“Don’t worry”, said the old lady, “just relax, it will all be fine”.
That was the best advice we heard about giving birth. Simple, straightforward, and spot on. It didn’t come from a doctor, a midwife, or the author of any of the veritable library of pregnancy books around our place or any of the generous friends who’d shared them along with their own stories. Instead, it came from the woman in the blue apron in the photo above, a mother of two from a small rural village in China who, doubtless, had given birth in what most of us would consider spartan conditions. The lady spoke quietly, gently and wisely, but more than what she said, it was how she said it. Yon, by then more than eight months along, smiled, and relaxed. As the uncertain father-to-be, I felt the anticipation ease as well. It was almost the first time I really thought “we can do this”.
It’s almost a cliche, the wisdom of an old lady in a remote village. If a backpacker told me the story in a bar in Bangkok, I’d probably roll my eyes. If Hillary Clinton wrote a book about it, Oprah would give it a glowing review. But sometimes, people who do things the old ways really do know how to do them best. And all we need to do is listen.
Mystical Yunnan. It attracts people from all over China and around the world because it’s so “un-Chinese” – for east-coast Han Chinese it’s a break from big cities, smog, and the middle class rat race; for foreigners (who don’t live in China) it’s often liked for its ethnic diversity (or, to put it impolitely, its preponderance of photogenic people in funny hats). Like many other visitors, we liked it for its mountains, valleys, picturesque villages and, we thought until we got there, its amazing food. In fact, there’s better Yunnan food at no fewer than five Yunnan restaurants within a square kilometer of our home in Beijing. That’s just one of the mysteries of this far flung province.
If ever there was a town peeled from a Miyazaki film and pasted into the real world, this was it. Swamped with Chinese tourists, largely rebuilt, and full of shops selling souvenirs and bits of marble that look like hotpot meat, Lijiang is, despite it all, a beautiful mountain town well worth a few days. At night, with its lanterns glowing red and the babble of its tiny canals and waterways filling the fresh air, Lijiang is actually magical.
Here was the only place we found really interesting Yunnan food, clay pots full of strange mushrooms and pickled vegetables and unusual meats. The Naxi culture is still in evidence, even if prepped for easy tourist consumption, and we enjoyed the weird music made by the old men and women of the traditional Naxi orchestra. We also liked the cute, cosy cafes, where you could enjoy a coffee with sun streaming in the windows and quaint canals, some with goldfish, outside.
From Lijiang, where we first arrived, we drove northwards to Zhong Dian, better known as Shangri-la, a name the town cleverly (but cynically) chose for itself to tap into western travellers’ Lost Horizons fantasies. The old part of town, a village once also known as Dukezong, was tragically destroyed in a huge fire in January 2014 (we visited in December 2009). Like other similar places in China, this one existed on a knife-edge balance. It was historically Tibetan, and many Tibetans still lived and ran businesses in the old town, but ever more Han Chinese were moving in. And, of course, domestic tourism was the primary economic driver of all this. Inevitably, had the fire not forced a conclusion, Shangri-la or Zhong Dian was destined to go down the same road as Lijiang. The only question would have been how well the transition would have been managed. Development in China, as in other places, is all too frequently poorly managed (which isn’t to say it shouldn’t happen, because “colourful ethnic minorities” want clean water and well paying jobs or businesses as much as anyone, but cultural traditions don’t have to be eradicated on the way to that outcome).
The dramatic and beautiful monastery outside town was a sad example. On the road to heavy tourist development even in 2009, it could no longer credibly be called a working monastery (unlike ones we saw in Ganze and Langmusi, for example).
Because no-one was killed, perhaps it was better that Zhong Dian’s old town disappeared in a blaze rather than a fizzle of Han-dominated over development. No solace for the people who lost their livelihoods, but – to me at least – the writing was already on the wall.
