Monday, August 29, 2016

It’s Always Spring in Đà Lạt

                               by Jim Goodman

Đà Lạt in its Central Highlands setting
       When the French ruled Vietnam they named the major city streets after their own officials and military officers.  After their departure in 1954 Vietnamese on both sides of the 17th parallel rushed into a rectification of names program.  The new city authorities replaced the colonialist street names with those of Vietnamese heroes and revolutionaries.  Nha Trang, in south central Vietnam, also carried out the changes, but left the names of two intact: Pasteur Street and Yersin Street. 
       Louis Pasteur discovered how to make milk safe to drink, giving his name to the process—pasteurization.  Alexandre Yersin, his protégé, became famous for identifying the plague bacillus.  But around this part of Vietnam, he is also known for another discovery—Đà Lt.  Living in Nha Trang at the time, Yersin used to make excursions exploring the Central Highlands to the southwest.  On one of these trips in 1893 he wandered into a place in Lâm Đng province that he found particularly lovely.  It had rolling hills, lots of pine forests and, at 1500 meters altitude, a climate that was refreshingly cooler than that in the tropical plains.
central Đà Lạr
       Afterwards Yersin pressed Governor-General Paul Doumer to turn this place into a resort.  The colonial government approved the idea and in 1898-99 built the road connecting the site to the national highway at Phan Rang.  The first hotel opened in 1907 and in 1912 the government officially established the city of Đà Lt.  The name derives from the area’s indigenous people, the Lch, a small branch of the Cơ Ho ethnic minority, which the new settlers pronounced Lạt.  ‘Đà’ in their language means ‘stream,’ so the city’s name meant ‘the stream of the Lạch.’
       Two other explanations for the name persisted for a while.  Some claimed that educated Vietnamese referred to it by the Sino-Vietnamese term Đa Lạc—Great Pleasure—which evolved into Đà Lạt.  Others claimed it was from a Latin acronym coined by the French planners—Dat Aliis Laetitiam Aliis Temperiem, meaning “giving some people pleasure and others freshness.’  But the first French commissioner himself confirmed the true origin of the city’s name.
Đà Lạt Flower Garden
       A city of ‘Great Pleasure’ was, however, exactly what Đà Lạt’s planners had in mind.  Villas in the European style began dotting the hillsides.  Boulevards connected the neighborhoods.  The French created parks, golf courses, hospitals and boarding schools, but no industries.  Đà Lạt was to be, purely and simply, a holiday resort for their colons sweating in the tropical heat of places like the Mekong Delta.  In Đà Lạt the high temperatures throughout the year range from 21-25 degrees C. and the lows from 11 to 16 degrees, about like Paris in May.  Promoters quickly began touting Đà Lạt as the City of Eternal Spring.
       To enhance the beauty and atmosphere of the city and its environs, French engineers turned springs and streams into scenic lakes, beginning in 1919 with a modest lake in the center of Đà Lạt.  Four years later they added another dam below the lake, enlarging it and naming it Grand Lake.  In 1932 a typhoon destroyed both dams and so the French built yet another, bigger dam to re-create the lake that lies there today, currently called Hồ Xuân Hương—Spring Fragrance Lake.  The long flower garden along one side of it no doubt influenced the choice of the new name.   
Đà Lạt Cathedral
stained glass window, Đà Lạt Cathedral
       Throughout the 1920s and 30s the town continued to grow.  More French colons erected houses here and enrolled their kids in the boarding schools. To cater to their spiritual needs, construction started on the Đà Lạt Cathedral in 1931, which took more than a decade to complete.  It resembles a typical church in the French countryside, featuring a narrow steeple 47 meters high.  Above the altar inside are several stained glass windows, evocative of those created in Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral.
the Eifel Tower replica in Đà Lát
       As a final fillip to nostalgia for the homeland, the city installed a replica of the Eifel Tower in Paris.  This gave the city a new nickname—Little Paris. Le Pétit Paris.  That Paris was flat and Đà Lạt hilly didn’t seem to matter.  Đà Lạt was a French town, not an occupied Vietnamese town with French settlers.  It was supposed to be a place where the French could pretend they were in Europe, not in Southeast Asia.
