Sunday 27 September

The weather changed today – at 5am the stars were bright against a black sky in the now crisp air. And it dawned bright and sunny, with lingering mists trailing through the mountains before burning off. The rice harvest will start tomorrow in earnest, having been held back by the rain over the past week.

The Swiss Family Huber will return to Kunming tomorrow, unable to continue their interviews once the heads of households are all in the fields. Their next field trip is towards the end of October high up in the mountains north of Muli with other minority groups as part of Caroline’s research project. And while it sounds very exciting to have the possibility of taking part and contributing my photographs, the accommodation is one simple room and, with no chairs or low stools, sitting is cross-legged on the floor which is uncomfortable at the best of times, but with a pelvis or vertebra not quite in alignment, could be excruciating.

Both Franz and I have bad headaches this morning which we feel we really can’t blame on the small glasses of red Yunnan wine we had at the Tea Horse café; rather, he attributes it to the change in weather – and I, to sitting too long sorting photos on the computer and the two bottles of beer I had before those small glasses of wine!

I  find the minorities here extremely friendly, and a smile, nod and “neehah” greeting nearly always gets a broad smile, nod and some unintelligible comment in response. Even a smattering of Mandarin would be lost between us, both speaking completely different languages, but the understanding is mutual. I value these exchanges more than the perhaps furtively grabbed shots of them going about their business at market, or the unabashed pointing of the lens in their direction causing surprise or making them feel uncomfortable. Furtive shots always look just that.

But the Friday market is a wonderful opportunity for people from all across the valley, the villages and the hills, to trade their wares – whether it’s local produce, fruit, vegetables and truck loads of potatoes, chickens, spices, herbs, vats of chilly powder, cheaply made clothes, huge stainless-steel pans, hand-made baskets and brooms, tofu or various cuts of meat or other more specific animal body parts.

Shaxi market

The market starts early, with many Bai or Yi arriving in traditional costume – the headdresses of the married Yi women being quite spectacular, a five-cornered bamboo frame covered in black material and measuring about a metre wide. It is also a social event where a great deal of gossip takes place. More poignantly, some trading takes place at a very personal level: women selling their long black hair for wigs; A few seeds at Shaxi market

elderly women with small paper bags containing culinary seeds of various sorts that they have grown during the summer; old wizened folk with small bundles of equally withering medicinal herbs they have collected to treat a sore throat or headache…

And a few herbsAnd a few herbs

Perhaps I should have bought them as a few days later I felt a cold coming on – and off it was to the local Herbalist. He had been very involved in helping the Hubers and Frank establish their presence in Shaxi at the beginning of their involvement five years ago. His pharmacy is on the corner of the road leading down to the old town and he deals in both Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). He was thrilled when I turned my nose up at Western medicine.Herbalist preparing concoctions

Herbalist preparing concoctions

It was fascinating watching him take the old tins off the shelf and pour handfuls of dried herbs and various unknown substances into a cone of newspaper and then disappearing into the back room to boil it all up or infuse it. I was then handed a very hot glass jar holding a rather bitter thick green liquid. However, figuring out how to take the concoction was quite challenging as Franz and Frank had gone off to do more interviews and neither the Pharmacist nor his wife had any English.

I wandered off back to the hostel and pondered the meaning of what I had understood as “three”. Drink three times a day? Go back at 3pm? The Herbalist wanted me to take a photo of him, so I figured that if I went back at 3pm I might at least get one of my interpretations right – and take the photo at the same time. But he wasn’t there – and after a great deal of sign language with his wife, I finally realised that I was supposed to return three times to fill up my jar and drink it hot there and then! Whether it was the concoction or not, my cold abated and I rather sadly prepared to leave Shaxi and head over to Lugu Lake via Lijiang. But not before a last inquisitive look at the nightly trading in mushrooms.

The mushroom traders

At around 7.30pm every night during the season, collectors come down from the hills to trade with the dealers who set up across the small town. When I was in Shaxi a few weeks prior (my first brief visit with Eric and Nicole from Dali) we had seen basket-loads of different kinds of mushrooms cramming the kiosk-style shops on the main street: shops that during the day sold kitchenware, shoes, or were hairdressers.

The mushroom traders

The mushrooms were prodded, weighed, sorted and graded, and packed into white polystyrene boxes with ice-packs in the bottom, carefully laid layer upon layer with paper in between, until they filled the very top. Then stacked into waiting vehicles and driven off into the night. I later discovered, with Franz, that the very best and valuable mushrooms were driven straight to Kunming for a flight out to Shanghai, and from there to Japan. Some big money was changing hands in Shaxi.

