Travelling in China can be very, very hard. But sometimes there is a magical parting of the waters and a combination of surprising encounters or events turns the process of travelling into a memorable adventure.

My visa expires once again, on 11 April, necessitating a return to Hong Kong – or simply out of China. Well, “simply” is a bit of a misnomer: getting out of China is no problem – finding somewhere to get a Visa of longer then 30 days is a trial. Both Hong Kong and Bangkok are restricted to this time-length, and Vietnam no longer issues visas for China. Chaing Mai was heard to be giving longer visas but things change quickly, with no notice, and it’s a long way to go… Plus, my original flight route took me Kunming – Hong Kong, HK – Heathrow, so it makes sense to use the first part of the ticket to exit the country.

However, my return flight to England isn’t until May. So what to do? That’ll be a new adventure, but first let me describe the turn of events that have brought me to the French Café in Kunming, where I’m having eggs, tomato and basil, coffee, and fresh, hot, home-made bread rolls.

I had decided to spend my final weeks back in wonderful, tranquil, Shaxi. The weather was superb, dawning crisp and cool with that exquisite shimmer that heralds a scorcher. The mountains across the valley were blue with morning haze and from the balcony of Horse Pen 46 guest house, the glimpse of river glittered between the fresh green leaves of the willows.

I walked into the dusty red hills in search of rhododendrons and completed two more paintings in the “new” style: the looser, more expressive one developed for the up-coming exhibition in Hong Kong.

As my final days approached, so did my birthday; and I was looking forward to spending it with my good friends in Shaxi: Matthias and Veve, and Lily the English writer. Then Bob from Baisha said he would join us, not having visited Shaxi before, and he made the trip directly from Kunming just for the day.

I have never seen such an extraordinary, beautiful cake! We had Thai soup with prawns, fresh salad with olives, and the yummiest pizza Allen has ever made. Then he cracked open a 21-year old bottle of Royal Salute…

Leaving the next day was hard, but Bob was also coming back to Lijiang, and although we had to wait two hours for a bus, the journey was uneventful – apart from the valley-filled haze as a large forest fire obscured the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Apparently the single Lijiang helicopter had been hard at work since dawn pulling water out of Lasha lake to douse the flames.

Back in Garden Inn in Lijiang, I picked up my train ticket to Kunming and met a delightful Irish gal called Karen, who was also heading south. We shared a taxi and a hard-sleeper cabin, and then another taxi in the morning to Cloudland Hostel where she was staying for a few days before heading to Lao. She invited me to join her and oh! how I wish I could have done.

But with flights booked, accommodation with Helen sorted, and plans for further travel in the offing, I was rather more committed than I would have liked. Plus my visa expires TODAY, so no time to apply for a Lao visa which takes three days.

I left my bags in Cloudland and here I am at the French Café waiting for my flight to Hong Kong.

Local park in Kunming

The seasoned traveller might find nothing unusual about my final days in China and trip down to Kunming, but I know that I might have done all of this alone – and felt isolated and lonely, tearful even at the thought of leaving China after almost a year, and the good friends I have made here. Instead I had warmth and companionship. The process of travelling alone, or with others, is the same. It’s the experience that’s so different.

Later: just had an interesting experience. Apparently age must have caught up with me despite not feeling very much different. They couldn’t recognise me from my passport photo taken 10 years ago, and placed me in an Investigation room while they did some computer checks! Knew I should have been using those anti-ageing creams after all…

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It was big and gooey, and had flowers from an indeterminate planet…It had to be specially made to some very strict instructions! Thank you Matthias and Veve!

The cake

Lily and I celebrated at Allen’s with our very good friends of Shaxi and a 21-year old bottle of Royal Salute.

Er – Chinese tradition dictates that you have to celebrate with most of the icing on your face… so we did.

Not a pretty sight

Hua Dian Ba – 6 April 2011

I had heard about this wild-flower medicinal-plant meadow back in 2009, but never had a chance to go there. Now, in my final week I jump at the chance as Lily and two Finnish travellers are keen to make the trek.

We leave Shaxi at 8am for Xizhou, a small town on the north-western bank of Lake Erhai, near Dali, and arrive around 12:30. They continue on into Dali old town where the Finns are ultimately heading: they drop off their big bags and Lily hits the bank. The banks in Shaxi and Jinghong, the main metropolis in the area, only service Chinese accounts, which can be a bit of a problem if you’re staying in the area longer-term. Lily, like me, has made it her creative base, to complete part two of her novel current.

Rhododendrons in courtyard

I take the opportunity to drop in on the Linden Centre again and take a poster for Matthias’s medicinal plant garden near Shaxi.

M will be producing postcards of my paintings which they agree to sell in their small shop.

We finally all meet up again and head up the dry, dusty road at about 3pm. It’s later than we would have liked, as we know that the walk will take us at least four hours. But we should be there before dark.

It is hot. Very hot. At the entrance to the mountain path we sign in with officials and read the comprehensive notice about “no fires”. It’s as dry as tinder. Even the large bundles of magenta incense sticks placed at the small local holy sites are left unlit.

