Camaraderie and/or Cigarettes

The concept of guanxi is deeply rooted in Chinese culture.  The term roughly means “relationships” or “network,” though these translations greatly understate the importance of guanxi.  In China, seemingly all social interactions occur in the form of guanxi.  When we talk about guanxi in China, we usually talk about the positive relationships a person has, although it is also possible to talk about the “negative” guanxi a person has with someone else.

Guanxi is often expressed in the form of mutual favors.  For instance, earlier this semester I was eating a simple lunch of jiaozi (dumplings) in a small restaurant with limited seating room.  I invited a man who was standing beside me to sit with me because I was alone and did not need the extra seat.  He asked if I was working, studying, or traveling in Kunming, and I explained that I was a student of Chinese language and culture here for the semester.  We talked for ten minutes or so about Kunming and Yunnan, and he offered me his business card with an invitation to visit him at the university where he worked.  He paid for his lunch, and mine, then left.  One week later I took him up on his offer, and after our meeting at the university I took him out for lunch and put him in touch with our homestay coordinator; he was interested in providing one at his own home.  Since my initial favor of inviting the man to join me for lunch, we exchanged favors several times, and with each exchange our guanxi–our relationship–became closer.

Camaraderie is one of my strongest values; friends and family mean very much to me, and I enjoy activities that strengthen bonds with them.  Throughout my time in China, I have found the concept of guanxi generally resonates with my own personal value, yet there are times when the pressure to establish relationships in this way has put me in uncomfortable situations.  For instance, I have been offered cigarettes from Chinese men on countless occasions, and sometimes it can be difficult to refuse the popular gesture of guanxi.  As a typical scenario, my roommate Ben and I might be having a round at the bar when a group of Chinese college students will invite us to join them at their table.  When we go to greet them, a dizzying race of sorts will begin.  Two or three guys will fumble for their cigarette packs, and the man with the quickest draw will have a cigarette in front of both Ben and I with a lighter going in a matter of seconds.  In the meantime, two more guys will be topping off our beers. 

In the vast majority of situations, I simply explain that I do not smoke and there are no issues.  Perhaps I will offer a toast instead.  Yet smoking is so widespread in China that sometimes a man offering a cigarette (especially an older man) will react shocked when I refuse his cigarette.  He may take it as a refusal to participate in his guanxi, and additionally as an insult to his seniority.  When I encountered this problem earlier on in the semester, I admit that I smoked the cigarette knowing that just one would not be too harmful.  As I have gained more experience with these types of situations, however, I have come up with a way to both demonstrate my acceptance of the gift and keep with my smoke-free habit: take the cigarette but simply let it burn down.  I still hesitate with even this solution because I do not want to encourage an image of a “cool, cigarette-smoking American,” but to me the benefits outweigh the costs. 

Reflecting on this, I am reminded that when we come across challenges and uncomfortable situations in a foreign country, it is important to consider the cultural context of that place when we come up with our solution.  Sure, there have been times when I have downright turned down the cigarette and become irritated when the man continues to push it into my refusing hand.  I had stuck with my belief, but I had also generated negative guanxi and perhaps poorly represented American cultural tolerance.  But, sensitive to the importance of the gesture in Chinese culture, my new solution seems to be working.


Kunming, China

An Unexpected Lesson in Chinese

My motorbiking buddy helped me hobble back down the tea hill to the main road where we parked his bike.  It was late in the afternoon and we had about an hour’s ride back to Menghai, so we made haste and cruised toward the setting sun; it’s dangerous to ride after dark.  Ice (not to mention cold beer) is hard to come by in this sub-tropical climate, but a local friend ran out and came back with a bag full of crushed popsicles.  I iced my ankle that night and took an anti-inflammation drug from my first-aid kit, hoping that I would be on my feet again the next day.

But in the morning my ankle was the size of a small watermelon–and not too far off the color of one–so I hopped on a bus back to the moderately larger city of Jinghong where I c0uld get some additional anti-inflammatory drugs and ice.  I had been to a Chinese hospital before on an educational trip, but never as a patient.  I hoped that I would remember my “Seeing the Doctor” vocabulary from Chinese 101!

My plan was to find a doctor to check out my ankle and write a prescription for some stronger medicine than the stuff in my first-aid kit.  When I walked into the main lobby of the small provincial hospital, I was surprised by the commotion and noise.  It wasn’t the simple room I was expecting from the appearance of the outside of the building.  There were signs–in simplified Chinese and in the local Dai written language–pointing to rooms down corridors and out back to other small buildings in the complex.  As I expected, no English.

Chinese is a difficult language to learn for a handful of reasons.  For one, there is no alphabet in the written Chinese language; literally thousands of unique characters need to be memorized for fluency.  Another reason is that while the written language is unified across China, spoken Chinese is greatly influenced by regional dialects.  The pronunciation of a character in Shanghai may be totally different from the pronunciation of the same character in Beijing, and especially unique in remote areas like Xishuangbanna.

