↓ Archives ↓

Category → ChinaRoutes

Following Dingle: The Story of Iva’s 1,600 km Walk from Chongqing to Tengchong

“To travel across China is easy. To walk across China … is not easy”. Edwin Dingle (1909).

Iva's journey took her from Chongqing to Tengchong. Both are marked with red stars on this map. Chongqing is on the Yangtse River in Central China. Tengchong is on the border with Myanmar (Burma) in Southwest China.

Iva’s journey took her from Chongqing to Tengchong. Both are marked with red stars on this map. Chongqing is on the Yangtse River in Central China. Tengchong is on the border with Myanmar (Burma) in Southwest China.

As a ‘China Expert’ I’m often approached by people from the media, business and the general public to help answer various questions relating to Chinese history, culture and society. I’m always very happy to help out if I can, and if not, usually I can direct them to someone who will.

Last year I received an email from Ms Iva Stejskal. Iva is a Perth local and an avid walker (something close to my own heart). Iva told me she was planning to walk from Chongqing to Tengchong, tracing the steps of a certain Mr Edwin Dingle (1881-1972). A journey of approximately 1,500 kilometres. That’s just what I like to hear!

Iva on the first day of her journey, outside a subway station in the suburbs of Chongqing.

Iva on the first day of her journey, outside a subway station in the suburbs of Chongqing.

Mr Dingle was an English journalist, geographer and adventurer. He was also very interested in Tibetan spiritualism and founded his own spiritual organisation known as ‘mentalphysics’ (the Institute of Mentalphysics still exists to this day). He spent decades in Asia, much of it in China, and observed first hand the tumultuous changes that took place in that region in the first half of the 20th Century. He published a book in 1911 describing some of his earlier adventures in China titled Across China on Foot. In it Dingle describes his on foot journey (1909) from Chongqing (on the Yangtse River) all the way to British Burma. In effect Dingle was walking along an ancient migration and trading route now commonly known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’ (an alternative to the more famous ‘Northern Silk Road’). He was also following in the footsteps of other Westerners, most notably the Australian George Morrison who undertook a similar journey in 1895 (and published in book form as An Australian in China). A copy of Across China on Foot can be found here (opens as a pdf).

It was Dingle’s book and spirit of adventure that caught Iva’s attention. I was more than happy to give Iva some tips and background information. I could see after our first meeting that she was very well organised and determined. I was confident that if she undertook this journey she would see it through to the end. I introduced Iva to some friends in Chongqing and to others residing in towns she would pass through along the way. Iva kept an account of her journey on WeChat, a Chinese social networking platform. The most significant thing for me as an observor was to see how warmly welcomed Iva was along the way. Truly the Chinese spirit of hospitality to strangers was in full effect. Iva’s journey and comments are also a fascinating account of how much China has changed since the time of Dingle.

Now that Iva has completed her journey I asked her a few questions and with her permission provide a copy of that conversation here. (GS = Gary Sigley; IS = Iva Stejskal).

GS: Please provide a bit of background as to how the journey started, what is has to do with Dingle, the process and experience in getting prepared, and initial reactions from family and friends.

IS: Hiking has always been a fun and important activity for me.

During a visit to a bookstore in Seattle, I happened to come across the book Across China on Foot by Edwin Dingle.  It must have been written in the stars that I would discover the book as I have never seen it in any other bookstore. I knew nothing about Edwin Dingle but because of the reference to “foot” in the title and that the journey was done in 1910 in China piqued my interest.

Reading the book must have planted a quiet seed in my mind because about two years later I decided one day that I must do this journey, much to the initial horror of my family.

I did a lot of background research for nearly a year before I started the walk.  I researched Dingle’s biography and found him to be an intriguing character. He was a British journalist and while working for The Straits Times in Singapore, he seemingly, on impulse, decided to cross China with no knowledge of the country or language. He went up the Yangtse by small boat and then walked from Chongqing to Tengchong.  He then crossed the border into British Burma and continued to Bhamo. He later became a correspondent for The China Daily News during the rebellion of 1911 and married the first female doctor from Jersey, UK, who was working in Yunnan as a missionary. He spent some time in Tibet and took his spiritual knowledge to California where he started the Institute of Mentalphysics.  This was later incorporated into the Joshua Tree Retreat whose buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect.

I read books on Chinese history, focusing on the period 1900 – 1915 as I wanted to get a feel for the China during the time Dingle lived in China and made his journey.  I also read books by other explorers and travelers to Yunnan province during this period.