On our way up, we meet groups of locals coming down from the hills with huge bunches of Rhododendron decorum – the beautiful white, scented, blooms that are a local delicacy.

R decorum

Although they might be gong to put them in a vase and just enjoy them as is. I would have loved to have painted them, but sadly I’ve now run out of time – it’s now just five days before I leave Shaxi, and China, and I’d rather spend my final days enjoying the tranquillity of the area than putting myself under pressure to start a new project.

We climb up, and up, cutting off huge bends in the road by stumbling along donkey-trails, through small graveyards and deep pine forest. These paths have been worn into steps where the hooves have pushed the earth down into ridges. They’re amazingly even and well-spaced, presumably donkeys having legs of relatively same length…

Donkey "steps"

The road peters out and is only traversable by foot or pack-animal.

Local coming off the mountain

Rhododendron sp

We pass mules, donkeys and horses coming down off the mountain with some rather bemused locals. First it’s another five hours (what!?) then it’s three. We hope we’re misunderstanding them – maybe three miles? – but we are realising now that we won’t make it before dark.The problem is we don’t know what “it” is. We asked Veve to phone ahead and book us into the medicinal plant co-operative for the night, and ask them to prepare dinner for us, but all we know is that once we finish climbing up, it’s at the end of the plateau. Exactly where is a complete unknown.

The path continues climbing and we’re going at a pace much faster than I’d like. The Finns, Ilkke and Henny are both in their 20s, and Lily’s an avid hiker.

I stumble breathlessly along some way behind, grateful for the occasional short stops and sips of water – and a few grabbed photos of flowers along the way.

We know we can’t afford to rest for any length of time.

Rhododendron sp

The path levels out and turns into a wide stone-paved “road” which has a history which intrigues us. Possibly one of the main routes from Dali to Eruan over the mountains? Part of the Tea & Horse Caravan Route?

We’ll have to wait until we’re down to research this – our Chinese is completely inadequate and no-one up here speaks a word of English.

(Note: have since discovered that it was built by the People’s Army – thanks to Chris Horton of Go Kunming, a network and website I found very informative for all ex-pats and other things relating to Marmite or cabbages and kings.)

The long un-winding road...

It reminds me of Offa’s dyke. As it grows darker, we stumble on the loose rocks, kicking and sliding – it’s incredibly tiring, and I’m already exhausted. We walk through a spate of freezing rain and round the mountain into a ferocious wind. Along the plain it settles down, and the clouds clear – but the moon is just a fingernail and casts little light.

We pass two homesteads with small burning lights and stumble on, desperately hoping that we’ll come across the lights of a village proper before it’s so dark we can’t see anything. Once we turn on our torches, we will only see the light in front of us, our eyes losing their “night vision”.

Then we come across a light shining from a large complex of buildings – whatever this place is, we can’t continue any further. As we walk through courtyards it looks more and more like a co-operative “factory” – and indeed it is! We have finally made it. It’s 8:20, virtually pitch dark, and we descend on the food and a bottle of beer with enormous pleasure and relief.

The medicinal herb co-operative

Next morning is clear and sunny – but the only wild flowers we can find are tiny gentians, an amethyst fumitory (Fumaria sp) and a few rather indistinct yellow things peeking through the heavily grazed grass.

Partially derelict

Awash with horticultural netting

Fumaria sp

We’re probably about six weeks too early.

In situ plant ID

Do I have competition?

Then it’s another four hours back down the hill – and we’ve started out a bit later than I would like.

Lone Rhododendron...

Again it’s a fast pace but we get down to Xizhou just after 3:30 and I’m on a bus back home, arriving in Shaxi just before 8pm. Utterly exhausted!

Now that's the way to travel!

Snow-capped Cangshans above Dali

Now it’s packing time – my visa expires in just a few days’ time and I must leave China for Hong Kong.

But not before my birthday celebration…

This post is a belated summary of a 2-month period on an arts residency in Lijiang, from December 2010 to February  2011.

It was quite by chance that I stumbled across Rhizome – a large courtyard hosting an arts complex and restaurant on the outskirts of Lijiang run by a French couple, their three children, Gizmo the dog and Alex.

Arriving at Rhizome in December

Undertaking an arts residency seemed like a wonderful opportunity to develop a freer, more personal, style after the intense concentration of working on botanical illustrations.

I was also intrigued by the Naxi minority, their pictographic language, and the Dongba shaman. What clinched it for me was the fact that they made their own paper. Surely I could draw on (!) all these elements, incorporate paintings of their medicinal/ sacred plants, and produce

The courtyard

something new and exciting, which would help to spread the word about their endangered culture – rather than exploit it.

Morning mist from the balcony

So I made the commitment to spend two months there, and hold an exhibition of my work in March, when Mika and Odile returned from a much-needed holiday over the Chinese New Year break.

I had no idea about arts residencies, and discovered that many are actually funded through grants or benefactors – particularly, it seems, in Europe and Australia. But obtaining a grant at this stage was not an option.

