Yunnan: The Hour of Minerva

It is the dusk of the journey. Tomorrow morning, a return to Hong Kong. It is impossible not to be impressed by southwest China. Snow-wreathed mountains from which the fabled Yangzi and He flow interminably. Fields exploding with flowers of infinite hue. A syncretic culture, sublime climate, and flawless night sky. There is a palpable sense of purpose here in Yunnan, a province both ambitious and confident. There are luxuries. Yet there is also a sense of foreboding, a feeling that what I have witnessed will one day register as a rose-hued blip along China’s vast and tumultuous timeline. The gleaming airports, skyscrapers, speed trains, the labyrinth of shopping malls have all been erected upon the shoulders of cheap labor. But the Chinese labor force now demands more, and wages have risen to reflect these demands. Foreign investment is in retreat. Factories are moving south of the equator, to countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia where the desperation for work translates into microscopic wages. And all the while the restless groan of 1.4 billion stomachs. A country this vast and this diverse, with such a high degree of economic stratification, how does it not collapse beneath the weight of its own contradictions?

The dark skies have departed, carrying the rains off to the mountains that ring Kunming. Kunming, when my mind exits, and with it my perceptions and memories, my emotions and imaginings, my language, what becomes of the city thus described?

The Naaxi of Lijiang

Naaxi Girl 2More than a thousand years before Lijiang became a mecca for backpackers and tour groups, it was a base of operations for the Naaxi. The Naaxi trace their descent from ethnically Tibetan Quiang tribes, and some three hundred thousand Naaxi still live in Lijiang. You will often see them sorting metal from paper near the trash, or carrying huge withered piles of bok choy, or peddling yak cheese flat bread along the road side. Sometimes you will see them just hanging out. ( I wonder if these are the lucky ones, who owned property when the deluge of investment money poured into Lijiang. The class division among the Naaxi is stark, I’m told. Those who owned property drive new Audis and send their daughters to study in Paris and Beijing. Those that did not are ruinously poor ).

Alternatively, if you are a young and pretty Naaxi girl, you can earn a living by dressing yourself in a traditional costume and standing in front of an “authentic Naaxi” restaurant. You see a lot of this in the touristy areas. But this condescending attitude of mine is in need of some empirical supports. It could be that I’m like the man looking out his bedroom window, who sees a woman swerving down the road, unable to keep her balance. He accuses her of being a lousy and reckless drunk. Had the man ever opened the window, he would have felt the hurricane force winds that conspired to knock the struggling woman off her feet.

I met a guy today who, like me, was in search of a vantage point to photograph the old city of Lijiang from above. His name was Michael and he is riding his bicycle from Singapore to Paris. He’s been on the road for five months. He made a comment that I have heard hundreds of times, in various forms, but this time it itched. He said he often passes through “villages” where you can see how people “really live.”

Naaxi women 2

What exactly does it mean to “really live”? Are the Naaxi women in traditional costumes, hawking blackberries in old town somehow living a less authentic life than their relatives in that “real village”, isolated, wearied, slumped over a potato patch beneath the searing sub-tropical sun? What makes the latter life more “real”? It seems the appearance of white faces and youth hostels on the scene abolishes hopes of authenticity. When someone performs their own culture for money it is less real than subconsciously living the culture, unaware that it is, in fact, a “culture.” Why is this? Do we (tourists) know if the young Naaxi girl in traditional dress, drumming up business for a restaurant, would trade her life to be slumped over that “authentic” potato patch?

We theorize that capitalism abolishes authentic culture by reducing everything to a monetary unit. But in seven hundred years our own crass monuments will inspire a shock no less jolting than the temples of Angkor Wat or Macchu Picchu do for us today. The future people will tremble and point, and with jaws agape, announce those famous words: “those people really lived!”