The nice thing about studying Chinese, however, is that the more you learn, the easier it is to absorb additional vocabulary.  Many “words” in Chinese are made up of two or three characters, which form compounds.  When I’m reading street signs or newspapers, I often recognize both characters of a compound, although I have never seen them together.  For instance, most of the signs in the hospital displayed four to six characters; since I recognized almost every character on all the signs, deciphering the meanings of the signs was relatively easy.  One displayed a character which I recognized from other compounds meaning “give, offer, pay” and another character for “medicine,” followed by characters which together mean “fee,” or “cost.”  Clearly this sign pointed to the desk to pay for prescriptions.

All of the signs in that room contained the character for “medicine.”  I was in the pharmacy.  Where were the doctors’ offices?  My speaking and listening skills are not too shabby, so I did what I usually do in new environments–I simply introduced myself to a local and asked for help.  I explained that I my ankle was sprained and wanted to see the doctor, please which way is the doctor?  Nin hao, wo de jiaohuai niushang le, yao kan daifu, yinggai nali zou? The kind woman wanted to help, but her puzzled look told me I had mispronounced something and she didn’t fully understand what I wanted help with.  I had forgotten the exact tones for “sprain,” (niushang).  So, I guessed and, evidently, guessed incorrectly.

In addition to the problem of regional differences, the tonal aspect of spoken Chinese is also incredibly difficult to master.  Although there are thousands of characters, there are only a hundred or so ways to pronounce those characters.  The pronunciation “ma” for example, could refer to hundreds of characters, including “mother,” “hemp,” and “horse.”  (妈, 麻, 马).  Tones are used to distinguish which character is meant; there are four tones plus a neutral (no tone) in standard Mandarin.  In the examples above, first-tone (mā) represents “mother,” second-tone (má) is “hemp,” and third-tone (mǎ) means “horse.”  Of course, tones alone will not determine exactly the character someone means when you hear “ma” in China, because each tone could still refer to dozens of characters.  You will additionally need to consider the contexts of the discussion and recognize the compound in which the character is spoken.

The compound for “sprain” is made up of two characters: third-tone niǔ (扭) and first-tone shāng (伤).  When I spoke to the woman in the pharmacy, however, I guessed that the tones were second and fourth.  I had said, “Hello, ma’am, my ankle is on top of the cow, and I’d like to see the doctor.  Please, which way is the doctor?”  When I realized she didn’t understand me, I simply pointed to my plum-colored foot.  She laughed, and repeated the word with the correct tones, which I practiced as she took me to the doctor.  Daily-life Chinese lessons like these cannot happen in a classroom back in Ithaca.  It’s important to be immersed in a culture and language where frequent mistakes lead to valuable lessons.

The doctor prescribed a blend of traditional Chinese herbal medicines which I could take by capsule.  After four or five days, the swelling has subsided and I’m back out in the tea fields!  This time, I’m taking my hiking boots with me.



Fun translation mistakes (“Chinglish”) can go either way:

A Sign in a National Park

A Sign in a National Park (click to enlarge)

Another Sign in a National Park

Another Sign in a National Park

King of the Tea Trees

Tea has been consumed in China for thousands of years, and the roots of tea’s millennial history begin on the slopes of southern Yunnan province, in the region known today as the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. The chance to explore the homeland of tea is my main reason for studying in Yunnan this semester and summer, and over the last couple of weeks my passion has taken me to a holy place for puer tea enthusiasts: the King of the Tea Trees.

All true tea comes from just one plant, the camellia sinensis.  Actually there are two main varieties of the tea plant: the more common “China Bush” camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and the Big Leaf Tree camellia sinensis var. assamica.  The tea plants found in Yunnan are of the Big Leaf Tree variety.  These plants produce leaves that are maybe five times larger than the China Bush variety plants.

Centuries ago, the Dai, Bulang, and Hani people of Xishuangbanna only picked tea from wild tea trees, which could grow maybe thirty feet tall, with trunks up to a foot in diameter.  Nimble pluckers would climb up to the treetops each year and pick only the newly budding tealeaves, allowing the trees to produce tea for centuries.  During the Tang Dynasty, however, the demand for Yunnan puer tea rapidly increased as the product was introduced to Tibet and other regions of China.  It was during the Tang that China’s tea culture blossomed.  Additionally, the spread of tea played an important role in the rise of sanitation standards; people boiled water to make tea, killing water-borne bacteria and reducing the incidence of illness.

