Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Desert Kingdoms of Ancient Peru

                                                        by Jim Goodman

terraced pyramid at Caral, oldest city in the Americas
       The Andes Mountains that run the length of Peru make a clear geographical division of the country between Peru’s portion of the Amazon basin and the arid western coastal strip, containing the biggest cities and most of the population.  About forty rivers tumble down from the mountains to reach the coast, creating green valleys that can support human habitation.  In between these valleys scarcely a plant can grow.  It’s all dry desert—sand dunes and smooth brown hills.  It reminds you of the Sahara or the middle of Saudi Arabia.  You half expect to spot a camel caravan along the way. 
       These rivers provide almost all the water that ever gets to this arid part of the country.   A little rain may fall in the far north, but not much elsewhere.  The southern coast gets the least, 4 mm per year around Nazca, for example, because of the effects of the Humboldt Current.   This brings cold water from the Antarctic up the coast this far, cooling the surface and limiting the amount of moisture reaching the clouds. 
       The earliest settlements in Peru were around these river valleys, preferably close to the sea, which was also a major food source.  Agriculture was possible wherever they could divert water to their farms.  The community’s growth required organizing the creation of irrigation systems, which could create surpluses, enabling the development of a society and culture.
'eyes' of a puquio near Nazca
       As these societies grew they opened up and irrigated new lands with canals and ditches in the north and center of the coast and in the south by underground aqueducts.  Called puquios, these conducted water from the hills to the dry plains, with periodic placement of openings (‘eyes’) for farmers to check the flow and remove debris and obstacles.  Around Nazca, ancient puquios are still in use.
       Societies also established states with non-farmer classes that lived off the surplus of the farmers—rulers, priests, soldiers and artisans.  States grew more sophisticated, expanded their territory and everything seemed to be going fine forever when suddenly the peculiar weather phenomenon known as El Niño came along and destroyed it all. 
       El Niño is a periodic temperature alteration in the movement of Pacific Ocean waters that causes warm air to rise off the coast of Peru, triggering heavy rains in the deserts, and inhibits the upwelling of cold waters in the sea.  These are the waters with the nutrients that feed the fish population, which then declines considerably.  With fewer fish the seabird population also goes down, as does their production of guano, the droppings left on offshore islands that has long been coastal farmers’ favorite fertilizer.  It is rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, all good for plant growth.
       El Niño can be relatively mild and short-lived.  But it can also be occasionally very disturbing, with years of heavy rain, which demolishes the irrigation system, followed by years of severe drought, which stifles any chance of recovery.  El Niño-related weather disruptions struck Moche society in the 6th century at its peak of development.  It recovered, but in a much attenuated form.  Decades of drought in the early 11th century forced the Sicán society to abandon its homeland and relocate to Túcume.  Moreover, the coast lies on a major seismic fault line.  Earthquakes, which can destroy irrigation works and alter the courses of rivers, can be as devastating as weird weather.
sunken circular courtyard at Caral
       Fortunately, earthquakes and spells of violent weather have never been so frequent as to prevent the establishment and growth of ancient Peruvian states and their cultures.  Many of these societies lasted several centuries.  Moreover, the first one sophisticated enough to have a city began around 3500 BCE, contemporaneous with pyramid-building Egypt.  Known as the Norte-Chico Culture, it is the oldest in the Americas and one of the six places in the world where civilization originated independently.
       When a people abandon their homeland and leave their buildings behind, eventually fierce winds blow desert soil all over them, turning then into what looks like ordinary hills and mounds.  Many centuries may pass before anyone discovers that a certain barren hill actually contains the remains of ancient buildings under its surface.  This is what happened to the Norte-Chico culture when the people disappeared from their Supe Valley habitat around 1800 BCE.  Sandstorms covered up all vestiges of their civilization and concealed their past existence until excited Peruvian archaeologists began excavating the sites in the late 1990s.   
       The Supe Valley is about 175 km north of Lima and 15 km inland.   The 19 settlements found there are estimated to have had altogether 20,000 inhabitants.  The largest was Serro Caral, the first city in the hemisphere, where 3000 lived.  Some of the features of Caral—tiered pyramids, regular staircases, placement of buildings, sunken circular courtyards and broad streets—turned out to be prototypes for the cities built by the desert kingdoms of later centuries.
warrior with severed heads, Sechín
Moche warrior
       Caral’s heyday was still the pre-ceramic age, but archaeologists did find flutes and other instruments made from deer and pelican bones.  They also found an early type of quipu, the knotted cords used, in the absence of a writing system, to record accounts all the way down to Inca times.  Besides food crops the Norte-Chico people grew cotton, using it for textiles and making fishnets.
