Monday, May 2, 2011

Entry 15: Ethnic Minority Exploration of Yunnan, China

In route on our great escape from Lao we stayed a night in a town that had the-best-of-services Lao towns have to offer (and surprisingly available to tourists) - the Red Cross hot saunas. The water is converted to steam via a wood fire located under the wooden steam rooms, men separate from women. Before filling the rooms, the steam passes through herbs and a certain kind of sweet smelling wood for a yummy experience.

Crossing the border was easy by bus and very few tourists were headed to China. After Laos, it was especially nice to be greeted by smiling, helpful Chinese and to be rid of our unfriendly driver, hopefully the last Laos I will have contact with until I get the nerve to visit again someday. Mengla, the first city we stopped in had many ethnic minorities walking around dressed in the garments of their respective groups.

I wasn’t convinced by the Lonely Planet book’s suggestion that we should beeline to the next city in order to see minorities and instead we stayed in Mengla for the next 5 days exploring the surrounding border areas which are as interesting an experience as one can still have in ethnic south Yunnan,China. Peter, a really nice local boy who taught himself English drove us around to see several minority villages, including Dai, Ahka and Yao. We crashed Day 1 of a 3-day Dai wedding party where we ate their traditional food, much of which came from a huge water buffalo killed that morning, the head (too heavy to lift, I tried) still on the front porch.

The Dai are related to Thailand’s Thai people; the women are prettier and wear such colorful, tight dresses.

They have a great sense of village and house design, harmoniously, clustered together with tiny side streets. The first floor of their home is high off the ground on stilts (concrete columns) with all other parts of the house made of wood, the ceilings are very high with the roof pitched in many different, ascetic directions, their communal space is a big covered, airy deck (where we hung and slept in our hammocks) while the whole family sleeps together on the living room floor inside. There are big cracks in the floor boards so that when cleaning, dirt and dust easily falls to the ground below and food scraps for one of the fortunate farm animals living under the house.

We hired a couple of local boys with motorbikes to take us to an Ahka village high in the hills. The Ahka have very interesting dress traditionally with lots of silver, now mostly only a worthless alloy in the form of coins, bells and intricate jewelry sewn into their cloths and hats.

Several of the coins are still real, old silver coins from the time the regions’ countries were Euro-colonies and the weight of their cloths is impressively heavy. Like other tribes, the Akha used to be very proud and self-sufficient, now they are considered impoverished, even by other tribes’ standards and are forced to grow Pu’er tea, a famously, expensive Yunnan tea, for minimal wages.

I bought a handmade hat that Yao men wear at the next village we toured and Sony tried on their dress. The Yao were especially friendly and we hung out with them for a bit.

The next few days, Sony and I spent in a Dai Village called Mandan, an hour away from Mengla in the hills toward the Laos border. The Dai village is a super relaxed atmosphere set in a beautiful valley with semi-cut forest on the valley sides and farming plots in the valley floor.

The grandma and grandpa were the home stay highlight as they still moved about in a very calm, traditional manner, grandpa weaving amazing baskets (we bought one for my mom) and donning a different weaved hat several times a day. Grandma moved with the authority of a matriarch, wouldn’t stop trying to feed us sticky rice with assorted vegetables and did her domestic housework topless much of the time.

In a few years when the elderly are gone, the Dai will lose their language as schools are required to teach only Chinese and what little else remains. Chinese tourism promotes the wild elephants that supposedly live in this valley, but Sony and I saw no evidence. We hiked 8 hours to the top of the valley ridge through supposedly virgin rainforest without even seeing an animal larger than a squirrel or hearing anything. If there are elephants I am sure the Dai intimidate them to keep them far away from their fields and if they know where they are they didn’t seem to want to let us in on it. Pretty much the same story the world over: humans can’t even share the littlest space on the planet to support even the last, tiniest populations of their big brother elephants or gorillas.

Peter drove us to Jinghong, the next city to the north where we spent several days catching up on computer activities, taxes, soaking in a nearby natural hot spring with amazing high flow, taking in good blind massages and making friends with locals, one girl which has a condo sadly with more hardwood than several acres of rainforest in the form of impressive tables, steps, beds and wall ornaments.

