Monday, August 31, 2015

The Tea Horse Trail Through Shaxi

Sideng bazaar street, part of the tea-horse route
Nestled in a valley, the small town of Shaxi played a vital role along the ancient tea-horse route starting over 1,400 years ago. Tibetan horses were highly prized and traded in China for tea and salt. Shaxi became a main trade station along this route. In just the year 1661, over 1.5 million kilos of Yunnan tea were traded to Tibet.

Some of the guesthouses still remain where traders and their horses rested for the night. The structures of trading shops are also present, but many are now converted into cafés, restaurants, and stores.

The Tea-horse trail was also used by Buddhist monks, Christian missionaries, and armies as they moved in between India, Myanmar, and China. In the 18th century, the route began its slow decline as China stopped trading horses for tea.  Railways, air freight, and highways further reduced the importance of the road. Today the town of Shaxi, including the cobblestone tea-horse road of Sideng Street, becomes an active trading area during the Friday market.

I loved meandering through the narrow lanes. Some of the gates were truly impressive. The early morning light illuminated the lime-painted walls.
The town of Shaxi has been listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world. Recent efforts have been made to preserve the architecture and culture.

Bai Murals of Shaxi

One of my favorite things to do in a town is to meander. I have a pretty good sense of direction, enabling me to wander through even unfamiliar areas with the confidence that I can find my way back. Towns such as Shaxi are perfect for such activity.   
Just as in other towns I visited in the Yunnan area, the homes in Shaxi are surrounded by high walls. The walls are made from rammed earth and are painted with slaked lime.  Monochromatic murals, painted in black and deep blue, adorn the walls. Some of the murals were on ceramic tile.
Higher up on the walls and above the gate, one could find more colorful murals of nature scenes. Peonies, Chrysanthemums, pine trees, and various birds were common motifs. Others consisted entirely of Chinese calligraphy. 

In the peaks of many homes, one could find ornate floral, bird, and geometric motifs. The one above is so graceful, with its symmetrical design that appears to be depicting phoenixes, lotus flowers, and the serpentine body of a dragon. It feels somewhat Art-Nouveau in style to me.

Gates sometimes led to other internal gates. I loved the nearly round internal gate, pictured above.

Even though ruddied by age and dirt, this mural is still majestic. With the main scene white and surrounded by a very dark background, it feels like a photo negative. Faded colors below the tiled roof complements the scene.

I'd love to meet the artists who paint the murals and see them at work. How long do they take to create a mural? How long do the murals last before they need to be repainted? Who chooses the theme of the murals?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Shizhong Grotto and Shibaoshan Mountain

Prior to reaching our day's destination of Shaxi in Yunnan, we drove up Shibao Mountain to visit the Shizong Grotto. In accordance with the requirements set by the organization protecting this site, we had to take (and wait for) a van which then drove us to the entrance. Ominous clouds had already been gathering while waiting for the van to come, and by the time we reached the entrance, the heavens had let loose. Although grateful to have been kept dry in the van, I admit to have been rather impatient while waiting for over a half hour before the rains had let up enough for us to begin our hike.
The triple-arched gateway leading down to the grottoes of Stone Treasure Mountain (otherwise known as Shibaoshan) indicated that this was an important culturally protected site.
Once leaving the well-surfaced stairs past the gateway, our hike became a bit more difficult. The torrential downpour had washed red sand and dirt over the pathway. Rushing water still flowed over many areas, requiring concentration on where to step and hopefully not slip. The path winded around and included natural steps. I decided that it was more important to watch my step (while holding an umbrella due to the falling rain) rather than try to take photos, especially since my guide was going at a quicker pace.

We started at the Stone Bell Monastery, which contains some of the best Bai stone carving in southern China. We didn't linger at the temple, but moved on towards the grottoes, some of which date back 1,200 years. 
According to the ShaxiChina website, there are over 140 carvings in the seventeen Shizhong grottoes. Many offered an insight into the Nanzhao kingdom during the 9th century. My guide said that the sculpture of the eight kings of China is considered one of the finest works of Chinese Buddhist art. One sculpture depicted Guanyin, with a gap where her heart was plucked out to show her dedication to Buddha. Many of the carvings were blackened from incense or smoke from candles.  Some damage from the Cultural Revolution was noted, such as decapitated heads and gouging. The color from paint was noted on a few grottoes.

