“and old people, to prevent accidents! Thank you for travelling with CRH!”

The last two weeks have possibly been one of the best two weeks of my life. I am back in Wuhan now, having spent some time in Yúnnán province in southwestern China. The adventure unfolded at such a pace that I haven’t even been able to open my stats, let alone write anything about our marvellous adventures here. I hope you will forgive me for this, and I will try to make up for it in the next entries.

Some things learned during these two weeks:

  1. According to Chinese folklore, if you sneeze once, it means nothing, if you sneeze twice, it means you’re coming down with the flu, but if you sneeze three times in a row, it means your wife misses you and lets you know via the sneezing urge. My Chinese friends always laugh when someone sneezes three times and then curses, as they are in the middle of doing something and can’t call their wife right now.
  2. Curved roofs are a passive solar design. The roof is built in “floors” which are called “drops of water”. One curved arch stands for one drop of water. The curve is there to let more light in, as it would otherwise be too dark when the rain water is running away from the construction itself.
  3. Chinese men like to listen to sappy love songs while driving.
  4. Yúnnán is an area in China with a noticeable amount of the population belonging to minorities. The most prominent ones are the Bai, Yi and Naxi minorities. According to a legend, in ancient times these three tribes descended from three brothers of the same family. The Yi tribe, living in the mountains, is bad at agriculture, but good at hunting. They are considered to be strong and resilient. The Bai are intellectual, masters of business and good at cultivating land. Bai means white, they honour the colour white in architecture and clothing. The Naxi, people of the youngest brother, are hardworking and cultural. There is a prominent Naxi orchestra based in Lijiang, and they regularly travel the world to hold performances. Also, the Naxi are the only ones to have their own written language. Each group speaks their own dialect. A story tells that in times of famine, the Yi brother had to eat the leather of a hunted animal he’d written his alphabet onto. The Bai brother had to cook the bamboo sticks which he’d used to contain his alphabet. However, the Naxi brother had engraved his alphabet into stone, and the written language thus is still known today. The Naxi language is one of the only surviving hieroglyphic languages today.
  5. Yak butter tea is actually good. It is a Tibetan broth made from, you guessed it, yak butter. It is a salty tea and the minerals and fats it contains helps you adapt to the altitude, about 2500-3000 metres.
  6. In a stark contrast to “regular” Han Chinese, born into following Confucianism, the minorities believe it’s more important for a woman to be fertile than chaste. As an example, they would remarry to women with children.
  7. In China, there are three main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. They were philosophies in the ancient times, nowadays turned into religions. Confucianism had (and still has) very strict ideals about behaviour — this is typical for Han Chinese. Minorities are usually Buddhist, more open-minded in their life philosophy.
  8. Yin areas are the lands of the dead, Yang areas are for the living. Yin energy is found in mountainous areas. This is why there are graves in the mountains or hillsides. People can see the deceased in their dream saying for example that they are cold, their house is flooded. Then the descendants need to travel to the “house” and fix things.
  9. Chinese people use a bird’s wing as a fan.
  10. Black pigs are considered superior to white pigs. I forgot the reason why, though.
  11. Horseback riding is easy, as the local horses are smaller than European ones and well-tempered. You can buy one horse for about 7000-10000 yuan, depending on its breed and properties.

The adventure started in Kunming, which is the capital of the Yunnan province. I travelled with some of my new friends, all equally adventurous and open-minded. Our plan was to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge, situated in the Tibetan part of Yunnan. On our way there we spent some time in the old hippie hang-outs, Dali and Lijiang, as well as some smaller villages on the way. We travelled on a local bus to Nuodeng, which is a small village situated close to the border of Myanmar. The village is built on a mountain wall, and is known for its long history in producing salt. There is a brine well in the middle of the village. The salt is special: it is potassium-based, not sodium-based salt. The taste is tangy but pleasant. A lot of people don’t know that before “the” Silk road was established, an older silk road, the “salt road”, had been in use for centuries already in Yunnan. Yunnan served as a buffer between the Tibetan kingdom and the Chinese empire. When the Chinese emperor sent his enemies to exile, he sent them to the most remote parts of the empire: Xinjiang and Yunnan. Yunnan became known as a great defense wall because of its mountainous landscape, where it was difficult to move around. Still, the trade of salt, opium and other commodities flourished. Nowadays Yunnan is still largely undiscovered by tourists, but their amount has steadily been rising. The UNESCO site in old Lijiang is a good example of this: it’s basically a huge outdoor shopping centre for domestic tourists. On our way there we experienced the worst traffic jam to date. The first week of June each year is when the gaokao, or the Chinese baccalaureate exam of horror(?) where the fate of each child is destined for the rest of their lives, is taking place. Roads are closed because of anxious parents taking over the streets outside of the examination buildings. The congestion lasts for three days and then clears up. The families then start to wait for the results to arrive. In this regard, I’m thankful not to have been born in China.

We continued our journey towards Dali and Lijiang, and visited a small village called Shaxi on the way. We stayed at a local courtyard guesthouse, and I got a new Chinese family (according to them). We did a five-hour hike into the mountains nearby with the old-timer of the family, a 85-year old local man who had been living in Yunnan his whole life. He was an exceptional person, as he knew a lot about Finland and we conversed about life and nature while walking along the narrow paths leading to a Buddhist temple in the midst of the mountain. The Yunnanese dialect differs significantly from the Hubei dialect, but with a little ear-accomodation, we succeeded in carrying out a conversation. At the temple, it was interesting to find a shrine dedicated to the female genitals. This is a feature of Tibetan Buddhism especially, and its meaning is still being debated around the world. The houses in Nuodeng are built of clay. It preserves the temperature and keeps mosquitoes out. In the village, there was a medical centre. Just as we walked by, I saw a woman casually throw out what looked like tea on the cobblestone street outside the door. There was a Buddhist temple about 100 metres above the city, dedicated to the god of war. He certainly looked really angry with his red face. Apparently, he’s not a negative entity, but a protector of the village.

I will post more pictures of Yunnan in the following posts. Looking back, I certainly left my heart in Yunnan, the beauty of its rugged mountains, roaring whitewater river gorges and lakes, where the sun rises over the rice terraces and where the way of life is loving, open-minded and sense of calm and adventure at the same time. I know I will return when the time and circumstances are right.