Lincang, our next destination city was via a horrendous, 15-hour bus ride on roads only half-built. Our objective was to see Wa people, known to inhabit the area we would pass through in our general direction north via small roads. The Wa used to have a fearsome hunting culture complete with head-hunting and displaying rivals heads in baskets set atop poles. Some of their customs still practiced are mud bathing, their version of the Thai water festival and eating raw flesh cut off live water buffalo and the partially digested plant matter in stomachs of dead ones. The Chinese government now requires that each village have a government approved chief and that this chief appoints the leaders. Thus, the Wa shaman, previously the leader and most important tribal member, shares the recent fate of those shamans from other tribes in China, reduced to beggars in street selling trinkets or telling fortunes. Once in Lincang, with more internet research and our fortunate run-in with the blogger who has the best internet description of what remains of the Wa, we decide the Wa are no longer worth visiting, as their last remaining village is now a government, tourist park with entry fee and government sponsored activities.

We are now on a bus, teaming up with the blogger who is headed to a 3-day Yi festival, an 8-hour bus ride to the northwest. Tam, the blogger is from Hong Kong and is content to see what remains of ethnic cultures at a distance through a zoom lens. Not me, I want to smell their shit, if possible. Right now I am sitting fireside, next to a goddess alter and across from a bed perched up in an ancient, decorated hardwood enclosure in the most important room of a Mosu communal living compound, the matriarch’s bedroom. The Mosu are described by the Lonely Planet as the world’s last practicing matriarch (not true) and the “Kingdom of Girls and Paradise for Men”. This experience far exceeds attending any festival just for dress viewing since festivals have all deteriorated into karaoke singing, bad American hip hop imitations and propaganda stages for political officials.

Back to the matriarchs in a bit. What luck to come across Tam’s website, emailing him and then getting an immediate response to find that he is just a block away in the same remote town and meeting him a few minutes later. We arrived in Wumulong, the town nearest the festival after the long uncomfortable bus ride from Lincang. We stayed 3 days hiking around, visiting the local market and attending the festival which was uneventful aside from the Yi dress photo opportunities.

We had fun hanging out with Tam, shared a hotel room with him and learned about his perspective of ethnic people, then sadly parted our ways. Sony and I headed to Tengchong, a town near the Burma border and an area famous in China for its hot springs. We hitched a ride in a big truck and upon opening the door I took a 15 foot fall out with camera in hand out and over the side of an embankment. Sony said it was an impressive fall, just a small cut on my hand but our backup camera (the other camera ruined from getting water logged and during my fight with Laos police) took a big hit, thus all the photos hereafter have a big white splotch in the corner where the lens is gouged out.

After taking in the main attractions, a unique hot spring with barnacle-like rocks spitting out streams of boiling water but developed in the most awful way with an outrageously expensive hotel and soaking pool no longer open to nature but enclosed in a dark building. The other attraction, Heshu, a town touted as the most scenic in China had many nice tiny streets and old buildings, but not nearly as nice as Lijiang, a town we would tour in a few weeks.

The next day we headed via small bus to a remote border town of ethnic Lisu with what looked to have the highest concentration of hot springs in the whole region. In route we chanced upon an English teacher, Tom originally from a border town with North Korea on the other side of China, but recently married to a Lisu in the village we were headed. Tom and his wife met in Christian bible study, as missionaries had a heavy presence in each of these remote parts of China. Tom invited us to stay with his Lisu farming family and he was obviously a fish-out-of-water in the countryside bumbling around and getting made fun of by his relatives, but doing his best to adapt to his new life. Tom’s other source of income is selling mountain herbs that the Lisu collect. We stayed several days, hiking around the pretty countryside and soaking in the uncared for hot springs full of soap and garbage wrappers and housed in ugly concrete buildings. Like the Mongols, the Chinese have no idea how care for hot springs, the undeveloped ones nearly as rare as Matriarchs, but along with matriarchs make my top 10 favorite things in the world. One day Tom’s Lisu mother took us on a long walk to another Lisu village which had many hot springs cascading off a mountainside into large pools.

After seeing how badly the nearby hot springs have been developed for only super rich Chinese to “enjoy”, I have the idea of trying to team up with a Chinese developer to develop this hot spring area. I met with the town’s mayor and explained that good development means as little disturbance to their village and countryside as possible and their river could be enhanced to be a world class fishing destination, as it is the first clear river I have seen in China, having its headwaters on the Burma border. A two-tiered development could be built where there would be a high end spa/ retirement community for wealthy Chinese and a public spa affordable for locals and backpackers. Since this development could include LEED “green” building and environmentally protective engineering techniques, it would be the first of its kind in China and could be partially government funded as a model community for all of China. I will be meeting with some local professors/ developers in Kunming to try and get the word out. I feel China is ripe for such a development. I just have to bring it to the right ears. This past fall, I bid on a Mongolian development project to build an entire “green” city and am hopeful I will land this job before summer. Another job idea I am pursuing is to connect wealthy Chinese with American properties, see my website I have some good connections in Beijing, so am hopeful, OSP, LLC will be successful. A crazier idea I have is to start a school to give women instruction on how to become Matriarchs again (it would be the world’s first), then possibly this planet would have a chance at recovery.

