Friday, June 23, 2017

Crossing the Climate Boundary: from Huế to Đà Nãng

                                    by Jim Goodman

looking north from the Hải Vân Pass
       South of Ngh An Province, the land of Vietnam narrows to a thin coastal plain with mountains rising immediately to the west.  A little north of Đà Nng the Bch Mã Range of these mountains swerves across the valley to the sea, ending in a shoreline hill.  On top of this hill is the Hi Vân Pass and until recently all north-south traffic, on foot or in vehicles, had to pass this way, so from posts on the pass all approaches were easily visible in advance.  Governments in the past, from ancient times down to the 20th century, established fortresses here.
An Cư Lagoon
        Besides physically separating the country’s north and south, the intersection of the Bch Mã Range with the East Sea also affects Vietnam’s climate.  The range blocks the cold winds and rainclouds coming down from the north.  Even in typhoon season the storms pummel the provinces north of the pass—Thừa Thiên Hué to Hà Tĩnh—more than Đà Nẵng or Quảng Nam.  Leaving Huế on a cloudy, misty day, after crossing the pass it may be only partly cloudy in Đà Nẵng, with plenty of sunshine in between.  
       In ancient times the Hải Vân Pass was also a political and cultural boundary between the Vietnamese in the north and the Chăm to the south.  Even while the north was under Chinese administration the two sides battled for control of the area north of the pass.  After Vietnam won back its independence in 938 the struggle continued.  By the end of the 15th century the Vietnamese had vanquished the nearest Chăm kingdoms and extended its borders to just north of Nha Tang.
fishing huts and nets on the An Cư Lagoon
       Vietnamese immigration south of the Hài Vân Pass, however, did not begin in earnest until the 16th century, when a protracted civil war ravaged so much of the Red River Delta that in many places life was no longer tenable.  With Vietnamese settled on both sides, the pass lost its symbolic and military significance until the colonial period.  The French built a railway line that skirted around the base of the hill and a road that ran over it.  Once the Vietnamese insurrection began, the French installed lookout posts and machine gun nests on the pass.  These were later used again during the American War, though they failed to stop the North Vietnamese Army from swarming over Hài Vân in the spring offensive in 1975 that would soon capture Saigon and conclude the war.
boats on the beach at Lăng Cô
       Years later, when tourists began traveling around Vietnam, the Hải Vân Pass was on the route between the popular destinations of Huế and Đà Nẵng.  From Huế the road ran southeast across the plain and then alongside the large Cầu Hai Lagoon on its left, with the Bạch Mã Mountain Range suddenly rising on its right.  A portion of this area, 22.000 hectares of evergreen rain forest, has been reserved as a national park.  Over 1150 species of plants have been discovered so far, 330 of birds and over 90 different mammals, including a few previously unknown species discovered in the 1990s.
bringing in a boat at Lăng Cô
       After passing Cầu Hai Lagoon, the road ascends slightly over low hills and then runs back down to the plain to the picturesque An Cư Lagoon on the western side of the road opposite seaside Lăng Cô village.  The mountains rise steeply on the other side and the railway line runs along the base of these mountains, on the opposite side of the lagoon from the road.  As this was roughly halfway between Huế and Hội An, tour buses always make a half-hour stop here for refreshments or a simple meal, which allows for a quick look at the lagoon scenery.
eyes on the prow of a Lăng Cô boat
       On my first journey on this route in the winter of 2005, after the Lăng Cô stopover, the bus climbed up the hill over the pass and immediately descended towards Đà Nẵng without even a momentary pause for passengers to take in the view.  Several months later, making the trip again and noticing at the Lăng Cô stop nearly all the travelers had cameras, I decided to enlist the support of some of them when we started climbing the hill to join me in demanding the bus make a ten-minute stop at Hải Vân Pass.  But my plan was foiled when we didn’t go up over the pass after all, but instead through a new tunnel at the base of the hill that had just opened since my last trip.
       The only way for me to get another, and more leisurely, look at the pass was to return to Lăng Cô and hire a motorbike.  The village certainly looked inviting, so it would be a pleasant excursion anyway.  Weather spoiled my first attempt, though, for low, dark clouds hung over the area, obscuring the pass and most of the mountains behind the lagoon.  It was a day to remind me of the meaning of Hải Vân—Sea of Clouds.  But it didn’t rain, giving me the opportunity to explore Lăng Cô on foot.
