To Lijiang on the Road to Tibet

  On the outskirts of Lijiang, Yunnan Province, Wu Ka Meng “reads” the  Naxi pictographs outside Da Baoji temple

May 31, 2012, Kunming, Yunnan Province, China: When we boarded the Chinese train known as the “hard sleeper” bound for Lijiang, China, just southeast of Tibet, Mrs. Huang Yi Yun hoisted her petite frame on top of a 2nd-tier bunk bed next to mine and assured me she was born to shop.
Not that she meant “shopping”in the conventional sense, although she does love bargains. Mrs. Huang shops for every bit of life experience her alimony and retirement funds can afford her after a 31 year career pushing papers in a Guangzhou provincial government office.

At the age of fifty one, she’s savoring the possibilities of life, including the correspondence she maintains with more than one potential new partner on  Yi Yun speaks very little English, but she’s good with a dictionary.  She’s seen her daughter graduate from International College Beijing/UC Denver so far to the North.  And now she’s free to travel to parts of China she’s never seen and to invite foreigners like me along because of the ties of affection and respect that seem to illuminate relationships between teachers and their students.   In this case her daughter Carmen Wu (Wu Ka Meng), a gifted film maker and my teaching assistant in the spring semester, befriended me and asked her mother to engineer this trip to Southwest China via plane, trains, horseback, and Ford Explorer van.

Mrs. Huang Yi Yun and her daughter, Carmen

Lijiang is a paradise to hip young Chinese.  The town is situated 410 miles north of Kunming, an eight hour lurch and stop train ride. Lijiang also has a history dominated by the Naxi ethnic minority that ruled the Tibetan borderlands for more than a thousand years.  The Naxi were shamans, lovers, musicians, and traders.  Women ruled at home and conducted small businesses in town (the society was actually matrilineal), while men stayed home, farmed, played music, and tended the children.  The Naxi were also famous for their pictographic language and the charming chalets they built of exposed knotty pine (think Northern California) to withstand earthquakes — including a big one that leveled much of the modern concrete town in 1996, killing 300 people and injuring 17,000.  Apparently the government decided that Naxi traditional architecture held up better than concrete, so it rebuilt much of Lijiang in old style with World Bank funding, which turned the town into a  UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 (Frommer’s Guide to China 2008).  This apparently was the kiss of death for low prices.  It also encouraged Han merchants to flood Lijiang with tourist junk and to change the culture of the town from Naxi to Esselen Disneyland.

Today Lijiang is loaded with Chinese, Tibetan, and Naxi chachkas: kites,  prayer wheels, lanterns, jade bracelets, silver tea sets that look exactly alike, jade chess sets, hand-beaten silver bracelets that look exactly alike (you can go from shop to shop to see who gives it to you for less), and scads of hand-loomed shawls of brilliant fuchsia, earth tones and aqua blues that can be gotten on the cheap if you know how to bargain (more on that anon).  Lodging is unusual because it tends to feature plush towels, Euro-style showers and lovely clean linens.  Lijiang also has clear air and azure skies, real Western toilets, ski lifts, and all those authentic Yunnan coffee shops and nightclubs near the town’s market center (aka si fang jie, which means roughly “SQUARE” street).  The city is known for its views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – actually a range of 13 peaks, the highest around 6000 meters – just 15 kilometers north.   The views are pristine and breathtaking.

At Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, my Chinese student Nora Qi signed a death pact with her boyfriend Abel, jumping off the highest peak with him in a story she submitted to my English class.  In the story, Nora and Abel brought food and wine for a final holiday at Lijiang, holing up in a Jade Dragon cave; and, in the tradition of lovers spurned by disapproving parents, the couple jumped off a cliff together when their provisions ran out. Despite a fall of more than 5000 meters, Nora and Abel miraculously survived and were reunited in a hospital room where Nora’s parents tearfully acknowledged the couple’s extraordinary bond.
Historically, Lijiang is considered a suicide capital for lovers. According to foreign accounts, the Naxi people are extraordinarily strong willed and hot blooded, and since parents over the centuries have adopted the Han tradition of making matches for their children at birth, many young people historically have found it much easier to hang or poison themselves than to cope with mother and father’s unending disapproval.  Naxi women were especially fearless and expert at trade, commerce, and tying their lovers’ feet with their own to heavy stones to end it all in the bottom of the upper Yangtze River, which snakes around Lijiang and heads from the Tibetan plateau eastward toward the ocean. Other Lijiang heroines were known to push chosen lovers off a cliff while keeping desperate relatives at bay with a sword, then running themselves through.