My monthly fee would provide accommodation and a studio space – and the support of Odile, herself a professional artist. On top of this I would need to cover food and all art expenses, including transport for research and interpreters.

It was a big financial decision for me as, apart from the botanical illustrations with the German scientist, I hadn’t earned any money since being made redundant in May 2009.

Leaving Shaxi

I said goodbye to Matthias and Veve several times, dragged Allen out of the shower he was having with Willy – only way to ensure his St Bernard kept up some standards of hygiene – and hugged people I hardly knew in my heightened state of anxiety.

Leaving Shaxi was hard.

Farewell Matthias & Veve

And Allen

The truth is I simply didn’t want to swap the beautiful, tranquil, Shaxi, my home for five months, for the tourist mayhem of Lijiang.

And Shirley & Alean from Horse Pen 46

However, the surrounding villages around Lijiang are worth visiting – and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which acts as a backdrop to much of the city, spectacular.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

As with any new venture – particularly a creative one – I suffered initially from a sense of confusion and self-doubt. That wasn’t helped by the disorientation of moving to a new place. And it was bitterly cold in Lijiang.

Keeping warm - my pixie hat

A note about the North/South Divide…

Traditionally, houses have no heating and the walls no insulation. I guess they figure it’s cold for only a few months of the year, and they just put on more clothes.

I also heard that China suffered a “heating divide” and found this bit of information on someone’s blog – who was obviously experiencing the winter chill factor:

“Since the 1950s, there has been no central heating in southern China, roughly defined as below the Yangtze River – even though temperatures fall below freezing in plenty of southern cities.

Back in the 50s that was a money-saving move because the state provided heat as part of the iron rice bowl welfare of communism. Free heating has ended, but the north-south divide is still in place.”

Here’s a map of China showing the path of the Yangtze. Lijiang is just near the first bend of the Yangtze, under the “h” of Chongqing.

Because of the large balcony and overhanging roof, the room at Rhizome was also much darker than I was used to; but as I intended to spend most of my time working in the studio, this didn’t matter too much. And it did force me out early in the morning to make coffee – one of the best purchases I’ve made in China was a cafetière from Dali.

Green tea is nice and refreshing during the day, but Oh! morning coffee is a necessity.

Modern Dongba paintings

My research revealed that there were a number of artists working with Naxi pictographs locally. These used bright acrylic colours and mainly very stylised depictions – often they were used to tell as story, as the pictographs would have done originally, but were pretty inaccessible if you couldn’t interpret them.

Modern Dongba paintings for sale

I didn’t particularly like them, and it certainly wasn’t a style I wanted to emulate, preferring the sensitivity of watercolour and the connection with tradition of using the Dongba paper. No-one seemed interested in showing the plants, so my approach was unique.

A paper trail…

One of the main challenges facing me was finding a good source of Dongba paper. Not the

The misleading W lichiangensis sign

poor quality stuff made from a mix of  pulp from various sources including Daphne odora and paper mulberry – with petals – which they sell to tourists in so many of the “tradition” shops in Lijiang, but that made from authentic material: Wikstroemia lichiangensis. Despite signs in the paper shops suggesting otherwise…

I started my search at the Dongba Cultural Museum outside Black Dragon Pool, and found a Dongba priest writing pictographs on some very fine paper, selling at ¥150 a go. I couldn’t bargain a blank sheet down below ¥100, so forked out the equivalent of £10, considering it an investment.

The paper had apparently been made up near Shangri-La: the villagers make a whole batch, then bring it down, selling the entire lot to the Museum. The girl working there – the only one who spoke a little English – didn’t have any contact details: they rely only on the villagers turning up once in a while to replenish stocks.

But I needed to find a much cheaper source: Without good paper my project would stumble at first hurdle – and I wouldn’t be able to do many paintings at £10 a throw…

Then Odile told me about a friend of hers, a Dongba shaman currently living inside the Black Dragon Pool park, whose wife makes paper. Odile’s Chinese is limited so we found a young Chinese student with a reasonable grasp of English to help us.

We took with us the usual gifts: oranges for the wife and, err, bijou for the Shaman. A young, talented man, he seems strangely displaced in the centre of a tourist park, despite it having a strong cultural significance for the Naxi, and a source of sacred spring water.

Over the six years that Odile has known him there has been a deterioration of his health and blackening of his teeth. He’s still in his 30s, a talented, gentle man, but one wonders what the future holds for Dongba shaman now, in this fast-changing world: where the “protection” provided by the UNESCO World Heritage Site for Naxi Culture in Lijiang has produced more of a theme park; where Dongba culture is exploited commercially. Where Dongba “paper” has been patented and is nothing more than cheap pulp.

We made an appointment to go and see the Shaman’s wife make the paper, and what we saw was the real stuff.

The Dongba's wife with the fibre

Where she got the W. lichiangensis branches from I don’t know

W lichiangensis soaking

– but again somewhere near Shangri-La: the

plant only grows in forests at an elevation of between 2600 and 3500m in SW Sichuan and NW Yunnan.

