Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A trip to Yunnan

As a veteran of China travel, I am no longer very enthusiastic about going to see the country's most famous tourist attractions. That doesn't mean I am fed up with traveling in China as a whole, just that I am wary of anywhere touted as a "must-see".

During my meanderings through China, the places which have left the deepest impression on me have all been far off the beaten path. Remote and non-touristy provinces like Qinghai and Guizhou have provided me with the most fascinating experiences and the best scenery. On the other hand, celebrated tourists sites like Hangzhou's West Lake or Henan's Shaolin Temple usually prove to be so crowded with visitors and so commercialized that they have lost much of their charm (and were very often overrated to begin with).

That is why I am no particular rush to go and see places like Guilin or Mount Tai, the sort of sites which most Chinese will tell you that you absolutely must go and see. That is also why until last month I was not at all bothered about never having been to Yunnan.

Yunnan is a South-Western province bordering Burma. It is one of China's most popular destinations for both foreign and local tourists, due to its mosaic of ethnic minorities whose traditional culture has partly survived, and its pleasant weather. Towns like Lijiang and Dali have become prime tourist destinations. As such I suspected them to be commercialized and overrated affairs, and never really planned to go there.

Then last month a Chinese friend invited me to go on a one-week trip to Yunnan, having obtained some discounted plane tickets offered by their company. I decided to agree, while keeping my expectations relatively low. If nothing else, it would make for a nice break. While in the province we decided to visit two places, Lijiang and Lugu Lake.


The town of Lijiang, which lies at the foothill of the Himalayas, is the main cultural center of the Naxi ethnic group, who use the last pictographic alphabet in the world (more on that in the next post). It used to be an important stop on the so-called "Tea-Horse Road". This famed trade route connected Bengal with South-Western China through Tibet, and it allowed Chinese tea to be traded for the prized horses of the Tibetan plateau. It really got under way during the Tang Dynasty, and only went into decline in the eighteenth century, over a thousand years later.

One of Lijiang's charming canals
Lijiang is famous for its Old City, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I found the Old City to be extensive and genuinely atmospheric. It is a maze of cobble-stoned alleys criss-crossed by canals, which make it seem a bit like a Chinese Venice. Although the buildings are made of wood and are thus obviously not that old, they have at least been restored in their original style.

The only problem is that Lijiang has gone the same way as many other Chinese tourist sites: it is now so crowded with tourists that it has lost much of the charm which made it famous in the first place. The Old City attracts five million visitors a year, the vast majority of whom are domestic tourists. Young Chinese students and backpackers mix with the inevitable tour groups of older people sporting identical red hats, led by guides squawking useless drivel into loudspeakers.

All the same, I found some of the backstreets and the less crowded parts of the Old City to still be enjoyable, and the hostel we stayed in was also nice. It was arranged around a traditional courtyard, and the rooms were comfortable and cheap. I can see why Lijiang has become a popular destination for alternative young Chinese.

In the evening we went to the Old City's bar street. Nestled away between all the usual Chinese-style bars, with their bands playing covers of old Chinese hits and groups of men playing silly dice games, I found a pub which was clearly oriented towards expats. It had been opened by an Irishman, and there was a Welshman working behind the counter. I got chatting with a young Israeli who was clearly a regular customer. He told me that he had been living in Lijiang for two months already, studying Chinese at a local college. He had moved to China because of his Sichuanese girlfriend, who was currently working in a hotel in Lijiang.

He had relatively dark skin and a beard, and he told me that in Lijiang he was regularly mistaken for an Uighur, and this had turned out not to be a good thing. Once a taxi driver refused to pick him up because he looked like an Uighur, and only relented after realizing that he was actually a foreigner. Uighur extremists were responsible for the terrorist attack carried out last year in Kunming's train station, which is also in Yunnan, and this has probably made people more suspicious (this is no excuse for discrimination of course). 

Lugu Lake

The next day we traveled to Lugu Lake, which straddles the mountainous border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The villages around the lake are home to the Mosuo people, another ethnic minority. The Chinese government classifies them as part of the Naxi people, but they consider themselves to be a distinct group. In China they have now acquired a certain fame because of their unusual matriarchal culture, and because of their custom of "walking marriages" (走婚 in Chinese), which many outsiders take to mean "free love".

In Mosuo culture, family lineage is traced through the female line. Children are brought up by the mother and her family, and may not even know who their father is. Once they have come of age, women are allowed a private bedroom within their household, while men are not afforded this advantage. Traditional Mosuo sexual practices are also quite liberal. Marriage as we know it does not exist. Instead there is something which they call tisese (going back and forth), and which the Chinese misleadingly translate as "walking marriage".
Lugu Lake

If a woman is attracted to a man, she can give him permission to visit her. The visit usually takes place in the secrecy of night, and the man will go back home in the morning. Although adults are allowed multiple sexual partners, it should be noted that these relationships, which are based on mutual affection, can last for years, or even a lifetime.