Centuries-old Tea Tree

Centuries-old Tea Tree

Monoculture Tea Plantation, Dadugang

Monoculture Tea Plantation, Dadugang

Demand outstretched supply, so locals began cultivating tea for trade and tribute.  Traditional tea farms were biologically diverse systems; planted tea trees were just undergrowth within hillside forests.  They were allowed to reach full size and were covered in vines, other plants, and even fungi which grew symbiotically with the trees.  Today, demand for tea is even greater and the old farming customs have evolved into monoculture plantations, where plants are pruned to bush size and grown in the open sun.  Most plantations apply pesticides and chemical fertilizers to reach a higher yield, despite cries from enthusiasts who argue that the flavor of those teas is ruined by the chemicals.

Yet on some remote mountaintops in Xishuangbanna, farmers still tend to old tea forests.  Puer tea connoisseurs from Taiwan and Hong Kong have created a demand for tea produced from old trees, because they insist that tree tea is of a higher quality than bush tea, plus it’s a reliable source of organic tea.  The roots dig deeper into the soil and tap into richer mineral sources that add unique flavors to the plant’s tealeaves.  Ten years ago an intrepid farmer of old tree tea noticed the trend and set up a teahouse near an eight hundred year-old tree which attracted tea tourists.  The site is now advertised on billboards along the main highways, and translated from Chinese the signs read “King of the Tea Trees.”

Last week I traveled to Menghai, the tea processing epicenter in Yunnan, as part of my Independent Study Project with SIT.  One day I hopped on the back of a motorbike taxi and the driver took me up to Nanuo Mountain, whose lower slopes are covered in rows of monoculture tea plantations.  We snaked our way up the mountain for over an hour along rough dirt trails; two or three times I thought I was going to be bucked right off the bike!  Finally, we found an old tree tea grove at the top of the mountain.  A nearby picker brought us to a hut in the shade of centuries-old trees, and prepared some of the tea for us to taste that had been picked and processed only a week ago.  She collected water from a bamboo aqueduct which diverted water from a spring.  The tea was some of the most aromatic and fresh that I’ve ever tasted, so I bought a puer cake from her to age for ten years or so!  I won’t have to wait until then to taste it, however; unlike wine, I can try my sheng puer cake each year, because I only need to break off a small piece each time I prepare the tea.

What an unforgettable experience.  For me, tea has always been more than a beverage.  It’s a transporting experience.  I fell in love with tea in 2004 when I returned to the US after my first trip to China.  I had been studying in Beijing for the summer with other students from around the globe.  The first week, a buddy and I ventured into a small teashop, where a beautiful woman prepared jasmine tea for us.  We were amazed and walked out with a kilo of jasmine tea and tea bowls.  Each night that summer my classmates and I would sit out on the balcony looking out over Beijing, drink delicious jasmine tea, and talk about our cultures.  Those summer night talks opened my mind.  Back in the States, each time I caught a scent of jasmine tea, the memories came back in vivid detail.

I’m looking forward to tasting this sheng puer cake while I age it, because it will remind me of my adventurous ride up Nanuoshan and the old tree grove.  The one detail I hope  to block out of that memory is the bad ankle sprain I got while walking back to the bike…

Tea Trees on a Biodiverse Tea Farm

Tea Trees within a Biodiverse Environment

Monoculture Tea Plantation

Monoculture Tea Plantation

Candlelight Commemoration

James Hilton coined the term “Shangri-la”–Paradise on Earth–in his 1933 adventure novel, Lost Horizon.  Hilton’s Shangri-la is an idyllic and harmonious valley lost amidst the Kunlun Mountains in Central Asia, above which stands a mystical Tibetan Buddhist lamasery.  The valley is fictional, and its creator never specified whether there existed a real location that inspired Shangri-la.  Valley towns in areas from Pakistan to Bhutan to Yunnan are now capitalizing on this fact by claiming to be the “last Shangri-la on Earth.”  In fact, to promote the growth of tourism in northwestern Yunnan, the county of Zhongdian officially changed its name to “Shangri-la County” in 2001.

It worked.  Ten or fifteen years ago, Zhongdian was a small lumber town comprised mostly of ethnically-Tibetan folks.  Now, Shangri-la is a full-fledged tourist destination, with dozens of Han-operated four- and five-star hotels that offer shuttles to the nearby monastery complex and a national park.

My classmates, teachers, and I visited Shangri-la as part of our field trip around Yunnan.  We were all impressed with locals’ efforts to promote sustainable tourism, and with the palpable sense of pride in Tibetan culture that permeates the charming town.  For instance, we spent one night celebrating local culture in a traditional log home with Tibetan singers and dancers in customary festive dress.  Joining us were several older Han guests vacationing from Shanghai.  The performance was engaging and infused with energy.  My friend Sarah and I frequently exchanged toasts of local barley wine with the performers and guests, and we tried our best at the dizzying and acrobatic dancing.  I recall plenty of loud whips cracking throughout the night; the equine theme evoked the nomadic element of Tibetan culture.  When we talked with the young performers after the show, they explained that they were genuinely proud to celebrate their culture this way, and that even though these efforts to market their culture were driven by the incentive to make a profit, they did not feel that they were exaggerating or distorting authentic traditions simply to make money.