       Among the pleasures offered was big game hunting.  Lâm Đồng province and the Central Highlands were sparsely populated at the time. The forests were still quite extensive and home to deer and roe, boars and bears, peacocks and pheasants, panthers and tigers, gaur and elephant.  Big game hunting became such a popular pastime that by the time the French packed up and left Đà Lạt in 1955, all those animals were extinct in Lâm Đồng.
       Hunting wasn’t restricted to the French colons.  High-ranking Vietnamese officials in the colonial government also built villas in the city and joined in the same pursuits.  The last Nguyễn Emperor, Bảo Đại, had a summer palace constructed in Đà Lạt in 1933 and a smaller one in Buôn Ma Thuột.  One of the routes between the two cities was a private one for the emperor’s entourage, so he could indulge in his favorite ‘sport’—shooting elephants.
       During World War II, with the Japanese occupying northern Vietnam, France made Đà Lạt the capital of its government of Indochina.  The city then had more French officials than usual, but no major changes took place.  After the war, it reverted to its role as a resort, but by the 1950s the Việt Minh insurgency had reached the Central Highlands and roads connecting Đà Lạt to other cities experienced sporadic guerrilla attacks. 
Huế specialty in the Đà Lạt market
       After the French departure Đà Lạt continued to be a holiday resort city, only now it was for officials and businessmen of the South Vietnam government.  The city’s population had always had a Vietnamese majority.  The French proportion peaked at 20% and was declining just before they all left.  The Vietnamese took over the vacated villas and hotels, added more and in 1966 opened the city’s premier attraction—the Đà Lạt Flower Garden next to Xuân Hương Lake.
       The Việt Cong insurgency was already underway by then.  Đà Lạt hosted a military academy that trained officers for the Sài Gòn regime.  But the only time the city came under attack was during the 1968 Tết Offensive, when every city in South Vietnam was targeted.  Otherwise, the two sides seemed to have an unofficial agreement not to let Đà Lạt suffer from the war.  The military academy stayed open and South Vietnamese officers spent their holidays in the city’s villas.  The Việt Cong trained their soldiers in the nearby forests, while their cadres relaxed in their own villas.  No planes or artillery bombed the area either, so today it is free of any unexploded ordnance or leftover mines.  North Vietnamese troops took the city 3 April 1975 without firing a shot.
a room at Hằng Nga, the 'Crazy House'
       After Vietnam’s re-unification Đà Lạt, like other cities in the country, fell upon hard times.  War damage and international isolation left Vietnam in dire straits economically.  When hardly anyone could afford to take a holiday anywhere, a place like Đà Lạt, designed to be a resort, could hardly prosper.  But by the end of the 20th century, with a new economic policy in effect and the country’s pariah status ended, growth, investment and tourism returned to Đà Lạt.  Nowadays it’s one of the country’s top travel destinations, but it has also developed along lines the French neither intended nor anticipated.  In short, now it is a fully-fledged city, important to other sectors of the economy besides the tourist industry.
       Among the Vietnamese who migrated to the Đà Lạt area in the early 20th century were those taking advantage of the newly tamed wilderness of the highlands to make farms.  Cabbages grow well around here and are in such abundance restaurants sometimes give customers a free plate of cabbage leaves with the meal.  Artichoke is another, valued as a treatment for liver and gall bladder problems.  Vietnamese tend to consume it less often as a vegetable and more likely as a medicine in the form of jelly or pills or as powder turned into tea.  And in recent years coffee plantations have spread throughout the Central Highlands, replacing the forests and sparking an influx of immigrants from all over the country.
Đaranla Falls
       The central market, Chợ Đà Lạt, has stalls full of cabbages, artichokes and coffee, as well as local flowers, avocados and strawberries in season, plus area specialties like preserved fruits, shredded deer meat and Đà Lạt wine.  Vietnamese were not wine-drinkers traditionally, so this was something the French introduced.  First they used strawberries and later grapes from vineyards established around Phan Rang.  Production continued long after the French left and now Đà Lát wine is available throughout the country and an all but obligatory beverage for Vietnamese tourists having dinner in a Đà Lạt restaurant.
       One of the surprises in the market is that one can hear all the language’s dialects in a single stroll.  Vietnamese from north, central and south Vietnam have all settled here and some operate businesses catering to regional tastes, like the goat restaurants run by northerners and the stalls making bánh khoài, the stuffed pancake from Huế, run by women from that city. 
