Archive for the ‘Yunnan’ Category

Boar’s Wallow

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Boar’s Wallow.  Now that’s a poetic name!  It’s the Naxi name for a small mountain village in northwestern Yunnan Province, which name loses its bucolic flavor in China Post’s Mandarin designation Xinshang Xiacun, something like “New Respect Lower Village”.  Boar’s Wallow is less optimistic, but more to the point.

Versatile wood and mud-brick

The Naxi are a people of Tibetan abstraction, who have inhabited these alpine meadows and valleys for a thousand years at least, once as an autonomous kingdom centered at the city of Lijiang.  Only about 250,000 strong today, they still maintain their language, architecture, religion and cuisine.

Dominating the view to the southeast is the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang’s trademark.  From higher elevations around the village one glimpses the Jinsha River, a major headwater of the Yangtze.

In the kitchen of my host family

It is in newly respectable Boar’s Wallow that I spent my Lunar New Year holiday, guest of a family whose daughter is a university English major, fluent in Chinese, but at home in the Naxi language. A rare privilege for me indeed.

The boars no longer wallow here.  They were wild boars, destructive of fields and crops, and were ultimately decimated by human artifice.  I suppose elimination of the pesky boars has made life easier here, but “posh” hardly describes the post-boar life-style.  The toughness of life here is evident even at the time of Spring Festival feasting.  It is the toughness of self-sufficiency, a concept lost to the soft-boiled civilizations at the other end of the Yangtze.  It is the toughness of survival.

You need vegetables?  Go to your fields — amazingly green even in early February — and pick

Like meat? Slaughter a pig.

some.  You need sugar?  Extract the fructose from the corn you have ground, and boil it down to a viscous syrup.  An egg? See if the hens have obliged.  Meat?  Go slaughter a pig.  Be sure to salt and air-dry some of the meat to preserve it for another day.  And don’t plan on selling the indelicate parts to the dog-food factory — eat them; expertly cooked, they’re tasty.  The alpine air too cold for you?  Go to the forest and fetch lots of firewood.  You’ll need some to heat the double-wok stove, and some to kindle a brazier around which you can sit after dinner and chat with family and friends, all with palms extended to absorb the radiant heat.  Need to relieve yourself?  The outhouse is just across the cabbage patch; there’s plenty of old notebooks there.

Two giant woks set in a wood-burning stove

Buildings are of unique design, yet in a layout familiar to anyone who has visited a European farm village.  Three or four modular structures enclose a courtyard; these house humans and animals in rough proportion to the head-count of the extended family and their livestock.  Each building is defined as a 2 x 3 grid of bays by the placement of poles and rafters, with exterior walls of mud-brick on three sides.  The buildings have two storeys , with a dividing eve partway up the second storey.  The six back bays, upstairs and down, may be finished as bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, or they may be open and serve as mows or sheltered storage for dried vegetables and meats.  In any case, the three front bays on the ground floor are open as a sort of veranda, where most of family life takes place.  The same floor plan serves well to house domestic animals, the bays boxed in as ox stalls, pig sties, chicken coups, etc.

The pole-and-rafter structure is pinioned nailessly, and structurally independent of the

Grandpa takes grandson for a visit

mud-brick walls, all the better to absorb the movements of earthquakes, which are frequent in the region.  Roofs are dark gray tiles in alternating concave-convex rows.  All together a very charming, practical and adaptable design.

I wouldn’t speculate on the fecundity of Naxi women, but to note that almost every home I visited had multiple children running around or being ported in Naxi-style backpacks.  And to note further that the Chinese one-child policy is explicitly waived for members of the 56 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China.

Like veggies? Pick some.

Gentrification a la Boar’s Wallow is evident:  electric wires seem to connect every home, and a satellite TV dish is a real status symbol, oddly perched though it may be on the chicken coup. And ‘most everyone has his or her mobile phone.  Electricity is used sparsely: a bare bulb in the kitchen, an electric grill, and a clothes washing machine were the only obvious equipment in my hosts’ home.

And, of course, the television set, which, following urban Han Chinese practice, seems to be on continuously, whether anyone is watching or not, and in view of which honored guests are always invited to sit.  The catch is that you have to comprehend Chinese to watch; mostly the younger, Chinese-schooled folks are watching.  Mercifully, in my hosts’ home — with no youth around — the TV set sat cold and isolated in the absent son’s bedroom.

