Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stairways to the Sky: the Ancient Terraces of Southern Yunnan

                                              by Jim Goodman

dry season terraces near Luchun
       Sometimes farms are the tourist lure.  It could be because they are sited in places with spectacular backdrops, but then it's the totality of the scenery that draws attention, not the farms themselves.  In other cases, though, the farm per se is the attraction.  Its shape, its location and its obviously intricate water engineering are what capture the eye.  Perhaps nowhere in southwest China are simple farms the stars of the scenery so much as in the Ailaoshan mountain range of southern Yunnan.  This is especially true in Yuanyang County, between the Red River and the border of Vietnam.  Every year at New Year time a contest draws dozens of photographers seeking to shoot the county's farms in prize-winning light and settings.
Pinghe village terraces,  Luchun County
        These are no ordinary farms, of course.  They are terraced parcels cut into the slopes, sometimes sculpting three-fourths of a mountainside.  From the forest near the summit to the streams at the bottom, every promontory, knoll and hillock is terraced.  On the more gradual slopes the plots can be fairly large, but some of the slopes are up to 70 degrees inclined, where the terraces are long but narrow.  The great majority are used but once a year, for the summer rice crop, and are kept filled with water the other months.
       The Ailaoshan terraces were mentioned in Tang Dynasty chronicles, the earliest ever recorded of such farms anywhere in the region, and are therefore at least a thousand years old.  They are mainly the work of the Yi and Hani minority nationalities.  Most villages in the mountains are Yi or Hani, with the Yi more prominent in the northern part of the county, the Hani predominating in the southern part.  Until you can see the costumes of the women, though, it's a bit difficult to tell the villages apart.
terrace work, XInjie
       Yi and Hani build box-like houses of mud brick on stone foundations, with several small rooms.  The upper floor has a flat roof for drying crops.  Some Yi villages, and all Hani ones, append a room on part of the roof, with sloping sides, used for storage.  Most villages are quite large, up to a hundred houses bunched together near a spring, whose flow is directed into the terraces below.  Vegetables they grow in the plots closest to the village.  The rest of the terraces are mainly reserved for rice, except for the newest ones.
        In these new farms the people cultivate maize and soybeans the first few years.  The bed of the plot is initially covered with a layer of rough gravel.  Only after 3-5 years is the terrace ready for inundation.  After filling them with water, the farmers keep them permanently flooded, adding tree branches and sand after harvest to prevent the ground from becoming too soft for plowing.  To enrich the soil they use animal manure and other natural fertilizers, such as the soy plants surrounding the borders of a plot.
planting rice
the ripening crops  in September
       Most of the terraces are watered by springs above the village, which is carried along various irrigation channels along the uppermost terraces, a length that could reach several kilometers.  Divider logs, or in the older areas carved stones, direct part of the flow over clusters of fields.  Spillways between plots carry it from higher terrace to lower, all the way down to the drainage channel at the bottom.  These channels, as well as the springs, are no one's private property but are owned collectively by the whole village.  Village representatives select one man whose full-time job is to check and maintain the main irrigation channel, oversee the distribution to the terraces and in general make sure nobody is stealing water.
rice beginning to grow at Baoshanzhai
       Planting begins at the onset of the monsoon in late May.  The crop ripens in late August, splashing the mountains with patches of golden yellow.  In September the farmers crop the grain, threshing it on the spot by whipping the stalks against a V-shaped funnel of stiffened buffalo hide.  Repairs to the main irrigation channels, as well as the terraces, follow the harvest and then the terraces are left flooded till the next planting.  The scenery is at its grandest in the winter mornings, when thick fog blankets the valleys and lower altitudes, leaving terraced fields popping up over the clouds like islands in the sea.
view of Panzihua, Yuanyang County
       The people inhabiting these mountains are among the most conservative in the province.  One might expect that from folks using the same terraces for hundreds of years.  Villages are electrified and many houses have televisions.  All sizable settlements have primary schools, while the townships and cities have middle schools as well.  The men have largely adopted modern styles of clothing, except for the Yao and Miao, but women of all ages retain the ethnic costume and so do a large proportion of the children.
