Yang Bowei simply rolls her eyes. standing beside her, beneath the cherry tree in their courtyard, is her husband Lee, a beaming chap in a sun hat and eye-catching shirt. “It’s good to be a Naxi man,” he says cheerfully.
“The women do all the work but we do the important things,” he adds, relishing the controversy and glancing at his wife with a nervous laugh. “We plan the buildings but the women build them.”
His teasing is tinged with truth. While gender equality has moved on, this is how things were for centuries for the Naxi people — an indigenious tribe of southwest China. Women took on the menial and manual labour while their husbands were tasked with drinking tea, practising calligraphy, making music and playing cards. No wonder Lee is smiling.
Behind his grin, however, is fear. “Our culture will be lost in 100 years,” he says. “Nobody will speak the Naxi language then. My son is 12 years old and he doesn’t like to speak it. I tell him, ‘You are Naxi,’ but he always answers in Mandarin. It’s terrible.”
All is not lost. Baisha, the village the Boweis call home, is determined to keep Naxi traditions alive by reaching out to those curious about China’s ethnic minorities. A former capital of the Naxi kingdom, today Baisha’s sandy streets reveal ancient palaces with fading frescoes from the Ming Dynasty.
The housewives of Baisha live in less grandiose surroundings, gossiping on dusty doorsteps and peeling spring onions in the nearby stream. Elsewhere, a gaggle of toothless old ladies sit engrossed in a game of mahjong. Shifting the domino-like tiles across the table, they guard their chips closely behind leathery hands. Eyeing each other with equal amounts of amusement and suspicion, the game soon ends and money is begrudgingly exchanged.
Painted across a nearby wall are some of the 1,400 characters that form Dongba, thought to be the world’s last remaining pictographic alphabet and still used by the Naxi. Among the symbols is a stickman waving a flag. Naxi for ‘hero’, my guide Lily helpfully volunteers, as though it’s a game of Pictionary.
Moving on, we head further into Yunnan province. Appearing around another tight bend on the mountain road, I catch my first glimpse of the mighty Yangtze River. Keen for a more lingering look, we stop at a peaceful clifftop Buddhist temple. The smell of incense drifts from the open doorway. So, too, does the sound of slow chanting by monks in cumin-coloured robes. Far below, the murky water moves slowly through the valley.
I arrive at Yunnan’s star attraction: the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Said to be the deepest in the world, in places it’s a dizzying drop of 12,800ft from the mountaintops to the water’s surface. Legend has it a tiger once fled from hunters here, leaping to the safety of a rock in the middle of the raging river.
Wind rushes down the narrow canyon snaking out of view ahead. Following the walking trail downstream, the water becomes increasingly turbulent until it crashes against the limestone cliffs.
Pandas & parks
The following day I roam the beautiful city of Lijiang. Set against a backdrop of the snowcapped Yulong Mountain, its Old Town is well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Cobbled streets of teashops and herbal medicine stores stand among willow trees and stone bridges arched over canals, while red paper lanterns hang from the wooden buildings.
A leisurely stroll takes me along ‘Snack Street’, the air heavy with a heady mix of mysterious aromas swirling from every sizzling wok. Skewers of fried silkworms and grasshoppers are piled high amid mounds of tofu toasties and spiced chicken feet.
Losing my appetite somewhat, I duck into the nearest teashop. Xiao Yun — who prefers to be called Shirley — sits behind a table staring into an ornate teapot filled with fragrant leaves. “Puerh tea is like red wine, it gets better with age,” she says. “We have some that’s over 20 years old. Would you like to try some?” asks Shirley, pouring a clear green brew into a small ceramic bowl decorated with dragons.
The taste, soft and slightly sweet, is an instant hit. I picture myself at home sipping a cup and casually enquire about the price. But at £1,000 per box, it’s wiser to stick with Earl Grey.
Tea has been at the very heart of Lijiang since its earliest days. Dating back to the 13th century, the city was once an important trading post along the tea route from Yunnan to Tibet — a three-month journey north on horseback.
My own journey also takes me north to Chengdu. The capital of Sichuan province, it’s a sprawling metropolis of 14 million people, a place of Taoist temples and skyscrapers stretching high into the smoggy sky.
The city hit the headlines in 2008 when an earthquake struck nearby, devastating the region. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and many more left injured and homeless. Yet Sichuan has picked itself up and dusted itself off. And in Chengdu, it’s business as usual.
The wide boulevards are once again heaving with jostling pedestrians and speeding cars, people with places to go and money to make.
This is China in the 21st century, a global superpower flexing its muscles and revelling in the economic boom.