The route Iva talk was not a typical pleasure hike. It took her along many roads with busy traffic, and when wet, very muddy.

The route Iva talk was not a typical pleasure hike. It took her along many roads with busy traffic, and when wet, very muddy.

One of my big challenges was mapping out Dingle’s route. Although important as trade routes, in 1910, there were no paved roads as such, roads were mainly flagstone paths or dirt.  Many of the villages Dingle stayed in no longer exist or the names have changed over time.  I researched numerous maps from the late 1890s and early 1900s, including the atlas of China produced by Dingle. From these maps I was pretty well able to trace Dingle’s route and relate it to present day roads, villages and towns.

I calculated that with a pack, I could walk roughly 20 -25 km per day. I was dependent on staying in hotels and inns and as I had no desire to bivouac in a corn field. I created a daily itinerary of villages and towns I would stay in each night, staying on Dingle’s route as best as possible. Therefore, I had my entire route totally planned before I came to China. The big hiccup in my plan was that I did not know the difference between a ‘zhen‘ sized town and a ‘cun‘ sized town. As I quickly learned, a zhen will have some sort of accommodation and shops, a cun has a mahjong hall.  So I had to stay flexible and change my itinerary a few times.

My family and friends were not surprised that I would embark on a journey like this, although the most common question was ‘why?’.  One aspect that attracted me to this journey was that I could combine the walk with the history of the area which I would have to research.  However, it was the unknown that worried my family and friends as their knowledge of China was limited and they worried about my going alone. But all were supportive and their worries abated with daily communication.

As Iva got closer to Burma the scenery and local cultures began to change.

As Iva got closer to Burma the scenery and local cultures began to change.

GS: How were you feeling before the trip? Any doubts? Any concerns? Did you feel prepared?

IS: Given all the research I had carried out and having a planned itinerary, I had no doubts about the trip and traveling solo through China.  I have been to China, but mainly Beijing and Shanghai. From this limited experience, I perceived China to be a safe and welcoming country.  My only worry before I started was whether I would find somewhere to stay in some of the smaller towns.  As it turned out, I was able to find a roof over my head in even the most remote areas, mainly because of the hospitality of the locals.

Another concern I had was how I was going to stay in contact with my family and friends given the limitations on accessing gmail while in China. I got over this hurdle by learning about WeChat and arranging mobile phone contact. Once I got to China, I felt as prepared as I could be given that I really had limited idea of what I was getting in to!

GS: In light of completion, is there anything in hindsight you would take/do/prepare differently?

IS: I would have started Chinese language lessons a bit earlier!  I should also have paid a bit more attention to my electronic gadgets before I started.  For example, I managed to erase some of my early daily routes on my GPS as I was not exactly sure of which buttons I should press. And finally, I packed what I thought I would potentially use or need – I should have only packed essentials as I could have bought whatever I needed in China.  I had a very heavy pack when I started and as a consequence my feet and toenails suffered until I was able to store some stuff in Kunming.

Iva noted that not much in the way of buildings, bridges and temples described by Dingle still exist today. Nonetheless there are plenty of buildings and forms of architecture which have a distinctive Chinese style.

Iva noted that not much in the way of buildings, bridges and temples described by Dingle still exist today. Nonetheless there are plenty of buildings and forms of architecture which have a distinctive Chinese style.

GS: What were the highlight/s of the journey?

IS: Being on the move and outdoors everyday!  The biggest highlight was crossing the beautiful Gaoligong Mountains and discovering I was again on a more remote section of the Burma Road. When I had crossed the Longchuan River valley and looked back at the mountains, I shook my head thinking that I had actually made it across on my own.  Waking up to the sounds of the small villages and watching them come to life were also always a highlight for me.

GS:  What was one of the low points?

IS: The low points all had to do with having to contend with the crazy truck drivers.  There was one point when, for a few moments, I seriously wondered if I wanted to continue because of a very close call with a truck hauling gravel.

One of the pleasures after a long walk is a bowl of noodles.

One of the pleasures after a long walk is a bowl of noodles.

GS:  How did you manage to communicate without much Chinese? Did your language improve as you progressed on your journey?

IS: It’s amazing  how people can communicate through facial expressions, hand waving and body language. When I started, my Chinese was very basic and I spoke mainly in nouns. I could find accommodation and food, and get directions. I also understood simple questions asked of me and was able to kind of explain what I was doing.  My biggest frustration was not being able to ask my own questions as I would have been very interested in hearing people’s stories.