       Four kinds of Hani inhabit Yuanyang County, and several more live in neighboring Honghe, Jinping and Luchun Counties.  The Hani around Xinjie wear a side-fastened, long-sleeved jacket over trousers.  The basic material is blue or black cotton, occasionally white, blue or purple silk, with embroidered cuffs and lower sleeves and stripes along the hem and around the ankles.  Married women wear a fringed black turban with a long, silver-studded tail.  Another Hani group wears a more brightly embroidered blouse, a black cap with silver studs on the front, and a belt with long tassels with embroidered spiral designs.  A third group wears skirts instead of trousers, while a fourth dons jackets with sections done in tie-dyed indigo.
Yi girls in the Xinjie market, Yuanyang County
       Over an ordinary long-sleeved blouse the local Nisu Yi women wear a bright, short-sleeved jacket, with embroidered strips around the shoulders and on the sleeves.  In cooler weather they wear over this a black vest, either studded with silver across the front or stitched with thick white stripes.  Around the waist they tie a belt with long wide tails, featuring pile-embroidered spiral and floral patterns, which hang over the buttocks.  In Honghe the patterns are flat-embroidered and more complex and pictorial.  The women here tend to favor hand towels as headgear, rather than the embroidered headscarf of Yuanyang.  In the latter county, too, the young Yi girls sometimes don a chicken-shaped cap, embroidered in white or studded with silver.  The same style in Honghe is worn by Hani girls, not Yi.
winter morning in Xinjie
        Old Yuanyang town, now called Xinjie, lies 25 km south of the Red River from New Yuanyang, the county capital since early this century.  The road immediately begins climbing uphill until it reaches the city at around 1700 meters.  Yi and Hani villages sit on slopes above their terraces at intervals all along the way.  The town itself was built as an uphill extension of the original Yi village, just as Huangcaoling, further south, was expended around the original hilltop Hani village.  Many Yi and Hani have settled in Xinjie, but one of the charms of the town is that the women in the markets and the girls working in the restaurants still wear their ethnic costumes.  The proximity of traditional villages, the terraces on the near and distant mountains, and the general friendliness are its other assets.
Hani from Huangcaoling, Yuanyang County
Miao girls from the Laomeng area
       The road south runs by more of the same beautiful landscapes, then crosses a pass and winds around spurs and ridges to Panzhihua, from where the most spectacular view can be had.  As far as the eye can see the contours of the mountains are covered with terraces, their villages perched above them.  According to a local Yi headman, these particular terraces were cut 700 years ago by Yi who migrated here from the rolling, less steep hills south of the Red River.
fishing in the terraces
       From this township the road drops to the valleys, where the Dai people live.  Here the land is fairly flat alongside the rivers and so the plots are larger and interspersed with plantain groves.  The Dai here are animist, not Buddhist, and live in the same kind of houses as the Yi and Hani, with one addition--a large variety of fish traps.  The women wear black sarongs, with cross-stitched leggings in winter, black, short-sleeved, Yi-like jackets, brightly embellished on the hem and sleeve ends.  Standing on the bridge at Huangmaoling, watching Dai women drive their buffaloes home past the rice fields, palms and papaya trees, with a group of boys swimming in the stream beside the gnarly roots of a big banyan tree, one could as well be in Thailand or Laos.
Yi farmer girl going back home
       Huangmaoling holds market day on Saturdays, while further down the road, Laomeng has its market day on Sundays.  The ethnic variety in the county is highly evident at these events, particularly in Laomeng, which is more likely to have remote Hani, Yao and Miao shoppers.  The Yao are of the Lanten branch and wear all black, except for the youth, who don caps with colored pompoms.  Miao women are recognizable by their skirts and upswept hairdos.  In marked contrast to the shy Yao they are quite approachable and the men eager to converse with foreigners.
       In general the mountain people of Ailaoshan are friendly and good-humored.  Sometimes they stare at the foreigner as if he just stepped out of their televisions and suddenly became three-dimensional.  But once they become conscious of their staring they often apologize and ask him not to take offense.  They are proud of their terraces and so quick to appreciate an outsider's admiration.  They have held fast to their cultures and celebrate their annual festivals--the Torch Festival of the Yi in mid-summer, the Hani New Year in November--with great fanfare, whether in Yuanyang or the villages.  And their self-assurance and general contentedness with their life soon affects their visitors, who can't help feeling happy just visiting such a place. 