Lăng Cô village and beach
       The village lies on a long finger of land next to An Cư Lagoon, with sandy beaches just on the other side of the road.  The most densely settled part is at the south end, where the lagoon enters the sea.  The beach resorts and other hotels and restaurants are further up.  The ocean water is relatively clean, the waves usually moderate and, closer to the main village residential area, the beach is lined with small fishing boats.  Like other boats in Central Vietnam, the prows feature a pair of painted eyes.
lagoon waters as they enter the sea
       Few people stayed in the beach resorts, a couple of which included tennis courts and a swimming pool, not even when I returned a few months later and enjoyed excellent weather.  Perhaps it’s because people from Đà Nẵng, the nearest potential visitors, have plenty of beaches around their own city.  And while Lăng Cô restaurants do offer tasty fresh seafood dishes, that’s true in Đà Nẵng and all along the entire coast of Vietnam.
       The lagoon makes Lăng Cô a different kind of beach resort.  Only a short walk from the main road, the near shoreline has a paved road running beside it, while the railway line on the other side runs right along the base of the mountains’ steep cliffs.  The water is shallow, not more than waist-deep far out from the shoreline.  Small pirogues and basket boats, when not out on the lagoon, sit parked next to the land.  Stilted fishing huts stand out in the water not far from the shore, as well as some large fishing nets attached to poles and hanging just above the water surface. 
catching oysters in An Cư Lagoon
       Besides the lagoon and the Hải Vân Pass, the other attraction in the vicinity is Elephant Spring, in the lap of the Bạch Mã Mountains about ten km north of Lăng Cô and three km off the highway to the west.  A hot spring next to what used to be a thick forest, by the time I visited it, and that was over a decade ago, it was a failed and abandoned resort.  A disused, dilapidated guesthouse, its cottages in serious need of roof repair, stood on a clearing near the spring.  Boulders that roughly resembled elephants had been painted to accentuate those features.  Statues of deer and tiger peeped through the bushes around the spring, as well as one of, oddly enough, a giraffe.
the abandoned park at Elephant Spring
       As for the pass, sunny skies prevailed throughout my second stay in Lăng Cô and I could hire a motorbike to make the excursion.  The pass is not very high up, less than 500 meters above the sea, and the road winds along the slope facing the sea.  No roadside trees block the good views of Lăng Cô and its beaches to the north and the coastline south towards Đà Nẵng.  About halfway up, a waterfall spills through a forested slope and when its creek comes near the road, it flows over a stretch of wide, smooth, nearly flat boulders.
machine gun nest at Hải Vân Pass
       Besides the magnificent view, the Hải Vân Pass also features relics of its past military significance.  A couple of red brick watchtowers stand on the slope just above the road.  An empty machine gun nest sits on a spot overlooking the route up the hill from Lăng Cô.  A few concrete bunkers lie in the area, one of them converted to a small cave temple, with refreshments stands and souvenir stalls set up in front of the entrance.  
       After crossing the pass, it’s another 25 km or so to Đà Nẵng, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the northern limit of the country’s tropical zone.  City suburbs begin along the shore of the Bay of Đà Nẳng, while the main port and commercial area lie further east and up to the coast.  On the eastern side of the bay the large hilly Sơn Trà Peninsula stretches out north of the business district.  Also called Monkey Mountain after the primates living there, it is mostly an off-limits military zone, but does provide a nice backdrop to views from beaches.
wartime watchtower at Hải Vân Pass
       Known as Tourane in the French colonial period, it rose in importance from the beginning of the 19th century, replacing Hội An, where river silt had accumulated to the point commercial ships could no longer reach the port.  Đà Nẵng is now a thoroughly modern city, but a fairly relaxed one.  Traffic runs smoothly even in rush hour.  With no old town extant, the only buildings identified as tourist attractions are a couple of Buddhist temples, the French-built cathedral, a Cao Đài temple and the well-stocked, fascinating Chăm Museum.  For some travelers, this museum is the only reason to stop in Đà Nẵng, especially since it’s a short trip from Hội An.