Prenn Falls
       Tourism is still the city’s main business and visitors have a choice among dozens of hotels, ranging from five-star to backpacker specials.  The most unusual one, though, is clearly Hằng Nga, with weird buildings shaped out of trees, fanciful sculptures, decorations and room interiors that seem to have been inspired by an old hippie’s psychedelic fantasy.  Locals call it the Crazy House, the place also bills itself as an art museum and at any given time hosts more visitors than guests.
       Contemporary Đà Lạt’s attractions are still the same as they were in colonial days—the climate and the countryside.  Temperatures are always comfortable and several lakes, waterfalls and mountain views can be reached with easy motorbike excursions.  Just ten km south of the city off Route 20 is the Đatanla Falls.  The path to get there winds through a thick pine forest and descends steeply to the falls, which cascade gently across the boulders.  The area was a base of Lạch/Cơ Ho people resisting Chăm invasions in past centuries and a Cư Ho ceremonial pole stands nearby as a reminder.
            Another two km south is Prenn Pass, the former boundary between the Cơ Ho tribes on this side and the Chăm on the other side.  It was here the Cơ Ho turned back a Chăm invasion by King Pôrômê of Panduranga in the 17th century.  The waterfall at the foot of the mountain drops 13 meters over a precipice.  Even more spectacular are the Elephant Falls, 24 km sw of Đà Lạt, which drop 30 meters.
display in Đà Lạt Flower Farden 
       The lakes in the Đà Lạt vicinity are largely artificial, the result of dams built first by the French, and later by the Vietnamese, as hydropower and water storage projects.  As a bonus, the dams created a string of new scenic tourist spots:  the Gold and Silver Springs, 24 km northwest of the city, Tuyền Lâm Lake, just 5 km south, with a Trúc Lâm (Zen) monastery on the hill opposite, Đa Thiện just north and Hồ Than Thở, the Lake of Laments, named for a tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers who died here in the late 18th century.  
       With such sites within easy access of the city, Đà Lạt has drawn an ever-increasing number of Vietnamese tourists.  Mass domestic tourism has resulted in a plethora of tailor shops and souvenir stalls selling things like stuffed forest animals and silk-embroidered pictures of rural scenery and flowers.  And at places like Cám Ly Falls, in the city suburbs, tourists are offered pony rides by locals dressed like American cowboys, with some of the ponies painted to look like zebras.                 
       Despite such kitsch distractions, the main lure of the city for the Vietnamese is its landscape, its hills and valleys studded with pine forests and myriad flowers.  Among the species of flowers, decorating waterfalls, growing along the rural roads, sold in the markets and laid out in beautiful patterns in private and public gardens, are the peach blossom, sunflower, orchid, rose, hydrangea, pansy, mimosa and gladiolus. 
Đà Lạt flowers
Đà Lạt orchids
       Đà Lạt Flower Garden, sprawling alongside Xuân Hương Lake and the most beautiful place in town, features these and dozens more, including vines, ornamental plants and cacti.  Đà Lạt is one of the top destinations for Vietnamese on honeymoon and a leisurely amble through the flower garden is a must for newlyweds.  And if that isn’t romantic enough, they can take an excursion to the Valley of Love and the Forest of Kissing and Cuddling north of the city, appropriate anytime of year.  Spring is the season for lovers, and in Đà Lạt, it’s always spring. 

sunset in Đà Lạt

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Before the Dragon Rose: Vietnam’s Ancient Capitals

                                                      by Jim Goodman

life in ancient Văn Lang, the first Vietnamese state
       Founded in 1010, Hanoi is the oldest capital city in East Asia.  But it was not the country’s first.  It was the third capital since Vietnam recovered its independence in 938, after more than a thousand years of Chinese rule.  Before that there were two capitals, the one the Chinese conquered and the earliest one, the capital of the first Vietnamese state 2500 years ago.  It lay in the foothills bordering the Red River Delta plain, northwest of Hanoi, but no one knows exactly where it was.  No trace of it has survived; not even its name.
An Dương with his crossbow
       We do know the name of the state it served, however.  It was called Văn Lang, ruled by a succession of semi-legendary monarchs known as the Hùng kings, the first of whom is supposed to have taken power in the late 7th century BCE., at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Vietnamese historians have identified 18 kings in the Hùng Dynasty, which lasted about four and a half centuries.  They were the first to establish authority beyond their immediate vicinity, amalgamating disparate peoples living in small, autonomous units into a state with a common identity.