terraced fields near Dayangjie, Honghe County
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                           for more on Ailaoshan, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Saturday, February 23, 2013

When the Yi Dress Up As Tigers

                                                         by Jim Goodman

Wudi village, Chuxiong Prefecture
     Wudi village lies in the mountains of southeastern Chuxiong Prefecture, right in the centre of Yunnan Province. To get there requires taking a bus first to Chuxiong, another to Shuangbai, 60 km south, then yet another one to Fabiao township, 50 km further. Fabiao is pleasantly sited amidst rolling hills, with a good vantage point for sunrise. It's a Han town, as are the villages immediately south, towards the reservoir. From this body of water a trail bends west to a long valley flanked by high hills, their slopes sprinkled with medium-sized villages sitting above terraced fields. 
Wudi youths dressed as tigers 
     Wudi is among them, about an hour's walk from the junction at the reservoir. Like the other settlements in this part of Shuangbai County its inhabitants are members of the Yi nationality, the largest ethnic minority in Yunnan, comprising five major dialect groups and thirty-odd separate sub-groups. Aside from hearing the language--a Tibeto-Burman tongue quite different from Chinese in both structure and sound--not much exists in the village to recognise Wudi as Yi-inhabited. Unlike many other sub-groups, Wudi's Yi do not dress in traditional costume, not even the older women, nor do they carry distinctive shoulder bags, like the more assimilated of their Yi cousins in other counties of Chuxiong.
The"tigers" pay obeisance at the headman's house.
     About 60-70 houses stand in Wudi, sited just below the summit of a high ridge, buildings of rammed earth, timber and tiled roofs. It is the architecture typical of rural Yunnan, with nothing particularly Yi about it, in contrast to the Yi log cabins of the northwest or the flat-roofed Yi houses of Honghe Prefecture. Houses sit close together along cobbled streets and are sited around the pond next to the central square, extending halfway up the slope behind.
     Near the top of this back slope is the village altar, so to speak, with three stones standing in a small clearing. This certainly identifies the village as Yi, for the custom is common to nearly all Yi sub-groups. The stones represent the original Yi ancestors and rituals taking place here are conducted by a bimaw, the tribal specialist in such matters, an office existing in every traditional Yi society. So in spite of their apparent assimilation into the folds of Chinese culture, the Yi of Wudi do retain at least vestiges of their own traditions.
Yi "tiger"
     Once a year, though, they do much more than exhibit vestiges. A fortnight after the Chinese Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), Wudi village stages a peculiar festival of its own--Laohuzhuan, or Dressing Up as Tigers--that in no way resembles anything culturally Chinese, unless it be the shamanistic dances of ancient, preliterate Chinese. For this event several young men don strange costumes, paint their bodies and masquerade as tigers. They are joined by other men, including the village bimaw, in long black gowns. Together they perform magic dances to invoke the gods' blessings for the coming rice crop.
     Perhaps in the past villages besides Wudi used to stage this event as well, but in Wudi itself the festival was banned in 1952 by Communist cadres bent on eradicating "superstition." Not magic and ritual, but hard work and discipline will make the crops grow, ran the new argument. The undermining of other Yi customs and beliefs continued, sometimes subtly, sometimes fiercely, until the Reform Era launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The Party then also reversed policy on minority nationalities, who were now allowed to revive, more or less, as much of their ethnic tradition as they wished. In Yunnan, home to 24 of China's 55 minority nationalities, the government encouraged the process by repairing and renovating religious buildings and subsidizing festivals.
Laofuzhuan procession through the village
     But Laohuzhuan in Wudi had not been performed for more than a generation and its revival did not immediately strike the minds of the villagers. Then in 1986 a Wudi Yi woman, related to one of today's performers in the dance, suggested its revival to the Wudi man in charge of Fabiao's wenhuazhan (cultural centre). He assembled the village elders, organized the costumes and props, and directed its reappearance as an annual event in February, 1987.