       What the excavators did not find was anything resembling a weapon, any fortifications or any sign of war.   This particular cultural characteristic, however, was not one maintained by the states that rose after Caral’s demise.  The next oldest archaeological site of significance, dating 1000-1600 BCE, is Sechín, another 200 k, or so north, near Casma.  Lying beside a broad valley, the main feature of this culture’s legacy is the violent scenes of war etched into the remains of its city walls.  Sculptures of fierce, club-wielding warriors, severed heads and limbs fill the facades, to the exclusion, save for a rare snake or feline, of every other type of imagery. 
detail of a Paracas textile
        Whom these warriors fought and what caused the Sechín state to vanish remain unsolved mysteries in the gaps that punctuate the history of the coast.  Perhaps another wind-swept, barren desert hill somewhere hides the remains of another undiscovered ancient culture.  The next significant cultural development was the rise of the Chavín people around 900 BCE.  But their capital was west of Casma in the highlands and though their culture survived until 200 CE, their control and influence over the coastal areas was minimal.
       In the south near Ica, a century later marks the beginning of the Paracas culture. Their main legacy is the textiles used to wrap mummies in their necropolis.  Using simple looms and cotton or alpaca wool thread, Paracas weavers created extraordinary pieces of intricate patterns and fanciful, very pictorial designs, unmatched by successive cultures, with a broad range of still vibrant colors.  Paracas culture also produced fine ceramic bowls and pitchers and lasted until around 100 CE, when it became absorbed by the emerging Nazca culture a little further south.
temple foundations at Pachacámac
       Ceramic and textile production were now an embedded part of cultures on the Peruvian coast.  Except for Paracas, where the burial shrouds had been preserved by their internment and the arid climate, only scattered examples of the ancient weaving tradition have survived.  The record is much richer for ceramics, from pieces excavators found in burial sites in the original condition, intact, no cracks and unbroken.  In contrast, ancient Chinese vases, Greek pots and Roman bowls were discovered as piles of shards that had to be reassembled like jigsaw puzzles before display.
       Each culture used its own kind of materials, molding techniques (no one used a potter’s wheel) and drying or baking methods, plus particular shapes, colors and motifs.  Whether for ceremonial or everyday domestic use, the themes ranged incredibly—natural subjects like plants, fish and animals, both real and mythical, warriors, peasants and vignettes of daily life like farming, weaving, playing music, boating, pounding grain and sexual intercourse.  Sometimes they painted these themes on the surfaces.  Other tines they molded the pieces to depict the subject.
spouts of a Huari water pitcher
        The final result could be a cup, bowl, vase, pitcher with one or more spouts, or a piece without any function other than as a decorative work of art.   They could appear rather crude, even if imaginative, or could reach an amazing level of verisimilitude, as in the Moche portrait ceramics, that look like so exact a depiction of a real person you can imagine the subject striking a pose in the courtyard of the artisan until the work was completed. 
       The Moche were also skilled goldsmiths.  They produced ornaments for the aristocracy and the golden masks, ritual paraphernalia, ceremonial weapons and so forth brandished by the Lord in his public appearances.   In 1987, in another of those fortunate cultural discoveries, archaeologists unearthed a huge trove of gold artifacts and royal paraphernalia in a scarcely disturbed burial pit at Sipán, just east of Chiclayo.  The find, dated around 300 CE, is comparable to that of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.  The treasure was removed, replaced by replicas visible today, and installed in a special museum in Lamabayeque, near Chiclayo, opened in 2002 and now the most heavily visited museum in the whole country.
relics of the Sicán capital at Túcume
       Moche culture collapsed by 800 and in the Lambayeque region Sicán culture replaced it, for a long time centered at Túcume   The Huari culture took over other parts of Moche territory, extended their sway into the highlands just south of Cusco and around 600 established a city 40 km south of Lima called Pachacámac.  Two centuries later the Huari people abandoned the site, which afterwards became the ceremonial center of yet another desert culture, the Ichma society, an Aymari-speaking people who added sixteen pyramid temples to the city and maintained independence until the Incas conquered them in the mid-15th century. 
