This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com
Sunday, February 22, 2009
I threw out my sleeping hag, books, maps and other junk, and restricted myself to a raincoat, thermal underwear and toothbrush. Then I went shopping for food. There wasn't much available tor the potential trekker. I had to make do with peanuts, chocolate, green raisins, beef jerky, powdery biscuits and a packet of dried prunes. Fresh fruit and drinks I could buy along the way.
The night before I left Lijiang for Lugu Lake there was something going off in the town square. Young women of different minorities milled around in groups, flirting with the young 'liumang'. The Nakhi girls wore blue capes with seven white circles on their backs, representing the stars -10 show they held up the sky. Bai women wore a collage of pink. while and blue and the Yi women had several layers of pleated dresses in reggae colours: red, green, yellow and black. They also wore the craziest hats: a flat black square like a graduate's mortar board, with one corner facing forward.
The men were much more drab in appearance: they wore the standard Chinese suit jacket, complete with label still stitched to the sleeve. Likewise, they wore cheap square sunglasses with the sticker still on the corner of the lens. There was something in the mainland Chinese psyche that made them leave the labels and wrappings on their purchases: new cars would still have the barcodes left on their windscreen from their Japanese shippers, bicycles would be pedalled round with the plastic padding still wrapped around the frame. Even sofas would retain their cellophane wrapping for weeks after their purchase. In China it was important to show the brand ('paizi') and to show off something new.
A two-day bus trip over heavily-eroded hills took me deep into Yi territory before Lugu Lake. These were the (Lesser) Cool Mountains and the Yi were a wild, poor people who tilled a barren yellow soil. 'They are very backward. They do not wash,' the Chinese in Lijiang said about them. Even the Nakhi compared themselves favourably with the Yi. 'We Nakhi are the best educated of China's minorities. Unlike some other minorities (ie the Yi) we have a strong culture,' they said.
In the countryside around towns such like Ninglang, the Yi were dirt poor, literally. Their dwellings had changed little since Rock wrote: 'The houses of these primitive people are of rough pine hoards, tied together with cane, and the roofs weighted down with rocks,' I saw a few Yi women close up after they squeezed on the bus. They had freckled weather-beaten faces and wore grubby, unwashed traditional dress. They had round eyes, aquiline noses and high-pitched, coo-ing voices- I could well believe that until forty years ago, they had been a slave society, despised by the Chinese and given the derogatory name 'Lolo', ('wog'). The Yi had until recently been divided into noble 'black' Yi and their 'white' slaves.
The Yi in this particular area were originally outcasts from the main Yi area north of Lijiang. and thus were doubly wretched. Liberation had brought them freedom, but little else in the way of development. They were the some of poorest people I saw in China.
Lugu Lake, in comparison, was an earthly paradise of abundance. The blue waters twinkled in the sunlight below the crags of Lion Mountain. Cuckoos sang in the forest and the air was fresh and cool. The local people, the Mosuo, were famous for being a matriarchal society of 'free love'. They were an obscure branch of the Nakhi minority, a cheerful and robust people who built strudy wooden manor houses around the lakeside and fished the lake in dugout canoes.
But when I arrived, I was not in a mood to appreciate all this. I had been violently sick on the bus coming in, after eating a dodgy pancake bought in one of the Yi villages en route. The final day's journey had been a nightmare, bouncing along on the back seat, trying not to throw up. On arrival at Lugu Lake, I was too weak to stand up. t vomited in the courtyard of the guesthouse where we were dropped off, and collapsed into the first room they could find me.
For the rest of the day I shivered under the blankets with all my clothes on, and cursed myself for leaving my antibiotics hack in Lijiang. By evening I had recovered somewhat, and, as luck would have it, I bumped into some American friends who gave me antibiotics and moral support. They were staying in the next village, and I was guided to them by a cheerful group of engineers from Chengdu who had seen my plight on the bus. After searching through a maze of paths and passageways in the blackness, we tracked down the Americans to a dark, spacious living room off the courtyard of a Mosuo house.
Sat around a crackling fire. Will and Eileen (from LA) told me about their 'find'. They had become so enchanted with the tranquillity and beauty of Lugu Lake that they had extended their stay to a week. They were particularly delighted at being able to stay in a Mosuo house amidst all the pigs, cows and geese. Being a Mosuo household, only women lived in the house: mother and aunt in traditional blue-black gowns and turbans, the daughter in modern Chinese dress.
The father, referred to as 'uncle', lived elsewhere, but popped in regularly to see how things were going. Mosuo women would have several different lovers before they married. A couple would be regarded as ‘wed' once they had produced a baby. The woman would then bring up the child in her own mother's house, without a live-in husband.
Will and Eileen told me they had been staying with this Mosuo family for a week, living off a horde of vegetables they had brought in from Lijiang. Apart from potatoes, there were no vegetables to be had at Lugu Lake, they said. The Mosuo women cooked up some barley sugar crisps that helped restore my energy. Then I wandered back round the lake in the moonlight, past a few fisherman huddled round fires.
I was now within the realms of Joseph Rock's hand-drawn maps. He had spent two months at Lugu Lake, seeking refuge on one of the islands from a hunch of disgruntled Tibetan rebels who had been repulsed from an attack on Kunming. The island still had the small lamasery shown in Rock's pictures, attended by a chanting monk. Nowadays the local villagers rowed tourists out to the island in dugout canoes. Walking back round the lake the next morning, the water lapping quietly on the shore, I saw one of the canoes being paddled out to the island. The sight of the oars rising and falling, and the sound of shouts and songs carrying over the water, all reminded me of the New Zealand Maori war canoes, the 'waka'.
Further along the shore. I came across a friendly group of art students from Chengdu. squatting with their pallets and doing watercolours of a white sione stupa by the lakeside. Nearby, the villagers were building a two-storey hall completely out of wood, using no nails. I moved into the Mosuo family house and spent a lazy day recuperating from my stomach bug. Within the courtyard, sheltered from the gusty winds, I sat reading my maps among the piglets, geese and calves. According to Rock's 1924 map, Muli monastery was a 50-mile walk to the north-east of Lugu Lake.
After the nearby town of Youngning there were ru; other features to follow except for a couple of villages. I would just have to ask my way as I went along. Back in 1924, Rock had done the journey from Lijiang to Muli by mule in 11 days. He described it as: 'One of the most trying in Southwestern China... it takes a hardened constitution and great powers of endurance to make the trip,'
With my wobbly stomach and dwindling supply of peanuts, I didn't feet quite up to it. Decent food was not easy to come by in these country areas. The Mosuo seemed to survive on a simple diet of potatoes, fish, eggs and chillies. There were few other vegetables to be had. Luckily, Will and Eileen stilt had some stocks left. Each mealtime they would give the Mosuo mother a cucumber or some tomatoes to fry up. An hour later we would be sat in the dark living room with a few beams of light coming through the roof, eating a dinner of potatoes, sausage, eggplam. egg and tomato soup, corn wine and tea. The old lady would sit in a corner making butter tea with a plunger device.
Despite its beauty, Lugu Lake was a low point tor me. ! was growing sick of China, fed up with bus travel and poor food, the stares and the sniggers. But more than that, I had found I wasn't cut out to be an explorer: I missed my home comforts. After a month on the road, all I wanted was to be sat in a cafe sipping espresso and reading a decent English newspaper.
Before coming to China I had fancied myself as a bit of an adventurer. Yet here I was, thinking the journey to Lugu Lake had been an arduous venture into the unknown, while these Californians were treating it like a visit to Disneyland. They didn't speak a word of Chinese but were right at home, communicating with enthusiasm using a few grunts, grins and sign language. Meanwhile, I felt like I was at the edge of the world, and my attempts at speaking Mandarin were met with puzzled frowns from the Mosuo. I'd had enough of China and I wanted to go home. When the Americans said they had found a lift alt the way back to Lijiang for the next morning, I wanted to go with them. Somehow I managed to resist.