What else can you do for fun in Boar’s Wallow?  Get out the mahjong tiles.  On these relatively

Rest stop on the trek over the pass to the next village

leisurely holiday afternoons countless hours were spent, by young and old alike, at the mahjong table, as countless one-yuan-notes changed hands.

Inevitably my day for departure came.  Rather than retrace our ride down the valley, the suggestion was to walk up the valley, over the pass and down into a neighboring valley, whence we took a van ride the next day to Lijiang.  Up and up we climbed, over stoney paths fit only for humans and horses, ever closer to the Jade Dragon.  After five hours we attained the top of the pass, some 3,200 m (about 10,000 ft).  My friend’s father, who knew the route and toted our lunch,  — much to my surprise at least — said “good-bye”, turned and started back down the path to his home: he was just seeing me off!

A stunningly beautiful and arduous walk it was.

As I sit now in my comfortable apartment in Kunming, connected to the internet, typing on computer, munching on packaged foods, I have a sense of awe, not so much at the landscape I have seen, but at the tenacity of humankind in coping with it.  For better or for worse, we have left our mark on that landscape, and survived.


Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Nuremberg is a better choice than Kunming if you need to indulge your Christmas nostalgia.  But if you happen to be in Kunming, why not give it a try?

I often bicycle past the apparently generic Protestant church on Peoples’ Avenue West, and when I saw the Christmas decorations go up, I was drawn to stop in and check the calendar of Advent events for a service of Christmas music.  Indeed a flier promised just such a service on the Saturday before Christmas.

The major offering was Händel’s “Messiah”, the Christmas section.  The cognitive dissonance of a choir, perhaps forty strong, all dressed in Miao traditional costumes and intoning Händel was markedly greater for me than the musical dissonances:  they had rehearsed diligently and did a creditable job.  Choruses were rendered in Chinese; recitatives in English by professional voices.

The musical accompaniment, unfortunately, was by piano.  No strings, no oboes, no harpsichord.  What’s more, the enthusiastic pianist took his pianoforte instrument to heart.  Poor Händel, who never heard a piano; I think he would not have liked the reduction.

More unforgivable yet were the two lengthy interruptions for clerical declamation.  I couldn’t follow the drift of the contents, but the tone of voice brought to mind “harangue” rather than “homily”.  Not the sweet voices of angels heralding the lowly birth, but two strident ladies, obviously well trained in the preaching profession.  The Little Lord Jesus himself would surely have cried to hear it.

Added to my growing malaise was the peculiar architecture of the church building: from nowhere in the capacious balcony could one see the chancel;  the view was transmitted by not-so-great-resolution, closed circuit television screens.  Altogether more grating than sublime.

God forgive me that the following Friday, Christmas Eve, I was more open to the secular suggestion of a colleague to join in the larger congregation of merry-makers downtown.  I had class until eight-thirty that evening, and so, to make up for lost time, we hailed a cab.  First shots over the bow was the cabbie’s “No way I’m taking my cab downtown.  Take a bus.”  “Walk” would have been better advice.

It was nearly ten before we made it to the pedestrian zone in central Kunming.  It seemed that the entire younger set of Kunmingians must have been there.  It was not a shopping frenzy, as most of the shops were already closed; just an aimless frenzy.  The plot grew curiouser and curiouser as it appeared more and more street vendors were hawking masks which seemed to be a wholesale purchase of left-over Mardi Gras paraphernalia. Particularly intriguing were the tiaras of illuminated horns, distinctly Diabolical horns, not Rudolfian.

The major item for sale, however, were boxes upon boxes of aerosol cans which emitted faux-snow.  (Christmas Eve was somewhat white, but certainly not green.)  Armed with these, roving bands of youths attacked anyone in their path.  As a hoary-haired Caucasian I seemed to draw extraordinary fire.  Teetering on the edge of amusement and annoyance, I regretted my secular choice and wondered what would He do.  “Love thine enemy” echoed from somewhere.  And so — with a sexist discrimination, I confess — I to took to counter-attacking my assailants with a bear-hug, a few waltz-like turns, all the while chanting “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” in my best American English.

