Friday, 30 January 2009

How it all began

This account of my family's travels in Yunnan reads chronologically, that's from the top down with my most recent entry reading last - the reverse of a traditional Blog. If you wish to use the navigation on the right I recommend you work from the top working down. If you are confused now I'm sure it will make sense once you start going through each of the entry's.

Over the past few years I've been dragging my family around Eastern Europe for our summer holidays to catch the last glimpses of traditional life held in aspic during the old communist rule.
Our quest was inspired by a trip to Hungary shortly after the wall came down and many of the Soviet republics regained their independence while old Russia ground to an economic halt. We picked the thread up once again when our daughters, India and Iona, were ready to leave the beach behind and embrace a family adventure very different from what we were used to.

First on the list was a trip to Romania, riding over the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. We experienced an astonishing countryside and a way of life not seen in western Europe since the First World War. This small but significant adventure whetted my appetite for more mountains and some serious riding. The Balkans in Bulgaria.

I had assumed such a trip would be relatively leisurely but it ended up being more a test of stamina and determination than experiencing the delights and glories of the Balkans. We rode for up to eight hours a day with some of the longest trots I expect ever to encounter and gallops that were simply terrifying.

With the Carpathians and Balkans under our belt and ever increasing confidence in our ability, I managed to con (did I say that) my family into the idea of riding in the Caucuses in the Republic of Georgia. This time we knew what to expect and how to survive without the obligatory morning shower and general creature comforts associated with family holidays. I knew Georgia was a fair distance from the UK and where I wanted us to travel was on the Dagestan and Chechnya boarders, in a region called Tusheti; however what I wasn’t ready for was the way of life we were going to experience as a family and how remote the region was.

I’ve written an extensive account of this trip with a similar introduction. Try this link.

We visited Tusheti twice during 2007-08 and experienced many wonderful adventures which should have been enough for any family, especially since we left Georgia as it was being invaded by Russia, but that's another story.

Inspired by what we had achieved in Tusheti I came up with the crazy notion we should continue our travels and visit China. Not the China of Great Walls or Terracotta Armies. Not even the burgeoning city of Beijing to experience an emerging super economy. For this trip we chose to visit three minority tribes in the north west region of the Yunnan, close to the Tibetan border in the Himalayas.

The idea was to stay with three different tribal communities. The Yi, who live between 12 to14, 000 feet in the Himalayas. The Naxi (pronounced Nashi), who tend to live lower down at a mere 9 to 10,000 feet in larger villages. And finally the Lisu, who live at similar altitudes to both the Yi and the Naxi. Women from all three tribes wear, on a daily basis, their own distinctive traditional costume. While the men can be seen wearing goat skin jerkins and the likes but generally wear whatever is available from the market.

Our plan was to move from one area to another on horseback and travel via mini bus when the distance was prohibitive.

This account follows our journey, illustrating the world we encountered in pictures with supporting text where it might prove helpful.

I hope you enjoy these pictures as much as we did taking them.

The country side in Yunnan is littered with these wonderful trucks undertaking all manner of tasks . This one arrives every morning in Liming surrounded by a cacophony of music, blaring out from the speakers on the roof of the cab. The wake up call reminds everyone it is time to bring out their waste and load it onto the truck.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Kuoshi Jie festival in Liming

After 10 months of e-mail conversations with our good friend Lily from Lashihai Ecotourism our plans were finalised. We set off in Dec 2008 on an exceptionally exhausting , non stop journey to Lijiang in the heart of Yunnan. Our journey took us from the UK to Hong Kong then onto Kunming, finally arriving very weary in the ancient city of Lijiang. We were half way around the world ,very tired, it was late at night but we still had one essential task to complete in preparation for our trip over the next two weeks. The girls needed the all essential puffer jackets for our journey. After a quick supper we made our way into the old quarter where we swiftly kitted the girls out with fashionably cut arctic clothing and suitable Chinese headgear. All at remarkably low prices. Well, as the girls pointed out, you never know who you might meet on a mountaintop so one should always look good. All I could think of were shaggy Yaks who have no fashion sense, but I guess Yaks do look good in black.

The following morning our destination was the small market town of Liming where the local population are predominately Lisu.

We had planned to attend the Kuoshi Jie spring festival and then climb Thousand Tortoise Mountain. The top of this extraordinary mountain appears to be made up from clusters of giant tortoises and is totally out of this world. Much to our surprise our highlight was market day in Liming. There we encountered a brilliant variety of minority tribal Chinese people.