     The tiger costumes differ somewhat from the originals, which were a kind of striped cloak. Nowadays the performers put on felted, grey woolen capes, tucked at the upper corners like outsized cat ears, and bunched at the lower end and rolled into a thick tail. White, red and yellow stripes are painted on their bare legs, arms and faces. Throughout the performance the "tigers" hold up their arms, bent at shoulder height, their "paws" dangling free.
musicians and others in the festival troupe
     Joining the eight tigers in the dance and on the procession are several men in black coats and trousers, plus one in blue. The bimaw and his assistant are among these, distinguished from the others by grey woolen capes, folded at the shoulders. Most carry gongs or a drum, the only musical accompaniment to the act.
     A great feast precedes the show, with chicken, fish and several pork dishes, in a room laden with pine boughs. The performers eat heartily, for the procession and the vigorous dances will expend a lot of calories, and wash it down with strong corn liquor. Then they ascend the slope to the altar grounds and don their costumes. When all of them are dressed and painted the bimaw begins the ritual, facing the three stones, pine boughs lying around their bases. The assistant inserts lighted incense sticks into the ground in front of the stones and places small cups of liquor between them.
ring dance at the start of the program
     After a few prayers the bimaw, with sacrificial hen in hand, leads the group in paying obeisance to the four cardinal directions. Facing the stones, he stabs the hen in the throat, while an assistant plucks three feathers to leave at the altar. The bimaw collects the hen's blood in a dish. The meat will be consumed at the evening banquet. Then the bimaw and his assistant take a tray, a bottle of spirits and a small bowl, go around to each of the participants, and the guests as well, and invite them to join in the ceremony by quaffing a small drink.
dancers in the role of oxen
     Now the group lines up for its march through the village. The leader is first, followed by the caped bimaw and his assistant, the man in blue, his face striped in yellow and holding a chunk of pig fat stuck in the end of a bamboo staff, five or six black-gowned men with gongs and a drum, and one carrying the tray and the liquor. The eight tigers line up after him. They half-march, half-dance through the rocky, narrow lanes. Sometimes the tigers pair off, lock two feet together in the air and hop around in a circle. Other times they fall into groups for a quick dance.
the plowing dance
     The troupe stops once or twice at the house of one of the village leaders. Two of the tigers crouch on all fours at the doorway and the bimaw and his assistant straddle them while the recitation goes on, blessing the owner of the house. This short rite concludes with a cup of liquor for all in attendance.
Wudi is not a big village, so the procession has concluded within a half hour, and the troupe has arrived at the village square beside the pond. The middle school sits on one side and the square also sees service as the school and village basketball court. With more room to maneuver the dancers spread out, move back and forth in circles, pair off more frequently and finally halt for a short rest.
sowing broadcast skit
     After twenty minutes the show resumes with the most fascinating, and to the Yi the most important, part of the performance. Gathering at the south end of the square, the tigers run through a series of dances that mimic the various tasks in the rice-growing cycle.
     First comes a solo tiger carrying a basket, surveying the field. Next three tigers advance with a plough, which one of them "yokes" to the other two. In a very stylized manner, rife with gesticulations, they mime the ploughing. Another trio follows them to do the harrowing. A fourth dancer emerges next, wielding a hoe. He is followed by a tiger with a basket, who pretends to be sowing broadcast.
     For the planting skit all eight tigers participate. They conclude with a short rendition of weeding the field as well. After this four tigers come out with sickles to mime the cropping. For the final skit three tigers bring out a huge threshing basket and they and the other five tigers together mime the beating of sheaves against the basket sides.
planting dance
     When all the props are put away the group re-forms and dances in circles again. The whole act, except the march through the village, is repeated at the square at night, with practically the entire village in attendance. When the last skit concludes the villagers form a line and commence their own communal dance. Led by flautists and men playing the typically Yi "moon guitars," round, wooden, dragon-headed, four-string instruments, they move slowly and sinuously throughout the square, in a three-steps-and-kick pattern like that of the tigers.
musicians leading the night dance
     No one in Wudi can say just how ancient the festival is. Most of the Yi in Chuxiong share the same origin myth--that the first Yi was the son of a tiger and a woman. But no other Yi sub-group stages a tiger dance. The dances mimicking the rice cycle activities are obviously designed to magically insure a good coming crop and would have been the "pagan" (or "superstitious") aspect that aroused the atheist (or "scientific") opposition to it in 1952. So what would its revival imply?