Not everyone in Chengdu lives at such a breakneck pace — the city’s most famous residents spend most of their time fast asleep, and the Chengdu Panda Base has gone some way to protect these much-loved but endangered national treasures. The park of ginkgo and magnolia trees contains a panda nursery and spacious enclosures where the adorable animals laze in the shade and wrestle each other for sticks of bamboo.
Visitors are offered the opportunity to get up close and personal with a panda but with a cuddle and photo priced at £130, it raises questions of exploitation. Instead I take a quick look around Chengdu’s lively seafood market and then head to the People’s Park. I’m not the only one seeking a little serenity, with groups of people practising tai chi beside the bonsai trees.
Also on display along the snaking pathways are hundreds of laminated sheets of paper with scores of people studying them and scribbling down details. Welcome to the intriguing world of Chinese dating. Here, desperate parents post ads of their unlucky-in-love offspring in the hope of finding a suitor. The singletons in Chengdu, however, are a fussy bunch.
Take, for example, one divorced 42-year-old father of two. According to his profile (complete with a photo of him standing beside a pretty flowerbed), he earns RMB3,500 (£362) a month but sadly doesn’t own a car. He — or rather his folks — would like to meet a woman younger than 43; all religions and vocations accepted but she must be no taller than 5ft 2in.
Turning to my guide, I explain our own version of this: the lonely hearts column. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. You put a notice in the newspaper? How embarrassing!” she squeals.
Pandas and parks aside, Chengdu is not a place in which to linger. But Sichuan, a land of jagged mountains and jade green lakes, is widely regarded as China’s prettiest province and I’m keen to see why.
A Tibetan legacy
My flight touches down in Jiuzhaigou Airport under a flawless blue sky, 45 minutes after taking off from the smog-filled Sichuan Basin. The contrast from Chengdu is almost head spinning — though it may be the mix of fresh alpine air and high altitude. At 11,000ft above sea level, most experience a little lightheadedness.
For the next few days, I immerse myself in the finest scenery the People’s Republic has to offer. First port of call is Huanglong (Mandarin for ‘yellow dragon’) National Park and its famed Wu Cai Chi (the Five Coloured Pool). Embarking on the four-mile trail at an elevation of 18,000ft, I start to feel a little short of breath. Help is close at hand in the form of small huts selling oxygen for a nominal fee. I swiftly pop on the disposable nose tube, sit back and relax.
Revitalised I march on, weaving between the crowds and savouring the limestone landscapes. The pools (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) eventually appear before me — terraced pockets of turquoise and milky blue water, coloured by high levels of calcium.
More than a dozen lakes, pools and waterfalls are scattered across Jiuzhaigou (‘Nine Village’) Valley, another national park three hours away. It’s named after nine Tibetan settlements, and a Chinese fable tells the story of a goddess who dropped a mirror sending sparkling shards falling to earth that formed the crystal clear lakes.
Today, Jiuzhaigou — located at the eastern end of the Tibetan Plateau — is one of the most important regions of biodiversity in all of China. Much has been done to safeguard it: logging was banned in the 1970s and further protection came in 1982 when it was declared a national park.
The forests rising around us, an untamed wilderness of red birch and Chinese pine, are home to an impressive roster of animals — more than 300 species, in fact, among them Sichuan golden monkeys, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and great pandas.
In news that left local conservationists giddy, panda droppings were discovered — the first evidence of their return for over a decade. They were last here in sizeable numbers in the 1980s. Having eaten their way through much of the bamboo, which takes more than 20 years to regenerate, they moved on searching for fresh grazing.
Every day a swell of Chinese tourists in matching hats descend upon the park en masse. Like them I, too, am keen to see the big sights — cobalt Arrow Bamboo Lake, as seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Pearl Shoal Waterfall — but I also want to experience the park’s more sedate side.
Despite the visitor numbers — around three million a year — it’s not hard to escape the crowds. Travelling east, I venture into the rarely visited Zharu Valley, bound for one of the park’s more traditional villages. Only a handful of Rexi’s 100 residents are to be seen on arrival. Situated in the foothills of Mount Zhayizhaga, this is a good base for walks through the countryside.
Deep in the woods behind Rexi is a deserted clearing covered with reels of prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Like an explosion in a bunting factory, the fragments of red, yellow, white and blue cloths each covered in sacred Tibetan scriptures are wrapped around every tree and sprawled across the ground. There isn’t a soul to be seen but the faithful stop by every morning to tie more flags to the rustling branches, thereby releasing the prayers within to the gods. Zhayizhaga looms over us — the sacred 14,500ft peak is so revered that once a year locals complete a three-day pilgrimage around its base.
Continuing across the valley, once overgrown with barley and opium and now sprinkled with orchids and wild strawberries, dogs bark in the distance as I follow a trail beside grassy embankments tumbling down towards a river.