Our next destination is a direct hit on the tourist trail, a city called Dali. It must have once been a nice place, considering its dramatic setting of large mountains surrounding a big lake but the matriarchs and charm have long been replaced with “business as usual” you see in every generic city worldwide. A few days later we arrived by bus to Lijiang, another tourist destination, however some charm remains as the city’s uniqueness is it’s numerous canals crisscrossing everywhere through it’s old town of cobble stone streets, most of which are too narrow for cars. A big snow capped mountain is the city’s backdrop and a town elevation of 9000 feet is almost high enough to view totally clear blue sky, today almost as rare as a wild Panda. A relatively large number of tourists are single, Chinese girls. One girl informed me that Lijiang is famous for “one night love,”” which is Ching-lish for “one night stand.” She couldn’t believe we didn’t know about it.

If China put a chairlift on the snow mountain, Lijiang would easily make the world’s top ten best apr├Ęs ski towns, but until that happens I don’t think it is worth a second visit.

After a few days of strolling Lijiang, we were itching for a little more excitement and thus headed for Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is the deepest canyon in China with the Yangtze, a raging and yet un-dammed river at its bottom. We hiked the high trail for spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and the river gorge and also to keep us far away from the nasty road that parallels the river far below in the lower canyon. We slept in several ethnic, Naxi, villages along the way that catered to hikers with tremendous hotel room views for a few dollars. Local stalkers on horses trailed us for the entire first day hoping we would tire and want to hire their horses. Little did they know that even though our packs are large we don’t tire and if I did, I would rather throw my pack off the cliff before mounting another horse. My knee still hurts from getting thrown off my semi-wild, ex-horse, Brown.

A side trail we took one day led us down three scary ladders to the river side where we sat on a big rock next to at least class VI rapids (maybe un-run able) and walked a trail cut into the cliff side with overhanging tunnel like passages. We hitched our way out of the end of the Gorge and walked several hours on a goat trail to a ferry boat that makes only one crossing of the Yangtze River per day to a town called Daju. We made the boat crossing with only a minute to spare and once on the other side of the river walked up the canyon to an overpriced crummy hotel. Everything in our room was coated in a quarter-inch of dust, the woman wanted ten extra RMB for a shower (we went without it), in the courtyard a monkey chained to a metal box was jumping around neurotically, and at the fly infested restaurant, for added ambiance, we took the table next to the greasy chainsaw.

We boarded the only public bus leaving Daju at 7 am and got off at the mountain pass where we hitched several rides to Shitocheng, also known as the “Stone City.” The final ride we hitched was with a couple, Andre – an eighty year old Swiss man and his 22 year old Chinese girlfriend. I assumed she was only his translator but Sony clued me in, (Duh) that she is his honey; I just didn’t think it was possible. A few days later over dinner, Andre let me know that he is a retired theoretical mathematician. Coincidentally, Sony and I just finished watching a great three-part BBC series called “The Story of Math,” and since I am a math minor, we had a bit to talk about. Andre feels that the past generation of math has been a failure, mostly because we have almost all gravitated to un-testable theories, such as string theory. He thinks we have lost the way and need to get back experimental physics and simple problems that still have no explanation, i.e., the energy states of simple particles. I think our problems are partially metaphysical; as our metaphysics hinders our basic understanding of reality which impacts scientific understanding. What is common “sense” today, in 100 years from now will be viewed the way we look at people that all knew the earth was flat. He either didn’t understand or agree with me.

It was inspiring to see Andre’s continued passion in old age, he wanted photos of everything, visit as much of China as possible on his 1-year tour and his passion for the young honey’s (he mentioned that he never wanted to go back home). Inspiring is also the word that best describes the “Stone City.” There are a few places I deem worthy of a 2nd visit, this is one of them. The town is precariously perched on top of a rock outcrop with homes partially built into the rock, grades too steep for road access and surrounded with awesome views of terraced farm patches, houses and foot paths clinging to enormous mountain sides, views of the river and across the river to remote, homely-looking, self-sufficient villages still without electricity via the grid. The inhabitants all use horses or mules and since there is no pasture, only farming terraces on steep hillsides, horses are housed in each homes courtyard or roam the small alleys, Sony nearly was rundown by a spooked horse, then a pig. It is in this kind of place that the imagination doesn’t need much help to envision paradise.

