Yunnan, SW China
by Sarah Shuckburgh
In the remote south-west
province of Yunnan, Sarah Shuckburgh has her future read
and then watches as the predictions unfold.
Fragrant smoke billows from the altar, a wizened monk
beckons me into a tiny rock-hewn temple and thrusts a
container of bamboo into my hand. I kneel before a row of
gaudily-painted deities - Buddhist, Daoist and Confuscian -
while the monk strikes a pottery gong and clangs a bell.
Encouraged by nods from our guide, I shake the cone until
one bamboo tumbles to the floor. Suddenly the cacophony
of gong and bell stops. The monk eyes the hieroglyphs on my
bamboo, peers at my palms, and foretells my future
in rambling chants, which our guide translates into short
soundbites: "Happy life. Good health. Next three days,
Guy and I are in the province of Yunnan - the "land beyond
the clouds". In this wild, rugged corner of south-west
China, Mao's edicts did little to dent the traditions of
religion, language or dress of the region's minority groups,
many of which straddle the borders with Tibet, Burma, Laos
Our first surprise, on arriving at Dali, was our guide's
extraordinary outfit - pink apron and waistcoat, white
trousers with flower-strewn hems, and a remarkable
crescent-shaped head-dress, sparkling with scarlet beads and
sequins beneath a halo of white tufts, with a white tassel
dangling behind one ear.
"Bai costume is beautiful, like our land," she says. We are
soon to agree. The white tufts resemble the snowy peaks
above Dali, the curve of her bonnet looks like the moon,
reflected in Er Hai lake, and the embroidered flowers are
the azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons that cover local
hillsides. Her fluttering tassel represents the breeze - for
Dali's nickname is Windy City.
The Bai are the dominant group in Dali, making up half the
population, but the walled town throngs with people from
other ethnic groups. Girls in ankle-length skirts and
conical turbans huddle on the pavement, selling bundles of
herbs and clumps of wild orchids. Others, in hoods festooned
with strings of beads, are arranging gourds, citrons and
sweet potatoes on low trestles. Lisu women, wearing
two-foot-wide head-dresses with lampshade fringes, preside
over mesmerising displays of medicines - gnarled roots and
twigs, dried lizards and snakes, wrinkled fungi, goats'
heads, and assorted penises and testicles.
Along cobbled streets, carved doors are propped open to
reveal bare workshops, where tailors sit at hand-operated
sewing machines. In grocery kiosks, proprietors and their
families squat beneath half-empty shelves. Hairdressers wash
customers' heads at standing pipes in the street, while at a
row of cafés, old men balance on nursery-sized chairs, their
chopsticks expertly shovelling noodles from tin bowls.
Later, perching on stools in a crowded street kitchen, we
sip osmanthus wine and tuck into plates of cold pickles and
curls of delicious deep-fried cheese. Beside us, families
are dining on raw pork and and chicken stew bristling with
beaks and claws.
The next day, Guy and I take the chairlift up Cangshan
mountain. The hillside is dotted with graves, scarlet
incense sticks and the remains of burnt offerings littering
the burial sites - remnants of the "sweeping the grave"
festival, when mourners equip their departed relatives for
the afterlife by setting fire to paper models of houses,
shoes, money, cars and TVs.
We walk along a paved track, with a precipice into the
forested valley on one side, and a towering limestone cliff
on the other. Tiny orchids nestle in hollows, flanked by
huge thistles, scarlet azaleas and pink rhododendrons. We
hear no sounds except the whisper of wind in the trees, the
trickle of streams, and an occasional burst of song from a
Chinese hiker. We scarcely see a soul for several hours. The
country's 1.3 billion inhabitants seem far away.
Suddenly we hear a hubbub, and see beneath us hordes of
grey-suited Chinese holidaymakers taking photographs of each
other. In a gazebo, a Bai girl and boy dance with a chained
monkey. Skirting the queue for the cable car, where
stallholders are selling aphrodisiac beans, we find a track
that leads down beside a gushing stream.