My vocabulary certainly increased as the days went by, but I still know more nouns than verbs and I am sure my pronunciation has a lot to be desired.  But many people seemed happy to correct and teach me Chinese and I just continued to bumble along.

GS:  Had things changed since Dingle’s time?

IS: I would say in most ways yes which would be expected given China’s history over the past 100 years.  Social and political issues still exist but the issues are different.  As far as I could figure out, none of the physical features such as buildings, temples or bridges mentioned in Dingle’s book now exist.

However, I suspect that many of the cultural and spiritual customs have remained the same since Dingle’s time.

The route from central China to Burma has been used for thousands of years. It has various names: Five Foot Road, Southern Silk Road, Burma Road and, more recently, Ancient Tea Horse Road.

The route from central China to Burma has been used for thousands of years. It has various names: Five Foot Road, Southern Silk Road, Burma Road and, more recently, Ancient Tea Horse Road.

GS:  How many kilometres did you walk altogether. How many days did it take?

IS: My journey, like Dingle’s started in Shanghai.  However, the walking section started in Chongqing. Between Chongqing and Yingjiang, I walked 1,635 km and it took me 67 days. So I walked on average about 24 km a day: the least distance I walked in a day was 10 km, the most was about 35 km.

GS:  Would you do it again? Are you interested in returning to China? Or would you go somewhere else for your next challenge?

IS: I would not do the entire journey again as there were some tedious, and uninteresting sections and simply because it’s a case of been there, done that.  However, it would be great to explore a few specific areas such as the Longchuan River valley – it was one of the prettiest areas I walked through.

I do have another journey in mind that has a historical basis, some of which would be in China.

As Iva discovered, China is a very safe and hospitable place to travel as a foreigner. Everywhere Iva went she was warmly welcomed and befriended.

As Iva discovered, China is a very safe and hospitable place to travel as a foreigner. Everywhere Iva went she was warmly welcomed and befriended.

GS: How has this experience/journey changed your previous perception and understanding of China and Chinese people?

IS: Prior to this journey, my time in China had been spent in Beijing and Shanghai. I had no knowledge or experience of the rural areas and really did not know what to expect.  My mind boggled at the curiosity and friendliness of the people.  I never failed to collect a crowd of people when I stopped to rest and I have never had so many photos or selfies taken.  I was also overwhelmed by the hospitality, kindness and generosity shown to me.  It was all the people I met along my journey that really made it a special trip.

Iva celebrating her achievement with new found friends. Congratulations Iva!

Iva celebrating her achievement with new found friends. Congratulations Iva!

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.

IMG_1969

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.

 

 

‘Avoiding Donkeys’: Critical Reflections on China’s Emerging Outdoor Culture

As I mentioned in the previous post, in addition to my interest in the cultural heritage of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, I am also actively engaged in research on China’s emerging outdoor adventure culture (the two research projects do coincide insofar as it is my ambition to be involved in the promotion of the ‘tea road’ as China’s first long distance branded hiking trail, a copy of a paper on this topic in Chinese is available here. An English version is expected to be published in 2013). I also introduced the notion of the ‘donkey friends’ (驴友) (that is, ‘Chinese hikers’) in a previous blog here. In this post I present an English translation of an essay by Yang Xiao (杨肖), one of China’s top outdoor adventure specialists. As someone who has been involved in the Chinese outdoor adventure industry since its earliest days, Yang Xiao has seen the rise and rise of ‘donkey culture’, and he has not been very impressed by what he has witnessed. In the essay presented here, ‘Avoiding Donkeys’ (避驴), Yang Xiao outlines in acerbic tones his critical view of China’s outdoor culture.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Yang Xiao through his work with Ed Jocelyn at Red Rock Treks. He displays a demeanour towards local cultures and nature that expresses a deep knowledge, respect and sensitivity. He is also very handy to have nearby when your in the ‘middle of nowhere’ and it is about to pour down with rain.

Yang Xiao's first encounter with the mysterious black gunk that is 'vegemite' ...

