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Machine embroidered Good Luck banner featuring the eight Immortals in Georgetown, Penang

 

Penang! O.M.G. Penang! Its now two weeks since we left but I am still feeling a rosy warm glow whenever I think about it. Part self indulgent nostalgia, part absolute delight. I have to confess a sentimental attachment. Jim and I spent our honeymoon there 31 years ago and we haven’t been back since.

We arrived in the best way, on an overnight train from Thailand (£20 for a sleeper) and then crossed the Strait from Butterworth on the ferry. The skyscrapers which line the coast were definitely not there in 1984, but at the foot of these high rises remain the clan jetties (named for the surname of the clan which lives on it – Lim, Chew, Tan, Yeoh, Lee, Ong and New) These stilt villages still survive although they no longer load and unload goods from the mainland. We are staying at the end of one of them (New or mixed surname jetty) at The Clan Jetty Heritage Home – found on booking.com.

If you can’t  feel delight sitting out on its wooden terrace with a cold beer looking out at the ferries, the tug boats,  the container ships and the old fishing boats which ply the Strait, you are a very hard woman to please.

The clan jetty terrace

The clan jetty terrace

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The clan jetties below the residential flats

 

Georgetown, the capital is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. It’s quaint, it’s delightful and a more charming place to spend a few days it would be hard to find. It maybe a fascinating time warp but it seems to have found a way of preserving its history while accommodating the people who live and work there.

Georgetown is full of reminders of its colonial British past from the Victorian clock tower and white Government buildings to the street names. There are architectural gems from the Straits Chinese heritage (shophouses, elaborate temples, the clan jetties and mansions of rich merchants), and the mosques and temples of the Malays, the Achinese and the Hindu Tamils. Plus  the food! With that mix of cultures, its got to be good.

Penang cat small Penang wall art small

Apart from all the heritage, there’s a vibrant street art scene with lots of murals and iron work “cartoons” which show humour and great affection for the place, its cultures and its past. Without wishing to sound like an advert for Malaysian Tourism, it’s a revelation.

Putting aside Malaysia’s appalling human rights record, the fact that its main opposition politician has been imprisoned for “sodomy”, corruption, bribery, inequality, blatant discrimination against non Malays and the degradation of the environment with ruthless mono cropping of palm oil and rubber. It’s lovely, isn’t it?

One of the amazing iron work cartoons telling the stories of Penang's past

One of the amazing iron work cartoons telling the stories of Penang’s past

 

Sometimes, its just tooo lovely! The "Blue Mansion"

Sometimes, its just tooo lovely! The “Blue Mansion”

 

On our last day, I went in search of my textile and it was easy to decide what it would be. I guess I could have chosen an exquisite batik sarong as worn by the Straits Chinese women (the Perakanan) in times gone by and still brought out for weddings and special occasions. But they are made in Java.

No, it has to be one of the New Year banners which adorn the street doors of houses, shops and temples in the run up to Chinese New Year. As usual this involves me in some hunting. I see a shop with one over its doorway and ask the owner what its called. This leads to much earnest discussion amongst the various chaps hanging about. They obviously have different names for it in different dialects. Then I ask them to write it down in Chinese characters for me – again much discussion. In the end one bright spark tells me just to take a photo of it.

I’m directed to an emporium of Chinese religious and ceremonial prerequisites, packed with people doing their pre New Year shopping. I show the photo and am directed to an aisle full of the things. They mostly feature members of the eight Immortals – characters who seem to represent most of the things you might ask for in life, health, love, prosperity, long life, drinking beer and eating satay in Penang and so on.

Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The highlights of Penang for me:

  • A ride up Penang Hill by funicular in the late afternoon. As dusk falls we walk out among the hill-station bungalows and see long tailed macaques, dusky langurs and a flying lemur!

 

  • A trip to the coastal National Park where we saw a giant sea turtle, huge black and white sea eagles wheeling and diving and a massive monitor lizard marching along the beach and disappearing into the mangrove swamps.

 

  • One evening a walk up a side street in Georgetown, we come upon a travelling Chinese puppet theatre set up near a Chinese temple. There are opera gowns and head-dresses in the temple and paper horses with grass in their mouths, incense  and burnt paper offerings. The puppet theatre has a personnel of at least 6 including musicians and an audience of approximately 5. Is it a rehearsal for a performance or a ritual of its own? Whatever it is, the scene is powerful and unforgettable and as I peep around the back, I feel I may become part of Dr Parnassus’s Imaginarium.
The Puppet Show

Kim Giak Low Choon Puppet Show

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A temple home for the Chinese Opera

 

Penang puppet show

Penang puppet show

 

 

Tomorrow, the Year of the Goat begins.