Chancay ceramics
Sicán ceramics
       What remained of Huari culture in the north became subsumed in the Chimú takeover of the area from 900.   From its large, walled capital at Chan Chan, near Trujillo, the Chimú ruled over the northern coast of Peru as far down as Chancay, 80 km north of Lima, where yet another post-Huari culture established itself.  Chancay artisans achieved fame for their mass production of quality ceramics, textiles, metal ware and wooden carvings.  Like the Chimú, their state became part of the expanding Inca Empire in the 1420s.
Nazca Lines--the dog
       All of these cultures established cities with similar terraced pyramid temples, palaces with ramped walkways and broad streets in rectilinear grids.  They used similar techniques for farming, fishing and waging war and similar methods of venerating their gods and their kings.  But in works of art, in the jewelry, ceramics, weavings and ritual paraphernalia they were distinctly different.  Each culture had its own creative style and execution that distinguished it from all others.   Many examples of their artistic achievements are now housed in the country’s museums, displaying the enormous variety and ingenuity of different ancient peoples.  An afternoon browsing the artifacts collected in a well-stocked museum (and there are several) is one of the great aesthetic adventures of a trip to Peru.
       One artistic achievement, though, cannot be lodged in a museum—the Nazca Lines.  Consisting of enormous pictures of various animals and ritual pathways etched into the ground, they can only be viewed in their entirety by taking an airplane flight north of Nazca over the plains where they lie.  Actually, they lay undiscovered for over a thousand years until the pilots spotted them on the first-ever airplane flight out of Nazca in the 1920s.
Nazca Lines--the hummingbird
       To make the lines for both the figures and the pathways people extended a rope between two posts and removed the top layer of red-brown soil along the line to expose the lighter, almost white soil underneath.  Then they moved the posts to the next section, curving where necessary, until eventually the picture was completed.  The figures, many meters long and wide, sometimes depict familiar animals—dog, snake, parrot, monkey, spider, condor, hummingbird—and sometimes more enigmatic images, like a face with a pair of hands or the one that resembles a human waving to the sky.
       Apparently this kind of art, only visible from high above, was meant to please the gods, perhaps to encourage them to deliver rain.  But the precise intention of the works, the significance or symbolism of the selected animals and other figures, remain matters for speculation.  Nazca culture collapsed around 900 and the area was all but abandoned.  Since Nazca culture had no writing system we have no records concerning this unique phenomenon.  Like the centuries of gaps in the archaeological record of the coastal kingdoms and the precise reasons for the birth and disappearance of some of the ancient societies, the Nazca Lines, the most unusual form of artistic expression in the hemisphere, will remain mysterious until some future accidental archaeological discovery, a la Sipán or Caral, spills the secrets.  Until then we simply marvel at what only gods were supposed to see.
sunset over the desert near Nazca
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Monday, July 13, 2015

The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

                                                        by Jim Goodman
the lower part of Puno, on the Lake Titicaca shore

       The first thing noticeable after arriving from Lima on a flight to the southwestern city of Puno is the change in temperature.  Puno lies beside the Peruvian portion of Lake Titicaca, over 3800 meters altitude, and is thus several degrees cooler than coastal Lima.  It never gets very warm in the summer and winter nights are usually below freezing.  The temperature can also drop suddenly with the eruption of a storm on the lake.
       The city itself is certainly not beautiful like Cusco or Trujillo, but it does have an atypical layout.  Founded in 1668 as a Spanish administrative center, the original town lay along a 3 km strip of flat land along the lakeshore.  As time went on, the city expanded up the hill behind it, where most of the city’s 150,000+ inhabitants live today.  Old and new government buildings, churches and a downtown area of restaurants, bars, travel agencies and shops selling alpaca wool jackets and sweaters occupy the streets at the base of the hill.  Steep roads and paths climb up to all the residential neighborhoods.
Aymara woman in Puno
       The higher one hikes, though, the greater the view of Lake Titicaca, the prime attraction of the Puno area.  It is the highest lake in the world navigable by large boats, fed by five major river systems and over twenty streams, with but one major outlet.  Besides the lake scenery, a Puno excursion includes visits to villages and islands, both natural ones and man-made floating ones, inhabited by interesting and colorful Native Americans. 
