Ancient Music in Lijiang (Naxi Orchestra)

Lijiang old town is a warren of curved narrow streets, attractive stonework and two-story buildings in traditional Naxi ethnic minority style, nestled in a mountain–ringed valley in northwestern Yunnan. Wall-to-wall stores fill the old town, turning the setting into a theme park for scarves, silver jewelry, knickknacks and Congo drums (made in Thailand).  One and a half million well-heeled Chinese tourists flock in annually to eat, drink and spend money.

Lijiang old town

One bit of culture amid the merchandizing hoopla is the Naxi Orchestra, which plays music preserved from the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties every night. It is Chinese music before it was changed by the Mongolian conquest dynasty. Several of the musicians date from the era. Who can blame them for nodding off while the narrator spoke and introduced songs?

Large hanging drum and musicians in formal clothes

Okay, there were only a handful of octogenarians. But once this scowling, yawn-stifling group of thirty musicians started playing their pipas, erhus, huqins and sugudus it was a mesmerizing waterfall of sound, a shimmer of strings punctuated by bells and gongs, whistles, drums, throaty vocalizations and flutes. It was more like a gamelan than what you think of as Chinese music, capturing the rhythms of birds and wind, society and social order. A Tibetan soprano soloist and a clowning bit of Yunnan opera rounded out the evening which left me transported.

Naxi orchestra playing music from the 14th-century

In Naxi culture women are the shopkeepers and business-oriented, the men tend toward music, gardening and child rearing. When Kubulai Khan came through to conquer this part of China with his fierce cavalry and novel tactics the Naxi read the writing on the wall and simply acquiesced. Their society was spared decimation and in their cultural bubble preserved the music of the era, which over time was lost in greater China. They preserved it for centuries and once again during the “crazy years” of the Cultural Revolution, apocryphally burying the ancient instruments.  Whether this marvelous music will survive Lady Gaga and disinterest among the young is another question the band director openly pondered.

Thirty member Naxi Orchestra plays ancient music every night in the Naxi Music Academy








Leaving Kunming

Leaving Kunming tomorrow for the small towns of Dali, Lijiang and Xianggelila aka Shangri-la. After five weeks in Kunming you might think I’d be ready to move on, but no, I’ve grown quite fond of the city and language class. Even the nightime noise isn’t such a bother, and I no longer wear earplugs every night to sleep, as I did for the first two weeks.

Dali is strongly influenced by the Bai people, Lijiang by the Naxi, and Shangri-la, at 11,500 feet elevation, by Tibetans. In Shangri-la I am fortunate to catch the annual Tibetan horse racing festival. Not much religion, just people coming from hundreds of miles with their animals and finest new dress for three days of horse racing and partying.

To wrap up for Kunming, below are some slice of life photos with captions:

Convertible BMW

BMWs are the status car of choice. They are called bao ma, precious horse. That’s the actual name of the car. A more colloquial expression is Bie Mo Wo, don’t touch me.

Badminton court

Badminton is very popular. I played a few times, it is aerobic and fun. People take lessons. I was quite amused to see birdies piling up like snow around the feet of a student practicing her backhand, fed to her by the facility’s badminton pro.

umbrellas to ward off the sun

Umbrellas to ward off the sun

When the sun comes out so do the sun umbrellas. Women want to keep their fair complexions. High heeled shoes are the fashion now.

Solar water heating on the roof

Every apartment building has solar heating for hot water. Kunming is fairly sunny. Forever spring, they say.

Crispy whole sweet/hot and sour whole fish


This fish was turned inside out, and all the bones removed, before frying and turning crispy.  It was called something like fish squirrel-stye, referring to the appearance.

Discount cards for frequent buyers. Kunming folk have lots of them.

Some of discount cards belonging to my teacher, for bread, dumplings and the like. Some people have so many cards they carry them in special bags. Typically you buy the card, say for 100 RMB, and receive 110 or 115 RMB worth of merchandise,

English language signs are sometimes pretty funny.

Live fish for sale at Walmart

Walmart in China offers lots of unfamiliar things, but at a very good price. Live frogs and turtles for food consumption, dried Yunnan mushrooms, clothing, cosmetics, handbags and shoes are some of the merchandise. There are at least three multi-story Walmarts in Kunming.

Shopkeep pouring water to make pu'er tea

Yunnan is a tea growing region, and there are innumerable small tea leaf sellers. Go into any shop and they will make pots of tea for you to try. I greatly enjoyed the ritualized brewing and presentation. Some tea places are just for drinking tea, though, and friends while away hours enjoying different brews and talking. Besides green and black tea, in endless varieties, Yunnan produces pu’er tea, a unique but not especially well known tea made through special processes.