Gong Xi Fa Chai!

 

 

 

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We have fantasised for years about taking a cargo boat down the Mekong River from China to Thailand. When we lived in Singapore, back in the day, we knew an old Chinese guy who did the trip regularly to buy jade in Burma. It always seemed like an impossibly romantic trip – and I am an absolute sucker for anything like that. Last year we went up to Chiang Saen in Thailand’s far north to see where the Chinese cargo boats dock. Now we are about to find out if we can get there from this end.

The passenger service has been suspended for the past three years because of an incident involving a Thai General, a large quantity of drugs and the shooting dead of 13 Chinese sailors! But we get some encouragement in Jinghong – you just have to go to the cargo port and ask around.

So we leave the comfort and friendliness of Caffy’s Hostel, saying goodbye to the new friends who shared the Christmas Eve feast, and take the bus to Guan Lei Port.

The bus winds slowly down small roads through wooded hills planted with acres of rubber trees and plantations of banana trees festooned with long plastic bags, like blue ghosts to protect the fruit.

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Immigration guy sorts us out a boat

Five hours later, we’re dropped off in Guan Lei next to the river. The Port Authority and Customs and Immigration Point is a brand new building with signs for Passport Control, Immigration and what have you but nothing’s happening. It’s totally deserted but for one chap in a smart green uniform who hails us in English. We are definitely encouraged. And with the aid of his phone translation app and my “useful phrases” we get on famously.

“These days there are no passenger boats” This we know.

“There are ships which go to Thailand” Oh good.

“Maybe not today” “What about tomorrow?”

“It depends on the circumstances. You must ask the boat captain” Mekhong boats small

 

 

 

We descend several steep flights of steps to the wide, fast flowing river below, and a scene of fervid activity. There are about 15 cargo boats, some being loaded, some unloaded and some waiting their turn. With the help of by now our favourite customs guy ever we soon find the one which is going to Chiang Saen this very evening.

Now as long as the captain will agree, we are in business. It is conveyed to us that for 500 yuan each including a cabin and food, we can get a lift. It’s not cheap, but we’re not in the mood to argue.

“Are you husband and wife?”

“Your accommodation is being arranged” says his phone screen. Oh Joy!

Teams of what may once have been called “coolies” are loading boxes of Chinese apples from two huge articulated lorries. They are fit and mostly young and although its hard work and the sun is hot, they clearly enjoy it in a gung-ho sort of way. There’s still a hell of a lot of boxes of apples to load so there’s time to look around.

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Lorry loads of Burmese timber

Further along two boats are laden with enormous chunks of timber cut from what must have been huge and ancient trees. These are being lifted by crane onto waiting lorries. Surely this must be breaking all sorts of international laws and agreements about stripping ancient forests from Burma or Laos? The Chinese Customs officers who are everywhere clearly aren’t concerned, even if we are.

Having imagined myself the only female amongst a load of Chinese sailors, I am mightily relieved when a young woman carrying bags of food whizzes up on a motorbike and steps on board. She sets to work in the galley and is clearly the cook. It turns out she’s also the captain’s wife and willingly gets stuck in to securing tarps and ropes. Once the apples are all on board, we formally emigrate from China along with the crew of four- the captain, the cook, engine-room guy and pilot guy. Strangely, at no time at all has anyone so much as looked at our backpacks. If this is such a reputed hotspot for illegal trafficking, I’ve spotted a loophole!

We say “Goodbye” to China at 6.30pm with the hills turning black and the sky pearly white. It’s completely magical and we can’t stop grinning – we’re actually going down the Mekhong!

Before it’s completely dark we pull in and Captain with head torch and machete jumps off to secure the boat for the night. This entails climbing the bank and slashing at jungle branches to find a tree robust enough to rope the boat to.

No sooner is this done than we all sit down to a feast – fried chicken, roast pork, scrambled egg, tomato and cucumber soup (better than it sounds) green veg in oyster sauce, fish soup, and hot chilli sauce. What a Christmas Day! Not much chat though, what with our lamentable Chinese and the noise of the generator.

As long as that’s running, we’ve got lights in our scruffy little cabin but it all goes off at 9.30. The night is very dark and full of strange booming noises whenever the boat rolls with the wind. As soon as it’s light enough in the morning we get going.