It was with some reluctance that the next day, after a breakfast of roast potatoes, steamed bread and butter tea, I said goodbye to Will and Eileen. They were going back to Lijiang, I would carry on. There was no bus to Youngning, 20km north, so I started walking. In the middle of the village I passed one of the art students, carrying her paintbox disconsolately up the road, looking for inspiration. I felt the same way. But as I left the village behind and climbed the road above the lake, I felt happier, freer to be among the wind, the sun and the bird song. It was good to be doing something rather than just sitting around. I started to sing to myself, and plodded the next four hours, over the pine-clad hills and onto the Youngning plain.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
In 1924, 'Youngning' had been the capital of the Lushi tribe, ruled by three chiefs descended from Mongols appointed by the Kublai Khan. Joseph Rock passed through the place on his way to Muli, with his mute caravan and ten Nakhi soldiers and porters. He had already spent six days in the saddle, travelling through leopard-infested forests and the Yangste chasms, whereas I had made a more roundabout two-day trip by bus. Rock was to meet no Chinese during the whole of his trip to Muli. only a variety of opium-sodden Nakhi, primitive Yi and aggressive 'Hsifan', ('western bandits', the name given to the Tiberans by the Chinese).
But now Youngning was a Chinese frontier town: a collection of log cabins around a market square, where Yi women traded a few wilting vegetables. And whereas Rock took advantage of 'the monastery and its hospitable shelter', I had to make do with the 'County Guesthouse': a breeze-block tower surmounted by a satellite dish which was part of the local Party headquarters. After I checked in I had a bizarre encounter with a young woman who wanted to entice me to have a shower with her. Whether she was a prostitute or just one of the staff trying to show me where the showers were, I'll never know.
The Youngning monastery was still intact, but under renovation after falling into neglect. I paid a visit and wandered among the Tibetan workmen outside, looking for someone who looked vaguely like a monk. The foreman took me to one side and asked me what I wanted. 'Is it possible to walk from here to Muli?' I asked. 'Yes, but it is dangerous. It takes three days through high mountains. Even we dare not do it. You should go by bus instead, back through Ninglang and Yanyuan,' he said. But that would take too long, I thought, and I would probably get turned round by the police because Muli was closed to foreigners.
I took out Rock's map and asked about the villages he had marked along the route to Muli. The first. Vudje, was now called Wujiao by the Chinese, the foreman said. It was a day's walk from here. And the nearby lamasery ofRendjom Gompa was stilt there, he said, inhabited by a single monk. At that moment I noticed a Tibeian-tooking man in a green uniform, sat around the fire having a smoke. He came over to see what was going on, and I realised with dismay that he was a policeman. My heart sank, and I thought I was going to he warned not to go to Muli. But he just smiled and stabbed the air in the direction of Wujiao. 'If you go to Rendjom Gompa, ask for the lama called Aja Dapa- Tell him 1 sent you. he knows me: I'm the Youngning policeman.'
The foreman led me away, to see the interior of the renovated temple. Within was a row of yellow-hatted gilded statues of former abbots, sitting lotus-position on multi-coloured thrones, surrounded by animals and flowers. A lone monk squatted on a cushion in a dark corner, banging a gong and chanting.
To get a better view of my intended route, 1 climbed a thousand-foot high grassy hill behind the monastery. As I reached the top, which was cluttered with prayer flags, I saw snow-hound mountain peaks to the north-east. I almost jumped for joy: surely, those to the north were the Konkaling peaks? And those to the east must be near Muli monastery? And from Youngning below, there seemed to he a fairly straightforward route along the plain and over some low hills, to those Muli peaks. Now my intended trip looked possible, and I was happy. The doubts of Lugu Lake were all forgotten.
That evening, in the blacked-out village, I sat in a restaurant celebrating my first sight of the Muli peaks, with a bottle of beer. 'What do you want to go to Muli for?' asked the Chinese waitress, when I told her my plans. 'The people there are poor and backward. There's nothing to see.' To me, it sounded encouraging.
Friday, February 20, 2009
The local Yi people were yelling at their plough oxen, trying to stir them into action, and cuckoos sang hidden in the pine forests ahead. When I left the plain and ascended into the pine forests, I began to feel nervous, as if somebody were watching me. I fingered the Tihettin knife, which I now kept handy in my pocket, and I Jumped at every broken twig. Then, when I stopped for a drink, I heard a 'plop' beside me. and looked up to see an old man and young boy sat a few yards away, laughing at me, and about to throw another stone. They told me they were on their way from Wujiao to Youngning, to sell their home-made firewater at the market.
I asked the old man about the villages on Rock's map. Yes, he said as I tried to pronounce them, they were all still there- It was somewhere around here that Rock's mule caravan had come across a cavalcade ofTibetan monks, dressed in red robes and escorting the brother of the Muli king. The monks hurled abuse at Rock's party, telling them to get out of the way. Rock retaliated with a stern lecture and even more dire threats, which prompted the lama to capitulate with the Tibetan gestures of deference: sticking his tongue out and giving a thumbs-up gesture. The royal party passed without further communication. Sadly, the virgin alpine meadows that Rock described in this area were no more. 'No woodman's axe has ever echoed here,' he said of the metre-wide fir tree.s he saw. But the pine forest I saw in 1994 had been logged haphazardly, with whole swathes taken out of some hillsides and others left intact. It was the handiwork of amateurs, smaller trees discarded and left to rot.
The few meadows I came across were scarred with campfires, and rutted with well-worn tracks. And on either side, landslides had swept down the eroded hillsides, churning up trees and earth into ugly, twisted heaps. Yet there was still some beauty left. When I crested the ridge, the mountains of Muli came into view, larger now, and an impressive sight against the clear blue skies. Forested hills extended as far as the eye could see, and I could have been in the South Island of New Zealand. Below me, in the valley, was Lijaisuin. the first village in Muli territory. It looked like it hadn't changed much in the last 60 years: primitive log cabins, with the only power source being water wheels.
The village itself was deserted, with everyone working in the fields. I asked directions from an old woman tending goats, but she just splashed her feet in a stream and giggled in a high-pitched voice. I had the same problem higher up in the forest, when I asked two young goatherds the way to Wujiao. They spoke no Chinese at all, and gestured mutely towards the top of the hill. Not surprisingly, I was soon lost in the sparse forest, but eventually 1 fought my way up along goat tracks onto the next ridge, for an even more impressive view of the mountains.
Suddenly, I heard voices, and came upon a group of wretched Tihetan nomads, wrapped in animal skins, sat around some smouldering logs. They had blackened faces and were eating what looked like raw meat off the bone. They eyed me suspiciously when I asked the way to Wujiao, and I left with their dog snapping at my heels, heading down into the valley.
By late afternoon I was parched. Tramping down through the pines and blooming violet rhododendrons, I craved water and wondered how much further it would he to Wujiao. Not much further, surely. My heart sank when I saw the collection of fly-blown log cabins with no sign of a guesthouse or shop. When I got there, I was so thirsty that I begged a bowl of dirty water from a Yi woman who emerged from one of the kennel-like huts, and drank it straight down without fear of disease. In her dirty black Darth-Vader-like robes, she stared at me and pointed further down the hill. 'Wujiao...' she squeaked. Thank God. this wasn't it.
The real Wujiao was a barrack-like group of buildings, with a single shop in a courtyard. Two Tibetan girls sat by the roadside drinking spirits, and they invited me over to rest and share their firewater. But I wanted water desperately. 1 stumbled onto the wider path that was the main street, and in front of a kiosk met a small Tibetan man in blue Chinese working clothes. There was no running water here, he said, but he invited me into his shed and built a fire to boil me some hot water. I sat, exhausted, but glad to have finally found someone who could speak passable Chinese.
No sooner had I sipped my first bowl of sooty-flavoured water than I heard a car engine. Strange, I thought, because there were no roads around here. I rushed out to see a Jeep screech to a halt, from which emerged three men brandishing automatic weapons. I froze with fear at the sight of the guns, and prepared to he frog-marched off for interrogation about why I was in a forbidden area. The men were in civilian clothes, and their leader was a suavely dressed Chinese just like the plain-clothes cops I had seen in Guilin.
He walked up to me and held out his hand to give me a firm handshake, with a friendly 'Ni hao! Ni hao!' Where had I come from? I told him about my walk over from Youngning. 'Wow! That's tough! I really admire your spirit,' he said, and explained that his Jeep group were Party officials from Muli county who had just driven over a rough mountain track to inspect this village. It took four hours by car, twelve hours on foot. he said. Meanwhile, the Tibetan shopkeeper came running out with a live chicken, which he pressed on the leader. The leader made a show of trying to refuse, but the shopkeeper insisted: 'It's nothing, realty..' he grovelled.
