Posts Tagged 'Yunnan'

All tomorrow’s parties

But what did you do in those Chinese villages? my city friends ask me. Didn’t you get bored with hiking about in the wilderness, and crave some society, some culture, some fun?

A lot of the time I was writing my book, and craved solitude and long hikes. But a lot of the time, I was going to parties.

The Bai, the Miao and the Dong, the Tibetans and Lissu – they do love a good party. Like followers of traditional calendars everywhere, they find endless occasion: sowing and harvest; full moon and flood; birth, marriage, death of people and of gods; house-warming and tomb-sweeping; arrivals and departures, beginnings and ends. And they are always happy to share the occasion with random visitors. If it involves said visitor making a total fool of herself, so much the better…

In the Bai region of Yunnan it’s the grandmothers who keep the world going, the calendar pages turning, the parties full of food, dancing, pageantry, laughter. They do love to laugh. To dress up the tombs and temples and houses (not themselves; it’s the old men who dress up in cardboard crowns) with bright flags and flowers and paper people and paper money. To dance around, tinkling cymbals and tapping drums. To feed, and ply with baijiu (rice wine) the five thousand.

Every month there’s a festival in one of the many temples scattering Shaxi valley, and it’s a fabulous and hilarious privilege to be invited to join in, to eat and eat, to sit on a tiny bench watching the performance, to be dragged up to dance with a huge bunch of paper flowers or a china bowl containing a lit candle – balanced on my head.

The locals are all so delighted, dashing about the temple, bowing to the gods, reciting prayers, gossiping and openly laughing when it all goes a bit pear-shaped… I’ve no idea of the religious significance of any of it, or why they made me dance with a bowl on my head. I suspect there was no significance, they were just making it up as they went along, propitiating the gods just in case, and having a lot of fun.

Rambling between villages in Guizhou province, we stumbled over a Miao house-warming party and were invited in for food and drink – drink – drink. Old men already so drunk they couldn’t stand up; aunties and grandmothers, those ones who keep the word turning, busy making everyone else drunk with their endless bowls of wine dipped from clay jars, which have to be drained to the bottom not once but twice; younger sisters looking after the babies. The family’s four sons were all there, even the one who was working in Fujian province, in the city, and who wandered off with his girlfriend to walk moodily hand in hand through the paddy fields; two modern children, not charmed by rural excess; a bit bored now they knew what else life had to offer.

Later there will be dancing; there will be bull-fighting, they promise, filling up our wine bowls yet again. I am kidnapped; carried off to the upper village and presented like a hunting trophy to various households, to a succession of shyly, sweetly smiling small girls trying out their few words of English and showing me their battered school books; more food; more wine; up to the village hall where the bronze drum is hauled out of storage and hefted down to the square and the former communist party leader begins to bong and blong, the giggling small girls and a few chuckling grannies begin to dance and laugh when I get the steps wrong, round and round we go or maybe it’s the world that’s going round and round, the strings of drying yellow maize and red chillies, the dark wooden houses jumbled along steep cobbled pathways and the pink pigs peeking out from their sties, the gigantic stairs of the rice terraces stepping up the mountain, peopled with hay stacks like shaggy giants wearing topknots of pine branches –

and now I’m in another little dark house, sitting on a miniature stool by the embers with another lot of people I’ve never seen before all chomping and slurping, staring at me with shiny eyes, solemn staring babies peeking over their parent’s shoulders, and I feel like a pink pig, like a giant puppet pig in a tiny puppet show, in a Miao Punch-and-Judy, and I really don’t want any more baijiu thankyouverymuch – and I tiptoe away when no one is looking and stagger back to the lower village, where I find my Chinese companion has been tucked up in bed by our hosts to sleep off the alcohol and I’m on my own where no one speaks English and everything’s broken…

In which I inadvertently climb a snow mountain

Well, it wasn’t quite inadvertent, and I was probably more prepared for it than many of the people in Haba base camp, who had apparently never camped (“It’s so strange sleeping in a sleeping bag – you can’t move your arms!”) or seen stars before (“How will we know if the weather is clear when we start at 4a.m? It’ll be dark!”). But I didn’t plan to do it.

Mountains are fascinating and grand. I love how small they make me feel, I love hiking among them, watching them change with every shift of the light and lift of cloud. But I’ve always vaguely suspected people who risk life and limb to get to the top of them of being… slightly arrogant?  Unimaginative? A bit incomprehensible.

Reading about climbing Everest made me feel a bit disgusted with the whole endeavour, particularly its modern commercialisation, but mostly just puzzled by why people would endure so much of what seems like total misery (boredom, exhaustion, altitude sickness, frostbite) just to say they have been on the highest peak in the world – along with, these days, thousands of other people. There’s no purpose in it, no trip from here to there. I suppose other less famous mountains are much more of an adventure still, and an achievement, but really what are they a test of? Endurance? Skill?

And now I’ve done the same thing, on a much smaller scale, myself. It’s just that I was in Haba base camp, half way though a hike, and our friends were in the camp planning the ascent the next day, and the mountain was just there, snow-white and waiting… and really, by that point, why not?