       The early history of the area is still rather murky, but the main indigenous people of the lands around Lake Titicaca are the Aymara, who have lived here for at least eight centuries.  They also reside in Chile and on the Bolivian side of the lake and one of their numbers there, Evo Morales, is currently the elected leader of Bolivia.  In this harsh, high-altitude environment they grew potatoes and quinoa and raised llamas and alpacas.  It’s not known what kind of political organization or state they had, or where the capital might have been.  The Incas under the expansionist Emperor Pacachuti conquered the Aymara around Puno in the mid-15th century and aside from one archaeological complex at Sillustani, little remains of pre-Inca Aymara civilization.
Sillustani and Umaya Lagoon
       Sillustani is an enjoyable and interesting half-day excursion 34 km west of Puno. It lies beside the beautiful Umayo Lagoon at 4000 meters altitude, a natural gem in an otherwise typically stark, high plains landscape of scattered villages and rolling, brown, virtually treeless hills.  Besides the very picturesque lagoon itself, the main attraction of Sillustani is the set of burial towers nearby, erected by the ruling class of the Qollas, an Aymara people who ruled the area until the Inca conquest.
       The vestiges of other ancient Peruvian states and civilizations usually consist of fortresses, temples, palaces, city walls, pyramids and stonewalled terraces.  The architectural legacy of the Qollas is a necropolis.  The Qolla nobility interred their corpses in large stone towers, called chullpa, several meters high, sometimes square but usually cylindrical, with a single small opening to the east.  They were so large because they were meant to hold the bodies of not just one person, but many members of the same extended family.  Modern excavators have found up to twenty skeletons in a single chullpa.
chullpa remans near Umaya Lagoon
       Relatives of a deceased Qolla person wrapped the corpse in cloth and interred it in a fetal position within the tower.  They also left gold pieces and ritual offerings as part of their funeral customs.  With about 150 of these chullpas in the area, that implied a lot of buried wealth and over the centuries grave robbers made off with most of it.  But in 1971 excavators found 501 gold pieces and 779 items of ritual offerings, attesting to the importance the Qolla gave to venerating their dead.
       Abandoned centuries ago, left to the mercy of wind, thieves and seismic disturbances, most of the chullpas today barely retain their foundations.  There are two kinds, perhaps because of distinctions in rank or wealth in the Qolla society.  One kind uses walls of piled up medium-sized stones.  The more impressive type has walls of large square or slightly rectangular stone blocks, with smooth, convex surfaces and right-angle corners. 
chullpas of the Qolla people 
       This type is always cylindrical and, being a sturdier construction, has better withstood the ravages of time.  Several of them are nearly as high as they were originally.  This enables us to mark the chullpa’s unique architectural characteristic:  it is wider at the top than it is at its base.
       The Incas who conquered the Qollas and other Aymara peoples were actually the Aymara’s erstwhile neighbors.  Inca mythology and tradition places their origin in Tiwanaku, off the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca.  The first Inca ruler then led a migration of several years over the mountains to the Urubamba Valley and founded a kingdom at Cusco.  When Pacachuti later on led his armies to take over the lands around Lake Titicaca it was sort of like reclaiming the Inca homeland.  
Bowler hats arte still popular with Aynara women.
       Inca rule over the Aymara lasted but a century before the conquistadores arrived and extinguished the entire Inca Empire.  The Aymara population fell under Spanish rule in the 16th century and large numbers of then were forced to work for their colonial masters at one task or another.  The Spanish founded Puno the following century to better manage this exploitation and their missionaries commenced strenuous efforts to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.
       Relics of this era remain in the central business area of the city and include the central square called Plaza des Armas, with its colonial-era administrative buildings, an old stone cathedral with sculptures of St. George slaying the dragon and other Catholic motifs and the main market center.  Aymara women frequent the city for shopping and add an ethnic element to the crowds on the streets.  They are shorter and stouter than the non-Indian women, wear voluminous skirts that make them look even fatter, and top off the outfit with a colorful shawl or poncho and a bowler hat. 
