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Cool Mountains: Yaks, lakes and the Yi people in northwest Yunnan

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Like most places in northwest Yunnan, mountains dominate the landscapes of Ninglang County (宁蒗县). Called Xiaoliangshan (小凉山), the Lesser Cool Mountains — to distinguish them from Daliangshan (大凉山), the Greater Cool Mountains across the border in Sichuan — they rise on either side of the area's main north-south highway, sometimes reaching over 4,000 meters in altitude. They are often blanketed in snow in late autumn, a gleaming white mantle that persists until the warmth of May.

The county's towns lie in separate valleys along the highway, with mild ascents over the hills between them. As with any mountainous area, the higher you hike the greater the view. But Ninglang County is not noted for its trekking routes. Visitors almost all head straight for Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) in the far north, and rarely attempt to appreciate anything anywhere else. As for the mountain scenery, one could argue that it is better and easier to appreciate in Diqing (迪庆), the upper reaches of the Nujiang Valley (怒江峡谷), or Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡). Good mountain vistas in Ninglang require strenuous hikes up some rather steep slopes. And the shapes of the peaks on the far horizons will not rival the higher, more jagged summits of the mountains of the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas.

What drew me to these mountains, however, was not the possibility of discovering hitherto unknown scenic panoramas. Ninglang is an Yi Autonomous County, where the Yi people comprise a majority of the population. The bulk of them live in the mountains. Since my purpose in Ninglang was to do research on the Yi, that was going to require some long excursions up the slopes of the Cool Mountains.

The Yi minority nationality dominates the population of Ninglang City and other county towns. Visitors will hear more of the Yi language — a member of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group — than Chinese spoken in the markets and restaurants. There I could find and befriend men who could fill me in on Yi history and mythology, customs and taboos. Though they were comfortably ensconced in the modern accoutrements of urban Ninglang, they were ethnically conscious Yi, proud of their customs and traditions, and I learned much from them. Their wives were usually from the mountains, their in-laws still lived there, and they themselves made occasional visits as part of keeping in touch with their village roots.

Still, there was a limit to what I could learn in Ninglang City, for that was not a traditional environment. I had to visit the villages and that was going to be physically demanding . The first village I visited, Yangpinzi (羊坪子), the nearest to Ninglang, took at least an hour and a half of uphill hiking to reach. But the exertion was worth it. The people were surprised, but quite hospitable, and the result encouraged me to venture further into the mountains in the future.

To see the Torch Festival (火把节) in a rural environment meant hiking uphill all day to a village in the mountains northeast of Ninglang. To visit Bainiuchang (白牛厂), site of a school with bilingual education and a special class teaching the written Yi language, I had to endure another steep climb up the slopes east of Ninglang. In both cases the journeys were worth the effort, of course, just for the cultural experience. As for the views, they were splendid, yes, but merely as a setting for the encounter, a bonus of a backdrop.

Yet on one autumn excursion, scenery would prove to be as significant a feature as culture when my Yi friends suggested I take a hike to the near-legendary lakes of Yaoshan (药山) — Medicine Mountain — northwest of the city. I say 'near-legendary' because it seemed many Yi people knew about them but hardly anyone had actually seen them. And who lived up there? Yi yak herders.

Well, I'd visited a few mountain villages by then and had met Yi barley and buckwheat farmers, turnip and potato gardeners, goatherds and shepherds. Didn't know there were any Yi yak herders. Always thought that was a Tibetan thing. So when my Yi friend said he could arrange a guide I agreed to go. The guide was a young man named Jikeu, who worked in the city but came from Jinzigou, a Yi village at the southern foot of the mountain.

Time for a hike

We set out along a creek northwest of the city and then had to climb up a steep hill through thick forest, here and there speckled with blue, white and yellow flowers and piles of fallen russet or yellow leaves. At the crest of this ridge was an Yi hamlet of about ten houses, with most of the people outside threshing barley or harvesting turnips. One family called us over for tea and gave us a large radish to consume during breaks climbing over the next ridge.

Though it was just as steep as the first ascent, fortunately the ordeal was over after an hour. We now gazed down at the sprawling village of Jinzigou (金子沟) in the valley below, with around a hundred buildings, all except the middle school typical traditional Yi log cabins. Judging by the very friendly encounter we'd just had in the hamlet, I anticipated a warm reception.

