Women ascended the dusty mountain wearing Mongol garb. Their white turbans were normally black, but this was a day of mourning. Carrying trays laden with chili fish, smoked pork, rice noodles and candy, they marched to their ancestors’ graves. Men sat around and gambled.
The people who gather here every year are Bai, and this is their valley.
In the southwest corner of a country that is more than 90 percent Han Chinese, this valley is almost completely inhabited by the Bai – an ethnic minority that has lived here for more than 2,000 years. The language spoken here is Bai, the food, Bai. The blue and black tunics, inspired by hordes that invaded 800 years ago, are uniquely Bai. Everything in this place feels like China – with a twist.
Down a cobblestone drive, on a small hill among fields of yellow colza, sits the theater of the King of Culture. Rusty nails jut from the building’s fortified walls, but inside the stone and wooden theater, Wu Yun Xin chats with local politicians, studies French and puzzles over what happened to his Scotch.
Wu, 34, is the caretaker of the temple – a spot where parents have brought their children for good luck in their studies for 285 years. A few years ago, members of the local government decided to turn the theater into a community center. Funding ran short, and Wu was contacted. They asked him if he’d like to host visiting foreigners, and for two years he and his wife have lived here, serving as tour guides, cooks and ambassadors for the Bai.
In April, Wu, a Bai himself, trekked up a nearby mountain with dozens of valley residents and a few foreign tourists. The locals were celebrating Qin Ming, a festival honoring the recently dead. The Bai bury their dead on the mountains that dot this part of Yunnan Province, and once a year they climb to the graves and offer trays of meticulously prepared food, cigarettes and willow branches.
On this sunny day, people from around the valley got together to send off spirits who, according to local beliefs, hang around their graves, unaware they’ve died. Grandmothers clutched their grandchildren. Relatives hacked at weeds growing around raised stone tombs. Fireworks exploded. At a table hauled up the slopes, a group of men played cards – $30 to buy in.
After bowing, wailing, smoking and betting, men, women and children tucked into a Bai feast. Bowls of rice in hand, they dipped into dishes of sour pork lung, fish balls, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. They mixed rice and chicken soup with pickled cabbage, green eggs and honeyroasted peanuts. A girl walked around and doled out handfuls of candy and sunflower seeds. A gold-colored dog trotted from group to group, hoping for spoils.
After the feast, the women loaded baskets with the leftovers and headed down the mountain. Men stayed up, drinking and gambling until after dark.
Sarah Shannon, a 31-year-old Canadian, attended the celebration. Locals made her feel a part of the festivities, she said, giving her a woven basket of beer to haul up the mountain.
“They were really cool with us being there.”
At lunch, Shannon enjoyed eating the local fare. She said it was delicious – mostly. “For me it was the aged egg that I really couldn’t get down.”
Shannon was following the Tea and Horse Road – an ancient trading path that linked China, Tibet, India and Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. Shaxi Valley was an important stop on the trail, and a glimpse into Bai history shows the influence of foreign cultures.
The well-known plateau nation of Tibet may conjure up images of red-robed monks chanting at an oxygen-starved altitude for many westerners, but for the Bai, the northerly neighbors have been a traditional nemesis. Wu remembers being a child, wary of roaming Tibetans who, according to stories, would collect Bai kids in black sacks.
“When I was young, I still thought Tibetan people ate kids,” Wu said. “I was very scared.”
According to legend, when Kublai Khan invaded in the 13th century and absorbed the Tibetan plateau into the vast Mongol empire, the Bai greeted him as a liberator. The invasion was violent, and in tribute to the Mongol dead, Bai women wore black turbans and tunics that mimicked the Mongols’ plate armor.
“Bai people thought they were very helpful,” Wu said.
Today, most older women still wear the outfits.
Remnants of the Shaxi Valley’s trading past still shine at the weekly livestock market on Fridays. Tea and horses were traditionally traded in the valley and still are, along with a vast array of animals, food, clothes and sundries.
The market is divided into areas – chickens and chili in one, tofu and mushrooms in another. There’s a pork pavilion where unlucky pigs are sectioned and sold, still steaming from the morning slaughter. In another area, women dump sacks of glistening fish onto tarps on the ground. The valley is wholly agricultural, and at the market farmers buy the soil’s yield and the tools to tame it.
On a hot day in April, vendors sold brooms, chicken foot salad, purple rope and school supplies. Next to a line of women with sacks of giant beans a barber cut hair. Others hawked fedoras, razor blades and potted plants, cell phones, spoons and rhinestone-studded jeans. The smell of cilantro and chili pepper – ubiquitous in local cuisine – drifted through the thin air.
On the way back to their houses, locals displayed their hauls: woven baskets of veggies, new hats, piglets. Wu and his wife bought soft, fresh noodles and pork.
Wu’s guests often leave him gifts from outside the valley: books, booze, an antique Scrabble game. One group left him a bottle of fine Scotch whiskey, but he discovered after a trip out of town that the amber liquid had been replaced with baijiu – a cheap local spirit; he suspects a boy who watched the place while he was gone.
In centuries past, visitors to the valley were minorities from other areas or Han Chinese, debtors, deserters and wanderers looking for a new place to settle. They found one in the Shaxi Valley, although it remains 95 percent Bai.
Today, locals are encouraging tourism. Wu and the Culture King’s Theater will be included in Lonely Planet China – a standard tome for many travelers to the country – for the first time soon. But for now, the valley remains untouristed. Visitors still get inquisitive looks from locals, but “ngama” – Bai for “hello” – brings ready smiles.
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