The process requires soaking for several days, mashing to a pulp, straining through a flat sieve, and rolling to remove excess water. We asked what she used for this, and she laughed: one of her husband’s bottles! Ever resourceful.

I promptly bought 20 sheets of pre-prepared paper, and started to experiment.

 

Mixing pulp with water

Smoothing out pulp in rack

Pressing out moisture

It had a really smooth surface and was very

Draining

resilient, unlike the tourist-bought material which acted like blotting paper.

I could blend colours on the surface and build up layers – very different from the Fabriano Artistico I’d used for the botanical illustrations, but an exciting departure.

 

Left to dry

The only “problem” I encountered was the strong visual texture of the fibers which might interfere with the detail.

But what to paint?

The studio space had a large table at a really good height where I could work easily,

The studio space

standing up. The balcony overhang protected the room from rain but restricted the light. With only filtered light coming from a side window it was essential to leave the wooden doors open. What with the bitter cold and strong afternoon winds I worked wrapped up, with fingerless gloves on, a lot of the time.

Of course finding paper to work on is one thing. Finding the right plants to paint was quite another.

And this turned out to be the main obstacle which I never really overcame.

Initially, Odile and I thought of Dr Ho in Baisha. He’s become quite a celebrity over the years: one of the ‘attractions’ mentioned in Lonely Planet guides, visited by the likes of Bruce Chatwin and Michael Palin, and with numerous interviews on radio and TV under his belt. But most of all he knows a lot about the local flora, having spent a great deal of his life collecting medicinal plants from the wild around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Do Ho

It was not a satisfactory visit. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what I wanted – he simply wasn’t interested. He basically said: “I’m 86 years old and tired. I only want to treat people.” Which I saw him do, at ¥100 a pop for some ground up herbs to a rather startled well-heeled Chinese woman from the city.

I had hoped that I would come away with a list of plants to kick off the project, or at least some sort of enthusiastic support. Instead I felt deflated. It was doubly difficult because my Chinese companion didn’t really understand, herself, what I wanted – her English was minimal and my ideas more complex than she could grasp.

My fall-back was to work on plants that I had painted before – the medicinal plants used by the Bai people, which are virtually all used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and also grow around Lijiang, so likely to be used by the Naxi. I could also work from photos of flowers I had taken – less ideal as I hadn’t studied them as closely. Working from life was impossible during the residency – it was the middle of winter and very little was in flower.

Odile was very supportive, but was at a loss herself to discover a way of finding out about the plants. Plus she had her own commitments: a young family to raise, and her studies several mornings a week learning Chinese at the local University.

But it wasn’t all work, and we managed to find time for some wonderful day-trips.

A time to work, a time to play

We were invited to attend a Tibetan festival at the Zhiyun Monastery near Lashi Hai reservoir and RAMSAR wetland site.

It was an extraordinarily colourful – and fun – event.

Dance parade

A dancer

Photo opps!

Musicians

And a very powerful and moving experience for some.

Devotee

The Address

The whole event went on well into the afternoon: there were food stalls outside, but we were invited to eat from the monastic kitchen in the side courtyard.

Monastic dejeurner

The monastery dates from the 1700s, but a new one was being built above it – from the roof were some really far-reaching views, but one could also see that the construction was being done very fast, and not with the greatest of care.

Under construction

A large paint job...

Puji Si Monastery

One afternoon we all piled into a hire-car and visited Puji Si monastery, about 5km west of Lijiang.

Someone enjoyed the day-trip!

We stopped at the end of a road in a small and walking up through the dusty hillside.

Puji Si Monastery

This small monastery had some really old paintings, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside.

They were gilding the roof when we arrived, and they offered us oranges. They were friendly, but weren’t so keen on us just wandering around.

One of the previous art residents at Rhizome had taken some very evocative photos of the kitchen…

Adong’s birthday bashes

On the 17th of each month, a Taiwanese guy called Adong invites anyone who’s interested to a party at his woody-hippy-commune place on the edge of Lashi.

Adong's recycled wood place

People bring food to share, sit around open fires on chairs made from huge recycled timber.

Anyone who’s had a birthday that month gets a small present and the pleasure of everyone else singing Happy Birthday.

Art previews

We went to an art preview in Shuhu where a French artist worked with materials directly on the land – a metal sheet impressed with the actual rocks from the top of the hill; a glass installation; huge sheets of paper pierced in contact with the land.

I drank some rather good French red wine and failed to understand the Artist’s statement. Can’t remember which came first…

Then there were the parties at Christmas and New Year, when Odile lent me something perhaps more fitting than my walking trousers, Berghous jacket and Tevas.

Then it snowed in Lijiang and there were snowball fights with the children.

Wet snow at Rhizome

Stacey came to see Bob, Bob left, and I spent some time with her on various outings, relishing the company. We went on a few walks – one in a blizzard up Elephant Hill…

New paving up Elephant Hill

Ancient graves in the forest

Snow storm approaching

Getting colder...