Mekhong small 2 Mekhong morning smll

It’s cold and misty for a good 3 hours as we sit up on the bridge watching our progress through wild and empty gorges. In the gorges the river is deep and fast, and there’s more virgin forest on either side than we expected. Elsewhere the river is much wider. The captain and pilot have to pick their way past rocks and shallows. Fortunately, they do this brilliantly. Gradually over the course of the day, the sun breaks through and warms up, boat traffic becomes more frequent and there are more and more signs of habitation on both sides of the river. Laos on the left, Burma on the right. Small herds of buffalo, rubber trees, the odd fisherman, tiny thatched roof stilt houses, barges full of cattle or pigs, low water veg gardens planted in the river banks.

Mekhong village smll Mekhong Jim small

It’s just a perfect day that neither of us wants to end. However everything has to, and at 5pm Burma finally gives way to the north coast of Thailand across a side river. And to confirm it, there’s the “Welcome To The Golden Triangle” theme park with its towering Golden Buddha.

All too soon we have docked alongside the other Chinese cargo boats at Chiang Saen. We clamber over loaded decks, down a wobbly gangplank and onto Thai soil! Now there are just a few bewildered Immigration officers to negotiate and a lift in a Police pick-up 5 miles back upstream to the official Immigration Point (Thank you to another totally helpful Immigration official!) to be properly stamped in.

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Back in Thailand

And that’s it, we’ve done it! In many ways much easier and less scary than I imagined, and in many ways so much more exciting and beautiful than I could ever have guessed.

 

 

An indigo dyed jacket with hand embroidered back made by an Akha woman in Xishuangbanna, southwestern China.

The areas to the north and west of Jinghong are where the famous Pu’er tea is grown so we head out west. Menghun is billed as a pleasant village so it seems like a good place to start. But when we get off the bus at a bleak crossroad with tractors, construction trucks and motorbikes screaming past, we have one of those “What the hell are we doing here?” moments, that we have occasionally.

There’s not a lot to do in the evenings in Menghun, so once we’ve eaten we get into bed with a good book. An hour or so later a cacophonous din erupts – our hotel is obviously running a karaoke night. Distorted sound, tuneless singing, very bad Chinese pop, these we can just about put up with but when a party of men start shouting incoherently and are evidently intent on getting very, very drunk and fairly violent just outside our bedroom door, we reckon it’s time to cut our losses and run.

We get up, pack up and ship out into the freezing night in search of some more salubrious lodgings.

This turned out to be a very good decision. The next hotel we find may be above another extremely loud karaoke bar but it is run by an ex Primary school headmistress and we feel we are in safe hands here. She is not going to put up with any drunken shenanigans from what are probably her ex-pupils. She is only slightly fazed at finding two middle-aged foreigners in coats and PJs on her doorstep at midnight. She phones her english speaking friend and goes to make up some beds for us.

To cut a long story short, this friend is Echo from Hong Kong who is a volunteer for an educational NGO. She is here on a six monthly visit to see the students they sponsor and she invites us to join her and her partner Wendy.

The following 2 days turn into a complete education for us too!

Dai women in the early morning chill

Dai women in the early morning chill

We start in the cold early morning visiting Dai and Bulang minority people who live in villages in the surrounding lowlands, then as the day warms up go onto poor Han Chinese families who rent land to grow tea and coffee, and finally as the sun and temperatures drop we go further up in the mountains and to villages of Akha and Lahu people.

 

Early morning mist

Early morning mist

The families have one thing in common; they are all poor enough to need help to be able to keep their children in school. Although China has a policy of 9 years compulsory (and free) education, many village children live so far from a High School they have to do weekly boarding which means money is needed for food and transport.

We hear stories of one parent families struggling to cope, fathers whose wives have run off, mothers whose husbands have committed suicide (swallowing herbicide is evidently the method of choice around here) aged grandparents bringing up children, handicaps, accidents and sickness, strokes, leg ulcers, kidney infections, drunkenness, beatings, casual labour, unemployment, prison, drug use, divorce and abandonment. Through it all the students are managing to stay at school and some even go on to further education with the help of this charity.

Echo (right) and Wendy at work

Echo (right) and Wendy at work

Echo is the official Mandarin speaker who has to get enough information on family income and circumstances and the kid’s school grades to get them another year’s funding. Wendy is the local who manhandles that minibus up some barely driveable roads, doles out anti-biotics and second hand clothes and chats to the parents and kids in language they understand. Together they make a formidable pair and my admiration for them grows the longer we see them in action.