I still felt nervous with the guns being toted around, especially as the two other goons looked at me coldly. But the young leader, exuding menace and power in his leather bomber jacket and neat stacks, simply patted me on the back and wished me good luck for my trip to Muli. 'Sorry we can't give you a lift. Full up!' he said.
With that. the Jeep took off again, leaving me and the shopkeeper both looking relieved. I went back inside to finish my water, and asked about the old lamasery ofRendjom Gompa, which the shopkeeper told me was only a half-hour walk away. The track down to the monastery followed a river through a stunningly beautiful gorge with dangerous-looking overhangs. Out the other side, perched on top of a grassy hill was a small white building with a backdrop of mountains and pine forests. This was the one-man lamasery of Rendjom Gompa.
The lama, Aja Dapa, beckoned me into his dim scullery, where a young boy helper prepared butter tea around the fire. Neither spoke much Chinese, but they treated me with simple hospitality- The lama was a burly Tibetan in a maroon robe, who laughed heartily when I passed on the message from the Youngning policeman.
I drank my muddy tea and tried to comprehend the lama's fractured Chinese. He said his lamasery was not worth seeing: the place was falling down, the roof leaked and there wasn't much to see. The lama had been in residence there for four years by himself, sent from (he main monastery at Muli, now known by the Chinese name of Wachang. Unlocking his temple, he showed me the faded, soot-blackened murals on the humpy walls. In the dim light it was just possible to make out the reds and yellows of horses and gods against a black background. And white scars where the faces of deities had been chiselled off during the cultural revolution.
'You'd be better off going to the Muli Main Monastery, much more beautiful than here,' he said. Wujiao was a rough old place. Young Tibetans wearing crimson chubas, stetsons and long knives, herded around a couple of pool tables, playing clumsy potshots that sent balls flying off the table. And they stared at me wildly when I walked among them. It didn't feel safe.
There was nowhere to stay in Wujiao, but the shopkeeper took pity on me. He arranged a few bits of sacking on the floor of his cabin for a bed, and prepared me a disgusting evening meal of noodles with fatty gruel. Two tall Tibetan girls in modern dress came and stood in the doorway as I choked the food down, They shouted questions at me in yelping voices, and couldn't take their eyes off me. 'You look handsome,' said one. 'But you've got a big nose!' giggled the other. 'You're quite an interesting person,' said the first. Hello, where's this leading? I wondered. But then they disappeared.
I saw them later in Wujiao's only room with electricity; the video hall. The whole village, some seventy people, turned out to watch some Hong Kong videos dubbed into Mandarin. I wondered what these country folk made of the Kowloon high-rise estates and the British road signs they saw on the screen. When I returned to the shopkeeper's cabin, he brought some of his mates round to look at me. They sat on the floor, drinking firewater and pinching the hair on my arms. 'You must have a lot of hair on your chest, and down there too, eh?' one said, gesturing at my groin. I turned over on my bedding, pulled a spare chuba around me and tried to give the hint that I wanted to steep. Eventually they tired of talking about my strange boots and my funny eyes, and left. I tried to ignore the moonlight and cold wind seeping in through the gaps in the logs.
Tomorrow would be a long day, and it was time to hit the sack, literally.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
In his account. Rock described a trip over a mountain pass infested with brigands, and his map showed two peaks: Mt Gibboh and Mt Ladze. These were presumably the two peaks I had seen from my walk in from Youngning, and they still looked a long way off. Since everyone said it would take 12 hours to reach Wachang, I set off bright and early after a revolting breakfast of boiled rice and stale eggs. I bought a couple of bottles of 'Pilu' beer juice, a sticky sweet barley sugar drink, and paid the shopkeeper a whopping 20rmb for my board and lodging. I was too tired and impatient too argue with him. He assured me there was a primitive road all the way to Wachang, and sure enough, the switchback road headed up into the pine forest and around the sides of a steep valley.
I soon left the log cabins behind and was alone in the hushed forest, tramping to the sounds of rushing water, cuckoos, and the wind rustling the trees. With such a long walk ahead of me, I adopted the route march tactics my dad had told me about from his army days in Italy during World War II: a five minute break every hour for a smoke or a drink. Later in the day 1 would look forward to those five minutes and relish every second before I had to hit the road again.
As I climbed higher into the forest I began to feel nervous and lonely. What if there were bears or wolves about? Why were those men in the jeep carrying guns? Why were there no local people walking this track? Were the local Tibetans not friendly? I speeded up my walk and made sure the Tibetan knife was handy in my pocket. The only signs of human life were the remains of campfires in the middle of the road, and the many trees felled and left to rot.
Mid-morning I was passed by the jeep on its way back to Muli: it laboured past in a cloud of dust, the driver yelling 'Couldn't fit you in!' and the rest of them laughing. This transformed my nervousness into determination: I would show them I could do it. A couple of hours later I reached a pass, denuded of trees, which led through into a second, immense forested valley, blocked at the other end by the grey-blue crags of what I assumed to be Mt Gibboh. I could see the road, skirting the high sides of the valley, following every loop and spur for mile after mile. In the distance, a line ran across the top uf the mountain: was that the road or a geological fault? I was stuck on that track through the valley for what seemed like ages: trudging round each corner only to see another corner a mile ahead.
At one point I had to follow a large loop up a side valley: I could see the track emerge again a few hundred yards away, directly across the chasm, yet I had to follow the detour for an hour; the valley was too steep and densely forested to think about cutting across. I passed frozen streams and abandoned log cabins, and had established a good walking rhythm by the time I stopped for lunch beneath the crags of Mt Gibhoh. As I ate the last of my supplies: a pineapple, some peanuts and a fig cake, I gazed up at the road that disappeared through a cleft in the mountain: that was my next goal.
When Rock made the same trip in February 1924 his party spent the night near this place, sheltering from a blizzard under the crags as leopards prowled around outside his tent. When he crossed the 15,000 foot pass the next day he was on the lookout for brigands who were said to lurk behind the crags. But like Rock, I went unmolested through the pass, though I was quickly running out of steam. I had to go through the 'pain barrier' after lunch because my feet were now swollen and aching, and my shoulders painfully sore from the straps of my knapsack. By now I was almost level with a snow-capped ridge to the right, and I gulped in cold air and shivered in the increasing wind.
Just before I reached the pass I came across a wild Tihetan woman. wrapped in an animal skin cloak, who hurled abuse at me and pointed back in the direction I had come from. She disappeared into the forest, leaving me with an uneasy feeling about whai lay ahead. By the time I did reach the pass. I was so worried about the time thai I forgot to emulate the example of Rock's Tibetan guides, who had leapt into the air and shouted 'La Rgellah'' (The Gods are victorious!').
The pass was a corner in the road, which seemed to be on almost on top of the mountain, with a few prayer flags and some trousers flapping from the trees. And amazingly, after all this wilderness, there was a goatherd's log cabin with a jeep parked outside. On the other side, I saw what had captivated Rock sixty years ago: '...a sea of mountains, range upon range, like the furrows in a field, with a deep ravine from north to south, down which runs the Litang River...'
More immediately, I was face with a steep descent through a forest: way below I could see some cultivated terraces, which would surely take an eternity to reach if I stuck to the spiralling road. In my urgency, I struck out off the road, stumbling through banks of thorns, over fallen logs, and slipping in the soft soil. My progress was slow and painful, but I began to notice changes: the air became warmer and there were smells of grass and trees instead of the ice cold wind and nervous sweat of above. And the forest was different: deciduous beeches instead of the spruce and pine of the previous valley.
Down, down I went, for an hour and another hour, until eventually I came across the first signs of civilisation: a group of Tibetan woodcutters and their horses with tinkling bells. And then a forestry station, deserted except for a sprinkler system in its nursery. Then there was a road gang, fixing a washed-out bridge, who stared at me and said Wachang was three hour's walk away. I was exhausted and had no drink left, so I drank some stream water and washed my face. It was still a long plod, my mouth dry, my lips cracked and sore. the backs of my hands burnt red, and my feet tender. But there were encouraging signs: Tibetan chalets with brightly-painted verandas, and a clear stream running alongside the road.
