rest or place of rest for the wicked。卡瓦格博我看到你了,看到你在云龙上飞翔!别走,这虚伪的消费社会还存在着那么多人间神仙。是他们的宽容和友谊让我放下十字架找找一杯好茶 来。

Dali Collage

Baoshan Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve Ecotourism and Project Site Report

Yiluo Meeting

Team members gather for an obligatory group photograph. Taken at the entrance to the impressive Wenchanggong Temple in the village of Yiluo in Tengchong County. A Daoist temple devoted to scholarship, literature, culture and civilisation. The perfect venue for us to summarise our observations and think about the future.

ChinaWatch2050’s first blogpost for 2015. Better late than never. I hope this year to bring you more interesting insights into China from my perspective. The first cab off the rank is formally releasing the report on last year’s (November 2014) ecotourism excursion and project site inspection on the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve (Baoshan). The report was compiled by Dr Ed Jocelyn and can be found in pdf form here. Ed and I have been to this site before and I’ve summarised those trips here and here.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman of Zouba Travel for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman and Matthew Hartzell (pictured below) of Zouba Tours for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

I would like to thank the sponsors and supporters of this project: The Faculty of Arts at The University of Western Australia; Zouba Tours; Red Rock Treks; Beijing Hikers; Osprey Packs (China); and The Tea Exchange. The local Baoshan Government, especially the Cultural Affairs Bureau and Baoshan Museum, were very supportive.

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell (many thanks for your support) and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

I will bring you more news about our project plans and events in the coming weeks and months. As Ed’s report suggests, the growth of outdoor tourism in China is booming. Unfortunately the resources and abilities of local communities to deal with the dramatic increase of ecotourists and hikers is limited. We hope to do our bit to alleviate the deleterious effects of China’s ‘return to nature’.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.



Wuyishan Cross-Straits Tea Expo and the ‘10,000 Mile Tea Road’


A crash course in 'Rock Tea' (岩茶) through a 'four classic rock tea' tea tasting.

A crash course in ‘Rock Tea’ (岩茶) through a ‘four classic rock tea’ tea tasting.

From the 16 – 22 November 2014 I attended the 8th Cross Straits Tea Expo (‘Cross Straits’ refers to the inclusion of both mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China)). The Tea Expo was held in Wuyishan (武夷山) in Fujian Province (福建省) from 16 – 18 November. The remainder of the time was spent in nearby Baitashan (白塔山).

You can see where Wuyishan is here on Bing Maps. You can view a selection of images from this trip on my Flickr site here.

This was my first time to attend such an expo and it was quite an experience. There were more than 1,200 booths in the exhibition centre, ranging from tea factories displaying their wares to booths focusing on tea-related paraphernalia. There were a number of stages devoted to various cultural performances. Over 100 tea and tea-related enterprises from Taiwan were in attendance. Apparently over US $5 billion worth of trade deals were signed. An estimated 130,000 people attended the expo.

My efforts to discover the source of the 'Ancient Vegemite Road' continue ...

My efforts to discover the source of the ‘Ancient Vegemite Road’ continue …

For me this was a valuable opportunity to see firsthand the commercial scale of China’s tea culture revival. It was also a perfect chance to understand the teas and tea culture of Fujian, one of China’s most important centres of tea production. This was my first ever visit to Fujian with tea and tea culture as the primary objective. Many thanks to Mr Li Haibing (李海兵) for organising the invitation and taking the time to introduce me to various scholars and tea entrepreneurs as well as giving me a personal guided tour of the historic village of Xiamei (下梅), which also happens to be Mr Li’s home town. I also met a number of tea industry journalists and writers, not to mention many tea entrepreneurs from all over China. A perfect venue for networking. Special thanks to my new acquaintance Mr Warren Peltier (夏云峰). Warren is a specialist in Fujian teas and has written a very valuable book on Chinese tea culture that includes translations of primary resource material from throughout Chinese history. You can see a synopsis of the book and reviews on Amazon here.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I've always said SE Queensland is prime tea growing country.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I’ve always said SE Queensland is potentially prime tea growing country.

Wuyishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for its unique biodiversity and important tangible and intangible culture. Wuyishan, and neighbouring Baitashan, were important centres for the emergence and development of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学). Neo-Confucianism emerged in the region in the 11th Century and was partly a reaction to the rise and spread of Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism spread from Fujian to the rest of China and its philosophical debates were also influential in many neighbouring countries including Japan.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Wuyishan is, of course, also famous for its tea. In fact in China it is most likely ‘tea’ that people think of when they hear ‘Wuyishan’ mentioned. The region is famous for its red tea, but more so for its ‘rock tea’ (岩茶). ‘Rock tea’ refers a particular type of tea and tea production process. Wuyishan is indeed very rocky and some of the tea does literally grow in rocky crevices, but most of it grows on the small basins and terraced hillsides, many of which are dominated by towering rocky outcrops. The most famous types of ‘rock tea’ are known as the ‘four famous bushes’ (四大名枞), which includes Big Red Robe (大红袍), Iron Arhat (铁罗汉), White Cockscomb (白鸡冠), and Golden Turtle (水金龟). From my brief stay in Wuyishan I discovered that different people had some different variations of these four teas.

Pictured here is the ancient art of 'tea drawing' in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China's fascinating tea culture revival.

Pictured here is the ancient art of ‘tea drawing’ in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China’s fascinating tea culture revival.

The tea from this region has also been exported to foreign countries for many centuries. Most famously the tea found its way across the Asian land-bridge to Russia. This trading route – following a trend in the ‘discovery’ and ‘naming’ of such tea-based trading routes that I have been researching for several years – is now known as the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (万里茶道). Local authorities in China are keen to develop such routes as a way of increasing their ‘brand recognition’ in terms of local products but especially for cultural tourism. At the highest level of government in China, President Xi Jinping has developed a specific platform of foreign policy that uses the famous ‘Silk Road’ (including the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, but unfortunately – and to the great frustration of my colleagues in Yunnan – not the ‘Southern Silk Road’). In a recent trip to Russia President Xi also mentioned the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (indeed President Xi has made numerous references to tea and tea culture in his official speeches during visits to foreign countries, something I will write about in more detail on another occasion).

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there is a world of networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there are networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

As part of the tea expo a special ‘Chinese, Mongolian and Russian Mayoral Summit’ was convened to celebrate the tea road and discuss how it can be leveraged for trade, culture and diplomatic exchanges. Mr Li Haibing made arrangements for me to attend as an observer. There were quite a few Chinese representatives from the major cities along which the tea route traveled (it should also be acknowledged that some of the tea also was transported via the maritime trade routes through Southeast Asia and India), several from Mongolia, and a few from Russian cities that I never knew existed. There is an official government website in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, but no English. After a search on the Internet I found virtually nothing on this in English. This is one of those instances where ‘English’ doesn’t have much cache, a sign of things to come perhaps?

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

Apparently the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ has been submitted for World Heritage status, just as in the case for the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ of Southwest China. China’s fascination for ‘World Heritage’ status, especially in terms of the relatively new category of ‘cultural routes’ continues. I’ll be watching developments with much interest.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.



Walking the Ancient Tea Horse Road: The Rise of the Outdoors and China’s First Long Distance Branded Hiking Trail


I had to make an unexpected stopover in Singapore to renew my China visa. Fortunately the Rolling Stones were also in town and I jumped on the chance to see them in action. The venue was quite small and I managed to get quite close to the stage. Awesome!

I had to make an unexpected stopover in Singapore to renew my China visa. Fortunately the Rolling Stones were also in town and I jumped on the chance to see them in action. The venue was quite small and I managed to get quite close to the stage. Awesome!

We are well into the first semester of teaching here in Australia. The search for MH370 continues not too far away from Perth. A tragedy indeed but it has certainly put ‘Perth’ (珀斯) on the map in China.  My research and other duties continue also, although perhaps not at the pace I would like. I was fortunate enough, however, to be able to travel to Yunnan recently to conduct further fieldwork on the rise of ecotourism and lifestyle migration. The latter is emerging as quite a fruitful project as I make contact with Chinese and foreigners who have relocated from the polluted and congested cities of the eastern coast to the blue skies and more relaxed lifestyle of places like Dali and Lijiang. Stories in the Western media on this subject are now becoming regular – such as this recent report in The New York Times. With a focus on the trendy and chic lifestyle migrants – or ‘mountain changers’ as I refer to them – these reports miss the point that there are many migrants engaged in much more mundane work who don’t have the luxury to spend time sipping coffee in some trendy cafe. Some of the locals are also now complaining that the mountain changers are bringing the congestion and pollution with them. In China almost everything comes back to scale. I hope to have more to say on this matter later in the year. On my way back to Australia I went via Canberra and gave a seminar on my research on the cultural politics of the Ancient Tea Horse Road at the Australian Centre for China in the World. I think it was well received, certainly the hosts were very kind. Thanks to all who attended and gave feedback. You can read a summary of the seminar here: CiW Centre Sigley Seminar 2014. Also good to catch up with friends in family in ‘Canbra’.

The newly opened Australian Centre for China in the World at the Australian National University.

The newly opened Australian Centre for China in the World at the Australian National University.

Whilst in Yunnan I paid a special visit to the Departments of Culture and Nature Conservation in Baoshan. I’ve described Baoshan on a previous blog which you can access here. You can see where Baoshan is on Google Maps here. The main outcome from this trip is that Baoshan has agreed to be the host of the next ‘Australia, China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ (Forum 2014). Forum 2014 is scheduled for November and promises to be bigger and better than the inaugural forum (‘workshop’) held at The University of Western Australia last September 2013 (you can read the full report on that event here). This event will also include a site visit to a nearby trail. The site, most likely to be the ancient road crossing the Gaoligong Mountains (part of the Gaoligong Mountains Nature Reserve) from Baoshan to Tengchong, will hopefully become a pilot project for promoting sustainable hiking with an emphasis on ‘leave no trace’ principles and grass-roots community participation. More details will be forthcoming in due course so stay tuned.

Conducting 'research' (烟酒) in Kunming. Chinese language humour, sorry.