Our last night in Shangri-la came exactly two weeks after a destructive earthquake razed Yushu village on the Qinghai Plateau to the ground.  It was a chilly night in the north, so we made our way up to the old town and got a round at the Fireplace Bar, a dusty old place glowing with a wood fire whose smoke drifted straight out of a hole in the roof.  The bar gradually filled up with locals, and although we were outsiders, we felt warmly welcomed.  Suddenly at ten o’clock, the Tibetan owner and his friends cleared out the tables in the center of the room, and brought out a box of tall red candles.  Everyone left their card or dice games and gathered around silently.  For about an hour, they set up the hundreds of candles to form the Tibetan character for “brotherhood.”  As they started lighting the candles, they invited us to gather round and watch as they commemorated their kindred lost in the quake.

When all the candles were arranged and lit, the men began a low chant to a tune played on someone’s cell phone.  It was a solemn and thoughtful, yet informal hour.  People came and chanted for ten or fifteen minutes, paid their respects and then left.  After the chanting came quietly to a stop, we invited a few local guys to join us at our table.  They explained that even though Qinghai was thousands of kilometers from Shangri-la, they felt strongly connected to their Tibetan Buddhist brothers.  Over the next two weeks, they said, Shangri-la would be sort of a regional center for organizing relief efforts.  Throughout the night, locals came by and offered what little extra cash they had.

Our friends also expressed frustration with the official media over the accuracy of their reports.  While the official number of people killed by the earthquake was around two thousand, our local friends said the number was actually around ten times that.  They suggested that perhaps the media was covering up for deaths related to faulty construction that did not meet building codes.  They implied that the lack of accurate information was directly related to their ethnicity.

So, Shangri-la.  Heaven on Earth.  In contexts of tourism, Tibetans and other Chinese ethnicities share respectful relationships of mutual understanding, and these are growing stronger.  Chinese come here to really learn the rich Tibetan culture, and the locals are excited to celebrate it with their guests.  Yet evidently there are remnants of historical ethnic tensions under the surface, which manifest especially during troubling times.


Jinghong, China

A Time in Shaxi Valley, pt 2: Shaxi Rehabilitation Project

In 2001, a team of Swiss and Chinese scholars established the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP) to renovate Sideng village in Shaxi Valley.  The initial goal was to preserve Sideng’s historic architecture, particularly the old theater, temple, and guesthouses surrounding the town square which still serves as the valley’s marketplace nearly half a century after the Tea-Horse Trade Route died out.  The function of this project quickly expanded beyond the preservation of old buildings, however; today, the project represents a unique model of tourism in Yunnan.

The team spent over two years planning and preparing before they brought out their tools and paintbrushes to renovate the dilapidated buildings in the market square.  Working with local government officials (Han Chinese living outside the valley in nearby Jianchuan town) and with local village leaders, the team realized just how much of an impact they were going to have on the local community.  They were putting Shaxi on the map.

The project first renovated the old theater and a Buddhist temple located across the square.  The large deities standing guard over the entrance to the temple had been demolished during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, so the renovation team worked with locals to recreate images of local Buddhist deities that had existed before.  Now, freshly painted powerful gods protect the entrance from unwanted spirits and demons.  Second, a small museum dedicated to the history of the Tea-Horse Trade Route was put in a wing of the theater.  Next, guesthouses which were locally owned but no longer operational were renovated and bought by the local government.  The former residents were given larger parcels of land just outside the town where they could build spacious residences and had easier access to farmable land.  Residents living near the square who were not relocated must comply with building codes that only allow for buildings to be built using traditional materials (Shaxi is known for its quality woodcarving and wooden architecture).

In the past five years, the preservation efforts of the SRP team have brought in a marginally increasing amount of tourism to Shaxi.  Most tourists are wealthy Chinese who have come to Yunnan to see the tourist Meccas of Lijiang and Dali, yet the occasional westerner drops by (excluding the SIT group which visits every semester for the homestay).  Shaxi has even made it into the Lonely Planet Southwestern China version in the past few years, so foreign tourism will likely increase.  So what is the local attitude to the SRP?  During our rural homestay in Sideng village, I asked several village members about their view on the increasing tourists in Shaxi.  Each response was positive–tourism brings a small amount of extra money to the community, which raises the quality of life for the residents.  Before, no one could afford a television, but now even my homestay family had a color television with two dozen channels.  Hot water and even the internet are also becoming more common.

When the leaders of the SRP realized they were generating local income as a result of their renovation efforts, they drew up plans to ensure that development was local and benefited the people who truly worked for it, not the government officials or other outsiders who were quick to the chase.  In essence, they are working to prevent another Lijiang or Dali tourist environment from emerging.