       Văn Lang was the hub of the Bronze Age Đông Sơn Culture, the originator of the bronze drum cult, influencing places beyond its borders, especially southern China, northern Thailand and eastern Burma.  Văn Lang artisans used bronze to make drums, weapons, farm tools, utensils, votive objects and funeral offerings. In tombs of the ruling class of those times excavation has revealed that many fine bronze artifacts were interred with the corpse.
       Đông Sơn relics have survived to confirm the state’s existence and high level of achievement.  But little else has.  The Hùng Kings’ tombs have never been found.  No ruined buildings from that era exist.  Văn Lang had no writing system, so records were not kept.  Yet researchers have identified a tract of hilly land in Phú Tho province as the probable site of Văn Lang’s capital.  Today’s Vietnamese revere the Hùng Kings’ era as the birth of their nationality.  Every year the government sponsors a festival here, held for several days in the third lunar month, attracting tens of thousands.   
Cổ Loa today
       Unlike its origin, Văn Lang’s demise is better known. The state fell to an invader from a mountain kingdom to the north in the 3rd century BCE.  He took the royal name An Dương and established a capital and citadel at C Loa, a little north of present-day Hanoi and at that time on the Red River.  C Loa means ‘snail’ and refers to the series of concentric walls, like a snail shell, built to protect the city.  An Dương called the new realm Âu Lc, combining the name of his own mountain state Âu Vit with the ancient name for the Red River Delta lands—Lc Vit
Cổ Loa crossbow reconstruction in a Hanoi museum
       Local culture did not experience any disruption in its development.  In fact, An Dương even paid a visit to the former capital and, at a spot known today as the Swearing Stone, promised to venerate the souls of the departed Hùng kings and preserve the kingdom.  The only real novelty about the establishment of his rule was that it was the first time the local people had been beaten by a foe from the north.  Previous invasions they had always repulsed.  An Dương’s success foreshadowed what was to become a permanent potential danger in centuries to come.
village elders at the Cổ Loa festival
       Myth embellishes history in the story of C Loa’s rise and fall.  When An Dương began building the city, every night whatever was built during the day was mysteriously dismantled.  The culprits turned out to be the spirits of the land, acting on behalf of the sons of the dispossessed former king.  Their leader was a thousand-year-old white chicken, residing on Tam Đào Mountain, northwest of C Loa.  The new king An Dương was at a loss how to deal with these spirits.
       Suddenly a golden turtle appeared on the scene, fought and defeated the white chicken, and remained at C Loa until the citadel was completed.  Upon departure he gave the king one of his claws to be used as a crossbow trigger.  The power of this would insure An Dương defeated any potential foe, for with this magic trigger the crossbow could fire one shot that would multiply into a thousand bolts.  
in the procession at Cổ Loa's festival
       All went fine for Âu Lc for about a generation.  But then political changes to the north threatened the state.  The Qin Dynasty, whose expansion to the south had prompted An Dương to move south and seize Văn Lang, fell and the Han Dynasty took over.  But it did not assert control over the southern parts, which reverted to their pre-Qin Dynasty independence.  One of these states was Nan Yue in southeast China, and its ruler Zhao Tou, shortly after being confirmed as king by the Han Court in 196 BCE, decided to invade Âu Lạc.
        An Dương’s supernatural crossbow kept Zhao Tou’s forces from taking Cổ Loa and the attack stalled.  Another strategy was necessary. Zhao Tou called a truce and sent his son Trng Thy to An Dương’s court.  The young man made a favorable impression, won the heart of Princess MChâu and married her.  After time passed he persuaded her to let him gain access to the armory.  There he secretly stole the turtle claw crossbow trigger and then made up an excuse to visit his father’s camp.  Feeling qualms about his departure, MChâu showed him her mantle, padded with goose-down, and told him that if, in his absence, she should have to leave C Loa, she would strew feathers from the mantle on the trail so that he could find her. 