Conducting ‘research’ (烟酒) in Kunming. Chinese language humour, sorry.

As an outcome of the previous forum and to stimulate further discussion, Ed Jocelyn and I have drafted a discussion paper on the feasibility of developing China’s first branded hiking trail. You can access the discussion paper here: China Hiking Trail Discussion Paperion Paper – Jocelyn and Sigley 2014. The discussion paper proposes to use a ‘brand’ such as the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (or possibly the ‘Southern Silk Road’) as a means to create a well managed and sustainable trail experience. Feedback and comments welcome. We are also seeking sponsors to assist with the Forum 2014 and the Test Pilot Project. Contact me directly if you’re interested. A more formal ‘call for sponsors’ along with a draft forum program will be issued in the coming weeks.

In the near future I will upload an interesting interview with Mr Zhou Chonglin (周重林), a Yunnanese based author of several books on tea and history, who is currently heading up a special project to ‘revitalise the [Chinese] tea industry’ (茶叶复兴). It’s quite an illuminating discussion of recent social trends in China and the role tea is taking in discussions around coping with the demands of modern society.

Up and coming Chinese scholar Zhou Chonglin

Up and coming Chinese scholar Zhou Chonglin. Interview coming to ChinaWatch2050 soon!

Tea Road Learning Journeys 2: A Puer Tea Factory


I’m in Puer (普洱) (9 – 11 June 2012). You can see where Puer is on Google Maps here. With nine ethnic autonomous counties Puer has a large number of non-Han ethnic groups, including, Ha’ni (哈尼族), Yi (彝族), Lahu (拉祜族), Dai (傣族) and Wa (佤族). Tea is an important part of all local cultures here.

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. He is reputed to have brought the tea plant to Puer. He is revered as a Tea God.

Puer is only two hours drive from Jinghong (Xishuangbanna) and although the altitude is several hundred metres higher (at approximately 1,500 metres) it is still relatively sub-tropical. In addition to becoming a major source of puer tea, Puer has historically been well known as the most important trading and distribution centre for puer tea itself. In 1729, during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), the dynastic government established tea trading office (总茶店). Some of the best puer tea made its way to Beijing as ‘tribute tea’ (贡茶).

Whilst there are also many ancient tea trees in Puer there is also a considerable amount of plantation style tea as can be seen here. The area under plantation style cultivation continues to increase each year.

Yet up until a few years ago Puer tea was not 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’ (绿茶), 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). 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 planting new tea plantations, building processing plants, exhibition centres, and so on. Investments were made by all, from the small-time farmer purchasing minivans and equipment to the wealthy urban investor pumping money into ‘get rich quick schemes’, many of which were quite not based on sound financial planning. Then the bubble finally burst in 2007 and many people, big and small, lost a lot of money. Since then the puer tea market has been steadily recovering and prices are on the rise again (especially this year in the wake of a drought and smaller harvest).

Not many schools can claim to have a Confucian temple. Simao Number One Senior High School does. The temple (seen here) is a reconstructed version of the original which was on the exact same site for many hundreds of years. During the recent senior high school examinations (gaokao, 高考) many students made offerings. Needless to say, as the Vice-Principal pointed out, the best way to secure good results is to study hard.

I had three major objectives during this visit to Puer. Firstly, to visit Simao Number One High School (思茅第一中学), one of the participating schools in this ‘tea road learning journeys’ project. Simao Yizhong (the abbreviated title of the school in Chinese) was founded in 1915 and has a distinguished history. Given the subtropical environment the school grounds are lush and green. I was given a tour of the school by the Vice-Principal. Later I also met with the Principal and the teachers who will be facilitating the project from this end. I also had the good fortune to meet three young Australian lasses who are teaching English at the school as part of a ‘Gap Year’ project.

The puer tea markets are always a pleasant place to visit as you will invariably be invited to sample some tea. The pace of life and business in Puer, as in much of Yunnan, is very relaxed.

Secondly, I paid a visit to the Puer Tea Markets. At this time of the year the markets are very busy as the new tea crop continues to be harvested. In addition to the  dozens of permanent tea merchants there are also many tea producers who bring their tea to market for sale.

A collage showing the process of taking loose leaf puer and transforming it into a tea cake. The images here were taken in 2010 in Lijiang during a special puer tea festival.

Thirdly, I inspected a local tea factory (as shown in the video above). I wanted to see the process of taking the loose puer tea leaves (which have been picked, roasted (杀青), rolled and dried) and compressing them into tea cakes. Of course the tea can be consumed in loose form and this is indeed how many local people consume puer tea. The compression into cake form probably came about as a means of safely storing and transporting the tea along what we now call the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. In this regard Puer now markets itself both as the ‘Chinese Tea City’ (中国茶城) and the ‘Origin of Tea and the Start of the Tea Road’ (茶之源,道之始).

There are still sections of tea road around Puer. It is from here that the caravans began the journey of transporting tea across and beyond Yunnan.

Tea Road Learning Journeys: A Cross-Cultural Communication Cultural Heritage Project

I’m currently (June 2012) in Yunnan undertaking a special project sponsored by the Australia-China Council. The project is a cross-cultural communication and cultural heritage initiative that involves interaction via a dedicated website between schools in Western Australia (WA) and Yunnan. The schools in Yunnan are located along the Ancient Tea Horse Road (that’s the cultural heritage connection).

The dedicated website is: www.tearoadlearningjourneys.com

On the participating schools can follow my blogs and videos as I travel to points along the tea road, introducing the WA students to key features of tea culture and tea road heritage along the way. The students, in both WA and Yunnan, will also be putting up some videos and blogs introducing themselves and their own cultures to each other (the cross-cultural communication component).

In the coming weeks I will be posting some of the highlights onto this blog for general public viewing.

The Ancient Tea Horse Road and the Politics of Cultural Heritage in Southwest China

A very brief post to let readers know that I have published a paper on China Heritage Quarterly titled ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road and the Politics of Cultural Heritage in Southwest China‘.

This is the first instance where I have begun to bring many threads of my research on this topic together and I’m quite pleased with the result. Of course still a long way to go.

If all goes according to plan it will be republished in a much expanded form in 2013 as a book chapter in an edited collection on the politics of cultural heritage in China.

Fieldnotes from the ‘Kingdom of Women’: Visit to Lijiang, Lugu Lake and Yongning

Lugu Lake (泸沽湖)

It has been some time since the events and fieldwork described here took place and I was wondering whether it was worthwhile posting at all. But after requests from avid readers (thank you!) I’ve decided to dust off the cobwebs and write up my notes. Indeed, one of the very reasons I began this blog was to engage in a form of ‘thinking out loud’. I have found the process of combining fieldwork with this blog to be very rewarding. To go public means that I have to think carefully about how to write in a way that most people will find engaging (my apologies if I don’t sometimes meet this objective). It also forces me to be as accurate as possible (not that I’m usually ‘inaccurate’!) and to follow up on various points or insights in my notes by providing a broader context. And most of the time I’m learning something in the process as well. In this connection I believe it is important for scholars to communicate their work to a broader public and I have done so as much as possible through public lectures, working with schools, conducting study tours, and so forth. This blog is simply the digital age extension of that process.

Readers of will know that I have two major research projects underway. The first concerns the cultural heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) in Yunnan Province (云南省). The second, and not unrelated by any means, focuses on the emergence of China’s hiking culture (what I like to refer to as the world of the ‘donkey friends’ 驴友). At the moment the cultural heritage project is getting most of my attention as I have a few important writing deadlines and grant funded projects to complete this year. One project I’m quite excited about is sponsored by the Australia-China Council and involves linking schools in Perth and Yunnan via the Internet to share knowledge about cultural heritage, the object being to raise awareness of the importance of custodianship. Part of the project involves me traveling to visit  schools in Puer, Lijiang and Shangrila in June. More details forthcoming in the near future.

Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学), Chengdu, Sichuan.

I want to report here on fieldwork conducted in Lijiang (丽江) and Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) in early January 2012. The trip actually began in Chengdu, Sichuan, where I was invited by the Tourism Studies Department at the Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学) to give a paper on hiking and community-based tourism (thank you Xiao Laoshi for the arrangements). The presentation was titled ‘Small is Beautiful’ and discussed the experiences of Australian tourism authorities in developing a strategic plan for inbound backpackers linked to both popular (and cheap) attractions and the need for regional Australia to employ seasonal labour. This was compared with the challenges of developing community-based tourism in western China at a time in which the economic model seems to be dominated by mass tourism and commercial scale. This was my first real visit to Chengdu (having passed through very fleetingly a few years ago). Chengdu is the true metropolis of western China (that is, ‘western Han China’ with a real sense of the cross-over of Han and Tibetan, and other minority, cultural zones). It is also apparently the capital of the ‘donkey friends’ and has an entire shopping strip dedicated to outdoor equipment. Although I didn’t see the sun for five days (they say ‘Sichuanese dogs bark at the sun’ (蜀犬吠日) because it only makes rare appearances), and I nearly didn’t survive the traffic (no offense, but some of the most dangerous driving I’ve seen in China), I will be sure to return when the next opportunity arises.

Through the kind introductions provided by a dear friend (who would like to remain anonymous) I had the good fortune to also meet in Chengdu one of China’s master painters in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting (国画大师), Mr Li Huasheng (李华生). Master Li Huasheng is a famous painter of traditional Chinese landscape painting (国画). Now in semi-retirement he likes nothing better than to get in his van and drive out of the city to 'picnic'. Here we are 'picnicking' on a somewhat chilly and overcast day on a yet to be completed highway. Master Li has lived an extraordinary life experiencing many ups and downs in the Chinese world of art and state/party control, so he has a lot of insights. Although his work now is quite 'modern' he fits well within the tradition of the 'hermit scholar/artist'. One of China's 'living treasures'.

