Well, over a week into my Northwestern Yunnan Field-Trip, and I’m stuck in the hotel. Why, you ask? I never knew I could be so affected by altitude sickness. Currently, I am in Zhongdian, otherwise known as Shangri-la, which is well above 3,000 meters. Altitude sickness is when your body takes a little while adjusting to the higher altitude. Also, when you already have a cold, altitude sickness only makes it worse. The causes are not well known; in addition, the rate of ascent, altitude attained, amount of physical activity at higher altitude, as well as individual susceptibility are contributing factors to high altitude illness. Symptoms start six to eight hours after ascent, and it can take up to two to three days to gets over the symptoms. Problems I had, up until an hour ago, headache, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, light-headedness, shortness of breath, and drowsiness.
So that is basically what I’m dealing while writing this long overdue blog.
My trip started with a long bus ride to Weishan County, which is a Yi and Hui Autonomous County. Weishan City was actually the first capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom until it was moved to the ancient city of Dali. This was formed during the Tang Dynasty. The Nanzhao Kingdom is made up of many ethnic and linguistic groups and has over a 300-year history that started in Weishan City. King Xinuluo founded this Kingdom in Weishan. Weishan served as the capital for 94 years until it was moved to Dali. Weishan is an old source of Dali culture. Currently, Weishan has a population of 300,000 people with 23 different Nationalities. Yi and Hui ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population. In order to become an Autonomous Region in China there are certain requirements. For a one ethnic minority Autonomous Region, 40% of the population has to be one minority. For a two minority Autonomous Region, 55% of the population has to be a combination of two minorities. Weishan is a place with a long history, splendid variety of culture, harmonious ethnic relations, and awe-inspiring scenic beauty.
After a very long, windy bus ride, we arrive at Weibaoshan National Nature Preserve. There are about twenty-five Daoist temples on this one mountain. Weibaoshan is one of the most famous Daoist sacred mountains in China. Daoism is a religion where a goal is to be in sync with nature and mother earth. About half an hour hike up the mountain is the temple where I met a female Daoist monk. This woman has devoted her whole life to being a monk. She has been trained in pure Daoist-style wall hangings. She sells these paintings in order to bring some income to the temple and herself. This is one of the only ways for temples to make money because of the Chinese government’s three self rules (self-propagating, self-administrating, and self-supporting). Weibaoshan is also known as the Mighty Bird Pass, which is considered to be one of the best places in the world for migratory bird watching.
Up on a holy mountain at night, no light pollution or excess noise, it was the most beautiful, peaceful experience I’ve had in a while. I could see the big dipper so clearly over the tree line, that it was wonderful. A few friends of mine slept outside under the stars. The sky that night was crystal clear and breathtaking.
Shaxi Village is a cluster of ten to fifteen villages in a valley in Jianchuan County. This village has great historical significance because it was a significant trading stop on the ancient tea and horse caravan road and the southern silk road. It was by these two roads that Buddhism was brought from India, which is shown by the uniquely Indian influenced Buddhist and Nanzhao kingdom grottoes, statues and temples of nearby Shibaoshan. The Southern Silk Road Trade Route linked Burma to Yunnan and Yunnan to Tibet. Shaxi has one of the largest and most well preserved markets on this trade route. Shaxi is also famous for its woodcarvings. You can see this clearly in the old style Bai architecture.
Shaxi Village is currently going through a multi-phased initiative in cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County. It is called the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project. The Rehabilitation Project seeks to enhance infrastructure, modernize facilities, and protect the environment.
Shaxi was where I had a rural homestay. My house was very close to the old market square by the big tree in the center of town. My homestay family are rice farmers. The house-complex I lived in was quite large, with at least five bedrooms, a center courtyard, a kitchen with no running water, a shower room, and then an area to keep the animals (pigs, rabbits, goats, and roosters). My two parents were the heads of the household. They had two sons. One of them lived in the same house and is unmarried, and the other one is married and is a truck driver. His wife lives with his parents and they have a one and a half year old daughter, who is the center of attention in this house. During the day the men are not generally home, but the women stay and take care of the house and the children. Since Shaxi is a Bai village, the entire family is of the Bai ethnic minority.
From everything that I saw in Shaxi village and the surrounding areas, Shaxi is pretty well off for a rural setting. The Shaxi Rehabilitation Project has encouraged tourism in this little town, which has given a little more income to the surrounding areas. People in the old town have been encouraged to keep guest rooms in order to accommodate the influx of tourists in the area. Most villagers view tourism as a good thing instead of viewing tourism as exploiting the local culture.
Shibaoshan is one of the mountains next to Shaxi Village. With my SIT group, we stayed overnight at one of the Buddhist temples. These mountains are inhabited by thousands of monkeys, who were very friendly. During the day, after hiking up to the top of the mountain with some friends, we went back to the Buddhist dorm complex where we stayed that night. Huang Laoshi, one of the SIT professors, saw a few monkeys on the roof and got some peanuts to give them. Within minutes about twenty monkeys, some with little babies clutching to their bellies, came into the center courtyard begging for more food. They fought with each other, challenged each other, and got really friendly with any human who had food. The interesting thing about these monkeys is that they knew when you were scared of them. They could sense fear.
