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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!!!

TLG small TLG s

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

salami small corn small chillis small persimon small

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!

Shaxi (31) Shaxi small

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Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.

Exactly!

Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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Tibetan SeamstressLangmusi is a Tibetan village surrounded by superb grasslands where nomadic people herd their yaks and sheep, and some very high mountains with snowy peaks.

The village is half in Gansu and half in Sichuan and the White Dragon River marks the boundary. There’s a monastery on either side of the river – and each of them charges you 30¥ (3 quid) to walk up their side of the valley! Apart from this rather un-Buddhist behaviour (according to Jim – the laughing monks who took our money didn’t seem to mind) it’s a very nice place to stay with its small town vibes.

The monasteries have metal-roofed temples and narrow streets with small white houses for the monks. On the top of almost every hill there’s a prayer flag beacon and one or two are “sky burial” sites. It’s a Tibetan custom to leave the dead on top of a mountain where the body will be eaten by vultures. It sounds a bit gruesome, but actually I don’t think it’s a bad idea – it’s certainly no worse than ours anyway.

We have spent two perfect days climbing high mountains and beating our personal altitude levels to get above the herds of yaks to some absolutely amazing views. Best of all are the huge vultures wheeling overhead – maybe looking out for some sky burial fodder?

Tibetan vulture

At one point two of them fly right out from under us, so that we are looking down on their huge tawny bodies and black tipped wings. We are extremely excited!

YaksTibetan vulture

Next day we wake to snow and freezing temperatures. What to do in a hotel room without heating (just electric blankets) in a little village with not a lot going on?

MonksBundled up locals

The locals just bundle themselves up even more than usual, but the monks (especially the little boys) in their robes look freezing and nobody really wants to go far from their stove.

The answer is to get into a warm café, first making sure that they have a stove on and a Tibetan tea and tsampadoor that shuts and start trying out various menu items.

I don’t fancy yak butter tea (I was put off by the rancid smell of the yak butter candles in the temple) but yak meat is pretty good – slightly tough but as good as Aberdeen Angus steak, and yak burgers are definitely recommended. Cups of tea are made by pouring boiling water over a variety of strange foliage which just gets in your teeth, and traditional Tibetan tea is like a flippin’ pot pourri. I can report that tea bags are not something either the Tibetans or the Chinese seem to go in for and are unavailable for love or money. Afternoon tea may be accompanied by tsampa, a Tibetan staple of roasted barley either made into porridge or moulded into balls. It’s really delicious and reminds me strongly of Weetabix.

The other thing I can do is shop for my ideal Tibetan robe. I’ve been studying them carefully on everyone who walks past and have decided the style I’d like. Trouble is Tibetans in tibetan robesLangmusi is not exactly huge and there are only two fabric shops where you can have them sewn to suit. But I like the look of the Tibetan lady sewing away in one of them and she has a persuasive way with her, so although neither of us speaks a word of each other’s language, a deal is struck. Swayed by the cold weather I am talked into the winter style with a warm woolly fleece lining. Then I just need to choose the border and it’s all sewn on there and then.

A Tibetan robe can be worn in all sorts of ways, they’re a very versatile garment – big enough to cover your head if it rains, to snuggle up in when it’s cold, and to carry babies or shopping in if necessary. Very rarely are both sleeves worn; once it’s tightly wrapped and secured with a sash, you pull your right arm out of its sleeve, and this hangs down the back held by a belt in a decorative fashion. When the weather gets warm, the other arm comes out too and this sleeve is wrapped round the waist.

Time to try on my new robe. My rather severe Tibetan seamstress wraps me up firmly and once she has got me properly attired, a big smile lights up her face. She gives me the thumbs up – clearly I have been transformed from a tourist into a recognisable human being!

Diane and Jim on a Tibetan hill

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