17 Feb 2000
I don’t know. I go halfway round the world to a country where hardly anyone speaks English and head into the mountains. And I still get people coming up to me to ask me if I know I look like Din Din. Who?? You know: “Journalism man with dog Snow. I very like dis cartoon.” Oh. Arggh!
Nihao everyone. Unfortunately this is the last installment of the 3 art miniseries about my travails abroad. (Stay tuned though – I hear there’s word of numerous bad sequels.) But first, Lugu Lake. I have to confess the “hair-raising 9 hour bus trip” promised wasn’t thathair-raising (although I think lately my hair-raising meter has been kicked up a few thousand metres). I can see the trip would’ve been much more interesting if most of the snow and ice hadn’t melted. The bus went on the old road (the new one’s covered in landslides) through some amazing scenery (what a cliche – I must find a
thesaurus). Steep “hills” of red and yellow ochre soils, sparsely covered in low shrubs and pines. In the river valleys the road wound through bright green terraces and mudbrick villages. We must have stopped at every village on the way – at one point to pick up 30 odd chickens on the way to market, not all tied up – but eventually we arrived at the hole of a town where the bus stopped. From there I had to catch a private van for the final 2 hours to the lake.
I kinda peaked a little early with my awesome, spectacular, amazing type descriptions, so I’ll just have to say Lugu Lake was rilly rilly good. A huge blue lake beneath a cloudless sky at just under 3000m, surrounded by mountains into the distance in every direction. It was very remote – I didn’t see a westerner until I was about to head back to Lijiang, and the local Mosu understand about as much Chinese as I do.
As I mentioned, the Mosu still practice matriarchy, much more than the Naxi. Women own all property and the female elders make all the important decisions. Mosu rarely marry — instead the man goes and lives with the woman’s family, working to support any children they have together. If the relationship ends, the man moves out and the support stops. It’s male paradise — or so I’ve been told by some Chinese. Mosu women are hard and handsome, wearing traditional flowing red and white dresses and elaborate headdresses when they reach 13, to show their maturity, though older women wear more ordinary clothes while working the fields. The men are boyish silk cowboys in colourful vests and hats who always seem ready to burst into song. They also wear the traditional clothing at festive occasions when they reach 13 and tend to wear plainer clothes for work. As far as I could tell, only the wizened matriarchs carrying grandchildren around on their back always wore completely traditional clothing. This all might sound very quaint, but life is hard and the people poor. Mosu homes face onto the lake and everyone spends most of their time fishing or farming. The hills surrounding the lake are said to be a sleeping woman protecting the people.
The first night the locals put on a dance for the small group of Chinese tourists staying at Luoshui (Loo-oh-shway), the main village. I went along and though the Mosu seemed to be enjoying themselves, it was very much set up for plenty of Kodak moments. I got talking to a few ethnic men (ie non-Han Chinese) who were visiting the area and who spoke English. One was a Naxi tribesman, another a Yi nobleman and the third a young Dongba shaman. They were on a pilgrimage to
visit an old Dongba in the mountains nearby. They were also three mates in shirts and jeans travelling on their holidays, but this doesn’t sound as cool. They were as impressed with the tourist atmosphere as I was so we headed back to the local house they were staying in and had a long and interesting conversation over some bowls of corn wine. We discussed everything from Western and Eastern culture to tourism to their religions to the Cultural Revolution and their continuing quest for autonomy from the foreign Han.
The next day I walked around part of the lake and stayed with a Mosu family. The houses are primitive but fascinating. There’s no power, no phones, no showers — and no toilets. (That’s right — those baby cowpats in the fields weren’t laid by baby cows …) Each home has a courtyard in the centre, with the barn, sleeping quarters and cooking/eating rooms around it. In the large cooking room everyone sits in a semicircle around a sunken hearth, behind which is a shrine to the god of fire and offerings such as a severed pig’s head. Even during the day the room is gloomy and filled with smoke. Meat and vegetables hang from the rafters. Chickens wander in to clean up the scraps.
As soon as you arrive the food and drink is forced upon you. It’s very rude to refuse, but as long as you keep eating they keep piling it on your plate, so you end up feeling gorged. Food like stuffed pig’s intestines and large chunks of fat cooked with ginger and onion. The intestines are actually quite nice. The homemade wine is potent stuff — imagine one part sweet corn juice mixed with two parts ethanol and you get the idea. When one person drinks, so does everyone else. And they drink a lot.
That night the whole village — about 60 people — got together for a celebration around a bonfire. One of the boys was travelling north to study to become a lama. Great fun — heaps of singing, dancing, drinking and eating. Everyone links hands and follows the piper around the fire, with much stamping and kicking of feet. The steps seem fairly simple, but are constantly changing and in my state were a bit hard to follow. You see, being the only foreigner, everyone wanted to drink corn wine with me, and since you’re refusing friendship if you don’t drink and you *have* to scull the whole bowl … well you get the idea. It was a good night.
Near the top of the mountain behind the village — the sleeping woman’s head — is the Cave of the Goddess. Having determined that I could do with a bit of Yin, the next morning I set off with a couple of guides to the top. The cave is a series of chambers linked by narrow chimneys, which you crawl up by candlelight — slimy, sooty rock on all sides of you. It’s not a good time to find out if you’re claustrophobic or not. Luckily I’m not … that much. We spent over an hour inside the cave. As well as an offering, the guides had brought up a cassette player (of all things) and left it at the entrance. The wail of bad Chinese pop music faintly floating up to us made for a surreal experience.
Eventually the tape ran out. The silence was overwhelming. The only sound was the dripping of water and our ragged breaths pluming fog in the soft light. Yep, you could definitely feel the goddess all right. (I guess She didn’t like me — at one point the wall lunged out and cracked me on the head.) The top chamber was huge and even my maglite couldn’t pierce the darkness above. The guides covered the walls with candles as we went and lit the cave up like an ancient cathedral. Finally, we descended — much, much worse than going up — the guides catching me a couple of times when I slipped. (Unlike the Gorge, you didn’t know how far you had to fall. I think I prefer knowing.) The last chimney before the entrance — the smallest — was like slipping out of a birth canal. After being underground and in darkness for so long I’d forgotten I was actually at the top of a peak. The view was unbelievable.
That night I returned to Luoshui, met up with a Canadian friend and the next day we returned to Lijiang, on the new road. That was a little more interesting. For once you’re not looking at the scenery — you’re wondering if the other half of the hill is going to join the rubble the bus is grinding over … After listening to the Naxi orchestra play one more time and eating that last delicious baba sandwich, I left Lijiang for Kunming. Tomorrow I fly to Hong Kong, then Brisbane. On Monday I go back to uni. How boring. One more year then I’ll be be on the next plane to nowhere …