I daydreamed about Wachang: a real town with roads and restaurants and guesthouses with soft beds. A plate of stir-fried pork and tomatoes with rice, and a bottle of beer... Just around the next corner perhaps. Meanwhile, sick of the sweet Pilu juice, I sucked on some dried plums to keep my raging thirst at bay, and came across my first Muli people. Somewhere in this vicinity. Rock had halted his caravan to despatch a messenger with his card to the King of Muli. 'It would not do 10 arrive in Muli unheralded,' he said. —Some of my Nashi men who had been to Muli several times were anxious that I give proper presents to the king, lest we be uncivilly received.' Rock noted that the Muli women wore *grey woollen skirts with fringes, and leather jackets. Their wealth of hair, much of it false, was decorated with garlands of gilded Sichuan rupees.'
In the 1990s, however, the Muli Tibetans had adopted contemporary Chinese attire. There was a shop in one of the Tibetan chalets along the roadside. The owner was sat inside drinking tea with his friends, all clad in Mao Zedong jackets and proletarian caps. He didn't seem too surprised to see a foreigner walk out of the mountains, and was more interested in my walking stick than me. There still seemed to be long way to go down the valley, but he directed me onto a path over a nearby spur, saying Wachang was only 20 minutes away.
My heart sank as I clambered up the hill: surely there was no way there could be a real town on the sides of this valley? I pressed on, utterly worn out, yet having to lob stones at some aggressive dogs that ran out from the nearby houses. Around the corner, I got my first view of Wachang. with a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment. High upon the side of the valley, below a crenellated mountain ridge that I recognised as Mt Mitzuga, I could just make out the roofs and white buildings of a walled village. Muli monastery!
Or so I thought. I was excited because this was Muli. my goal, but disappointed because I knew there would he none of the soft beds or fried pork that I had set my heart on. Ah, well - it was evening and there was nowhere else to go. I would force myself on the monks and hope their hospitality was as good as that of Renjom Gompa. As it turned out, I needn't have worried: it wasn't Muli monastery, but the nearby village of Wachang. After struggling up a garbage-strewn hillside. I entered the complex through a door in the wall, and discovered I was in a village complete with main street, stores, pool tables, a market area and, inevitably, a Communist Party headquarters. Nevertheless, this was my big moment. I recognised that mountain ridge as the Mt Mitzuga from Rock's pictures. Therefore, I knew I had arrived in old Muli village.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
What I had not realised in my confusion on arrival at Wachang was that the monastery and village were quite separate. Muli monastery was an hour's walk away, on the other side of a hill. But that did not matter right then.
An hour after my arrival in Wachang, I was the talk of the town. I sat with my feet in a bowl of hot water, in the village's only restaurant, devouring the dishes set before me by its beaming Chinese owner: fried pork, rice, egg and tomato soup. cold sliced ham, plus tea and heer. At the same time I chatted to the village's doctor and the local English teacher at the Middle school. They confirmed that I had arrived in Wachang, and that this used to he the old village of Muli. The 'new' Muli shown 100km away on my modern maps was actually the town of Bowa, which had become the administrative capital of Muli, hence its new label.
The English teacher, a bright young Chinese man, promised to take me to see the monastery the next day. He had never seen a foreigner before, and wanted me to visit his school to give a talk to one of his English classes. I told them about my journey in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, but they had not heard his name.
When I mentioned that I would like to visit other monasteries in the area, they shook their heads. 'All gone,' said the restaurant owner, Mr Zhang. 'There's nothing at Kulu now. It was all destroyed in 1958. There used to he 500 monks there, now there's nothing to see. Up the road at Waerdje there used to be 300 monks, now there's just a small prayer hall. And the big monastery here isn't what it used to be.'
The people gathered around me in the small shack couldn't believe I had walked over from Wujiao. They had never seen a foreigner before. 'Weren't you scared?' 'Did you meet any bad people?' 'What did you eat?' 'Aren't you lonely hy yourself?' 1 didn't care, I was in heaven. Food, drink, sitting down. I retreated to the luxury of a real bed, in the 'Post Office Guesthouse', where I could hear the people in the next room talking excitedly about 'the foreigner'.
Even the bedbugs couldn't stop me from getting to sleep. I didn't know quite what I expected to find when I visited the Muli monastery. Certainly it would not be the centre of the old 'lama kingdom' any more. The Tibetan monasteries hereabouts had been destroyed in the late 1950s, well before the Cultural Revolution, because they were the centres of political as well as religious power.
Even Rock had the foresight to realise that the days of independence would soon be over. 'These chiefs are now an anomaly in China, and before long they must become a thing of the past', he had said of kings such as those at Muli. In fact, life under the Muli potentate was servile and archaic. Rock noted that the Muli villagers walked around with bowed heads because they were forbidden to so much as look a monk in the eye. The king, although described by Rock as amiable, ruled despotically, served by a court of Yellow-hat Buddhist monks. He kept the mummified remains of his uncle in a gilded shrine in the dining room, and had his turds moulded into pills which were given to the peasants to cure disease.
The king had not known whether China was ruled by an emperor or president, and believed he could ride on horseback from Muli to Washington. The Muli kingdom had been poor, its 22,000 inhabitants served hy a few terraces of wheat on the hillsides. The peasants survived hy cutting grass, which they sold to passing caravans for horsefeed. There was some panning for gold in the Litang River, the proceeds of which went to the monastery. The land was often not enough to feed the local people, who as a result became enslaved to the local monastery if they could not pay for their food.
A local folk song went:
'Eight or nine years work earns only 13 bags of rice,
Sell all your property hut still not enough to buy food.
Give your wife and daughter away,
And be whipped and thrown into, jail.'
In this respect at least, Muli had improved somewhat. I had steamed bread and cabbage for breakfast the next morning, and met the English master for a visit to the monastery. We climbed a path above the town, to a burnt-out barracks and the remains of trenches used by the PLA to defend Wachang from marauding bandits in 1958. The area had been plagued by bands ofTibetan robbers who periodically emerged from their mountain hideouts to raid as far as Lijiang.
'What happened to them when the PLA came?' I asked. 'Defeated of course!' said the teacher, smiling.
Over the ridge and through an archway, we had glorious views in both directions. To the west was the valley I had descended the previous day, and the neat rectangular walled village of Wachang just below. To the east, green terraces descending into the vast Litang River valley beneath. Up here. the soil was brown and barren. Beyond, the mountains rose up, black, their details cast into shadow. And overlooking everything else were the mighty blue-grey towers of Mt Mitzuga, standing out against a deep blue sky. We walked around the hillside and I asked questions about the monastery.
The teacher told me there were now 50 young lamas under training at the Muli monastery, young apprentices recruited from among the local Tibetan population. Most of them could not speak Chinese, hut he would translate, he said. For the time being, he was more interested in finding out which countries I had visited, and how much I earned. The first building we came upon was a white hut straddling a stream. Within was a large yellow prayer wheel, turned by water power, sending its blessings spiralling into the bine sky. Twenty minutes later up the dusty track, we rounded the corner to Muli monastery.
When Rock arrived at Muli, it was a 400-year-old lamasery of 300 houses and temples, surrounded by a large white wall. It was one of three large monasteries that served the Muii kingdom, and was the home of the Muli king. Rock entered Muli with his retinue of Siamese, Tibetan and Nakhi servants, bearing the gift of a rifle for the king. He was greeted by the 'prime minister' and other king's servants, clad in red robes, who escorted him to the palace square to the sound of 'trumpets, conch shells, drums and gongs, besides weird bass grumblings of officiating monks.'
My own arrival was a little more low key: greeted at the gateway by the head lama and a group of teenage monks, all clad in maroon togas and wearing PLA plimsolls. The grey-haired lama wore a silver-pink waistcoat under his gown. Only a few buildings remained of the once-great monastery. As expected, most of the buildings had been systematically taken apart, the building materials used elsewhere. A few tooth-like skeletons remained of the larger halls and palace.
The one building that did remain, or had been rebuilt, was a large white temple with an orange roof. Further up the hill, beyond a sad scattering of ruins, was a second temple being rebuilt on the site of the most sacred of the former buildings. It was a beautiful pace despite the fallen glory. Bathed in the spring sunshine, the white buildings had an unearthly air as they dominated the valley and mountains beyond. Full of excitement, I was led through to the courtyard, where young monks squatted over easels, bowing their heads and reciting the sacred scriptures. Their chanting suddenly died down as they realised a foreigner was present. This was the culmination of my trip. and I felt slightly in awe of the place.