     The Wudi woman who suggested its revival in 1986 is reticent about what prompted the notion. Were the rice harvests less than expected in recent years and did she, consciously or sub-consciously, believe a dose of the old magic would put things right again? It's hard to believe the village population as a whole believes the tiger dances insure the rice crop. Like the man who organized its revival they wanted something ethnically and uniquely their own to identify with. They may have assimilated in most other respects, but the staging of Laohuzhuan is more than just a traditional splash of colour in an otherwise humdrum lifestyle. It is the Wudi village celebration of being Yi.

Laifuzhuan procession passes the village pond.
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Human Chess in Vietnam

                                                            by Jim Goodman

arrival of the  opposing teams
     Since its introduction into Vietnam several centuries ago the Chinese version of chess has become a popular national pastime. Players set up little cloth chessboards in the public parks, using wooden disks inscribed with the Chinese character that identifies the piece. Less frequently, they may be seen hovering over their game in a coffee house or bia hơi. Chess is one of the entertainment activities in many village festivals, with a row of chessboards lining one of the lanes outside the temple compound.
     In fact, one Hanoi temple holds a chess tournament as its annual festival. Named for the legendary chess player Đế Thích and built to venerate him as the patron spirit of all chess players, the temple, also known as Chùa Vua, stands on Thịnh Yên Street in Hanoi’s Hai Bà Trưng district. For three days, beginning the 6th day of the first lunar month, players pair off and play, winners then facing winners until the third day, when a champion finally emerges. Temple authorities present him with a special chess set that is displayed in the Đế Thích temple on for one year, after which he can keep it in his home.
a popular game in Vietnam
     Westerners used to their own version of chess will find the Vietnamese game a bit difficult to follow. The objective is the same—to capture or checkmate the king (in this case the general)—and many of the pieces have their exact counterparts. But the Vietnamese/Chinese version has pieces which are different, no queen or equivalent, some pieces restricted to a small area and a different initial set-up.
     The grid of the chessboard is similar, but larger. The pieces do not occupy the spaces, as in Western chess, but the points at the intersections of the lines. Each side has five ranks and nine files. The general sits in the middle file of the back rank. On each side of him sit his mandarins. The movements of these three, the general non-diagonally, the mandarins diagonally, are limited to the points beside them and two ranks in front, an area known as the castle. To their sides are the elephants, which can only move two unoccupied points diagonally and no further than the fifth rank. Next to them are the horses, which move one point forward or sideways and one point diagonally. Finally, at the flanking files are the chariots. Like the rooks in Western chess, they can move non-diagonally any number of points.
Chùa Vua chess tournament
     Two ranks in front of the horses are the two cannons, which move like chariots, except when capturing a piece. Then they have to leap a piece from either side, called the screen, to make the move. On every other point in the rank in front of the cannon stand the five soldiers. They move one point forward. But after the fifth rank, which is unoccupied in the beginning, a river divides one side from the other. Elephants may not cross the river. But when soldiers cross the river they can then move one point sideways or forwards.
human chess pieces
     Some of the festival venues have large chessboards painted on a field beside or within the compound. Flag chess is played on such a ground. The pieces are represented by flags, with the appropriate identifying Chinese ideograph, mounted on metal poles, which players insert into holes at the points on the chess ground. The opponents play the game by moving the flags around.
     The same kind of chess ground is used for human chess, the most spectacular form of the game. In this version humans, one set of boys and one set of girls, play the role of the pieces. They dress in fancy costumes befitting their roles in the game, in contrasting colors. One side yellow and the other side red, for example, or the boys might dress in yellow trimmed with green, while the girls dress in green trimmed with yellow. Key pieces like the general might wear different colors. The participants are usually adolescents and village elders choose them according to their moral standing in the community. (That’s not such a hard task, since villagers all know which families have good reputations and which do not.)
moving the 'pieces' while the drummer plays
     An older male beating a gong leads the boys onto the chess ground, while an older woman beating a drum leads the girls. When all have taken their places the players emerge. Each wears a scarf around his waist the color of his team and carries a tasseled stick or pennant. When directing a move the player walks over to the boy or girl playing the piece, waves the stick, then walks over to the intended point to move to and waves the stick again. The boy or girl then moves to the new position. If one is captured then that boy or girl moves off the ground.