       The city’s other main physical (and cultural) attraction is the group of five small hills, called Marble Mountains, just beyond its southern suburbs.  Non Nước, the village next to the largest hill, has long been a craft village specializing in marble sculptures.  Tour buses from Huế en route to Hội An often make a stop here, where teenaged girls immediately importune the passengers to purchase anything from a small carving that can be held in the hand to a heavy, life-sized statue of a lion or religious deity.  Marble deposits in the hills were played out long ago and now Non Nước imports its raw materials from Thanh Hoá.  The skill survives, though, and the business is still thriving.
boats in Đà Nẵng
       Each of the hills is named after one of the five essential elements.  The largest, nearest the beach, Water Mountain ̣(Thủy Sơn), contains several cave shrines that have drawn religious pilgrims since the time of the Chăm kingdoms.  Originally Hindu, the shrines now honor the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities popular with the Vietnamese, who added statues of gods and guardians, built temples and erected pagodas on the hill.
       Guides are available to the sights, but visitors can simply follow the pathways that wind around and up the hill to the temples, pavilions and pagodas and branch off into the caves.  One leads to a complex of several caverns, connected by two tunnels, with old Chăm stone carvings and more recently installed concrete Buddhas.  The most interesting is Huyên Không Cave, with a very high interior and a small opening to the sky at the top.  When the sun is overhead a shaft of light pours through this hole and strikes one of the altars.  During the American War the cave was a Viet Cong field hospital and the base of a Women’s Artillery Division famous for shooting down nineteen American warplanes. 
Huyên Không Cave
Buddha statue on Water Mountain
       The seacoast next to the Marble Mountains is lined with beaches, but around Non Nước and for several km towards Hội An walls belonging to a succession of resort hotels block public access.  The beaches closer to Hội An, a more popular tourist destination than Đà Nẵng, are usually quite congested.  But Đà Nẵng residents and visitors have a few prime beach alternatives right next to the city. 
one of the Marble Mountains near Đà Nẵng
       A long beach runs along the shore of the Bay of Đả Nẵng, frequented by suburbanites in the late afternoon.  On the eastern shore of the East Sea (a.k.a. South China Sea) the beaches offer a more scenic view of Monkey Mountain, but the waters are only calm enough for swimming in the summer months and a bit rough other times.   From mid-September through December, however, they are quite suitable for surfing.
       The northern beach just below the peninsula is called Mỹ Khê, while further down it is known as China Beach.  American Marines landed here in March 1965 in the first major commitment of U. S. troops to South Vietnam.  China Beach later became a popular R&R spot for U. S. soldiers, flown in by helicopter.  Nowadays, over five decades since the war’s end, with comfortable hotels and fine restaurants, for both Đà Nẵng residents and passing travelers, China Beach is once again serving its former purpose--rest and recreation.

China Beach and Monkey Mountain, Đà Nẵng
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Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country passes over this route. See

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Babao to Haizibian: Through the Middle of Wenshan

                          by Jim Goodman

the hill scenery at Babao
       Twenty years ago I had an assignment to revise and update the Yunnan and Guangzi chapters for the Insight guidebook to China.  This was my only trip to China in which I ventured beyond Yunnan.  Certainly the scenery along the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is a spectacular sight, but the rest of the destinations, like drab and gray Nanning, were not so impressive.
       Moreover, the local Chinese were unlike what I’d become used to in five years of journeys through Yunnan.  They were polite, but my conversations were always brief, ending shortly after they learned what my occupation was—researching the ethnic minorities in Yunnan.  They knew nothing about ethnic minorities even in their own Guangxi, didn't want to and just couldn’t understand why I found “those kind of people” at all interesting.
Zhuang village next to Babao
       Since no one in Nanning could recommend any minority-inhabited areas anywhere near the city, I decided, having finished my work there, to curtail my exploration of Guangxi.  With the remaining time on my visa I would visit a place in Yunnan where I had not yet been—Wenshan Prefecture in the southeast.  I bought an overnight bus ticket to Babao because I’d seen a nice photograph of the hills there in a big Yunnan picture book. 