       According to local legend, the bowler hat fashion originated in the 1920s, when a European company sent a shipment of them for use by local residents working on the railroad.   But they were too small, so the workers passed them on to the indigenous people instead.  Aymara women have been wearing bowler hats ever since. 
the church square at Taquile
       The Aymara also live on Lake Titicaca’s islands, natural and floating, accessible by a short boat journey from Puno harbor.  On the usual tour itinerary visitors first sail for two hours past the floating villages and out to distant Taquile, a moderately hilly, scabbard-shaped island 5.5 km long and averaging 1.6 km wide.  From its higher points one can see Amantani, a bigger island to the north, and Santa Maria, a town at the tip of the Copacabana Peninsula to the northwest. 
       The scenery is nice, but not spectacular enough to justify a two-hour boat journey.  Taquile’s primary distinction is its people and their old-fashioned way of life, scarcely disturbed by modernization.   Around 2200 Taquileños inhabit the island and they dress more colorfully than the Aymara one encounters in and around Puno.  The men wear a long-sleeved white shirt, black vest and trousers, sometimes a black waistcoat as well, a wide and bright belt with lots of tassels hanging at the sides, and on their heads either a brimmed black hat or a colorful stocking cap, similar to those around Cusco, with a tail hanging to one side.
shrine to the Earth Goddess,Taquile
spinning thread, Taquile
       The women favor ordinary long-sleeved blouses or sweaters, bulky, calf-length cotton skirts and black shawls over their heads that drape across their shoulders.  Women spin the thread and weave the cloth, but the knitted items, like belts, bags and caps, are a task for the males, who begin learning knitting while still boys.
one of the floating islands near Puno
       The island has no installed electricity but some families use solar panels for power.  No paved roads or motor vehicles exist and the Taquile lifestyle seems to be evocative of earlier centuries.  The residents make a living from fishing, horticulture, potatoes and tourism, particularly by selling their renowned textiles.  For other essentials they trade with the nearby port of Santa Maria. 
              Throughout the island arched gateways stand at junctions of the paths.  The best of these is at the entrance to the hilltop square where stands the Catholic church.  The Taquileños converted long ago, but did not entirely abandon their traditional beliefs, as evidenced by the rural shrines to pre-Christian deities that still stand in several locations.  And their basic moral code is still the one they followed before conversion:  don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.        
Uro women with drying tortora reeds
       On the return from Taquile to Puno travelers stop at the Uros floating islands, just five km or so from Puno harbor.  This phenomenon, unique to the continent and the main reason to visit Puno, offers the traveler an opportunity to witness an outstanding example of man’s ingenuity in making use of the special characteristics of a given environment.  In this case it was the abundance of tortora reeds growing on the shores and in the shallows of the lake.      
       The tortora reed has a very dense root and after the people harvest and dry the reeds, they interweave them into layers that form the ‘land’ of the islet, 1.5-2 meters thick.   Under ordinary circumstances the submerged layers rot after about three months and so the residents make new tortora layers to add to the top.  But the harvesting, drying and weaving of tortora reeds is a nearly constant activity.  The top layers, exposed to sunlight and the tread of many footsteps, dry out to the point of brittleness and break.  This allows moisture to enter and initiate the rotting process, requiring a fresh layer of reeds to cover them.
       The floating islands originated several centuries ago, conceived as a defensive measure, for each island had a watchtower and sentries posted to alert the islanders of approaching attack from the mainland.  Should one occur, the inhabitants could load themselves and their essential belongings into their boats, made from the same tortora reeds, and make their escape.  And if the enemy destroyed their houses or even sank their islands, well, no problem to make new ones.
tortora reed house
       It is not clear who the potential enemy would have been—Aymara, Inca or another people—or if such a desperate escape had ever been necessary.  Inhabitants of the floating islands are Uros, a people separate from the Aymara, but who have interacted and intermarried with Aymara for so long that they dropped usage of their original language and now speak Aymari among themselves.  Two to ten families live on the islands, depending on size, in simple houses made from the same tortora reeds. 
       Boats made from tortora reeds are also common on Peru’s northern coast, from Trujillo to Chiclayo.  But those are narrower, with upturned prow, and can only seat two passengers at most in the rear of the vessel.  The Uros boats are bigger, upturned fore and aft, wide enough to seat at least twelve passengers and steered by a standing oarsman (or oarswoman) in the rear.  Some of the fancier ones have roofs mounted over them to shield the passengers from sun or rain.
       Besides being material for making islands, boats and buildings, the tortora reed also has other uses.  The thick white part at the bottom of the reed is packed with iodine.  The Uros’ regular consumption of this keeps them from getting goiter.  They also apply this part of the reed to afflicted parts of the body to relieve pain.  And they brew a tea from tortora, one of the things offered a guest to a Uro home. 
