Beneath the Jade Dragon


Lumu’s Tibetan House is a source of knowledge for the initiated in Lijiang. Unlike with the Chinese, most of whom do not even know what’s in their own neighborhood, here you can get up to date information about accommodations in the surrounding towns, highly recommended, but not available on the Internet, guest houses and restaurants operated by Tibetans, detailed hand-drawn maps of the paths of the 2,500-meter-deep Tiger Leap Gorge, and a photocopied bicycle map of the old town of Lijiang, which indicates the places where bikes can be rented. This is important knowledge, because the rental business is located at the edge of the large old town, beneath a modern block of flats, opposite the statue of Mao, where only hardcore leftists of the sixties would pilgrimage otherwise. The bike rental is 30 yuan, or 4 euros, for a day, with a 250 yuan or 36 euros deposit. Our goal is the string of little towns of the Naxi ethnic group to the north of Lijiang, beneath the Yulong Mountain: Shuhe, Baisha, Yuhu.



The Yulong Mountain, as befits its name, hovers above the plain like an enormous dragon carved with jagged contours out of a single piece of jade. I stop to take a photo. So that the electrical line that goes alongside the road does not cut the dragon at the waist, I walk a bit ahead into the abandoned rice field, where a thorny weed rips a large hole on my pants. No matter, Baisha is the center of traditional Naxi embroidery, so I hope to find a master who can repair it with a sewing machine.


An old paved street turns off the main road towards the center of the town. The old houses along it are being beautifully restored, the new ones are being provided with old-style porches and gates, in the spirit of the new times. In front of a grocery store, an old woman is washing vegetables in the stream. “Where can I find someone in the village, who could sew my pants?” “We’ll do it for you!”, she replies. She examines them, then she brings out a thread of matching color, threaded in a needle. She calls out the seller from the store. She looks at my legs, to find the best place to start the work, so I helpfully take off my pants. She turns away, with an embarrassed scream and giggles. While she is sewing in front of the shop, I am talking to the old man sitting at the old mahjong table: the grocery store is also a kind of a daycare home for elderly people. The pants are soon done, its value as handmade Naxi embroidery has increased significantly. “How much does the work cost?” I ask. “Nothing”, she says, surprised, and does not accept money even when I insist many times.

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“Where is the old town?” I ask. “That way”, she points further on the paved street, “but it’s very small”, and she shows with the hand, how small. The old town is in fact small, but very cozy. The town gate immediately opens onto the main square, flanked by good eateries. In the shade of a big tree, old greengrocer women and men gather for a conversation dressed in traditional Naxi attire. We lock our bikes to the town gate, sit down in the open door of one of the canteens, order beer, we get acquainted with the drama taking place on the stage of the main square and its actors.

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Three streets begin at the southern city gate, each one has its own profile. Along the one going straight ahead to the north, they sell embroidered and batik clothes in the old courtyards, both old and new, equally beautiful. Here you can also consult Doctor He Shixiu, the eighty-year-old miracle doctor, a local celebrity, to whom they come from far and wide for healing. In front of his house, a collection of newspaper clippings evidence his fame. The street going east, toward the mountains, is flanked by peasant houses, it heads out to the rice fields. The plum trees are already blossoming in the fields, though it’s only February, and in the background, like the Fuji, floats Mount Yulong. The oriental postcard comes home.


The street leading west, to the medieval Dabaoji Temple, is the main street of the town. It is flanked by small antique shops, tea houses, convenience stores. In one of them, a mahjong battle rages on, to the death, just as dominoes are played in Georgia. Some ten men are competing with a woman, the shopkeeper. The clicks of mahjong tiles emphatically striking the table, and the guttural sounds of short commentaries. They are aware of our presence, but they do not look up, they do not break away from the game.

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In the middle of the street, an open pavilion. Old musicians are giving a concert on a weekday afternoon. Donations are welcome, but according to the tatsepao put out in front of the pavilion, their true purpose is the revival of the traditional Naxi music. This music, which has a thousand-year-old tradition, flourished before the Cultural Revolution, with several ensembles playing in every town. Its oldest version was called precisely “Baisha music” (白沙细乐, Báishā xìyuè), because it took shape and was preserved here, in the capital of the former Naxi kingdom, independent until 1271. Mao, however, banned traditional music across the country, and had the instruments broken. Most of the old musicians educated in the tradition have since died, and with them also a part of the repertoire. The survivors now try to pass on their knowledge, while they still can.


Naxi musicians, Baisha. Record by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017

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