From Xizhou we traveled north to the town of Lijiang, home to Bai people as well as a very tiny ethnic minority known as the Naxi people. We stayed in a small village outside Lijiang, called Shuhe, and spent our days exploring both Shuhe and the Old Town of nearby Lijiang which is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Blair’s college roommate, Gloria Riviera Scuitto, who lives and works in Beijing, traveled to Lijiang with her two boys, her mother, and her aunt to spend a few days exploring with us!
On our first morning in Lijiang we visited an ancient Naxi village called Baisha Village, with dusty, sleepy streets and traditional Naxi women and men living simple lives. The Naxi people are one of the smallest ethnic minorities in China, with only 300,000 remaining members. In the village, we witnessed their lifestyle and visited a famous embroidery school, where the girls received a lesson in this local art form.
We were invited into the courtyard of a farmer’s home, and met the oldest member of a four-generation family living within.
The girls were asked to guess how old she was…. and Zoe nailed it. 98 years old!!! We looked around her simple home and got to see how she had been living for the better part of a century.
BLAIR: I asked this beaming, 98 year-old farmer what her recipe was for a long, healthy life. Our Naxi guide, translating on her behalf, explained that the key to health and happiness was good friends in life. “Money is just paper,” she said. “You need good friends to live long and happy.” Our translator continued, “You see how simple her life is, but it is happy and complete.” It was a good lesson for us all. I could have spent the rest of the day talking with this woman, but we had to move on.
Baisha Village is home to the well-known Embroidery School of the Mu Family, where Naxi girls learn the art of silk embroidery from master teachers. Their pieces can take weeks to years to complete, depending on the skill of the artist and the difficulty of the design. We learned that the craft of silk embroidery was banned during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and ’70’s as an unnecessary luxury, and the skills passed down through generations of women were nearly lost. Today, this embroidery school is funded by the Chinese government in an effort to revive the traditional art, and students are welcome to attend the school at no cost. Schuyler, Zoe and Thayer benefited from some very kind students who spent over an hour teaching them simple stitches and allowing them to practice on some beautiful pieces!
ZOE: At the embroidery school I learned a lot of different stitches like straight ones, a star, and a zig zag stitch. I was allowed to choose my own colors and then practice the different stitches on the printed cloth. I was so surprised at how long it took to fill in even a small patch of the cloth completely. I realized how difficult this art form is and how skilled and precise you have to be. And patient! I remembered learning how to weave on the big looms in Luang Prabang, Laos, and feeling a similar way. Impatient!
While in Shuhe/Lijiang we also explored the town and hills by horseback! A gaggle of jingling, prancing, ponies appeared at our hotel for us and we all climbed aboard, grateful for the individual horse-minders who accompanied each of us. We strolled out of town and up into the hills, taking in the stunning views and even dismounting for a while to hike through a small Naxi homestead at the peak of our climb.
THAYER: I felt a little bit scared to ride the ponies but being with everyone made me feel better and having a lady holding my pony helped so much! There were some steps and my horse jumped over them a little and that was scary but I didn’t fall off. It was a beautiful day to be on a horse!
ZOE: It’s always fun to see a place on horseback! On this trip, we have been riding in Holland, Kenya, New Zealand, and now here in China. Our trail ride through the village and mountains was so pleasant, especially because someone was holding my horse so I didn’t have to worry about controlling him! But it was a little bit scary on the cliffs and steep parts. There have been a lot of times on this trip where I feel really nervous about something or uncomfortable in some way, but I have to fight through it and then I end up realizing that I had a lot of fun and it was good that I didn’t give up on it before I tried.
SCHUYLER: The horseback riding was an interesting experience. It wasn’t my favorite thing that we did in Lijiang, but I did love seeing the view and being up in the mountains and fresh air and cool temperatures (after Southeast Asia!). I didn’t really trust the horses that much because they had to be held the whole time so I was a little nervous. The way up was super steep and rocky and my horse would slip sometimes or hop up levels. I was holding on for dear life! The scariest part of the ride was actually walking through a narrow alleyway in the village, next to a building under construction, and a big piece of cement fell from the top floor and hit the horse’s rear end in front of me. That could have been ME! I could have had a cement concussion! Luckily, the horse didn’t seem to notice the brick that fell on him (maybe Chinese horses are extra tough?).
Additional cultural enrichment came in the form of a visit to the Naxi Dongba Cultural Exhibition (basically a Naxi museum), where we learned that the Naxi are apparently the last remaining culture in the world still using hieroglyphs as their written language. We saw some very ancient Naxi texts carefully preserved behind glass, and then met a Shaman (wise man or priest) who demonstrated the art of drawing the pictographs. It was fun for the children to take turns writing in Naxi!
SCHUYLER: The top symbol on my page that looks like an arc represents the sky, and then underneath that is the sun. I chose these because “sky” is part of my name, and the sun’s brightness and warmth reminds me of being positive. My next symbol is the horse, which is my Chinese animal and the horse represents success. Then next to the horse is a character that explains what my name means, which is ‘scholar’ or ‘ wise.’ The last symbol is just for a girl, ME! I’m really happy with how it turned out – it is very meaningful to me and I think the characters are so beautiful to look at. I was glad to be able to learn how to draw some of the characters before the Shaman made these for us.
ZOE: I asked the Shaman to draw me pictographs that represented who I am. I picked “monkey” for my Zodiac year, free spirit, nature/wildlife and the beauty of the outdoors, and simple girl which just means basically that I’m a girl. It turned out to look really nice and I’m so excited to hang it on my bedroom wall back at home!
THAYER: My symbols represented “brave soldier, simple girl, born in the Year of the Pig, adventurous spirit, and beauty.” They were all my choices. I liked learning how to draw the symbols!
While in Lijiang, we also spent some time exploring the Old Town and strolling through the lovely Black Dragon Park.
SCHUYLER: Overall, I really was happy to be back to 100% health in Lijiang and to get some fresh mountain air there. I really loved Lijiang because of the tranquility and culture. There were also SO many dogs wandering around the streets that were fun to look at!
After three busy days in Lijiang, the Demers crew continued northward in Yunnan Province, visiting the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge before exploring the high-altitude, Tibetan enclave of Zhongdian (renamed “Shangri-La” in 2001, likely to promote tourism). Stay tuned for some Tibetan culture and (literally) breathtaking views!
See you there!