Uro boat skipper
       Watchtowers continue to stand on the floating islands, though there is no longer any need to post sentries in them to warn of impending attacks.  They are there more as reminders of the past.  The only use they have nowadays is to check and see if any tour boats are heading their way.  The Uros’ economy is based on fishing and tourism, particularly the sale of handicrafts like tortora dolls, miniature boats, boxes and such, plus knitted and embroidered textiles. 
       Tourism provides the islanders with an augmented income, but also means many more people than usual are walking across the spongy surfaces, with each step depressing 5 to 10 cm, resulting in extra work adding more tortora layers.  With more money now, some of the Uros use corrugated iron roofs on their houses.  Others have solar panels to generate power.  But besides a few extra goods from the mainland and a motorboat here and there, the Uros’ lifestyle has changed little over the past decades.  Out-migration is minimal and the Uros seem quite content to continue their traditional way of living--a unique ecological adaptation, involving the creative deployment of the properties of a single, extraordinary, ubiquitous plant.

typical floating island in Lake Titicaca
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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Refuge and Revolution in Cao Bằng

                                                    by Jim Goodman

typical landscape in Cao Bằng province
       The northeastern border province of Cao Bng is one of the most rugged in all of Vietnam.  Mountains and forests cover 90% of its 8440 square kilometers.  Steep limestone hills 600 to 1300 meters high jut up around every little narrow valley.  Such a terrain offers people on the run many places to hide and that factor and Cao Bng’s remote location, far from both Hanoi and the nearest sizable Chinese city, combined to periodically make the province a magnet for both refugees and revolutionaries.  Historically, Cao Bng has been a sanctuary for ethnic minorities fleeing wars and civil disturbances in neighboring Guangxi province, China, for remnant forces of the Mc Dynasty after their expulsion from the capital in 1592 and, more recently, for Vit Minh cadres organizing resistance to colonialism.
       Cao Bng’s modern claim to fame is its role as the cradle of the Vit Minh, whose precursors set up bases here in the 1920s to direct insurrectionary activities throughout the northern provinces.  H Chí Minh established his first headquarters inside the country in 1941 at Pác Bó, just across the Guangxi border in the northwest, where a Party Congress later that year officially founded the Vietnam Independence League—the Viết Minh.  But Cao Bng’s role in Vietnamese history goes back a long way, to when it was a small but powerful little state of its own in the 3rd century BCE, and in fact conquered the first indigenous Vietnamese kingdom.    
Nùng woman
       This event was a consequence of the last stage of China’s turbulent Warring States Era.  Triumphant Qin armies, having beaten all their rivals, marched into the plains of Guangxi, then part of a non-Chinese state called Nan Yue.  Its ruling class fled to Cao Băng, at that time a small state called Âu Vit, ruled by a lord of the Tày ethnic group.   The Qin occupation of northern Nan Yue looked not only permanent, but threatening to expand southward.  Âu Vit’s ruler decided that his best chance of strengthening his defense was in his own expansion southward.
       His target was Văn Lang, the state covering most of the Red River Delta and its surrounding hills, ruled by the Hùng Kings, allegedly for 18 generations since its founding in the 7th century BCE.  They had a capital in the hills northwest of Hanoi and had successfully repelled several northern invasions in the past.  This time, though, the northerners from Âu Vit won.  Its king moved his capital to C Loa, near modern Hanoi, renamed himself An Dương and his expanded country Âu Lạc, a combination of Âu Việt and Lạc Việt, the traditional name for the Red River Delta lands.
        An Dương’s kingdom did not experience any trouble with the Qin state, but when that dynasty fell and its Han successors concentrated on consolidating power in central and northern China, states on the southern periphery, like Nan Yue, rose again.  Under its new king Zhao Tou, in 196 BCE Nan Yue invaded, defeated and annexed Âu Lạc.  This state lasted until conquered by the Han Emperor Wu Ti in 111 BCE.  All of northern Vietnam now fell under Chinese subjugation until the country finally regained its independence in 938 CE.
