Travel in Dali and the Lugu Lake in Yunnan Province

Xue Zheng, a friend of mine for years, had bought an apartment at the foot of Mt. Cangshan in Dali, Yunnan province. As nobody was using it, he urged me to stay there for some time, saying it was a great place to write something and roam around.

How could I possibly resist it? So toward the end of 2006, I arrived in Dali, an idyllic land with Mt. Cangshan at its back, Erhai Lake in the front, and white clouds floating in the blue sky. Well, in a word, what great “leisure”! My neighbour there were a young couple who had worked in the financial sector in Shanghai. They had sold their house there and moved to Dali to enjoy a leisurely life.

My friend knew I was looking for folk doctors, so he introduced Mr. Zheng to me. Zheng was an antique dealer who went to the countryside to buy antiques and sell them elsewhere. As he had spent years in the countryside, he knew a lot of extraordinary people.

Initially, Zheng was a bit worried that I dared not go with him, for traveling in the countryside wasn’t easy. He was overjoyed to find that I immediately decided to go and proposed to pay for oil. So I, together with his son, sat in his shabby Xiali (a label of a Chinese car), and started to trek in the mountains at the juncture of Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet in the name of buying antiques.

Our car on a Sichuan-Yunan mountain road

We hadn’t expected that the car would begin to smoke soon after we set off. A wire was burnt. We had to stop to have it fixed. Then we continued. Later on, the driver’s seat went tilted. Zheng tried several times to fix it, still it was tilted. Anyway, it didn’t affect driving for the moment, so he just let it be. Fortunately for us, Zheng was a good mechanic. So we sometimes drove on, sometimes stopped to fix the car, and sometimes visited towns and households. Each of us had his own share of the fun.

There were many hot springs in Yunnan. Whenever we passed somewhere with a hot spring, I’d request Zheng to stop for a bath in it.

After meeting another antique dealer in Lijiang, we continued our journey and arrived in Ninglang county. There, what impressed me most was a beggar. Everywhere she went, she’d pick up plastic bags and plastic paper people had thrown away and wear them on her. An absolute environmentalist.

One midnight, we arrived at the Lugu Lake, but could see nothing in the dark. When I opened the door early next morning, there it was, the legendary Lugu Lake, right in front of me.

The beggar who wears plastic bags

The lake we woke up to see in the morning

Mr. Zheng and his son.

For the whole day, I followed Zheng to nearby villages. There were only business negotiations on antiques, and I didn’t have even a glimpse of a master of Chinese medicine. In the evening, we went to stay at a hotel on the enchanting Lige Peninsula of the Lake. Si Ge, the young boss of the hotel, was an old friend of Zheng. He had moved here from a primitive Mosuo village in Muli county, Sichuan province, following the Walking Marriage tradition (a marital tradition of the matrilineal Mosuo people who live in parts of the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Lovers stay apart in the day and stay together at night). And I then got to know another moving life story.

The next day, we set off at daybreak. When the car was running on a hillside road along the lake, we were able to appreciate it from an elevated perspective. There was a thin layer of fog above the water, and the peninsula where we had stayed for the night looked like a fairyland. And I constantly pleaded Zheng to stop for me to take pictures.

A Mosuo family at the Lugu Lake

The beautiful peninsula at dawn, where we stayed for the night 

The mist on the lake in early morning

Our destination was Muli county in Sichuan province. But the road from Yunnan to Sichuan was almost inaccessible. We were told by the locals that riding a motorcycle was the only viable option. We had already bought cotton hats and other cold-resistant stuff for the ride when Zheng, after several rounds of tug-of-war in his mind, decided to try driving there.

After many hardships, we finally arrived in Muli county in the junk car. Then we headed straight to a primitive village, the home place of Si Ge. It was a familiar place for Zheng. The moment he arrived, he began to buy antiques from the villagers. And my interest was to look for doctors of Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine. However, I found none of them. There were only some rare herbal drugs.

In the village

Helping Zheng to collect his antiques .

Zheng joked, “Why not follow the Walking Marriage tradition and settle down here?”

“Is there a Mosuo girl who knows Chinese medicine?” I asked with a smile.

“If you don’t date one, how could you possibly know who knows Chinese medicine?” he pushed the question back to me.

So it seemed he was also a man of action.

After returning to Dali, I was introduced to a famous doctor in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan province. But we never managed to meet up. Christmas was coming, and there were plenty of sunshine in Dali. So, apart from reading and writing, I’d have sunbaths on the balcony. When the temperature was just right, I’d simply strip off clothes and have a sunbath the naked way.