       Arriving about noon, I checked into a guesthouse in the center of the old town and had a meal in its restaurant before I started wandering around.  While I was eating I heard the only other customer, a Chinese man, ask the manager, ‘What’s the foreigner doing here?’  ‘Probably the scenery,’ the other replied.  ‘Also for the ethnic minorities,’ I told them.  ‘You are interested in the ethnic minorities?’ the manager asked me.  ‘Yes.’  “Then when you finish your meal, go out the door and turn right at the first street until you are past the hill.  Then turn right again.  There’s a Zhuang village there.  You will like it.  They still keep the traditional statues over the house doorway to keep away evil spirits.”
Zhuang women laying out warp threads for the loom
       What a different attitude towards minorities that was compared to my encounters with Han people in Guangxi.   Anyone could have told me how to get to the nearest Zhuang village.  But here was a Han resident informing me not just of the directions, but also of a particular minority cultural trait he thought would pique my interest.  In my time in Babao I found the Han people quite appreciative of their Zhuang neighbors, considering them a prime asset of the district, as well as the Miao and Yao, who lived further away but were frequent visitors.  They have had a longer and closer relationship with the minorities than the Han have in Guilin, Liuzhou and Nanning.  Consequently, they view them not as inferiors, but as interesting equals.
typical Zhuang house near Babao
       I took the manager’s advice and soon entered Babao’s scenic hill area.  A Zhuang village lay at the base of the nearest hill, of mud-brick houses with tile roofs and, as the manager had promised, a niche above the doorway holding a snarling, lion-like creature.  Two women in a lane were busy laying out the warp threads that would be mounted later on a loom.  The women’s clothing wasn’t particularly attractive—medium blue, side-fastened jacket over black trousers and a white turban on the heads.  But all the Zhuang women wore it.
villagers coming to Babaoi  for market day
       Villagers were full of smiles upon meeting me and soon folks invited me in for tea.  They hadn’t had many foreign visitors back then, if any, and my presence was a sensation for the children.  They followed me all through the village, bursting into animated discussion whenever I stopped to take a photograph.  The hill behind the village had a staircase to a viewing platform at the top, but the children didn’t ascend it with me.
       This is the best view of the landscape Wenshan people call Little Guilin.  Looking east, the limestone hills, generally 50-200 meters high, in a variety of shapes, rise above a perfectly flat plain, with a river meandering among them.  Zhuang villages of 50-60 houses, densely clustered, lay beside many of the hills, their rice fields filling the spaces between them.  The hills can have very smooth sides, look like cones or gumdrops or crouching cats, covered with green vegetation, but too stony to make terraced farms.
Zhuang villagers bringing storage baskets to sell
       The same river also runs through the town, crossed by stone bridges, straight and arched, that add to Babao’s atmosphere.  It rained throughout my first night there, making an excursion to the waterfalls next day impossible, for no vehicle would chance taking the unpaved road.  But it was market day that day, when those bridges were active with rural folks coming into town.   The rain was occasionally heavy, but mostly just a drizzle and ceased by the afternoon.
       Local residents and villagers set up early, with stalls selling clothing, shoes, household goods, toiletries, cosmetics, noodle dishes and snacks, as well as vegetables, grain, bee larvae, tools, fishing nets and baskets.  Zhuang villagers also brought huge bamboo storage baskets to sell and men carried small pigs in bunches, tied up and suspended from each end of a balance pole.  By mid-morning Miao from the surrounding hills arrived, some selling Miao women’s clothing components and accessories.
a rainy market day in Babao
       Two kinds of Miao turned up.  Women of the more numerous group wore plain, side-fastened jackets in various solid colors, occasionally with some sleeve decorations, over bulky, pleated, knee-length white or black skirts.  Long, rectangular, fully embroidered and appliquéd panels hung from the waist to the hem, front and back.  Another group wore ankle-length pleated black skirts, the top half covered with colored strips, with long-sleeved black jackets embellished with colored strips on the sleeves, hem and lapel.
Yao girls on their way to Babao
       Yao from one of the Landian branch sub-groups also attended market day.  The females dressed in hip-length black jackets and trousers.  They wrapped their hair inside a black cap, topped by an engraved or embossed silver disc.  A bright belt around the waist and strings of beads and pink thread tassels around the neck added dolor to the outfit.  Children dressed the same as adults, but wore round caps with a broad band of colored strips around the base and tassels attached to the top.