Stacey in the blizzard

And came across a few winter flowers.

Primula

Magnolia sp

And some surprisingly familiar ones from Stacey’s homeland:

Eucalyptus globulus

 

Acacia sp

In fact I perhaps spent more time than I should – I even took a few days out to show her my wonderful Shaxi… (andI’ve posted enough photos of that beautiful place).

But the fun couldn’t last, and it was – Back to the task at hand…

I was still exploring all options, but making slow progress on identifying which Naxi plants were important to them.

I spent hours at a local bookshop (many are used as free libraries) poring over a book of Naxi plants and Chinese pharmacology – in Chinese – writing down the Latin names. But what were these in Naxi? Were there pictographs of the plants?

I did find some pictographs, but translations indicated they were for more general plants such as “fir” or “oak” or to indicate a point as “poisonous”

Some plant and medicinal pictographs

I followed up a contact I had for a Naxi woman who works at the Dongba Cultural Museum; fluent English but very limited time. Through her I got to meet He Pinzheng, who has not only translated a large number of Dongba scripts into Chinese, but has published a simple dictionary of pictographs. He’s also an artist, using the pictographic symbols in a very modern style. But he knew nothing of the plants they use, and could give me no leads.

There was also an intriguing display in the Museum of pictographic script including the cover of The Book of Medicine – but I could not access the document itself, nor any translation:

Book of Medicine

Someone put me in touch with Robbie Hart, from the University of Wisconsin. He’s doing research up at Wenhai, the Lijiang Botanical Gardens – well, a field research station really – and he sent me a copy of the pictographs of plants that Joseph Rock had translated. But he was back in the States and not returning to Lijiang until early March.

What I needed was someone who had local botanical knowledge and could communicate in both Naxi and English.

I never found them.

I also heard that I was unlikely to make headway directly through the Dongba shaman as it’s a very male culture – the mere fact of being a woman would be a barrier to them sharing this knowledge. I don’t know if that’s true of not, but the lack of progress I was making was very real. And the whole point of this project was to identify those Naxi plants of value, and paint them on their paper.

Some of my first experiments with painting on the Dongba paper:

Meconopsis horridula

Hypericum bellum

Pharbitis purpurea detail

I was starting to doubt, again, that I was going to be able to produce works worthy of an exhibition. It wasn’t through lack of encouragement – both Odile and Mika really liked my work: it was the complete lack of progress I was making.

Perhaps if I had had a grant to study Naxi plants, through a recognised institution, things might have been different.

I was reminded of the obstacles I encountered when first in China on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in 2009. No-one in the institutions would help me as they didn’t want to take responsibility if anything went wrong.

They don’t say that of course. But if I’d come through Kew Gardens, or Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, or Glasnevin… Well, I didn’t, and things were very tough.

Where to, now?

Towards the end of my 2-month residency Mika and Odile went on holiday to Vietnam. Being on the edge of a tourist city is wonderful if want to be out of the noise and bustle and close to the hills. I had come to Rhizome for lively discussions about art and networking with the artists’ community in Lijiang.

Sadly, I realised that that if that community existed, I was somehow unable to access it. There are individual artists working, and some ex-pats, but they seem to be unconnected. So here was I, also feeling once again the isolation of working on my own, and the frustration of not being able to achieve what I had set out to do.

At that time I was still working towards having an exhibition at Rhizome in March of my new works on Dongba paper, plus the ones I had done in Shaxi.

Then news from England pulled my focus away from my work, and I made the difficult decision to return home to deal with family affairs. When Odile and Mika returned from their holiday, we agreed to put the exhibition on hold until I was able to return.

That will depend very much on identifying a reliable source of information on Naxi plants. And being able to find – and paint – them.

The weather has turned warm since the Spring Festival with clear blue skies and temperatures still up around 20o by 7pm; and although chilly at night, certainly not the minus figures we experienced only a few weeks ago. Which is why I am surprised to see mist high in the mountains this morning.

But it doesn’t burn off as I would have expected: it slides along the ridge between the mountains and rises into the air.

The plume of smoke is white at first, but as the day progresses it gathers among its billowing folds such delicate hues of permanent rose, lemon yellow, deep cobalt and Windsor blue green shade – even touches of Pane’s grey, if ever one use it. And an Indian red in its belly, the fire itself hidden deep in the gully and out of sight.

I watch in fascinated horror as the smoke charts the progress of the fire, racing down the gulley, consuming tinder-dry forest. Fanned by south-westerly winds, there are brief glimpses of the fire itself as it licks the ridge, but mostly this is shrouded in smoke.

Then, as night descends, the extent is more apparent; as splinters of it extend over the ridge – bright pinpricks of light on the horizon suddenly flaring, glowing. Each bright light a tree engulfed in flame, an unattended candle wick.

And ironically, here we all sit this evening, with lighted candles: the power goes out at 5pm in this part of town, and only a few sections of the city have any electricity at all.