Another funny story is that when my friends and I were standing in front of the dorm complex, Sara was holding a bottle of Pepsi very loosely in her hands. One of the medium sized male monkeys sneaked up on her, grabbed her bottle, and ran to a ledge. We spent about twenty minutes sitting there watching this monkey try to open it. He would tilt the bottle around and try to open whichever end of the bottle that had the liquid in it. The bottle had the attention of every monkey in the area, and several tried to steal it from the monkey who had it. In order to encourage the monkey with the bottle, Jeff tried showing him how to open a bottle. The monkey got very annoyed at Jeff and actually charged at him (Hint: don’t look the monkeys in the eyes, they don’t like it!). Someone had the bright idea to let the monkeys try some of the Pepsi, and they loved it. The one monkey who originally had the bottle eventually pierced it with his huge canines, but failed at drinking any of the liquid. The monkeys were the highlight of the of Shibaoshan.
Another site on Shibaoshan are the Shiling grottoes. These are some of the most historically significant grottoes in Southwestern China. They were built during the Nanzhao Kingdom between 700 and 1000 AD. They are some of the first Buddhist images in China that actually have a strikingly Chinese/South Asian look about them instead of the traditional Indian style. During the Cultural Revolution, a political leader saved these grottoes from destruction with military friends in high places who stopped the students from destroying this important piece of traditional Chinese history. One of the statues in the area is of a female genitalia that looks remarkably like Shiva’s linga-yoni. Women still pour oil onto this statue to pray for pregnancy.
Zhongdian County is located in Deqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and has a population of only about 130,000 people. Tibetans primarily inhabit it because it borders Tibet. It was renamed Shangri-La in 2001 after the James Hilton novel ‘Lost Horizons’ 1933 Shangri-La. This was an attempt to promote tourism, and it worked. This area therefore has three names: Zhongdian is the Chinese name, Shangri-La is the official name to promote tourism, and Gyalthang is the Tibetan name.
In Zhongdian, even though I was sick the entire time, I did meet a few people of note: Master Lobsang Khedup and Dakpa Kelden. Dakpa is the Jack-of-all-Trades in Zhongdian. He owns two restaurants, one travel agency, and also runs the Shangri-La Association of Cultural Preservation and the Tibetan Thangka Academy. Dakpa is a Tibetan who spent a great deal of time in India and a few months in the United States. He was the most relaxed, easy going, generous man I have ever met. His name in Tibetan means the roar of a tiger or famous. And both of the meanings suit him. I really wish I had a better way of explaining how much fun he made us have, and the way he would dance a little dance and say Dakpa Dakpa Dakpa… but Dakpa is the kind of person you have to see to believe.
Master Lobsang Khedup is a Tibetan born in Dongwan village near Zhongdian. He is the senior Thangka Academy instructor. Thangka is a kind of Buddhist painting, and this Master is a very talented painter. He began to study Thangka painting at the age of seven under his first master. At the age of fourteen, he traveled to a Buddhist Monastery in Southern India for further religion and painting study. He has studied oil painting, Thangka painting, Chinese-style painting, and Indian Kangra painting in addition to studying Buddhism because he has become a monk. Master Lobsang Khedup allied himself with Dakpa, an old friend, in 2006 and they formed the Tibetan Thangka Academy. Their goal is to preserve the Tibetan Culture of the Zhongdian region.
Lijiang is a prefecture-level city with just over a million people. Lijiang’s Old Town is located in Lijiang City and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This town has over 800 years of history and was once a stop on the ancient Tea and Horse Road. Lijiang’s Old Town is well known for its ordered walkways, waterways, and bridges. Lijiang’s largest ethnic minority is the Naxi people (pronounced Na-khi). In old town it is required that all the storekeepers where ethnic Naxi dress. Over the last few hundred years, the Naxi population has remained around 300,000 people. Naxi culture is called Dongba culture after their religion. Dongba script is one of the world’s most well preserved pictographic writing systems.
While in Lijiang, we met a blind religious Dongba, or fortuneteller. This Dongba told three fortunes: mine, Sara’s, and Huang Laoshi’s. He told me and Sara about marriage in general. He told Sara that she would marry her third boyfriend. He told me that I would only be happily married after the age of thirty. And he told Huang Laoshi that within a year she would have a baby girl. Lu Yuan, my Academic Director with SIT, told us all that this Dongba has never been wrong in his predictions. Interesting to think about…
Dali Ancient City is an ancient Bai minority city and the old capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom. It is next to Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain. Dali is also on the Ancient Tea and Horse Trade Route. Dali is the city that the Mongolians invaded and brought Yunnan Province into Chinese Territory. Today, the government does not allow modern buildings to be built inside the walls of ancient Dali. Instead there is a modern city right next to Dali called Xiaguan.