Yunnan trekking: Ethnic Minorities along the Tea and Horse Road — PART 1






Filmed Friday 2/21/14

For those of you who have not yet been to  Yunnan Province in western China–you MUST go. It is downright the most stunning place IN THE WORLD! Last week, I spent 8 wonderful days traveling through the Himalayan mountains to Dali, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Jade Snow Mountain (my first glacier!), Shangri-la, and more!

I went with my study abroad program, CIEE, who offered four different locations (Yunnan, Sichuan, HongKong, and Tiawan) for a weeklong excursion. I chose Yunnan because of the trip’s emphasis on Chinese ethnice minorities.  There are 55 classified ethnic minorities in the P.R. China, although some argue there are far more un-official ones. These minorities speak different languages, dress differently, and have a diverse and contrasting history from the majority group of Han Chinese. Traditionally, these groups were suppressed and forced to assimilate into Han culture, as China wished to unify its people. However, in recent years, there has been more emphasis on preserving and celebrating ethnic minority heritage, although perhaps still not enough as there should be. 

While in Yunnan, I was able to interact with members of the Yi, Bai, Tibetian, and Naxi minorities. I began my trip with a flight from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan Province) and then an 8-hour bus ride to Dali. The ride was only supposed to be 4-5 hours, but we got stuck in stand-still traffic for over 2 hours! And the worst part was I had to use the bathroom SOOOO bad! It was torture! I even came up with a “pee song” to keep myself entertained for the eternity of that bus ride. 

While in Dali, we learned a lot about the Nanzhou empire, which existed almost 1,000 years ago and stretched from Sichuan province to Burma and the border of Vietnam.  The Nanzhou empire, and Dali, were a central part of the Tea and Horse Road (also called the Southern Silk Road), which was a main trading route in southern Asia. People would carry over 300 lbs of tea on their backs through the Himalayan mountains for months at a time! Talk about intense! 

While in Dali, there was an annual festival celebrating the Budda Guanying, which is the main buddha figure for the Bai people. Guanying is thought to be a gaurdian of the Bai, and it is told that she secured the Bai land by tricking a dragon who had control of the entire area. It is also legended that a large army was headed towards the Bai kingdom when they saw an old lady (Guanying) carrying a large rock on her back. They stopped and asked how she was possibly carrying such a large rock, and she replied, “Oh, I’m really old so I can only carry this small rock. All the young people down in the city carry much larger rocks than this.” The army got so scared that they left immediately, and the Bai land was saved. .

After spending a Dali, we left for Shaxi, which is a ridiculously small town in the middle of a large valley. I think the town was about two blocks wide–it was so small! In Shaxi is a very old Buddhist temple, which is one of the last of its kind. During the Cultural Revolution, many traditional temples were destroyed. However, the communist party had set up their headquarters in this temple-so it was preserved!

The next morning (the third day of the trip), we left Shaxi to see the nearby Stone Grottos, which are a huge mass of carvings made between 600-800 AD. Many of these carvings were of Guanying or famous kings of the Nanzhou empire. The first king of the Nanzhou empire is said to have successful prevailed over an attack from a Chinese army, and after killing a 300,000-man army, buried each soldier properly and then errected a stone asking for mutual respect and tolerence between the Nanzhou and Chinese empires. 

Next we headed to my absolute favorite place in the world–TIGER LEAPING GORGE! There is no way to describe how amazing it was, and no pictures can ever capture it’s breathtaking beauty. Every time I turned a corner or got a glimpse of a different perspective of the gorge, I was completely blown away! I spent our first afternoon there exploring a small waterfall that fed into the gorge. The water was crystal clear and it tasted super refreashing (yes–I drank some, and yes–I’m still alive). The next morning we went on a trek down the middle part of the gorge to where a tiger supposedly jumped across the rushing water (hence, the name Tiger Leaping). The climb was rediulously steep and the wind was intolerable at some points–but the view at the bottom was soooo amazing! From the lowest part of the gorge to the highest mountain peak is around 12,000 feet! I felt so small looking up at the huge wall of mountains rising on ever side of me. 

After lunch, we left Tiger Leaping Gorge and headed to Shangri-la, which is an area inhabited by the Tibetian minority. Our tour guide explained that this town isn’t traditionally named Shangri-la, but the Chinese government changed it about ten years ago to attract more tourism. We were allowed to explore the old town area for about an hour before dinner, which I saw my first yak and tibetian temple filled with colorful tibetian buddhist flags. Earlier this winter, a huge fire burned a large part of the town to the ground, and we could see the reckage from one of the temples that overlooked it.

What I learned quickly about the Tibetian minority is their depedence on yaks. Yaks supply their labor, their food, and their livelihood. For dinner we had our first taste of Yak Milk Tea and Yogurt. It was…. weird. Very bitter, and with a very sour aftertaste. I was the only one at my table who could bear a second and third helping of it–which totally came to haunt me that night (I was super gasy after almost 2 months of dairy deprevation in Shanghai). That night, from our hostel window, all we could see were yaks. Yaks and more  yaks and more yaks and more yaks. I was in yak heaven. 

Stay tuned for PART 2 of my Yunnan Adventure: Complete with Tibetian dancing, the First National Park of China, Lijiang, and Jade Snow Mountain!