Jinghong, China

A Time in Shaxi Valley, pt. 1: the Ancient Tea-Horse Route

After our eventful night up on Shibaoshan, we descended rapidly the next day to Sideng village in Shaxi valley, where I am now enjoying a four-night rural homestay.  On the descent, we stopped to view 1200 year-old grottoes etched into the tall stone.  Many depicted buddhas and Buddhist symbols, while others depicted local religious symbols, including–I kid you not–the female sexual organ.  Not surprisingly, this symbol represents fertility, and women who are hoping to have a child (or better yet, twins) come to the mountain to express their wishes.  The coexistence of local and distant religions and their images on Shibaoshan testifies to the important role of a very old trade route in promoting cultural exchange in this region: the Ancient Tea-Horse Route.

According to legend, during the early Tang dynasty the emperor sent his niece, Princess Wencheng, along with a caravan to the Tibetan kingdom in order to form an alliance against the pesky Mongol rider-tribes of the north.  Included in her generous dowry was a sample of tea, which had originally come from Yunnan Province and had been brought to the Tang capital of Chang’an (now known as Xi’an, home to the terra cotta soldiers in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi).  The tea was a product now know as “pu’er tea,” which is perhaps the most unique tea in the world, produced only in southern Yunnan Province.  Before I finish the story of the Tea-Horse Route, allow me to clarify what makes pu’er tea worthy of such arduous trade.

All true teas come from just one plant species: the Camellia sinensis.  White, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu’er tea leaves are all picked from that beloved Camellia.  The major distinctions among tea types derives from the methods of processing applied to tea leaves after they have been plucked.  Just like with wine production, other factors are also important, including the time tea leaves have spent on the bush and terroir–the quality of soil, climate, elevation, etc.  The most important factor in determining tea type, however, is the level of oxidation that the leaf is permitted to undergo.  Tea leaves oxidize naturally when picked (think of an apple browning when the inside is exposed to oxygen in the air).  Yet pu’er tea alone undergoes an additional process–fermentation (think of the sugars in wine fermenting into alcohol with the help of micro-bacteria).  Pu’er tea leaves, compacted and dried into sturdy bricks and cakes, ferment when they age with the help of microbes found especially in southern Yunnan.

The result is a tea that Tibetans found most palatable those centuries ago among the dowry of Princess Wencheng.  The Tibetan diet is rich in fats, oils, and salt; high-calorie foods are necessary for survival in the bleak mountains.  In fact, the elevation is too high to support vegetable or grain agriculture, so Tibetans rely mainly on the yak for food (remember the yaks in Yubeng?).  After fermenting, pu’er tea is remarkably beneficial for the digestive system, and the Tibetans have found it to be a tasty way to enhance their fiber-free diet.

The terrain from southern Yunnan to Tibet is unbelievably challenging.  Over the months, I have traveled this distance by coach bus from Bangkok to Yubeng, and the road is still long and hard despite the tunnels and switchbacks which make it infinitely easier than it would have been centuries ago, on foot.  Beginning in the Tang dynasty, brave muleteers faced imminent peril as they made their journey across wide, roaring rivers and snowy, high mountain passes.  They strapped bricks of pu’er tea to the backs of mules, and sometimes even onto bamboo baskets which they carried on their own backs.  After months in the sun at high elevations, the tea bricks ripened and were ready for consumption when they arrived in Tibet.  On the return trip, the muleteers guided caravans of horses bound for the Tang government, which amassed a cavalry to defend against the expert Mongolian horsemen.

To bring the story full circle, this trade route meant more than just an exchange of tea for horses; it also meant the exchange of ideas.  Princess Wencheng, like many  of the Tang nobles, was a Buddhist, and brought Buddhism with her to Tibet, where it flourished and developed its own traditions.  At some point, Tibetan Buddhist influences made their way to Shaxi and the Shibaoshan area.  For instance, some of the local Buddhist deities in Shaxi resemble Tibetan Buddhist deities.

While the story of Princess Wencheng and her tea-bearing caravan gives us a pleasant tale to begin our history of the legendary Tea-Horse Route, elders in Shaxi have corrected my history.  The route likely began sometime in the Han dynasty, centuries before Princess Wencheng and the Tang.  Still, the fact that tea was included in her dowry testifies the importance of pu’er tea in Tibetan life.


Shaxi Valley, China

Monastic Monkeys

My classmates, teachers, and I are in the middle of a two-week field trip to minority villages and towns throughout northwest Yunnan (800 miles from the earthquake in Qinghai).  Two nights ago, we took a bus halfway up a Buddhist mountain monastery complex, then hiked up the rest of the way to the temple where we would be spending the night.