       Cao Bằng slips off the historical records for this period, reappearing in the 11th century Lý Dynasty chronicles of a revolt in the province, led by the ethnic Nùng chieftain Nùng Tồn Phúc.  Cao Bằng at the time was autonomous or anyway not directly administered by the Lý regime.  Whether it was a revolt over tribute demands or a push for independence, King Lý Thái Tông led an army to crush it.  He captured Nùng Tồn Phúc and all but one of his family, took then away to his capital Thăng Long (today’s Hanoi) for execution and formally annexed Cao Bằng.
Táy houses in Cao Bình
       The sole escapee was 14-year-old Nùng Trí Cao, who fled to join kinsmen in Guangxi and later organized a rebellion against Song Dynasty authority.  This failed and resulted in a wave of Nùng and Tày refugees into Cao Bằng.  The Nùng and Tày are ethnically related.  Their languages are both members of the Tai-Kedai linguistic family and in China they are both considered sub-groups of the Zhuang. 
       The immigrants were not interested in sedition in their new homeland, however.  And apparently Vietnamese administration was neither harsh nor resented, under the Lý regime or under their successors the Trần Dynasty.  During the three Mongol Wars of the late 13th century, Cao Bằng’s Tày and Nùng were faithful allies of the Vietnamese and were instrumental in helping to inflict heavy casualties on Mongol armies in their disastrous retreats across the northern border.
Mạc Dynasty relic in Cao Bình
       Relations did not proceed smoothly from then on, though.  Serious revolts broke out in Cao Bằng in 1352, when the Trằn Dynasty began sliding into decline, and twice in the 1430s at the beginning of the Lê Dynasty.  Less than a century later the Lê Dynasty fell to a usurper from Hảu Dương, Mác Đang Dung, who established a new dynasty that lasted until 1592.  Lê restoration forces drove Mạc defenders out of the capital that year, but did not totally defeat them.  Remnant Mạc forces fled to Cao Bằng and established a rump state in this province that enjoyed Chinese protection,
       The Lê king was officially back on the throne, but his allies fell out among themselves.  The Trịnh Lords took effective control of the government and their rivals the Nguyển Lords established themselves in northern Central Vietnam.  The two sides fought intermittent wars with each other until a truce stabilized the situation in 1672.  Meanwhile the Mạc established their capital at Cao Bình, 12 km northwest of Cao Bằng city and were strong enough in 1623 to launch a campaign against the Lê that advanced as far as Gia Lâm, across the river from the capital, before finally stopped and forced to retreat to Cao Bằng. 
bamboo rafts on the Bằng Giang River
Nùng woman in Cao Bình
       Two years later the ruling Trính Lord launched a punitive expedition into Cao Bằng, but did not try to conquer it, fearing Chinese retribution.  After the 1672 truce with the Nguyển, though, Trính Tráng could turn his attention north.  By that time the Manchus in China had already established the Qing Dynasty and were in the process of extending their authority southwards.  This led to a new wave of Tày and Nùng immigrants escaping the disruptions of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, but this augmented source of manpower for the Mạc did not help the Mạc in their final contest.     
Bản Giốc Waterfalls
       The last Mạc ruler made the mistake of backing a rebellious governor against the Qing authority.  The Qing abruptly withdrew their protection of the Mạc state.  This gave Trịnh Tráng his chance to finally settle some leftover business.  In 1677 he attacked and wiped out the Mạc state, whose ruling class fled to China, where they disappeared as a political force.  The only trace of then in Cao Bằng today is a ruined palace at the edge of Cao Bình.
       Things remained calm and stable in Cao Bằng until 1833, when the Nùng staged a revolt against Nguyển Dynasty officials that took three years to suppress.  Peace returned, but in mid-century the province experienced another wave of refugees fleeing the chaos of the Taiping Rebellion in southeast China.  Besides the usual Tày and Nùng, the immigrants included Dao and Hmông. 
one of the cataracts of the Bản Giốc Waterfalls
       The next major development in local history came with the French conquest of the province in 1884.  They built a fortress on the long peninsula between the Bằng Giang and Hiến Rivers, which grew into Cao Bằng city and became the capital at the end of the century.  From 1905 it was also a French military base, one of the four major bases in the north.  The garrison didn’t guarantee long-term French security, though. 