Western Hills (Xi Shan)

I made an early start for Xishan, the Western Hills, to make a weekend day of it. The forest preserve on the outskirts of Kunming is the city’s preeminent landmark and favorite destination, with wooded paths, pavilions, the famous Dragon Gate and panoramic views over Dian Lake to the city.

 Pavilions dot the wooded preserve.  There are five mountains, the tallest about 2000-feet above the lake.


Despite my best efforts to communicate correctly in Mandarin the taxi driver took me to the cable car station instead of the main entrance: I had wanted to walk up the mountain, a pilgrimage. But I went with the flow and took the cable car, 70 RMB roundtrip, about $12.

View from cable car

The cable car crossed Dian Lake, picturesque with water flowers and channels, then ascended directly up the mountain. A fast way to gain elevation. The cable car was the most reliable-looking thing I’ve seen in all of Kunming, where infrastructure generally seems a little shoddy and rundown, albeit functional. Fully automated, gleamingly clean, made in Switzerland, the mechanism chugged with reassuring smoothness and the gondola was as red and shiny as a ladybug.

Exiting from the cable car halfway up the mountain I found a visitor center with shops, hotels, street food and restaurants. There was a building housing another chairlift to go further up the mountain. I kept telling the young man at the info booth I wanted to hike up the mountain, not take the chair lift.  He kept directing me inside the building.  No, I said in my best enunciated Mandarin, I want to hike. He directed me by words and gestures to the chair lift. This was repeated several times over the course of fifteen minutes.  Finally I realized he was telling me that to go to upper half of the mountain you had to pay an entrance fee, and by the chairlift was where you buy that ticket. I am indeed an exasperating foreigner, but fortunately the Chinese are very friendly and forgiving.

I paid my 40 RMB entrance fee, declined the chair lift, and ascended on stone stairs. I arrived at the chair lift terminus after 25-minutes of pleasant walking through the woods.

Many of the Xishan’s paths are well-crafted stone steps

From here I had the choice of going to the Dragon Gate, the summit, or into the Xishan woods where ghosts may linger. I decided to go first to the Dragon Gate and to my surprise the way now steeply descended. Despite having read several guidebooks this point of orientation had escaped me.

The steps, wormed into the cliff face, were worn smooth and slippery by countless feet. At one point the path went through a perilous tunnel that seemed more like a toboggan chute. Taoist monks created the path and honored their beliefs with grottoes along the way filled with bright gold and blue religious statuary.

Taking pictures by one of the grottoes cut into the cliff face

The Dragon Gate itself is a small painted doorway, and a well-used photo opportunity with expansive views out toward Kunming and the lake 2,000-feet directly below. However the narrow path easily becomes crowded, and incense and cigarette smoke hung outside the grottoes.

The Dragon Gate, center


So, back up the twisting stairway to the Dragon Gate entrance, then to the mountain summit. Since I’ve been eating so many noodles and dumplings the sweaty exercise was welcome. At the top was Lingxu pavilion and panoramic views.

Pavilion at highest summit. It was a little cloudy, so moody views

I took some pictures and then explored. So nice to hear birds and see almost nobody. There were occasional signs in the woods in red letters, some directional, others I suspect saying, do not enter, but I couldn’t read them. That was unnerving in a fun sort of way.

Mysterious signs

On the way down I bought a peach from an ethnic minority woman and her son sitting quietly in the shade. The white flesh was memorably sweet. I wondered if she had grown them. I also worried I had overpaid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and there’s plenty of stories of prices doubling because you are a waiguoren, a foreigner. But later I found out the price was more than fair, and felt bad for being suspicious.

A distant pagoda in the Western Hills

It was mid afternoon when I exited the upper pay area of the mountain, and discovered many people young and old at the visitor center and nearby greenery, playing cards, eating and enjoying a relaxing day out of the city.

There is a road to this point, closed except to buses and minivans, but you can also walk from the main entrance through the woods via the Taihua Ancient Passage. This was the route I had originally planned. I walked down the road to find the Ancient Passage terminus. I was a bit confused, so everything was a discovery and seemed a little dodgy. That’s pretty much the constant state of affairs for me here in the Middle Kingdom. I’m never quite sure if I’m being understood, if I truly understand, and where exactly I’m going. A cloud of mystery hovers over every activity. It’s like a permanent state of quantum physics uncertainty.