The history books claim that Naxi society was effectively acculturated/subsumed to Han customs.  For example, although the Naxi Mu (木) family ruled Lijiang for 22 generations, virtually all the surviving paintings about the Mus make them look like Confucian bureaucrats.  Unlike other minorities of the region, who were freer in their mating and marriage habits, Naxi families unfortunately would pledge daughters and sons to other prominent families’ infants at birth.  So many unhappy marriages resulted that Lijiang’s most romantic couples frequently took their own lives rather than bear the shame of loveless, arranged unions, according to Peter Goullart, a Russian writer and emigre who lived in Lijiang around the time of Joseph Rock and documented native suicide habits in his book, Forgotten Kingdom (Yunnan Publishing Cooperative).  In addition, the Naxi’s belief in dongba (a mixture of Shamanism, Daoism, and Tibetan Buddhism), a spirit world, entirely removed the stigma of suicide. Couples who took the poison of a local black root (aconite) boiled in oil, which instantly paralyzed their vocal cords and prevented them from shouting or groaning in death agony, were nonetheless offered post-humous Harlallu cleansing ceremonies by shamans and a chance to enter heaven. (1)  Many Naxi parents apparently preferred to mourn their daughters and sons’ shortened lives rather than bear the stigma of becoming grandparents to an illegitimate child or an abandoned spouse.  Morever, Naxi women were trained to finance their own suicide-pact ceremonies known as yuwoo.  Beautiful clothes, the best of foods and wines, had to be gathered to satisfy the spirits of the underworld.  If, for example, a weak-willed boy did not want to die, the stronger Naxi girls took over.  Goulart relayed that the Naxi preserved their own legends of Juliet and Romeo in an ancient manuscript known as the Book of Kamegamiki (2).  This woman, with “great dark and lustrous eyes [which seemed] to promise and beckon,” regaled her handsome lover with the music of the Jew’s harp, luring him to the mountains to complete the yuwoo ceremony after she was betrothed hopelessly to a wealthy but plain man. Apparently “she was a persistent and possessive woman and finally drove him to distraction with her promptings.”  The boy did not want to die, but he was trapped, and the couple took the poison.

Today, Lijiang is considered more of an escape for the living.  During our time there — 8 days all together, we didn’t see anybody die.  What we did see were hundreds of young and affluent couples from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other cities enjoying the plush town, the shops, and the various other distractions — from pony rides to side trips to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, all part of the escape from the roaring, dirty big cities.


Normally I don’t have much time teaching four classes in Beijing to study the vagaries of northwest Yunnan geography or ethnography.  But Lijiang (丽 江) meaning “Beautiful River”), situated on a high plateau roughly the same elevation as Machu Picchu, seemed worth the trip .  The city of 300,000 is on the road leading from Kunming to Shangri-la (in Chinese Xiang-ge-lila).  Before the train was built, Lijiang was reached by truck, plane, or caravan from Chengdu (Sichuan Province) to the East and Kunming to the south.  Writer Goullart, who was assigned a post as Depot Master by the Nationalists (and H.H. Kung) during World War II, wrote extensively about Lijiang  life (Forgotten Kingdom, Yunnan People’s Publishing House) in 1957. Goullart was something of a good samaritan; he started medical clinics and spinning wheel silk and wool cooperatives among the Naxi women in the 1940s.  He also describes a horrifying trip required to reach Lijiang at the time, since there was no railroad.  He took the Burma Road from Kunming to Hsaikwan, a draughty little town with bedbugs of “a specially hardy and big variety” that nearly ate him alive after he had traveled a distance over perilous hairpin turns for some 250 miles.  Thereafter he peeled off for another 160 miles via steep precipices to Lijiang over caravan trail, hoping to evade local bandits.  Goullart stopped in Tali (Dali), where he mounted the local “chariots” on two wheels with old rubber tires pulled by horses.  “[The chariots] were so primitive that I always thought of them as something that Pharaoh might have sent to fetch old Jacob to Egypt,’ Goullart writes. “The road was not a road at all but a trail of boulders, crossed by unbridged mountain steams, and along this the conveyance creak[ed and swayed] violently from side to side.  Sometimes the bumps were so hard that passengers were thrown up against the ceiling and one man had his head nearly split open [p. 16].”