Mỵ Châu's tomb at Tết
       Knowing the magic crossbow was now useless,  Zhao Tou renewed hostilities and soon took the citadel.  An Dương fled on horseback to the sea, the princess riding pillion.  When An Dương reached his destination the local genie informed him that the cause of his misfortune was right behind him.  Realizing it was his own daughter who betrayed him, he beheaded her and then flung himself into the sea.    Today, at the đình in C Loa Historical Complex, an altar to the princess stands in the rear of the building.  Here supposedly is interred the headless corpse of MChâu and oddly enough, during C Loa’s annual festival, shortly after Tết, Vietnamese lay offerings here.
       Back at C Loa, after Zhao Tou captured the citadel, Trng Thy went searching for his wife MChâu.  He soon discovered the trail she had marked out with goose-down feathers during her escape.  When he came to the end of it he discovered her headless corpse.  He returned with it to C Loa, had it buried properly and then killed himself.  Vietnamese have mixed feelings about MChâu, for if on the one hand she betrayed her father, on the other hand she was loyal to her husband.
Ngô Quyền
       Zhao Tou maintained Nan Yue’s independence until his death in 136 BCE, but the kingdom eventually fell to the Chinese 25 years later.  That was the end of any kind of Vietnamese independence, a period that would last over a thousand years and have a permanent impact on Vietnamese society and culture.  But the long occupation never extinguished the Vietnamese desire to run their own affairs.        Chinese control of northern Vietnam depended on the strength of its ruling dynasty.  When the state was strong, so was the administration.  When it weakened, fell victim to power struggles and such, Vietnamese revolted and at times briefly achieved autonomy again.   The Chinese established administrative centers, first in Long Biên, across the Red River from Hanoi, and later at Long Đỗ, on the site that is today Hanoi, where they built the Đai La citadel in the 9th century.
       Taking advantage of the continuing chaos in China following the fall of the Tang Dynasty, in 938 CE Ngô Quyền led native forces to expel the Chinese from the garrison at Đai La.  Counter-attacking, the Chinese sent a large naval force into Hạ Long Bay, intending to sail up the Red River to Đai La and suppress the revolt.  To stop them Ngô Quyền ordered his men to plant sharpened stakes in the bed of the Bạch Đằng River, the main tributary here to the Red River. The stakes were invisible at high tide. 
battle on the Bạch Đằng RIver, 938
       The invading fleet sailed in at high tide.  At a bend in the river, the Vietnamese came out in small boats to engage the enemy and delay them until the tide lowered.  With that, the Chinese fleet found itself impaled on the stakes and immobilized.  The Vietnamese in their small boats then advanced, burnt the ships and destroyed the fleet.  With that victory the Vietnamese finally won back their independence.
       To re-establish the new nation’s link with its past, Ngô Quyền made Cổ Loa the capital.  The Red River had changed course by then and the city was no longer next to it.  Whether he rebuilt the same kind of citadel is unknown.  Unfortunately, after five years Ngô Quyền died.  Since he did not establish a successor, for twenty-four years twelve clans fought it out.  The winner, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, moved the capital to his hometown Hoa Lư, in today’s Ninh Bình province. 
Đinh Bộ Lĩnh
       Cổ Loa gradually became a ghost city and its buildings disappeared.  A thousand years later it was resurrected, not as a city, but as a reconstruction.  It did not include rebuilding the ‘snail’ walls of ancient times, but did include a temple to An Dương, a statue of him with the famous crossbow and a temple to the hapless Mỵ Châu.  An annual festival began, starting the 6th day of the first lunar month with a spectacular procession of men and women in ceremonial costumes, flags, ancient weapons and a miniature royal court.  The twelve villages belonging to Cổ Loa district organize the events, which also feature a great range of traditional games, contests, dramatic shows and fireworks.  The huge attendance at this event, particularly the first day, testifies to the continuing relevance of Cổ Loa in the national psyche.
       But that’s also true for Hoa Lư.  The festival there, honoring its two famous kings, held the same time as the one for the Hùng Kings, also draws thousands.  Temples venerating Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and Lê Hoàn lie on the far side of Hoa Lư and, except for Đinh Bộ Lĩnh’s tomb on a hill above the temples, are virtually all that is left of its ancient vestiges     The town today lies in the middle of surrounding hills, obviously easier back then to defend than Cổ Loa.  It was a hundred kilometers away from the old capital’s intrigues and a place where Đinh Bộ Lĩnh could count on local loyalty.  He ruled for eleven years until he and his son were assassinated in 979. 
contemporary Hoa Lư
      A child was next in line and the Chinese saw this as an opportunity to recapture Vietnam.  To meet this emergency the Hoa Lư Court deposed the boy and selected Lê Hoàn, the military commander, as the new king.  He stopped the Chinese invasion by employing the same trick used by Ngô Quyền:  planting sharpened stakes in the Bặch Đằng River to impale the Chinese ships.