Yang Xiao, who describes himself as a ’21st Century Muleteer’, keeps an active blog titled (in Chinese) ‘Long March 2′ here. He does a lot of equipment reviews and is known as one of China’s leading experts in outdoor equipment. He also writes for many of China’s leading outdoor adventure websites and magazines and has taken part in promotional activities (that is, to promote an awareness amongst Chinese hikers of quality hiking trails and experiences) along the Appalachian Trail (United States) and the Overland Track (Tasmania, Australia). The original Chinese text of ‘Avoiding Donkeys’ can  be found here. A search engine search using the term ‘避驴’ will take you to pages in Chinese where this essay has been reposted. The remarks by readers are worth noting. The essay has thus generated a lot of attention and discussion, which was no doubt the precise purpose (as well perhaps to let off a bit of steam!). Special thanks are extended to Robert Xia for assistance with this translation.

Yang Xiao demonstrating how Tibetans go about acquainting themselves with strange horses/mules by spitting into their hands and offering it to the animal. Rest assured that when meeting people for the first time he shakes hands (without the spittle).

Avoiding Donkeys

By Yang Xiao 杨肖

The outdoor community in China is saturated with a strong sense of the ‘Jianghu underworld’  (江湖气) and ‘code of the donkey’ (驴气). In browsing through outdoor websites and magazines you will see a plethora of outdoor nicknames [avatars] and gossip about ‘donkey persons and donkey affairs’. [translator note: ‘Jianghu underworld’ is a popular literary reference to the ‘murky brother/sisterhood world’ of gallant heroes and wicked villains, well captured in the film ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’]

Take for example this typical post from a donkey forum (驴坛) which is an excellent example of how some people understand the ‘donkey outdoors’ (驴户外): ‘Equipment is the foundation, self-punishment is the method, corruption (腐败) is the essence! Hanging out in bars is a petty [bourgeois] indulgence, hiking is the method, and the photos will last for many years! Travelling is only an excuse, bonfires flame the passions, and amorous encounters are anticipated! Going outdoors is all about being corrupt! If you don’t go exert yourself in corruption then it’s a total waste!’. [translator note: ‘corruption’ here refers to hiking trips that include lots of opportunities for eating and drinking in restaurants and other such places along the trail]

So donkey!

‘Self-punishment, corruption, flaming the passions, hanging out in bars, amorous encounters’, and what the donkeys (驴子) relish as ‘mixed gender tents’ (混帐), these are key terms that summarise well what is implied in ‘the donkey outdoors’.

Starting at first from the travel forum on Sina.com (新浪旅游论坛), Chinese outdoor enthusiasts since then proudly declared themselves to be ‘donkeys’ (驴) and the forums where they congregate are thus called ‘donkey stalls’ (驴棚) or ‘mills’ (磨房) [translator note: in which beasts of burden such as donkeys were used to grind the grain]. ‘Donkeys travel across the land’ (驴行天下), ‘the power of the donkey web’ (网聚驴的力量) and ‘using donkey eyes to see the outdoors’ (驴眼看户外), all of these phrases are commonly found in the outdoors media. Some strong and fit donkeys who favour this so-called ‘self-punishment’ are more than happy to crown themselves as ‘fierce donkeys’ (猛驴).

Yang Xiao is an important mentor for young guides across China. Here he is sharing a mentor moment with Xiao Li from Haba Village.

For some even this is not enough and they refer to themselves as ‘mules’ (骡子) to show that they are even stronger and fiercer. They specialise in punishing and arduous outdoor activities. They disdain the company of all donkey kind. Some of those who are photographic enthusiasts simply call themselves ‘colourful mules’ (色骡).

Even more ridiculous is one outdoor magazine which has a golden rhinoceros as its emblem referring to the idea that the image of the ‘outdoor elite’ of this magazine is not the donkey or mule but the tough rhino.With regards to all of the above all I want to say is, ‘Hoovies (蹄子们), you have way too many labels!’. Your understanding of the outdoors is too crude. What’s the rush? Why do you need to set up such a tough ‘Jianghu underworld’ (江湖气) donkey image?

No matter how donkeys see the outdoors, at the end of the day the thing they find most attractive is the frivolous gossip of the outdoor community. For a people who usually prefer to take the middle path (中庸) when it comes to the outdoors, the Chinese tend towards the extremes: they have to give labels indicating self-punishment (自虐) and corruption (腐败) and aren’t capable of coming up with anything else.

As you can see, the donkey forums (驴坛), in describing outdoor activities, cannot do so out of the confines of these two terms [self-punishment and corruption] and the donkeys (驴子们) wander between these two ‘camps’ often declaring that ‘both self-punishment and corruption should be firmly grasped by both hands’ [translator note: playing on a Communist Party slogan about ‘grasping the two civilisations of the spiritual and material’].

