Saturday, July 26, 2008

Northern (Nujiang) Exposure--Gongshan

Whew. Almost a year to the day since I returned home from Yunnan, and I still haven't finished up this section of the blog? Shame on me!

Well, there are only a few entries to go, and then we'll start a whole new chapter-- the road trip I took around the southern US this spring. But first: Gongshan.

So, when we left off time was wearing on in Nujiang, and I still hadn't made it up the valley to Gongshan, the northernmost county in the valley. I was laid up from my injured foot, but it was frustrating to imagine I could come all this way and not get to see the whole of the valley. After much thought, I gathered my resolve, a good supply of ibuprofen, and my crutches and took a minibus up to Gongshan. While there, I called an associate and good Nu friend of Foster Dad's, and he immediately insisted on putting me up in a hotel and taking me out to dinner with two of his associates, one Lisu and one Nu. They in turn insisted upon taking me to Bingzhongluo, the last Nujiang town before Tibet, the next day.

The road up to Bingzhongluo was pretty good for Nujiang, especially because my Lonely Planet extolled the horrors of roads in the northern valley. On the way, we stopped at a ramshackle office along the road and heard a Nu musician perform on a homemade traditional instrument for us.

A Nu musician playing traditional Tibetan and Nu tunes for us

Also on the way to Bingzhongluo: the most famous view in all of Nujiang, featured on postcards and in tourism guides throughout China. The first bend of the Nu river is a spectacular view, with the river curving dramatically far below and huge green mountains rising on either side. In the wintertime the river runs blue and the view is even more striking, but even in summer it was beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera lens was too small to take in the enormous majesty of the scene (I was told that postcard photographers hike farther up the valley to find the right angle).

One of my favorite incidences of Chinglish in the whole trip-- the sign should say "the first bend of the Nu River"

A shot of the first bend-- I took about 100 pictures, but the frame of my camera couldn't take in the whole grandeur of it all

A few miles down the road, the panorama of river opened up into an enormous, hilly meadow (an unusual view in Nujiang), clumps of Nu houses and Tibetan buddhist chortens (also known as stupas, small closed Buddhist temples) dotting the landscape. It was quite breathtaking.

Overlooking Bingzhongluo, the last Nujiang outpost before Tibet

When we got near town, we decided to try and venture into the countryside to find some Nu villages. It was difficult going on crutches, but I managed surprisingly well. The first house we went to was a ramshackle affair, made of rough wooden boards similar to the Lisu style in the northern valley. I could see into the house's single room, hung with pots and pans, everything stained black from wood smoke. There were a number of beautiful artifacts hanging in the yard: a bow and set of arrows (the Nu woman told me they were just for show or contest, no longer used for hunting), several wood block prints in Tibetan script, and a beautiful Buddha carved into stone. It wasn't hard to remember how close we were to Tibet--only an hour from the border by car, my guides told me-- given how many markers of Tibetan culture there were, from the carved Tibetan script on the stones nestled in the eaves of the roof to the chortens hung with flags in the fields. My guides told me that this was one of the only places in China where people who were neither Ethnic Tibetans nor living in Tibet (well, the Tibetan Autonomous region) practice Tibetan buddhism.

Tibetan and Nu culture mixed easily in Gongshan, as evidenced by the Tibetan Buddhist decorations everywhere

The family living in the house invited us in to their courtyard to have some tea. Chickens pecked around the yard, and a mangy but adorable puppy chased them. A small boy, maybe four or so, sat with his mother watching an elderly relative (probably grandmother) weave cloth by hand. I watched, too. The repetitive motion was smooth and hypnotizing.

A Nu nainai weaving cloth by hand

Some chickens having fun in a Nu family yard. If I were a chicken, I'd want to drive a car, too.

Suddenly, the young boy produced a crumpled Y10 note (about $1.50) from his pocket. The grownups around him—his mother and grandmother, as well as my two guides—all began cooing. “Where did you get that?” they asked him, smiling and ruffling his hair. We left not long after that, as the family recommended that we visit an old man who lived about fifteen minutes walk away and was known for being able to tell many stories. The way through overgrown fields and undergrowth was hard going, especially on crutches, so I did not speak up, but something about the Y10 note struck me as odd.It was a lot of money for a five-year-old boy to have on his person. Where had he gotten it?

A Tibetan Buddhist chorten (like I saw in Zhongdian)-- they were dotted all over the countryside

We were received at the second Nu household in much the same way as at the first—a nainai with a beautiful old face and a long braid coiled around her head served us tea, while her husband told several stories in Mandarin so heavily accented that I could not decipher it.

Their traditional Nu house

Our two Nu hosts

As he spoke, my mind drifted away from the barking dogs and crowing roosters strutting around the yard. From the time I had spent thus far in China, I knew that I would be expected to recompense the family for their time and hospitality—for an obviously foreign white woman to simply appear and demand to hear stories without offering anything in return would be terribly rude. However, because the trip had been impromptu, I had not come prepared that day with the fruit, cigarettes, or rice wine that were my standard offerings. While I knew that money was sometimes an acceptable substitute, I had no idea how much would be appropriate. If I gave too little, I would offend my hosts—it would almost be worst than giving none at all. But if I gave too much, they would think me condescending, stupid, or both.

As the old man concluded his third story, I leaned over to one of my guides and asked, in as hushed a tone as I could manage, how much money I should give the family. He didn’t seem to understand my intention for discretion and, after a brief pause, replied at full volume that Y100 (about $15) would be suitable. I was shocked—Y100 was a great deal of money, enough to buy dinner in a city for a large party, two nights at a decently clean hotel, or a round trip bus ticket virtually anywhere in the province. In any case, it would be an almost unheard of sum of money to receive in one lump sum for a farming family living in the Nujiang countryside. Nevertheless, I handed a Y100 bill to the old man, thanking him as politely and sincerely as I could. He accepted it with a grunt, and we made our way slowly through the hazy fields back to the road.

Walking back to the car through Tibetan corn fields

Once we had reached the safety of the van, my guides made it clear to me that I had committed a faux pas of fairly large proportions. They told me that, as I suspected, Y100 was an inappropriate sum and that Y25 or Y50 would have been sufficient. However, my attempts to discuss what I would give in front of the family—even though I had attempted to be discrete—were considered quite rude. In the best circumstances, they explained, the transaction of gifts is broken up in some way. Sometimes money is given in a card to be opened after the guest leaves, or else it is tucked in the pocket of a child to be discovered at some later date and given to the adults in the house. I felt terribly ashamed of my mistake, but there was nothing to be done. Just another obstacle in the life of a waiguoren in rural China, and I had started to learn to take my mistakes in stride-- a valuable lesson in general.

I didn't stay as long as I had expected to in Gongshan. My mobility was still quite limited, and I wanted a chance to say goodbye to my Fugong friends before spending my last few days in Yunnan with Xiong Limei and her family in Lanping. So, after being presented with a few beautiful paintings by one of my Nu hosts, I got on a bus the next day back to Fugong. And two days after that, once I had bid goodbye to Xiao Cui, her sister, Foster Dad, and his wife, I boarded an eight-hour bone-jarring rainy season bus to Lanping and my final Yunnan adventure.

A bridge across the Nu River, taken from the bus. The river is dotted with such bridges, along with ad-hoc zip lines of varying safety that the locals use to get from one side to the other

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