Sunday, April 12, 2020

South of Kunming: Yuxi, Tonghai and the Lakes

                                                                     by Jim Goodman

traditional style street in Yuxi's old quarter
        Most tourism in Yunnan concentrates on places notable both for spectacular scenery and a strong ethnic minority presence.  The mountainous northwest has been a favorite since it first opened, as have been the tropical prefectures of Dehong and Xishuangbanna and, more recently, Honghe Prefecture.   The province is full of wonders and interesting places, though, and a few are just south of Kunming, in Yuxi Prefecture, suitable for a weekend excursion or, in my case, stopovers on the way from Honghe to Kunming.  The landscape was mostly rolling hills and plains, but mottled by lakes.  The towns Yuxi and Tonghai were still old-fashioned in the 90s, uncongested and friendly.  Most people were Han, some Hui, and near Tonghai were Yunnan’s only Mongolian villages.
buildings in the old part of central Yuxi
      The prefecture capital Yuxi City is 88 km sw of Kunming, on a plain flanked by low hills and lots of tobacco plantations.  On a knoll in the southeast suburb, overlooking the sprawling complexes of the Hongtajituan Tobacco Company, stands the Red Pagoda (Hong Ta), the city’s emblem.  A tapering, seven-storey structure, the pagoda dates to the Yuan Dynasty, was originally made of blue limestone and was restored in the late Qing Dynasty.  Red Guards painted it red during the Cultural Revolution.  (At least they didn’t demolish it.)  It’s also the trademark for the Hongtashan brand quality cigarette produced here.
socializing in a Yuxi park
       In the 90s, Yuxi’s expanding suburbs, with the newer and taller buildings, basically surrounded the urban center, which was still dominated by two and three-storey red wooden shop houses with tiled roofs.  A huge, jagged limestone boulder, at least 15 meters high, stood right next to the main downtown street almost in the center of Yuxi, as if the city were built around it.
       Besides the traditional architecture, and a small museum of mostly local artisans’ works, the city also had several parks, including one honoring Nie Er, a native son who was the composer of China’s national anthem. The parks feature the usual pools, pavilions, rest houses, limestone rockeries and potted flowers.  Families stroll here on weekends and older men assemble to play cards or board games while entertained by their pet songbirds in cages hanging from overhead tree branches.
the Red Pagoda
limestone boulder in the center of the city
       Also easily accessible are two forest temples near Yuxi.  Nine Dragons Pool, just ten km north, dates from the Ming Dynasty, when a Buddhist monk planted the pine forest around the temple.  Dragons dominate the sculptures here, writhing around all the pillars and peering out under the roofs.  Within the main shrine stood statues of animal-headed deities—monkey, rabbit, tiger, chicken and ram.
the Weather Forecasting Pond
       The other temple—Black Dragon Pool—is just eight km from the city.  One of the pools of water in this compound is known as the Weather Forecasting Pond, for its color and surface change according to an imminent change in weather.  A watchman is employed there so that villagers can call him up and find out whether it’s going to rain, storm, be overcast or fair weather.
       From Yuxi the road to Tonghai first runs south and then turns southeast into Tonghai County.  After going through some low hills it enters the broad plain lying west of Qilu Lake.  The city sits behind a stretch of farmland on the south shore of the lake.  Archaeological evidence indicates the area was inhabited in Neolithic times.  The city itself dates to the Nanzhao Era.  After the Mongol conquest Tonghai became the main military and administrative post for southern Yunnan during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.
street in Tonghai old town
Jukui Pavilion in Tonghai old town
       The urban core of old Tonghai lies along the base of a long, wooded hill.  The old city center is in front of the western side of this hill.  In the 90s minibuses dropped me off at the junction to the main street in the old town, lined with trees and traditional red wooden shop houses.  The triple-tiered, tile-roofed, Qing Dynasty Jukui Pavilion—the city’s icon--stood in the middle, halfway to the hill. 
deities in a Xiushan temple
