Monday, October 22, 2018

The Other Side of the Azure Mountains—Shaxi to Xiaguan

                                   by Jim Goodman

outskirts of Shaxi, on the Heihui RIver 
       Before highways began linking up various parts of Yunnan in the 20th century, and trucks started delivering goods everywhere, caravans were the means to carry out long-distance trade.  While they plied over trails on traditional routes connecting all parts of the province, one of the most important was the famous Tea and Horses Road, running from Xishuangbanna in the south, through western and northwestern Yunnan and into Tibet.  Its name derived from its principal trade items—Pu’er tea from southern Yunnan and horses from Tibet.
       Many towns along the route became popular stopovers for the caravans, providing lodging and places to tether their animals.  Among these was Shaxi, in Jianchuan County, northern Dali Prefecture.  The usual way to get there was proceeding north of Xiaguan, at the south end of Erhai Lake, with the Azure Mountains (Cangshan in Chinese) on the west side, then passing out of the valley, through Eryuan County and to Sword Lake, just south of Jianchuan city. 
Yi woman crossing the old stone bridge
typical Shaxi old town lane
the old theater on the market square
      At the junction here a road turns ssw along the Heihui River, which empties into Sword Lake, and soon enters a broad plain dominated by the town of Shaxi.  Never very big, it was nevertheless fairly prosperous until the virtual end of the caravan trade after 1949.  Yet in its slow modernization over the next several decades, Shaxi still retained its old quarter of cobbled lanes and traditional Bai houses, former lodges for the caravan operators and dilapidated, but not destroyed, temples and other public buildings.  It was the last of the caravan stopovers that still looked like one.
       Shaxi is basically a farmers’ town, but from the beginning of the 21st century it took on a new identity as a popular tourist attraction.  The provincial government launched restoration programs, renovating the old temples and the theater on the market square and promoting its historic connection to the Tea and Horses Road.  The town has a new section of boring concrete buildings, but it is a minor part of Shaxi and such architecture doesn’t appear in the traditional quarters.  New houses have gone up, but in classic traditional Bai style.
Shaxi Friday market
Bai women run stalls on market day
      The town sits on the west bank of the river and a little above the water.  Two bridges cross the Heihui.  One is for pedestrians, centuries old, a classic arched stone bridge with sculpted lion heads at each end and on the side over the highest point of the arch.  The other, for vehicles, is an ordinary level bridge in the 1950s style, with elliptical arches and plain columns at each end.  It looks out of synch with all the old-fashioned buildings within sight in every direction.  But at least it is outside the town proper, where the traditional look has not only survived, but has been enhanced.
Bai woman in Shaxi
Yi woman in Shaxi
       The population is mixed Han, Hui and Bai.  Most of the houses are mud brick with tiled roofs.  Others, like the former boarding houses, are manly wooden.  Some of the richer Bai live in houses with carved gates, more use of stone, and painted decorations under the apex of the roofs like those in Dali or Jianchuan.  Shade trees line the main streets in the old town and trimmed shrubs sit in pots in front of the houses.  Passageways through the lanes pass under the arches of neighborhood gates or of houses that straddle both sides of the lane.
ancient sculptures in a Shibaoshan grotto
       A quiet, almost sedate atmosphere prevails in the old town, where vehicular traffic is basically absent, except for bicycles and the occasional tractor-trailer.  That all changes on Friday, Shaxi’s market day.  Residents of the town, joined by villagers from the vicinity, set up stalls in the old market square and along practically all the lanes in the old town.  The local dentist has an outdoor stall that day, too. 
       Products on sale vary considerably.   One section will feature carved doors and windows, chairs and stools, another all kinds of carrying baskets, yet another tools and horse trappings.  One lane will fill with grains, spices, vegetables and fruits and the next one will offer shoes and clothing.  There will be noodle stalls for those who want lunch and steamed buns and other snacks available at small stands.
stone vagina, Shibaoshan