contemplating the next move
     To heighten the tension a man plays a drum while he follows each player as he deliberates his move. Meanwhile, at the side of the ground a woman narrates the progress of the game by song. Sometimes she improvises. Other times she sings a set piece lamenting the “death” of a soldier, elephant, etc. and a mournful one for the captured general at the end. Beside her table stands a large board depicting the game as it progresses. This is for the audience to watch, for they may have trouble following the game when they are standing at the same level as the players and the pieces.The players themselves never glance at the board. They remain on the field with the pieces. They do not direct their moves from towers at either end of the ground, with a broad overlook akin to bending over a chessboard. They cannot see the whole field at once so cannot have a clear view of all the positions. It is a much more difficult way to play. The game itself is analogous to war, with its generals, soldiers and cannon. Playing human chess is like commanding troops in an arena of hand-to-hand combat.
But that is the whole point of human chess. It is more difficult to play this way, so the winner is better appreciated, both by the audience and by himself. And with its ritual presentation, gorgeous costumes and musical accompaniment this version of chess is more enjoyable to watch. As an exalted form of a popular game, human chess is a uniquely Vietnamese form of entertainment.
human chess at the Chèm festival
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Crossing the Angry River--the Old Way

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

over the rapids at Lishadi
     In China’s Yunnan Province the Salween River is known as the Nu River (Nujiang in Chinese). It gives its name to the province’s westernmost prefecture and derives from the name of the earliest inhabitants of the valley—the Nu minority nationality. In their own language nu means dark. So it’s the dark people and the dark river. But the Chinese character used to represent nu is the word for angry. It may be the wrong choice for designating the people, for they are a small, placid, easy-going ethnic group, much outnumbered by the Black Lisu, who make up the majority of the prefecture’s population. But it seems quite appropriate to call the river angry, especially during the rainy months of spring and summer, when it roars through the 300 km-long Nujiang canyon at seven meters per second, creating long stretches of Class 4 and 5 waves.
old-style rope-bridge, 1895
     After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 one of the first things the government did was to construct bridges to span the river at the major towns and market venues in the three counties that make up the canyon. Until then the only way to cross the river anywhere was by rope-bridge. Mountains cresting 4000 meters rise sharply from both sides of the river valley, sometimes meeting the water with a perpendicular wall of rock, cutting settlements off from each other. It would be too expensive to build suspension bridges everywhere people have to cross the river, so 28 of these rope-bridges survive today, all but a few in regular use, mostly between the towns of Fugong and Gongshan. Rope-bridges usually come in pairs, with the take-off point of each always higher than the landing point.
     In the old days the bridges were made of twisted strips of split bamboo and changed every few years when they began to sag. The traveler sat in thongs strapped to a wooden slider that was mounted on the rope. Animals and packages were conveyed across the river the same way. But often the momentum gives out before the passenger reaches the other side. Riders then pull themselves across the cable the remaining distance, much like climbing a rope in a gymnasium. When that happened with packages or animals, though, locals had to slide back down the rope from the other bank, grab the package with the legs, or the animal by the straps, and pull their way back to the bank.
hooking up
crossing with a rice bag
     Nowadays the rope-bridges are made of wound steel cables and don’t have to be changed every few years. They are also unbreakable, though the old split bamboo ones never broke, either, but still, the idea that they might scares off most visitors from trying. On the web you can find accounts that write of “hurtling to the other side at heart-stopping speed,” followed by the usual speculations on how fast you would drown in the torrents below if the cable broke. One traveler wrote that the only thing that would persuade him to ride the rope-bridge would be the possibility of facing certain death if he did not ride it
with mountains always in view
     When I finally began exploring the northern part of Nujiang a few summers ago, I saw my first rope-bridge crossing at Lishadi, north of Fugong. The first obvious fact was that the web writers hadn’t actually witnessed the event themselves. The speed of the passengers I saw was closer to about 15 kph—not exactly “heart-stopping.”
     Shortly afterwards I sat by the landing point and watched two Lisu girls, aged about 10-12, roped together on the same cable hook, ride across the river several times, just for their own amusement. I drew two conclusions from this: it can’t be dangerous and it must be fun Back in Lishadi I discovered that everyone who lived in villages accessed by rope-bridge had their own rope harnesses and cable hooks.
starting point
Two can ride as easily as one.