It was now 3:30 PM and the ticket woman had been at pains to write on my ticket the cable car stopped at 5:30. That at least was quite clear. So I only had time to visit the first temple along the ancient passage. Rundown in places, the Taihua temple main building was spotless and two workers were touching up freshly-painted statues.

Taihu temple

The temple had extensive well-tended gardens with old camellia and magnolia trees, and stone chairs and tables. There was a pond, and amaryllis in bloom. So serene and peaceful.

Pond at Taihua temple

I lingered as long as I dared and then returned to the cable car, riding down with a older man and his grown daughter. He was diminutive, worn and dark, a laborer, with a big smile and yellow teeth. She was tall and smartly dressed, and visiting from somewhere distant. Their affection was plain. They sat across from me in the gondola, our knees almost touching, and symbolized for me the great changes in China in just one generation. As we dropped down the cliff and then across Dian lake we spoke in Mandarin, following the standard script, how long in China and where was I from, but the dad also wanted to know much my language school cost, and did I have any American money I could show him.

Amaryllis at Taihu temple

Seven snacks of Kunming


Skewered snacks ready for the grill. Hot and sour, as with this marinade, is a ubiquitous Kunming flavor.


I was walking with my teacher in Cui Hui park, in the center of Kunming.  We were strolling around the emerald-colored lake, among the old willow trees and colorful pagodas. We saw several large ornamental carp. “Hmmm, big fish,” she said. “Big enough to cook.”

How a nation as obsessed with food and noodles, breads and snacks stays so skinny is beyond me.

When hunger strikes, whether in the park or anywhere in Kunming, here are seven popular snacks readily available:

Sani woman cooking corns cakes on a rolling grill/cart


1. Yumi bing, fragrant corn cakes, here at a small market. Only 1 RMB apiece, about 15 cents.







Grilled flat bread with sweet or salty sauces


2. Er kuai, a grilled bread made from rice flour, a little spongy and tangy. Comes slathered with your choice of sauces, either salty or sweet, including ground peanuts, and folded. Also can be ordered folded around a fried dough cylinder: a doughnut sandwich. 2.5 RMB.


Dou jiang: "bean juice"


3. Dou Jiang, described to me as bean juice. Hmmmm. Amazing how important names can be. I tried it anyway. It was simply sweet soy milk. I thought it tasty and on weekends drink a cup with a baozi, for breakfast. Can be had warm or chilled. One dou jiang and one baozi, together 3 RMB.

BTW, I couldn’t get the straw to puncture the top, and made a spectacle of myself jabbing the plastic lid over and over. Finally a passerby showed me the trick. Oh, aim for the edge.



Rice noodles, mixian, are popular in many different forms, and is served hot, cold, with sauce and in soup. This is cold rice noodles with various vegtables and a little meat.

Cold rice noodles with vegetables, a little meat and spicy sauce. You're supposed to mix the noodles thoroughly with the sauce before eating.


4. Rice noodles, mixian, are a favorite Kunming dish, served hot, cold, with sauce and in broth, in dozens of variations, by innumerable storefronts spilling onto the street. The noodles are uniformly delicious. One bowl, liang mixian,  8-12 RMB.




Man buying grilled chicken wing


5. Grilled meats, tofu in several flavors and vegetables make a yummy snack, or order as an extra with your noodles.

Chicken feet in a hot sauce





6. Chicken feet are indeed very popular, but I haven’t worked up to munching them yet. All in good time. You can also buy them in the store packaged and ready to eat.


Fruit seller at night. They use a hand scale to weigh purchases.




7. Fruit is a tasty and healthy  snack, and street carts are loaded with bananas, watermelon, durian, lychees, Asian pears and mangoes, from tropical and semi-tropical regions just a little south of Kunming. You buy by the kilo, although in Kunming ordering a kilo gets you a half kilo. If you order a half kilo you get [and pay for] a quarter kilo. It’s just the local way.

Christmas Eve, Drought, New Airport & YouTube

I was talking with some Chinese friends and they told me Christmas eve is a major holiday here in Kunming. All the young people go into the streets and spray snow everywhere from aerosol cans, “Spprrrechccchh.” Traffic comes to a stop and only buses can get through. It is a recent tradition, they say, and very popular with young people. They don’t care who you are, if you cross their path, “Spprrreccchhhh.”  So watch out.