camel head rock, Shibaoshan
       Market day draws the valley’s Han and Bai, but also many Yi from the mountains, as well as a few Lisu, Naxi and perhaps itinerant Tibetans selling medicinal herbs.  The Yi are the same Nuosu branch that dominates Ninglang County.  Yi women are the most colorful people in the market, with long, bright, tri-colored skirts, decorative jackets and wearing either a large black rectangular hat or a flat, embroidered cloth held in place by hair braids.  And if it’s cool weather, the outfit includes a dark felted woolen cape.
Shaxi countryside
       In late afternoon, when villagers start returning home, leading ponies packed with their goods, the scene evokes the time of the Tea and Horses Road.  The caravan trade expanded from the 10th century during the Song Dynasty, for the latter needed the horses to deal with enemies on its northern frontiers.   Shaxi may have been a caravan stopover by then, though no relics exist from that long ago.
       Nearby Shibaoshan, however, is the site of religious monuments from the Nanzhao Kingdom, with stone carvings from around 800.  Shibaoshan is a tall, steep hill in a wooded rural area, remarkable for the pagodas built into its cliffs and the grottos with stone sculptures.  These date from the Nanzhao and Dali periods before the 13th century.  They include a seated Buddha flanked by his two favorite disciples, a standing Guan Yin, various multi-armed guardian deities and small Buddha images.
       The most unusual is a stone vagina.  Local women come here, especially when they get pregnant, to pray and to rub the stone.  They believe this act will ease the pangs of childbirth.  Shibaoshan is also host to the three-day Bai Singing Festival at the end of the 7th lunar month.
Bai woman in Changyi
Yi woman in Changyi
       In the caravan heyday Shaxi was a stopover for groups on the way to and from Tibet.  Merchants might also pick up salt here from nearby mines.  Going south, they needn’t detour to Eryuan and Dali to reach Xiaguan, but could simply continue down the valley of the Heihui River over what used to be called the Bonan Road.  The road is never very high above the river, nor does it cross any hills.  Villages are visible in the flanking hills and all along the riverbanks.
the old mosque in Yangbi
       The road passes through western Eryuan County and the last village before entering Yangbi County is Changyi, which holds its market day Saturday.  Bai and Yi, as in Shaxi, are the main participants.  Except for furniture, most items on sale are the same as in Shaxi, with the exception of walnuts, a specialty of Yangbi County.
      Yangbi is a Yi Autonomous County, with at least four Yi sub-groups living in the hills, which make up most of its territory.  Until a generation ago the Yi lived at a level of basic subsistence.  Then the government introduced the planting of walnut trees.  Yangbi is not the only place in Yunnan cultivating walnuts.  Dayao and Gongshan Counties also have them, for example.  But the soil in Yangbi seemed to be particularly good for walnuts, producing a thin-shelled, tasty, slightly sweet nut, and soon Yangbi became dubbed the “hometown of walnuts.”
Yunlong Bridge, Yangbi
       Nowadays walnut plantations cover 71,000 hectares in the county.  The annual output has reached 50,000 tons, valued at one billion yuan.  Government statistics claim that as a result 70% of the county’s population has been lifted out of poverty.  Harvesting begins in September and to coincide with it the county government stages a month-long Walnut Festival in Yangbi city.  Events include rites to the Walnut God, food-tasting events (and not just walnuts), cooking competition, markets and rounds of singing and dancing performances.
       As the road crosses into Yangbi County the towering peaks of the Azure Mountains rise to the east.  In the caravan era Yangbi city, originally called Shangjie, was an important junction on the Bonan Road.  Instead of going on to Xiaguan or north to Shaxi, caravans could turn west here to Yongping and Baoshan.  The city has a modern section of nondescript concrete and steel buildings around the city stadium, the main venue for festivals.  But it also has an extensive old quarter, largely Hui-inhabited, full of traditional tile-roofed wooden houses.  A fine old Chinese-style mosque sits on a mound above the old neighborhood.
Yangbi old town
Stone Gate Pass behind Jinniu
