Star Date: June 2006
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Cho De Mo
(Good day Northern Tibet, Amdo)
Great souls have wills, feeble ones have only wishes.
(A Chinese Proverb)
Water Splashing Festival! Water orgy deluxe! This Dai spring festival, held during the dusty end of the dry season, is a fun way to cool off; with the added bonus of "washing away the sorrow, dirt and demons of the old year then attracting happiness." The wetter you get the better your luck. One night in Ganlanba, Xishuangbanna, the carnival like atmosphere was highlighted with a spirited dance festival performed by the local Dai beauties. From then on we went in search of this elusive festival. Everywhere we went the festival was the "next town, day after tomorrow, or in a week". Directed to Damenglong, on the border of Myanmar (Burma) for a more authentic experience, we decided to just stay put until something happened. The first night we came across 6 women dressed in matching long silk dresses and I motioned to them, "When are you dancing?" They held up 4 fingers. Two fingers later we saw one really seething, drenched cat. Three fingers later we were caught in the cross fire of 4 little guys who were practicing with their new water pack Uzis, upgraded from the traditional buckets or ladles. We had just climbed up to see a pagoda on the hill above town so it felt refreshing. Our luck was improving! On the day of four fingers, groups bestowing good luck, armed with buckets, ladles and the new version Uzi squirt guns, with back packs, traveled around drenching anyone or anything in sight. A common strategy was a 'drive by drenching' with the motorcycle speeding by while the sidekick threw the water. At one point a whole truck full of teenagers, armed to the hilt, slowly cruised the streets looking for people down on their luck. Our favorite was a monk, about 10 years old, on a bike, with his authentic looking water Uzi slung over his back! No cameras to capture the moment as all valuables were tucked safely away. We noticed everyone scrambling to hide away forgotten cell phones, in plastic bags in their pockets. They remember when life was simpler. The more you have, the more you have to worry about. One guy walked the streets sweating profusely inside a complete plastic rain suit. Several others put the ever versatile plastic bag on their heads. Being a foreigner we seemed to have special diplomatic water immunity and could request just a splash, only the feet, only the back, etc. but the drive by kamikazes had their way with us. My son, Kevin, upon hearing the squeals outside the phone booth, suggested we return next year with a power washer mounted on a truck!! No matter how wet we got we were thankful that we weren't in Laos for their Water Festival. They not only throw water but add charcoal and flour for really good luck. Even the thought is messy!
We headed up to see the White Bamboo Shoot Pagoda (founded in 1204) in search of a dry haven and found it a beehive of activity. On went our sarongs, off came our shoes and for over 2 hours we joined about 60 older men and women from the surrounding villages as they decorated the temple, made offerings, lighted incense, prayed and chanted with the monks. They gave us food, items to make offerings, (along with instructions on protocol), and at one point one kind lady gave us 2 small pounded rice treats (like 'mochi') wrapped in banana leaves. This opened the floodgate as every woman put 2 into our bag until it literally exploded with weight. No reprieve as a larger plastic bag appeared, which was filled up to the top, easily weighing 10 lbs.. We sampled many different types of the 'mochi' rice cakes, some with salty beans, nuts or grain and others sweetened with coconut or rice syrup. Filled up, we later gave them away to people as we walked through the villages and fields behind. Many of the people we 'talked with' in the temple later recognized us in the small villages or at the upcoming dance festival and greeted us wildly or introduced us to their friends and family. The man who played the giant 10 foot drum, opening the temple ceremony, became the 'drum player' and he showed up everywhere. He seemed used to setting things off as we later waved to him in the parade, carrying enormous 2 ft long rockets tied to bamboo poles, which were ceremoniously launched during the festivities. We bought fruit or vegetables in the local market from many of our new little old lady friends. One woman invited us into her 100 year plus rustic Bai home, complete with dried meat hanging over the smoldering fire in the corner, Grandma and Grandpa napping on their mats, and an absolute minimum of possessions. First she served us hot tea, then went outside and picked plums off the tree and one of the biggest, juiciest pineapples we had ever tasted, followed by a kind of puff up rice crackers done in the wok, half spicy the other half sweet. Grandma, who was blind, simply enjoyed listening to us talk and Grandpa barked an order after which appeared their favorite 'hooch' or 'baijiu'. We politely declined, stating that they had already filled us to the brim. We rolled down the ladder 2 hours later, having savored yet another invitation to glimpse the lives of locals. Walking further down the lane we heard a lot of noise and laughter, with little shy "hellos" mixed in. As usual we replied, "Hello, Nihao!' and several heads popped up and invited us upstairs. There was something 'rotten in Denmark' as we heard water running and I glanced a young guy filling a bucket. Joseph stopped short and said we would come up but he had his camera out and could they please not drench us. Their ambush uncovered, they disappointedly invited us to sit around their table and join then in eating and drinking beer. We had a fun time talking, laughing, drinking tea, and before we left they ritualistically splashed a small amount of water down our backs. Only christened 3 or 4 times that day I was feeling quite cocky as I rounded the corner to our hotel. Waiting for my return was a little urchin with a full bucket. Let's just say it will be a very lucky year!