Bar Street is one of them – they pay the highest rents, after all…

I need to make a Skype call this evening and find a café which still has power. On my way back to the Guest House I move out of the lit area and into darkened streets, the small shops and cafés illuminated only by candles.

These ancient streets are so narrow that the light reflects off the shutters and windows on the opposite side. I see people guiding their way with the screen of their mobile phones, but mostly it’s dark shadows slipping silently past each other.

I’m reminded of the time I went round the Ilford photographic laboratory – oh, back in the late ‘70s when I was studying photography at Harrow – and of course all the processes are carried out in the dark. But all the corridors are also in the dark, and people walk along the edges blindly, saying repeatedly, “Mind me, mind me, mind me…”

It’s 22:30 and the power kicks in – I’m alerted to this as a fuzzy, crackling sound comes from the kettle. How I managed to knock this on in the dark, I don’t know. Instinctively I turn on the light, but I find it harsh and intrusive, and now prefer candles, wondering why I haven’t spent my evenings like this before.

I look out the window at the necklace of lights on the mountains: wonder what lives may have been lost; what animals, what creatures, what plants, habitats destroyed.

One thing I have learned, in the last few years – while human nature tries to exert some order in the world, we fail quite miserably. Change comes – sometimes gradually, allowing us to adapt perhaps; or rapidly.

And when it is rapid, it is perhaps because of our human nature that we survive. But not all.

Baishuitai to Zhongdian

Baishuitai is still relatively unspoiled on the tourist scale.

Stacey at Baishuitai

If you can’t read Chinese characters, you could easily drive right past it – one wooden sign by the side of the road – and maybe the tell-tale signs of ‘white water’. Bai meaning white, shui water, and tai terraces.

The water seeping out and spilling down the hillside is so saturated with calcium carbonate that anything it flows over, or around, becomes coated in white – the “Baidas” touch… although the water itself appears quite clear.

The terraces

Stacey and Josie

Over thousands of years, the sediment has formed layer upon layer of crystalline pools. And despite being in both Chinese and Western guidebooks, and the ‘home of Dongba religion’, only one thin wire prevents anyone from clambering all over them: that and a few local watchmen who sit around smoking or playing cards.

As we approach the base we are beckoned by a plainly dressed Dongba Priest to burn incense at the small shrine. I’m quite happy to donate ¥10 and touch my head against the glassy-smooth mineral in blessing. I think of the struggles I am having with my new paintings: I could do with some support.

Ancient Oaks

A dilapidated boardwalk leads up through ancient oak woodland to a small plateau and a mosaic of shallow ponds, and the sacred source of the water – another shrine and opportunity to burn incense and donate.

Throughout the adjacent woodland are pockets of clearings with charred remains of bonfires, and individual shrines at the bases of trees. What a sight during a festival – flames flickering during the night, laughter and perhaps chanting and who knows what else going on.

I hope to find out in mid-March when I return for the ceremony of Worshiping Shu, the God of Nature – one of the most important ceremonies in the Naxi calendar.

From Baishuitai we head on up through the mountains towards Zhongdian.

Mountain Ranges to the East

We arrive at Zhongdian just before dusk – in time to see Tibetan dancing in the square.

Dancing in Zhongdian Square

The hotel is in the old town, and I have acquiesced to a personal recommendation to stay there, fighting my desire to book into the new Youth Hostel which was installing central heating in all its rooms when I checked it out last autumn.

I wish I had insisted. The only room with three beds is a new construction on the roof – no insulation and bitterly cold. The only advantage is the view.

The largest prayer-wheel?

We finally manage to get electric blankets and a heater – which we leave on all night, to little effect. Temperatures plummet to -12o and there is ice on the inside of the windows; the pipes are frozen and there’s no water in the bathroom…

But by late morning the sun is warm and the sky a brilliant blue, and it doesn’t take much to persuade Stacey and Josie to climb up to one of my favourite places, the Chicken Temple – it’s a riot of colour, with wonderful views. And a great place for contemplation.

Prayer flags erected in 2010 to commemorate earthquake victims

 

We walk up the back of old town, through rough dirt and dry hillsides – the same meadows I literally crawled through in October 2009 searching for tiny gentians – passing numerous cairns with slabs of slate engraved with Tibetan prayers.

Tibetan prayer cairns

Some have been newly carved, but others are old and encrusted with lichens. Patches of snow linger at the base, even in the sunshine.

At the base of the steps leading up to the temple we encounter a small stall set up selling prayer flags, incense and branches of Cyprus to burn in the stupas, which seems to be doing a thriving business.

It’s still the holiday season and Tibetans young and old are making pilgrimages, bringing bamboo stems with flags to place in the shrines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other offerings and gifts are brought – fruit, rice and foodstuffs for the monks, with the odd bottle of Baijou thrown in – and a growing array of surprisingly kitsch plastic and pottery icons.

The hilltop is thick with prayer-flags and old ladies, already bent with age, must stoop even lower to pass underneath as they circuit, clockwise, around the temple.