We are usually silent observers although sometimes we are pressed into service to say something in english and try to get a response from the kids. Its a bit different in the Akha village though – here we receive big hugs and handfuls of chestnuts from the women of the family and soon they and their neighbours are intent on selling us something. It’s not often that foreigners stray into these parts and they’re not taking “No” for an answer. I buy a bag with coins and beads from a neighbour, Jim buys some embroidered Akha leg warmers from another old lady and then the schoolgirl’s grandma presses a jacket on me. She’s about the same age as me and she says she made the jacket when she was 18. It’s black with dirt and smoke but the embroidery looks great and I feel lucky to be able to contribute to the family finances and get something so special into the bargain.

Inside an Akha house - Jim looks at the fired birds with some horror!

Inside an Akha house – Jim looks at the deep-fried songbirds with some horror!

Inside a Lahu house.

Inside a Lahu house.

Everywhere we go, we are offered tea – handfuls of dried black twigs which slowly unfurl into large dark green leaves in the boiling water. Through the day we are given handfuls of oranges, bags of monkey nuts, strange fruit which look like turnips, peel like mushrooms and taste like watery pears, chicken soup with the whole chicken, claws, beak and beady little eyes included, more oranges, little sour crab apples with chilli sugar to dip it in, roasted chestnuts and (to Jim’s disgust) small, whole, deep-fried birds.

Halfway through lunch on the first day Wendy and Echo mention that they have recently been driver and guide for a BBC programme – yes with a woman called Sue Perkins. Have you heard of her? Have I heard of her??? Only one of my favourite presenters from one of my favourite progs The Great British Bake Off!!!

Well fancy! Back in March, they took Sue and the BBC film crew around Xishuangbanna for 3 days, initiating them tino the famous Dai water splashing festival (an annual event which is now recreated for tourists twice a day in Jinghong!) and introducing them to an Akha woman called Miss Li, who features in the programme. “We’ll call her if you would like to meet up with her” they say!

Miss Li in her wonderful shop (and in her wonderful leather trousers)

Miss Li in her wonderful shop (and in her wonderful leather trousers)

So that’s how come the following evening we are sitting drinking tea out of tiny cups and eating tangerines in Miss Li’s shop at the foot of one of the famous Tea Mountains. We can’t help but notice some very tasty Akha tribal wear on sale.

Miss Li (as they call her) is quite a character who is intent on buying more land and opening a guesthouse up the mountain. I’m pretty sure she’ll manage it. It’s not long before we have talked ourselves into buying three jackets, all beautifully hand stitched, probably by the mothers or grandmothers of local Akha women. They are all much cleaner and probably better quality than the one I bought the day before, but that’s the one I’ll keep. It was made by a woman I met in one of the villages I visited as part of an amazing two days – welcomed into homes and given an incredible insight into the lives of other people.

The minibus made it through this! Echo and Wendy called this an TIC moment (This is China)

Wendy actually drove the minibus through this! Echo called this a TIC moment (This is China)

 

Dai weaving

Hand woven Dai cotton mattress cover with a traditional design of peacocks and elephants

The journey to southern Yunnan to find the source of the tea for the Tea Horse Road is, like many things in China, hilarious, infuriating and wonderful.  It’s also a bit disgusting.

It’s pretty hilarious getting into bed and reclining on our berths at 9.30 in the morning as we board the sleeper bus. Then the various shenanigans of the bus driver and his mates are hilarious as they dodge the bus company inspectors and take on board first a load of huge spring onions (loose), followed later by dozens of motorbike tyres (loaded into the beds in the back when they run out of boot space) and finally several rattan baskets of live chickens.

It’s infuriating when we bump over tiny dirt roads and get stuck in village markets on our 15 hour journey and when we go at least 20 kms out of our way to deliver tyre man and his wife off at the wrong end of the toll way.

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The sleeper bus

It’s wonderful when we pass through amazing mountain scenery, scenes of rural life and terraced rice fields.

And it’s disgusting when we stop at some of the most horrendous public toilets China has yet come up with (and believe me that’s going some) The toilets at both meal stops are right next to the pig stys, and there’s plenty of pork on the menu!

But then again it’s wonderful that for around 20 quid we can experience all that and really its not long before we are in Xishuangbanna region- China’s tropical south and the start of the Tea Road.