The lama invited me in to take pictures and left me alone to wander about- Within the main prayer hall was a modest 10-foot high gilded Buddha. This was no match for the 50-foot high golden statue that Rock had seen in the same place. 1 wonder what had happened to it. In the back of the room was a row of warlike gods, representing the spirits of Mt Mitzuga: they rode ferocious green and white lions and were armed with hows and arrows, or swords. Some of the gods had several pairs of arms and legs, others had crowns of skulls. All of the statues were robed, in deep hues of blue, orange, green and pink. Leaving the English master behind, I climbed up the hill beyond the monastery to photograph the temple from the spot where Rock had taken a picture entitled: 'The Lama City of Muli on the slopes of Mt Mitzuga'.
The contrast was startling. Now the walls had gone, and the once tight cluster of white buildings was reduced to a few slumps in the arid brown earth. A pair of swifts rushed over my head, wheeling around for insects. The atmosphere of this new Muli made me want to leave: the ghosts of the old were still around, and they pushed me away. Before I left, I asked the lama about Joseph Rock, but he said he had never heard of him. The lama spoke little Chinese, and seemed reluctant to talk via the English master, he just smiled, and waved around the place, urging me to see for myself.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
On his first visit to Muli, Joseph Rock spent three days being entertained by the king, taking portraits and exchanging gifts. Rock became good friends with the Muli king, and was to return on several occasions to Muli, to use the monastery as his base for explorations further afield. The king was a jolly fellow, 36 years old. with a round figure and weak muscles because he never worked or exercised. The lama king had once been a living Buddha, and in 1924 he was surrounded by cringeing lama courtiers.
They crawled in on their hands and knees and would not dare look at the king until he had touched them on the shoulder. When they left his presence, they would shuffle backwards, not daring to show their backs to the king. Rock was invited to dine with the king, and after a lecture on western life, he joined the king to partake in Muli delicacies: butter tea and yak cheese interspersed with hair, and cakes as heavy as rocks. The explorer's party was also presented with gifts of eggs, rice, wormy ham and lumps of salt. In exchange. Rock gave out silver coins and three cakes of scented soap ('the greasy black necks of all the lamas, including the king and Living Buddha, showed that soap was not in demand.')
Rock's caravan had brought a great deal of photographic equipment, and he took it on himself to take special portraits of the Muli king and his court. The king sat on his throne, surrounded by the best furniture and carpets in the palace, and posed in his most ceremonial rubes. Rock also recorded the king's deputies: his military chief, the chief magistrate, and the Living Buddha on horseback. As a reward, the king sent a procession of 40 lamas the next evening to Rock's living quarters, to scare away any devils. They did this by blowing on their long trumpets and building a fire, onto which they threw effigies of lurking devils. Altogether, Rock stayed three days at the palace of Muli before returning to Lijiang.
On his departure, the king presented him with more gifts: golden bowls and leopard skins. He was seen off by the king's secretary, and given an escort of eight men, who went ahead each day to prepare a campsite while they were still in Muli territory. Rock was impressed by the courtesy and hospitality shown to him in Muli, and was sad to leave. 'A peculiar loneliness stole into my heart,' he wrote when he left, 'I thought of the kindly, primitive friends whom I had just left, living secluded from the world, buried among the mountains, untouched by and ignorant of western life.'
I felt little regret when I left the monastery after my brief visit. I returned to Wachang, around the hill, a much jollier place by far. The English master had deserted me, and I walked hack alone. The Muli monastery was now a pitiful place compared to its former glory, but on the other hand, the local village now echoed to the raucous cries of the classroom. At one end of the humpy main street (there were no cars or roads to Wachang, the nearest highway was down in the valley) was a primary school, where children could be heard rehearsing Tihetan peasant songs. At the top end of the street, the Middle school kids just yelled out of the windows at me.
Wachang, whose name literally meant 'tile factory', had become atypical Chinese small town. complete with high rise blocks topped with satellite dishes. It has a Post Office, a Tibetan guesthouse and a store that sold the basics of rural life: daggers, pictures of fluffy kittens and more beer juice. As I walked up the main street I saw a young girl sat on a .stool ouiside a kiosk, with an intravenous drip of glucose in her arm. This was a popular Chinese 'remedy' for listlessness.
Further up the street I was called over by a rough-looking man squatting against a wall. I was a bit fed up with being pestered by everyone in town. hut something in his manner made me go over. 'ID card!' he snapped, as 1 arrived, and he whipped out his police card. 'Where have you come from?' he barked as he flicked through my passport. When I said Youngning, he asked to see my closed-area permit. I played the fool and showed him my Chinese visa. He seemed content with this and let me go. A close call, I thought.
In the afternoon I went to give a talk to the English class at the Middle school. I was expecting a class of about thirty kids, so I got a shock when I walked into the playground to see the whole school of 200 pupils assembled, staring at me in excited anticipation. The teacher had rigged up his karaoke machine as a makeshift PA, and my hesitant Mandarin emerged from the speakers in muffled, triple echo. 'Teach them a few words of everyday English,' the teacher said, so I told the pupils to say 'Hi' instead of yelling 'Allo!'. I toyed with the idea of getting them all to say 'Have a nice day', hut I settled on the more mundane 'How are you?' instead. And that just about exhausted the snotty-nosed crowd's memorising ability.
'Tell them how important it is to learn English,' said the teacher, 'Many of the pupils are not enthusiastic.' I tried to explain that English was the international language, and useful in many different fields. But what use was that to a village full ofTibeian kids who would probably never meet a foreigner, and who would end up working in the fields? Just when I was getting into my stride, telling the kids about our strange English habits ('Never ask an English person how much they earn, or how many children they have...'), the teacher told me to wind up with a song. The only one we all knew was Happy Birthday. The gathering broke up, and for the rest of my stay in Wachang 1 was plagued by shouts of 'Hi! How are you?' from the school windows.
Meanwhile, I went for a peep at the spartan classrooms, and gave a reading of 'The Farmer's Buried Treasure' in English to one of the classes. The school was the social centre tor the kids of Wachang. They were at the windows, shouting, from first thing in the morning until I retired to my room at night. The classes finished officially at 8pm, but the pupils hung around, doing their homework, or practising their disco dancing steps in formation, to seventies western music played on an old cassette.
Modern Muli was a world away from the kingdom of cringing peasants of sixty years ago, when the villagers lived in fear of the monks. It was still poor, but not wretched: everyone had enough to eat. There were secret policemen, but the one I saw on the street later invited me over for a game of cards. I realised that the Muli kingdom I had come looking for was no longer there: Muli was now just another small corner of the Great Chinese Socialist Family, with all the fruits of 'Socialism With Chinese Characteristics'. The quaint, despotic monks had been replaced by the all-pervading influence of the Party, and its now pragmatic slogans of socialist construction. The colour and culture of Muli had been eradicated in the name of Mao, and now it was forgotten by the young generation, whose desires and pastimes were similar to those of millions of other Chinese.
Back in the shack restaurant that night, I met a 'Minorities Expert' from Chengdu. I could tell he wasn't from Muli because he was wearing a tie. He had been sent from the Minorities Institute to document the fast disappearing traditions of the more remote mountain tribes in Sichuan. At last, the Chinese were doing something to preserve the cultures that they had so long tried to suppress. But this man had little time for Muli and its people, whom he dismissed as just diny Tibetans. 'That's why I only eat at this restaurant, because it is run by a Chinese and therefore the hygiene is OK. The Tibetans don't even wash their hands,' he told me confidentially.
The man was Just using Muli as a stopover on the way to visit some other matriarchal Mosuo people, further to the north. He warned me not to venture into the hills around Muli because of bears and Tibetan robbers. 'Was that why the men I saw in the jeep were carrying guns?' I asked him. 'No, that would just be for shooting birds,' he replied. But it didn't seem likely to me. You don't use an AK47 to bag pheasants. 'Destination Konkaling' had been the unofficial theme of my trip. Konkaling. the mountain lair of the bandits in Rock's day. Now the Chinese called it Gong Ling and had put a road in there. It was only forty miles to the north, but the road went in from the northern side, and would mean a 10-day trip going back via Lijiang to get there.
I went for one last look. up to the ridge above Muli. to survey the countryside. And I realised that walking to Konkaling from here was not on. The sheer scale of the mountains, plus my lack of supplies and equipment ruled that out. I had been lucky so far, getting to Muli with nothing more than a knapsack full of peanuts and biscuits. But that sort of approach would not get me to Konkaling: it would need camping equipment, proper food and a portable stove, and prefenshty a few companions, for safety.