The mountain from the lake

Well, because it was unbelievably utterly freezing, for a start. And 5400 metres high. And we had to get up at 3 a.m to hike most of it in the dark. And at 7 a.m the sunrise was flame and gold and violent and below us, in drifting brilliant clouds along deeply distant valleys, over pink-tipped granite peaks so far left behind they were like crinkles in paper… And at 8 the wind was worse than knives and we were in cloud or fog and there wasn’t enough air anymore. And the steep snow field went on and featurelessly on. And I lost everyone else. It was just me and the rope snaking upwards through whiteness, across whiteness, into whiteness; my own personal icy Sisyphean hell of pointless misery. One tethered rope leading to the next one, the next, a climb going nowhere, and what the hell was I doing this for anyway? Struggling to move, to breath, and for what purpose? I had no idea if I was anywhere near the top, and even if I did reach the top I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, no fabulous view, no earth falling away forever, just freezing fog, drifts of snow fine and heartless as dust…

(We’d sat yesterday in the base camp, me and my hiking companion, basking in the sun of a cloudless morning watching the climbers, black dots toiling up this same snow field, then along the ridge at the top that looped back taking them out of sight – watched them the way I’d watch sport on TV, because I’m too lazy to do anything else, except this was an exceptionally slow and boring sport, of creeping black dots – we’d watched some of them get only half way up the snow field, and then turn back and begin the long defeated creep down again)

I didn’t much want to be a defeated dot, but really I was just worried that if I turned back I’d get lost after the ropes ran out. So I kept on. And was rescued by a St Bernard dog with frost in her whiskers and lumps of ice big as golf balls stuck in her paws. I could have been hallucinating at this point…

(but – see this Haba summit photo… my proud and affectionate mum asks, which is you and which is the dog?)

And then cloudless skies and views that go on for ever, all the way down.

The lake from the mountain

So what was it a test of? Endurance? Skill? Stupidity? That familiar human desire to do utterly pointless things…

God’s gardens part II

I keep bumping into botanists and ethno-botanists and botanical artists in Yunnan, following in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, George Forrest and Jean Marie Delavay.

it seems such an innocently adventurous  life, tramping the world in search of lovely things that grow in wild places. And oh, there are some lovely things growing wild in Yunnan.

Some of them are edible…

some medicinal…

some are used to protect houses from ghosts…

unfortunately as a non-botanist I don’t know much about which ones…

(so if anyone else does, feel free to comment)

I only know that some of them smell as amazing as they look.

Market Day

Friday is market day in Sideng. Villagers from all over the valley come wending their way along the narrow paths down the mountains, in-between the terraced fields, walking single file with woven baskets on their backs to fill up with a week’s purchases, or herding along quick trotting pigs, dainty-hoofed donkeys.

They remind me of the shepherds walking to church in Samuel Palmer’s pictures. South China is a world away from Palmer’s visionary Kent but there’s something similar about the sudden round hills and steep narrow side valleys of Shaxi, the courtyard farms and wayside shrines, the clouds of white blossom, the long golden light of evening that seems to coat everything in dust and honey.

Back they go from the market, their baskets full of pea sprouts and pigs trotters, giant radishes and miniature mangoes, green canvas shoes and bright stripy skirts, mouldy tofu and flapping fish and fat pink incense sticks and whirling windmill toys for children…

Stolen or lost

“Too many wires in the way,” complained a Chinese photographer in the bus bouncing down the appalling unpaved road from Zhaoxing. “Ruined every one of my pictures.”

There were indeed a lot of telegraph wires, snaking up and down the valleys from village to lovely village, destroying the impression that we were back in some prelapsarian idyll before industrialisation, before pollution and quarries and communications and roads like the new expressway that is going to bring tour buses and hotels and business and change to this wonderful corner of south-east Guizhou.

In Yunnan province, the omnipresent telegraph poles have lurid signs fixed to them, exhorting passers-by not to steal the wires. “I can see why you’d want to,” complained a friend, after scrambling down yet another far-too-steep slope in an attempt to keep lines and notices out of his photos of the Nujiang.

The villages along the upper Nujiang only got electricity two years ago. We came across gangs of men, putting up telegraph wires all along this steep, wild, spectacular valley that leads into Tibet.

It was something to see, as they heaved on cables that trailed up and down precipices and across waterfalls; a wonder too, quite different from the wonder of this glorious work of nature; instead here you have to admire the planning, the human skill and ingenuity.

(And the humanity of the men, who offered us a lift back in their truck when we were faced with a long freezing moonlit trek home).

All too often in China – everywhere I’ve been, lately – the prospect of progress is linked with loss; of landscape and history, of diversity, of wilderness, (of a good photo…), of home. Dams on the Nujiang may drown these telegraph wires, and the villages they link; progress superceding progress. As a race, ingenious humans never know when to stop.

Like we didn’t know when to stop on our Nujiang walk, and had to be rescued by the workmen; but trusting to chance and random kindness is what will always be left to us.


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