       Homes are not as elegant as some of the Shaxi dwellings and the cobbled lanes have not been renovated in recent years.  But a walk through it is evocative of an earlier era.  Continuing past the mosque, the lane terminates at the old Yunlong Bridge, the main river crossing for caravans going west.  A suspension bridge with wooden planks laid across iron cables, dating from the early Qing Dynasty, it doesn’t have caravan traffic anymore, but is still in use by villagers living across the river.  On the other side, earlier this century Yangbi Han Buddhists erected a small Buddhist shrine and a pagoda above it.
Xi'er River in Xiaguan
       From Yangbi city the road swings southeast along the river, in this county renamed the Yangbi River, until its confluence at Pingpo with the Xi’er River that flows east to Xiaguan and into Erhai Lake.  The road swerves much closer to the Azure Mountains on this stretch and at Jinniu is a steep cleft in the hills called Stone Gate Pass, now being built up as a scenic attraction with the construction of a walkway along the base of one of the cliffs.  At Pingpo the road turns east along the Xi’er River, passes the southern end of the Cangshan range and glides into Xiaguan.
       Now the capital of Dali Prefecture and the biggest city in western Yunnan, Xiaguan began as an 8th century fortified settlement, founded by King Piluoge of the new state of Nanzhao, to guard the southern entrance to the Dali plain.  Taihe, further north, established in 737, served as the Nanzhao capital until it was moved to Dali in 779.  Xiaguan lies at the southwest corner of Erhai Lake, backed by high mountains with its suburbs sprawling into the foothills.
Nanzhao warriors on a fresco at the General's Temple
       Over time it outgrew Dali and was a major stop for caravans heading north on the Tea and Horses Road to Tibet, as well as the Southwest Silk Route to Dehong Prefecture and on to Burma and India.  By the turn of the 20th century it was also a major tea-processing center.  Its commercial importance increased with the construction of the Burma Road during the Sino-Japanese War to enable the transport of supplies of all kinds from British-held Burma to Yunnan.
       After the war and the foundation of the People’s Republic, Xiaguan’s growth and development expanded.  New industries appeared such as power generation, food processing, papermaking, cigarettes, cement and marble processing and polishing.  The factories are scattered, though, and not concentrated in one polluted area.  The Xi’er River runs through the city center and residents sometimes come to fish with poles from the walkways on the banks or with nets cast from rafts or boats they take out on the water.  A few parks lie along the river and a very large and well-developed one occupies a long offshore island on the lake.
the General's Temple, Xiaguan
       Xiaguan does not feature the old buildings, monuments and relics that characterize Dali or Weishan.  It does, however, have a pair of sites associated with Nanzhao’s history.  On a hill in the western suburbs stands the General’s Temple, dedicated to General Li Mi, who is not a local hero but instead was a Tang Dynasty commander of a huge Chinese invasion force in the mid-8th century.  This was the third attempt by Tang China to subdue Nanzhao and, like the previous two, it ended in total disaster.  Li Mi lost his entire army and in the end drowned himself.
       The victors gave the dead a proper funeral and interred the corpses, or maybe the ashes, inside a tomb in Tianbao Park, in what is now the western quarter of the city.  It’s just a stone mound with some exterior inscriptions and probably never contained as many remains as the records claimed.  But it’s Xiaguan’s only true Nanzhao relic.
       Many generations after Li Mi’s demise, his descendants established a shrine to his memory and to invoke his protection of the area.  In the Ming Dynasty a three-part temple replaced the original shrine.  Nowadays many local Bai devotees come here to make offerings, especially at the mid-autumn festival, Li Mi’s birthday.  Considering that the Bai were, along with the Yi, the victors over Li Mi’s army, it seems odd that they would be making offerings to him.  But Bai country folk are devout by nature and upbringing and may not even be aware of the historical particulars regarding the object of their worship.  To them, he’s a protective deity and that’s enough.

Yangbi old town and valley
                                                                        * * *
 Delta Tours Vietnam arranges a journey through western Yunnan that includes a stop in Shaxi.  For the itinerary see       


No comments:

Post a Comment