I hadn’t really thought through the consequences of His noble precept, and didn’t have an exit-strategy in mind.  My bear-hug surges worked unexpectedly wonderfully in that mine enemy loved my loving response and doused me all the more with the gooey white stuff.

Extricating ourselves down an alley, we slumped our way back to campus.  Instead of an exposition on the Gospel to my heathen friends, I wound up narrating the pagan traditions behind the European street parties of Fasching and Mardi Gras.

I’m feeling a little peevish about the whole thing.  I don’t begrudge anyone a good Solstice Bash, but why do they have to preempt our symbols, our slogans, our date?  Ah, how easily our egocentricities bring on amnesia.  All the great, dispossessed gods of Europe have finally made league with the Chinese to avenge themselves.  Thor has taken back his Christmas tree; Saturn has reclaimed his Saturnalia.

Hope you all had a lovely Christmas.

Magical Valley

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The gate to Bamei

There is something inherently voyeuristic in my desire for close encounters with rural Yunnan.  Chinese villages are a world apart from Chinese cities, and the old aphorism of being a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there applies.

In the lumpy-bumpy karst mountain region a few hundred kilometers east of Kunming lies a unique valley harboring a typical village, Bamei.  The village is populated by people of the Zhuang ethnic group, and sufficiently isolated from the outside world as to retain some primordial character.  A crystal clear stream runs along the valley floor, with fields spread on either side, and the structures comprising the village arrayed up on the mountain side so as to maximize tillable land.

It’s late November, and some of the fields are newly plowed, clayey soil turned by ox drawn plows. Others still bear the color of late-season vegetable crops, punctuated by human figures harvesting the greenery into baskets suspended on shoulder poles for self or animal consumption.  The weather is drizzly; mud prevails.

I sit on the dining deck of an otherwise deserted guest house and survey the enclosing karst ridges.  Remarkable is


that I see no break in the ring which might provide the river with ingress and egress.

[That last paragraph is for literary effect.  I know the course of the river very well, because I followed it to get here.]

Indeed, there is no break.  The river simply goes underground, flowing through perhaps two kilometers of cavern before it emerges on the far side of the mountain.  Thus to enter Bamei from the outside world you engage the services of a Zhuang boatman, who poles you upstream until, out of the dark bowels of the earth, you break forth into a hidden valley.  As you continue upstream, the river pulls this sleight-of-hand twice more.  After traversing the next cavern, you enter a narrower valley, with no settlements, just a few animal sheds, fish weirs, duck ponds and fields.  Finally another, longer disappearing act, and the boat re-emerges into the  outskirts of a larger village, firmly in the grip of civilization.

Truly, a magical, hidden valley.

Farmer's House

There are consequences to this isolation.  No roads penetrate the valley, hence no motorized traffic, none of the cars, trucks, buses, with their incessant honking, as everywhere else in China.  No roads at all.  My Chinese guide, brought up in the local Chinese dialect, is deaf to the Zhuang language, and strains to communicate in the natives’ Chinese-as-a-second-language.  (Forget English.)  The food served up by our hostess is local produce:  eggs from the chickens and ducks, veggies from her several garden plots, still green in November, various squashes and tubers, fried minnows from the river, bits of pork belly.  All helped down with rice wine, home-brewed out of the eye of revenuers.

Our rooms are of new construction, filling out two sides of a courtyard, the other two sides of which are of more

Bamei Village

traditional, sapling-log structures. The rooms are comfortable, not by the multi-starred standards of the hospitality industry, but by any reasonable standard of human need.  Being the off-season, we are the only guests, and our hostess walks us through the living menu of her vegetable garden: just point out what you would like for dinner.  We eat together with her in the kitchen on a low table, under a bare bulb, next to the wood-fired stove with its embedded woks.  The space is shared by a cat adapted to scrounging the inedible bits spit out on the floor, with the help of an occasional chicken, while the family pig serenades us from beyond the log wall, offering a comforting aid to digestion and oblivious to the likelihood that his belly will be next up in the wok.

Dinner Table

We spend a morning making out way up-river, by foot and by boat.  We spend an afternoon traipsing along the narrow dikes which typically separate Chinese fields and paddies.  My guide is a country girl, well versed in the names of crops and techniques,  somewhat more sure-footed, and consequently a little less muddied,  than I.  In the evening we watch, from a good distance (because my guide is also superstitious), a funeral “service”, replete with fire-crackers, ritual dances, chants, horns (suona), tambourines — the participants all cloaked in white.