To me, the Chinese “hard sleeper” train wasn’t much better.   Sometimes it purred; sometimes it lurched and stopped, lurched and stopped again, for half an hour or so at a time, whereupon the lavatory doors would inexplicably lock. I slept not a wink that night headed to Lodging, nor on the way back, trying to squeeze my Western body into the second of three stacked military-style bunks perhaps no more than 24 inches in width.  The bunks in the hard sleeper are ‘open compartment’ so no one sleeps with in a compartment with privacy [soft sleepers have doors, plush pillows, and wide-double berths.]  In hard sleeper class, passenger simply mill down a narrow corridor and pass the bodies stacked three on a side, six to an open compartment; it’s quite a peep show.
Mrs. Huang, however, a lithe woman with an hourglass shape, hoisted herself up on her bunk next to mine and threw her arms back onto the pillow, sighing with relief. She wore stretch pants and a light sweater. Her hair was crisply done and she laughed and speculated about all the sights and sounds of the Lijiang she had also never seen before  (Mrs. Huang was actually born in Yunnan, but had never been north to this town). Meanwhile her daughter, Carmen, my Beijing film student,  sat next to me on my bunk.  She was all scrunched up, checking her Jen Jen messages and her thousands of photographs because she was too excited to sleep.  Dr. Brown in the bunk below made a tent of his sheet and changed beneath it into his pajamas. Then he stood up and gave everyone in the car – including two young strangers — a fashion show.  I stared up at the black ceiling of the bunk above me and tried to arrange my little halogen headlight on a hook so I could find it in the dark.  I read a few paragraphs on my Nook.  I tried to find a place to put my feet, at one time dangling them over the side of the bunk.   I thought about going to the bathroom, which was actually an aperture in the floor of the train. With the lights doused, around 11:30 pm, I glanced to my side.  Mrs. Huang was dreaming and immobile, one arm thrown back over her head.  I don’t think she moved the entire night.

I had met Mrs. Huang Yi Yun on SKYPE in February.  Carmen and I had batted around the idea of taking an adventure to Tibet or Yunnan, and suddenly Mrs. Huang was involved.  I was expecting, somehow, a rotund laomazi in a ch’i pao to greet me on the computer screen.   Instead I met a beautiful woman in a modern pearl-colored suit.  She spoke Mandarin softly and slowly, with just enough of that Southern second-language twang to make her words seem mellifluous to me, an American who learned Chinese in Fujian-dominated Taiwan.  Yi Yun instantly addressed me “Dear Dr. Ai” or “Teacher Ai,” and assuring me she was thrilled to take on all the travel and lodging arrangements, as troublesome as that might be.  All I needed to do was specify what we should see, then forward her 5000 RMB, around $850, and all arrangements would be taken care of satisfactorily (periodically throughout the spring she kept checking with me – and her relatives in Kunming — to ensure the accommodations were satisfactory.  They were).

When we arrived that morning in Lijiang it was gray and cloudy.  We were met by an attache to the hotel Mrs. Huang had arranged who drove us cheerlessly to the Old Town. The back streets were dirty, ugly, and rutted.  There was dog poop on the sidewalks. But when we came from the muddy parking lot through a passage to our our hotel (named “Blossoming Hill”), we discovered nothing but charm, dark knotty pine, carved wooden tables in courtyards filled with fruit bowls and wi-fi, and 2 story-high bougainvillea.  The fixtures and giant plush beds of our hotel with crisp white linens and luxurious bed covers reminded me of Chiang Mai (Thailand).  The streets (we stayed on Wuyi Street) were narrow, winding, cobblestoned, and festooned with fuchsia and deep purple blossoms.

The Lijiang Old Town is full of bougainvillea
Dr. John Brown resting in our hotel rocking chair

It rained for three straight days.  The rain is of a special quality there; it fills the rivers that flow from the upper Yangtze and the town itself is built above sluices that open up and wash the streets clean.  It is a miniature Venice.  We spent the first two days exploring the town, then found a driver, Mr. Ho, to take us out to surrounding towns and the historic Da Bao Ji temple in Bai Sha, about 12 kilometers Northwest of the city.   This temple was probably the most out-of-the-way site we visited; it was basically left to itself yet features Ming and Qing dynasty frescoes of uncommon quality painted by Naxi, Tibetan, Bai and Han artists.  The Buddhist influence is unmistakable (there is a golden fresco of Buddha teaching his disciples there).  There are also traces of Lamaism and Daoism in the designs, since the native Naxi combined elements of many religions, especially a belief in dongba  (which literally means ‘scripture reader’), which comfortably mixed shamans with Tibetan Buddhist practices and a bit of Lao Tzu thrown in. The temple offered many quiet courtyards of contemplation.