As we made our way up the steep stone path, we were followed by hundreds of monkey companions.  It felt like the Wizard of Oz when they emerged from the treetops and swooped down on us.  Thankfully, they did not attack…unless you looked them straight in the eyes!  Thinking it really wouldn’t be a problem, I did not heed the warning from my Chinese language instructor (“Don’t carry food or look them in the eyes, Jeff”).  I turned to face a large monkey who had been following me, and when I looked at him for just a little too long, the bared his teeth and made a swipe at my legs!  I dodged, then made to give him a swift kick, but he ducked and flipped off the path into the trees.  Meanwhile, I turned and hit the path running, while all of my classmates howled with laughter.  The rest of the night, there was no trouble from sensitive monkeys.

Shibaoshan Monkeys

Shibaoshan Monkeys (photo cred: Zeben K.)


The Buddhist mountain is called Shibaoshan, and the complex comprises many medium-sized, but beautiful lush green hills surrounding the Shaxi valley.  The greenery is a nice change from the dustry, dry red earth in the central Yunnan plateau.  Here the snowmelt has kept the land fertile, though the streams and rivers are lower than in previous years.

We dropped our packs off at the Baoxiang temple, which is nestled underneath a limestone cliff.  Over the centuries, Buddhists have carved small buddhas and other symbols into the cliff face.  After we settled in, we hiked up the trail, hoping to find a path around to the top of the cliff above us to catch a view of the surrounding area.  Our path simply ended in a riverbed about half an hour later.  Some turned back, but a few hardy souls and I forged ahead up the ravine.  Bushwhacking was tricky on the steep slope, but we swung ourselves up the hill one bamboo clump at a time.  After an hour or so of scrambling, we saw a clearing above the treeline and made for it.  It was precipitously steep, so sometimes we had to clutch to prickly weeds for balance.  The view was rewarding, but we wanted more.

We suddenly came across a well-worn path that  made its way up to the ridge.  We followed it and emerged onto a rocky outcrop, looking down with a panoramic view of the valleys below.  Many small lakes dotted the landscape, and the slopes were covered in coniferous forests. I thought I might have been back in northern Minnesota, up in the iron range.

We had climbed higher than the cliff over the temple, so we made our way back down the ridge to the edge of the cliff, on top of which was perched yet another temple complex, dilapidated and worn.  The barking dogs drowned the sounds of the two men working in the courtyard, so we were a bit surprised to see them when we crossed the threshold of the main gate.  They were replacing roof timbers on the tallest tower, without power tools.  They had taken down old cracked timbers and laid them across new ones, traced an outline, then used a handsaw.  Slowly they worked like this, day in and day out. We found traces of other renovations, too–freshly painted walls and stacks of roof tiles waiting to go up.

I wondered how long the renovation was projected to take, and how thoroughly they were planning to repair.  What meant a thorough repair?  Would they replace the dusty rotting sutras hanging inside the temples, and replace them with fresh copies?  Would they touch up the paintings and statues?  What values do they use to restore old temples?  Original creator’s intent?  What if it is unknown or imperceptible?  Or clean and repaint everything to demonstrate faith and piety to the Buddhas?

We are now in a rural homestay in Shaxi valley, where these questions once again come to mind…


Shaxi Valley, China

Back from the Borderlands

My week-long journey to remote Yubeng village in northwestern Yunnan province was nothing short of an adventure.  I hiked over snowy mountain passes to charming and rustic Tibetan villages, splashed around in frigid waterfalls and glacial springs, and sipped yak butter tea for the first (and probably last) time.  Plus, throughout these exploits I strengthened bonds of friendship with three fellow student travelers.  We traveled without a map, for evidently locals don’t need them and thus, none were to be found.  So it’s no big shock that we got ourselves quite lost on a 1000m descent from Feilai Temple down a brambly slope, just four hours into our hike on day one.  After spotting the correct path on the mountain slope on the other side of the valley, we continued hiking eight hours until we had crossed the Mekong and entered the village where we would rest one night.   The steep slopes tested us physically and mentally, but we pushed through our challenges and returned to Kunming last weekend with sore legs, but happy hearts.

Lost, but the Way is Found!

Lost, but the Way is Found!

Crossing the Mekong River

Crossing the Mekong River

Yubeng (雨崩村) is a small village with perhaps just one hundred inhabitants, accessible only via a rough trail from Xidang village (西当村) near the Mekong.  The trail ascends rapidly to Yakou Pass (垭口) at over 3,800m before dropping down into the valley on the other side.  Everything needed in the small guesthouses that line the trail (including even color televisions) must be brought in by mule caravan; there are neither roads nor cars here.

