Posts Tagged ‘Lijiang Yunnan’

Old men, Old Musical Instruments, Old Songs

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment
Dr. Ho and his wife

Image by luca pedrotti via Flickr

Lijiang is home to two living fossils.  One is the Traditional Chinese Medicine expert, the venerated (by Bruce Chatwin at least) Dr. Ho, who was pushing 300 when Python Michael Palin visited him in 1998 (the rumors that John Cleese visited and wrote “interesting bloke, crap tea”, are just that, two idiots wrote the names in the guestbook thinking they were being funny), and must surely be at the top of the World Heritage List by now.  The other is Naxi Music, and the history is far more interesting than Dr. Ho’s tea.

The posters around Lijiang promoting the Naxi Orchestra say that most of the performers are at least 70 years old.  The poster is somewhat out of date, and the median age of the orchestra is around 83 years old.  The youngest instrument is around 100 years old, and the oldest is..well it was based on an ancient Egyptian design that made its way to the Middle Kingdom. During the Red Army’s purges, the instruments were saved from the zealous masses hell-bent on destroying “The Three Olds” by burying them in walls or in the ground.

Xuan Ke is proud of the fact that the orchestra doesn’t receive any money from the government, what he conveniently forgets to mention is that the tickets for the 90 minute show (which ends in typical Chinese fashion with a video presentation) are about $30 each – which of course means that he doesn’t really need any kind of government grant.  Even for $30, Xuan Ke turns up late (confessing that he always comes late) and plays a couple of tunes with the orchestra, interspersing the songs with lengthy discourses in Chinese, and the odd sentence or two in English, most of which centered around the now outlawed practice of foot-binding.  The microphone is mercifully handed back to the Master of Ceremonies, who makes sly digs at the pounding techno pouring from the bars outside, probably forgetting that the audience is forced to watch the octogenarians perform in an unheated room that has, for some inexplicable reason, doors that won’t close properly.


The repertoire ranges from traditional Chinese songs, almost all of which seem to centre on dragons (Song of the Water Dragon, A Black Dragon Dances, Dragons Singing and Dancing, etc) to the cacophonous melodies of Tibetan hymns, to classical Chinese opera.  All of which are more preferable to the music outside that sounds like a thousand monkeys using a thousand typewriters to put up a thousand shelves.


Walking Marriages on Lugu Lake

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Kunming to Lijiang

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Travelling is, to misquote Douglas Adams, unpleasantly like being drunk. What could possibly be so unpleasant about being drunk? Just ask a glass of water.

For the last two days I’ve been lying on my bunk in the hostel suffering from a mild bout of food poisoning – the prime suspect is thought to be a dodgy egg on an otherwise perfectly legitimate vegetable sandwich. Being sick in China is one of those things that every Chinese person you come across will have an opinion about, everyone will make a comment about, but no one will actually sympathize with your or offer any constructive advice about. Most of the home remedies revolve around imbibing large amounts of tea, staying away from goats on the Sabbath and, in extreme cases, for example, losing a limb, or being shot or being hit full in the face by a bus, smearing yourself with camel’s milk and diving into a holy lake. On no account should you ever see a doctor in a hospital.

Afflicted with what I could only describe as “epic” diarrhea – I was filled with dread at the thought of sneezing, or doing something even more fatal, like coughing or being surprised by something on the way to the chemist – I made my way to the nearest chemist to make what I thought would be an easy purchase – something that would stop the biological warfare in my lower gut, and give me enough time to drink a bottle of water without dashing to the nearest toilet screaming “fire in the hold!”.

The helpful chemist offered me several Traditional Chinese Medical remedies, almost all of them came with an attached caveat that they would start working in three or four days. Since I was fairly confident that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any teeth left, I forced myself to make a number of trips to and from the hostel in the hope that between the them, the so-called chemist and the receptionist would be able to figure out what the Chinese name for Loperamide (a chemical with which anyone living in China for any length of time should and will become intimately familiar with) was. A couple of hours, and several startled children later I was armed with a simple medication that almost cured me.

While the experience may be a minor tale of a couple of days of discomfort caused by nothing more than traveller’s stomach, it highlights the appalling state of public health. Despite being illegal, spitting (of the Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom. Public toilets have little in the way of soap. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands. Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

Moving on to happier matters, I’m off to Lijiang at the weekend. Michael Palin visited Lijiang for his documentary travelogue “Himalaya”, and he had this to say about the place:

“Lijiang is a tale of two cities: one a modern concoction of business district office blocks and shopping malls, the other an immaculately kept old town, with clay-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and a canal system that evokes Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges. Lijiang became rich and famous because of its key position the Tea-Horse Route from Tibet into China, but its idyllic situation, set comfortably in a shallow bowl of hills, is deceptive. A fault line at the edge of the Tibetan plateau runs below and the ripple effect of the tectonic collision that created the Himalaya has been responsible for over 50 strong earthquakes here in the last 130 years. The most recent, which registered over seven on the Richter scale, hit Lijiang in 1996, killing 300 and injuring 16,000. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed. The majority of them were in the new city.

The wood and stone houses of old Lijiang were built by people who knew about earthquakes and how to withstand them. They remain, thanks to UNESCO money, as an example of how to create harmony, line and proportion on a human scale. The result is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and squares, car free, perfect for walking, but also a victim of their own success. Large-scale preservation of the past is so rare in China that Lijiang has become a big draw, pulling upwards of 3 million tourists a year into an old town of 25,000 people.”

Which is slightly better than the way that he described Wanxian on the Yangtze River:

“…a hellish looking place where countless smokestacks and factory chimneys feed every shade of smoke from deep black to rust brown into a sky already turgid with low, pus-yellow clouds…”

Either way, with the one hour flight touching a little over 30UKP, it’s a deal that’s not to be missed.