Accompanied by master painter (in the modern form), Mr Li Yunfei (aka ‘Chris’, also one of the world’s most distinguished art journalists specialising in China and East Asian art), I then traveled to Lijiang just in time to experience New Year’s Eve in the old town (World Heritage listed). I’ve become quite interested in Lijiang (technically the name of the old town is Dayan, but for the sake of convenience I will follow current preferences in nomenclature).  I’ve written numerous times about Lijiang and Shuhe on this blog.  For people in the field of cultural heritage management and studies, the old town of Lijiang is an example of what not to do. Some even argue that the crass commercialism of Lijiang old town contravenes the UNESCO World Heritage convention itself and it should be revoked (and indeed I believe UNESCO did come close to making such a reversal at one stage). The old town is now basically a ‘theme park, shopping mall and bar district’. I totally sympathise with these views and hope that China’s other famous ‘old towns’, such as Pingyao, Shaxi and Weishan (the latter two are both in Yunnan) can avoid becoming like ‘Lijiang’.

I took part in the Second Annual Tea Friends Tea Tasting Event in Lijiang at the Qiuyue Teahouse. The focus was black teas from Fujian (and of course some fine black tea from Yunnan). The event was also simultaneously held in nineteen other locations across China. Each location interacted with the others via a dedicated Weibo site (something like Facebook/Twitter). Awards were given to the location that ran the best event on the day. The event offered some great insights into the ongoing development of contemporary Chinese tea culture.

Having said that, however, from my perspective as a scholar of contemporary Chinese society, there is a lot going on in Lijiang that I find quite fascinating. For instance, did you know that Lijiang is regarded as the ‘one night stand capital of China’ (中国一夜情之都)? This has much to do with the rise of a youth leisure culture and the development of Lijiang as a ‘romance travel destination’ (very popular as a honeymoon destination). There is even something of an urban legend which has incorporated the love story of a local Naxi man and Korean woman into the overall image of Lijiang as a ‘city of love’. The couple set up one of Lijiang’s first backpacker (背包客) hostels and café in the early 1990s in the old town. I remember meeting them many years ago and having the backpacker staple of banana pancakes. That hostel/café has now transformed into a enormous bar and cabaret venue that can accommodate up to 300 people.  You can see from this example the dramatic transformation that Lijiang has undergone and in particular how the domestic tourism market is now the driving force (the spendthrift foreign and Chinese backpackers couldn’t even afford to step into the establishment nowadays!).

Mr Yang is a villager from Shuhe (not far from the old town of Lijiang). Given that Shuhe is rapidly developing into a major leisure/recreation centre in the style of Lijiang (thankfully not as noisy), Mr Yang and his fellow villagers are possibly the last generation of Shuhe farmers. Shuhe was an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road famous for both its cobblers/leather workers and caravans/muleteers. Here Mr Yang is pictured at his ancestral graves in the hills behind Shuhe. Some of his ancestors were well known and well educated lamas (monks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), one of whom was apparently a teacher to the famous Joseph Rock. Even the hills aren't safe and the villagers have been at odds with government and developers who want to move the graves to build a resort.

Yet there is still something of a ‘backpacker’ presence in Lijiang. Lijiang, and Dali down the road with a somewhat different ‘vibe’, attract a range of tourists, but in particular they have become important destinations on the ‘Chinese hippie trail’. As such Lijiang old town has more than its fair share of bars. On the periphery of the old town (where it becomes the ‘new old town’) you will find many quiet boutique style bars (in which a AUD$20 bottle of Australian wine is retailed at AUD$100). In the heart of the old town there is one strip now known as the ‘bar street’ (酒吧街) which is probably the loudest and most expensive drinking zone in China. If all goes according to plan I hope to be able to spend a bit more time in Lijiang in the latter half of this year to engage in more fieldwork and observations. In any case we spent the last night of 2011 and the first moments of 2012 in the old town observing just how far noise pollution can go in this day and age.

The real purpose for visiting Lijiang this time was to meet with the up and coming Mosuo scholar Latami Dashi (拉挞迷达史) at the Lijiang branch of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. Latami is an outstanding scholar who hails from Yongning, a small town near the famous Lugu Lake. And as I discovered his is also something of a celebrity in his home region where he more well known for his skills as a songwriter of contemporary Mosuo folk songs (some of which you can belt out in local KTV establishments). His home is popularly known as ‘the kingdom of women’ (女儿国), the land of the Mosuo people (摩 梭人), a matrilineal community with many unique customs such as ‘walking marriage’ (走婚) (which I won’t try to explain here, suffice to say there are many common misconceptions about this particular practice). You can see where Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) and Yongning (永宁) are located on Google Maps here. You can see a selection of the images taken during this trip on my Flickr site here. Given the very unique nature of Mosuo social life they have found themselves to be frequently visited by anthropologists (the earliest recorded Westerner to visit the region was the famous botanist and amateur Naxi ethnographer, Joseph Rock). Latami told me that there were so many anthropologists and scholars passing through his house when he was a young lad that he too wanted to, ‘be a anthropologist when I grow up!’. I have had the pleasure to know Latami for several years and his have provided me with a good education into the challenges facing Mosuo culture in the age of rapid social transformation (of course any inaccuracies recorded here are completely my own fault). Latami, knowing of my keen interest in the Ancient Tea Horse Road, agreed to take me on a personal visit to Lugu Lake and Yongning, the latter being a very important trading post on the tea road network. This was just too good an opportunity to miss, so when the chance finally came we met as agreed in Lijiang to embark on our own journey to ‘the kingdom of women’. (In this connection I thoroughly recommend the autobiography (co-authored with my former colleague Christine Mathieu) by the most famous Mosuo of contemporary times, Namu, and her story that takes her from the rural environs of a once relatively isolated community to the catwalks of New York and Paris. The book is titled Leaving Mother Lake).

This Yi woman has come to the main street of Yongning to sell homemade charcoal (木炭). The charcoal is manufactured in smouldering mounds in the hills in a process which can take days and even weeks to complete. Although technically illegal (as it requires the use of protected trees) the local authorities seem to turn a blind eye as it is a valuable source of heating/cooking and income for poor families. The practice of making charcoal this way seems to be quite common in mountainous western China.

Latami was extremely generous with his time and knowledge and provided many personal insights into Mosuo culture. He also introduced us to a number of notable scholars, officials and other persons in Lugu and Yongning, thus providing a good foundation for more detailed fieldwork in the future. As with almost everywhere else in Yunnan, the road network in Lijiang (Lugu Lake and Yongning are located in Ninglang County which is part of the ‘rural city’ of Lijiang) is being upgraded. The new expressway from Lijiang to Lugu Lake is near completion. This will dramatically reduce the traveling time to a couple of hours, thereby making it possible for even greater ‘hordes’ of tourists to visit the area, possible even on ‘day trips’. Considering that my first trip to Lugu Lake from Lijiang in the early 1990s took about 17 hours, this is quite an achievement. As I’ve noted before, the increased mobility and compression of ‘time and space’ through the modernisation of transport infrastructure is bringing with it a myriad of social, economic and cultural changes.

The sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) of Lugu Lake. Also known as Gemu Mountain (格姆山) after the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). Every year an important circumambulation festival is held in honour of Gemu. It takes place on the 25th day of the 7th lunar month and is regarded by some as a vestige of 'nature worship' (大自然崇拜). The Lige cafe/hotel strip is in the forefront.

Yet I noticed something quite interesting from the visit to Lugu Lake and nearby Yongning, namely the concentration of tourism development in one area and the virtual lack of any form of tourism development in another. Lugu Lake is simply stunning. It is a large body of fresh water on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan, and indeed one of the cleanest bodies of fresh water anywhere in China (something that unfortunately is in quite short supply in this age of rapid industrialisation). The lake is dominated by sacred Lion Mountain (狮子山) home of  the Goddess Gemu (格姆女神). One of the legends of the origin of the mountain is as follows:

“… a beautiful female spirit by the name of Gemu had many local mountain spirits as her male friends. The young spirit was pretty and also had male friends among the male spirits from other mountain regions. During one of her intimate dalliances with a local male spirit, a mountain spirit from a distant mountain came to her house on horseback. When he found her in the company of a local male spirit, he felt humiliated and quickly turned his horse round and started going back. Gemu heard the neigh of the horse and realized that a distant mountain spirit had come on horseback to visit her. She came out of the house and started running after the visitor spirit. She could only see a large hoof print at the foot of the mountain where the male spirit had disappeared. As it was getting dark, Gemu could not proceed further and she started weeping frenziedly, which resulted in the hoofprint turning into a lake with her tears. When the male spirit heard her crying, and saw that the hoofprint had turned into a lake with her tears, he lovingly threw a few pearls and flowers into the lake. The pearls are identified now as the islands in the lake and the flowers which floated to the lake shore are said to be scented azaleas and other flowers, which bloom every year.” [Source]

Lugu Lake has developed into a popular tourist destination and mass tourism is changing the culture of the Mosuo people for better and for worse. Pictured here is a young Mosuo man who having worked in Lijiang for a number of years decided to return to Luoshui to work for his family. As this is a matrilineal society his grandmother is the one who tells him what his work duties are.

The surrounding region is still very bucolic, the only other industry being tourism, but this is mainly concentrated in a couple of small villages (some of which have become ‘towns’) around the lake. So it is all very good if your village is close to the lake, but as you move away from Lugu the presence of tourism infrastructure virtually disappears. There is one part of Lugu called Lige Island (里格岛), a small village and strip of beautiful lakeside just at the base of Lion Mountain. At Lige it seems as if someone has air freighted a piece of trendy Lijiang and dropped in right next to the beach. The strip is an assortment of very nice and upmarket cafes and hostels with Lijiang prices to match. If you can afford it, it is probably the best place to stay (although there are some quieter spots in other lakeside locations which would be my personal preference. I wouldn’t bother with the town of Luoshui (落水村) which is the site of most development).

The elongated side profile of Lion Mountain from Yongning. Does it not resemble a crouching lion?