View from Yakou Pass

View from Yakou Pass

We passed through the city of Zhongdian (on some maps Shangri-la) on the way to Deqin, a small city nestled in a chilly, dark valley.  Both cities lie within Yunnan Province, which at these latitudes borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).  Please note, however, that until about ten years ago, 90% of the residents in both Zhongdian and Deqin were ethnically Tibetan (I use “ethnic” to refer to shared cultural values such as language, food customs, musical traditions, etc.).  Since then, increasing numbers of young, affluent Han tourists from large coastal cities have come to experience Tibetan culture and to see the mountainous landscape.  Indeed, the central government has sponsored the relocation of many Han Chinese to these areas to further the spread of the official Han dialect and culture.  The numbers of Han and Tibetan residents in both cities are now just about even.

This has produced far less tension than we in the West may think; China is in the middle of a cultural love affair with Tibet.  On any given night in a modern disco in Kunming, you might hear Tibetan melodies set to digital beats and electronic tracks.  We met a decent number of domestic tourists during our hike, riding mules led by local guides.  Many had purchased “Tibetan” souvenirs in Deqin before embarking on their hike; some wore Indiana Jones-esque hats, and others carried cheap “Tibetan” sheathed daggers.  Certain sections of trail were covered thick with Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, though whether these were left by similar tourists or by actual monks, we were unsure.

The local attitude toward the growth of tourism in the area is harder to judge.  Tourism brings income to the local people who lead treks, provide taxi transport across the Mekong, or operate guesthouses.  Many locals now have cell phones, and solar-powered water heaters are becoming more common.  Yet tourists also litter the once-pristine landscape with plastic soda bottles, energy bar wrappers, and even compressed oxygen cans.  So, tourism: good or evil?  All I know is that each and every local we met exuded warmth and kindness during our journey, and we did our best to do the same.  Even in our short time together, we shared our cultures and learned from one another.

Mt. Kawagebo (AKA: Kawa Karpo, Meili Xueshan) is a revered Tibetan Buddhist Holy Mountain.  Each year, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks circumambulate the mountain on a pilgrimage.  We arrived in quaint Yubeng village nestled under Mt. Kawagebo after a grueling hike led by a local guide and his pack-mule, and we collapsed on the shady lawn of our guesthouse.  We slowly regained strength with ever-filled pots of pu’er tea (thankfully our hosts did not offer the thick, rancid yak butter tea that had wreaked havoc on our stomachs in Shangri-la).  As we sat there playing cards, suddenly hundreds of red-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks strolled into the village from an unseen path in the woods.  Perhaps a dozen came to the same guesthouse at which we were planning to stay.  After chatting with the owner, they too stretched out on tree-trunk benches to enjoy a shady respite.

Later that evening, one monk invited me to sit outside to talk with him.  He was one of the few who spoke any Chinese.  Despite my limited religious vocabulary, we talked about Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist artworks for an hour or two.  He shared with me photos from a book that he carried with him on the subject.  The man could have lectured for hours in a museum filled with such relics.  As the night became chillier, I invited him into our room, where my companions and I spent two hours teaching him the English alphabet.  He used a combination of Mandarin and Tibetan to remember the sound of each letter.  I even recorded the alphabet onto his cell phone!  The next day, he appeared over our table at dinner and recited the alphabet flawlessly.  He had studied all day.  I still receive phone calls from him once a week or so.

Reflecting now in Kunming, I think that the benefits of tourism to the locals of Yubeng outweigh the costs.  I hope and wish that in the next decade a more sustainable method of tourism emerges, which will still allow for cross-cultural sharing and learning, yet will not result in landslides of litter running down the foothills.


Kunming, China

[Check the Flickr link on the right for more photos from the trip!  All Yubeng photos courtesy of fellow student Zeben.]

Authentic Tourist Village

The small Miao (Hmong) village of Xiao Shui Jing (小水井) is set among dusty rolling hills that just barely hide the expanding metropolis of Kunming to the south.  Off of the main road, a large neon sign directs tourists to the old village: “Xiao Shui Jing Authentic Tourist Village, 2km.”  The provincial government built a large hotel complex nearby, so the volume of foreigners and wealthy Chinese tourists visiting the village has risen in recent years.  Yet the sight of such outsiders is by no means shocking to the kind residents of Xiao Shui Jing.

In 1900, a flock of German missionaries settled in with villagers there, and erected a simple but surprisingly large Protestant church that stands to this day.  Over a century later, on Sunday afternoons, a bilingual tag-team of pastors gives a sermon in Mandarin and the local dialect.  The atmosphere is informal yet pious.  Stoic village elders listen intently while restless children dart back and forth between the pews.  Suddenly maybe half of the locals will rise and shuffle up to the altar to sing a chilling Hallelujah chorus in traditional Miao dress.  The amalgamation of three cultures in the old church is incredible.