In the valley, we reach a village with a dusty street and
open drains clogged with litter and dead rats. Straw-hatted
farmers carry wicker baskets on poles. Barefoot children
chase scraggy chickens.
When a horsedrawn taxi with lurid floral upholstery stops to
drop off passengers, we climb in and, for a few pence,
ride back to Dali. In the gathering dusk, we clop past women
digging the road, woodworkers hammering in open-
fronted shacks, soldiers sitting in a dimly-lit café,
brightly-painted lorries, and horsedrawn carts full of
tired, tousle-headed families.
Next day, we take a taxi to Lijiang. Music crackles from the
radio as our driver, Mrs Fun, cheerfully shrieks and whines.
Through the windscreen, fields of rice, barley and broad
beans form vibrant stripes of green and yellow, backed by
There is little traffic apart from tricycles pulling
heaped-up trailers and slow-moving tractors driven by
conical-hatted farmers. Solitary figures tend crops, bending
double in the dykes, hacking, scything and bundling greenery
into wicker baskets on their backs. We pass women pushing
hand-carts full of twigs, their babies lolling from
embroidered shawls. Others struggle along the road like
walking haystacks, their jerkins of woven bark giving scant
protection from the knobbly loads.
At midday, we stop at a roadside café, where men squat on
stools, drinking tea. A stream provides drinking water and
acts as a larder - with cages of live fish and baskets of
vegetables. Bai women crouch by the water, plucking chickens
and washing dishes. An aviary contains a white pheasant, two
monkeys and an eagle owl - disturbing menu options - but
within minutes, a tasty meal emerges from woks on an open
fire, washed down with jasmine tea.
Now the country becomes steeper, with barren hillsides of
red soil, and jumbled houses of caked earth. We are leaving
Bai country and entering the land of the Naxi. Here, women
wear long blue aprons, and black and white sheepskin capes
secured with straps across the bosom. Sewn to each sheepskin
are discs with trailing ribbons symbolising the interminable
hours that women work.
The outskirts of Lijiang are dusty and clogged with traffic,
but the centre is wonderful and traffic-free. Three narrow
rivers gush through a maze of cobbled alleys, lined with
two-storey wooden houses built to withstand earthquakes
without screws or nails. Window boxes burst with orchids and
geraniums. From each bridge, we pause with locals
to watch fish swim over pale pebbles in astonishingly clear
water. In the distance looms the auspicious Jade
Dragon Snow Mountain.
Lijiang is startlingly diverse. Our guide identifies each
minority we see. These round-eyed, dark-skinned Nu come from
remote valleys bordering Burma. The Yi, one of the largest
groups in Yunnan, still practise polyandry; women often have
several husbands - typically brothers - who combine to
support the family.
Those Mosu girls, wearing long skirts and garlanded
head-dresses, come from a matriarchal culture, where women
own the property, run the household, and bring up the
children; men may visit during the night, but must leave by
dawn, to return to their mothers.
That evening, after a restaurant of mottled snails,
wriggling eels, water weed, lime-green lichens and ferns, we
emerge to find rainbow throngs of men and women, heading for
a night out. Glamorous Tibetan men, tall with flowing black
locks, stride along in fur-lined hats, capes flung
dramatically over shoulders. Other men wear red and white
cloaks, with hats like iced buns topped with a glacé cherry.
From all sides, exotically clad revellers convene on the
market square, where a fire crackles in a brazier, and
musicians play and sing.
There are fox-skin top hats with three-foot feathers,
flamboyant turbans, silver belts and bangles, high boots,
appliquéed waistcoats, embroidered skirts, stripy sashes and
multicoloured shawls. A gust of wind rustles the fringes of
head-dresses, long skirts billow, and white tassels quiver.
Gold teeth glint in the dark, and sequins sparkle.
Suddenly strange hands grab ours, and we are swept forwards
and sideways, round the flickering fire, in an exuberant
conga-like dance, accompanied from all sides by an ecstatic,
As predicted, three very auspicious days.
First published by the Telegraph