My finishing point — the abandoned village of Guodu — appears in the distance. The terrain is mostly gentle so I walk slowly, enjoying the birdsong and cool breeze.
The arrival of roads in the region in the 1990s sparked great change. Whole communities uprooted and moved closer to the new transport links. Guodu was forsaken. A handful of crumbling wooden houses remain — windows broken, creaking doors hanging on their hinges.
Driving back to Jiuzhaigou I pass a remote monastery. Stationed outside, vocal roosters patrol the entrance like guard dogs while inside is an elderly monk with sullen cheeks and round spectacles held in place with frayed string. He smiles warmly upon seeing us and continues walking in anti-clockwise circles, rotating each of the countless prayer wheels.
There’s no doubt it’s the area’s extraordinary natural beauty that lures people to Jiuzhaigou but its strong ethnic heritage, long history — the earliest settlers arrived here during the Yin-Shang Dynasty in the 11th-century BC — and links to Tibet have created a boom in cultural tourism.
One person leading the way is Zhuo Ma, a gentle Tibetan woman in her 40s. Like so many others, her childhood was a simple one: milking yaks and travelling into town by horse to stock up on tea. But with an arranged marriage looming at 17, she defied her family and fled to Beijing.
Despite not speaking a word of Mandarin, she taught herself English before returning and opening her own Tibetan restaurant. Her most recent venture is a traditional homestay.
Sat in her garden, we sip a cup of yak butter tea — a stodgy local delicacy that’s certainly an acquired taste. Zhuo Ma’s feeling reflective. “I was born just over there,” she says, waving towards distant grasslands. “Growing up, I remember thinking how beautiful this place was — all those lakes of so many different colours. We had it all to ourselves back then, of course. Going to Beijing was like a dream. It was a great adventure but I wanted to come home and help preserve Tibetan culture.”
The business is very much a family affair. As dusk sets in, we retire inside for dinner. On the menu is homemade walnut bread, tender yak meat sprinkled with chilli and local herbs, and vegetables grown and picked by Zhuo Ma’s mother, Man Ta.
In charge of the cooking is her brother, Ke Zhu. Picturing him in the kitchen mastering recipes passed down by his ancestors, I wonder what Lee and his fellow Naxi men would make of it all?
There are no direct flight from the UK. Etihad Airways flies to Chengdu from Heathrow and Manchester via Abu Dhabi. Cathay Pacific flies from Heathrow via Hong Kong, Air China flies from Gatwick and Heathrow via Beijing. www.etihadairways.com www.cathaypacific.com www.airchina.co.uk
Average flight time: 11h.
Vast distances, poor road conditions and erratic drivers make travelling by road in much of Sichuan and Yunnan unappealing. The drive between Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu along windy roads can take up to 10 hours. Fly with Sichuan Airlines and it takes just 45 minutes. www.scal.com.cn
When to go
Spring and autumn are the optimum times to visit with pleasant conditions and fewer crowds. The average temperature in Chengdu in April and October is 22C. Summers in the cities can be uncomfortable with high humidity, while the national parks are at their busiest. Winter temperatures in the mountains of Sichuan are often around freezing point.
Need to know
Visas: British passport holders require a visa to enter China which must be arranged prior to arrival. The current cost is £30. www.visaforchina.org
Currency: Yuan (RMB), £1 = RMB10.
Health: The main concern for travellers heading to Jiuzhaigou Valley is altitude sickness. Symptoms should normally subside after a short period of acclimatisation but special care should be taken when hiking or cycling.
International dial code: 00 86 28 (for Chengdu).
Time: GMT +8.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding: www.panda.org.cn
Huanglong National Park: www.huanglong.com
Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park: www.jiuzhai.com
Lijiang teashop. 50 Jisanxiang Xinyi Street.
Where to stay
Sichuan Hotel, Chengdu: www.sichuan-hotel.com
Wang Fu Hotel, Lijiang: T: 00 86 888 518 9666.
Seercuo Hotel, Huanglong: T: 00 83 837 724 9092.
Zhou Ma’s Tibetan homestay, Jiuzhaigou Valley. www.zhoumajiuzhaigou.hostel.com
The Rough Guide to China. RRP: £18.99.
How to do it
Wendy Wu Tours offers a 14-day guided itinerary of Sichuan from £2,590 per person. The price includes all flights, accommodation, entrance fees, meals, and a Chinese visa. A five-day extension to Lijiang, the stone forests of Kunming and Tiger Leaping Gorge are available from £640 per person.www.wendywutours.co.uk
An eight-day trip to Sichuan with On The Go Tours costs from £1,099 per person. Price includes internal flights, accommodation and transfers. www.onthegotours.com
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)