The last block of this street rose to the edge of the hill and around the corner was a Confucian temple.  A little further along this cobbled side lane stood the entrance to the park in the hill, called Xiushan—Beautiful Mountain.  Tonghai’s top attraction, for both tourists and the religious-minded, Xiushan has been a pilgrimage site since the Han Dynasty.   Temples went up during the Nanzhao Era and Duan Shiping, founder of the Dali Kingdom, Nanzhao’s successor in the early 10th century, sponsored a major renovation.
ancient Xiushan templ
out on Qilu  Lake
       After the fall of Yunnan, new patrons sponsored more temple construction in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.  These are the sights of Xiushan Park, which comprises the entire hill.  Some of them are on steep slopes, above terraces lined with potted flowers.  Others are deep within the forest, accessible by clearly marked trails through the trees, often next to natural pools.  Another lies beside a glade, with a view to the higher hills to the south.
afternoon fishing on Qilu Lake
       Poets and scholars gravitated here in the past.  Among the furnishings of the Xiushan temples are stone tablets with carved couplets, probably composed in one of the twenty or so pavilions and arbors on the hill.  Three temple compounds also feature ancient trees—a Song Dynasty cypress, Yuan Dynasty cedar and a Ming Dynasty magnolia.
       The park has no cable cars to shuttle visitors around, only quiet trails to tread on foot.  It is also bereft of souvenir shops and refreshment stands.  This makes it easier to appreciate the natural settings of the temples and evokes an automatic sense of reverence. There are not so many, each has its own special features and carved deities, and one could see the entire lot in a leisurely manner in just over half a day.
Mongol women planting rice
       North of the main inter-city road at the edge of the old town, beyond a stretch of farmland about 1.5 km wide, lies Qilu Lake.  Just under 37 square kilometers in size, it has an average depth of just over four meters, but is much shallower in the western half, while sometimes reaching as deep as fifteen meters in the eastern side.  The lake is rich in nutrients and plant life, rendering the waters a murky green, but also reducing the amount of oxygen available for fish.  Still, it holds enough shrimp, carp, herring, catfish and bullhead to entice fishermen at various hours of the day, especially towards dusk.
Genghis Khan, Xingmeng
       Long, long ago the waters stretched all the way to Xiushan, which then was known as Qilu Mountain:  hence its name Qilu Lake.  Supposedly a monk dug a hole in the middle of the lake that connected to an underground channel that carried the water all the way to the South China Sea.  The city’s name comes from this mythical event, for tong hai means ‘connecting to the sea.’  The drainage left behind a vast basin of good agricultural land.
       The Zhonghe stream runs along the northern rim of this plain and enters Qilu Lake at its west end.  No streams carry water out of the lake, which instead empties into caves.  Since it’s prone to flooding, villagers have built dikes along the most vulnerable shores.   Along the Zhonghe, in front of Peacock Hill, are three villages inhabited by ethnic Mongolians, the only ones still living in Yunnan.  Though the Mongols conquered Yunnan in 1253, the community first settled here in the late 14th century, when the Ming Dynasty defeated the Mongol army near Qujing and rounded up, killed or captured all but seven soldiers.
harvest layout in front of Xingmeng
       The seven survivors escaped to Tonghai and wee sitting on the banks of Qilu Lake when they saw a vision of a man with a big fish with a temple on top.  In the local dialect ‘temple’ was a homonym with ‘food’ and so the seven interpreted the vision as an indication they could live off the fish and eels in the lake.  They took Yi wives, hid their identity from authorities for a long time and survived.
       According to their own mythology, it was their own goddess Achala who later came to drive a stake into the lake to drain it to the sea, and then expelled the dragons from the land and enabled the Mongolians to start farming.  They are still there, a community of several thousand, in Xingmeng and its two satellite villages, living in big and solid mud-brick and stone houses with tiled roofs, still practicing customs similar to those of their fellow Mongolians thousands of kilometers away.  In Xingmeng they even have a hall honoring Genghis, Mengu and Kubilai Khan, the first Mongol emperors.
