Chengdu Panda at the Pandas Breeding Center of Chengdu
Once in Chengdu with a 15-days visa, we cycled to Leshan and get one-month extension. We were very surprised by the modernism of the clean and well-organized huge cities we passed by. The 12th of May, we were in Leshan, 120 km south East of Chengdu, next to the Giant Buddha, when we felt the earthquake. We didn't see any damages and didn't know how big was the catastrophe. We learned later that this quake has caused about 70 000 death.
Giant Buddha, Leshan
We left quite quickly the modern life by taking roads through the mountains. Everyday we had to climb a pass and go down again...to go up again the next morning. Our legs became very heavy,but stronger too, with 1500 meters of positive denivelation in average everyday. On the first pass to Meigu, we were searching for a place to put our tent, but the valley was too narrow. We asked in a small house if it was possible to use their garden, but the family invited us to sleep in their house. In the kitchen (which was in fact a big room dark of the smoke of the middle-fire), among the dogs, cats and chickens sleeping inside for the night, we shared the diner made of big pieces of grilled pork, thick steamed bread, vegetables and green peas: A very friendly evening, but it was very hard to communicate...
After this first pass we saw people dressing differently, and faces changing too. In fact we were now in an area where are living Yi people. The Yi represent the seventh biggest ethnic group of the 56 minority groups officially recognized by China (they were about 7.8 millions according to the national census in 2000). But there are many distinctive sub-groups (Nisu, Nasu, Sani, Axi, Lolopo, Pu) who speak different variety of their tibeto-burman language, the "Yi". The group "Yi people" is just a category of classification used by China but don't express the cultural diversity of this people. They live mainly in rural and mountainous areas of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. On the way to Xichang, we saw a great Yi celebration besides the road. Women were dressed with their beautiful traditional colorful clothes. All (even children) were eating pork, drinking beers and exploding firecrackers. They invited us to eat an drink. We stopped for a while to share this nice moment with them, trying to speak with the hands, but laughing more than speaking, and trying to guess what was the celebration for, while a very old woman came and took the hand of Christophe to show him something. He was very surprised when she brought him to the small house, 50 meters away, where we have seen people going to and coming back many times. He entered the small door, guessing it was the kitchen but what he saw was completely different: an old dead man laying on a bed, with a dozen of munitions on the chest and his dentures carefully bathing above him in a plastic bag, on the shelter, many bottle of alcool were dressed. He seemed to be a very important person, maybe the chief of the village. We understood what we have failed to during two hours. We were celebrating funerals, but with such surrounding happiness that we couldn't guess it. And we were eating the pig which was sacrificed to maintain relationship with the deceased spirit, as we read after. Yi people believe in the spirit, the worship of their ancestors and the nature. The power of the spirit is regarded as the most magical one and they believe in numerous good and bad spirits and in multiples souls. They in fact practice a kind of animism, under the authority of a shaman. What a busy day! After this magic break, we went on, looking forward to meet Sven, Judith and Hannes (the German cyclists we met in India first, and in Nepal again), who were leaving Xichang on the morning and cycling in our direction. We kept on slowly, we didn't know that the pass we were climbing would bring us at 3200 meters high. At every bend we thought :"it should be the last one, it's not possible that we keep climbing!!!", we were wrong, it was possible and 1500 meters of positive denivelation were waiting for us... But unfortunately, Sven, Judith and Hannes, who reached the pass before us, went to put their tent in a field and let us a sign on the road that we didn't see. We thought they didn't leave Xichang and decided to reach this city. We arrived completely exhausting after "one funeral, one pass at 3200m and 100 kilometers", busy busy day!!!