       From Babao, Highway 323 ran straight west through the middle of Wenshan via Yanshan, then past the prefecture boundary to terminate at Kaiyaun.  The scenery consists of low, rolling hills, pleasant but not outstanding.  The main changes I noticed en route were among the minorities.   Zhuang villages in southwestern Guangnan County comprised stilted, wooden houses, though the women dressed like those in Babao, except for a few stripes on the sleeves.
Yi women in Ameng
young Yao woman in Ameng
After crossing into Yanshan County, around Amemg I found the Zhuang women wearing very different, much more colorful ensembles:  short green jackets with broad bands of mostly red trimming on the sleeves, lapel, neck and hem and a wide cap with the front heavily brocaded, a skill for which Zhuang women have long been famous.  Yao women dressed in black like those in Babao, but with a large white collar on the jacket and embossed silver plaques just below it.  Ameng was holding market day when I passed through and Yi women were also in attendance, wearing short black, side-fastened jackets with colored bands on the sleeves and all around the lower half of the jacket.
Zhuang woman on the road to Yanshan
         Yanshan city lies at the northern end of a long, elevated plain, mottled with limestone hills, a few of which pop up within the urban area.  A medium-sized, modernized city with wide avenues and new buildings, it had a park on the eastern side where stood big sculptures of the city mascots—a pair of chickens.  Elderly folk practiced tai qi exercises here in the evenings.  It was a relatively quiet city, without the loud karaoke bars that marred my evenings in Babao.
       In the center of Yanshan stands a rocky hill called Chengzishan.  The Hui quarter lies south of it and an unusual mosque is at the foot of the hill, its central green domed tower flanked by a pair of thin minarets with sharply pointed tops.  A viewing tower on the hill gave me a view of nearby Tinghu Reservoir and the broad farms growing pseudo-ginseng, a local specialty.  A park at the base of the hill provided a late afternoon venue for urban men to meet, relax, and listen to the caged songbirds they brought with them.
the suburbs of Yanshan and Tinghu Reservoir 
       I took a day’s excursion to Haizibian, in the narrow strip of territory between the eastern and western chunks of the county, sited next to the natural body of water called Bathing Fairies Lake (Yuxianhu).  It is bounded by low hills on the southern shore, contains several small islands, a Zhuang village at the near end and a Miao settlement at the far end, with water clean enough to be drawn by villagers for domestic use.  Apparently attempts had been made to turn it into a resort, for groups of floating cabins lay just offshore and the village’s Qing Dynasty temple had been turned into a hotel, with the former monks’ quarters transformed into rooms for guests and a subsidiary building made into an entertainment hall for ethnic minority dance shows.  An arched bridge stood next to the boat landing and a fancy pavilion offered views of the lake scenery.
Miao woman near Haizibian
       No one was lodged in them at the time, nor were any of the floating cabins occupied.  In such a picturesque setting, with friendly and colorfully dressed Miao, Zhuang and Yi in the area, I was surprised it wasn’t filled with tourists, or at least city day-trippers from Yanshan and Wenshan.  There were no restaurants or bars in the vicinity, though, and most shops in Haizibian were closed except on market days.   
       I hiked the trail along the shore to the Miao village near the end of the lake.  All the women wore their traditional outfits of pleated batik skirts and bright jackets, heavily embellished with strips of embroidery and appliqué.  I watched a weaver at work and got invited inside next door for tea, liquor and snacks.  Then I wandered around the village and its mud-brick, tiled, one-story houses before returning to the trail along the lake back to Haizibian and flagging down a minibus going to Yanshan.
       My time then was too limited to stay longer.  So I added Haizibian to the list of places in Yunnan I wanted to further explore one day.  Ten years later, while heading for Kaiyuan, west of Wenshan, I detoured to Haizibian to stay a couple nights and get a second look.  I wanted to stay in the old temple converted into a hotel, but it was locked, the rooms shuttered and the entertainment hall turned into a storage room for crops.  I had to settle for a room above a small shop.
Bathing Fairies Lake (Yuxianhu), Haizibian
       The resort not only had not revived, it was in ruins.  The bridge was mostly under water, the boats gone, the floating cabins dismantled and the few restaurants and viewing pavilions on the shore empty, stripped of their glass and furniture.  Nevertheless, the lake was still beautiful, village architecture still the same and people just as friendly as on my initial visit. 