As I looked over the to the rise and fail of the huge hills, I realised this was the end of my trip. From here on, it would be homeward bound all the way, and I would have to set my sights on some new target. I would leave Konkaling for someone else to discover again: it was probably Just another Chinese outpost by now, something like Wujiao or Wachang, with log cabins, pool tables, karaoke parlours and logging trucks. But it still nagged me that I would never really know.
Monday, February 16, 2009
I thought how ridiculous this was, to describe a city softy like me in this way, when these people led such hard, unrewarding lives. I thanked him, and left him with my walking stick, which he had much admired. It was a simple three hour descent into the valley, past Tibetans leading their tinkiing mules, until I saw my first logging truck on the road.
The route they took south to Bowa followed the light blue waters of the Litang River, sixty miles down to the county town of Bowa. The valley was a vast curving spread of wheat terraces, surrounded by the snow tipped Muli peaks. I flagged down the first truck that came along, and hopped aboard next to the surprised Chinese driver. What followed for the next two hours was a white-knuckle ride as the overloaded truck wallowed in low gear up the twisting, dusty road. There were often steep drops down to the river, and the truck drove precariously within a few inches of the edge. Therefore I was quite relieved when the truck broke an axle while climbing out of the valley.
It didn't take long to get another lift: logging trucks passed at intervals of five minutes, each loaded down with five or six timbers of up to a metre in diameter. At this rate, Tibet would have no forest left in ten years time. I got a lift with a supply truck, and sat on some boxes on the back, marvelling at the spectacular mountain scenery of the valley. I felt a mixture of exhilaration and terror as the truck hugged the corners, and I gazed back at the receding form of Mt Mitzuga. My fellow passengers, a trio of grumpy Chinese labourers, were immune to both scenery and danger.
High up on the mountain road, the driver blared hi.s horn at a group of brightly-dressed Tibetan lads trying to hitch a lift. Then the truck stopped and they clambered aboard. They were a boisterous, rosy-cheeked bunch, on their way to Bowa to sell their traditional medicines in the market. Most of them wore the dark red cloaks with stetsons, fur hats or trilbies. They beamed at me and one of them nipped me on the arm, asking questions in fudgy Mandarin: Had I been to Lhasa? No? What a pity. Would I like to buy some Tihetan medicine? He pointed to a gazelle horn sticking out of his bag. No, thanks.
The rest of the Tibetans gathered round, putting their arms around me and pulling at the hair on my arms, 'So ugly! Hey, we can give you some oil to get rid of it...' 'Are you married? Do you think Chinese girls are good looking? Would you like to sleep with one?' It was the Burmese taxi ail over again. I began to feel menaced by these guys: the younger ones looked friendly, hut the older ones looked like they could mean trouble. And they ail carried very long daggers at their waists.
They continued their barrage of questioning, wanting to look in my bag, and for me to show them my camera. I fobbed them off. and for a while they changed the subject. 'Has your wife got a nose like yours?' one of them asked. 'No.' That's just as well, because yours is big enough for two people!' Laughs all round. 'Which is better, Britain or China?' asked another. They've both got good points, I said. I noticed they referred to themselves as Chinese rather than Tibetan. 'What do the English think about giving Hong Kong back to us Chinese? They must he really unhappy!' "Most British people couldn't care less,' I said.
Then we got back onto the subject of money. They wanted to know how much English money I had, and what an English pound note looked like. I told them I didn't have any. Then they wanted to know what was in my moneybelt. Just my passport and some renminbi, I said. 'Give us 50rmb for food. We haven't got any money,' one of them said. I didn't reply. 'It's very dangerous around here, you know. Thieves, had people. You could get stabbed or shot. Aren't you afraid?' Another one said. 'No.' 'You should be,' they said. 'We can protect you, if you give us 50rmh,' 'Yes, this guy here is a kung fu expert, he could kill you with his hare hands,' said one of them. 'Have you ever been stabbed or shot? Do you know what it feels like? Someone round here could kill you very easily, ' said one of the man with his arm around me.
I mumbled something about not being able to spare any money. "What about your camera? How much is that worth?' said one. 'About 300rmb,' I said. It was really worth a thousand. 'How about you swap it for this knife?' said the Tibetan next to me. He pulled out the blade and held it an inch from my face. 'Look, it's really sharp...' and the blade almost touched my skin. They all laughed, and one of them said: 'He's scared.'
I noticed the Tibetan holding the knife had a locket of the Dalai Lama around his neck. By now, I was petrified. What would happen if I didn't hand over the money, or the camera? Were they serious about using the knife? The Chinese were looking the other way. at the front of the truck. We were in the middle of nowhere: no villages or friendly policemen to seek help from. I pulled in my stomach involuntarily, expecting a sudden thrust of a blade.
Fortunately, at that moment the truck juddered to a halt, and the driver climbed out to inspect a wheel. The tense atmosphere was suddenly broken, and I leapt up, pulling my bag with me, and jumped over the side of the truck. The driver fiddled with the wheel for a minute or two, and I padded round the side of the truck, wondering what to do. Would these Tibetans jump off here too, if I stayed? Could I escape into the forest?
The driver was back in the crowded cab, starting up. and he waved me back on board. When I insisted on walking, he asked what the problem was. I murmured that the 'bad eggs' on the back wanted to steal my money. 'Get in,' he said, and I squeezed in with his other two passengers in the cab. When I told him what had just happened, he laughed. 'Oh, they're just a bunch of kids, nothing 10 be at raid of.' Nevertheless, at the next turn-off he stopped the truck and kicked the Tibetans off the truck, and I sighed with relief.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
The scenery was spectacular for the first two days; the same epic hills as surrounded Muli, covered in pine and spruce, and barely inhabited but for a few Tibetans and Yi eking out an existence from the narrow terraces of barley. But as we travelled further south the landscape became progressively deforested, until there was only a little scrubby bush left on the skeletal hills. On my first night I stopped over in Bowa, a Tibetan-Han outpost in the hills. Its only interesting feature was a department store with a Tibetan section selling prayer wheels, portable shrines, chubas and multi-coloured woven belts. And I was back in 'Laowai!' territory, where all the sinicised Tibetans gave me gormless stares.
Ironically, I felt better for being back in a Chinese area. I felt safer and knew what to expect- The Chinese attendants in the guesthouse had the same m alter "of-fact practicality as anywhere else, which felt reassuring after the friendly but haphazard treatment I had received from local Tihetans.
The second day on the road was a nightmare of a journey on an overloaded bus, lurching along pencil-thin mountain roads. I boarded the ancient bus at the crack of dawn, when the dogs were still howling and the cocks half-crowing. After a rowdy scrum by the door, I managed to squeeze onto a ledge near the driver. It was already standing-room only. but peasants were still climbing in through the windows with their sacks and satchels. Eventually. I was hemmed in by unkempt Tibetan labourers with brown teeth and shaggy hair, as the bus shuddered into life and rolled out of the forecourt.
About half a mile out of town the tarmac road ran out. The bus coasted down a dusty ledge cut into a cliff, towards the distant floor of the valley. It was a long drop from the edge of the road straight down a scrubby canyon into a void of boulders and landslides. I looked on in horror as the ledge eased out round a low overhang and the road sloped away from the cliff, with only a flimsy, flattened crash barrier between the swaying bus and oblivion. I whimpered and turned away, unable to watch; it would take only one misplaced rock or a broken axle to pitch the whole bus straight over the edge.
When I looked again, we had cleared the outcrop and I prayed it would be the last such threat. Unfortunately, it was to be just the first of many. For the next four hours I crouched in extreme discomfort, feeling a mixture of terror, boredom and leg cramp as I was squeezed in by chain-smoking peasants. I tried not to look each time the bus veered round another blind corner, swaying between some rocky protrusion and a dizzy drop-off, but I was scared to distraction. I couldn't read a huok or think of anything else while a messy extinction was so close at hand. This was a different kind of fear from the calculated risks of walking the Tiger Leaping Gorge; at least there I had been in control of my own destiny: here I was helpless, at the mercy of an insouciant driver and his clapped-out wagon.
It didn't help to see across the loops in the mountain road to crumbling sections shored up with piles of loose stones against further erosion. And when we stalled on the middle of a rickety wooden bridge some 500 feet over a chasm, or when the driver tried to overtake an overloaded logging truck whose timbers had tipped the vehicle back onto its rear wheels, I bunched my fists, closed my eyes and wished I was hack at home.