Jinghong is the capital of the region and it’s one of the most pleasant cities I have been to in China. The size, the number, the variety and just the utter splendidness of the trees which line the streets is enough to convince you that this must be a lovely place to live. Conversations with residents suggest that indeed it was, until the last few years. A familiar story of far too much development, massive apartment blocks expanding the town, and inappropriate tourist infrastructure.

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Nevertheless enough of the old feel remains in the lush parks and gardens, the shady streets and the wide Mekhong river banks.

The “hong” part of Jinghong means peacock and peacocks and elephants appear all over the town (symbolically, that is) We have come to visit a small village on the edge of town where the traditional house eaves sport the Dai symbol of the elephant’s tusk and the peacock’s head feathers.

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

The last of the Dai weavers?

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Mrs Shui demonstrates how lac is pounded to make a red dye

The reason for our visit here is to meet a Dai weaver. The Dais are very close cousins of the Thai Lue people who now live in northern Thailand and the supplementary weft weaving they use for making their sarongs and household textiles is very similar. Except of course, nowadays almost everyone just goes to market and buys a machine made skirt or sarong. Everywhere in China, traditional crafts like hand weaving are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, more as an object of curiosity than anything. However, coming under the general budget of “Tourism” there is Heritage Money available! Even as we speak, a “Dai Traditional Weavers Tourism Destination” is being built in the village where all the weavers will go to work. I can’t help wondering who will come and buy their stuff. Maybe only people like me?

Mrs Shui is about 50 and was taught to weave by her Grandmother. Now she is teaching other girls and women and there are presently 60 looms in the village. The loom she uses is quite simple with a two pedal action making the basic “sheds” and for plain weaving this is enough to make the alternate warp thread go up and down.

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom.

But when she wants to produce patterned cloth, it gets a bit more complicated. A system of bamboo sticks and threads above the loom (we call them “heddles”) which lift certain warp threads is used. To “set” this pattern by carefully counting out the warps and then threading it onto the series of small bamboo sticks is time consuming and a particular skill. Actually only ten of the weavers can do this.

And what about designing a new pattern and working out how this translates to the heddles? Well only Mrs Shui herself can do that. She says she is the last Dai woman in Xishuangbanna who knows how to do it. As I say, these skills are hanging on by a thread – and in this case, literally.Dai weaver heddles small

 

 

 

 

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Hand stitched antique “fish tail” baby’s hat from the Bai minority and hand stitched shoes from Xizhou

Xizhou (it’s pronounced Zee Joe) came highly recommended by a guy from Singapore as “very autentic”. And indeed it is, with its shabby old Bai houses, their white plaster walls hand painted with natural scenes of ducks and cranes, fish and birds, mountains and waterfalls. Our hotel is in one corner of the old cobbled square surrounded by low wooden shop houses. It was once a Yang Family Mansion (one of the four “big” Bai families) and still keeps retains an air of “shabby chic”.

The main square in old Xizhou

The main square in old Xizhou

In the square there are cook shops and little seats here you can sit and eat a variety of take away foods – our favourites are “Cross the bridge noodles” and hot savoury bread cooked on griddles over burning coals. There’s also a sweet old guy with a couple of tables in a sunny spot selling real Yunnan coffee for only 10 yuan a cup! This place is great!

Some of the Bai gardens

Some of the Bai gardens

A bike ride along the shore of Lake Erhai shows us “the good life” Bai style. It’s a little paradise with small market gardens growing all kinds of crops; beans, cabbages, cauliflowers, pak choi and other Chinese greens, spring onions, strawberries, oranges, parsley, mint… and a bird population of hoopoes, kites, shrikes and wagtails (according to Jim!)

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washing the crops in a communal pool

 

The lake provides fish, and the incredible backdrop of the Cangshan Mountains provides scenery and plenty of water to fill the lake and irrigate the fields. These country people live in sturdy white walled villages, a maze of interconnected shady narrow streets with never a straight line. Bai villages, we have found, are incredibly easy to get lost in… you follow a lane confidently until it ends up in someone’s courtyard and you are forced to retreat back through the maze.

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Pictures on the walls show fishing with cormorants

 

Many of the crops grown in this area end up in the restaurants of nearby Dali – a town extremely popular with Chinese tourists. With all the wonderful displays outside, you don’t need a menu, you just tell them what you want (or point in our case) and they cook it for you.

Husband and wife team - she rows, he fishes!

Husband and wife team – she rows, he fishes!