Yet only 45 minutes drive away at the town of Yongning (永宁乡) the contrast couldn’t be starker. Yongning is situated on a small basin with the elongated side profile of Lion Mountain dominating in the east. It is a ‘one street’ town with a strong bucolic feel. As the day unfolds the main street attracts locals from far and wide. Many Mosuo, Yi and Pumi from the hills come down to sell homemade charcoal (木炭), mushrooms and other botanical (and some animal) specimens. Despite the lack of development it still is very appealing as it conveys a genuine sense of the colourful rhythms of local life. It is also home to one of the regions most important and famous lamersaries, the Zhameisi (扎美寺) Temple. The temple is a good indication of the strong influence of Tibetan culture on the Mosuo. The region has produced many famous Mosuo lamas and living buddhas who have been highly venerated in Tibetan circles. The templewas first built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is the main temple for the local Mosuo and Pumi peoples. At its peak it was home to several hundred lamas. The number today is much smaller but can grow quite large at times of certain religious festivals. It is situated about two kilometres outside of Yongning. There is a great photo taken of a lama at the temple during the 1920s (most likely taken by Joseph Rock, but source still to be confirmed).

Main hall of Zhameisi Temple (扎美寺).

Without doubt the Yongning region is rich in cultural heritage and is a prime location for the development of tourism. My concern is that with the development of the new expressway that the tourism resources will continue to be focused in and around Lugu Lake. This was also a concern of some of the local officials I spoke to during this visit, but they argued that with the increased influx of tourists it would become possible to channel resources towards other areas. Some may also argue that concentrating the ‘harmful’ effects of mass tourism in a few locations is more desirable than doing so across an entire region. In this way, they hold, local cultures can still persist reasonably undisturbed. The problem is, however, that rapid social and cultural change is happening even in the absence of mass tourism. And quite frankly, many local people outside the tourist zones also have the right and desire to improve their living standards (and gain better access to health care and education for starters). There are a few local NGOs and organisations attempting to deal with these issues, but it seems no one is really prepared for the even greater influx of tourists that is about to begin.

The Mosuo (and Yi and Pumi) are well known for the manufacture of colourful textiles (still worn by many local women). The old town of Lijiang has many shops selling a variety of textiles usually with a 'Mosuo' woman in the shop front operating a loom (more for attracting the attention of tourists than doing any actual weaving). Pictured here is the headquarters of a large intangible cultural heritage cooperative just outside Yongning that sells the textiles on behalf of the local villagers (with several hundred households participating)

From my perspective the area around Yongning would be the perfect location for a number of small-scale, community based, ecotourism projects. Yongning has a very ancient history, as the presence of the Zhameisi Temple suggests. It was also an important staging post for horse/mule caravans in the region (connecting as it does Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, including in the past the ancient neighbouring lama kingdom of Muli of which Joseph Rock wrote about a number of times). Mules and horses are still very important beasts of burden in the area and  there is a large horse and mule fair (骡马会) every year in November (which I hope to visit this year). A local Mosuo saying goes: ‘To get rich the Han rely on selling land, to get rich the Mosuo rely on raising horses and mules’ (汉人发财靠买土地,摩梭人发财靠养骡马). The caravans of the Mosuo were very famous. Traditionally it was the male members of the household who engaged in this activity (but not exclusively). It is recorded that during the 1920s and 1930s, when the caravan trade in the area was particularly active, that in addition to trading in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, many Mosuo caravans also made their way to Burma (Myanmar), Nepal and India. As you can see, a wealth of material to explore and a rich source of important work on cultural heritage and community development to be undertaken. Now it is just a matter of finding more time and resources. A final thanks to Latami for his support and encouragement.

Short distance horse and mule caravans are still a common sight around Yongning. The cultural heritage of the muleteer is still well preserved and could be an excellent resource for community-based ecotourism.

To the Source of Tea: The Ancient Tea Tree Groves of Menghai County

This lovely Blang lady is well over 80 years and can remember the time when tea merchants used to visit her village of Mannuo (曼糯) to purchase tea. Whether or not there were any actual merchants from Tibet still needs to be verified. Photo by Ed Jocelyn (all other images are taken by the author unless otherwise stated).

From the 30th November to the 7th December 2011 I travelled to Puer (普洱市) and Xishuangbanna (西双版纳傣族自治州) in Yunnan Province (云南省) to continue my fieldwork into the study of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’(茶马古道) and ‘Tea Culture’ (茶文化). The purpose of this particular trip was to reconnect with contacts in Puer (which I have visited several times in the last year and a half) and to make new contacts in neighbouring Xishuangbanna (hereafter abbreviated as ‘Banna’). I also visited a number of related cultural tourism sites and collected valuable resources (books, monographs, pamphlets, and so on). Both Puer and Banna are famous tea growing regions, most possibly the very place of origin of tea cultivation and tea culture itself. The region is also home to numerous ethnic nationalities (少数民族) many of whom are involved in the tea trade in one way or another. Indeed, it is perhaps through tea cultivation that this region first became integrated into the Han Chinese economy and social/cultural sphere of influence well over a thousand years ago (I’m still gathering concrete historical evidence for this process). In particular I wanted to get right to the source of tea itself amongst the ancient tea tree groves of Menghai County (勐海县). You can see where Menghai County is on Google Maps here. The trip was very fruitful and produced a number of interesting avenues of inquiry, not least of which was strengthening my knowledge of the political economy of tea production and setting up potentially good sites for more detailed observation in the future. You can see a selection of images taken on this trip on my Flickr here.

I was joined in Kunming (the provincial capital of Yunnan) by three companions: Dr Ed (a longtime collaborator on both the ‘tea road’ and ‘adventure tourism’ in Yunnan); Mr Gary P. (a tea and fungi connoisseur and expert) and Jinpa (a Tibetan travel operator and guide keen to learn more about cultural tourism in southern Yunnan). A quick plug: If you’re considering travel in Tibet I strongly recommend contacting Jinpa. he can organise everything, check out his website here.  In addition to the company of Jinpa the Tibetan connection was actually quite strong as we were seeking to interview a number of persons who could recollect visits by Tibetan tea merchants many decades ago before the ‘modern’ road network was completed in the 1950s/1960s. Look carefully at the map, Tibet is a long way from Menghai and in the ‘old days’ the journey would have taken at least six months (one way). Once again it reinforces what people will do to get their fix of tea.

Jinpa and Ed check the map for the ancient tea tree groves of Banna whilst waiting for transport at Kunming's new long distance bus station. It cost nearly as much in taxi fares to get to the new bus station as it did the express coach to Puer!

On the Kunming to Bangkok International Expressway

We left for Puer on the 30th November taking an express coach on the Kunming – Bangkok International Expressway (昆曼国际大通道), China’s first international expressway (see my earlier posting on this expressway here). A journey that would have once taken several months can be now completed under one day (assuming there are no traffic incidents and ‘leaders’ hogging the road) ( 20 hours to drive from Kunming to Bangkok and 30 hours from Chengdu). As I have mentioned before on this blog, the increased mobility provided by the development of modern transport infrastructure has had and is having a profound effect on all aspects of Chinese society. One of my recent interests in this regard has been the rise of ‘self-drive tourism’ (自驾旅游). Indeed, the first Chinese leisure drivers have already taken the journey to Bangkok. On a Yunnan news portal site dedicated to the expressway there are quite a few items promoting the opportunities of  ‘self-drive tourism’ (or what we might call ‘independent motoring’) along the expressway with step by step itineraries. Yet the top item on the news list is actually a warning issued by the Kunming Disease Prevention and Control Centre (昆明市疾病预防控制中心) advising travelers going to Southeast Asia to be wary of dengue fever (登革热). I will continue to keep a close eye on all developments relating to transport and mobility and social transformations, part of a study in the new field of ‘roadology’ (academics love making up new words!).

Revisiting Puer: The ‘Tea City of China’ (中国茶城)

I’ve visited Puer a number of times in relation to my current work on tea culture, cultural heritage and the tea road. You can read about those earlier encounters here. This time in Puer there were two objectives. One, to visit the Puer tea markets and talk to people in the tea business and generally learn more about the market, trends and entrepreneurial activity in this area (part of my interest also lies in a ‘governmentality’ of entrepreneurship). And two, to visit a tea cultural tourism site, in particular ‘The China Puer Tea Expo Garden’ (中华普洱茶博览苑).

This sculpture of a prowling tiger is made from one single tree (including the base) and weighs approximately five tonnes. The tree must have at least been several thousands years old. The price is 1.8 million Chinese yuan (AUD$300,000). These trees are illegally felled, of course, and can only be sold in China (not possible to get an export license to other countries such as Australia because you cannot prove where it comes from). So whereas ancient tea trees are now venerated and protected in China the ancient trees of the rainforests of Laos and Myanmar (Burma) continue to fall. Who is buying this stuff? I was told that a lot ends up as 'gifts' for persons of rank in Beijing. Where would you put such a monstrosity?

The China Puer Tea Expo Garden is located 30 kilometres from ‘downtown’ Puer. The site contains 24,167 mu (one mu is approximately 666 square metres) of terraced tea plantations. It claims to be an ‘organic tea plantation’ (有机茶园). A small section of this large site is given over to a tourism venture which consists of an exhibition hall, a small mock ‘ethnic village’ (村村寨寨) displaying the housing and culture (mainly singing and dancing) of various different local minorities, a puer tea production centre (outlining the life cycle of tea and the process of making puer tea cakes) (茶作坊), and a puer tea tasting centre (at which you can of course make purchases if you wish). The site also includes picturesque gardens and walking paths through some of the tea terraces with panoramic views of the surrounding area. The venture is run by the local government authorities with some external investment. The professed aim is to develop a puer tea tourism site that supports and sustains local community development. Total investment in the site on completion was 57 million Chinese Yuan. This was just a preliminary visiting and scoping survey. I will look to conduct interviews and gather more concrete data in a future visit. I’m quite interested in exploring the tangible benefits of tourism and community development.

The China Puer Tea Exhibition Gardens (中华普洱茶博览苑) is a cultural tourism venture 30 kilometres from 'downtown' Puer. Displayed here are the local ethnic workers practicing their dancing routines in the 'ethnic village'.

I did glean some interesting information from the on-site China Puer Museum (中华普洱茶博物馆). The museum (technically it is an ‘exhibition’ rather than ‘museum’) divides the history of puer into four periods:

1) Initiation and Development Period (发轫于发育时期): The Three Kingdoms (3rd Century AD) to 1733. This is the stage where the Puer/Banna tea growing regions are incorporated into the Chinese tea economy.