       Luckily for me, it was the peak of market day when I arrived.  All of Haizibian’s fifty or more shops were open and local ethnic minorities set up stalls on the streets to sell products of their villages.  Besides the nearby Miao, the market attracted many Yi and Zhuang, whose women all dressed traditional style.  The Yi here are a branch of the Sani, who also live in neighboring Qiubei County.  They wore blue jackets, white if unmarried, with contrasting colored bands around the sleeves and along the lapel. 
       Zhuang women dressed much more colorfully than those in Babao and Guangnan.  Their jackets had two colors, blue and brown or black for the older women, black and brighter shades for the younger ones, with embroidered bands around the sleeves and along the hems.  Over the jacket they wore a long bib, with the top part or edges lavishly embroidered.  Some wore plain black turbans, others a headscarf with a brocaded front, like around Ameng, or a tall cap laden with triangles of silver studs.
fancy Zhuang headdress for market day
Zhuang woman at Haizibian mareket day
       In the late afternoon I walked along the lake and discovered that everything else about the area was unchanged.  Villages still looked the same.  No development projects had added new factories or buildings.  Ox carts still carried people around, not motorbikes.  Rural life carried on as it always has.  It’s easy to imagine the eventual resurrection of a resort scene here.  More people are traveling than ever before, searching for the natural and the authentic.  Unspoiled destinations are getting scarcer all the time, even in Yunnan.  Bathing Fairies Lake won’t remain neglected forever.

drawing water from Bathing Fairies Lake
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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Festival Time for Tibetans and Their Horses

                                      by Jim Goodman

mounted Tibetans on the highway in Shangrila County
       The high plains of Shangrila County, actually the southeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, have only been connected by motorable road with the rest of Yunnan in recent decades.   Before that was just a track.  It was a well used one though, for it was an important part of the Tea and Horses Road, wherein caravans carried tea up from southern Yunnan to Zhongdian, as it was then called, and beyond to Tibet and western Sichuan, and Tibetan horses came down from the Plateau to Yunnan, and then beyond to China.
       The trade began flourishing from the foundation of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 7th century, whose territory encompassed today’s Yunnan, plus at times various areas beyond, as a result of its periodic wars with Tang Dynasty China.  Both these regimes collapsed early 10th century.  After some years of power struggles, new regimes established themselves:  the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and the Song Dynasty in China.
monk on horseback in the countryside
       The Song regime was less secure, for it faced a long-term problem on its northern frontier with mounted enemies.  Rather than try to conquer Dali, mindful that their predecessor had never succeeded in conquering Nanzhao, the Song Court pursued a policy of peace and trade.  China needed the horses for its own armies.   Tibetan horses had a high reputation for being strong, agile and easy to train for warfare.  The Song Dynasty would undertake no steps that might possibly interrupt this vital supply.
       Tibetan horses didn’t save the regime from its ultimate defeat, but on the Tea and Horses Road business persisted.  The route took on a new significance during World War II, after the Nationalist government relocated to Chongqing.  With the Japanese blockading all shipments from eastern China, supplies had to come in by land from Kalimpong, India, through Tibet, thence to Zhongdian and on to Dali and Kunming. 
       This was the last heyday of the Tea and Horses Road caravans.  Nowadays trucks bring in the goods over new highways, reducing the journey from Lijiang to just five hours.  When the county opened to foreigners in the early 90s, it took at least eight, and sometimes was halted for several hours to clear landslides.  Trucks and buses generally left in the morning from Lijiang, as well as from Zhongdian back to Lijiang, so from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, the highway was relatively traffic-free and the main movement along the road comprised Tibetan villagers on foot or horseback.
dressing up Lhasa-style for the festival
a day to wear the fox fur hat
       Tibetan villagers back then were fairly well off.  They had spacious barley fields and vegetable gardens, sturdy and comfortable houses, yaks and other animals, including the family pony.  Some owned tractor-trailers, useful for hauling field produce and going to the city market.  But for visiting other villages, only the pony would do.  Even monks rode them.
pony parked at the festival grounds
       Owners kept their horses well fed and groomed.  They used a heavy leather saddle for riding, but placed under it woven woolen blankets, with artistic motifs taken from their carpet designs.  There are times in the year when the men don’t have a lot of work to do, so they may use that leisure to improve their equestrian skills and try to train their ponies to do more than just carry them around.  And if they’re confident of their success, they’ll want to show off for the annual Horse Races Festival (Saimajie in Chinese).