Kunming weather is mild and temperate year round, of course, so it never actually snows. Whatever the excuse, everybody needs to blow off pent up steam. The holiday is very different from the spring festival, the lunar New Year, China’s major vacation/festival when everybody is indoors with their families after traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to be home. Kunming people also gift apples for Christmas Eve, nicely wrapped and decorated. The word for apple sounds like the word for safe, one reason they are popular. I suspect there’s more to it but it’s hard to plumb. For the young people, it’s all about Spprrreccchhhh. Perhaps a sublimated kind of protest. Spprrreccchhhh

Water is a major environmental issue here in Kunming, a middling-sized city (for China) of six million. The huge lake on the city outskirts, Dianchi Lake, is polluted. When I asked about swimming I was answered with guffaws. No one drinks the tap water. I guess that’s true throughout China and most less developed nations. Some Kunming citizens filter their water, others use bottled water. Nobody drinks the tap water. “You can get sick,” was the refrain I heard over and over. Water is sold in 20-liter jugs. The city produces them, but the mechanism and degree of subsidy I haven’t been able to determine.

Even the tap water is  in limited supply. This spring there are rolling water stoppages in outer neighborhoods, so entire areas will be without tap water during the day, for several days at a time. When there was rain recently people on the outskirts filled containers and vessels with water, or so I heard.  It’s hardly rained the past three years.

The drought has affected all of Yunnan and the reservoirs and watersheds are at 70-percent of normal.  In agricultural areas, which is basically the whole province, the drought is an enormous problem, and the wild mushrooms for which Yunnan is famous are harder to find and gather. Climate change is a big contributor to the drought, say  authorities.

The local television station devotes three-quarters of its programming to water topics and conservation, but that’s probably useless since most people watch national stations, and the soaps set in ancient China. The imperial costumes and hairstyles look terrific on the big flat television screens that adorn even the shoddiest homes and stores.

Tobacco is an important cash crop in Yunnan. The first director of the Kunming Botanical Garden introduced the plant in the 1940s. Yunnan tobacco is considered the best in China. Top quality cigarettes sell for 50 yuan a package or more, compared to Marlboros at 15 yuan, about USD $2.50  There’s a cigarette factory in Kunming. Certain of the ethnic minorities smoke cigarettes and tobacco in large bongs. It is quite enchanting to watch. Others use small decorated pipes. Tobacco and smoking is an important part of their culture and rituals, including for example funerals.

Flowers are also an important cash crop in Yunnan, exported to China and the world. But there are almost no flower shops or vendors in Kunming.  I asked about it. Maybe on “teacher’s day, or love day, or mother’s day,” flowers might be given, I was told, but it is not a widespread habit. Flowers require care and fade. They are associated with funerals, especially white flowers. Flowers also carry symbolic meanings, both singly and in association, so a miscommunication is possible.

Books are not especially popular gifts either. The word for book, shu, is pronounced the same as the word to lose. As in losing money. Not auspicious. Fruit makes a better gift. Fruit stores offer spiky lychee globes, thin-skinned white fleshed peaches, fire dragon fruits that look like a Tibetan demon’s head, perfectly manicured small dark grapes, fragrant mangoes, bananas and more, and you can buy a straw basket at the same shop to make a gift. Or stores sell packaged food items for gifting, including eggs which you can bring to people in the hospital. A combination of practicality and symbolism. Of course, for children or wedding there is the all-time favorite, qian, money.

Kunming is growing quickly despite the drought, with massive infrastructure projects everywhere. They are building a subway, expected to be completed within two years. There’s a gold exchange set to open which has London and New York fretting. The new international airport, USD $3.6 billion when all phases completed, opens next month. It will be the fourth largest China, augmenting Kunming’s role as an international city and favorite destination for Chinese tourists who fly to Kunming and go on to the tourist cities of Dali and Lijiang. More direct international flights are planned. Tourism is the number one industry, but trade with Southeast Asia is increasing rapidly and Kunming is the gateway to Vietnam, Laos, Burma and the other southeast nations.

Lest you think I am getting too comfortable, drinking Yunnan’s pu’er tea and eating rice noodles, lost in language study, rest assured, everyday I forget and try to view YouTube. But you cannot in China. YouTube is behind the government’s Internet firewall. So is Facebook. And there is increasing crackdown on the wei bo, the Chinese micro blogs. I am reminded this is an authoritarian society whose enveloping steel I cannot readily fathom. Spprrreccchhhh. Spprrreccchhhh.

The two-story buildings of old Kunming barely exist anymore. Note new 25-story apartments in background, and the SUV vehicle that barely fits in the street..













Kunming is a city of 6 million. Low arched building in foreground is a sports center including for playing badminton.