Home > Travel > Walking Marriages on Lugu Lake

Walking Marriages on Lugu Lake

The flight from Kunming to Lijiang is not for the faint of heart, although those who suffer from a fear of flying (and if you don’t, you will) can take solace in the fact that the flight, although utterly terrifying, it’s quite short. Short enough to barely drink a bottle of optimistically named “Aviation” spring water. The final approach to Lijiang airport has the plane buffeted and whipped by crosswinds created by the valleys and snow-capped peaks that led off from the Himalayas. While in retrospect it’s quite nice to drop words in like “Himalayas” and “snow-capped peaks”, into the conversation a few hours and a couple of stiff drinks after the event – while the plane was turning on final, I was suddenly aware that I had been repeating to myself “please don’t crash, please don’t crash, please God, don’t let us crash.”. It was the third flight that I’d take in the same month, and the first one that I started praying on.

We landed, most of us with our limbs still attached to our bodies, and most of us making for the toilet all at the same time. It was in the self-same public facility that I became aware that the Chinglish was getting progressively worse the further I got from the big cities. While in Kunming, I’d had to suffer signs reminding me to “please aim carefully” placed at eye level above the urinal, I was now faced with signs that told me to “be careful of the floor slide”, and others that advised me to “please slip carefully”. They reminded me of the Chinglish that had plagued a pre-Olympics Beijing. In China, the further you get from the capital city, the further back in time you go.

Surviving the flight from Kunming, I had to find a place to stay. The taxi driver that fell upon me in much the same way that a lion who had tried to go vegetarian for the last couple of weeks might fall upon a bewildered, self-peeling gazelle that had somehow become trapped between two slices of bread after having swum across a river of barbecue sauce told me that a ride to the city center would cost me 80rmb, and because cars are not allowed in the old town area, I would have to walk the last part. In the taxi, I started to muse that I had been taken advantage of somewhat – that was until we hit the underdeveloped road that led from the airport to the main highway into town. Calling it a road is probably a little too generous, dirt track, undeveloped byway or open air toilet would probably be more apt. I reflected, during attempts by the driver to concuss me on the roof of the car that although I’d been cheated out of 80RMB, the poor state of the road was actually causing three times the amount of damage to the car.

About 45 minutes later, we pulled to a halt. The driver tossed me my bags and gave me directions to my hostel. To tell the truth, he didn’t really give me directions, he just took my money and said “that way”, pointing down a cobbled street whose cobbles had been worn slippery by the thousands of shoe soles that had tread them down over the years.

The Old Town of Lijiang, so called because it was here before 1949, has been spared the locust-like attitude of the Han Chinese to sterilize, tarmac and bulldoze “modernity” into it. Although during my explorations of the town, I did come across a KFC and a Pizza Hut cunningly disguised as old buildings at one end of a street that opened out into the Chinese half of the city. Typical, I thought, the Chinese don’t like anything that doesn’t have a brand name on it, but then, I started to doubt that the women on the bar street trying to entice punters into the garish, equally identical establishments that I’d been taking photos of all day on the streets of the Old Town inside were true Naxi either.

The Naxi and the Musuo are, of course the reason that I’m here. Famous for their matriarchal societies, and even more famous for their “walking marriages”, the Musuo have gained notoriety, not least because of the larger than life figurehead of writer, singer and national celebrity, Namu. Recently described as a “bitch from hell” on a national Chinese TV talent show, and currently married to a Norwegian embassy worked (after having her proposal of marriage rejected by Nicholas Sarkozy), Namu is the author of no less than 8 autobiographies, most of which are thinly veiled attacks on Chinese men (not that they don’t deserve it).

The Musuo number around 30, 000 (and Namu has managed to annoy them to such an extent that they deny that she’s “true” Musuo) and live their lives around Lugu Lake at the base of Gamu Mountain. Here the womenfolk don’t marry, but take a series of lovers and the fathered children are raised independently of the men in their mothers “flower chamber”. While it all sounds very romantic and sacred and mystical and suff, Namu tells in her childhood memoir that her father rode into town on a white stallion seducing her mother by shouting “hey baby, nice ass!”. It would seem that the Musuo don’t really aim that high when it comes to finding a suitable suitor.

While I took my leave on the ancient streets of Lijiang, there is still a lot more to the city that meets the eye – the sacred Gamu Moutain, the Naxi Orchestra whose members had been persecuted by Mao during the “Thousand Flowers” persecution campaigns he waged, and of course, the Namu Museum that Namu herself had built at Lugu Lake in celebration of…herself. Added to all of that, there was Tiger Leaping Gorge. Even at the halfway point in my trip, my attitude towards traveling in China had become similar to MacBeth’s attitude towards killing people – initial doubts, followed by cautious enthusiasm and then greater and greater alarm at the sheer scale of the undertaking with still no end in sight.

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