       Events begin the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (this year 30 May), when the barley fields have already been sown, azaleas are in bloom, and work is slack until the rains begin.  Tibetans come from all over Diqing Prefecture to attend, as well as southwest Sichuan, joined by Naxi from Baishuitai, Yi from the southern mountains, Lisu from Weixi County and Bai, Han and Hui from the city.   The venue is the lap of Five Phoenixes Mountain (Wufengshan), just south of the urban area.  Most of the Naxi, Yi and Lisu, and the Tibetans from Tacheng district in Weixi, are members of dance troupes sponsored by the city government, which puts them up in hostels.
tent erected at the festival grounds
       Most of the non-local Tibetans bring tents and pitch them around the festival grounds.  Some Shangrila Tibetans will do the same, for that’s where they will rest and feast in between the festival acts, with meat, vegetables, snacks, fruits, jiu and plenty of buttered tea, dining on their finest old carpets.   They will use their best copperware and silver-inlaid cups and bowls, too, for at festival time one has to make a good impression. 
       Stylistically, the festival requires putting on your best ethnic clothing and jewelry.  Some women will wear the long chuba popular in Lhasa, with a multi-striped apron in front.  They may also deck themselves with the family heirlooms:  necklaces, pendants, rings and hair ornaments.  The men will don wide-sleeved Tibetan jackets, tight pants and fur hats or top hats of brocaded silk with fur flaps.  Village girls dress more simply, but in their newest and cleanest, with as much jewelry as they own.
Shangrila Tibetan girls
Lisu woman guest from Weixi County
       Besides the Tibetan fashions on display, visiting ethnic minorities have their own distinctive outfits.  The Naxi women from Baishuitai wear ankle-length coats, usually black, a few white, tied at the waist, a sheepskin cape and colored yarn braided into their hair.  The contingent also includes costumed dongba priests, from one of the few places where this Naxi tradition survives.  Yi women dress in bright, tri-colored skirts and the men wear wide-legged trousers, turbans and woolen capes.  Lisu women from Weixi dress in a long, flowing skirt and wear a tall, pointed cap, embellished with cowries or silver studs.  To a Western tourist, the outfit evokes the look of a medieval European princess.
masked dance by lamas from Songzhanlin
       In its pre-Shangrila days, the city had not yet built a stadium to stage the festival.  In 1994 there was just an oval track, 400 meters long, with some bleachers on the side.  City officials sat in the center, while local people occupied the other seats, lined up along the track or stood in trucks parked to the side.  Mid-morning the first day, following a few speeches, a riding exhibition commenced, with the horses sporting silver bridles and decorated with ribbons and pompoms tied to their manes and tails.  The riders galloped their steeds twice around the track, then reared up to a sudden halt.
       Next came the dance shows, beginning with a performance by lamas from Guihua Monastery in Songzhanlin, dressed in bright robes and grotesque masks.  This was the most interrupted dance, as Han tourists swarmed all over the troupe to get close-up photos of the masks.  Other Tibetan dances included one where women wave their ultra-long sleeves around like scarves and a few skits from the traditional Reba Dance set.  These featured lots of stooping and spinning by the males, vigorous drumming, women brandishing staffs and characters with animal heads.  In between the Tibetan acts were numbers by Hui girls and by Han schoolchildren.
dancer in the role of a yak
Reba Dance character
       From 1995 the county government began inviting performers from beyond the city’s immediate environs, such as Tibetans from Diqing and Tacheng, Naxi from Baishuitai in Sanba district, south of the city, and their Yi neighbors.  The Naxi dongba priests, mostly very old, in bright silk robes, wearing the paneled crown of the Five Buddhas and wielding swords, danced around the entire track, whirling and slashing at invisible demons along the way.  The Naxi youths, like the Lisu and Yi troupes, performed energetic dances lined up in ranks or joined in a ring.
local Tibetans watching the dances
       Other than the lama dancers, who only performed once in front of the stage, the other groups also staged their shows at various spots on the track, enabling the rest of the audience to see them.  When they concluded, the jockeys arrived for the preliminary rounds of racing.  Some of them rode on the heavy saddle and blankets.  Others used only a thin cloth under them or rode bareback.