The only way to get to Lugu lake from Lijiang is by taking a minivan which drives for five hours along winding mountain roads. Most of the passengers suffered either from car sickness or from high-altitude symptoms during the ride (for me it was car sickness). The scenery and the culture we were seeing along the way reminded me more and more of Tibet. Tibetan prayer flags were visible in all the villages and rest stations. This makes sense, because the whole area is at the start of the Tibetan Plateau, in that middle area where China proper still hasn't quite turned into Tibet.

Once we got to the lake, we took up residence in a hostel in the village of Luoshui. Although it is not yet overrun with outsiders like Lijiang (I think the difficulties involved in getting there ensure this), Lugu lake is not exactly a piece of untouched paradise either. The area has now become popular with Chinese tourists, who come to experience the lake's natural beauty and the Mosuo people's "exotic" culture. As always, the tourists have a tendency to ruin the authenticity of the unique local culture which they have come looking for. The village we stayed in is one of the most heavily touristy ones, and the two streets adjacent to the lake were made up entirely of hotels and restaurants. The local people live at the back of the village.

A Yak, that archetypal Tibetan animal, tied up next to the Lake.

The hostel where we stayed (the Husi Teahouse) turned out to be pretty dismal. Amazingly it is recommended in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook, which is why we decided to stay there in the first place. Lonely Planet's entry claims that "the English-speaking staff are helpful". I don't know if the staff speak English, since I spoke to them in Chinese, but the last thing one could say is that they were helpful. The rooms and facilities were quite basic, and the common area was filthy (I have written an email to Lonely Planet to complain, and they have actually replied, saying that they will reconsider their recommendation). To compound matters, electricity was turned off in the whole village every day from 9 AM to 7 PM, because work was being done on the area's electricity lines.

Setting the hostel aside, the village was actually quite nice and relaxing. Along the waterfront, groups of young Chinese students visiting from Sichuan mixed with elderly local women wearing traditional robes and carrying Tibetan prayer wheels. There were a couple of stupas, and we saw women walk around them clockwise while chanting prayers, in the Tibetan tradition. The Mosuo are heavily influenced by Tibetan culture, and follow Tibetan Buddhism alongside their own shamanic religion, known as "Daba".

The next day we rented an electric motorbike and drove all the way around the lake (a 70 km. ride). I would have liked to wear a helmet, but helmets were simply unavailable at all the dozens of shops renting scooters to tourists. Apparently the locals just don't think riding an electric scooter (which can reach 60 km/hour) necessitates a helmet. I just did what I could to drive carefully.

At such high altitudes the weather is still quite cold even in late April, and my light jacket was clearly not going to keep me warm, so I bought another jacket of the kind the locals wear. It was stuffed on the inside with sheep wool, which was obviously real because it gave off such a strong smell of sheep that it was unbearable to wear indoors. I don't think I will ever be able to wear it back home.

The scenery we rode through was quite gorgeous. The lake's waters are crystal clear, and it is surrounded by forested mountains on all sides. Although the villages on the Yunnan side were mostly touristy, once we crossed over into Sichuan the atmosphere became less and less commercialized (and the roads got better too. Sichuan is wealthier than Yunnan). Women wearing the colourful clothing of the local minorities were visible everywhere.

We stopped for a meal in the village of Nisai, and made friends with a local young man. He turned out to live in an ancient Mosuo home which is now protected by the government (yes, even in China some old buildings are finally being protected from demolition). He invited us to visit his home, which was quite fascinating. In the courtyard we found two slaughtered pigs which had been kept whole and stored in a dry, airy place, as is the local custom. This way they can stay edible for up to ten years.

On the right is one of the inhabitants of the traditional Mosuo household we visited
The house's courtyard, with Tibetan prayer flags draped across it
Slaughtered pigs stored for future use

The entrance to the home
We were invited into the main living room, which was made of a kind of wood so valuable that it is now illegal to use it for construction. The walls were adorned with Tibetan thangkas and photos of Buddhist figures, among which I spotted a picture of the current Dalai Lama. More proof if needed that the man the government condemns as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" is still happily worshiped in these areas. The family's Mandarin was accented, but intelligible. They spoke to each other in the Mosuo language (a variant of the Naxi language).

We never saw any real evidence of the Mosuo's matriarchal culture, not to mention their "walking weddings". Then again, we were not in the area for very long. It was noticeable that most of the shops were "manned" by women.

In the evening we got back to Luoshui, and went to see a show of traditional dancing put on by the villagers for the benefit of the Chinese tour groups. A young couple from Henan sitting next to us were fascinated by the fact that I could speak Chinese, and became extremely chatty. The dances were simple, but the atmosphere pleasant. The next day we rode the bumpy ride back down to Lijiang, and the following day we took a train to Kunming and then flew back to Beijing.

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