       Lê Hoàn died in 1005 but left no heir.  A succession struggle broke out and after four years the winner was Lý Công Uẳn, commander of the palace guard, an orphan raised in a Buddhist temple. Buddhist influence at the Hoa Lư court had grown in the last years of Lê Hoàn’s reign and among the changes they advised the new king was to move the capital closer to the original Buddhist heartland, back to the old Chinese administrative center at Đai La.  Since its loss of status in 938 it had reverted to a village at more or less subsistence level.  But it still had an ideal location, with good water access to all parts of the delta as well as the sea. 
gateway to historic Hoa Lư
Lý Thái Tổ, founder of Hanoi
       The founder of the new Lý Dynasty, from then on known as Lý Thái T, agreed.  The country seemed safe from any Chinese invasion and remote, mountainous Hoa Lư was far from the major areas of population and trade.  In 1010 he decided to take a trip to old Đi La and see for himself whether it would make a suitable site for a new national capital.  When the king’s boat arrived at the site of the ruined citadel, a dragon allegedly rose into the sky.  Taking that as a good omen, Lý Thái T decided to stay and build a new capital city here.  He called it Thăng Long, Rising Dragon, the ancient city that eventually became Hanoi. Over a thousand years later, it’s still the capital of Vietnam.

at the annual Cổ Loa festival
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      Hoa Lư is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam's journey through the country.



Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dai Temple Art in Jinggu County

                                                       by Jim Goodman

rural life in Jinggu, 17th century carving
       Pu’er Prefecture, with nine counties the largest prefecture in Yunnan, is one of the least visited in the province.  It doesn’t have the dramatic scenery that draws people to other parts of Yunnan.  Ethnic minorities, like Yi, Hani, Lahu, Dai and Wa make up a large proportion of the population.  But except in the southwestern counties, they mostly live and dress like their Han neighbors.  Other than Menglian, which has the original Dai town right next to it, all the cities are modern, with no surviving old quarters, with the only traditional buildings being a few pavilions in the city parks.
       Nevertheless, since I acquired the ambition to see the entire province, I had to make a trip through Pu’er Prefecture as well.  I had a pleasant time in Pu’er city, then called Simao, because of encounters with friendly folks in restaurants and at the reservoir.  There wasn’t much to see in the vicinity, other than sprawling tea gardens and a mini-Stone Forest at Caiyun.  Ning’er, then called Pu’er, and Jiangcheng were boring, even in the markets, and Zhenyuan dirty and ugly.
Dai woman in Jinggu
Tabaoshu--the Pagoda-Wrapped Tree
       I had hopes for Jinggu, though, just because it was a Dai and Yi Autonomous County.  Living in Thailand for several years, it was bound to be of some interest.  Jinggu city lies in a broad valley of the Chengyuan River, which eventually joins with the Lancangjiang (the name of the Mekong River in China).  It’s a manufacturing center, very modern, but with royal palms lining the downtown streets.  In the markets I did see people who were definitely Dai, not Han, recognizable both by their faces and by the women wearing the wrap-around  gray or pastel -colored jacket, with a blouse, black sarong, apron and turban that was the local Dai women’s outfit.
Guanmian Temple in Jinggu city
       Modern Jinggu is an appendage of the original Dai villages around a couple of knolls in the southern suburbs of the city.  The houses are modest versions of the typical mud-brick, tile-roofed Yunnan countryside house.  Lots of fishponds lie in the area and the rice fields begin just beyond the last houses.   Each settlement has its own small temple, with a few resident monks in each.  The people are friendly to strangers, but only the older generation of women dresses in Dai style
       Jinggu city’s one famous monument, Guanmian Temple, sits on a knoll beside Dazhai village.  Built in 1601, wooden, with three tiers of tiled, gently sloping roofs, its only artistic embellishment is the pair of stone lions flanking the entry stairs.  The interior, though, is quite ornately decorated with various things suspended from the ceiling and a large seated Buddha, swathed in yellow robes, sits in the rear.
collaring a dog, the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda
       In the temple courtyard stand two brick and stone, bell-shaped stupas, called the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda and the Pagoda-Wrapped Tree.  In the former, the roots of a tree wrap around the stupa from the base and form into a trunk above the top.  In the latter, the tree grows out of the center of the stupa and rises through the top.