2) Establishment of the ‘Tea Factory/Producer Brands’ Period (‘号记茶’ or ‘古董茶’): 1733 – 1938. Many tea factories were modeled after the ‘Tongxing Tea Factory’ (同兴号茶庄) first established in 1733. Puer tea also enters the imperial court as gift/tribute tea. Tea production also becomes a common and unified business/farming activity for many different ethnic groups in the region. And finally, puer begins to be exported abroad.

3) The Mechanical Impression Period (印记茶): 1938 – 1973. The first factories to use modern and semi-mechanised production methods begin to be established in Yunnan during this period.

4) The Development of ‘Ripe’ Puer Period (熟茶): 1973 – to present. Refers to the invention of the induced fermentation process to manufacture large quantities of ‘ripe’ puer (which prior to this was aged naturally over many years, the induced process reduced aging to several months). The technique was first developed in Hong Kong, then further developed in Guangdong, and finally introduced on a large scale to Yunnan in 1970s. ‘Ripe’ puer is particularly popular in Guangdong, Hong Kong and parts of Southeast Asia.

I find this time line a bit odd as it skips out one of the most important developments in the tea industry in China, that is, the collectivisation and nationalisation of tea plantations and factories post-1949 (the year the Communist Party of China came to power). The exhibition also refers to the concept of ‘Humanity Puer’ (人文普洱) which it claims to be a combined function of ‘science’ (that is, a scientific approach to the production of puer) and ‘culture’ (that is, selectively linking puer tea with the rich culture/s within which it is embedded). This reflects a willful combination of ‘material’ (物质) and ‘spiritual’ (精神) aspects, a strong theme within contemporary Chinese concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. This is not the first time I’ve come across this concept of ‘Humanity Puer’ so it seems to have gained some traction (although it may mean different things to different people).

This worker in the Tea Expo Garden is trimming the tea hedges with a motor driven hedge trimmer! Way to go!

First Ancient Tea Tree Groves: Mount Nannuo (南糯山)

Despite much clear felling in Banna there are still many substantial pockets of rainforest some of which are home to China's last wild elephants.

After Puer the next stop was Jinghong (景洪), the prefectural seat of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (西双版纳傣族自治州). The total population of Banna is approximately 900,000. The Dai are the largest ethnic group in this prefecture (approx 30%), with the Han (approx 29%) a close second. Many Han Chinese moved to the region during the Maoist period as part of efforts to populate the peripheries (a security strategy) and to open up rubber and banana plantations. The Dai are very closely related to the ‘Thai’ peoples in Thailand (and Laos and northern Burma as well). They are Theravada Buddhists (with many animist beliefs as well) and have retained a strong ethnic identity. The women still tend to wear their beautiful silk gowns, even in the fields. Along with Han culture it is fair to say that Dai culture has also had a very strong influence on the other ethnic minority cultures in the region (especially in terms of architecture and religion). There are another eleven ethnic groups, including Hani, Yi, Blang (Bulang), and Yao, making this one of the most ethnically diverse regions not only in Yunnan but in China itself. The area is particularly fertile with many basins suitable for growing rice (most of these are occupied by the Dai) and a tropical environment well suited for agriculture (including tea of course, but also rubber which has expanded rapidly much to the detriment of local forests and ancient tea groves). The name ‘Xishuangbanna’ (Sípsɔ́ŋpǎnnǎ in Dai) literally means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’. The Lancang River (澜沧江- the Mekong) cuts right through the centre and is the dominant ‘life force’ along with a very rich biodiversity (including populations of wild elephants). Banna is very hot in summer and best avoided, but winter is quite pleasant. When it’s freezing cold in most of central and northern China it is always thongs and t-shirt weather in most of Banna. It really has a tropical feel and you get the distinct feeling that you’re close to Southeast Asia what with the various sites, sounds and smells.  One of my favourite things about Banna is the endemic presence of passion fruit vines (indeed a local variety known as Passiflora xishuangbannaensis). It reminds me of the tropical fruit flavours that I grew up with in Queensland.

We stopped over in the prefectural capital of Jinghong for one night. Jinghong is something of a boom town (actually in China all cities seem to be ‘booming’ and it is hard to tell what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fake’ in terms of legitimate construction). It is certainly no longer a ‘sleepy backwater’ and this time, after an absence of several years, I was quite shocked by the changing skyline. Like everywhere else in Yunnan, Banna is undergoing rapid change, but it still has managed to maintain its charms sitting as it does on the Lancang with streets lined with palm trees and the smells of Dai barbeque (some of the best in China) floating in the air. Whilst in Jinghong I took the time to renew my acquaintance with Ms Lin of the Yunnan Mekong Travel Group, one of the biggest commercial tour operators in Yunnan, and certainly a dominant player in Banna. The company has a project on the tea road that I hope to visit in 2012. Ms Lin has been in the cultural tourism industry in Banna for many years and is a valuable source of information. The company she works for is by far the dominant player in Banna owning a number of the top tourist/scenic attractions (oddly enough the parent company is a Zhejiang based pipe manufacturer … I should have known …). In following further in my inquiries into ‘adventure tourism’ Ed and I (both who are keen researchers and enthusiasts in this area) interviewed Sara and Stone, brother and sister from Guangxi who have been leading treks in Banna for seventeen years. They run the ‘Forest Café’ in Jinghong which is the base of their hiking operations. Sara was able to describe in great detail the various challenges and changes taking place in the small-scale eco/hiking tourism area in Banna. We also bumped into Frank Hitman who has just started organising treks through ‘Zouba Travel’ in the neighbouring region of Honghe. I will be incorporating some their insights into a new paper I’m writing entitled ‘Small is Beautiful: A Time and a Place for Community Based Tourism’. So you can see that I was able to straddle both sides of the tourism industry fence … ‘big’ and ‘small’. Both have their place in the market and have different roles to play in community development. If only government policy was a bit more accommodating for the latter …

In Jinghong we also met up with Mr Li who was our primary contact for a visit to the ancient tea tree groves of Mount Nannuo (南糯山). Mr Li owns a tea factory on Mount Nannuo (and incidentally has just acquired a scenic tourist attraction in Shangrila of all places!). Banna is very famous for its ‘tea mountains’ (there are ‘six famous tea mountains’ (六大茶山) and also many other ‘not so famous’ mountains as well). Mount Nannuo is in Menghai County, just about one hours’ drive from Jinghong (approximately 30 km). It sits at an altitude of about 1,400 metres. Mount Nannuo is well known for its long history of tea growing, well over a thousand years. An interesting legend connects the emergence of tea with the arrival of the famous Three Kingdoms strategist Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) (181 – 234 AD). In fact Mount Nannuo is also sometimes known as Mount Kongming (another name for Zhuge Liang). The same kind of legend is also repeated in Puer (that is, Zhuge Liang during his military campaign to suppress the ‘southern barbarians’ brings the tea plant and shows the locals how to cultivate it). Of course the locals were no doubt cultivating and drinking tea well before the arrival of Zhuge Liang. The legend instead seems to confirm the Han Chinese arrival on the scene so to speak and the incorporation of the local tea economy into the wider Chinese economy. It also suggests the sense of ‘imperial grace’ in which the Han Chinese share ‘their culture’ with uncivilised barbarians (and hence over time making them become ‘Chinese’, a theme that is common amongst many dominant cultures around the world). No doubt the tea production skills of the Han Chinese (already well advanced in growing tea elsewhere) had some impact on the commercial/trading culture of tea production in Puer and Banna. This is certainly something worthy of further investigation.

This ancient tea tree on Mount Nannuo is reputedly 800 years old ... and still growing strong.

The main attraction at Mount Nannuo are the groves of ancient tea trees (the product of which in Chinese is known as both ‘ancient tea tree tea’ (古树茶) and ‘qiaomu tea’ (乔木茶)). There are approximately 15,000 mu of ancient tea tree groves belonging to a number of different villages (here ‘village’ refers to an administrative entity made up of several ‘natural villages’). Unlike your average plantation variety of tea (台地茶) which is grown and trimmed to maintain a ‘hedge’ shape, the tea trees in Mount Nannuo (and elsewhere in Banna as we shall see) are left to grow freely in true ‘tree’ form. The most famous specimen is aged at over 800 years old and itself has become a major international tourist attraction. This tree is also often cited as evidence that Banna/Menghai is the origin of tea cultivation (and another ancient tree that tragically was destroyed in a storm in 1967 and later aged at 1,700 thousand years). On the day we visited the ‘King of Tea Trees’ (茶树王) I counted four different tour groups hiking their way to the tree (not a very long or arduous hike, quite pleasant actually), at least one Japanese, two Chinese and another possibly European (British?). This was my first true encounter with these kind of tea trees and a bit more of the puzzle fell into place as a consequence. The trees are treated completely organically, in line with hundreds of years of local farming tradition. Such ancient tea trees have become extremely valuable as the tea they produce can attract a very high market price. And yet it was only thirty years ago that some Chinese tea experts advised removing these trees and replacing them with conventional tea hedges (台地茶) or rubber trees. In the two places we visited in Banna where ancient tea trees are grown this story was repeated much to the anger and frustration of the locals who now regret what happened. In any case the trees fortunate to have survived the early stages of ‘reform and openness’ are now well protected.

Mr Wang with homemade crossbow. In addition to stories of tea, Mr Wang also regaled us with the crossbow hunting experiences of his childhood including a near death encounter with a wild bear.

The local ethnic group on Mount Nannuo are the Aini (爱伲人- classified as a branch of the Hani 哈尼族) and we interviewed an elderly gentleman (who I will refer to as ‘Mr Wang’, born in 1950) about the history of tea and his life experiences. One of our main interests was to learn more about the stories we had previously heard of Tibetan merchants visiting the area (and he also drew upon the recollections of his father in this regard). Mr Wang told us that he remembers as a child seeing the Tibetan merchants coming to trade tea for salt (the merchants would have readily been able to acquire salt, which was also pressed into transportable shapes, from one of the many salt wells along the way). He was also able to tell us about the different routes they must have taken to get to and from Menghai. Once the road (albeit a very basic road) was completed between Yunnan and Tibet in 1956/1957 the Tibetan merchants and their horse/mule caravans no longer made the journey.