The other passengers seemed curiously untroubled by the perilous nature of the route. When we reached a mountain pass that marked the end of the Muli hill country, they disembarked for a pee-break with a nonchalance bordering on stupidity. I sipped a can of coconut juice and revelled in the simple pleasure of breathing.
The rest of the day's Journey was a relatively stress-free trundle clown to a nowhere town called Ninglang, where I cooped up in my hotel room to escape the stares and 'Allos!'. The evening was passed, like so many others in Chinese small towns, with a bottle of weak local beer and a bag of peanuts, sat in from of the TV.
The TV news showed the same items every night: scenes of Party leaders in conference, sitting inert behind old tables with their lidded cups of tea as some bigwig lectured them on a point of the economy; or the rural scenes of peasants spraying their crops with hand pumps as the announcer described a new productivity scheme. The national news gave extensive coverage to visits from leaders of obscure countries: Prime Minister Li Peng meets the president of Surinam, and mouths the same platitudes about greater co-operation and stronger ties between developing countries. And the news finishes off with a human interest story: a postman in Hunan who is retiring after 40 years of dedicated service. His post-round seems to involve fording flooded rivers and scaling muddy hills to get the mail through to grateful villagers.
These items were interspersed with unannounced adverts for air conditioners, mountain bikes and cold remedies. Not having a great advertising industry, the Chinese ads relied heavily on simple computer graphics and booming, God-like voice-overs to say how grand their products were. Back in Lijiang, I felt deflated because my real journey was all but over. All that remained was to retrace my steps via Kunming and Guilin, back to Hong Kong.
Now that I no longer had the goal of getting to Muli, my everyday, real-world worries resurfaced: nagging thoughts of hills to pay and lax forms to fill in, back home. And perhaps because I had been too long in China, the background babble began to sound like snatches of English: I would turn suddenly on the street when I heard someone say; '...sausages...that's the one...', only to see old Chinese ladies or pedicab drivers.
My bedraggled appearance after a week on the road attracted a few odd stares from the westerners in Lijiang. When I went to shave off my stubble and use some 2-in-l shampoo in the shower, 1 felt like I was washing off all my experiences of Muli. 1 emerged squeaky clean to enjoy a feast of steak and chips in 'Pete's Cafe', on whose wall I read: 'I have a 'Great Locos of China' to swap. It's a vast volume and a really rivetting read. The chapter that refers to the engines that ploughed the route from Beijing to Chiangjao in the North-East is really quite fascinating - a remarkable account. Anyway, this especial edition is ready to he swapped. If you're interested please contact Trevor (Guesthouse 3, room 402). I'm not too picky about the book I swap it for, but if anybody has a copy of the current edition of the Modern Model Railway Makers Manual ).008 gauge, or the Casey Jones 1957 Annual, I'll be jubilant.'
Underneath this notice was another: ROOM MATE EXCHANGE 'We want to swap anything with two legs for Trevor, a happy little British hoy. He enjoys train watching, plane watching, bird watching, wears knickers and keeps a fascinating diary. Send resumes and enquiries to D&K, room 402.'
The cafe sold ganja pancakes and little bags of hashish, which pleased Alan from Blackpool very much. He had travelled down from Beijing and had very little nice to say about China. All the Chinese he had met were cheating, unfriendly slobs. The women were hideously ugly and the men had disgusting eating habits. The food made him retch and the beer was like piss. Alan was travelling through Asia after being sacked from his job with the council for having an attitude problem.
Later in the evening, just before I was due to catch my sleeper bus to Kunming. we were joined by the proprietor's son, who was a manager with the local Bank of China. 'Most Chinese would like to go abroad you know,' he said. 'In China, it doesn't matter if you are lazy or hard working, you still get the same reward. I could stay at home every day but still get paid. So people just want the chance to work hard and he a success/ "Then why don't you go to Shenzhen?' i asked. 'Impossible. I have my family here, and I could not get permission from my work to move,' he said with regret. He was the get-up-and-go type. who in Hong Kong or Taiwan would he running his own small company. But here in this frumpy Chinese country town he was still stuck in a nine-to-fivejoh, shuffling papers for the government.
Twenty four hours later I was sat in a Vietnamese scullery in Kunming, eating delicious crusty bread rolls and drinking their Vietnamese coffee. I was back in a real city, where shops had nice things, where there were real restaurants and hotels and taxis, and where the girls had legs and figures that turned my head. I bought a soft-sleeper ticket to Guilin and spent the next two days by myself in a luxury compartment. reading the last of my paperbacks (Tai Pan; never mind the quality, feel the width). I tore off each page as I finished and threw it out of the window, to flutter into the karst landscape.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
This time round. Guilin seemed vulgar and modern. The men were spivvy and pushy, the young women looked sulky and spoiled. Over at Second Sister's apartment Mr Hu was keeping an eye on the place while everyone was away on business in Guangzhou. On the: way over. I picked up a China daily to catch up on all the news I had missed over the last month: President Mandela! Nixon is dead! Air strikes in Bosnia! I passed a day wandering round Guilin's beautiful Western Hills park, were every attraction had an extra price tag (3rmb to see a scruffy temple, 10rmb admission to the tiny museum), and the caves had tacky electronic-spooky sound effects added. I climbed one of the hills and rested from the mounting humidity in one of the pavilions.
A Chinese girl posed in a score of polity gestures for her boyfriend's camera as Mig 17s roared overhead and steam trains chugged past below. There was an odd threshing noise echoing off the hills, which I eventually attributed to machine gun fire coming from a nearby army firing range.
Later in the day 1 went to visit Third Sister's new apartment over looking the Li river. The varnished parquet floor and expensive wallpaper contrasted with its poky kitchen and squat loo. Overall, the flat looked a treat and I was jealous because it was better than our place in Auckland. Third Sister had spent much of her time during my last visit here with her usually spotless features spattered with paint as she decorated the walls. Her training in Architecture and Design had been put to good use in doing up her first home.
Husband Ha-Tong was a matey type, very attached to his new baubles of yuppiedom: the beeper and mobile phone. 'Michael, can I ask you one question?' he said, looking at my scarf and hiking boots. 'Why do you wear such weird clothes?' Third Sister's silence presumably denoted agreement on this issue. I felt like asking him why all Chinese men dressed exactly the same: white shirt, dark slacks, Dunhill-copy belt, slip-on shoes, aviator shades, beeper and copy-watch. But I said nothing. This time, before I left. Third Sister pressed a 2kg bag of oranges on me lur the trip to Guangzhou. 'In case you get hungry.'
I flew with younger brother, Fu-Liang, to Guangzhou on a 757. to meet up with Second Sister and Xiao Qingfor a couple of days. It wasn't a pleasant flight, especially since the hostess sat opposite me spent most of her time struggling with one of the door seals that kept flipping open and making sucking noises. Landing in Guangzhou was like arriving in Hong Kong: it had that same air of freewheeling energy, plus all the trappings of visible wealth such as mobile phones, flouncy dresses and gold jewellery.
Waiting at the airport, I had an amusing half-hour watching a crowd of Chinese watching some black Americans loading their luggage onto a truck. The Chinese were mesmerised by the 'hni's' glistening bare chests. Xiao Qing picked us up in what had been, a year ago, his brand new Toyota Crown. Now it had a few dents, some brown re-painted patches, and no huh caps. It was hard to keep a car nice in China. Inside though, was still pleasantly air-conditioned as we sat in the traffic jams on the way into the city centre.
We were now well within the Hong Kong prosperity sphere: plenty of BMWs and Fairwood Fast Food outlets, and adverts aplenty for Japanese gadgets. We pulled into an underground car park of a new shopping mall. and took a lift up to a swish restaurant for a 'steam-boat' meal. Xiao Qing and Second Sister wanted to impress me. and they certainly succeeded. The restaurant was like its ornate Hong Kong equivalents except it was roomier and the staff more polite. The young waitresses in starched green uniforms had taken Hong Kong-English names on their badges, such as 'Fanny', 'Amly(?)' and 'Bennie'. I felt a bit out of place with my rough shirt and muddy hoots.