Imagined Cities: Lijiang

Heraclitus once said that nobody ever steps into the same river twice. He meant that the water of rivers constantly flows, so the water stepped in at one moment, will have been replaced by other water by the second step. The same can be said for city streets. One never walks the same street twice. From moment to moment, the street transforms. A shadow seizes another stone crevice from the light. Silence is torn by the sound of a wooden spoon on a copper pot. Tibetan prayer flags, recently placid, now ripple and bounce. A figure emerges from an alley I did not know existed, though I have passed this alley many times. Black circles ring her eyes. Her forehead is fractured by a thousand wrinkles. A cigarette droops languidly from the side of her mouth. A sense of loss now reigns sovereign over this street. I walk on. A soaring hawk traces its shadow across a stone. Will another hawk trace its shadow across this stone, with the sun at this decibel, at this precise angle? A single street recounts infinite stories. And like a river, thoughts flow constantly. A drip, a trickle, a gushing cataract. A street is never traversed by the same person twice. I walk the same streets of Lijiang but I have never walked the same street twice. Lijiang CanalLijiang city and skyLijiang night lanterns

At first advance Lijiang retreats behind the security of crowds. She waits, offering a bloated knee to the visitor’s gaze. But if the visitor is patient, willing to roam among the bloated knees–the souvenir shops, the tour groups–Lijiang extends a warm embrace. There is a temptation to “do” cities. “We did Paris, then we did Barcelona and Madrid, we wanted to do London, but…” But there is something in this attitude towards travel, as if cities are passive objects, to be plundered and conquered. Against this attitude of urgency, of angst and checklists, the city disappears, offering only tokens of death: souvenirs and museums. It is when the traveler is willing to dwell in a city, to listen, this is when the living city is called forth to reveal its infinite depth.

Lijiang PlaygroundLijiang Streets

Lijiang is a story teller. In the layers of stone you can read a story of conquest and collapse. In the narrow alleys emptying upon vast squares you can still hear the seven hundred year old echo of muslim, hindu, and buddhist merchants. Who hauled the heavy stones from which these streets were made? From where did they arrive? By what means? Under whose command? The city tells a story of masters and slaves. The elevated boundary at the threshold of every home recalls a belief in spirits who glide along at ground level, and are thus barred entry. In seven hundred years what will Lijiang say about us?

Slow Train to Lijiang

Snow MountainLijiang rests in a valley guarded by the formidable Himalayas. I arrived in Lijiang by train, eight hours from the eclectic riot of Kunming. I opted for a “soft chair,” around 12 U.S. dollars, and found myself squeezed on a hard blue hospital cot between three other passengers. Across a narrow divide, another cot, another four passengers. Thus it was, eight wearied strangers bundled together and winding through the hills and valleys of Yunnan.

The China covered by the mainstream news channels often fastens upon the dynamic modernization transforming the eastern seaboard, from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, north to Shanghai and Beijing. Yes, some four hundred million people, roughly the population of the U.S., are solidly middle class, and of these some are excessively rich. But unlike the U.S., China has another one billion souls to account for, and if you would like to take an intimate survey of how this “other billion” lives, book yourself a ticket on the slow train to Lijiang.

Poverty is something easy to forget while living in the sparkling metropolis of Hong Kong. Poverty for many people is not an abstraction, it has features and dimensions. It has a smell, like burlap drenched by sulfuric rains then roasted beneath a martian sun.It has teeth, brown and heavily oxidized. It burrows itself deep into the chest. It hack and rasps, chokes and spits. Poverty seems to always need a good nights sleep. It is a ruiner of youth.

How privilege is distributed in this world makes no sense at all, laments the traveler on his ipad, his stomach gorged on powdered strawberries…

Lijiang Farmers Poverty

Arrival: advancing upon Lijiang by taxi, I am struck by a chiseled white monster looming surreally above the clouds. Snow mountain, at nearly 18,000 ft., has stifled the ambitions of many a mountaineer. With my three year old’s grasp of Mandarin, it is time to locate the art studio / guest house which will serve as my base of operations for the next six days..