I’m sad we don’t have more time in Zhongdian, and it feels strange to come back to Lijiang and the vast empty courtyard of Rhizome. Although having spent three rather intense days with the girls, lovely as they are, it is quite nice to be on my own again…

I’m spending some time with Stacey, an Australian gal who came over on an extended holiday to stay with her Australian friend Bob who lives and works in Baisha. Bob had to go back to Australia just as soon as she arrived, so we’ve decide to go off on some adventures of our own.

Stacey and Bob

This small town – a straggling village really – was once the capital city of the Naxi community.

Baisha square

It’s now a quiet backwater of Lijiang, attracting tourists during the day who trawl through the “High Street” with its antiques and bric-a-brac, see the frescoes at the temple, buy tie-dye or visit the infamous Dr Ho.

Bob's Cafe, Baisha

Baisha closes down by 5.30pm, when there is literally nothing to do.

Stacey was getting fractious. Another Aussie friend, Josie, was also on her way to visit Bob in Baisha. Who was still back in Australia.

Josie’s mad about mountains – lots of them – so we start with the closest, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from Lijiang

Timing is not great. There are two major festivals in China: The Spring Festival, and The Autumn Festival. Both are pretty horrendous in terms of the countless millions of Chinese on the move. I’ve experienced two Autumn Festivals the first one at Lugu Lake, a huge mistake. I knew better this time and hid safely away in the quiet backwater of Shaxi last October.

And from the parking lot

However, I couldn’t avoid the Spring Festival: Lijiang is one of China’s top tourist destinations, and the New Year probably the business time. And one of the biggest attractions (at 5,700m or so) is the mountain, just 15km north of the city.

And from half-way up

It is a zoo. It takes us over two hours to get our tickets: one hour for the entrance, then another hour, in another queue, to get the bus to take us up to the cable car.

On the way up

Cable cars

There’s no doubt the mountain is beautiful, but I think I would prefer just seeing it from a distance than having to experience the crowds swarming all over it, the snowball fights, the screaming, the worried faces as they climb, breathless, clutching small oxygen canisters, along the boardwalk and up the steps to the viewing point at 4,300m.

Josie - I point it where?

Josie gets through two canisters just standing at the top of the cable car exit…

From 4,300m

And it was chilly...

We head back to Baisha for the night.

We’ve hired a car for the next day, leaving at around 9am, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to go back to Lijiang. I can put a mattress down in Stacey’s room, and Josie has another room to herself above the cafe.

Then the driver turns up. So I shack up with Stacey in the double bed. It’s one of those nights when your body knows it shouldn’t move, for waking up the other. I didn’t sleep much. Not sure about Stacey.

The room is an upstairs space that has been converted from perhaps grain storage. Bob’s kept the interior mud-brick walls (spraying them with a sealant to stop them crumbling), and the bare curved tiles of the roof – a “feature”. The heat from the new wood-burning stove dissipates quickly.

Morning light

Then we drive up through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

It’s purported to be the world’s deepest river canyon and has become a world-famous trekking site, lying just 100k north of Lijiang. The high trek-path is scattered with guesthouses, the whole trek taking from one to three days depending on physical ability. Why anyone would want to race through such gorgeous scenery in one day beats me. But in 2009 when I trekked part of it, that’s exactly what some young lads were doing…

Turquoise river

We drive along the gorge on the lower road which is surprisingly deserted (everyone probably still at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) and check into Sean’s guest house – a choice made more from obligation than anything else.

Year of the Hair?

Life on the edge

It‘s late afternoon and the shadows were falling down the mountain into the gorge, but there’s still time to weave my way through the paddy fields and slither down the steep incline to the river below.

Benign - for now

I had seen it in autumn before, a rushing, chocolate-brown colour, thundering through the gorge. Now, during the dry season, it is a calm green ribbon – quite benign. But the jumble of massive rocks at the bottom, still covered in silt from “high tide”, belie its tranquillity. I gather a small white stone as a memento and hasten back before I got caught out – the path is difficult enough to find, and in the dark would be impossible.

Dark shadows

I’ve opted for one of the cheaper beds, but Stacey and Josie have a nice room – and a bath tub! The last time I had a bath was before I left England, over eight months ago. Oh, I wallow! Next day we head up through the back of the gorge, between Jade Dragon and Haba mountain.

Looking back through the Gorge

This used to be the main road to Zhongdian, which probably why the town managed to retain much of its charm for so long – it would have been impassable for much of the winter. Alas now the “new” highway and expanding airport has brought a great deal of change.

Above the snow-line

It’s an amazing drive through the mountains as the road winds up mile after mile, then plummets down into the valley through snow-patched woodland and turns, revealing huge vistas with mountain ranges stacked to the horizon; it passes through poverty-ridden villages where everything is make-do-and-mend; it darts out into the sunlight, splashed with the shadows of bordering trees, then into darkness as it hugs the cliff  – a sheer drop to the right, precarious boulders above: I try to absorb it all, but my attention is diverted as we approach the deeply shaded bends where the treacherous, icy patches, which linger on. He’s a good driver – it’s his life, and livelihood, after all – but fear isn’t always rational. I’m reminded of the time my old solid Ford hit black ice turning a corner and slammed into some bright red flashy designer car which crumpled at touch. I was horrified. It was something completely outside my control. Perhaps a first. An interesting thought, that.

