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Posts Tagged ‘Yunnan’

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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?

 

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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!!!

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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.

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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.

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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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Indigo shibori or tie dye

Part of an indigo shibori tablecloth

Dali, Yunnan Province, SW China

Dali – long-time hippie paradise– more Japanese organic cafes and groovy backpacker hostels than you can shake a stick at. It’s not hard to see why people have come here and kind of forgotten to go home again.

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Jim in front of his own Peace Cafe

There’s a few of them in our guest house. The owner himself is one – a quiet Australian (yes they do exist!) who has managed to find a way of making a living here by organising dumpling parties and pool tournaments while playing his favourite rock videos. It’s just like “The Vaults” away from home!

This very pleasant little town is just a 15 minute bike ride from the lake shore. In between there are small scale, extremely productive fields. These supply veg to Dali’s seemingly hundreds of eating establishments

Behind the town are the Cang Shan mountains with extremely impressive cable cars, and an amazing paved walk all along the top – we did at least 11 kms of it, and there’s plenty more. Is there nothing the Chinese can’t do? An Expressway method of hill walking!

In spite of the endless coffee and cocktail drinking opportunities, the beautiful surroundings and the very congenial guesthouse company, we are here to work – honestly!

We have come to Dali because this is the area where some of the wonderful deep indigo blue tie dye fabric we sell in our shop is made, and we have come to track it down. We are directed to a village about half an hour away. The population is Bai – another of those 55 Chinese minority groups. The women wear bright pink scarves or disconcertingly flowery headdresses.

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Two Bai ladies in those very popular pink headscarves!

If we had any doubts that we would have trouble tracking down the fabric, they don’t last long. No sooner have we stepped off the bus than we are “taken in hand” by two Bai ladies who beckon us to follow them down small alleyways. Either they make a living kidnapping tourists, or they want to sell us something.

They take us to a couple of houses with big yards where the fabric is made. Inside the smell of indigo tells us we have found the right place and we are confronted by the largest indigo vats I have EVER seen!Very big vat

At these small household factories the designs are marked on to the white cotton in a disappearing yellow dye. This is then farmed out to the locals who stitch and tie thread around the designs. This makes a resist against the dye.woman stitching

Once the design is completely sewn up, it is dyed and then the thread is pulled out to reveal the pattern. The cloth is washed and dried and ready to sell. The Bai seem to have a monopoly on this technique, and the older women sometimes wear bits of it. But mostly it gets made into very nice tablecloths.

Back in Dali we spend a pleasant day negotiating for the very best tablecloths on sale.

   So you see it’s not all swanning about! Hard research has to be done, and even harder haggling, and then what do you think we did? Yes another trip to our old friend China Post.

Old lady in chair

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