Chinese frescoes outside of Lijiang.  Scenes of Han life are unmistakable.


Not far from Bai Sha is Shu he, which is known for its Tea Horse Museum (there’s an admissions fee, but you get a guide) and collection of old photographs of Naxi life, including some of the Austrian naturalist Joseph Rock’s famous ones of horses being hauled via rope and zip line over the roiling waters of the  upper Yangtze.   Rock was a huge influence in Lijiang from around 1922 until the Communist take-over in 1949 which forced him to leave.  He was a brilliant photographer; and his images of  the life of shamans, warriors and brigands of the Minchia, Bai, and Naxi who warred and worshipped in the Tibetan borderlands brings the original culture of the area to life. (See the book, Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock’s Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China , ed. by Michael Aris. New York: China House Gallery, 1992).  Self-taught, he knew dozens of languages, researched the ethnography and natural history of the area, collecting and categorizing thousands of plants, and wrote long ethnographic tomes which were inevitably rewritten for National Geographic and turned into articles published in the magazine.

Some of Joseph Rock’s photographs on display:  Naked Naxi swimmers used inflated goat bladders to ford the Yangtze

One of the places he visited (and we stopped there, too) was the Dajue Palace, part of the Mu Family holdings. This museum contains six gorgeous frescoes showing much more Han influence than Naxi, with bare attempts to explain the significance of the frescoes in both Chinese and “Chinglish.”  The museum and palace contain chronologies and genealogies of the Mu family, who were apparently stripped of power when
the Manchus began Sinifying the entire country beginning in the 17th century — odd that “faux Han” (the Manchu), like reformed smokers, tried to stamp out the influence of local minority rule.

After seeing the frescoes, we topped off our visit with lunch in another water-logged village, Shuhe (also designated as a tourist area near Lijiang). An elderly poet and healer who sells his books, paintings, and other manuscripts, along with potions, inks, and brews, served us decent bowls of noodles and eggplant sandwiches, and we ate heartily and discussed lots of things with him,  although we didn’t buy anything, even though I thought about it.

In the afternoon we headed to a place known as Yufeng Si, a small lamasery at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which belongs to the Scarlet Sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  There, if you climb a huge amount of stairs, and John Brown and I did, in pouring rain, you’ll find the wanduo shancha (10,000 flower camelia tree), which was formed from a combination of two trees planted by monks between 1465 and 1597, according to the Frommer Guidebook (Wiley, 2010).  Alas, when we were there, at the beginning of June, the tree was not in blossom, but it is alleged to bloom 20 times between March and June, bearing 20,000 blossoms.  The view was great anyway, and the tree’s branches are strangely planar and rectangular, somewhat like a bas relief, reminding me how careful Buddhist monks are with their expressions of holy life.

Bending fernleaf hedge willow (Tamarix chinensis) at Da Bao Ji Temple. (c) Arielle Emmett & Associates LLC

My student Wu Ka Meng (Carmen) was the real shutterbug in the group.  During the early spring festival before our trip, Carmen went by herself to Suzhou and took 1785 photographs either of herself and/or the immediate Suzhou city surroundings (mostly composed of canals, temples, and traditional Chinese red lanterns along with crowds of tourists).   Ka Meng insisted that I examine every single photo in her camera, including the roughly 20 percent that were out of focus.  She’s searching for the killer professional shot that can make a reputation.  Also, she’s a film and photography buff who wants to become a theatrical or movie director, whether in the U.S., China, or Hong Kong, an ambition that her mother, even without direct experience or exposure to the arts, gently understands.

Normally, the girl is uber-competent and commands a classroom or a film shoot from the moment she arrives.  But in front of her Mom, whose olive skin and perfectly bouffant, tinted hair reminds me of a 1960s auburn helmet, Carmen melts into girlish giggles, holding up two fingers to make the “peace” sign for each photo op until everyone around her, myself included, wants to shake her.
I don’t fully understand this behavior.  Perhaps in the eyes of her adoring parent, Carmen is free to act like another “Little Empress,” one of hundreds of millions of solo kids without brothers or sisters created during the time of the official “One-Child” policy in China enforced for the past two and half decades.  Perhaps all Chinese kids revert to playing the kid when they’re around their parents who spoil them.  Carmen is no exception.  But actually there might be other explanations.  After showing so much responsibility in school, perhaps it’s just a release to go back and be an adored child.  And perhaps Carmen found it boring to be photographed, especially hanging around her mother and elder teacher and her colleague-friend, Dr. Brown.

