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.

 

Black Stone Forest, Kunming

Path leading into the Black Stone Forest, 55 miles southeast of Kunming

The stone forest is must see for visitors to Kunming. It’s an hour out of town by car or longer by bus or train. Travel arrangements can be sketchy. Want to take a bus tour from your hotel? Be prepared for stopping at innumerable shops selling souvenirs and craft items.  Want to go in a minivan? Prepare for possibly switching from a nice one to a rattletrap. You just don’t know. That’s part of China’s challenge and allure.

We made arrangements for a private car and driver, sharing the RMB 500 cost among several, but in the end we paid more. Tolls, the driver said, demanding an extra RMB 50. It’s hard to disagree when your Chinese is so limited. But we did. It’s good language practice. You take it when you can. However the Chinese have a different sense of appropriate volume. They often talk in a way that seems loud and angry to Westerners. Sometimes you think two people are having an argument, but they are just having a conversation. So it felt like the driver was shouting at us.  It was disconcerting. Like an onslaught of angry crows.

We’d gone to Naigu Shilin, the Black Stone Forest, part of a complex in Lunan Yi [an ethnic minority] Autonomous County. The entire area could be thought of as a giant Chinese garden. The contorted, sharp-edged limestone pinnacles stretch up 20, 50, 100 feet. If you have a feel for rock this is a great place. And so nice to breathe in the fresh high-elevation air, and hear the sharp cry of hawks and other birds.

Stone artisans have created paths in and around the formations, carefully scribed to the rock. Some paths lead to winding steps and views of the red-soiled agricultural countryside. In other places the rocks crowd the path like night to create a cave, dark and close, even a little scary.

This smaller Black Stone Forest doesn’t have the thronging tourists and buses of the other, better known stone forest, called simply Shi Lin [“Stone Forest”], or the cloying nomenclature found there for rock formations [“Two Birds Feeding Each Other,” “Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon”]. But It also doesn’t have any services, or food and water for sale. And information is hard to come by. The guidebooks are not so helpful and there are not good websites. You might find large parts of the stone forest closed, for example, after you have entered. You just don’t know. And if you want to look up the birds that have such distinctive cries after your visit, well, again, good luck.

Entrance fees are surprisingly high, RMB 175, about $28 dollars. However the price is in line with other cultural heritage sites throughout China. The intent appears to be some combination of making the sites self-sufficient, profitable, and keeping the number of visitors manageable. There are plenty of well-off Chinese who want to see their country, and can afford the tickets for themselves and families. About 3 million visitors a year come to the stone forest area.  You can also purchase an annual pass for only RMB 25 more,  RMB 200.

Local Sani woman doing handicrafts in the shade of natural archway

 

The day we visited we were the only non Chinese we saw among the families with kids, and tour groups with the Chinese woman all carrying umbrellas to fend off the sun and keep their complexions white and attractive. The weather was hot. Everyone was sweating. There were small guard stations placed about, with tall green flags on bamboo poles to locate them; most of the guards were in the shade with their shoes and socks off, reading.

My companion Joe became thirsty and went back to the entrance for a drink and snack. When he didn’t show up at the rendezvous time I became worried. I waited a while then hightailed it back the stone forest entrance, where

 

 

I found him practicing his Chinese character writing. It was the middle of the afternoon but the place was desolate except for a sleepy ticket taker and a ticket seller. What happened? I asked.

Joe on path at Naigu Shilin, Black Pine Stone Forest

“They wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “They wanted me to pay the entrance fee again.” That was dumfounding because there was literally no one around and he’d only taken a few steps into the building. And of course there was no sign, at least in English. But oh well. You just don’t know. And as he discovered there was no water or snacks for sale.

On the ride back we stopped for lunch and Joe bought a colorful embroidery from a local Sani woman. He negotiated an RMB 15 price and gave her a RMB 20 note. She gave him the embroidery, then a couple of embroidered geegaws. No RMB change. Just the geegaws.

“I was tricked,” he said to me in his soft spoken English.

You really have to be on your toes. But after such a relaxing day in the stone forest it hardly seemed to matter.

Sani woman selling embroidery

Arrival in Kunming and Foot Massage

 

Massage shop in Kunming across from my language school

 

nice hot water felt great

It’s a hot hot bucket of water – aaaahh – and you soak those tired dogs. Then your masseuse rubs your shoulders deeply with her elbow while your feet continue to soak. More aaahh.

That’s how my first day in China began, after a 30-hour travel day from Seattle to Kunming in southwest China.

The massage shop is on Dongfeng Dong, a main avenue of the city where I am attending language school on the 16th floor of a nondescript building on the same avenue [Keatings School]. I’m living in a monk’s cell of a room on the 15th floor. I can see many tall buildings and construction cranes from my window.

 

Working all those pressure points, day 1 in China

 

After a suitable soak the bucket was taken away, and she began the massage which I suppose is a form of acupressure. My favorite part was the back and forth rubbing on the front of the toe, very surprising.

Outside the small shop was the four-lane avenue, Dongfeng Dong, with Hondas and Toyota Highlanders churning by, and swarms of electric scooters; but a refreshing breeze wafted in from time to time. Kunming is on a 6,000-foot plateau with hills and mountains about, and the weather is famously warm and pleasant most of the time, and there’s often an afternoon breeze. Men dress casually in T-shirts and sometimes even shorts. The women are more fashion conscious, and the array of high heel footwear is dazzling.

Learning language in action is really the best. I didn’t know what they were saying when I walked into the shop, but finally it dawned on me as I stood there that they were asking what sort of massage I wanted, and I said “jiao,” foot, and they quickly said, “ah, jiǎo ànmó,” so I learned the word for massage. Ànmó.

Outside the shop, besides the traffic and parked bicycles and scooters, was a plump caged rabbit in the shade of a tree. What was the word for rabbit, I wondered? Rabbit is part of the Chinese zodiac but I’d never learned the word. I resolved to look it up when I returned to my monk’s cell. I thought I would try to learn to say it, so when I went to the shop again I could ask whose rabbit.

Pet rabbit outside the massage shop

Meantime the masseuse rubbed and pummeled, pulling toes, twanging tendons, and she massaged my calf muscles as well. It lasted an hour and cost RMB 50 Yuan, about US $8.