Perhaps its most famous carving is of the female genetalia, which is visited by women to boost fertility and promote a smooth childbirth.  Although the practice of applying oil on the carving is no longer allowed, its blackened appearance is still present.
Photography was not allowed past the temple, but I did capture a pretty landscape shot prior to entering.

Entrance to the temple

Read more about and see photos of the Shizong Grotto and other temples on Shibao Mountain on GoKumming.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Beauty of Rain, Yunnan region

While traveling by car to the village of Shaxi in the Yunnan of China, we encountered several heavy rains. The build-up of the clouds became quite apparent that rain would soon come. Portions of the mountains became partially obscured where downpours occurred. 

Mists and low clouds formed, contrasting with the emerald-green rice paddies.

Sometimes patches of blue sky managed to peek between the clouds. Workers in the fields or doing construction on the roads (as in the photo above) continued on with their manual labor.

Even if the cloudy skies persisted, the views were still beautiful. 

Anything beats the polluted, hazy skies I later saw in Beijing....

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tie-Dyeing of the Bai Ethnic Group, Yunnan

Having a "weakness" towards loving textiles, I was naturally attracted to the tie-dyeing by the Bai ethnic group. This ancient handicraft was already being practiced around the 3-4th century in China. The Bai people living around the Dali area of Yunnan (southwest China) are renowned for their tie-dyeing in this particular style. The village of Zhoucheng has been awarded the title of "The Hometown of National Embroidery and Dyeing." 

The Bai people use white cotton cloth, or sometimes a blend of cotton and linen. To create the "resist" areas where the dye will not reach, the Bai people use knots, rubber bands, sticks, and stones. According to the needs of the desired pattern, several binding techniques are used, such as pinching, crimping, folding, squeezing and pulling into shapes. The cloth is stitched, bound, and tightened, with the un-dyed piece looking like a very textured sculpture. 

Bandhani tie-dye from Gujarat, India
 Having seen the process already when traveling in Gujarat, India, I could appreciate the finished products of this time-intensive art. The Bandhani  piece pictured here took 21 days just to tie the knots.
Removing the knotted strings, revealing the designs. Gujarat

The natural indigo color is formed from fermented leaves of the radix isatidis, mugwort, and a few other plants. The cloth is typically soaked and then air-dried several times before the desired intensity of color is achieved.
Like so many other traditional handicrafts, Bai tie-dyeing is becoming increasingly endangered, due to industrialization, as well as limited access of the dye plants themselves because of over-harvesting and pollution.

For more information on Bai tie-dyeing, visit this article or another by Interact China.
Tie-dying video by TravelChina Guide

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Women at the Gate

At the town square in the heart of the old town of Baisha was a large gate. Sitting at each side of the gate were several women, chit chatting with their displayed vegetables for sale. With their distinctive Naxi blue aprons, blue caps, dark pants, and a T-shaped cape, their ethnicity was immediately recognizable. 

Note the baskets next to one of the women. The basket is used to haul produce and other goods. The cape helps protect the rubbing of the basket on the woman's back. Over my time in Yunnan, I would see many women walking through the towns carrying baskets on their backs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute

After walking around Shuhe, we drove a few kilometers to the small town of Baisha. 
Our main destination was the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute, created to preserve and develop Naxi embroidery. Due to the Cultural Revolution (embroidery making was banned, and some practitioners were even imprisoned) and the rise of machine embroidery, this handicraft is endangered. At the Institute, local women can train at no cost. Students are exposed to consistently more difficult projects that are designed by their teachers. One of the students gave me a tour of the institute, including the gallery.
A Master embroider at work. 
My student guide eagerly pointed out her teacher, who was intensely focused on her own embroidery. The teacher obliged in briefly pulling up the cloth covering her embroidery, revealing a shimmering lotus pond design with subtle variations of tightly packed shorter stitches. After a moment or two, she silently covered it back up again and continued working. My guide explained that the silk thread was separated into further strands, the amount varying according to the embroiderer's skills and design. Whereas beginners might use 1/8 of the thread, master embroiderers might use only 1/32 of the strand seen on the blue cloth covering.
My student guide at the Institute
An embroidery piece of Koi made into a screen, displayed in the gallery
 A well-laid out gallery displayed pieces, most of which were for sale. Each piece had a label that included the creator's name, title, price (if applicable), and number of days it took. Simpler student ones sold at more affordable prices and may have taken as little as a week (working 8-hour days), all the way up to a year. Many pieces were way beyond the pricing on a teacher's salary, but would definitely make a great purchase for a collector. In a country where quality traditional handicrafts are becoming harder to find, this was a breath of fresh air.