There were many temporary guests in the community. And we wanderers from different parts of the world gathered there and spent a “revolutionary” Christmas and New Year’s Day. (Note that I am using a style of speech popular during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.)

Show my adventurous photos to neighbours when I came back to Dali

Then I got constant calls from Li, urging me to go to west Hunan. So I boarded a train and went there for the fourth time. Now it was almost Spring Festival.

As a Chinese tradition, the Spring Festival is a time for family reunion. But I think it only applies to those living separately. If the family members are already together, what is the need for reunion? On the contrary, they should be separated, which is more in line with the Doctrine of the Mean, and yin-yang equilibrium.

Isn’t roving a wonderful way to celebrate the Spring Festival? Otherwise, the Festival would only be reduced to be an excuse for feasting, and a cause for social tensions. And it would add pressure to the already hectic traffic, and could induce more diseases. I often traveled alone during the Spring Festival, so that I could stay away from the crowd and feasting.

I still remember that toward the Spring Festival of 1987, when my Mom asked me to go home to reunite with them, I asked with a laugh, “Do you want me to spend 100 Spring Festivals the same way, if I were to live to that age?” That year, I spent the Festival on the Sichuan-Tibetan highway while listing to Cui Jian’s song I Have Nothing.

Later on, I spent the Spring Festival in many places: in the south of Vietnam, in an ancient city in Burma, in a village in Shaanxi province, and so on.

This year, it was different. I not only traveled away from home, I actually started to learn Chinese medicine. This was a new game — Learning Chinese medicine, reading and practicing Qi Gong. Qi is essential for a doctor. So the first thing I did each morning after getting up was to practice Jam Jong and Qi Gong facing the rising sun. As the fingers were to be used in acupressure, I needed to feel and enhance the Qi in them while standing in the horse stance (Jam Jong) to the point that my fingers could feel the rhythm of breathing.

Boosting Qi is one of the Oriental practices, and it must be executed by a live person. Anatomic findings on dead bodies are taken for granted, and doctors of Western medicine apply them in curing living humans. It feels like a farce, doesn’t it?

The master-disciple style of learning medicine goes like this: You learn it in practice. All traditional Chinese skills, whether Qin (a stringed musical instrument), Qi (Chinese chess), Shu (calligraphy, i.e. the art of writing Chinese characters), Hua (Chinese paintings), Xi (Chinese operas and dramas), or Wu (Kungfu, martial arts), are inherited this way.

The first day I learnt acupressure, I tried it on Li, now my master. And he also pressed my acupoints so that I could feel the essence of it. Due to various reasons, the learning process was quite slow. I only spent several minutes each day learning acupressure from my master. The only occasions for learning it were at sunrise and sunset. And I also followed my master to the wards to have clinical observations for half an hour. Even counting in the observation time, each day I only spent less than one hour learning acupressure. I could do other things for the rest of the day, so I had more time to myself than at home.

Amusing Experiences in west Hunan

I thus started to learn medicine, just like playing a new game. Very soon, I followed the customs there and lived like a local. Soon it would be the Spring Festival. One day, I went with Master Li and his eldest son to buy things for the occasion. We got into his self-made speedboat at the riverbank and headed toward Baojing city, an ancient town which had been described in The Autobiography of Shen Congwen.

The so-called speedboat was a flat one, and at its tail there was an attached gasoline engine with a propeller. The boat shot out like a fish, stirring rippling waves in the water. It was like travelling in a scenic painting — passing by mostly steep canyons, rolling hills and wilderness on the riverbanks, and occasionally an alone boat on the river, an alone house, a village with smoke from the chimneys, lazy buffalos and a shepherd boy.

Appreciating scenery along the riverbanks on the dashing speedboat

I kept visualizing on the boat: If we could row slowly in this picturesque place, with ancient Qin playing classical music like Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water or Wild Geese over the Clam Sands, it would bring out a sense of lingering melancholy and reminiscence of the ancient ways.

Just as I was wondering why there weren’t historic sites along the banks, I saw a pagoda on the top of a hill in the distance, and some temples on the hillside. Master Li told me, “These are newly built ones. There used to be a lot of historic sites. All of them have been destroyed in revolutionary movements.”

As we were about to reach our destination, Master Li suddenly did a handstand at one end of the narrow boat. The boat was sailing fast, and normally most people would find it difficult to do it even on land, not to mention on a boat. I immediately took some pictures of this precious moment.