These terms have been around since the emergence of the donkey clan (驴族). They have now became as stale as those songs that have been played over and over for decades. Likewise, clubs and equipment stores all use the term ‘outdoors’ in their names, making the term extremely clichéd. There is no innovation to speak of at all. Let’s consider the Chinese ‘outdoors’ stores. Only a few large stores sell some sophisticated equipment, while the vast majority of the stores are full of shoddy products. This naturally reflects the level of ‘donkey outdoor’ activities in China.

In actuality, the English word ‘donkey’ means stupidity and clumsiness. Will China’s donkey magazines come up with a Golden Donkey Award, which will be as ridiculous as the Golden Rooster Award for the Chinese film and television community? The English connotation of both award names will make people laugh their heads off.

I did an Internet search on the phrase ‘donkey outdoors’, and what I got were a number of donkey organizations: Lazy Donkey Outdoors, Wild Donkey Outdoors, Stupid Donkey Outdoors, Foolish Donkey Outdoors, Mountain Donkey Outdoors, Veggie Donkey Outdoors and Donkey of Guizhou Outdoors. There is even Wolf Donkey Outdoors! It seems that there is everything except for Dumb Donkey Outdoors. To call donkey outdoors lazy or stupid is fine, but I don’t get how wolf and donkey can be used in the same name! Could it be that someone is trying to be different by creating a new rare species called wolf donkey? We can really find anything in the Jianghu culture of China. No wonder you can find all kinds of people in the outdoor community.

But why is there nothing new now that donkey outdoors has been around for so long? In China, something is fashionable if it’s been around for a couple of years, but disgusting if it’s been around for a decade. It’s not hard to imagine a noisy scene in the fashionable outdoors:

A crowd of noisy donkeys in ‘charge uniforms’ of multiple colors are carrying a huge backpack filled with water bottles, moisture-proof pads, plastic bags and even loudspeakers. They march in the wild, shouting to each other through walkie talkies. On the campsite, tents are very close to one another. There is singing, drinking competitions, shouts, games around the campfire. Used cups and plates are discarded everywhere. It seems that outdoor activities must be done indulgingly and recklessly.

What a bunch of losers! The fact that they copy each other reminds one of ‘One World, One Dream’, the slogan of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and the uniform dance arranged by North Korea for celebrations.  People can’t even dream freely. No wonder everybody has to do the same donkey outdoor activities.

Do you still remember that American guy called Nate? He was the only backpacker that we met on Chang2 Road. He is pretty wild and very capable too. He often walks in the wild for many days on end by himself. And he observed wild black bears in Deqin county, Yunnan Province.

An example of the poaching in the mountains of Yunnan. Here Yang Xiao displays a wild bird just recently captured by local villagers.

We thought we would see a bunch of ‘donkeys’ in ‘charge uniforms’, but we didn’t see any. This was quite unexpected. This shows two things: First, Chang2 Road is far from donkey nests and donkey paths, it is a wild road for adventurers; second, even though donkeys carry huge backpacks, they can’t stand the real outdoors and loneliness. So they end up hanging out in bars in Lijiang and Dali, where donkeys cluster. Let’s listen to what the locals think about these backpackers: ‘They came here to relax, but they brought with them many bad habits typical of urban dwellers, and are making things worse.’ A real backpacker knows they should appreciate beautiful scenery by keeping silent. They know how to quietly entertain themselves. Therefore, they will try to avoid the donkey code when deciding on equipment and activities.

You can’t enjoy quietness if you travel with donkeys. Some donkeys even blast music through loudspeakers hanging on their backpack the whole time they are walking, as if they are not aware that other people might not necessarily care for the music they like. Everybody has different tastes in music. Even if you have very good taste, you still shouldn’t blast the music to force others to listen. Things such as ‘one song’ and ‘one dream’ are really things of ‘Chinese characteristics’. Once a song catches on, everybody knows how to hum it. This is really scary. The donkey outdoors phenomenon has its cultural roots too. You will get it just by visiting one of those noisy Chinese restaurants.

In order to avoid donkeys, we didn’t camp where donkeys call the ‘traditional corruption camp’, a filthy place at 2,200 meters high. Instead, we camped on a sunny slope 300 meters above there. At sunrise, we quickly left the site in the warm sunshine, rushing towards the main peak of Mount Xiaowutai before the donkeys arrive.