       Whatever differences the Tày and Nùng had had with the Vietnamese had vanished by this time   Cao Bằng’s population was united in nationalist sentiment against the French colonialists.  The province was one of the earliest centers of Communist activity and Party cadres were largely ethnic minorities.  Hồ Chí Minh’s base at Pác Bó, for example, 56̉ km northwest of Cao Bằng city, was a Nùng-inhabited area. 
water-wheel on the Quầy Sơn River
       Nowadays Pác Bó is one of the province’s domestic tourist attractions.  Visitors can see the cave and jungle hut where Hồ Chí Minh lived and worked, as well as a small museum, war memorials, etc., all in a day’s excursion from Cao Bằng city.  The route is quite scenic, especially after it climbs into the mountains, passing Tày, Nùng and Hmông villages.
       The top scenic attraction in the province, however, is in the opposite direction, 94 km northeast of Cao Bằng city—the Bản Giốc Waterfalls.  Fed by the Quầy Sơn River, which forms the border here with China, the falls are over fifty meters high and three hundred meters wide.  Since the border runs right through the center of the river, half of the falls actually lie inside China.  Unfortunately, no hotels exist on the Vietnam side, making it a rather long excursion from Cao Bằng city, though a quite pleasant one, especially the last stretch along the Quầy Sơn River with views of water-wheels against a backdrop of jagged limestone hills.   Just a few kilometers from the falls is the entrance to Ngườm Ngao Cave, a 3 km-long cavern that reaches nearly all the way to the Bản Giốc area.  
Thang Hen Lake
       In general, Cao Bằng’s scenery comprises small valleys hidden among clusters of oddly shaped hills, but it also features two attractive lakes.  Hồ Khuối Lái, the smaller one, lies 2 km off the Highway 3 route southwest of Cao Bằng city and is being developed as a resort.  The larger, 3 km by 1 km, is Hồ Thang Hen, on the road north to Trà Lĩnh, 25 km from the city.  This lake’s waters emit from a cave at the north end, visible in all except the rainiest months of the year.    
       As for the provincial capital itself, it was all but completely destroyed by the most recent disruption in Cao Bằng’s history—the 1979 Chinese invasion.  Only a handful of colonial-era buildings survived, none of them very noteworthy, in the southwest quarter.  The remains of the former fortress were taken over by the Vietnamese army and are now part of a restricted area.    
       The town has been rebuilt and enlarged since then, but the heart of it is still the strip of land between the Bằng Giang and Hiến Rivers, the currents of which flow in opposite directions.  The town now boasts a capacious, covered central market building, one of the largest in the country.  But the original Green Market (Chợ Xanh), along the Bằng Giang River near the bridge, is still popular, especially in the morning, when bamboo rafts convey merchandise to and from the riverbank and Nùng women from nearby villages set up stalls in the early hours. 
the riverside Green Market (Chợ Xanh)
Nùng woman in Chợ Xanh
       The Nùng are the second largest ethnic group in the province, comprising about 31% of the population. Their villages lie around most of the scenic and historic places in the province, in relatively level areas in between the hills.  The Tày, at 41%, outnumber them, but are more modernized and except in remote areas unlikely to wear traditional clothing.  Nùng women, by and large, still prefer their traditional outfits of black, side-fastened jacket and trousers.   
Hmông woman in Trà Lĩnh
       The Nùng presence in the morning market gives visitors a hint of Cao Bằng province’s major characteristic—a population dominated by ethnic minorities.  Besides the Tày and Nùng, the Hmông number 10% of the inhabitants and the Dao another 10%.  The Vietnamese, despite a government program in the 80s to encourage ethnic Vietnamese migration, still form less than 6%.  Cao Bằng city is about the only place they make up a large proportion of the population.
       Besides its natural wonders then, the main lure of the province is its ethnic minorities.  They dominate the scene when small towns north of Cao Bằng city hold their regular open markets every five days.  Trùng Khánh, on the way to Bản Giốc, holds theirs on dates ending in 5 and 0; Trà Lĩnh on dates ending in 4 and 9; Nước Hai and Na Giang, en route to Pác Bó, on dates ending in 1 and 6 (except the 31st). They may not be as colorfully dressed as those in northwest Vietnam, but they do not experience anything like the mass tourism in the northwest.  Perhaps as a consequence they are friendly, hospitable, honest and easily approachable, as curious about the foreigner as the foreigner is about them.  With such an attitude, a mutually fruitful interaction is guaranteed.

Nùng women selling their goods in Cao Bằng's Green Market (Chợ Xanh)
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