Menghai (勐海) has one of the strongest claims to being the origins of tea (much more so than Puer itself). Not to be left behind in the rush towards 'Ancient Tea Horse Road' cultural tourism, Menghai has joined the fashion of installing tea road public sculpture. Unfortunately the quality of the sculptures are no where near as good as those in Puer and Lijiang (for example). The other odd thing is that now in the region you are hard pressed to find anyone keeping horses or mules. They seem to have all disappeared and been replaced with trucks and motorcycles (it is not as mountainous in this area as other parts of Yunnan, therefore the basic road infrastructure was completed earlier). You can still spot the odd water buffalo in more remote and poorer locations.

The Ancient Tea Horse Road Theme Park

Equipped with our new knowledge of local tea production and transportation routes we were keen to get to a more remote corner of Menghai and in a very serendipitous way that often accompanies fieldwork we were somehow drawn to the Blang (Bulang – 布朗) village of Mannuo (曼糯), a journey that took us two days, much of it over very rough roads taking a pounding from trucks laden with sugar. But before doing so we first visited the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Theme Park’ (茶马古道景区), the third cultural tourism attraction to visit on this trip. It was in Jinghong that this particular theme park came to our attention by way of the designated shop promoting the attraction. We spoke to the shop attendant and acquired the phone number of the owner/manager who was fortunately on site in Menghai when we arrived. The owner/manager, who I will refer to as Mr Zhang, greeted us upon arrival and we spent the next two hours inspecting the ‘theme park’ and learning about his motivations to create this attraction. Incidentally this is not the first Ancient Tea Horse Road I have visited, you can read about my visit to the tea road village at Nakeli on a previous blog posting here.

At the main entrance to the Ancient Tea Horse Road Theme Park in Menghai County.

Mr Zhang is an experienced tour site operator having run a national heritage protected attraction in Qinghai for many years. In searching for a new business opportunity he came across the tea road and spent several years traveling over 5,000 kilometres from Menghai to Lhasa in search of artifacts and inspiration. He finally settled on a site about four kilometres from the Menghai county town. The site actually belongs to the Tea Research Institute of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science (云南省农业科学院茶叶研究所) and the theme park is in fact a joint venture between the Institute and Mr Zhang’s company (unfortunately on this occasion I was unable to visit the Institute but will do so later in 2012). It sits on over 1,500 mu, much of which is occupied by the Institute’s experimental tea plantations (which also contains every variety of tea grown in China and many from abroad as well). The site opened on 1st January 2010 so by the time we visited it was nearly one year in operation. The total investment was 60 million Chinese Yuan. The park is designated as a National Four Star Tourist Site (Five Star being the top rating).

Mr Zhang claims that the tourist attraction serves a pedagogic function insofar as it aims to educate visitors about the cultural and historical significance of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Part of this seems to me to be a specific response amongst the Chinese tourist, especially those from urban areas, for a ‘picture perfect’ nostalgia of times past which at once creates a sense of progress (‘see how far we have come’) and a sense of lost innocence (‘life was simpler then’). The site consists of a number of attractions spread out over a large area, these include a ‘tea market’, ‘a caravan inn’, ‘a tea farmer’s house’, ‘a tea merchant’s villa’, ‘a county magistrate’s mansion’, ‘a horse and mule stable and farrier/blacksmith’, ‘a tea road ferry crossing’ and ‘exhibition/event centre’. There were some interesting original artifacts on display but overall I have to say the experience was pretty lackluster. Feedback from other colleagues in the industry have also come to the same conclusion. One thing the site does that no doubt irritates our friends in Puer is that it claims Menghai as the beginning of the tea road and origin of tea itself (and probably rightly so on both counts in my opinion). Puer in its tourist promotion claims to be the ‘source of tea and the start of the road’ (茶之源, 道之始). It appears that the Menghai County Government is right behind such projects with a detailed tourism development plan in place that focuses on both tea culture and the tea horse road. And interestingly enough this was the only place in Banna that we came across any horses. Four in total, on ‘display’ as examples of the Yunnan horse (滇马) in the ‘stable’.

Mannuo village in all its glory. The architectural style here is Dai. We were told that 20 years ago most of the houses were made of bamboo and thatched roofs. With some moderate development the locals have 'upgraded' to what we see here.

Second Ancient Tea Tree Groves: Mannuo Village (曼糯村)

After visiting the theme park we followed one of the main roads out of Menghai up a meandering valley through a number of small rural towns and villages until we reached Mengwang (猛往), a small rural community with a population of approximately ten thousand consisting of Dai, Lahu and Blang. The area is quite poor, predominantly agricultural (rice, maize, rubber, sugar and tea, along with one sugar refinery and some small-scale handicrafts) with an average annual household income of 2,500 Chinese Yuan (most people in Shanghai make this amount per month, so you get a sense of the wealth gap in China). The town of Mengwang is at the end of the line as far as the sealed road is concerned, so you can imagine how isolated it is in the scheme of things. But in fact it is not far from the ancient Lancang River port of Simaogang (思茅港). And it is that which sparked our interest as we surmised that the local tea produced in this area was in the past transported to Simaogang where it was sold at market as loose leaf tea later to be pressed into puer tea cakes. This assumption (well done Ed!) turned out to be correct.

The village chief of Mannuo was very hospitable. We were honoured with a great breakfast on the day of our departure which included wild boar, a freshly killed chicken and some wild bird. Before trying the last item we were instructed to 'watch out for the shrapnel'. Photo by Ed Jocelyn.

From Mengwang it was a half day walk to the Blang (Bulang – 布朗族) village of Mannuo. It is the most northerly of the ancient tea groves in Menghai County (altitude 1,200 m). The Blang, with a total population of approximately 92,000 are primarily found in Banna, but with some communities in Thailand and Burma. One local Chinese official (who shall remain anonymous) once described the Blang to me as the ‘Africans of China … because they are dark, poor and like to dance’. Oh dear! I’m pleased to report that I found my first interaction with a Blang community very rewarding. When we arrived unannounced in the village it wasn’t too long before we befriended the village chief who gave us a personal tour of the tea tree groves and introduced us to some of the locals. The village chief was also the head of a newly established tea marketing cooperative. He explained to us that when the tea was harvested (April/May) each year many tea merchants from all over China and even Southeast Asia came to the village to buy directly from individual households. The local villagers, being somewhat cut off from the outside world, were at a disadvantage when it came to price negotiations. Hence, following the lead of some other ancient tea tree grove communities, they have established the cooperative to negotiate the price on behalf of the overall community. They also hope to help develop the local ‘tea brand’. At the moment the tea is sold as loose leaf variety to the merchants who then make their own tea cakes under their own labels. Some unscrupulous merchants we were told take the Mannuo tea and brand it as tea from other ancient tea growing areas (that is, places which receive a much higher price). The community is still very poor and this tea road to prosperity seems paved with obstacles. I’m very interested in this ‘cooperative’ development, it fits well with my interest in entrepreneurial activity in relation to ‘tea culture’ and the ‘tea road’, and hope to be able to follow the fortunes of the cooperative and this community over time. I think it might also make a good development project with opportunities for creative marketing by some bright students out there.

In Mannuo we experienced a brew of tea the way the villagers like it and have been drinking for hundreds if not for well over one thousand years. Very simple, pick some fresh tea leaves and boil in the pot! The taste was very pleasant indeed. Unfortunately it only works with fresh tea leaves. The tea leaves here, quite large, retain their robust texture (unlike processed tea leaves which tend to fall apart if handled after brewing).

The village chief, along with a few village elders, told us much about the history of the community and especially of tea. The village consists of 110 households, primarily Blang but also with a small attached Han village. How and when the Han villagers arrived was not made clear but we did visit one Han household. The Han villagers also have ancient tea trees (the trees were allocated to households during the process of decollectivisation in the 1980s). The largest tree, with a trunk diametre of 54 cm, is said to be 600 years old, although the age has not been scientifically verified (I think the locals are afraid to do so after the famous case where a Japanese tree surgeon tried to operate on an ancient tree only to end up killing it). As I mentioned above, during the 1980s many ancient tea trees were cut down to make way for rubber. The irony is not only did they lose precious trees but the quantity of rubber is quite low compared to other places due to the altitude. I also regret to report that there has been a far bit of natural forest removed to make way for rubber and sugar cane.

We spent one night in Mannuo in what in reality was a preliminary visit. It would be ideal to return during harvest time but this may be delayed until 2013 due to teaching commitments. With local knowledge of how the villagers used to transport the loose leaf tea we then hiked for two days from Mannuo to Simaogang making our way through many ethnic villagers and over one significant range into the Lancang (Mekong) valley. Our path took us through some good sections of natural rainforest and gave us a sense of how difficult transportation was in this region before the advent of ‘modern’ roads. In what took us two days the villagers in times past did in one single day, quite an achievement considering most of the time they were carrying large sacks of tea with them (horses it seem were not so common amongst the Blang). The village chief told us that some of them even didn’t event stay at the market very long and return the same day!

In this fieldtrip I was fortunate to physically make contact with the very origins of tea cultivation and tea culture and to see firsthand developments as they relate to the political economy of tea production (I have now examined firsthand the chains of production from the grass roots in Yunnan all the way to the markets of Beijing and Shanghai) and the cultural tourism industry based on tea culture and the tea horse road. A great deal of potential but still a long way to go. As the Chinese saying goes ‘the task is as onerous as the road is long’ (任重道远).

Enjoying the hospitality of another Blang village on our way to the Lancang (Mekong) port of Simaogang. And of course over a brew of tea.

Migratory Birds, Reclusive Daoists and the Secret of the Nanzhao Kingdom: Exploring Ancient Routes in Weishan and Weibaoshan

“Yunnan is a special case, a kind of test to which the whole process of Chinese
cultural and political expansion can be subjected. It could be seen as the model
which further expansion would follow, if or when it becomes politically feasible; or
it can be seen as the furthest probable limit of Chinese incorporation of a region
formerly non-Chinese.”

