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Divine Prototypes: The natural terraces of Baishuitai

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The southwest Chinese province of Yunnan can boast of a greater geographical variety than anywhere else in the country. Ecological zones range from the tropics of Xishuangbanna in the south, to the slopes of the towering snow-clad mountains in the northwest, and everything in between. It only lacks a true desert and a seaside. Even so, it has a few rain-shadow areas that all but qualify as desert, with hills and cliffs carved by erosion into various fascinating shapes, as well as Fuxian Lake, the northern part of which has a beach just like those in southernmost China. Other physical attractions of the province include mountains, rock formations, waterfalls, lakes, gorges, caves, geysers and hot springs that, of course, a traveler also finds in other parts of the country.

The sole Yunnan phenomenon that is unique to China — and exists at this size in very few corners of the globe — is Yunnan's Baishuitai (白水台), a set of natural white stone terraces in Shangri-la County (香格里拉县). The county is known for its Tibetan villages, temples and architecture, but around Baishuitai the people are Naxi (纳西), the same minority nationality living across the Jinsha River in Lijiang (丽江).

Though it's possible to walk there in two days from Daju (大具), in Lijiang County, most journeys begin from Shangri-la, where a bus makes the five or six hour journey to Sanba (三坝), the largest of the Naxi villages. The road runs southeast, passing out of the Tibetan area after an hour or so and entering an area of heavily forested hills scattered with Yi villages.

Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山) is barely visible from the pass over the last ridge before the descent to Sanba. Baishuitai — Chinese for 'white water platform' — is first espied after winding down the hill several kilometers. It looks like a great white blob of a rock, roughly 150 meters wide, lying on the slope of a hill a few hundred meters above the road. About one kilometer before this hill is the first of the villages, with Sanba five kilometers further on.

A closer inspection of Baishuitai reveals that the rock is full of terraces, pools and a shallow but constant flow of water. The local Naxi claim that the terraces were built by their gods as replicas of the rice terraces in heaven. The Naxi thus learned to make terraced fields themselves for their own rice, wheat, corn and barley. The basic white color, as well as the terrace formations, are due to deposits left by the waters of the spring above them, which punches through the soil at a cluster of holes just below the forest line. As the water flowed over the slope for millennia, it left behind carbonate of lime, which gradually built up and created little walled basins that trapped the water. Everything on the ground is swathed in lime, even plants and the trunks of bushes and trees.

Although from a distance the creamy white base color stands out — particularly against the dark green of the forests — on closer inspection it is rather the streaks and runnels and the differences of hues over various sections of the rock that catch the eye. At the top the water flows into a large pond with inkblot-shaped islands. It then it spills out over a spacious flat section while the flow on the upper right section passes through several shallow turquoise pools with gray and white walls. This latter water flows down the entire right side of the rock, where the terraces are usually a pale shade of green. On the left side of the rock they are bluer, with streaks of yellow.

From the flat top one can see the whole valley — even past Sanba — to villages perched on the hills on the other side of the Jinsha River. Terraced farms surround the settlements, some of which cling to the slopes, while others lie on the tops of small hills. Looking down on the rock itself one sees lines of mauve, green, purple and ocher wiggling across the surface. Except for the pools, the ever-flowing water is only a couple of centimeters deep.

It's very easy to walk across Baishuitai. Never is the surface of the rock so smooth as to be slippery, for time has left little encrustations everywhere. Besides the pleasure of being able to walk anywhere on the rock and examine its subtle colors, there is the added sensual awareness of the gentle sound of flowing water. Sometimes it falls two or three meters over a terrace wall into a waiting pool. The largest of these bulging rocks even has a name, Milefo (弥勒佛), after the Buddhist bodhisattva.

The Naxi have captured this endless source of running water by digging a trench at the foot of the rock and channelling water to other villages. A small stone shrine stands at the end, similar to those found around Lugu Lake (泸沽湖). No Chinese or Tibetan-style temples exist here, for Baishuitai's Naxi, utterly isolated from outside religious influence for centuries, retain much of their aboriginal faith. The dongba still play an active role in society, and old rituals abandoned elsewhere continue to be performed in the Sanba area.

A Naxi dongba attending a horse festival near Shangri-la
A Naxi dongba attending a horse festival near Shangri-la

The most famous aspect of Naxi culture was its dongba tradition. The dongba traditionally was the village ritual specialist, who carried out his duties with the aid of pictographic manuscripts. These contained the instructions for several dozen complex rites dealing with a wide variety of spiritual problems, as well as Naxi history, mythology, folk tales, medical advice and other subjects. Naxi tradition ascribes the creation of both the pictographic script and holy rituals to a Naxi resident of the Sanba area named Dongba Shilo. He is supposed to have lived in a cave near Baishuitai, where he meditated and conceived of this system.

Living in a cave for spiritual edification was also an ancient tradition of the Naxi people. Until 1949, devotees would live in a hole in the ground near Wenfeng Temple (文峰寺), near the summit of a mountain just south of Lijiang, for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours before emerging. Fed by the faithful, but otherwise engaged in meditation or sleep, success in this endeavor was supposed to enable them to fly.

No written evidence exists as to whether anyone actually achieved this, and the claim is not made for Dongba Shilo. His chosen cave was actually more of a sub-surface grotto, accessible through a hole in the ceiling. Until recent times, dongba from other Naxi-inhabited areas would visit this spot, lower themselves inside and take away one of the rocks, believing them to be sacred. The dongba tradition was pretty much suppressed across the Lijiang area after 1949, but survived in outlying areas such as Sanba. Active dongba from the region attend Shangri-la's annual Horse Racing Festival — called Saima Jie (赛马节) — and continue to perform traditional rites in their communities. But few or no pictographic manuscripts are left to guide them, as they were all destroyed by Tibetan marauders even before 1949.

While the Baishuitai phenomenon is the primary reason to visit the area, the local Naxi are also worth getting to know. Physically, the people strongly resemble the Naxi of Lijiang, especially in contrast with the predominantly Tibetan and Han faces in Shangri-la. Their dialect differs enough in vocabulary, though, that they have difficulty understanding the Lijiang dialect.

The women also wear a different kind of cape — a rectangular woven cloth, one meter by two meters, of wool or cotton, in no particular style or color. They also wear a sheepskin of about the same size and at festivals. Meanwhile the boys wear white tunics and trousers, the women long black coats and sheepskins, braiding their hair with colored yarn like Tibetan girls. The villagers are poor but self-sufficient for all their necessities. They are not often visited but are polite and reciprocate any interest. They are the contemporary bearers of the original Naxi tradition.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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The Naxi folklore about being inspired by rice terraces from heaven was great.

If you'd like to experience the kind of place described by the article then get there soon! a typical Chinese walkway is being built around the whole area while some pools are already fenced off with the usual over-enthusiastic 'guards'. From the walkway you can't really get a good view of the different pools either. Also, expect the entry fee of Y28 to shoot up once work is completed. As a final point, Baishuitan is small but well worth a visit.

I'm a bit of an ass to log in (after ages) just for this, but the geological phenomenon is not unique to the two locations mentioned in the article.


Yes I also had doubts about that. (For example there were extensive such formations in New Zealand in the past, though many were destroyed by volcanic activity.) Otherwise, great article as always Jim! The forest above Baishuitai is amazing, if you have the time spend a day climbing in mushroom season: you won't regret it.

@hetszunyu & @voltaire: Thanks for the correction. The article has been changed accordingly.

Similar formations in Sichuan at either Huanglang or Huanglong (2 different places, and I can't remember which is which), with the difference that those are not so white, but have some color to them.

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