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Mountains and Mastiffs

AFS China's culture trip to Yunnan

In mid-December, almost all of AFS China took a trip to Yunnan province in southern China. Initially, about 170 of AFS China’s more than 200 students were supposed to come on the trip, but not everyone ended up being able to get to Yunnan. We were lucky that we made it at all, and we got to visit another city on the way (although at the time that certainly didn’t seem like a good thing).

Benj (another NSLI-Y student) and I happened to be placed next to each other on the plane, and we’re both very enthusiastic about studying Chinese, so we spent the entire flight reading Chinese translations of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter respectively. Reading is exhausting when it takes about 45 minutes to get through every page, so Benj and I weren’t really listening to the announcements on the plane. When we landed, relieved to finally have arrived in Kunming, we discovered that we weren’t in Kunming at all. The week we happened to go to Yunnan was one of its coldest weeks in recent history, and even though it is in one of China’s southernmost provinces, we couldn’t land in Kunming because the runway was covered in snow. Instead, we were in Guiyang, in Guizhou province, stuck for the night. We later found out that Guiyang has almost twice the population of Changzhou, but at the time we felt like we were stranded in the middle of nowhere.

We ended up being stuck in Guiyang until the next evening (which was actually lucky, because if we had to wait any longer we probably would have ended up going back to Changzhou instead of continuing to Kunming). We weren’t really supposed to leave our hotel except to buy food, but while we were out buying food we walked around the city for a while. We saw a museum with a huge statue of Mao Zedong in front of it, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays, so we ended up just going to a small music store, walking around a park, and buying snacks at Walmart (I bought Craisins, and I’ve concluded that they taste like America).


By the time we finally got to Kunming, the students who arrived on time had already moved on to another city; we were alone there with a few AFS staff and four or five students from Lanzhou. Tuesday morning, we still hadn’t caught up to the rest of the group; we were supposed to drive six hours and meet them for lunch, but we got stuck in traffic in the middle of nowhere for so long that we all got out of the bus and walked around while we waited to hear that cars further ahead had started moving. Tuesday night, we finally caught up with the rest of the group in a city called Dali.
We visited the old city of Dali, an area that might actually have been historical at one point but now is mostly made up of a lot of tourist shops selling local souvenirs. Yunnan is known for its population of minorities; 92% of people in China come from one ethnic group, and rest are made up by 55 ethnic groups, 25 of which live in Yunnan, so many of the souvenirs sold in Yunnan are traditional objects from its ethnic minorities. We also went to the Zhang family garden, a huge house modeled after traditional Chinese houses that, according to our tour guide, was built by one of Dali’s wealthiest people in an attempt to give people in Yunnan their own version of Disney World. Dali’s most prominent minority is the Baizu, or the white minority (named for the color of their traditional clothing), so at the Zhang family garden we watched a performance about the lives and traditions of the Baizu people in Dali.


The last city we visited was Lijiang, where we spent two nights because there was so much to see there. We went to two old city areas like the one we had gone to in Dali; they would have gotten boring by the end, but the first one we went to was much bigger than the one in Dali, and at the last one we got some very interesting chances to practice our Chinese. At a store in the last old city we went to, Caroline and Kaori and I had a conversation with a man named Tenzin. He started by telling us in very good English about the trip he had recently taken to the US. As we talked to him we switched to Chinese, but I think his English might actually have been better than his Mandarin. He told us that he was Tibetan, and came from a region in Sichuan province where people are nomadic and there are no schools, so he actually didn’t start studying standard Mandarin until he was 17 years old. His English was only so good because he later spent three years studying it in India. It was amazing to be able to use Chinese, which Caroline and I have only studied for five or six months total, to talk to local people about their culture and the unique aspects of their region of China. I hope that I get more opportunities like this.


Lijiang is home to the Naxi and Mosuo minorities; the Mosuo minority is known for its matriarchy and its complete lack of marriage. The Naxi people have their own religion, the Dongba religion, and we visited two places in Lijiang that were meant to show off its special characteristics to tourists. First we went to a small park in the mountains, which included a Dongba temple (as well as a statue of the Dongba god, which I believe is half human and half snake). It was beautiful, and it was amazing to see and learn about a religion that I had no idea even existed. Also in that park, we got to see a yak (which was pretty cool looking) and a Tibetan mastiff (which was huge and fairly terrifying). Later that day we went to Dongba valley, which was just another chance to see the buildings and art particular to the Naxi minority and the Dongba religion, which I thought were beautiful.


Our final stop was at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a mountain outside of Lijiang that is 5,596 meters tall. The mountains we saw in Yunnan were absolutely beautiful. I’m pretty sure they’re considered the foothills of the Himalayas, so I guess they don’t even count as the real mountains, but they are huge and they are gorgeous. At the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we watched an amazing performance about the minorities of Yunnan province, created and acted by people from those various minorities. The show reminded us that each group has its own rich history and traditions that deserve to be remembered, no matter how small or unimportant that group seems in the context of China’s huge population. The show was supposed to take place with the mountain as its backdrop, but it was foggy that day and we only saw the mountain for a few minutes at the end.


More than anything else, my week in Yunnan made me hope that I can come back some day and see it again. I was amazed by the Yunnan’s beauty and how different it is from Changzhou, but I only really got to see it from the perspective of the most popular tourist attractions in a group of 150 people. I hope that someday I can go back and learn more about it and appreciate it more, and I also hope that I have many more chances this year to see the rest of China.

Posted by ccole 07:00

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Wow. Great pictures and travel stories. Super that you are getting some time away from classes to see the country. Hopefully you got some better air on this trip! As for our lives here; what can I say, boring by comparison!

by Uncle Chris

I loved reading your blog.

by Amelia Petrikas

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