Back in town, I am poking about in a shop selling antique bits and pieces. What with the Lake and the fish and all, my eye is caught by a display of hand embroidered baby hats with their fish-tail backs. The guy speaks some English with the aid of his well-thumbed phrase book – he points at “This price is very reasonable” I point at “It’s more than I am willing to pay” and we take it from there.

One of the hats has two tiny pockets sewn on the front containing tiny fish teeth. He tells me that the fish is a sign of prosperity and good luck for the Bai people, and I am happy to take his word for it.

Only a generation ago, Bai women spent a good portion of their lives embroidering, so what is filling that gap now that they buy ready made clothes? Even the traditional styles are made with machine made embroidery.

Well, the young women (like the young guys) are busily employed with their smart phones, which clearly take up almost all of their time. The older women keep busy with knitting or cross stitching big pictures and some older women still make embroidered baby shoes to sell.

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Bai woman’s flowery bonnet – now just printed fabric

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The older Bai women may still embroider their aprons

 

The baby carriers still look great even though they are no longer stitched by hand.

The baby carriers still look great even though they are no longer stitched by hand.

Things are changing very fast in China – really fast. The lake shore is being developed relentlessly. Some construction is funded by the ubiquitous Yunnan Rural Credit Co-operatives which loans money to individuals, but a lot of it is on a much bigger scale. There are big, swanky hotels going up by the Lake and huge apartment blocks, and over on the eastern shore a whole new city is waiting under its green construction wrappers for potential “investors”.

Traditional Bai embroidery has all but disappeared in a generation, and it seems certain that the Bai pleasant lake-side way of life of farming and fishing is disappearing fast too. How can it withstand the pressures of this terrifically fierce Tiger economy?

 

Carrying straps for humans or animals from Shaxi Market

Carrying straps for humans or animals from Shaxi Market

Tea Horse Road Part I Tiger-Leaping Gorge

“The Tea Horse Road” has a good ring to it, and it’s a big deal in these parts – with something of the same mystique as the Silk Route. And just like the Silk Route, it’s not actually just one road. Generally the road leads from the Tea Mountains further south up through Yunnan and out to Tibet and maybe onwards to India or Burma. Goods were traded on its path – the most famous being (as you may have guessed) tea and horses. The tea came from those southern tea-producing hills and the horses came from Tibet. Tibet wanted tea and China wanted horses, so it made sense. Other things like salt, copper and silk also made their way along the road. The southern Silk Route which begins up north in the ancient Kingdom (now Province) of Sichuan also joins the Tea Horse Route for some of the way.

We have been hiking in “Tiger Leaping Gorge” a towering gorge of the Yangtze River where through the centuries, caravans of horses many carrying packs of dried black and green tea would have wound their way slowly into Tibet. There are still horses there now but they are mostly used to haul weary tourists up the steepest parts of the trail.

Before we were even off the bus we are stung for 65 yuan each (£6.50) The Chinese Tourism Administration is ubiquitous and ever vigilant – no one shall climb these mountains or see glorious sights without paying for it!

Leaving our rucksacks in a handy guesthouse we start on the trail – to find that it has been turned into a dirt road. We are enveloped in clouds of dust as construction lorries drive past every few minutes. I’m having just another of those “I hate China” moments. It’s not good enough that roads have been built and tunnels blasted through both sides of the river along the foot of the mountains, now they want to make a road on the hiking trail too. Because of a landslide and huge bulldozers in the way, the first part of our hike takes much longer than it should but once we finally leave all the earth moving behind, it’s worth it!

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The start of the trail

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Looking down into the gorge of the Yangtze River

 

The first guesthouse we come to is the Naxi Family Guesthouse where we stop for lunch and its sooo lovely that we find it hard to leave. The sun is warm, the family is friendly, the views are stunning, the food is delicious and generous, and rooms are available. So why not stay the night?

Naxi Family Guesthouse

Naxi Family Guesthouse

 

 

 

 

 

and as night falls...

and as night falls…

 

I can’t get enough of the snowy mountains above us and as evening comes and the cold descends, it becomes a magical haven. Ah yes it’s one of those “I Love China” moments.

 

 

The next day is the day to tackle the “agonising 28 bends” which the Rough Guide speaks of – all the way to the top. However…. there are horses and this might just be the time to engage a couple – money into the local economy and all that PLUS we get to ride a horse on the Tea Horse Road!!!

