There are few places like Nuodeng 诺邓 remaining in China. Local tourist propaganda calls it the ‘thousand – year – old village’ and while this may be an exaggeration, there is no denying that this spectacular hamlet of ancient Ming and Qing dynasty houses and flagstone streets is unique.
Not a single modern eyesore blights picture perfect Nuodeng. Add to this the fact that hordes of screaming tourists and tacky souvenir stalls are conspicuous by their absence, and you get the China of your dreams.
Like Heijing 黑井 and Shaxi 沙溪, Nuodeng was once an important stopover on the salt route, but those glory days have long passed, and only a few salt wells at the entrance to the village are a sign of times gone by. Today, Nuodeng’s residents, members of the Bai ethnic group, earn their livelihoods tilling the fields on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills.
Anybody who shares my love of Chinese history will find this BBC radio programme on Daoism, In our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg, absolutely fascinating. One of the professors on the programme is one of my old professors from SOAS (The London School of Oriental and African Studies).
China, Yunnan province, 150 kilometres Northwest of Dali.
Having arrived safely in Yunlong after a long and somewhat eventful journey from Xiaguan (Dali City), we set about visiting the sights and exploring the town, which to be honest doesn’t take very long, as there is precious little to see or do.
For anybody who has been following our blog over the last few months, you will know that we were in Yushu and the surrounding area last year. It is one of the most stunning and fascinating areas of China we’ve visited.
It’s difficult to express how we feel at the moment. Sitting here in the comfort of our flat in Madrid, the catastrophe in Yushu seems a world a way, and yet so close. We can only hope that the people we met and their families have survived this tragedy.
It was one of those moments you dread when travelling: the old monk poured some strange-coloured liquid from a rusty old vessel into a grimy cup, raised it up to the sky and then downed it all. A yellowish juice trickled down the corners of his toothless mouth and then he motioned us to cup our hands and follow suit. To drink or not to drink? – that was the question. Nights of frequent visits to the rather grim bathroom in our hotel immediately sprang to mind but, on the other hand, we couldn’t enter the chapel without taking the offering. Refusal would have been an offence. Luckily, our driver understood the situation. He took the first swig, emptied the content into his mouth, swilled the liquid around, rather like mouth wash, and then spat it out. The old monk smiled. We did the same and entered the Chapel…
We start our second excursion around Yushuat the nearby Domkar Gompa, scenically located on the mountainside, overlooking the main road. Today, our driver has brought his little son along, a boy of about five, with a Fu Manchu pigtail at the back of his otherwise bald head. Both father and son are in good spirits, as if they are looking forward to the day’s sightseeing as well.
This book should come with a health warning: unsuitable for first-time visitors to China, for they may well decide to cancel their trip. Even old-time China-lovers, such as myself, should proceed with caution, as some of the things you’re about to read may put you off going back there forever!
Having suffered through some graphic descriptions of the unspeakable suffering, and the cruelties Chinese people inflicted upon each other during the Cultural Revolution; having shuddered at the inhumane way the death penalty is carried out and gasped at its utterly immoral connection to organ transplants, I found I had to keep repeating the words Dai Wei, the protagonist, says to his girlfriend, Tian Yi, as if they were a kind of mantra: “ ‘They aren’t evil, they’re just products of an evil system.’ ” (p. 504).
Dai Wei is in a coma; unable to move a muscle, though aware of his surroundings and with his memory intact. Through his memories, he relives his life, from his early childhood, when his father returns from a 22-year stint in a series of reform-through-labour camps, to the fatal denouement at Tiananmen Square, during which he is shot in the head. At regular intervals, Dai Wei’s attempts to return to his past are interrupted by his awareness of present events – the visits of his girlfriend or friends, his mother’s comments – or interspersed with clinical observations on the deterioration of his own body, as he is after all a Biologist.
