So here we are on our long-anticipated jaunt to Yunnan in SW China. We will be following the ancient Tea Horse Road from the pu-er tea growing areas in the south-east of the state right up to Shangri-La on the Tibetan border; Yunnan’s other neighbours are Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.
Armed with a little knowledge (always a dangerous thing!) from reading Peter Goullart’s fascinating memoir Forgotten Kingdom, written in the late 1930s and 40s, when he witnessed the ancient Tibetan caravans and described many of the 26 fantastically diverse ‘minority’ groups – among them Naxi, Black and White Yi, Bai, Morsuo and Miao – now living peacefully side-by-side, I come with high expectations as befits a retired anthropologist.
We are met at Kunming by Bamboo, our guide for the next 24 hours. In China, guides are designated to the various cites they call home; so in each place we visit we will be handed on. The benefit is that the local guide should have first-hand knowledge of the respective minority area we will be visiting.
We are late for dinner – Chinese eat early – so by 8.45 we have to make do with a rather nasty meal by the Green Lake, where our rather posh hotel is situated. We enjoy strolling amongst the Friday night revellers – buskers, karaoke, joggers, jugglers, children and families taking the night air.
The next morning Bamboo and Mrs Chen, our black-gloved driver, take us to the Pet and Flower Market. Despite the early hour, there are cages of colourful parakeets, budgies, song birds of all types and piles of mealworms and beetles to feed them; cages full of adorable fluffy puppies; mewling kittens (heartbreaking); bunnies; hedgehogs; squirrels; chipmunks and even a couple of miniature pigs; also terrapins, newts and aquaria full of golden fish. All, we are assured, for sale as pets. Seeing one or two straggly and older cats, I ask the son of a friend whom we meet in Dali (next stop) what happens to the unsold animals. ‘There are lots of restaurants where no questions are asked…never eat mutton (euphemism for dog), and chicken can sometimes be cat. Hom, our Dali guide also tells me that the minority groups don’t eat cats or dogs; but in Linjian apparently there are specialist dog restaurants – ‘good as pets, good in the pot’ our Singaporean hotelier tells me. Hmmm…
Bamboo is the most urbane of our guides, a city girl, who speaks good English (‘people live peacefully here’, she says, ‘not like Tower of Babel which fell because people could not communicate’) and is full of information. Yunnan is remarkably unpolluted for China: its largest industries are cigarette manufacture and flower-growing; followed by non-ferrous metal mining, Chinese medicinal herbs and tourism – all of which we see in abundance as we travel up the old Tea-Horse Road
She is much more interesting on young women’s attitudes to marriage these days. Young people wonder if its worth it she says; if people get divorced traditionally the man invariably got all the money and the house, but now with the rise of the working woman, she doesn’t want to risk losing what she has striven so hard to get. Of course the minorities have always been allowed to have lots of children and, indeed, we see babies and toddlers everywhere; but the change in women’s attitudes has also led to the new policy to allow two ‘only’ children to have two children. Interestingly, the Morsuo are matrilineal and matriarchal, and leave the husbands to look after the children, and take many lovers! I think Bamboo rather approves…
But she also thinks that today’s young people have a more ‘painful ‘ time than their parents, who really had no choices: they had to ‘search for a life’ as best they could. Now with the rapid turnaround in China’s fortunes and the aspiring middle class, the younger generation have to decide whether they want a new car, an apartment or new clothes – and if a car, what make? Bamboo says her friends laugh at her as she bought a second-hand car.
We learn all this as we chug along the super three-lane highway, which goes all the way to Shangri-La. Already I am beginning to realise that this might not be a hidden part of China as I had hoped! We make a slight detour to buy some of the finest pu-er tea: ours is grown on 200 year-old trees (not bushes) and fermented for 13 years; Ross enjoys the tea ceremony – or is it just the pretty girl who has a degree in Tea Science?
We stop for lunch at a dreary-looking concrete town, new buildings mushrooming up, appropriately as it turns out: the local specialty is – mushroom hotpot. Absolutely scrumptious.
The ladies are anxious to return to Kunming before nightfall so we are taken straight to the Linden Centre in Xizhou, a small village due north of the old city of Dali, the first main stop on the trial, and right by the Erhai lake. The hotel has about 14 rooms, converted from an old house set around three courtyards, which miraculously escaped the wrath of the Red Army as they were billeted there. It is one of the only surviving truly old places we see on all our travels…The owners, Brian and Jeannie Linden have been in Xizhou for over 20 years; they are deeply involved with helping the local community to preserve traditional culture and have made it their life work.
We wander round the village in the late evening sunlight before having a delicious supper – ham and snow peas, pea-shoots and broad beans, local rice noodles, washed down by a decent glass of red wine.