Najiaying Mosque
       Men are usually only present during the busy agricultural months and hire out as construction workers several weeks at a time away from the county.  Most women dress in the traditional bright blue or green jackets, occasionally black, with contrasting bands of color around the sleeve. 
       Besides appreciating the ethnic attire, worn at home, in the field or at the town markets, visitors enjoy wandering through the old-fashioned narrow lanes, see the statues of the Mongol Emperors and may afterwards dine in a Xingmeng restaurant.  Rows of these line the main street leading to the center of Xingmeng.  The specialties, for which they have a high reputation, are Mongolian hotpot, with a heavy emphasis on eel, and roast duck, Beijing style. 
Gushan port
       Tonghai had no Mongolian restaurants.  The local taste is hot and sour, but quite palatable.  The other option was beef specialties at a Hui restaurant.   After the Mongol conquest, Muslim contingents of Kubilai’s army largely ran affairs in Yunnan.  Over time, some soldiers retired and settled in Yunnan towns and villages.  When the Ming forces expelled the Mongols from Yunnan they did not likewise chase out the Muslims.  They just became absorbed into the existing Hui minority.
       In the Qilu Basin Hexi, near Xingmeng, is a Hui town, while other Hui villages lie on the northwest side of Qilu Lake.  The biggest and most beautifully sited is Nagu, with a great view of the lake from several vantage points.  The imposing, Arabian-style Najiaying Mosque stands near the highway.  Houses in Nagu were both old and new, many with Arabic inscriptions on house pillars and pediments.  Older mosques, in a different style, were in the southern quarter.
Solitary Mountain Island
       Continuing north, the next city is Jiangchuan, lying beside Xingyun Lake.  With 34.7 square km it is roughly the size of Qilu, but holds far less vegetation and thus is a habitat for twenty species of fish. The most sought after is the Jiangchuan Bigheaded Carp, renowned for its flavor and its juicy flesh.  The water is grey-blue in color, but the usually calm surface is good for reflecting the sky; hence the name Xing Yun He—Stars and Clouds Lake.
       Xingyun Lake gets its water from a small stream connecting to the much larger Fuxian Lake to the northeast.  Fuxian Lake runs 31.5 km north to south, with an area of 212 square km and a depth reaching 155 meters, making it the third deepest lake in all of China.  Shaped like a raised clenched fist, the larger, northern ‘fist’ part belongs to Chongjiang County.  Most of the tourist development is here, especially the resorts on the northeastern shore and the Lu Chong Scenic Spot on the western side.  The latter features mountain views, caves, palaces, temples and, for a while, the only swimming beach in the province.  But in 2016 the government declared the lake off limits to swimmers and pleasure boats as a measure against ecological degradation.
typical isolated viewing pavilion
Qing Dynasty tower on top of the hill
       Most of the lower part of Fuxian belongs to Jiangchuan County, with the most popular site at Gushan, a port on the southwest shore.  The name means Solitary Mountain and is also that given to the offshore island that is a long narrow hill jutting up sharply from the lake.  Ferryboats take visitors there for the day, or arrange to pick them up the following day, for the island has a few hotels.
view across the island
       All the buildings—hotels, pavilions, shrines—are in classic Chinese style, with upturned corners and tiled roofs.  Pathways lead to scenic viewpoints, gardens, groves, the waterfront and the towers on top of the hill.  Further up the western side of Fuxian archaeologists early this century discovered the remains of an ancient city under the water.  The finds included earthenware, handmade stone works and building foundations.  They believe a city stood there nearly two millennia ago until an earthquake knocked it into the lake.
       Other local legends say an underwater city still exists and that genies and dragons sometimes arise from the waters to help people in times of war or drought. It would be good to contemplate these legends after selecting a nice isolated pavilion to observe the waning of the light on the lake.  Maybe you’ll witness an auspicious apparition, portending a good future for you.  Or maybe you could just imagine one.

view of Fuxian Lake from Solitary Mountain Island

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