We witnessed a sort of rehearsal the 4th evening but wondered if the dancing and the grand finale of the Water Festival had eluded us once again. The next morning the market was busier than usual as wide eyed peasants from the outlying villages descended. For the first time in 2 days the streets were dry, along with the people walking them. About 5pm on 'five fingers day' we heard a ruckus of drums and music getting louder and louder. We quickly rushed outside just in time to get swept along with the crowd of musicians playing unique flutes, drums and instruments, and hundreds of dancers proudly displaying colorful exotic costumes, some even portraying peacocks, a favorite local symbol. This cacophony snaked along for almost a mile to a large flag decorated field below town, past newly set up carnival and food booths. Each group of 50 dancers majestically danced for the dignitaries seated on a high platform, while the head monk circumambulated the crowd, carried high in a gilded sedan chair, throwing 1 yuan notes(12 cents) and sprinkling water. Rockets and fire crackers exploded, music blared, cameras rolled, and with the descending darkness, the musical parade formed once again and dancers were ushered back to town. Sleepy little Damenglong exploded with activity, like the fireworks overhead, as everyone ate and made merry. The following morning it was as if nothing had happened. Dry and rested we questioned, "What Water Festival?" Had we really experienced such colorful festivities in this drowsy little town?"
Several sleepy little monasteries were scattered around the town and we were delighted with the relaxed nature of the monks of all ages. The mystique surrounding the Buddhist religion melts as you catch monks, escaping the monasteries, in town playing pool, sneaking drags of cigarettes, watching chicks go by, or continually chatting on their cell phones. Chances are these young guys are just putting in their time, rather than becoming "lifers".
After hiking through surrounding villages we would recommend the 1-3 day trek to Bulangshan. The villagers are extremely friendly and welcoming and it would be one of those rare indigenous experiences. Back in Jinhong we stood at the bus station staring at the map and our options. Having spent weeks on dusty, bumpy roads the lure of a highway to Dali pulled us in. Once in Dali Old City we questioned our choice, as we saw the Chinese tour buses unload and groups following little flags, like Pavlov's puppies. Once again simply find a quiet local place out of the fray and hiking 1km beyond the tour routes and it is like another world. Being the party animals that we are, we happened on the end of the Spring Festival and all the locals from miles around converged in an enormous market selling everything from dried snakes to mountain herbs, to bbq'd pig snouts, to purple plastic boots, to pots and pans.
The regular Dali vegetable market is also full of Bai people, and the surrounding Bai villages are like stepping back in time. We meandered down a cobblestone path to Erhai Hu (Ear Lake- 6th largest in China) (out the East Gate -across the highway). We were continually greeted by farmers beating broad bean stalks in the fields and Joseph was even invited to try his hand. The locals are always amazed at his size and they marvel at the hair on his arms and chest. At the village next to the lake we got lost in the ancient stone alleyways, one of our favorite pastimes. Heading north along the lake to the dock we skipped the boat tour and caught the #2 bus back to Old Town. Inventive farmers had spread their stalks across the road for over a mile and simply let the buses and trucks do their thrashing for them. Work smarter not harder!
On Foreigners Street we enjoyed hanging around the Tibetan Lodge or the Bamboo Cafe for vegetarian food. At a juice bar, lakeside of Fuxing Lu, we always found relaxing conversation. Many people have moved over here and started small businesses and their stories of starting from scratch, in such a different culture, are interesting. The government seems to give them a lot of space and the only hassle is the ever present thorn in the side of travel - visas. (See Hong Kong/ August webpage) This was a little vacation from traveling. We were amazed when we would hear travelers complaining about all the tourists in Dali, without even venturing past the backpacker hangouts. Or they would take a tour to the Monday Market in Shaping when a public bus for 25 cents brought you right there. Choosing the path less traveled has its rewards. And finding quaint little alcoves of local culture right next to busy tour destinations is a challenge well worth the effort.
Next we found ourselves on buses heading in different directions. I was off to see family and attend the picturesque Hawaiian marriage of my daughter, Mariah, to our new "son" Shane. It was heart warming to see everyone again and definitely recharged my family and friend battery. Not having been back to the U.S. in over 2 years I found myself, at times, in a strange space between cultures. A curious paradox of the long time traveler.
Joseph spent several days with the Naxi people in the newly booming tourist town of Lijiang before heading up into the hills to Ninglang, home of the black hats; and on to Lige, the final bastion of the Mosu. The Mosu are the last practicing matriarchal society in the world. Referred to as "Nu Guo" (Women's Kingdom) the Mosu women pass all social and political positions through the female lines and never marry or cohabitate. In the custom referred to as "walking marriage" they invite men into their bedrooms and in the morning roust them out, back to their mother's home. Staying at a remote village, an older matriarch informed Joseph that he had his choice of 3 women. Wisely he declined and our 25 year trip continues. In the larger town of Luoshui, this idea of the walking marriage has attracted numerous tourists, and has led to prostitution, which just goes to show you that there is no such thing as a free lunch or free love!
A rainy visit to spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge (Qiaotou), one of the deepest canyons in the world, inspired Joseph towards the mountains in search of the elusive Shangri La.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 8 Yuan
Dali: You often arrive into Xiaguan - take #2 bus to Dali Gucheng, Dali Old City about 30 minutes away. The South and West Gate areas are too busy and Foreigners Street is just that. Recommended places to stay within the wall: Yu Yuan Bai Family Guesthouse, new (#0822 2673267 - hand the phone to someone who can give directions there 50-80Y) or the last courtyard to the right when looking at the North Gate 50Y #208 is quiet). Hike up towards the mountains for a look at village life and seek out the old pagoda with the tree growing out the top. A tell tale sign of the state of modern religion.
Great guesthouse on the river in Qiaotou: Tall green sign, near the bridge on the Main St., Gorge(?) Guesthouse: 3rd floor, back by the river