C.P. Fitzgerald, The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People: Southern Fields and Southern Ocean (1972)

The indefatigable Yang Xiao examines a tube of liquid black: Vegemite. Perhaps one day it shall be known as the 'Ancient Vegemite Road'? It goes good with noodles!

From the 28th September to the 8th October 2012 I explored various sites of research interest in and around the historic county of Weishan (巍山) and famous Daoist (Taoist) mountain of Weibaoshan (巍宝山), gathering information, conducting interviews and making useful contacts. Weishan is also one of the more northerly places in Yunnan suitable for the growing of tea (although on this occasion I did not have the chance to visit any tea plantations or indeed sample the very famous ‘roasted tea’ (烤茶) ), so there are important connections to the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (茶马古道) worthy of investigation (indeed, Weishan has been designated as a ‘Significant Ancient Tea and Horse Road Town’ (茶马古道重镇)). Weishan County lies within Dali Prefecture (I’ve written about Dali and the Third Month Street Festival here) and is 54 kms from the prefectural seat of Dali, approximately two hours drive. You can see where Weishan is on Google Maps here.  You can also see a collection of images taken on this trip on my Flickr site here. Once again I did this trip on foot with a mule team organised by the fine people at Red Rock (now also based in Dali). This continues my interest in the combined forces of revivalist approaches to cultural heritage (in this case that of muleteering and caravan culture) and ecotourism. The fieldwork was also very important to me as it was my first visit to Weishan and was a valuable opportunity to gather a sense of how Weishan is presenting itself as a cultural tourist destination along the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. This blog entry is a summary of my initial impressions, preliminary findings and thoughts about possible further research directions and follow-up fieldwork.

Give me a home amongst the gum trees: On our way from Midu to Weishan we passed through many eucalyptus plantations and a number of small eucalyptus oil distilleries. Eucalyptus trees have been cultivated in southern China for quite a long time (for at least 50 years perhaps) but it is only in recent years through the emergence of poverty alleviation programs that the number and size of the plantations has increased, especially in Yunnan. The growth of the plantations has not been without controversy. On one side are the advocates who argue that the trees are well suited to the soils and climate and can become a good source of additional income for local peoples, whilst on the other side are those who argue that the plantations suck up valuable water and is changing the local ecology which in turn is impacting on the cultures of the local ethnic peoples.

Introducing Weishan (巍山): The Yi, the Hui and the Edges of Empire

Weishan is designated as an Yi and Hui Autonomous County with a population of approximately 300,000. The main economic activity remains agriculture, but as we shall see below there are also efforts to develop cultural tourism. The Yi and Hui are two significant ethnic groups in Yunnan (and other parts of China). The Hui (回族), with a total population in China of approximately 9.8 million, are a rather interesting ethnic group (and some would argue that they don’t really fit any ethnic identification criteria very well) in which the common feature is the practice of Islam and associated customs (such as abstinence from the consumption of pork). As I have mentioned before on this blog, the Hui have been important traders in the region ever since the Mongol led invasions of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368). In general, wherever they have settled they tended to adopt the local languages, costumes and architecture of the dominant people in that particular location and yet retain their own religion and associated customs. There is a very good historical overview of the Hui (or ‘Haw’ or ‘Panthay’ as they are known in Thailand and Burma respectively) and their role as traders in Yunnan and mainland Southeast Asia here. Weishan is significant in Hui history for being one of the major centres of the ‘Panthay Rebellion’ (better known in Chinese as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion 杜文秀起义) (1856–1873), an uprising led by a rebellious Hui by the name of Du Wenxiu which caused havoc in the region for well over a decade until finally and brutally crushed by the Qing forces.

Mr Chen, one of our muleteers, fixes the 'luggage rack' to the mule. This was the first time I saw these modern steel fabricated racks, quite an innovation in terms of durability and convenience.

The Yi (彝族) are also one of China’s larger ethnic minorities (少数民族) with a total population of about 7.7 million. Yunnan has the largest concentration at about 4.5 million. They are an extremely diverse group speaking different languages/dialects (depending on your definition) and spread across a large area (Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou). Culturally the Yi are also very different depending on region and climate, which in themselves may help explain such widespread variation. As the saying goes ‘Four seasons in one journey, different weather every 10 leagues’ ( 一路见四季,十里不同天). You often find Yi villages high up in the mountains where they grow maize, raise pigs, tend flocks of goats and herds of cows, and roam the forests hunting and gathering edible and medicinal plants and fungi. What make the Yi of Weishan different to their kin elsewhere is the claim that they are the descendants of the people who established the relatively unknown Kingdom of the Nanzhao (南诏) (737 to 902). The story goes that there were originally six tribes/kingdoms in the region around Dali and Weishan. The tribe/kingdom in Weishan, known as the Mengshe tribe (蒙舍诏) unified the other tribes into one powerful kingdom. Over the course of its history the Nanzhao (which at one time extended as far south as present-day north Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma, and north into the rich fertile plain around Chengdu in Sichuan) was sometimes ally and sometimes rival of the Tang Dynasty and often in conflict with the first united and powerful Tibetan kingdom that had also emerged at about the same time. It is also at this time that Buddhism is in the ascendancy across the region and the Nanzhao is no exception. Once again we see the importance for the emerging trading and transportation routes for the travel of ideas, and not to mention of course the marching of armies.

On our way over the pass we passed through a small Yi hamlet and bumped into a few of the locals.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) Weishan has been firmly incorporated into the Han Chinese sphere of influence (actually it was the above-mentioned Mongol invasion and Yuan Dynasty that preceded the Ming that brought the region into the firm fold of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, but it was the long enduring power and influence of the Ming, which also saw large waves of Han migration into Yunnan, that really established the firm foundations of Han Chinese culture). During much of the Ming and into the Qing the tusi (土司) system was in place which meant that the dynastic governments ruled through the local ‘chieftains’ (in most cases either ‘appointed’ or ‘approved’ by the dynastic centre). The Weishan tusi was one of the longest running tusi appointments from 1382 to 1897 (514 years). As with much of Yunnan, you get the real sense here that you are at the ‘edge of empire’. For me these are some of the most interesting places where different cultures meet and where the story of the consolidation of the nation-state in our own modern times is played out in the peripheries. The Yi of Weishan are in any case nowadays significantly ‘sinicised’ (汉化) and in the towns and villages (especially those in the fertile basin area) you don’t see much in the way of traditional Yi forms of dress and so forth. But as I will discuss below, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in Yi identity in recent years which appears to be a combination of grass-roots identity activism and top-down initiatives to develop cultural tourism and stimulate economic development.

Loading the mules in Weishan. It has probably been quite some time since the centre of Weishan witnessed a 'real' caravan. Good to be part of a cultural-historical revival.

The current old town of Weishan was built during the Ming Dynasty (construction began in 1390) and although it no longer has the original walls and only one remaining gate the central axis of the old town is still intact and very well preserved. Unlike Dali and Lijiang, Weishan has not yet been overrun by the tourist hordes (to elude here of course to the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan). The old town is distinctly locally orientated, that is, most of the shops and activity are orientated towards the local inhabitants. It feels as if you have stepped back twenty years and can see what street life must have been like in Dali and Lijiang before the onslaught of mass commercial tourism. Of course there is some tourism and tourist orientated shops, but the presence of tourism seems rather limited and nonintrusive, at least for the time being. There are a number of old courtyard mansion (most seem to have been built during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) and a few during the first half of the 20th Century). The Confucius Temple is currently undergoing restoration, but from what we could see it is very impressive. Indeed, with reference to the Confucius Temple (which in Chinese is often referred to as the ‘Temple of Literature’ – 文庙), Weishan is famous for producing many scholars who passed the highest level of the imperial examination (进士) and since the Ming Dynasty has been widely acclaimed as a ‘famous site for arts and literature’ (文献名邦). These are all signs that Weishan was once a very important and prosperous frontier town during the Ming and Qing.

The Gongchen Gate (拱辰楼). This is the north and only remaining gate of the old town of Weishan. The inscription on the upper story read 'A View of Ten Thousand Li' (万里瞻天) which could also be interpreted as a reference to the vastness of the dynastic empire.

That prosperity has much to do with strategic location along the network of trading routes that crisscross southwest China and the surrounding region.  Weishan sits at an important crossroads for traffic to Myanmar (Burma) and Sichuan going one way (roughly east to west) and traffic between Tibet (via Dali, Lijiang and Shangrila) and Simao and Xishuangbanna (roughly north to south). Weishan has been variously described as an important staging post and administrative centre along the Southern Silk Road (南方丝绸之路) and the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道). I will not get embroiled here in the debates over which one of these terms correctly describes the trading routes in this region. I’m still in the process of making my way through the Chinese and English literature on the subject and will reserve my conclusions for a later date suffice to state at this point that my interest lies not so much at the moment in historical accuracy but rather how concepts such as ‘the Ancient Tea Horse Road’ are being deployed to create new ways of imagining cultural landscapes and new forms of economic activity (notably cultural tourism). In any case it would seem that to a certain extent both ‘silk road’ and ‘tea road’ would apply in the case of Weishan.

Weishan still has the distinct feeling of a county town in the mountains. Locals from near and far come to the town to sell all manner of handicrafts and mountain produce. Local noodle manufactures make their noodles in the traditional way and hang them up to dry for all to see. Pictured here, locals paste public notices on the walls of the central tower (星拱楼). All of which gives Weishan the authentic feeling of a real living town orientated primarily to the locals rather than a commercial tourist centre occupied by souvenir stores and bars.

