Lijiang: Last Stop of Pilgrimage

Trip Start Jul 06, 2012
Trip End Jul 29, 2012

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Monday, July 23, 2012


It's now December and I’m imagining snow falling at the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a most sacred peak in the lower Himalayas of Yunnan Province. The fields of six-foot high sunflowers have long been harvested from this glacier fed valley surrounded by mountain peaks. One hundred of these peaks are higher than 16,000 feet. 

Here in the Pacific Northwest it’s winter now and the weather outside is truly frightful.  Inside and protected from what seem like endless torrential rains and winds, I have finally found inspiration to write this.   It’s called The Blog Book.  If I want to create books of the SmithandFriends in China blog and get them back in time to wrap and give as Christmas presents, this last entry needs finis NOW.  Nothing like a deadline!   

Though too many Chinese and tourists from all over the globe (like us) have discovered Lijiang, this region in northwest Yunnan Province still remains one of the most beautiful and pristine regions of the world – high mountains, deep gorges, rushing rivers, mountain lakes.  There is much about it that reminds me of the best of the alpine valleys of Switzerland and the smaller side-street canals of Venice.   With that said, Old Town Lijiang and Shuhe are China at its most poetic:  homes and shops built on a network of canals with over 300 small and large bridges crisscrossing the waterways in every direction. 

During our stay in Lijiang, we six mothers and daughters share what looks like a traditional Chinese home at The Banyan Tree Lijiang.  Each home is surrounded by a wall and built in a U shape with a courtyard in the middle that looks toward the mountains.  The last time we were here five years ago, this Naxi design complex was surrounded by vegetable and sunflower fields and the view was blue skies with fast moving clouds and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  At the corner of Subai Road and Cuntou Lane, The Banyan Tree is still a well-hidden walled Chinese treasure, beautiful in almost every way to the senses; however, there is now new construction where many of the fields once were and more traffic to be aware of when biking deep into the countryside from the hotel

We all especially delight in our trips to Old Shuhe (an easy walk from The Banyan Tree) and the Ancient Town of Lijiang.   We can overlook that which is too touristy because there is so much of old Lijiang alive and well.  When we choose not to walk, we bike.  If we choose not to bike, we hop into cabs.  We shop in local grocery stores and bring home breads and fruits and local yogurts in small red bags that look and feel more like a light, partially translucent material.  The red grocery bags are attractive enough that we save a few to bring home as wrap for our presents.

In Shuhe we eat local hotpot next to an outdoor karaoke restaurant and appreciate the well-dressed 21st century urban Chinese families on vacation walking the historic willow-draped canals, cobblestoned streets and courtyards.  We swing into a Starbucks-like small European bakery for espresso drinks and walk a few feet into courtyard markets where Naxi women in blue Mao-like hats, traditional baggy high-waisted dark blue pants with white aprons and capes embroidered with circles representing the sun and moon and the seven stars of the Pleiades.  In the courtyards of Shuhe and Lijiang they sell fresh fruits and vegetables just harvested from the local fields, as they have for hundreds of years

In the late afternoons and evenings, Naxi women and men in traditional ethnic dress dance and sing local folk songs and play the hand crafted flutes, reed pipes and wind-string instruments played by generations of their people.  We return time and time again to Shuhe and Old Town Lijiang to walk the narrow streets with Chinese tourists, visiting the mostly Naxi owned cafes and stores selling silver bracelets, necklaces, jade and articles engraved with Dongba pictographs.   Tibetan Buddhist stores sell prayer beads and necklaces.  And, teashops are everywhere selling the much-prized local Puer Teas. 

Just a few blocks away, on the contemporary main streets leading to the Ancient Town, pop music blasts as teenage boys sit in beauty shops getting their hair styled, "permed" and colored.

It is nearly five months since we biked out Wenming Road from the Banyan Tree Lijiang through the fresh morning mountain air of late July 2012.  Past field after field of sunflowers we pedal to  800-year-old Baisha village to meet with a young Naxi Dongba aka Shaman Priest and his family.  Five months since the last entry of this journal and the difficult goodbye to our Beijing friends, Huizhong and her young daughter, Duoxia.   Writing this final travel entry after our month long trek across China from Beijing in the Northeast to Yunnan in the Southwest has been hard. It’s been far easier to pause, so that in some way our journey continues….. 

The young Dongba we visit is a longtime friend of our traveling companion, Huizhong.  He is an apprentice to his Shaman father and will in time become shaman or spiritual leader of his small village, carrying on and helping to keep alive the Tibetan Buddhist, Tao, Shamanic nature-based religious rituals of the Naxi culture. 

We are served a traditional breakfast flatbread, baked by his mother during our visit.  It comes to us hot from her griddle with local fruits and nuts.  The preparation and means of baking the bread are much like our pioneers of the 19th century.  There is no indication of electricity.  His shy adolescent daughter helps her grandmother, and then sits with us awhile.  All three appear in the photo with us that accompanies this entry.  The young girl is close in age to our teenage daughters, who were both born in China but have been raised and educated in the United States with rich educational and travel opportunities available to them.  

This young Naxi girl’s classroom education is likely over at age 12 because the family cannot afford to send her to the nearest secondary school.  It is outside of their local school district and for her to attend would require prohibitive fees for school and transportation.  Much like our American indigenous populations, this Naxi family is poor and cannot afford an education for their daughter and barely for their older son.

Our three daughters, all Chinese born, are artists.  They like buying and wearing Buddhist prayer beads as bracelets and wearing them on their left wrists.  We are told that wearing the beads on the left wrist connects you to your heart and a memory of being connected to all that is part of life.

Our young daughters are connected by their bracelets and more, as are their mothers.  Much like the bridges of Lijiang, we all have crossed the Pacific Ocean from West to East and back again many times, each crossing creating one more bridge between our cultures and each other.    Huizhong’s daughter, Duoxia, is the daughter of a Chinese born mother and a Russian born father.  Duoxia was born in America.  Ginny’s daughter, Maile, was born in China and has lived most of her life in Seattle, Washington. She is rarely without her camera when traveling.  I have observed her patient, practiced photographer’s eye composing as she clicks on the ski slopes of British Columbia, Canada; the palazzos of Milan and Venice; hiking the Dolomites of Italy and walking the boulevards of Paris. My daughter, Anasophia, also born in China and raised in Seattle, Washington, was born with a natural talent for the visual arts.  She has been drawing, painting and creating block prints since she was a little girl and remains a student of artists in the Pacific Northwest and Beijing. 

We have come to China this year to connect more deeply with each other, with our daughters, the Chinese people and their culture.   Anasophia and I traveled from Seattle to Beijing to rendezvous with Huizhong and Duoxia in their home city and visit once more with old friends. We flew to Yueyang to discover something more of Anasophia’s birth city and her beginnings.  Then traveled further south to Yangzhou to become six with our friends Ginny and Maile, who arrived by train from Nanning where Maile found and was reunited with her foster family and discovered the beautiful city of Liuzhou, where she was born.  We rode bikes through the rice fields of Yangzhou and rafted the Yulong River.  We ended our journey in the mountains of Yunnan.

We have China in our bones in new and deeper ways; but, more importantly, in all of us is that place somewhere in the middle of East and West where we hold so much more.
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