Miao Village Mural

Miao Village Mural

My twenty classmates and I joined a dozen or so domestic tourists in the back of the church for a service last Sunday, all of us intrusively snapping away with our cameras, though the locals did not seem to be bothered by the cameras.  Standing out against the simple features of the church was another piece of technology that just didn’t seem to fit: a large flat-screen TV.  Apparently, the choir won a national culture award a couple years ago, and the government gave them a TV to congratulate them.  Unused, it has accumulated some dust over the years.

After the service, I walked through the village to catch a sight of daily life.  I walked past a small wooden home and a noisy bamboo hutch, where chickens squawked at the foreigner walking by.  I was heading down to the pasture where water buffalo were tethered, but on the way an old smiling man carrying a pile of bamboo on his back beckoned me to follow him up to his home.  His tanned, wrinkled face looked about as worn and charming as his dusty old home.  He poured hot water into bowls, apologizing that he did not have any tea leaves to steep.  We sat on the floor drinking the precious water (the village has stopped using water for bathing in order to save it for drinking) and munching on sunflower seeds.  He showed me photographs of his daughter’s wedding, and we talked about the hard life in the village.  Most of the village youth are going to university to strive for a better life, he said.  When I urged that I didn’t want to waste his time if he was busy working, he replied: “It’s so dry, there is no rice.  There is no work.”

When I stood to leave, he poured a handful of sunflower seeds into a red pouch for me to take as a gift.  I was embarrassed that I had nothing to offer in return, so I promised to return with a puer tea cake in the next couple of months, and some water to steep it in.  Water is gold in these hills.  That’s a strange and disconcerting reality, and I’ve never really understood it until now…I mean, back home we wash our cars with water.

So does the village benefit from the increasing tourist traffic?  The hotels ten minutes away are raking in the dough, yet the village only received a small payment when the roadside sign was built.  I had the sense that the village is treated like a piece of living history.  When I go back to the village in April I’m going to see if I can help the village sell that flat-screen for something more useful, like a computer.  Or, water.


Kunming, China

Xiao Shui Jing

The Eternal Spring is Running Dry

Kunming, capital city of Yunnan province in China’s southwest, is known colloquially as the “City of Eternal Spring.”  Two factors contribute to such a favorable and steady climate: elevation and latitude.  Kunming sits on a plateau at nearly 2,000m above sea level, yet the plateau is situated just north of the Tropic of Cancer, so temperatures range from about 50-75F throughout the year.  This balmy environment keeps the city always in bloom.

In our first two weeks here, my classmates have concluded that the city absolutely deserves its nickname.  Every single day we have enjoyed clear-blue sunny skies and a moderate breeze.  None of the buildings on our campus have A/C or central heating; it’s simply unnecessary.  Neither my dorm room nor the dining hall have glass windows, instead only screens to keep out the insects (which are few at this elevation, anyway).  For us, the gorgeous weather is a bonus that is making an already awesome semester into something almost too good to be true.

And it is.  While the everlasting sunshine has brought us only comfort and pleasure, it has meant a much darker reality for the Yunnanese–the worst drought in sixty years.  Last summer, during Yunnan’s wet monsoon season, very little rain fell.  The dry winter season is now coming to an end, and we are eagerly waiting for summer rains, although the forecasts look bleak.  [For a more accurate explanation of the monsoon weather patterns, check out the comments!].  Crops are projected to produce a disastrously low output this summer, but the lack of irrigation water is minor in comparison to the real danger: millions in the southwestern provinces are running short on drinking water, and reservoirs are quickly evaporating.

Local, provincial, and national government members are closely monitoring the situation and trying a variety of solutions.  For one, many of the reservoirs are more closely controlled now than usual.  Recently, they have “seeded” the clouds with silver iodine in order to produce rain.  You may recall that they used a similar strategy in 2008 to wash away some of Beijing’s pollution before the Olympic Games, and to ensure that the opening and closing ceremonies were rain-free.  Although the efficacy of this process is debated, there was actually rain on the CCTV forecast tonight!

Like other crops grown in the rural southwest, the Yunnan tea harvest will be poor this season, so those in the industry are bracing themselves.  Last night I visited the owner of my favorite small teashop near Green Lake Park.  As the sun sets over the park, locals gather to sing and dance to traditional Dai minority music.  Watching the scene from across the lake, we sampled two pu’er teas (one sheng, one shu) and a delicate dianhong.  When I asked him when the harvest would begin, he glumly replied that in the next month farmers will begin picking the first flush, though nobody was expecting a good crop this year.

He and other tea vendors in Yunnan are coping by focusing their businesses on sheng pu’ers, which–like wine–ferment and improve with age.  Yet he is nervous to invest too much into the volatile pu’er market, which has seen a huge boom and bust in the last decade.  He has hope that the drought is only a random occurrence this year, but he also fears that it indicates more permanent environmental changes are coming from greenhouse gases and global warming.  Like me, over the next few months he will soothe away his concerns with his favorite tonic: tea.


Kunming, China