In any event, her mother evidently loved being beside her every moment, especially when the weather began clearing and we passed by a tableau of strange (and cartoonish looking ) Naxi pictographs, part of an obscure language that supposedly only well educated historians and shamans of the ancient Naxi language truly understand.  Carmen and she had begun a round of aggressive purchasing.  Both Yi Yun and her daughter bought Naxi-style shawls of every make and color, which Carmen wrapped one around herself like an Indian princess.  I remember that we were driving to that TAemple of 10,000 camelia blossoms, on the road leading North out of Lijiang proper to the foothills beneath the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (which we couldn’t see yet).  Carmen stopped for a moment and I took this picture:

Yi Yun had spent the earliest days working the shops for the best deals.  At one particular fabric shop, where she assured me the quality was best, she ultimately purchased more than 40 shawls of every color — pinks and blacks, fuschias, lavenders, puces, earth tones, reds, and more, each for about 35 or 40 Yuan apiece (that’s roughly equivalent to US$5 -$7).   She then shipped them in bunches back home for distribution to family and friends. Without her it would have cost me easily double for the few I did purchase.  Yi Yun has a very soft-spoken technique of bargaining; she will turn away from the shop owner, pace to another side of the store within the owner’s view, and earnestly talk to me or her daughter about the quality of the fabrics and whether they are truly genuine, hand-crafted, and worth it.   Then she shakes her head and returns to the owner, saying, “Sir, I saw a fabric of comparable quality in so and so shop?  Can you discount it a little bit more, especially if I buy… three dozen?”

It worked.  It always worked.

When it was pouring rain, on the way to the Buddhist temple, Yufeng Si, we stopped at a roadside vendor perched on a muddy hill leading to those prodigious stair steps up to the Ten Thousand blossom temple. As the rain progressed from drizzle to downpour, each second brought lower and lower purchases prices as we stood in front of the vendors humming and hawing with our umbrellas getting wet.  Yi Yun and Carmen bought hats of Yak fur, as did I.
When I consider that 17 years ago, when I last visited China, the country was still under the grip of rigid Communist ideology and just the beginnings of a consumer economy and opportunities for  spending among the middle class, this buying spree seems remarkable to me.  Here were a mother and daughter who spoke a different language (Cantonese and Mandarin in a pinch), who came from the opposite end of the world.  Yet we shared the same taste, the same jokes, and the same love of Yak fur, horseback rides through the Lijiang mountains, trips to pagodas and thundering gorges.   Who would have thought?

At the top of the hill a group of old Naxi women were singing traditional songs just at the entrance of the temple.  Naxi music is very beautiful, but pretty much extinct except for the old women who keep it up for the tourists. The group, dressed in their traditional blue caps, had something like a guitar case out in front of them and they were getting very wet.  Something possessed me to plunk down 20 yuan, and the old women grabbed hands and sang for me energetically, as though I had just wound up a toy. The contribution actually made a difference, and they asked me to pose with them, which I declined to do.

The truth is I didn’t know much about Lijiang or any other place we were going.  I’m a little embarrassed by that. All I knew is that the famed city was known for its gorgeous scenery. It was said once to have had naked Naxi swimmers who girded themselves with gigantic goatskin bladders as they forded the Yangtze’s rapids to transport their goods and livestock from one bank to the other.  There were many wars and internecine fighting among tribes. On the map Lijiang sat directly east of Myanmar and 100 kilometers southeast of Zhongdian or Shangri-la (pronounced Xiang-ge-lila in Chinese), the rough approximation of James Hilton’s paradise described in Lost Horizon.

Dr. John Brown knew much more about these places than I did; he had had the time to read about them, fortunately.  So once the rain abated, around the fourth day, our group decided to go by car to 30 kilometer-long Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia), which is the Yangtze’s version of the Niagara falls of a single hairpin stretch of the Grand Canyon.  Mr. Hu obliged us; the car trip was uneventful. The numbers of steps down to the platform above the gorge were daunting, but Dr. Brown, who is remarkably fit for his 81 years, handled it gracefully, as did Yu Yun and Carmen.  The muddy rapids roared to such a deafening pitch that I  knew that no one could possibly survive a tumble into these waters.  And in one part, where hikers emerge on the other side from a several day trek (we did not take this trek, to my regret; the weather would not permit it), we could see a gigantic pool of styrofoam cups, tires, and other assorted junk trapped in a whirlpool inside an inlet.  This is the place that is sufficiently narrow that legend says a Tiger leaped over the river (the canyon reaches a depth of over 3000 meters).  Too bad it turned into the Yangtze’s garbage dump.