     My excursion time then was at an end, but on my next rip to Fugong in the autumn I purchased a strong rope and the modern equivalent of the old sliders. I called on a local Lisu acquaintance for assistance and he took me on market day to the rope-bridge at Damedi, about 12 km south of the town. On our side of the river was a tall cliff, about 30 meters above the rapids, and at the starting point I followed his instructions on how to use my new gear. I looped the rope around my body, one side in the small of my back and the other side under the thighs. The modern slider is an iron housing with a pulley wheel inside and two big hooks underneath. The slider goes on the cable, hooks facing the riverbank, and then I crossed the rope loop ends and slung them onto the hooks. Now I was ready.
crossing the river near Lumadeng
      With one hand on the top of the housing (not on the cable itself, which will burn the hand from the friction), and the other holding my harness ropes, I simply lifted my feet off the boulder and away I went. It took about 15 seconds to reach the other side, with the movement of the pulley wheel against the cable sounding like a purring kitten. The sensation was both wonderful and not what I expected. I thought my heart would beat faster, my blood rush, my skin tingle, etc, but, on the contrary, I felt an enormous sense of serenity, rather like the high one is supposed to get from meditation exercises. The excuse I had given for wanting to do this was to drink the spirit of the Nujiang Lisu people’s life style. I was certainly doing that now.
children at play on the Nu River
     After taking photos of other riders, with their crossbows on their backs or a sack of grain on one of the hooks, I found on my return crossing that my own momentum gave out some 30 meters from the shore. Pulling myself the remainder of the way was rather difficult, but with Lisus watching me I couldn’t very well give up and wait for one of them to come and fetch me like they would do for one of their ponies.
So I made it to the other side, albeit breathless upon arrival, and returned to Fugong with my Lisu friend. He promptly spread the word of my feat and I was the subject of awe by all those local Lisu who have only used suspension bridges all their lives. Wasn’t I afraid? they wondered. Not at all, said I. I’d watched the children do it at Lishadi.
In my later journeys to Nujiang, riding rope-bridges in the northern part of the canyon, I found that, since I have my own harness and cable-hook, my crossings don’t make any special impression on the Lisu villagers who also ride rope-bridges. They are kind and hospitable but assume I live in Nujiang, or else why have the gear? Only when I return to the towns and the word has spread do I meet many Lisus who confess they have never done that because they are too afraid.
pulling oneself the last few meters
     So I have developed a new ambition in Nujiang. I want to persuade one of those beautiful Black Lisu girls in the towns, who has been walking on suspension bridges across the river all her life, to hitch up with me on the same cable hook and go for her first ride ever together with her outsider guide. Having conquered my own qualms about riding rope-bridges I am flush with confidence that I can do anything locals anywhere do. That’s the major influence the experience has had on me.
But it has also reshaped my own ideas, previously fuzzy anyway, about what might make a good death. For when that time eventually comes, if I can slide out of this life as easily as I slid across the Angry River on a rope-bridge, and touch down in eternity as comfortably as I landed on the opposite bank, that would definitely make for a smooth, contented exit.
ancient adventures in Nujiang
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Baskets on the Ocean

                                                         by Jim Goodman

traditional basket boat
        With a coastline 3451 kilometers long, two major deltas and innumerable rivers, streams, canals, lakes, coves, ponds and lagoons, bodies of water make up one of Vietnam’s most important geographical features. To cross these waters, to gather fish and other resources from their depths and to convey goods and people from one port to another the Vietnamese have devised an array of boats, rafts and sailing vessels. They make them in a variety of shapes and sizes and power them by motors, sails, poles, paddles or oars, operated by the hands or by the feet.
basket boats off Cù Lao Chàm
        Besides the ultimate use of the vessel, wind patterns and topographical conditions determine what kind of boat the people of a given community will build. The kind used on rivers and lakes will not be strong enough for the choppy waves of the sea. The fishing vessels used off the coast of Hà Long and other rocky bays are too vulnerable to the high winds common off the shores of Thanh Hoá and around Trà Cổ, in the extreme northeast. In Thanh Hoá they prefer rafts and in Trà Cổ the hulls of the boats comprise blocks of Styrofoam in between bamboo poles. Both are better able to ride rough waves and survive storms.
