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.
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’ (義). 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 …
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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).
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。