       Four horses compete in one heat, which comprises five circuits of the oval track.  But not all four of the horses make a real effort to race.  In the distant past, Chinese valued Tibetan horses for their good response to training.  That’s not so with the contemporary breed.  Saimajie is the event that will demonstrate, to both their jockeys and the spectators, just how embarrassingly unmanageable these ponies can prove to be.
start of a men's race
       Four horses start the race, but rarely do all four complete it.  At least one will choose to trot, or even walk, not race, despite the frantic efforts of its rider thrashing it with his quirt.  It might even be lapped by the heat’s winner—and this is only a five-lap race!  Another horse might just wander off the track entirely or jump into the bleachers and scatter the spectators or throw its rider to the ground.
       Such antics certainly amuse the crowd, who may erupt in a mock cheer for the slowpoke pony that finally dawdles its way to the finish line.  Some of the races can be quite exciting, though, with the winner but a neck ahead of the second place finisher.  After several groups of male jockeys have made the rounds, the last event before a break is a race between two female jockeys, who make just three rounds instead of five, but in a contest as spirited as those of the best male riders.
women's race
       Besides the races, the program includes a demonstration of riding skill.  Jockeys ride at full gallop down the straight part of the track and lean way over to one side to snatch up white scarves lying on the ground at 30-meter intervals.  It’s not easy and no one succeeds in getting all the scarves.  And just as with the races, a few horses will refuse to run, only trot or walk, which of course gives the rider plenty of time to reach down and pick up the scarves.  The spectators just laugh.  Everybody knows how temperamental Tibetan horses are.
       More rounds of racing heats and scarf pickup feats take place after the lunch break.  Tibetan drama groups also stage plays in the field beyond the track.  These will be skits from the Reba Dance repertoire, a 900 year-old tradition that combines dancing, talking, singing, circus acts, comedy and high drama.  The cast will include lords and ladies, generals and ministers, deities and animals, clowns and peasants.  The show could take place under a tent roof, with the sides open to view, or out on the field, with the audience standing in an oval around the players.
picking up a scarf at full gallop
       Activities the second day back then resembled those of the first, minus the ethnic dances that opened the festivities.  Back in the city, however, crowds of outsiders roamed the shops to check out all the different items on sale.  Fancy, Lhasa-style robes, in wool or silk, with imitation leopard-skin cuffs and lapels, Tibetan-style wide leather belts, broad-brimmed summer hats, riding crops, daggers, boots, and horse trappings attracted the men's attention.  Women examined rings, necklaces, bangles, scarves, blouses, capes and earrings.  Besides the clothes, summer fruits filled baskets along the main road, small open-air stalls in the market sold basic noodle and bean gelatin dishes, while on the pavements lay displays of medicinal herbs, roots and animal parts. And in the streets some people were out just to stroll around and look at the variety of people in town, including foreigners.
Tibetan drama at the festival grounds
       On both evenings after it was finally dark, groups of Tibetan youths took over a few of the intersections on the main road and formed circles to sing and dance.  These were the most convivial hours of the festival.  Arms around each other’s waists, girls lined up on one side, boys on the other.   Usually one girl in the group selected the song because she knew all the verses (most songs are long).  So she led and the others followed.  The girls sang one stanza, then the boys responded with another stanza.  The dance steps were simple and each group blithely continued until no one remembered any more lyrics, at which point they picked another song. 
       In the 25 years since the county opened its doors to foreigners Saimajie, like the city itself, has grown bigger. The program has been extended from two days to three, with additions like a staged music show, extra dances and dramas and, incongruously for a festival showcasing horses, a cross-country motorcycle competition. 
       The essence of the festival remains the same, though.  It’s more organized, with a presentation that gets glitzier all the time, and attended by many times more outsiders than two decades ago.  But for the Tibetans, it’s the last round of fun and games before the more demanding work of the rainy season.  It’s a time to dress to impress, meet other Tibetans from other places, perhaps engage in romance, show off equestrian skills and demonstrate the close relationship they have with their horses—things they’ve been doing since long before the first foreigner came to see the festival.

TIbetans from beyond Shangrila attending the festival
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                        for more on Yunnan’s Tibetans, see my e-book Living in Shangrila