Truly idyllic?

Bamei indeed seems free of most of the urban iniquities you and I thrive on.  With the exception of television.

Laundry Day

While the life-giving river enters the hidden valley through subterranean channels, life-polluting CCTV enters on supraterranean beams.  That television breaks the spell of pristine Zhuang culture is obvious and inevitable; that it breaks the drudgery of the villagers’ hard-scrabble existence is arguably commendable.

For Bamei’s fields are not Elysian. The work is hard, long, muddy, and manual, with only animal-power to alleviate the worst of it.  The question becomes not would I want to live there, but would I be able to survive there?  Probably not.  Better just pass by as city-slicking voyeur with a few city-made Yuan in my pocket.

The Train to Qujing

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Qujing is the second city of Yunnan Province, an hour and a half east of Kunming, unremarkable as far as I can judge, and a chosen destination only because of a friend there, of the Naxi minority, who is studying English at the teachers’ training college.

The train-ride to Qujing is remarkable, in its cluttered, chaotic, inimitable way. In China, I leave some margin of time to accommodate the unexpected, and so arrive at the station early.  The waiting room begins to fill as departure time draws nearer.  Throwing admonitions of racial blindness to the winds, I strain to discern the telltale features of countenance, dress, or decorations which might give me a clue as to which ethnic minority the bearer might belong, in this melting pot at the juncture of China, southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau.  Oh, for a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my predecessors!  The triangularity of face, the set of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the prominence of cheek-bones, all precisely measurable quantities, at which my furtive eyes can only guess and not record.  Or better yet, a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my contemporaries, a DNA sequencer! Is there some wee difference? Or is it all a matter of ethnic identification?

More obvious, if more ephemeral, are the badges of social status.  That smartly dressed chick whose vanity is easily confused with erudition; that scruffy lad with nonhereditary orange hair and dangling fag; that diminutive crone dragging a huge, shapeless, plastic sack, presumably enclosing her mortal possessions; that sun-browned, possibly-young woman toting her young, pappoose-like in a colorful rucksack; that budding-capitalist-type, who has deliberately left the label tacked to the sleeve of his expensive suit — all wanting to travel to Qujing this morning, most preoccupied with their mobile phones.

Twenty minutes before departure, the platform gates are opened, and the crowd surges, with little sense of an orderly British queue, towards the waiting train.  I wrestle my way over boxes and sacks to my reserved seat, experience only the slightest twinge of conscience as I evict the squatter in my seat, a tired-looked laborer who doubtless purchased a stand-up-ticket and hoped for a no-show, and settle into my north-facing window seat.  Lots of chatter of my seat-mates from which I mostly pick out parents explaining to their children ‘ta ting bu dong’.

At nine, precisely, the train moves out.  We pass, alternately,  piles of urban-renewal rubble and the slums which probably should be renewed, the ring of factories and heavy construction equipment, a further ring of modern apartments and elevated highways.

Finally we emerge into the Yunnan countryside.  The terrain is hillier.  The farming villages pick up the brilliant morning sun with their whitewashed building, all of which seem to have yellow trim, in fact, yellow ears of corn spread out on any and every surface — roofs, cornices, window sills, enclosing walls — exposed to the sun.  The fields are mostly bare at this time of year, a few newly plowed, a few still with dried corn stalks, others with sheaves of harvested wheat or rice straw.  Here and there a few horses and water buffalo scavaging the remnants.

The hilly land is not amenable to mechanized agriculture.  The terraced fields, neatly separated by small dikes, creating an intricate mosaic, are simply not compatible with tractors.  Buffalo-pulled plows, hoes and adze cope with the irregular shapes.

My bucolic trance is broken as a huge prison complex fills the landscape.  How many cells must there be?  How many inmates?  Who? For what crimes?  Liu Xiaobo?  The Tiananmen Tankman?  (Naturally, my Google search for other “Chinese prisoners of conscience” yields only “problem loading page” messages. )

The children opposite me are getting restless, bugging their weary parents for still more junk food, their apparent favorite being a wurst of sorts, extruded from its plastic casing under pressure from their little fists directly into their little mouths.  Luckily, the first urban arm of Qujing comes into view, and we soon arrive at the station.