       The stupas stand on square bases with carved stone plaques surrounding the bottom sides.  Here the Jinggu Dai artists of the early 17th century showed off their skills.  Religious themes do not dominate the sculptures, though.  Instead, the low-relief carvings depict vignettes of daily life, like strolling in a garden, plowing a field, collaring a dog, as well as portraits of people, elephants, wolves, bats, flowers and trees.  It was like the artisans were making a record of their times, carved in stone, for future generations.
       From the courtyard I had a good view of the city and its environs, but unfortunately it was dominated by smokestacks and their emissions.  Just seeing the stone carvings at Guanmian Temple made the trip worth it to me, but I didn’t stay any longer.  However, many years later, traveling through Pu’er Prefecture in the monsoon season, intending to go north from Jingdong to Dali, I wound up in Jinggu again.  Heavy rains had triggered landslides and closed the road north of Jingdong.  The best option was to swing around to Lincang and get to Dali from the southwest.
Yongping temple's library
phoenix strut under a library roof
       I took the bus south to Jinggu, but didn’t stay there.  I headed west to Yongping to stay the night and catch the bus to Lincang from there next morning.  Yongping is a quiet little town with a tree-lined main street, no real restaurants, but an open square at the top of the main street where I could get grilled food and beer.  As it was near dark when I arrived, I didn’t explore the town much.  But I would get my chance.
assembly hall of Yongping's 18th century temple
       The next morning the skies were gray but it wasn’t raining, so I anticipated a long but sure ride to Lincang.  But as soon as we got off the paved roads of the Yongping suburbs and got on the dirt connecting road to the highway to Lincang, that already began to look problematical.  The dirt road was now a slippery mud road full of puddles of unpredictable depths.  After very slow progress, the bus finally got stuck in a puddle in which it seemed stuck until dry season.  A bus coming the other way informed us that the road was blocked.  Landslides again.  Nearly all the passengers were only going several kilometers, so they got off the bus and walked.  I returned to Yongping, which was just two kilometers away.
       Now I would have to go all the way back to Kunming to get to Dali.  I couldn’t do that until the next morning anyway, but as it turned out Yongping and vicinity had attractions that more than compensated for the long detour ahead.  Most of Jinggu’s Dai live in the west and southwest of the county.  The older Dai women around Yongping dress like those in Jinggu city, but the Dai men and the younger generation wear modern clothes.  
rural scene carved on the temple's stone base
Dai shoppers in Yongping
      They are Theravada Buddhists, but apparently, judging by the dearth of hilltop pagodas and village shrines, not so religious-minded as the Dai in Xishuangbanna, Dehong or even Gengma.  They do have a couple of temples in the area, though; one on the southern edge of town and another, truly outstanding, 17 km south at Qiannuo.
       Yongping’s temple is an 18th century wooden structure with three wide, tiled roofs and an extra roof added over the entrance.  It’s a darker color and a little longer than Guanmian Temple in Jinggu, which gives it a more harmonious look. It has no struts supporting the roofs, the corners of which are not upturned.   The building sits on a stone base, carved panels around it, most of them completely worn.  A few are still in good condition: one of a boy, another of an elephant and the best one, a farmer playing a flute while riding a water buffalo.  A very large Buddha image sits in the rear of the temple’s interior, along with other images, while several long, narrow cloth banners hang from the ceiling, woven by the local women as gifts to beautify the temple.
Qingfo Temple, Qiannuo village
       In the courtyard, the library, a three-tiered wooden building on a brick and stone hexagonal base, houses the temple’s religious manuscripts, keeping them high and dry and safe from floods and insects.  Unlike the main building, the library features much more artistic embellishment, like carved shutters, eaves and brackets and the dragon and winged phoenix struts that support the tiled roofs.  These additions make the library an altogether more interesting building, artistically speaking, than the relatively unadorned assembly hall.