From his family history, childhood and adolescence, with a traumatic first arrest for ‘immoral behaviour’, we move gradually to his university days, first in Guangzhou and later in Beijing. At university, Dai Wei’s political awareness, a vague feeling of anger and frustration that until then had lain dormant, is shaken when he starts reading his father’s journals from his camp days. Over time, Continue reading “Beijing Coma (北京植物人) Mǎ Jiàn (马建) A Book Review”
I’d been racking my brains out, trying to find an adjective with which to describe Yushu. Beautiful it isn’t; old and quaint neither. Calling the town modern and vibrant would perhaps be going a bit too far, but then again, modern and boring wouldn’t do it justice. Is it ugly? In some ways yes, the new buildings are pretty bog-standard Chinese white-tiled affairs. But that would be too harsh a verdict: the surrounding mountain scenery, the ramshackle old monastic quarters, but most of all, its people lend Yushu a special air. And that’s when I hit upon the epithet ‘funky’. Yes, Yushu is pretty funky.
One more thing you can say about Yushu is that it is remote. The town is situated in one of the remotest areas of one of China’s remotest provinces, Qinghai; so getting there takes a bit of an effort. It is actually a pretty uncomfortable 16 to 18 hour bus ride away from Xining, the capital of Qinghai (though the recently opened airport will change all this).
This feeing of discomfort, characteristic of any Chinese sleeper bus, is heightened by the extreme altitudes at which the bus has to travel: On route there are several passes over 4500 meters and the Qinghai Plateau never drops below 3000 meters.
Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 is the second novel I’ve read by Mo Yan, the first being The Garlic Ballads天堂蒜薹之歌”. Both novels are set in Mo Yan’s native Shandong Province, in the village of Gaomi, but any similarities end there. The Garlic Ballads is a depiction of corruption in rural China in the early 1980s, a period when the old certainties of communism fade and unbridled market forces are unleashed. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China: it’s a saga of endless wars, revolutions and violent political persecutions; a desperate time when bayoneting Japanese soldiers, marauding Communist and Nationalist troops, famine, starvation, murderous family infighting, corruption and a whole cast of vile characters all play their part in wreaking havoc on Gaomi village.
Just off the main road between Yushu and the airport，on the other side of the river and up the hill, is the Trangu Gompa 禅古寺. The main chapel is a modern building, surrounded by traditionally built monks’ living quarters. The complex might seem rather unremarkable at a fist glance, and a little bit ramshackle. However, don’t let first impressions put you off: once you are inside the main building, you’ll be dazzled by a feast of vibrant colours and stunning paintings that will bring about a “wow” reaction even from those who may have seen one temple too many. Our local driver was shaking his head in disbelief that he hadn’t known what was inside the main monastery building; “tai piaoliang, tai piaoliang (it’s so beautiful),” he kept repeating.
The monastery employed artists from Tongren (Repkong), the most renowned in the Tibetan world and whose works can be found in Tibetan monasteries as far as Continue reading “Trangu Gompa / Thrangu Gompa / 禅古寺”
Spectacular, stunning, other-worldly, an extravaganza of colour, are just some of the adjectives you’ll be spluttering to anyone you meet after a visit to the Princess Wencheng Temple. And this before you have actually seen the temple which, in all truth, is nice, but nothing special. It is the Kora, the sacred pilgrims’ trail performed by walking around, or circumambulating, a temple, that provokes such awe and stupor. Even veteran travellers to Tibet will find themselves struggling to recall anything like it.
The temple was supposedly built to mark the spot where Princess Wencheng and her husband, the Tibetan King Songtsän Gampo, stopped for a month on their journey from Xian to Tibet. The marriage of the Tang dynasty Princess, a niece of Emperor Taizong, to the Tibetan King is celebrated by both the Chinese and Tibetans; though their interpretation of the events varies. The Chinese claim it was Princess Wencheng who brought Buddhism to Tibet, by converting her husband; the Tibetans dispute this. According to the Tibetans, Songtsän Gampo forced the Tang Emperor to hand over his niece, after a string of military victories over the Chinese and their allies. In the Chinese point of view, the Princess’s hand was offered as a sign of friendship, to seal the long lasting bond between the Chinese and Tibetan peoples. There is even a famous Chinese opera that corroborates this view.