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It’s tough on the back of a rather recalcitrant horse. He keeps stopping to snaffle grass, he doesn’t want to go up the steep bits (and who can blame him) and he will take a detour whenever he can – luckily impossible most of the time. With cajoling from his young owner, me, and Jim’s steadier horse behind we eventually reach the top and hand over our money – totally exciting and totally worth every yuan!

Amazing views… and an amazing sheer drop to the Yangtze River 800 metres below. The horses and traders of long ago would have had many more hundreds of miles to go into the foothills of the Himalayas to reach their destinations in Tibet.

stall small On the way down a woman has set up her stall – the usual… honey tea, Nescafé, Snickers, fruit, marijuana….

The Tea -Horse Road Part II – Shaxi

Leaving the Gorge which a Tiger Leapt Across (once, apparently), we have travelled 100 kms. south to the “hamlet” of Shaxi, (in other words a small town in China). Shaxi is famous as one of just three remaining “Tea Horse Oases” surrounded by fertile grazing for the horses and where provisions could be stocked up in the market.

It’s actually market day when we arrive and the main street is full of stalls. We find “The Tea Horse Caravan Trail Inn” down a cobbled alleyway between the mud brick traditional houses, and decide that’s where we have to stay. It’s a delight with its two plant filled courtyards and a view of rooftops, hills and a splendid persimmon tree.

shaxi pers shaxis

Breakfasts are somewhat freezing but very generous and unusual. No-where in the town has heating and we, along with everyone else, have to get used to eating with coats and jackets on and just sticking it out.

Shaxi was in a state of dilapidation until 2008 when some Swiss Foundation began an ambitious project to fund its restoration and generate income from tourism without destroying the town, the environment or the lives of the locals. They seem to have done a pretty good job – local people clearly live here in the old streets and there is a life to the town beyond tourism. The old square is jaw-droppingly picturesque with its ancient and exotic three storied theatre building opposite an even older temple, all surrounded by wooden buildings and horses tethered in the middle.

We’re no longer in the realm of the Naxi people and are now in Bai territory. Bai houses are still based on a design of three buildings surrounding a courtyard (one for people, one for animals and one for storage of food and fodder) They’re substantial with a couple of courses of big square stones below walls made of mud bricks, topped with grey roof tiles. Around here, the Bai women don’t distinguish themselves much costume-wise round although the old biddies wear a dark blue turban and an indigo blue apron with two blue straps whose white embroidery is an echo of the Naxi.

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A Bai woman wearing a shibori stitch resist indigo cap and some Yi women from a village near Shaxi, both at Shaxi market day

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The Shaxi Bai people are great at storing food – lots of hams, salami, maize, chillis and persimmons!

The most appropriate textile to buy here seemed to be woven straps. I found them at a stall selling the wonderfully practical “rucksack” baskets. Women use these all the time for carrying shopping (I am really tempted to get one for popping down to the Co-op) or for bringing produce back from the fields. If the load is particularly heavy, like big loads of firewood or fodder the strap goes over the forehead. The straps are tough and hand woven probably made in just the same way that Turkish women make their straps, on ground warp looms.

straps

Shaxi has enchanted us and Jim reckons he could stay a year or so. Life is generally pretty good, and the fields provide natural abundance. Perhaps that’s because, as we have discovered, although the Swiss wanted to adopt more modern sanitary arrangements, the local people “were reluctant to relinquish their faecal matter”. Well it obviously works!

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A pair of calico cotton straps with machine embroidered ends and seven hand stitched discs-

part of a Naxi woman’s cape.

Having an interest in textiles is a great thing! It could be anything though – food, markets, birds, architecture, music, whatever… it gives you a focus and a reason to travel beyond the usual tourist haunts.

The city of Lijiang is the centre of the Naxi people (one of Yunnan Province’s 26 “minorities”) and its old town is an absolute mecca for Chinese tour groups. It’s a charming and picturesque place but begins to lose its charm after a while. The crowds, the souvenir shops, the la-la land prices, the “selfie sticks” for God’s sake!*

But remembering the guiding principal of my blog, I decided to find a traditional textile of some sort here. And this led me to taking a proper look at what the Naxi women are wearing, talking to people (or at least trying) and poking about in the local market.

All of these are much more rewarding than walking through the narrow cobbled streets lined with shops selling variations on a theme of dried yak meat, discs of raw black tea, Naxi “traditional snacks”, machine embroidered bags, tat, trinkets and hair braids.

We’ve been in China just a couple of days, arriving into Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. We were reminded immediately that we are now functionally dumb, deaf and illiterate. There is nothing between us and the great mass of spoken and written Chinese but our trusty “Get By in Chinese” phrase book.