With a journey like that, who cares if the destination is a little humdrum?

Of Dragons and Bellybuttons

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

It was the late Martin Gardner who introduced me to the interesting ecclesiastical debate over whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons.  Given Moses’ (a pen name for God) account of their in- / con- ception, it is clear that they were not born viviparously to a mammalian mother, and so would not have the bumpy scar left by that traumatic event.  If they did, it would be a deception, a little like Agatha dropping a few obfuscatory clues.  Surely Moses would not do that.

In China one seems never far away from dragons, though in my travels I have more often seen facsimiles than the real thing.  In any case, I went out in search of clues to dragons in a lovely valley off to the west of Kunming, Konglong Gu, alleged to harbor many such clues.  “Konglong” translates as “terrible dragon”. You hard-core Linnaeans might object that a more accurate translation is “dinosaurus”, but we all know that’s just a Greek smokescreen for “terrible lizard”. Let’s not quarrel over trivia.

Of course, there’s a lot of good-natured kitsch to be seen there, like a merry-go-round with wooden horses replaced by mini-dinos, and the periodic roars emanating from the dinosaur replicas scattered about the park (which, I suspect, are not based on a scientific study of the structure of dinosaur larynges.)

But a very large structure shields a remarkable collection of reassembled, fossilized skeletons from the weather.  Someone has counted them; not me.  Other displays show the fossils in various states of reclamation, including of “live” workshop in which bones are being painstakingly freed of adhering soil.  When one extrapolates from the pace of that work to the hundreds of completed skeletons all about, the admission fee snaps into perspective.

The far side of the building covers a complete gully, which gives the impression that a paleontological dig is really child’s play.  Here a collapsed skeleton, there a clutch of eggs.  The vegetation has been obligingly removed, and a well-placed light draws your attention.  But even so these are low-hanging fruits, yielding lots of juice for the squeeze.  And it’s no wonder the valley has been a focal point for paleontologists since the first remains where discovered in the 1930’s.

A femur is a femur, a mandible is a mandible — any amateur can recognize them — even though they may be out-sized and over-toothed.  It’s truly impressive how body plans have been recycled.  Evolution is not iconoclastic.  On my stroll through the valley garden I was accompanied by two comely Finnish nurses, but all the time I was imagining taking the stroll with Charles Darwin.  Charles would have loved it, even the merry-go-round.

Being oviparous, dinosaurs assuredly did not have bellybuttons.  But the argument that these fossils were placed here (in China no less) by some higher intelligence as false clues to test my faith in the Mosaic description and chronology seems ludicrous, even by papal standards.  I failed the test with flying colors!

Sculptured Earth

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Yunnan is a mountainous province and home to many of China’s ethnic minorities; not coincidentally, it is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Some 150 km north of the provincial capital of Kunming there lies a region known as “Red Earth”, with villages perched at 2,500 meters below peaks at 3,200 meters.  As with any alpine region on earth, the scenery is magnificent as one plies, sometimes breathtakingly, the switchback road in a friend’s rickety Honda.But the mountains here are unique, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.  For they are meticulously sculpted, from valley floor nearly to the peaks, into a patchwork of terraced fields.  Even in mid-November, the patchwork is colorful, the light green effect of turnip leaves with white flowers, the darker greens of other vegetable crops, the browns of already dried fields of corn, rice and other grains, the brilliant red where the soil has been plowed up in preparation for the next round of planting.  A photographer’s wonderland as the colors change daily with the movement of the sun and clouds, and seasonally with the succession of crops and freshly tilled soil.As my camera clicks to capture the beauty of the place, I can’t help wonder how many hands over how many hundreds of years sculpted these terraces. Certainly in their minds was no thought of beauty, nor of environmental impact, simply of survival, of feeding themselves and their children.  Even today one can read that purpose in the face of the old woman trudging home, bent forward under the load of turnips in the basket strapped to her back.  Were they relegated to these marginal lands by a traditional sense of home, or by pressure from the more numerous Han Chinese advancing into the valley floor?  Can I expect them to continue to maintain these fields and the way of life bound to them for my delectation?  Can I chide their sons and daughters for fleeing to the sterile factory dormitories of Shenzhen? (more…)