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China Tease
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,
very auspicious."

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 and Vietnam.

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 louring mountains.

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, shrieking song.

As predicted, three very auspicious days.

First published by the Telegraph

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