The pleasures of a steam-boat meal eluded me. It was too much like hard work, dipping lumps of frozen beef and lamb, or still-wriggling shrimps skewered on sticks, and blobs of shellfish into the boiling cauldron. After an hour I was gorged on meat and we were left wilh a soup that tasted like dishwater. All for l50rmb a head, and I was till left craving some simple rice and vegetables that would have cost a hundred times less in Mull. Lunch was followed by window shopping in the Hong Kong-style complex (aptly named 'GoFukYu'). The only difference was the prices, in renminbi. The goods: wide-screen TVs, rice boilers, laser discs and massage machines, were ail the Hong Kong favourites.
Here in Guangzhou they were as much as twice the price, and I suggested to Second Sister that if they wanted anything I could easily nip across the border and buy it for them. They readily agreed, and started drawing up a shopping list. After an hour of full-on materialism I started to get restless. There was something vaguely disturbing about the head-down acquisitiveness on display in this mall. It wasn't like the shallow show-offyness of Hong Kong: for these people it was all deadly serious. I thought back to the peasant in Xisuanbanna who had sat next to me at a roadside shop and asked for my plastic mineral waier bottle when I had finished with it. And the way he had fingered it with admiration when I handed ir over: it had made his day.
So we went to see Xiao Qing's new 'amusement arcade' in a small town outside Guangzhou. As we drove there. Second Sister asked me about private education for little Fu Bo in Britain. When I told her a boarding school could costs as much as 30,000rmb a term, she said 'Is that all?' She wanted to send Fu Bo straight away, but I told her to wait until he was eight and could speak some English.
The amusement arcades of Yanchang were a revelation. When Xiao Qing said he dealt with electronic games, I had assumed he meant the Space Invaders type. In reality, they were just poker machines: electronic card games for lOrmh a hand. And the amount of money changing hands in the crowded arcades was simply phenomenal: the minimum playing fee for each of the 30 machines was l00rmb a time. Each machine was serviced individually by a young woman assistant who clutched a thick wad of 100 and 50rmb bills. Her role seemed limited to pushing the credit button every five minutes as the eager gamblers bashed the console and slapped down another large denomination note. The players were virtually all young men and gambled with an intense. Chinese abandon. Where did they get all that money from, I wondered? And wasn't gambling supposed to be illegal in China? Yet the arcade had a policeman on duty on the door.
Well, this was Guangdong province, far from Beijing. Xiao Qing had three such gambling places in this town alone. Helped by the rest of the family (Ha-Tong, Fu-Liang), he ran several similar places in Guangzhou, Guilin, Chongqing and Beijing. Each employed 60 assistants in two shifts, since the places were open till 5am. The pay was a generous 600rmb a month ('That's twice what I get at the hotel in Guilin,' said Second Sister ruefully) plus food and accommodation in an upstairs dormitory.
We sat outside the busy games parlour, shovelling rice and vegetables down and chatting to the staff. The boss, his wife and their funny foreign brother-in-law: there were few class divisions, only money. Yancheng was a different kind of Chinese nowhere town. Sal in Xiao Qing's temporary apartment that night as he fiddled with some circuit boards, I looked out of the window into a scene from 'Blade Runner': crackling neon signs, electric cables and adverts for Japanese VCRs. Below, in a murky alley, was the green glow from karaoke parlours and the pinks and purples from beauty parlours. It was almost midnight on a Wednesday and everything was still in full swing: cafes and herbal medicine shops, printers and car repair workshops.
The town had been built quickly and shoddily: it was all concrete and makeshift traffic lanes. The hotels were pools of crude glamour amid construction-site mess, their lobbies and restaurants plush and ill-fitting, while the stair-wells were cluttered with discarded chairs and tables. Meanwhile, I was getting restless again. Xiao Qing and Seconil Sister's idea of a good time was to take me to as many restaurants as possible in one day.
The rest of the time they spent preparing for the Grand Opening of their latest gambling parlour. I was worn out and lying on the bed waiting for them to turn in, when Second Sister announced it was time for 'Midnight Tea'. This turned out to be another round of dim sim at the crowded hotel restaurant. 'You look tired, Michael,' said Second Sister as we tucked in. 'I thought westerners enjoyed staying out late. I've seen it in films where you go to discos.' Yes, I thought, but not every night. The energy of the Chinese economic miracle was too much for me 'Never mind,' said Xiao Qing, 'We'll give you a lift to Shenzhen tomorrow.'
SHENZHEN: Almost Free.
The most enduring image I took away from China was not the Tiger Leaping Gorge or the mountains of Muli. It was the sheer scale of industrial development I saw in Guangilong province. During the 100km drive to the Hong Kong border at Shenzhen, the road was one long procession of new factories. Almost every hundred yards would be the bamboo scaffolding skeleton of a new building going up to make shoes or radios or toys. Whole hillsides had been clawed away to make room for access roads and loading bays, and that morning I saw nothing hut piles of dirt, excavators and the shacks of construction workers.
Occasionally we would pass through a new town of ugly shuttered shop-fronts, with a few restaurants and beauty parlours. The whole landscape was dusty, polluted and under development. Everything was unfinished, as if waiting for some huge army of workers to invade. It was an industrial Olympic Village that went on forever, preparing for a D-Day of production. I found it depressing and intimidating. As we got closer to Hong Kong the emphasis changed slightly: there were condominium developments and golf courses. Some Hong Kong vehicles began to appear in the traffic amongst the Chinese-registered Audis and Mercedes: trucks from Kowloon and Leyland buses un Cityline cross-border routes to the major towns of Guangdong.
And then we reached the restricted area of Shenzhen. The crossing point was like a London Tube station: lines of commuters rushing past the barriers, showing their permits. We hit trouble when Second Sister found her permit had expired: the police at the barrier told her quite bluntly to get lost when she asked for an extension. 'Go back to Guilin and apply for one/ the officer-in-charge said. In the end she slipped through in the car with Xiao Qing. and we entered a landscaped wonderland.
The outskirts of Shenzhen were like a theme park: neat, spacious and green. There were trees and bushes, and the roads were smooth. I could feel the pull of Hong Kong, almost like gravity, We adjourned to a McDonalds. where they ran through the shopping list of things for me to buy in Hong Kong. Then I slipped out of the car at the crowded concourse of Lo Wu and walked to the immigration building. 'See you tonight,' I said. I dipped into Hong Kong for five hours, to buy up the goodies for my in-laws. It was like emerging from the ocean into a clear, sunlit wurid.
Sitting on an air-conditioned KCR train gliding through the New Territories, Hong Kong seemed sleepy, lush and orderly after the frenetic rawness of Shenzhen. There was no dust or mud: even the piles of dirt on the building sites looked tidier than in China. And the people were almost narcotic. No stares, no 'Ailos'. They looked stately and sour. Downtown, I whipped round the MongKok shops, dodging the shuffling crowds on the pavements in my rush to buy cameras and sunglasses. People spoke English of a sort. There were Chinese cub scouts instead of Young Pioneers. Schoolgirls wore English blazers with 'PREFECT' badges on their lapels.
Nobody looked at me, except the western tourists, who looked stupid and fat and unaccustomed to the hot weather. In the shops, I found myself breaking into putonghua when I pointed to things. 'Zheige.-.that one. Xiamiande neige...' And the MongKok shopkeepers understood.
It was only on my return to Shenzhen that I noticed its crudity: the crumbling pavements, the massage girls lolling outside the 'barber' shops strung along the hurder. Ami the wide use of Mandarin instead of Cantonese, and the hawkers selling pineapple sticks, Just like in Lijiang. Second Sister, Xiao Qing and Fu-Liang were sat in their hotel room, admiring the purchases I had smuggled through for them. The sunglasses didn't fit Fu-Liang, they were far too big and looked ridiculous on him. But he didn't mind: they were Ray Bans, and it was the label that mattered. I spent one last night in China, in a hotel room overlooking the empty fields on the Hong Kong side of the border. One last night amid the anarchic energy of Shenzhen.
One last time for all the nudges, stares and 'Allo! Laowai!'.
- Chapter 26: LUGU LAKE: The Real Journey Starts
- Chapter 27: YONGNING: First Sighting Of the Muli P...
- Chapter 28: WUJIAO: Guns and Rhododendrons.
- Chapter 29: MULI AT LAST.
- Chapter 30: WACHANG: The End Of My Quest.
- Chapter 31: Joseph Rock's first visit to Muli
- Chapter 32: BOWA AND BEYOND: Riding Trucks. Gettin...
- Chapter 33: HITCHING HOME: Sunny Trucks and Scary ...
- Chapter 34: Guilin, Guangzhou and home
- ▼ February (9)