Master Li    Master Li doing a headstand on the boat 

When we had just arrived in Baojing, I saw on the street next to the dock a heartwarming and hilarious scene: A group of 60-70-year-olds standing in rows in the street, each holding some red silk in the hands, and dancing just like youngsters. They were following an old man with half open eyes, unclear and slow movements. Because of their seniority in age, their dance looked awkward and their paces weren’t in sync. And yet their enthusiasm and dedication were quite moving.

As I walked toward them, I listened and observed more closely. I just couldn’t help laughing, for the music they chose was so old. It was a very popular one during the Cultural Revolution period. Those who have personally been through the Cultural Revolution could hum along while listening to the lyrics:

Dear Chairman Mao,

Dear Chairman Mao,

You are the red sun in our hearts.

Maybe it was just because of the music, their dance looked as stiff as that of a wooden chicken. It was very much like the Loyalty Dance (a political dance before the image of Chairman Mao, as a show of loyalty to him) that people, men and women, young and old, used to dance during the Cultural Revolution period.

But what amused me most was not the dance itself, but the “band” playing music for it. There, on the open ground before the elderly dancers, a thin old man with a cotton hat on — in his 70s, I guess — sat on a small foldable stool and leisurely played an olderhu (a traditional Chinese musical instrument). So he alone was the band. I’d say he was “the one and only” band and he deserved the title. The hoarse tones streaming from his dry fingers had neither momentum nor chords of a band’s play. There were only lonely, almost mourning tunes, as if someone was sobbing in response to the warm, dancing red.

 I just stood there enjoying it. The old man often stopped to give instructions to the dancers. Sometimes he had to get up from the stool to explain and gesture, much like an expert director of a band, music and dancers’ performance. His serious (   ) and thin figure sort of reminded me of Herbert von Karajan. But the cotton hat he was wearing made him look like Luan Ping, a bandit in the model opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.

The performers were surrounded by sparse crowds. And not far from them were happy people sitting at tables playing mahjong in the sun.

Dancing locals and a one-man band in Baojing city 

Master Li urged me to walk on. At the crossroad in the city centre, we saw a completely different scene: the loud “Super Girl” contest. Compared with the red silk and erhu music just now, this was totally non-traditional in its form and content, in the choices of audio equipment, stage art, costume, lyrics, melody and singing skills. It was packed with spectators. Musical judges sat in their guest seats at the front of the stage, looking expert and serious. Well, you know, the same routine as in a TV show.

“Super Girl” contest on a street in Baojing

On a trestle bridge leading to the city centre, Master Li asked me to stop and have a look at a Ginkgo tree (Bai Guo Shu in Chinese) in a yard by the roadside. Then he told me its story.

“This is the backyard of Baojing People’s Hospital. One year, the tree branches suddenly started burning. Not long after that, many people from all over the country came streaming to the hospital to look for a doctor of Chinese medicine surnamed Bai, in an attempt to express their gratitude for him.

“People in the hospital said there had never been anyone surnamed Bai. But still, the guests believed that there was an old doctor surnamed Bai, otherwise how could they have all come to this place to look for him? Then people in the hospital said for sure there was no one surnamed Bai, but there was a Ginkgo tree in the backyard. Then people knew that after the old tree was on fire, it turned into an old man with a white beard, then travelled everywhere and treated people free of charge. When asked about his name and his home, he would say his family name was Bai, and he lived in the backyard of Baojing Hospital.

“Perhaps this tree is the incarnation of Bodhisattva. While in the hospital and seeing so many patients there suffering from the side effects of injection and medication, he turned into a magic healer. As people could not find the doctor, they expressed their thanks to him by hanging pieces of red cloth on the tree.”

I looked carefully. Indeed, there were many pieces of red cloth on the tree.

“At its best moment, it is red all over the tree.” said Master Li

Maidenhair tree

The day before the last day of the year, I got into the boat with Master Li to visit a lonely old man on the Youshui River and give him some money and special purchases for the Spring Festival. He had long  suffered from dizziness and poor eyesight because of hypertension and cerebral arteriosclerosis. His disciple Li (my master) cured his diseases with acupressure and sent him these gifts before the Festival. He was moved to tears and was speechless for a long time. He alone had come here from Changde over 20 years before. Till now, he still spoke with a Changde accent. And the shabby boat was his home. Seeing him standing alone on one end of the only boat floating on the cold waters which reflected it all, my lonely heart felt it was like a dream. The old man and I, our inner worlds and the scenery around us, were  a  vivid  portrayal  of  the  “wandering  in  the  world”.