After Xichang we decided to cut overland by a small road to Yanyuan which is in the middle of a small plateau. One quite easy pass and a nice asphalt road and we arrived in a small village called "Ba Kha" or something, on the way to the Lugu lake. We asked to put the tent but a young woman who speaks English proposed us to sleep for free in her uncle's hotel. We waited for her family, playing snookers in the middle of nowhere (there was no tap water but there were TV and snookers pool everywhere). And we also experimented what are real "latrines", you can never believe it can exist: a pond of 4 square meters or more, with a few wood planks laying in balance, and a nice collection of all types of worms doing their job, I thought: "Above all, be careful not to slip!!!". The next morning we took the smallest road as possible, left to Ning Lang (Yunnan province), but we had the bad surprise to get on a very hard track, very stony. In the ascents we had to push the bicycles. After three hours we had made only 15 kilometers. Being in Laos before the expiration of our visas seemed more and more difficult in our mind. But we just went on: Let's see!
Everyday we made very nice encounters.
As soon as people can speak English, they come to us to exchange or invite us to eat or sleep, even young people from college. We understood that most of Chinese are like them but daren't approach us because they can't communicate. On the way to Lijiang and after 5 punches in one day (a record!), we met a policeman (called Gang!) who guided us and invited us for diner. He's a Nakhi (Naxi), another ethnic minority of China, from Tibetan origin, and also descendants of the ancient Qiang group. Approximately 300 000 Nakhis live in Yunnan, mainly in Lijiang and Diqing prefectures. Their culture and religion are called Dongba, as the name of their ancient priests. Their religion which is a survival of the pre-bouddhist religion Bonpo of Tibet, is a kind of paganism and shamanic animism. They worship the nature, especially water and mountains. One of their specificity is their script (Dongba script) which remains a hieroglyphic system of more than 2000 original characters. Like in the ancient Egypt, one character express one word. Most of those words concern the ancestral life of Naxi in the field of agriculture, religion and war. While the Chinese script has evolved for millenniums from very simple pictograms and ideograms to a complex writing system, Nakhi script remains original. The very simplified pictogram are purely descriptive: the character fish is a fish, the man a man, and so on... In Lijiang many boards, signs and guideposts are both in Chinese and Dongba script. Another specificity is that the Nakhi of the North (Yongning area) show many remnants of a matriarchal society. Women live with their brothers and have no stable partner. Men visit the women during the night and they have free relationship. Children usually don't know their father. For the Nakhi the hereditary characters are contained in the bones and are transmitted by the women. The ancient Nakhi town of Lijiang is now a major touristic city. All the traditional houses are used as shops, some of them ran by Nakhi people. Most of the tourists are Chinese, what we really appreciate, as, unlike in India or Nepal, we are not the main target of the shopkeepers (Chinese tourists spend more money than we do). Gang dreams to become a touristic guide. But his parents thought it would be better for him to enter the public service. He wants to save money and convince his parents to go back to university and learn foreign languages. He invited us for a traditional Nakhi meal: potatoes, rice and meat cooked together in a pot, vinegar cabbage, and a plate of very very hot, I mean spicy, bean noodles. After two days of rest, walking for hours in the nice paved alleys of Lijiang, or laying in the park, we left for Dali under a dark sky. The weather was very bad, but the road was good and quite flat (it's never really flat, but this part was easy) and we arrived quite quickly to destination (except some new punches). Dali is an autonomous prefecture of the Bai people. The Bai -literally "white ethny" because of their mainly white clothes- are another recognized minority. They numbered about 1.8 millions in 2000 and are living in the south-west Yunnan. In Dali, women wear aprons and headdresses which represent the four beauty of Dali (the wind, the flower, the snow and the moon). In this touristic city, graceful old Bai women sell many things in the street: jeweleries, clothes, touristic tours and also...marijuana. It's very strange to see those little grandmothers hailing us closemouthed to propose some ganja. Dali was a touristic place a long time before Lijiang was. It's less traditional but has its charm and we see more westerners, but still not so much compared to the number of Chinese tourists.
Children in Hexi, a little village on the road
Now we are looking for changing our old tyres (they are too old, used, finished), but Chinese use mainly 26', ours are 28', we are in contact with some bikeshops but the quality they provide is not that good, we can also order some new tyres by internet but it will take time. We can't go on with 5 punches a day. So we are stuck in Dali, but we'll find a solution.