I never doubt that there still are a small number of outdoor enthusiasts who are self-disciplined and environmentally friendly. But the 2,200 meter-high campsite on eastern Mount Xiaowutai is becoming filthier and filthier, serving as the best sample for studying donkey outdoors. Here you will find out that the outdoor activities done by donkeys are so gross and disgusting. They only know how to make a big mess.

The major purpose for outdoor activities is supposed to be returning to nature and enjoying the spaciousness, tranquility and real wild fun that cities don’t offer. In developed countries, the quietness of a campsite is paramount. There will be nobody shouting or singing out loud. Tents are far away from each other so that no one will be disturbed. People often say they want to have a private moment. This is my ideal kind of outdoors.

When I was a trekking guide, I managed a campsite for as many as 60 people. Those trekkers were very quiet when they saw the sunrise. Nobody felt they had to shout to express their excitement. But whenever we bumped into those noisy and colorful donkeys, I couldn’t help but shake my head.

Why do we despise those noisy donkeys so much? Because they have deprived us of the fun of the restful outdoors. They can do whatever they want as long as they don’t disturb us. But if they do, there won’t be any relaxation on our part.

I disdain ‘donkey outdoors’ not simply for personal reasons. Personal freedom must not be built on other people’s agonies. This is the same with second-hand smoking. If someone smokes in a public place, he will have a good time but I will suffer. If he doesn’t smoke there, nobody will be disturbed. The same goes for shouts. No one would mind if some seniors clear their voice while doing morning exercise on top of Mount Jing or Mount Xiang. We don’t go to those places anyways. But it’s a different story when people shout in the outdoors, our paradise. What on earth are you shouting for?

Since the outdoor activities with Chinese characteristics created the donkey clans with Chinese characteristics, ‘outdoors’ has become a fashionable label for this national sport. You can see arrogance on some donkey faces, as if they were saying: ‘Are you outdoor enough?’ Initially, the outdoors to me was all about being independent, quiet and wild. But in China, once something becomes popular, there will probably be nothing new about it pretty soon.

That’s why I have to question ‘outdoors’ but worship ‘wilderness’, I mean, true wilderness. There are some Chinese people who know how to be wild, but they still know nothing about the real wilderness philosophy. So they are still donkeys, wild donkeys at best. The ‘BBS culture’ has indeed cultivated many bad habits, and it is inevitable to be influenced by donkeys when one spends too much time on donkey forums.

Only by not disturbing nature, can one truly return to nature. So the idea of avoiding donkeys came to mind.

Yang Xiao in Napoleonic pose on Yak Meadow (a famous campsite for caravans along the 'tea road' with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming in the background).

Welcome to ChinaRoutes!

This part of my blog will outline the growth and development of my new research project for which I have given the overarching working title of ‘China Routes’. Here I take ‘route’ to refer to a ‘passage’ or ‘way’, and by extension ‘a journey’ (once again conforming to the theme of ‘2050: a Chinese journey’). As we all know by now China is in the grips of historically unprecedented change. There is no part of Chinese society that is not untouched by change at this moment. There are many angles from which we can explore and highlight this change, and I indeed intend to cover multiple perspectives in this blog. But the concern of ‘China Routes’ is with the rapid development of physical human mobility. China is literally ‘on the move’. Millions upon millions of people are moving across the country in search of work. Many thousands are even now travelling abroad for such purposes (to supplement skills shortages in places like Australia). Many millions are also moving about in search of leisure. The rise of domestic tourism and dramatic development of the leisure industry (which by 2050 will constitute the largest industries in China), and all the related consequences for culture, the economy and the environment, is one of the great untold stories of modern China. All of which is facilitated by the incredible pace and extent of the development of a modern transport infrastructure: sea and river ports; domestic and international airports; national, provincial and local highways; modern bus terminals and transport centres; and high speed rail networks (not to mention space traffic, but this is limited to only a few well trained individuals at present!). Once inaccessible and difficult to reach places are now becoming the frequent destination of the Chinese tourist: the domestic tourist travelling within the mass tourist industry; the independent tourist arranging their own travel and perhaps even driving their own car; and the humble yet significant Chinese backpacker/hiker. As the well known British sociologist Anthony Giddens once wrote, through modern technology and infrastructure space and time are literally being compressed. China Routes will explore what modern mobility is doing, enabling and tranforming in contemporary China. Strap yourselves in for the ride of your life! Destination unknown!