But the season is short, and in the few weeks between my two visits, it had tapered off to just a few transactions taking place – seemingly furtively – in the darkened kiosks, and a small number or rather despondent collectors bringing in just a handful of mushrooms. Rather like The Mushroom Collector who wouldn’t have made more than one or two pounds from the few we gleaned on our day-long expedition. And once the rice-harvest is over, what employment will these poor farmers find during the winter months, I wonder.

Monday 28 September

I caught the local 7-seater “toaster” bus to Jianchuan with Frank, who needed to buy the Hubers’ tickets back to Kunming the following day. I had hoped to catch the 11.30 bus, but as I was the only passenger I was told it wouldn’t leave and would have to wait for the 1.30pm. I checked my baggage into the Deposit Office and wandered around the busy Monday market with its many different ethnic groups, and into the quieter back-streets.

The old traditional buildings of wood were probably in the same state as many had been in Lijiang before it became such a tourist attraction, but there was no such investment here: many abandoned buildings, broken railings, litter and a general feeling of decay – as well as the acrid smell from open sewers.Jianchuan backstreetsJianchuan backstreets

I turned a corner and came upon a gated apartment block with a broken children’s fairground ride in the front garden – alongside the debris and rubble was a huge pile of discarded material that an old man was sorting through for anything recyclable.Jinchuan Fairground ApartmentFairground Apartment

When I got back to the waiting room I was very surprised to see a David Attenborough programme on squirrels, dubbed into Chinese, on the obligatory TV. The reception kept fading and most of the time it was “snow” without a hint of colour.

I was finally able to buy my bus ticket and take the road out of Jianchuan to Lijiang heading north through the valley past an industry of marble grave monuments ever-more ornate. I find the practice of concentrating industry, craft or trade in one area in China interesting. It certainly leads to transparency, making it easier for the purchaser to compare quality and price, with the proximity of traders making this most competitive. It is also more efficient in terms of delivery of raw materials or stock. However, I prefer to see a mix of businesses, with perhaps the element of surprise, stumbling over something you would not normally seek out – rather like finding a wonderfully diverse wildflower meadow rather than a field of corn.

The maize harvest is now over in this valley, and the discarded stalks piled into stooks or strewn across the field providing fodder for browsing cattle, horses and donkeys.Stacking cornStacking corn

Verandas are festooned with drying cobs, roofs turned yellow, ledges weighed down, and any tall structure serves as a drying post. Cobs that have dried sufficiently are stripped and the kernels raked out across the pavement or yard to complete the process. Sunflowers that had been planted amongst the corn now stand etiolated and forlorn, their heads bowed under the weight of ripening seeds.

Chillies too are being harvested, strung together in huge glistening red ropes alongside the bright yellow corn. Chillies dryingChillies drying

I have not seen any of the older, white or coloured varieties of corn except for a few cobs in local farmers’ homesteads when accompanying Franz on his research. The yields are poorer – one farmer proudly showed us the seed packet of the commercially grown, bright yellow, variety. And while we might regret the demise of the genetic diversity, one can hardly blame these small farmers for wanting to take every opportunity to maximise their income.

And the farmers in the Shaxi Valley will farm whatever is the most profitable – whether tobacco, maize or rice – although much of the rice is for personal consumption. Tobacco growing is different (although some may well be for personal consumption) and managed by quota per village, or cluster of villages, the dried leaves meeting strict government standards. It is labour intensive as this high quality comes at a price – spraying, mulching with plastic, fertilising, selecting and harvesting and grading leaves, then drying in the tall smoke-houses before transporting for sale. The government is introducing new regulations from next year for smoke-houses to use a combination of coal and wood to reduce the impact of deforestation. Whether this change will increase the costs of drying is unknown but no farmer seems to be concerned about it.

An hour out of Jianchuan and we have reached the neck of the valley where the pine trees come almost to the roadside – only to open up again into another valley where the maize harvest has yet to start and tobacco stands thick with leaves, some well in flower, their delicate pink tubular flowers bursting in sprays from the top of the stalks. Now we turn off the valley road and head up into the hills, again the red crumbling soil exposed on great raw edges to the road.The start of the rice harvestThe start of the rice harvest

Great jagged mountains rise up on the far side of the valley, a swathe of broken cumulous casting dark blue shadows in patches down their flanks. There is sparse and scrubby vegetation giving way to pale bare rock, or soil, with dry rivers of shale running down the crevasses. Now climbing over the mountain top we pass a Tibetan temple and into an area of re-forestation, the pale green pine needles thick, past beekeepers selling jars of clear pale honey alongside clusters of dark roadside hives. The temperature has dropped as we climb, and the windows mist.

We will soon descend into Lijiang and I must brace myself for the intense commercialisation of the Old Town, and the thousands of Chinese tourists now travelling to all the hot spots during The Golden Week. What a contrast to the peace and tranquillity of rural life in Shaxi.

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