The year of the hare and other ramblings

There has been an intensity to festivities here, in Lijiang, a surreality associated with the White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland. And I weary of it.

It started on 3 February and goes on until the full moon – over two weeks.  March Hare madness for too long.

Fireworks from my window

Firecrackers explode in front, behind, no matter. No reason, no warning. To frightening away the ghosts of yesteryear – and us in the process? I wonder – we are sometimes openly called White Foreign Devils. They assume we don’t understand. Derogative terms bother me. The prejudice born of ignorance.

Firecracker debris

Interestingly, I have caught myself thinking that ignorance is a state of mind, of not wanting to know, rather than not having had the opportunity to know, to understand – or to enquire.

I remember how I was closed off from enquiring as a child, made to feel afraid to ask. Bewildered by the world around me, the power of grown-ups. Even the word “grown-up” meant that you weren’t.

Lewis Caroll’s stories took on a darker tone.

New Year’s Eve itself was spent in Little Lijiang, Shuhu, about 10 mins drive north. There were seven of us in the car – we knew we wouldn’t be able to get a taxi, but we didn’t realise that we wouldn’t be able to get anything to eat! It’s very much a family occasion, and all the restaurant owners were at home, eating with their families. We munched on what we could find: sweets and fruit – and all had rather sore heads in the morning…

New Year's Day, Lijiang

… which didn’t of course prevent us from supping the “hare” of the dog…

But now I have moved from Rhizome to the Garden Inn Guest House – the room is light and airy: windows on two sides. Light! How I despair when the room is dark. I can’t think, I can’t breathe. Nothing moves.

Ah, light!

The view outside my "front door"

How do people live where the sun never rises over the horizon for six months of the year?

I would need to be held within a strong community to survive that!

Saturday 8 January 2011

Sleep in – as much as I can. HK apartments, however luxurious, have limited space and privacy. This is one of the most densely populated places in the world (after Lijiang, perhaps, during high season?) at 6480 people per km2.

The last few days have been quite chilly, so today’s sunshine is a bonus. Yet certainly not warm enough for that cossie.

The pool...

It’s nice to be lazy after the traumas of the last few days.

We take down the Christmas decorations – what a tree!

I skim through the extensive library of art books – Tom Friedman – and head out the back of the tower block and up the hill in the late afternoon sunshine.

It’s an interesting walk…

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Ghosts in the sky

 

Friday 7 January 2011

Oh of course things couldn’t be that easy…

There’s a visa office near my friend’s place, which she assures me can process my request. After standing in line for a while – no information in English – I’m informed that I have to go to the main office on the island.

The MTR is a new experience, but I navigate buying an Octopus card, finding the right trains (three of them) and getting to the office shortly after 11am. I fill out the forms and wait for my number to come up.

The fun starts here. First, I don’t have all the right papers for a Business Visa even though I have all the right papers listed on their website. Second, they will only issue a 30-day visa, Tourist or Business, to foreigners, irrespective of their nationality.

I try to phone to get the new document faxed through, but the phone won’t take my credit card. And they are closing the Visa office for lunch at 12. If I go ahead with the Tourist visa it is, again, a very expensive trip to Hong Kong just for 30 days in China. If I delay applying to appeal somehow to a “higher authority” – if it’s possible to find one – for a 90-day visa, I might jeopardise being able to get a visa at all before my flight back midday Tuesday

I go ahead and apply.

I have to go back to my friend near New Territories, about 90 mins by public transport, to be able to communicate this change of events back to Rhizome: my HK mobile won’t allow international calls – HK being a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China has a great deal of autonomy along with its own currency and phone network. So it’s skype.

But despite all efforts at the Lijiang end, it’s now a fait accompli and we can but learn from this.

I make my way back into “town” for a chiropractic appointment which partially sorts things out, make a second appointment for Monday afternoon, and meet Helen at her office. They’re planning a spring exhibition with a floral theme and there’s a possibility of my work being included. I haven’t had a chance to show her my recent explorations with Dongba paper so I’m a little nervous about this…

Central Street Market

Her office is right next to the bustling market in Central – stall upon stall of ripe and exotic fruits, fresh vegetables and mushrooms. Then the fish market – a vast array of fresh and salt-water fish, and seafood: oysters, prawns, clams, winkles, mussels, razor-fish and crab. We select huge prawns, eel and a fish that’s fed on broad beans, apparently giving it a delicate and slightly bouncy texture.

We’re having steamboat, or hot pot as it’s commonly called in China.

Fresh prawns

And it’s absolutely delicious washed down with a fine glass of white… Something in very short supply in Lijiang. Most Chinese wines are pretty foul, and imports very expensive so I pretty much abstain.

10:30pm. It’s been an exhausting and trying day – so glad to slip into bed with a hottie.

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