The Majestic Bird Way Pass (鸟道雄关): Where Migratory Birds and Caravans Cross Paths

We started our journey in the neighbouring county of Midu (弥渡县) and made our way up and along the old caravan road which goes through Longqing Pass (隆庆关). Up to about six or seven years ago the road was still actively used by the locals. Our muleteers (who I interviewed and will discuss in another blog on the lives and times of the modern muleteer), who also hail from Weishan, are in the horse, mule and donkey trading business, and informed me that they used to take this path whenever taking their animals to and from livestock markets in Midu (there is also a weekly livestock market in Weishan which we stumbled upon. I think a study of these markets and associated entrepreneurialism would be quite interesting). Nowadays it is more economical to transport the animals by hiring a truck, which saves both time and money. It was quite evident that even within a few short years of inactive usage that the path was in places quickly becoming overgrown. However, as we approached the pass (which is about 2,600 metres), there were long stretches of remnant road (passing through one very small Yi hamlet).

On the remnant ancient road from Midu to Weishan, just a kilometre or two away from the pass.

The pass nowadays is also known as ‘The Majestic Bird Way Pass’ (鸟道雄关). For thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands of years, migratory birds (候鸟) have been flying over this pass in their seasonal migrations north and south. At the time we passed through (October) the birds were making their way south to India and Southeast Asia to escape the cold winter of northern China and Siberia (a very wise thing to do in my opinion!). The locals have long since known about the migratory habits of the birds and it is recorded that they would set up nets and use fire and smoke to disorientate the birds into their clutches (many birds may already have been a bit lost given the fogs associated with the pass at this time of year). This practice continued up until the early 1980s when the authorities imposed a ban in the interests of conservation.

A deep hoof impression (马蹄窝) in the rock made over the centuries by countless caravans. This impression is approximately 20 centimetres deep.

Yet the practice of catching the birds continues, but this time it is for the the sake of banding (or ‘ringing’) the birds in the interests of science. As I passed by I took the opportunity to have a cup of tea with the ‘banders’ huddled around a fire in their tent (the ‘banding station’) where they were roasting corn and sweet potato (the birds only fly over the pass in significant numbers during the night). They explained to me that in one night it was common to capture several dozens of different species of birds, sometimes even several hundred different species, which goes to show how important this bird passage is for ornithological research (an important onsite meeting of ornithologists from around the region was held here in 1997). The banders were employed by the Yunnan Department of Forests (which is the local ‘banding authority’).  Instead of fires and smoke they use lights to distract our feathered friends. Needless to say the migratory bird pass has now been factored into the development of tourism and on the other side of the pass a road has been constructed up to a point which makes access on foot more amenable to day trippers.

At the pass itself there is an ancient roadside shrine, possibly dating from the Ming Dynasty, dedicated to local deities that offer protection and a safe journey. By the signs of recent offering and incense sticks it is evident that the locals still pay their respects. Next to the shrine is a large stone engraving (actually, it is a replica as the original is stored in a local museum) upon which is inscribed in Chinese 'The Majestic Bird Way Pass' (鸟道雄关). This is believed by some to be the earliest written record of any such migratory bird pass in the world. But as to when the original inscription was made I have yet been unable to ascertain

Reclusive Daoists and the Secret of Weibaoshan: Discovering the Kingdom of the Nanzhao

Ten kilometres southeast of Weishan town lies Weibaoshan Mountain (巍宝山). At only at 2,509 metres above sea level it is not a very high or imposing mountain by Yunnan standards, but it has its attractions and its secrets. Since 1992 Weibaoshan has been an officially designated ‘national forest park’ (国家森林公园), which means that it is open to tourist development. The mountain is covered in lush forest and there are many ancient trees in the temples and about the mountain side, but I wouldn’t say there is any significant primeval forest as we can assume the locals (as I will explain below, there are a number of villages at the foot of the mountain) have been harvesting timber and other produce for quite a long time. As early as the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) (some sources suggest as even early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220)) Weibaoshan attracted the attention of Daoists as a site of seclusion, meditation and practice.

Daoist by the name of Xiao Yao at Changchun Temple (长春洞). Well versed in all the Daoist arts of physical and mental cultivation.

Over the following centuries numerous Daoist temples were constructed to the point that they are well scattered on the main northern and southern sides. Weibaoshan is thus regarded as one of the fourteen (some sources give the number as ‘thirteen’) important Daoist mountains of China. We visited quite a few of the temples on this trip. There are too many to mention in detail here but it seems most of the Daoist pantheon are accounted for including the Jade Emperor and Laozi (Laotse). There are also a smaller number of Buddhist temples, temples such as the God of Wealth dedicated to folk religion (and no doubt there is much cross-over between Daoism and folk religion) and some sites of local animist worship. Indeed we can see here the mutual influence these various belief practices have asserted upon each other over the course of history giving rise to some interesting examples of Chinese religious syncretism. Some of the temples that date from the Ming and Qing are absolutely exquisite cultural relics. The Changchun Temple (长春洞) on the northside of the mountain is particularly impressive and is a national level cultural relic. We were fortunate enough to spend some time with the local  resident Daoist. Compared to the Daoists on the other, more popular, side of the mountain, this gentleman (Master Xiao Yao) appeared to be the genuine article and gave us a demonstration of taiqi and the flute, amongst other things. His temple can accommodate up to 15 visitors for overnight visits so it would possibly be an ideal place to take a student study tour.

On our final night on Weibaoshan we pitched our tent in the courtyard of a temple simultaneously devoted to Laozi (Laotse), Shakyamuni (the Buddha) and Confucius (from left to right). The elderly lady caretaker was extremely welcoming and given that we had three of the great backbones of Chinese culture watching over us we felt very safe indeed. Just outside the temple in a grove of ancient oak trees I saw signs of animist veneration of the local spirits. An incredibly rich tapestry of religious belief and practice in one location.

I want to focus here on the ‘Patron God Temple’ (土主庙) as it relates to a fascinating ‘secret’ that can be traced all the way back to the Nanzhao Kingdom. The temple is dedicated to the first king of the Mengshe Tribe (see above), Xi Nuluo (细奴逻). In fact it is actually an ancestral shrine used by his descendants who inhabit the villages around the base of the mountain where Xi Nuluo once also tilled the earth. As we ascended the mountain with the mule team, avoiding public roads as is our practice, we were actually following the ancient pilgrimage route still used by the locals on festive days when they honour Xi Nuluo (some sections closer to the temple contained good sections of remnant road). We were fortunate enough to bump into the temple caretaker and he invited us to camp outside the temple so long as we agreed to first pay our respects to Xi Nuluo. We were more than happy to oblige. Later I conducted an interview with him and learnt much about the development of Yi identity and cultural tourism in Weibaoshan in recent years. What follows is drawn from the interview and subsequent research of local and online sources.

The shrine to the ancestor of the Weibaoshan Yi: Xi Nuluo (细奴逻).

The Wenchang Palace (文昌宫) which includes a Qing Dynasty fresco depicting an Yi ancestor ritual dancing and music performance.

Most interestingly he told us of the ‘secret’ of Weibaoshan. For a long time it appears that mainstream culture ‘forgot’ about the descendants of the Nanzhao. There was a good reason for this as the locals themselves wanted to ‘be forgotten’. After the Nanzhao ended the descendants of Xi Nuluo feared for their lives as Chinese history is littered with examples of ‘exterminating the grass by pulling out the roots’ (斩草除根) in which new dynasties massacred whole clans of the previous ruling elite in order to prevent the reemergence of rival claims to power. The descendants of Xi Nuluo changed their surname from ‘meng’ (蒙) to ‘zi’ (字) and ‘cha’ (茶) to hide their origins. Both of the latter two characters contain elements of the character ‘meng’ which is meant to be a hidden reference to their ancestors. It is only since the 1980s that the locals have more publicly and openly associated themselves with the Nanzhao. Nowadays there are two important festivals, one of the 15th day of the 9th lunar month to celebrate Xi Nuluo’s birthday and another on the 15th of the 1st lunar month to carry out the veneration of the ancestors ceremony. A famous and very important nearby Daoist temple (文昌宫) includes a Qing Dynasty fresco (dated 1795) which depicts the singing and dancing associated with this festival, demonstrating that even though it was ‘forgotten’ the locals continued their cultural practices and veneration of their lineage descent. It is also worthwhile noting that Xi Nuluo is also now venerated as a Daoist deity and the story of his coming to power and the rise of the Nanzhao has been incorporated into the Daoist cannon. We were also informed of more recent developments which shed light on the efforts to develop cultural tourism in Weishan and draw upon the history of the now ‘remembered’ Nanzhao Kingdom. The actual original temple to Xi Nuluo is quite small, but behind and now incorprated into it is a much larger temple with a central shrine and two adjoining wings. This construction is quite new and dates from around 2004 (to be verified). It is an extension of the original shrine insofar as it venerates the Nanzhao in its entirety and includes bronze statues of all the kings of the Nanzhao (and including the wife of Xi Nuluo). The buildings and courtyards are adorned with images depicting the rise and fall of the Nanzhao and the unique Yi script (which I can’t elaborate on here to suffice to say it is not a script in common use and its deployment here has more to do it seems with establishing a common identity amongst a disparate ethnic group). On the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month the local authorities hold a large festival in honour of both the Nanzhao and the Yi people. I write ‘local authorities’ as this is a relatively recent festival in which the locals are enticed to provide the dancing and music with small payments (something you wouldn’t imagine was necessary in a more ‘authentic’ celebration). The local literature on this event describes it as a major festival for all eight million Yi people. The first such festival was held upon completion of the extension to the ‘Patron God Temple’ indicating that it may have something to do with the development of cultural tourism. In both cases, that is, the local festivals to the ancestors and of the recent developments centred around a collective Yi identity and cultural tourism, we can see good examples of grass-roots and top-down initiatives being played out. I think there is a rich research project here that cuts across many important issues: ethnicity, identity, memory and history, modernisation, and so on.

The new and very large temple behind the Xi Nuluo shrine. Yi script is on the banners hanging down the front.

As you can see Weishan has a remarkable and fascinating history. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here. There is plenty of material for research and I now have a long list of questions begging for answers. Stay tuned!

The caretaker of the temple we camped in on the last night on Weibaoshan generously offers us a cup of 'salty tea'. 'It will refresh you and invigorate your weary limbs' she said kindly. 谢谢大妈!祝你身体健康!万事如意!