Photography was not allowed in the gallery. You can see some examples here.

In 2006, Naxi embroidery was listed as an intangible heritage by UNESCO. It is the goal of the Institute that 30% of all Naxi women in the area would be knowledgeable on this embroidery style, 60% by 2030, and that by 2040, Naxi embroidery would once again become the Naxi national industry.

Old embroidery examples on display in the museum area
 Some other rooms held some nicely displayed embroidery pieces created in the past. One was the robe of the Mu family clan leader. Embroidered with blue dragons, the robe lacked the yellow color reserved for the emperor.
Robe of the Mu family clan leader

Appliqué work

Baisha is located about 8 km north of Lijiang. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Funeral with Watermelons and Turbans

On our way out of Shuhe, we suddenly encountered a mass of people. A member of the Naxi ethnic group, my guide instantly recognized the reason for the gathering - a funeral. As I quickly closed the doors of the car, I saw some large floral wreaths being carried away (see bottom photo for a glimpse of the back end of one wreath near its upper left side). Instead of a hearse, the pallbearers carried the blanket-covered body through the street. Some of the mourners wearing white turbans knelt on the street right next to where I quickly had positioned myself. I spotted a framed B&W photo of a Naxi woman in her traditional clothing, presumably the deceased. 

Women were together in a line, and men formed another.  Snacks were available, such as watermelon and sunflower seeds. A woman even came up and offered some of the refreshing summer fruit to me. 

Carrying the body through the street
Funeral procession, with the floral wreaths in the distance and blanketed body near the center

Almost as quickly as the procession had arrived on the street, it had moved onward. It was time for us to drive to the nearby Baisha town to see the embroidery.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Three Wells

Clean water was a highly regarded resource to the Naxi people in Yunnan, China. In its villages where I visited, streams and canals were a dominant feature. When walking through the village of Shuhe, I saw these three pools/wells with a signpost. Streams were guided by farmers into the village, where they were diverted into three small pools; the first one for drinking/cooking, second pond for washing food, and the third for washing clothes. 
Nowadays, most homes have their own indoor water, but some people (as this woman) still make use of these public pools. Even now, the water looked rather clear.
How different this scene is to what I recalled from my time in India, particularly the Adyar River which flowed close to my apartment in Chennai. How fitting that The Hindu, one of India's main newspapers, wrote and compared the waterways of the Yunnan region to that of the main rivers in India. 
Adyar River, Chennai

Sunrise silhouettes obscures some of the garbage strewn along the fowl-smelling Adyar River

Thursday, August 13, 2015

In One Photo

This is one of those quick photo shots, prompted by spotting the elderly red-robed Chinese medicine man. It wasn't until afterwards that I realized that a whole other story was emerging further down the lane. The young wedding couple donning a very Western bridal gown and suit are quite engaged in their own important day. The traditional architecture and stone street  along with the mountain would indeed make a scenic wedding photo.
What would attract your attention?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Beyond Stick Men

Naxi pictograph on a wall in Shuhe
The figures on this wall in Shuhe may be overlooked by passers-by as decorative stick-figures. My guide, a proud member of the Naxi ethnic clan, told me that these are actually pictographs from Shuhe. When asked to read a bit, he haltingly shared a few parts he discerned. (Over 1,000 known pictographs are present in a language built around 1,000 years ago). Priests of the Naxi, known as Dongba, devised this visual language to write their scriptures. These Dongba still use this script, making it one of the only living pictograph languages still in use. 

Pictograph above a door on building ourtside of Lijiang
When I asked my guide how many people can read or use this script, he lamented that very few young people could make sense of it, and it is declining even amongst older people.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

A Walk to the Lotuses

After spending several busy days at school in meetings and preparing for the beginning of school, I took advantage of the sunny morning to go for a walk to the Buddhist temple near our school in Seoul. Each August I have gone to the Bongwonsa temple's annual lotus festival. Although it was still quite early in the morning, the temperature and humidity had already combined to make a rather warm walk. Thankfully, the journey to the temple would be mostly under the shade of the forest. The sweet scent of jasmine on some bushes along the path enhanced the experience.

 In the open area where colorful lanterns once provided a rainbow shade, a sea of lotus plants now transformed the scene. Most lotuses were light pink or magenta, but others were white or cream. 
Despite the heat, I was intent on capturing different views - it's hard NOT to photograph such beauty!