       To see the highest achievements in Jinggu County art and architecture, one needs only to proceed along the valley south from Yongping 17 km to Qiannuo, a large Dai village that’s home to Qingfo Temple.  The wooden assembly hall, built in 1778, has three tiers of wide, sweeping tiled roofs with upturned corners and also stands on a stone base with carved panels all along the sides.  Unlike the Yongping temple, though, artisans have covered practically every space on the Qingfosi temple with some kind of artistic enhancement.  
musicians on a carved bracket
       The walls between the roofs feature rows of wooden blocks, mostly bright blue, like a grill around all four sides.  Underneath these on the top level are panels of different kinds of vases, and occasionally people dressed in classical Chinese robes, in gold against a black background.  From the apex of the roof hangs a slender, red wooden fish, outlined in white, a symbol of water to counter the threat of lightning.
       The walls of the ground floor, brackets, eaves and some of the supporting posts are dark red, with all the designs lacquered in gold.  The pillars in front of the entrance are gray, but also with gold designs, only on the upper half for the side posts, but from top to bottom on the two central pillars.  These two are covered with repeating motifs of wavy spirals, resembling the lines of flower petals seen from above.    Near the top of each post the front part of a dragon’s body comes right out of the pillar, with the end of its tail emerging from the other side.  To the right, under the eaves, sits a paper white elephant that’s taken out for a procession on Guanmenjie, the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season.
       Like the bases of the two pagodas in Jinggu and the temple library in Yongping, that around the main hall of Qingfo Temple is also a gallery of pictures carved in stone.  Some of them are animal portraits, like birds, deer and elephants.  Others are wider panels, with vases full of vegetation bracketing low-relief vignettes of daily life:  enjoying a banquet, riding horses, hunting with a crossbow, riding boats, sitting at a lecture, confronting a tiger, etc.
monk with his manuscripts, inside Qingfo Temple
       Two and a half centuries of wind and rain have worn some of the edges of these stone sculptures, but the carvings on the wooden doors, brackets and shutters, all lacquered in gold against a dark red or black background, are in pristine condition.  Many of them are the usual birds, flowers, zodiac animals, dragons and lions, all of them skillfully rendered.  But, as with the stone panels, it’s the scenes of human activity that are far more interesting.
       On the brackets near the entrance musicians play flutes and lutes.  On the door panel a man sits astride a camel.  On another panel a man confronts a tiger in a scene resembling one of the stone sculptures on the base.  A pair of shutters features flanking kings on horseback and another of four panels depicts scholars in gardens.
       The surprise when examining all this imagery is that none of it is religious.  A huge Buddha image sits inside, but the array of images on the exterior is all secular, all derived from nature and daily life.  Unlike Dai Theravada Buddhist temples elsewhere in Yunnan, the artistic embellishment of Qingfo Temple’s exterior did not include images of Buddha, heavenly angels or the mythical hybrid animals one finds in, for example, Xishuangbanna temples just south.   
       A lot of the temple wall imagery resembles that in Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples, like the vases, the pavilions in the garden scenes, the clothing worn by the human figures.  Where did Qingfosi’s artisans learn to make such sculptures?  The nearest center of Han culture was a long way from the remote and not very rich Qiannuo village.  There wasn’t any local crafts school.  I don’t think the temple hired Chinese artisans from someplace else in Yunnan.  They must have been local Dai artisans.  So what inspired them?
riding a camel
jungle confrontation
       Some of the imagery obviously came from observing activities of contemporary life, like farming, hunting and riding boats or horses.   Portraits of kings on horseback or scholars in a garden simply must have been imagined.  Most of the animals, the birds, wolves, tigers, deer and buffaloes, they would have seen in their environment.  It’s too far north here for elephants, but maybe a sculptor visited Xishuangbanna, not too far and back then full of elephants.  As for what inspired the perfectly realistic camel, the nearest of which are in faraway Xinjang, that remains a mystery.
       I had plenty to speculate upon on my long bus ride to Dali.  I also came to appreciate even more the innumerable attractions of the province.  Bad weather had sabotaged my original plans, but instead steered me to an aesthetic experience that was all the more thrilling because it was unexpected.  Exciting prospects for future exploration began to occupy my thoughts.  How many more interesting sites existed in the unpublicized, scarcely explored, remote counties of Yunnan?  When traveling in this endlessly fascinating province, truly, every landslide has a silver lining.

18th century hunting scene in stone at Qingfo Temple

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