Posts Tagged ‘Yunnan Province’



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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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