Our trip beyond Tiger Leaping Gorge was to that incredible legendary place where people are supposed to say young — Shangri-la.  Our van wound for about six hours up and down lovely and manicured mountain farms festooned with tiny trees (evidently a part of the Chinese government’s attempts to reforest the mountains).  We bought oxygen, but didn’t need it despite a reported elevation of around 12,000 feet (I had climbed ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ in Machu Picchu 8 years ago; the elevation there topped 14,000 feet).  We grew a little restless in the car, hoping that Shangri-la would be something as wonderful as Hilton had once described it in the novel.  At one point, though, as descended into the valley of Shangri-La, we stopped in a field and noticed a group of teenage Tibetan monks frolicking in rows of pink flowers (the pinkies resemble heather, although I am not sure they are heather).  Carmen once again willingly provided another photo op.

Lao Mu, resting during our horseback riding trip

But when we got to Shangri-la, we once again had to ask what Gertrude’s Stein asked nearly a hundred years ago: “Is there a there there?” The town that claims the geographic identity of James Hilton’s magical novel is actually a pretty beaten up place with plenty of Communist Red Stars on concrete block buildings.  The hotels are dirty, in the main. The ones we inspected were sufficiently pricy and dirty (we even saw a giant cockroach in one of the bathrooms) that we asked Mr. Mu to drive us back — crazy people that we were — that very night. He drove expertly, and we tried to sleep along the way.  Something inside me once again had to acknowledge a disappointment in a place so fully touted in movies and novels.  I realized then, of course, that we had not reached the true Shangri-la.   That place had to reside in what had happened between us in Lijiang; it was not a matter of place; it was a matter of joint experience.

Yi Yun the cowgirl

The rest of the trip was taken up with a short boat ride in a swampy Lijiang lake with crappy food at a peasant lunch stand and a horseback ride through the mountains, led by an enterprising peasant named Mu who unfortunately held the reins for Dr. Brown’s lead horse (Brown, an accomplished equestrian, found this arrangement quite frustrating).  Mu and his tall, handsome son were good souls (didn’t say whether he was a descendent of the powerful Lijiang Mu family) and told me the government hadn’t improved things too much for people; life pretty much went on the same.  The last days in Lijiang, Brown, Carmen, and I went to a mountaintop on the eastern flank of Lion HIll (Shizi Shan) which separates the old town from the new, and passed Wanggu Lou, a temple-park which supposedly has the tallest wooden pagoda in China, with massive 22 m high pillars made from old local wood (the temple gates were shut).  We went on to  Helong Tang Gong yuan (Black Dragon Pool Park), about a mile north of the old town, and enjoyed sweeping views of the distant snow-capped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the surrounding valleys.  It was in the viewing pagoda that I found Peter Goullart’s marvelous book, Forbidden Kingdom, and it was there that i realized finally that my journey to Lijiang (the intellectual part at least), had just begun.

Within a few days I had to say goodbye to Mrs. Huang. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her or her daughter Carmen again, but I hope so.  As I write this account, I’m back in America, with no immediate hope of returning to China anytime soon.

Sometimes she writes me about her daughter’s current issues trying to pass the TOEFL exam and find the right graduate school in either Hong Kong or America  (actually Carmen speaks English very well — we’re talking a few refinements, not a major overhaul needed).  Sometimes we exchange emails about a left over bank account we share.  But as time goes on, we correspond less and less.  It’s not that we’re less connected (at least the tether I feel for her is still very strong), but we’re far away from each other now.  When you’re in China, everything seems possible, and you can get close to people and have an experience and yet be casual about it because you think it will happen again.  But not always.  Now I realize just how lucky I was to land a week in Yunnan paradise with this Mom and her daughter.  For Yi Yun and Carmen’s hospitality and caring alone, I’m grateful.  For her kindness and gentle touch, along with a natural curiosity about her country and the best shopping deals to be had — well, I’m impressed.  But the thing I can’t forget is how entirely modern Huang Yi Yun really is, and how beautifully we communicated.  I realize it doesn’t matter if we were born on opposite sides of the world, or that we speak through gestures as much as words.  We shared a sensibility and a vision.  And we had just enough time together in Lijiang to make the vision come true.

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in June:  A few of  Lijiang’s new town to the north, from the pagoda at Heilong Tan Gongyuan (Black Dragon Pool Park).

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