With this we managed to find the railway station (first new word learnt) the city centre is clean, modern and the traffic actually flows (how unlike our dear Bangkok). At the station we are pushed through the first of several airport-style scanning machines for selves and baggage. It’s really not too surprising that security has been stepped up, as in just March this year eight Uighur separatists ran amok with knives and machetes killing 29 and injuring over 100 people- right here in this station.

Armed with our carefully prepared phrases we book ourselves an overnight 2nd class “hard” sleeper for Lijiang. We’ve now got time for a stroll through the streets and parks of sunny Kunming.

The Chinese are a damned sociable bunch – they like nothing better than to get out and sit in the streets playing cards or mah jong with their friends and neighbours. They also might indulge in a little ballroom dancing or even karaoke. The young woman we are treated to, produces some sounds which I swear are not on any scale of music, even of the oriental persuasion, that I’ve heard before.

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As darkness falls we make our way back to the station, dodging the electric scooters which sneak up on you without a sound, their drivers encased in their cosy “scooter duvets”. Around the station some of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities sell fruit, hot sweet potatoes, grilled kebabs and sweetcorn. The train’s on time (of course) and we claim our bunks and get our heads down for the night.

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Lights are switched on at 6 am and the Chinese pop music onslaught begins. When we roll into the old city in Lijiang it’s still dark and very cold as we walk through the deserted and impossibly picturesque cobbled streets. It seems too good to be true. Indeed it is, as much of Lijiang was destroyed in an earthquake in 1996. It was rebuilt in traditional style and this led to the old city being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status a couple of years later. This in turn has led to a huge flood of tourists which seems to threaten the very place they have come to see.

I didn’t know any of this at 7am but I was keen on some breakfast somewhere warm so was mighty glad to finally see an open doorway and to step into a courtyard which could be a film set for one of those Chinese historical dramas. Smiling Naxi women brew us up some hot tea and we are captivated and ready and willing to stump up the princely sum of around £26 for a room fit for minor royalty – complete with underfloor heating, ancient carved furniture and china tea services. We’ve even got fluffy bathrobes, and a waterfall shower!

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The Naxi people are smaller, browner and much gentler than the rather loud “Weh hey we’re on holiday” Han Chinese who hunt in packs and sport enormous hats (cowboy or floppy) enormous cameras and unsuitable shoes.

We catch up with a bit of every day Naxi culture in one of the squares where people sit in the sun, play cards, or enjoy a little communal dancing. Two rival sound systems are set up – one for more traditional circle dancing and the other for line dancing. Both are very popular. This is where I get my chance to properly study what the old ladies are wearing. There’s usually a dark blue cap, a pleated apron and a rather complicated “back apron” or cape affair. This is made of a sheep skin covered with layers of black, blue and then white fabric tied with two long white straps with embroidered ends. On the back are seven embroidered discs.

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I asked the women at the hotel if they ever wear traditional costume and one laughed and said “when I was 22 and got married!” They tell me there are still a few places in the market where you can buy the full rig including the sheep skin back (which is actually very practical as it keeps you warm on those cold mornings and means you can carry heavy loads more comfortably)

The market is very entertaining – there are mushroom specialists, drunken men in fur hats, chilli pounding machines, and all manner of strange roots and dried and fried and pickled things.

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After a while I track down my specialist Naxi outfit- making woman. I don’t want to carry the whole shebang so compromise by buying just the decorative straps and the “seven stars”.

Reading up on this I’ve discovered that the seven discs represent the moon and stars and signify the great regard that the Naxi have for hard work and diligence. In other words they reckon a good woman works from early morning til late at night. The line dancers and card players don’t seem to agree!

Even more interesting is that fact that the Naxi have an incredibly complex system of spiritual beliefs called “Dongba” (a name which also refers to their hieroglyphic script and their cultural guardians) They are the last living people in the world with a surviving aforementioned hieroglyphic script – even though it’s now only read by their aforementioned cultural guardians.

Yes having an interest in textiles is a great thing. Even somewhere like Lijiang becomes so interesting!

*You put your smart phone on a special extension stick and carry it around in front of you so that you can take photos of yourself at any time! The perfect invention for the self-obsessed youth of the one child policy generation!

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Naxi traditional tailor with the seven star cape behind her and embroidered apron straps hanging up

An old woman in a doorway in Lijiang and young girls dressed in their national dress to sell “special Naxi products”

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