After a few days in the friendly Naxi run, “Mu Guesthouse” in the room with easily the best million dollar view (but costing us only $5) in all the town, we ripped ourselves away to start our next hiking segment over many mountains to Lugu Lake, a high elevation, 9,000-foot high lake surrounded by mountains clad in pine forests. Our first day hiking was right out of “The Lord of the Rings.” In fact, I listened to the audio version of :”The Hobbit” twice during the hike, which took us on a path over immense valleys of Rivendale, up steep paths with Gollum in pursuit hewn out of the rocks of the Misty Mountains, through hand dug tunnels of the Mines of Moria, the second tunnel passing right through an enormous spire of the Dark Tower, which was one of several reaching for the sky on the ridge above us. Over the next eight days, we hiked along foot paths and stayed clear of car roads as much as possible, which is not an easy thing. China’s recent passion for road building has reached even the most remote areas of China in the past ten years and even beyond China. The “good Samaritan” Chinese are even building the Lao road section for free which will link Kunming seamlessly to Bangkok and the end of the world as the region knows it. The difference between a town with and without a road is the difference between living and survival for 99% of the local inhabitants.

Along the route, we alternated between sleeping in our hammocks hung in the forest and village homes. From a distance, the terraced farms appear so orderly and geometrically. But to walk through one requires many solving skills as the paths wind every which way, some dead ends, some over steep drop offs, across irrigation ditches and around ponds. In the centroid of one of the valleys, a nice young Naxi/Mosuo couple (Sony thought the girl is so pretty), took us in and cooked great meals for us, all ingredients picked fresh just outside her door. After crossing the Yangtze again, we found ourselves in Mosuo territory. I don’t know how these people escaped Christian missionaries, since by Christian paternal standards these Mosuo are the greatest threat to brotherhood since the eradication of the European Wiccas 2000 years ago. However, Tibetan Buddhism has come to the Mosu, damaging them, but to a far less degree than would come with other standard brand religions.

Our two day stay in the home of a matriarch (great-grandma) with six daughters and their children and their children, is my China highlight. At first when walking through a Mosou village, one gets the sense that these are unfriendly people. The people lived in closed off complexes, high, impenetrable walls on all sides and impressive doors barring the way inside. However, the big double doors are beautifully decorated with fertility symbols and a bull’s head hung above in tribute to their goddess. If you are a man and lucky enough to gain entry you find yourself in an open courtyard, surrounded by individual quarters of the females and their children.

The matriarch’s bedroom also serves as the main kitchen with goddess alter set behind the cooking fire. Along with an aged photo of the previous matriarch, the alter holds other non-goddess artifacts, mostly Buddhist, but there is even a statue of Mao. In my opinion, the Christian equivalent might be Jesus riding atop that supposed evil hoofed goat creature to a banquet of grass, maybe with other evil hoofed goat creatures. At age 13 the girl leaves her mother’s room and gets her own room where she is free to entertain males as she wishes. When she is impregnated, it doesn’t matter who the father is, since it is the women that collectively raise their children.

We all are descendants of matriarchs, we have all been matriarchs for 99% of human history, this is the natural way of humans and our relatively recent loss of the way will be our undoing. I spent almost every moment sitting right next to the matriarch with a combination of feelings, awe, respect, regret/guilt/sadness for being part of the patriarch. I wanted her to know I am on her side and without verbalizing, pleaded her help for the planet, if there is anyone still connected to the world mother, Gaia, it must be her. It was hard to leave as the matriarch asked us to stay for another week. Like the Stone City, this is a place I would consider visiting again.

After visiting a very colorful Tibetan-styled temple where a residing monk gave us a personalized tour, Sony and I walked to the end of the valley and over several ridges, south to Lugu Lake our final hiking destination.

As we expected the Lake is very scenic, but tourism has had a large impact on the Mosu living there. The villages were all about the dollar and there was little evidence of matriarchs other than in name, the “Home of the Goddess” hotel and the” Goddess Hollow” village accessed by an expensive chairlift ride. After a few days of relaxation by the lake we thumbed down a large truck and he took us the entire 11 hour distance to Xicang, a city to the east with a train terminal to Chengdu, our next destination.


  1. Amazing. Bring back Matriarchal. Your sister

  2. really? Do you think starting a retreat where women can learn to become matriarchs would work?

  3. I stumbled across your blog and have so far found it absolutely fascinating. What a journey you've undertaken. Where are you both now???

  4. oh, thanks for reading, we just arrived to Thailand from a month in Burma, I am 7 countries behind in the blog, hope to catch up soon and again thanks for reading:)