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JUne 10, 2004 -> trekking yunnan

Yunnan means 'southern clouds' in Mandarin Chinese. It sits in southwest China , bordering Laos , Vietnam , Burma ( Myanmar ), and the Chinese provinces of Tibet , Sichuan , Guizhou and Guangxi. It is a land of great natural beauty. Here, the Yangtze River , enlarged by numerous tributaries, cuts its way through the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge before beginning its long journey east. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain , a near 6000-meter peak, towers over hidden valleys in the north. Excluding the back of small denomination ‘renminbi' notes, Yunnan is also the best place to see some of China 's 50-odd 'minority' nationalities. We had planned on visiting Yunnan last year, but the SARS virus had been widespread in (and probably originated from) southwest China , so we went to Mongolia instead. Now we were back to do some trekking and hopefully meet some of the minorities.

Nori had already arranged three days of hiking in the mountains of northern Yunnan . After a few days in the provincial capital, Kunming , and a rough bus journey to the north, we found ourselves in the surprisingly enjoyable Old Town of Lijiang. New Lijiang is like every other mid-sized Chinese city: too many people; mad traffic; ugly buildings; and huge Chinese tourist hotels. The old town, however, was - and I have never called a Chinese place this - charming. Swift-flowing canals rushed past traditional wooden homes with curved tile roofs (now shops and cafes), and trees overarched the paved stone paths. There were pleasant cafes, excellent local restaurants, and hundreds of shops selling souvenirs, Yunnan tea, and kitschy soapstone animals. It was completely commercial, and unabashedly touristy, but it was neat and clean. In the evening, when the light bulbs and lanterns reflected in the canals, it was almost romantic. You just had to make sure a stampede of Chinese tourists - meekly following their pennant-bearing tour guide - didn't knock you into the water.

The next morning, we met our guides: Maggy, a very friendly Naxi woman; and Owen, a plucky Yi man. After buying some snacks and a rain poncho, we took a minivan into the countryside. We spent the first day visiting the Naxi villages and a Tibetan monastery along La Shi Lake. Most of the Naxi family homes were small wooden compounds built around a central courtyard. There was a living/dining building, a building with the bedrooms, and a two-story building for the animals, fodder, and tools. The structures were simple and practical, but the entrance gates were showy: tile-clad arches with paintings of landscapes and birds – like the thresholds of Buddhist temples. That night we stayed with a very hospitable Naxi family. Every time we entered the compound, ‘Mom' would bring us platters of walnuts, sunflower seeds, and tart dried berries that are endemic to Yunnan . It was an authentic experience of Naxi life and culture - but the family was far from 'backwards.' In the living room sat a new TV and a DVD player. Owen had brought a pirated copy of “Universal Soldier” to watch.

In the morning, ‘Mom' made us a special treat that roughly translates as “ox broth with fermented mare's milk.” She placed the unusual ingredients into a steel canister and churned it with a wooden plunger. Once mixed, it was poured into bowls which we slurped cautiously. It tasted better than the Mongolian welcome drink, but only just. Still, we appreciated the effort, so Nori finished her bowl and I had two. Thus fortified, we headed up the mountain. In the valleys and mountain flanks where the Naxi generally lived, Maggy was in charge. In the mountains, where the Yi lived, Owen took control. As the trail rose and fell, we would pass into and out of different language zones. Since neither Maggy nor Owen had hiked this exact route before – and the Naxi and Yi languages are mutually unintelligible - we needed both guides so we could ask the locals for directions.

It had rained the night before. The fresh mud, combined with pine needles, stuck to our boots in heavy slabs that grew with each step. A third of the way up the mountain, I realized that I had left my fleece and Nori's rain jacket back at the Naxi house. Sometimes China can be wonderful. Owen got on his mobile phone (everyone has one), contacted someone in town, and told me that the jackets had been given to a man who was also heading up the mountain. But it would cost 15 yuan (US$2), he warned. An hour later, a madly panting, middle-aged man toting a plastic bag caught up with us. I gave him 30 yuan and he nearly wept with joy.

