Where have all the flowers gone?

Jade Dragon MountainLijiang Old TownTired festival folkFirst Bend of the JinshaNaxi musicianOne of those loose Naxi womenBaisha villageRapids in Tiger Leaping Gorge

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

The tale goes like this. During the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were sent to the countryside for a little re-education, Yunnan Province was regarded as the ultimate boondock, the place for the most incorrigible of intellectuals. Then the old guy died, and things began to relax, and the exiles drifted back into the universities and clinics of mainstream Chinese cities and societies. But not those sent to Yunnan. Being intellectuals, some were smart enough to know a good thing when they saw it. The climate was great (I left Hangzhou at 32 ºC and arrived in Kunming at 20 ºC), the air breathable, the landscape beautifully alpine, the people not really Chinese, and it was a long, long way from Beijing.

Thus was Yunnan discovered as the cool place to be. And there were other pheromones at play. There was the mystique of once matriarchal society, where finding an economically secure husband was not the only thing on a girls’s mind. The province is at the narrow end of the funnel for southeast Asian dope into China, and we all know that intellectuals are hippies at heart. You can get a decent cup of coffee there, presumably thanks to a Muslim heritage, instead of wimpy green tea. Or for the really hairy-chested, there’s yak butter tea.

So what if you can see the Great Wall from space? Yunnan’s the place for my holiday.

When I say I was not disappointed, don’t take me wrong. Okay, so Kunming, the provincial capital, beyond cool air and good coffee, is so-so, and its trademark Dian Chi lake so polluted it doesn’t make the charts. Okay, so the matriarchies have been replaced solid, Han patriarchy. But there are many charms. Its “Stone Forest”, though, a bizarre karst landscape a couple of hours drive from the city, impressed this traveler (who had not previously visited such geological formations.) And it gets better.

Lijiang is/was the heartland of the Naxi people. Separated from the new town by a low ridge is the old town, a warren of narrow streets and alleys, all off limits to motor vehicles, and lined with sturdy, wooden, two-storey structures, and flushed — I choose the word with deliberation — by mountain-fed streams, fanned out through all parts of the old city. There’s the Naxi music hall, which resurrects traditional music, with it roots in the 14th century or so, and which, if I counted correctly, boasts six octogenarians in a troupe of thirty.

One suspects a element of fakery from the Naxi-costumed sales girls in the over-abundant tourist shops (it would really have been nicer had they left a few structures in original shape as museum pieces, or, god forbid, as actual residences), but when, at the culmination of their mid-summer festival, thousands of traditionally bedecked natives descended on the town to parade and sing and dance, I was convinced the not even Cecile B. de Mille or Zhang Yimou could stage that.

The broader environs of Lijiang are spectacular. The “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” dominates as the valley floor narrows to the north. The Jinsha River, the main tributary to what becomes the great Yangtze, rushes down from the Tibetan plateau, alternately in lush valleys and narrow gorges, in what “should” be a southerly course, taking it, in parallel to the Red and Mekong Rivers through Indochina to the South China Sea. But then does a one-eighty at the “First Bend”, and winds up traversing China’s midriff to empty into the Pacific at Shanghai. Just downstream, long before it enters the famous Three Gorges (infamously dammed), it negotiates the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” , enraged between ranges rising 3000 meters above its rapids, themselves at 2500 meters above the sea.

Granted, in August it’s all fog-bound and drizzly. But we modern intellectuals only get to the countryside during semester breaks, not like in the good old days.

When you really need to get away from the tourists, the druggies, the loose Naxi women, and the natural spectacles, you can always rent a bicycle, and zigzag your way up the valley floor. You’ll see things you’ll never see in Kansas.

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