by Jim Goodman
Tonghai County in central Yunnan has a number of attractions that make it worthy of an excursion from Kunming, just 130 kilometers away. The county seat, Tonghai city, lies at the base of a wooded hill a few kilometers southwest of Qilu Lake. It still has an old quarter next to the hill, featuring a three-tiered Qing Dynasty tower and narrow streets of old-fashioned shop-houses, door gods at the compound gates and caged songbirds suspended from the roof corners.
|Tonghai old quarter |
Ancient temples, caves, traditional urban quarters, even Yi villages are not unique to Tonghai, but common to many places in the province. What makes Tonghai special is the existence of three villages at the base of Peacock Mountain, a large hill several kilometers west of the city. This is Xingmeng Autonomous Mongolian District, the only place in the whole province that is home to the descendants of the Mongol conquerors of China. Their presence here, a very long way from Mongolia, Outer or Inner, is a living historical vestige of an important story in Yunnan’s long history—how it became part of China.
|Qilu Lake and the Tonghai plain|
The state’s greatest security threat was on its northern frontier, where the enemy comprised mounted nomadic forces. Song China needed horses for its defense and therefore required good relations with Dali so that nothing interrupted trade on the traditional Tea and Horses Road from Yunnan to Tibet. Not threatened on any of its frontiers, nor ambitious to extend them, the Kingdom of Dali enjoyed a long period of peace, even after Genghis Khan’s Mongols conquered the northern part of China.
|Kubilai Khan statue, Sansheng Temple|
The Naxi, confronting a force many times bigger than their own, opted to help the Mongols cross the Yangzi River on inflated goatskin rafts and joined the campaign against Dali Kubilai pitched his tent near the old stone bridge in what later became Lijiang’s old town and prepared his next campaign.
Dali put up a spirited but futile resistance, but Kubilai left the dethroned king in charge of the area as his local official. He left a small occupation force and then moved on to take control of the rest of the erstwhile kingdom. Leaving a Central Asian Muslim ally in charge of the province, now incorporated into the Mongol Empire, Kubilai Khan then returned to the Mongol capital to get involved in a succession struggle for several years before he came out on top. Following that he conquered the rest of Song China, from the north rather than the southwest, and in 1279 set up the Yuan Dynasty in Beijing.
|houses along a canal near Xingmeng|
|Mongol woman planting rice|
Local legends incorporate supernatural elements into the community's historic shifts in lifestyle. When the Ming troops all but eradicated their presence the last seven fugitives sat on the shore of Qilu Lake pondering their future. Suddenly an old man emerged from the waters, standing on a rhinoceros skin. Inviting them on to the skin he pointed to a huge fish supporting a temple. Back on shore the men realized that because the words for "food " and "temple" were similar the old man had been telling them that fish could be food. And so they began drawing on the fish and eels of Qilu Lake for their sustenance.
Since then the Mongolians have been farmers, though they still trap eels and small fish in the canals that connect Xingmeng with the lake. In recent decades, the men have worked much of the year in the construction business, enjoying a high reputation as carpenters, stonemasons and bricklayers. Consequently they are out of the area most of the time and Xingmeng's residents, except for the busiest times in the agricultural cycle, are mostly women and children.
To get there from Tonghai visitors take a short minibus ride of six kilometers to Hexi, a small town that holds a weekly market attended by many Xingmeng residents. From there a turn towards the north leads the next two kilometers to Xingmeng, at the base of Peacock Mountain. Along the road are several restaurants offering the local specialties—Taichi eel and Beijing-style roast duck. Tour groups from the capital sometimes make a one-day excursion from Kunming to Xingmeng just to eat the roast duck and see if it really is Beijing-style, generally agreeing that it is just like what they eat back home in the north.
|street scene in Xingmeng|
|threshing in eh villa|
Yunnan's Mongolians have their own locally evolved customs as well as those they retained over the centuries, and speak a dialect that is closer to the local Yi dialect than to anything heard in Inner Mongolia. Their greatest cultural event is the Nadam Festival held every three years in December. (The next one is in 2014.) Modeled on the Nadam held in the Mongol homeland, it celebrates their recognition as one of Yunnan’s minority nationalities and honors Kubilai Khan. Xingmeng’s Mongolians dress up in their best ethnic clothing, as well as in costumes from the northern steppes. The district and county governments subsidize the expenses, guaranteeing a grand show. They stage wrestling tournaments, archery contests and equestrian performances, all the kinds of events that entertained their ancestors before and after they conquered China. From the enthusiasm and ethnic pride on display, it’s as if the Yuan Dynasty had never really fallen.
|to the fields near Xingmeng|
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