The sky had been overcast all day, but it did not rain. As we climbed, we were treated to wide views of the valley and La Shi Lake below us. Around noon , we entered an Yi village. A dozen men were busy building a small solar power station. They were watched by several colorfully dressed Yi women, including several old ladies wearing flat black hats that looked like exaggerated graduation caps. After lunch, two old men carrying bags stuffed full of goat hair tromped past us – one of them had a bow-like instrument that apparently is used to make a kind of felt. A group of American hikers stopped their descent to warn us about an upcoming section of the trail that was “full of leeches.” Nori and I nearly burst out laughing. It could not possibly be worse than Papua New Guinea , and it wasn't. We saw only one leech, which was trying to climb up Nori's boot before Owen dispatched it with a dab of salt. Near the top of the mountain, we entered a forest of rhododendrons and other flowering trees, all draped with old man's beard. Suddenly, the clouds departed and we were treated to a wonderful view of the Wenhai valley as we started the descent.

Wenhai Lake and Wenhai village sit in a sheltered valley surrounded by tall mountains. About 800 people live in the area, many of whom are part-owners of the Eco-Lodge where we stayed. The idea for the co-operative (and much of the initial funding) came from The Nature Conservancy, a US organization trying to promote eco-friendly tourism projects around the world. Much of the dense forest surrounding Wenhai had already been felled by charcoal makers; we had passed an earthen charcoal oven in the foothills above the village. To an outsider, the economics certainly didn't justify the environmental cost: 100 kg of timber yields 5 kg of charcoal with a market value of just over US$1. From the local perspective, however, US$1 goes a long way. The problem is: people don't start thinking about the environmental impact of their actions until they have a steady supply of food, water and shelter.

The Eco-Lodge looks like all the other compounds in Wenhai, but it has comfortable rooms with electric blankets and electricity, and bathrooms with flush toilets. Dinner was amazing: a Chinacopia of tasty local dishes, mostly vegetarian. When the weather is good, guests of the Eco-Lodge can go on walking tours of the local villages or do a day hike to the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain . After dinner, Owen and Maggie taught us mahjong, a Chinese gambling game similar to gin rummy. Go anywhere in China and you are likely to hear the click of the mahjong tiles as they are ‘cleaned' before the next game. Mahjong is not such a difficult game, but it can be quite confusing to the non-native Chinese. One of the three sets of tiles is numbered using only the Chinese pictographs, and the other two sets show the numbers graphically – but in a manner completely different from our dominos or dice. By the time Nori and I had figured out what tiles we had, Owen and Maggie were tapping their tiles impatiently. But the most amusing part of the game is screaming “PONG!” at the right time and slapping a tile on the table (though I still can't explain exactly when that is.)

While hiking, we had both of our lunches at elementary schools. Maggie or Owen would go to talk to the schoolmaster, who would pull out some benches for us and heat water for tea. On the way up to Wenhai, we sat in a tiny courtyard while snot-nosed Yi children gaped at us. I walked into the classroom and said in Chinese “I'm hungry! Who should I eat?” The kids dove under their desks and shrieked in mock fear. On the way down, we ate in a larger Naxi village school – fresh Naxi bread with fried eggs, very tasty! Many of the students spent their lunch hour standing on the second floor railing, watching us eat. It is moments like that when I feel compelled to start stuffing food into my ears or down my pants. They seem to expect us to eat differently, so why disappoint them?

The next morning, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was clearly visible to the north. It took us seven hours to walk - mostly downhill - back to the main highway near Qiaotou. We passed through a lovely mixed forest and into wide meadows filled with purple wildflowers. During the first few hours, we descended past Yi women tending their extensive potato fields. While Owen distracted the ladies with what sounded like criticism of their farming skills, Nori snapped away with the camera. Further down, we followed the path of a stream that flowed past pretty wooden homes surrounded by crops. Good food, clean water, few neighbors – not many Chinese enjoy such a lifestyle. We were happy to see that wild, naturally beautiful China still existed, but we wondered how long it would last.

Scott

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