Five years after our visits to Lijiang and Shangri-la, we returned after Christmas in 2014 for a quiet visit to the sleepy village of Shaxi. Yon was into her eighth month of pregnancy, so hiking and trekking was off the agenda, replaced with eating, sleeping and relaxing. The village has entered the tourist consciousness in the last few years, partly thanks to a new freeway which passes not far from Shaxi’s lonely valley. Like Shangri-La, it seems at risk of over-development, though it was still quiet and manageable when we visited. Rather than mess around with the local bus, we arranged a car to meet us at Dali airport, and sped in comfort alongside the huge lake before turning off the freeway into the winding mountain roads that took us through bucolic hills to Shaxi’s flat, river valley.
Our first hotel was beautiful, in its own way. A former caravanserai, entirely different to the stone fortress-like one we’d visited in Kyrgyzstan, its thin wooden walls dated not to the Silk Road but to the Yunnan caravan routes of 150 years ago, described in Peter Goullart’s “Forgotten Kingdom” (a book available on every corner in Lijiang, which is where I got my copy). Sadly, it was simply far too cold, and as we were planning on reading and relaxing, we couldn’t spend any time in there during the day. So we moved to a new place, gloriously decorated, just outside the town’s south gate.
Shaxi rewards the patient, people who can entertain themselves. There is not a great deal to do beyond stroll the alleys, soak up the winter sun, and ride along the river valley to other smaller villages. One of them is Duan Village, home to the famous Old Theater Inn, which was under renovation when we visited. One sunny day we cycled along the riverside to visit Duan and check out the hotel. As we reached the village bridge, a team of chatterbox old ladies charged us a special entry fee. This was not what you might expect – a local effort to fleece a few yuan from outsiders – but a special levy to fund a very special ceremony that was taking place the next day. We received a warm invitation to come back the next day and join in the proceedings.
We did so, and on arriving were warmly welcomed to the center of the village. Here, several low tables had been set up, and strange music with many cymbal clashes drifted over the walls of a nearby enclosure. As a man, I was permitted to enter, while Yon sat with the old women who, discovering she was pregnant, preened over her and nattered away in their incomprehensible local dialect.
Behind the walls, a local holy man was conducting some special ceremonies to the sound of a small band of musicians. Playing traditional instruments, they offered the backing track to several men chanting in time to the music and the clashing cymbals. Incense burnt, and the smell mixed with the old men’s tobacco smoke. I stood and watched as long as I could before feeling like I was intruding, though no-one seemed to mind my presence.
Back outside, I found Yon deep in conversation with a gaggle of old women who spoke very little Mandarin (amazingly, almost a third of Chinese citizens aren’t especially competent in standard Chinese, particularly older people far from the northeast). We all walked down the concrete ramp to the little terrace where the tables were set up. Here we sat with the local women, plus a two year old child. We chatted happily and I enjoyed that we were welcomed without being fawned over.
Lunch was entirely vegetarian – rice, steamed vegetables, sweet potato and pumpkin, and corn soup. It was tasty, the way fresh farm food grown by hand always is. There were about eight women, some who shared nursing the two year old baby. She was cool, an inspiration to us as (then) imminent new parents. Happy to eat the same food as everyone else, she even knew how to use chopsticks. She liked the chilli beans best – no unimaginative, processed “kids’ menu” here. Her Dad arrived later and his Chinese was a lot better, so we were able to communicate more effectively. He told us the story of the celebrations.
This ceremony was indeed very special – it hadn’t been performed in thirty years. Last year, though, the village suffered four bad fires on the surrounding hillsides, wiping out harvests and threatening the village itself. So the holy man – I thought it was from a Daoist tradition but may have misunderstood – was brought in to pray (for want of a better word) for a safer, fire-free year ahead. The ceremony would go for three days, there’d be food every day, and we were welcome to come back tomorrow and the next day too. We couldn’t, as we were due to fly back to Beijing the next day. But we left with gratitude and our best wishes for their village.
Such warmth from Chinese villagers is not unusual, but every time you experience it, it leaves you glowing with a sense of happiness that despite its deep troubles, the world is still a nice place.