What’s it like to be at China’s Yunnan Province

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There is a local saying in China’s Yunnan province that languages change every 2.5 kilometres of the road and customs every five.

Look here! 1, 2, 3 Qie zi (it means eggplant but is really the Chinese equivalent of saying cheese)!” And then, click, the camera went off. The lady thanked us and then a few men came forward and asked if they could also have their pictures taken with us. All around us, a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered.

No, my friend and I are not celebrities, though we were certainly experiencing what it feels like to be one in the mountains near Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province. However, the reason why we had drawn such attention is not because of who we were, but what we were wearing. For a fee of 20 Chinese yuan (US$ 3.14), both of us were togged out in traditional Tibetan clothes, complete with a fur hat, just for the fun of it.

After we had had our pictures taken with at least 20 people, I decided that enough was enough and I made a quick exit as my friend was surrounded by more people wanting to take pictures with him. As I stood far away from the madding crowd, I took a breather and
admired the view. And what a stupendous view it was, with the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain reflected upon the amazing turquoise blue colour of the Blue Moon Lake. To complete the picture, there were also yaks that tourists can ride on or have their pictures taken with.

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (also known as Mt Satseto), is located only some 35 km away from the Old Town of Lijiang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had arrived late at night the previous day in Lijiang after a three-hour bus ride from Dali, another ancient town that’s, in my opinion, not as interesting as Lijiang because the entire town looks so new that all authenticity has been scrubbed out of it.

Our first glimpse of Lijiang was by the light of an almost full moon, and the soft yellow glow from shops that were still open at almost 11pm. As we walked along the cobbled streets, passing by rustic wooden buildings and gushing canals, my friend declared that Lijiang could be his favourite destination ever. And this was within 10 minutes of his arrival.

But will the town bear up to scrutiny in harsh daylight? We were about to find out.

As we emerged onto the streets of the Old Town the next morning, the enchantment of the previous night had been diminished somewhat as the place was extremely touristy. Every shop in the Old Town seemed to cater to tourists, and to tourists only (a local told me that he visits the Old Town only once a year). But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

While Lijiang is full of tourists, these tourists tend to gather in the same places such as the Old Market Square and the few paths leading away from it. However, Lijiang’s maze of cobbled streets will reward those who explore its less well-trodden paths. As we made our way through its dizzying labyrinth of cobblestone alleys, we came across kids playing catch and even locals washing their vegetables in the many streams that dissect the Old Town.

We spent a memorable evening at a concert of ancient music performed by members of the Naxi ethnic group. The Naxis are an ethnic minority inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province. Wearing colourful robes and sporting Confuciuslike beards, members of the Naxi Orchestra, some of whom were above the age of 80, played a type of Taoist temple music known as Dongjing that has been lost elsewhere in China. While the ancient music did not sound too exciting to my untrained ear, it was the sight of these seniors that made the event both uplifting and entertaining.

A short five-hour bus journey away from Lijiang is the fabled city of Shangri-La, which was formerly known as Zhongdian. Like Lijiang, Shangri-La also lies along the ancient “Tea and Horse Caravan Road” of Southwest China which is less wellknown than the famous Silk Road. While many who pass through may not know the significance of the route, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty, they will certainly marvel at the difficult and dangerous terrain it passes through. Between China and India, the route passes through the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and the deep canyons of several major rivers.

There is a local saying, “The languages beyond five square li (2.5 kilometers) of the road are different from each other, and the customs beyond ten square li are different from each other.” And this is still true today. While Lijiang is dominated by the Naxi group, the predominantly Tibetan Shangri-La is where tea gives way to yak butter tea and rice is replaced by roasted barley (tsampa).

The first thing that struck us about Shangri-La was its altitude. At an average height of 3,200m above sea level, we were repeatedly warned not to run or engage in vigorous exercise. One taxi driver even told us not to bathe for the first few days as he claimed that hot water will cause us to suffer from altitude sickness. For the record, we took a shower on the second day and we were fine.

Previously known as Zhongdian, the town’s namechange also raised its profile among travellers. But don’t go searching for the mythical Shangri-La in, well, Shangri-La. Most of the Old Town has been torn down and then rebuilt – a phenomenon surprisingly not too uncommon in China – though thankfully, the new buildings are not too tacky. In
fact, if one didn’t know any better, the buildings do look quite quaint and charming, with fluttering prayer flags everywhere.
An interesting place in town to check out is the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Musuem, which is at the foot of the monastery in the Old Town. While the exhibits are fairly mundane, the highlight of the museum is the Tibetan medicine men on the second floor, who are able to tell you what ailments you’re suffering from just by looking at your palms. Mine told me that I was suffering from digestion problems (accurate). Best of all, the service is free.

Shangri-La is also home to what’s known as the Little Potala Palace (actual name: Ganden Sumtseling Monastery). Located about an hour’s walk north of town, the 300-year-old Tibetan monastery complex is the most important monastery in southwest China. Built on a hillside and resembling an ancient fort, the monastery has two main halls that feature colourful frescoes depicting Buddhist stories on the interior walls.

On our last day in Shangri-La, we decided to head over to Shika Mountain, which stands at around 4,500 m above sea level. The mountain was the first Tibetan sacred mountain along the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road and enjoyed high prestige among Buddhist pilgrims in West Yunnan. We took a cable car to the top, where we were supposed to be able to see as far away as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains in Lijiang. But all we saw was a snowy whiteness. While the weather in the valley below had been fine, it was a storm up there, with ferocious winds, bone-numbing chill and snow falling sideways. We decided to beat a hasty retreat.

Back at the foot of Shika Mountains, the Tibetan driver that we hired for the day asked us if we wanted to visit his house. Of course we would not say no. Located in a Tibetan village on the outskirts of Shangri-La, his house was a typical Tibetan building in this part of Yunnan Province, with inward sloping walls made of mud bricks, a flat roof and a large courtyard.

Luo Sang, our driver, quickly ushered us into his living room. His mother, dressed in Tibetan clothing, quickly served us yak butter tea, tsampa and yak yoghurt. While the temperature was hovering around zero outdoors, inside, the heat from the traditional stove had warmed up the entire room. For the first time in days, I was perspiring. As the minutes went by, I started feeling drowsy.

When I woke up with a start, I saw that Luo Sang was asleep while his parents were doing their daily chores. I thought to myself, this must be how travellers along the gruelling and danger-laden Tea and Horse Caravan Road got by in the past, by depending on the hospitality of strangers. For me, I was just grateful that I got to experience this legendary Tibetan hospitality without the pain of travelling on that ancient trail.

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