It's not every day you meet Lisu men clad in goat skins sporting a type of cross bow, Yi women wearing brightly coloured pleated skirts with enormous headdresses, and Naxi women wearing their distinctive coats depicting the seven moons on their backs. The Liming market was a glorious blend of tribal life, all living closely together,each speaking in their own languages and following their own unique traditions.

The following images are a snapshot of Liming, its surrounding landscape and the people who visited Liming during course of the festival and all the important market.

In preparation for our trip I had been trying to study the region and the possibility of festivals during our stay. The Kuoshi Jie festival was a discovery I made the week before we arrived and an experience we will always cherish.

When we arrived in Liming a small stage had been set up in the town square. I say town, if you are a city person I'd expect you would regard Liming as a village, let's just refer to it a small market town surrounded by imposing pink terracotta mountains.

Groups of girls were clustered by the side of the stage in their finery,waiting patiently before they embarked on their performance . Young men clutched their instruments looking anxiously at each other while smoking cigarettes as men do when killing time.

We arrived just in time to see the breath of youth celebrate their musical and dancing traditions on the first morning of the festivities. The assembled audience crooned their necks, anxious not to miss a moment of the festivities .I simply gawped at the beauty and innocence of occasion, hugging myself with the satisfaction we had found the place.

We swiftly realised where the action was and drifted to the right of the simple stage. Conspicuous as we were, somehow we mixed with the musician and dancers and found ourselves taking pictures and sharing the results with everyone. The company of players were all in a festive mood, keen to show off their colourful attire and perform for the audience. A troupe of lads got up onto the stage, some blowing their pipes through their noses, others taking a more conventional approach. The sharp sunlight threw the spectacle into sharp contrast, accentuating the drama of the occasion while the rich colourful dresses of the girls shone with a contrast and brilliance we were not used to but would later become the hallmark for our memories of Liming.

This was our baptism for life in rural China. Over the next few days the market town of Liming was to throw up all manner of delights ,the festival being only a small part of that experience.

My two daughters Iona (left) India (right) posing with two Lisu girls who asked to have their picture taken. This was also the first outing for the new puffer jackets. It might appear bright and sunny but boy was it cold.

The last two images were taken at the finale. Notice the local dignitaries standing at the back. I think they were judging the performances

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

A Thousand Tortoise Mountain

The Liming music festival came to a close at lunch time and we peeled off for a meal in a local cafe to prepare for the afternoons adventure. Our interpreter and general guide Shelly, thought we should make the most of the afternoon and ride up to Thousand Tortoise Mountain. Liming has one of the most magnificent attractions in Yunnan which most of the tourist guides either appear to have omitted or only given a brief mention to.

I hope the following pictures give you a true idea of how magnificent this place is .

The trail up to Thousand Tortoise Mountain is steep and not something we wished to attempt on our first day. Shelly hired a number of horses/ ponies for the afternoon to take the stress of walking at 10,000 feet easier on the lungs and legs. These small horses have been used for hundreds of years in this region to transport tea and silk etc over the ancient tea trail across the Himalayas. Sweet little beasts of burden, they are like four legged teddie bears with their soft brown shaggy coats.

Once we had ridden most of the way the last part was down to us to climb, which is fine if you are feeling fit and healthy so the girls scampered up the last part leaving me behind wheezing my way to the top. Once on this strange mountain a sign pointed out we should take our shoes off if we were to continue our climb. The sandstone rock is quite soft and I can imagine thousands of Chinese tourists would soon grind down this amazing natural phenomenon if they were to wear shoes.

This prominent rock is revered by the locals, as are so many unusual looking rocks. The story goes it represents two lovers who absconded after their disapproving parents tried to prevent them from getting married. Nothing new there.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Market day in Liming

The Lisu keep a different calender to the rest of China and our visit coincided with their New Year. As a result the market held during the New Year festival had an auspicious significance when important acquisitions are to be made. Local people from all over the area attended, wearing their tribal clothes with pride creating for us bystanders a blur of colour and cultural mix.

An old Naxi lady who is wearing symbols of the seven moons on her back. Later in our journey we were to spend a great deal of time with Naxi folk.

This Yi clothes stall had an abundance of Yi clothing , brightening up the pavement and generating a great deal of interest from passing Yi.

Once India started to put on the Yi clothes people started to gather and we created quite a commotion. There were fascinated by Melissa and India who both brought clothes. We were after all a very unusual sight at this time of year in Liming and it wasn't until we went to Leaping Tiger Gorge did we see any westerners.

Piglets for sale.

The end of the market day and a number of the stall holders made their way home on this groaning truck, still laden with unsold goods and destined for another days trading in the mountains.