Cù Lao Chàm harbor
        Yet one style of boat is common from Cát Bà to Vũng Tàu, popular since the time the Vietnamese cleared the swamps of the Red River Delta—the basket boat. Its use and design have remained unchanged over the millennia. The basket boat is the Vietnamese equivalent of the traditional coracle of the British Isles. Though the shape and construction of the coracle is similar, it is generally smaller, its seat lies across the rim of the boat and it is overly light, with a tendency to pitch, hard to paddle and easy to capsize. It is made from willow or hazel saplings. Originally the bottom of the coracle was made waterproof by covering it with ox or horse hides. This evolved into tar-treated wool or cotton and in recent times polyester cloth with a coating of oil paint.
carrying the boat to the beach at Tam Kỳ 
        Vietnamese make their basket boats from the ubiquitous bamboo, a naturally waterproof plant, cut into narrow strips for the staves. By carefully heating the bamboo strips they can bend them into the curve of the basket shape and seal the rim of the finished boat the same way. To make them watertight the Vietnamese cover the bottom of the boat with a thick coat of pitch. Boat owners will re-apply the pitch every six months to prevent leaks. Basket boats are sturdier, easier to maneuver and more trustworthy at sea than coracles. Passengers also sit on a plank set much below the boat’s rim. If two people are paddling them the basket boats can move across the water rather rapidly. If the rider is going solo he or she moves the paddle in a figure-8 pattern to make the boat move forward. Otherwise it will just spin around.
launching at Tam Kỳ
        Some coastal villages specialize in producing basket boats. In Quảng Nam, for example, Điện Dươmg, between Hội An and the Marble Mountains, makes the boats used around Dà Nẵng, Cù Lao Chàm and Núi Thành. Depending on the size, which can be up to about a meter and a half diameter, the boats cost between 600,000 and 1,200,000 đồng. The large ones can seat four passengers.
basket boats in a Hanoi pond
        It’s hard to imagine the technology having changed at all over the centuries. Back a thousand years ago, when Hanoi was made the capital again, the city was full of lakes, big and small, rivers that ran through the commercial and residential areas and land areas subject to flooding. Stilted houses were probably the norm and no doubt every house owned a boat. Some of these had to be basket boats, since it was so much easier to make one than to construct a wooden vessel. Even today some Hanoi residents use small basket boats to crop vegetables like water mimosa and convolvulus growing in neighborhood ponds.
coming off the lagoon at Lăng Cô
        Basket boats are light. Even the big ones can be easily toted by three or four men. In ancient times they were used in warfare. Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, who ruled Vietnam in the 10th century, dispatched soldiers by basket boats up the rivers fro Hoa Lư to deal with revolts and rural unrest. And over the centuries guerrillas have used them in the various resistance movements against foreign invaders.
        Today basket boats are used as dinghies in Central and South Vietnam, as minor ferries and fishing vessels everywhere. Some boat owners have entered the tourist trade and take visitors on short rides around Vũng Tàu, Nha Trang and Cù Lao Chàm harbor. At Cù Lao Chàm a few take passengers from the south side of the village to the ferryboat pier, but here the most common use is for fishing. In fact, they outnumber the standard fishing vessels and are out in the water much more often.
fishing in the Cù Lao Chàm harbor
        The bigger boats are for catching bigger fish, generally for the Hội An or Dà Nẵng markets, but they are only plentiful in certain seasons. So for much of the time the wooden boats in Cù Lao Chàm remained moored in the harbor. Basket boats, however, start paddling out to sea right at sunrise. They will venture several hundred meters from shore, casting nets for fish, squid, crab, prawn, mussel, cockle, clam and anything else edible from the sea. Only when they have a full load of sea animals or when the waves get too rough will they return to the harbor. 
        Consequently, in the Cù Lao Chàm harbor it seems like something is always moving, so often do the basket boats slip around and between the anchored wooden vessels. Attractive by their shape, whether silently bobbling across the water or lying in anchored groups near the shore, they are the most fascinating boats in the country. And with plenty of bamboo on the land and lots of fish still in the sea, basket boats are likely to be in use in Vietnam another couple millennia.

coming in to Cù Lao Chàm
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