But things started off awkwardly. There were stares but no smiles as Jikeu led the stranger through the lanes to his family's house. Even there everyone seemed hesitant to greet me. A short discussion ensued between father and son. Then the mood suddenly changed and I was welcomed with the same warmth I had experienced in other Yi villages. Familiar with the custom of compensating the family for their hospitality, I gave out gifts I'd brought for the hosts — liquor for the father, cowry shells from Thailand for the women to embellish their clothing accessories, and a pound of sweets for the children. And as we settled in for our stay and sipped tea, Jikeu revealed what the discussion had been about.

Recently there had been reports of strangers going to remote villages in the county to preach the imminence of the end of the world and urge people to join their religion to assure salvation. Jinzigou residents hadn't seen anyone yet, but some of their relatives in other villages had. Was I one of those doomsday prophets? If so, they really didn't want to hear that kind of talk. Assured that I was not, they were pleased to meet and welcome the first foreigner to Jinzigou.

After a hearty morning meal and a photo session of the family dressed in their best Yi apparel, we commenced our hike to the summit of mighty Medicine Mountain. We crossed the creek at the edge of the village and the trail almost immediately began zigzagging up a 70-degree gradient. Much of it went through thick forests of pine, fir, rhododendron and poplar, with moss hanging from the branches, lichens covering fallen logs and bighorn sheep sharing the trail.

I learned all about false summits that day — seeing an end to the uphill trail, discovering the level walk only continues five minutes and then another steep ascent begins. Two Yi herders joined us for the last stretch of the journey, carrying my shoulder bags and cutting a staff from a tree branch for me. But when we finally arrived at the broad plain lying next to the steeply sided granite rocks on the summit, all the pain of getting there was forgotten.

Lakes and yaks

It was mid-afternoon and our first stop was a hut belonging to an older Tibetan woman who lived there with her two grandchildren. She prepared buttered tea for us while Jikeu heated the buckwheat bread his family had given us. After our refreshment — including a cup of precious corn liquor for the foreign guest — we headed for an Yi herder's cabin a short distance away, where we would stay the night.

This cabin was close to one of the lakes, so after making arrangements for the night we all headed, along with the Tibetan girl, to a lake the Yi call Shàhma. This small and shallow lake lies in the lap of a steeply wooded slope. The view from here encompasses the stark cliffs along the summit to the west and out across the wrinkled horizon of the Lesser Cool Mountains. We joined our companions as they went up the slopes to fetch their yaks down to the cabin area for the night. I found these animals very curious about the stranger alongside them. They often sidled up to me, but whenever I reached out to touch one, the yak backed off. Still, they were a lot less skittish than their lowland cousin the water buffalo.

Yaks rise at dawn and then head for their favorite pastures. Around an hour after sunrise the herders go up to bring them down again. Then they take one cow, tie it to three stakes and get a calf to start the cow's udders working. Then the man kicks away the calf and milks the cow for about twenty minutes. Much of this will be turned into curd and some processed into cheese and butter.

Less than ten people seemed to live up here, their economy centered mostly on their yaks. In the valley markets at that time yak butter sold for 50 yuan a kilogram, cheese for a bit more and a fully grown yak fetched 1,000 yuan, somewhat higher than a water buffalo or ox of the same size. While tending yaks, goats and sheep was not physically demanding, the lifestyle was necessarily austere and simple. For every essential except water, meat and firewood, they had to make the long trek down the mountain to Hongqiao (红桥), the nearest town, and back up again, their ponies loaded with buckwheat flour, rice, potatoes, salt, oil, tobacco, soap and liquor.

After a breakfast of buckwheat bread, potatoes, butter tea and curd, we set out to see the other Yaoshan lakes. This proved to be almost as grueling an exercise as getting to the summit the previous day. To get to the second lake we had to hike up above the yak pastures, cross the ridge and descend through a thick rhododendron forest with no clear trail. This was Jikeu's first trip here as well. I had no idea what kind of directions he'd been given, but as I searched the slope for footholds and slid under thick fallen tree branches, I was sure we were lost.

Jikeu's internal compass, however, functioned brilliantly that day and steered us to an opening on a ridge overlooking Zhihu, the second lake, which also lay in the lap of a steeply wooded cliff. From here we descended eastwards through another trackless forest, following the trails that martens and rabbits take. Eventually we arrived at the shore of Vahlilu, the prettiest of the lakes. A thick rhododendron forest backed its northern shore, with small, partly iced, yellow clumps of grass lying just off the shores of the other sides.

We rounded the lake, climbed the ridge behind it and slid down through a forest to the fourth lake, Yawshalavoe, which also lay amidst tree-lined slopes. The trees on its eastern slope, though, had all been cut, and big logs lay drying out on the ground. Someday these would have to be hauled by hand all the way down the mountain.

After a short break there we climbed back over the ridge above the yak pastures and descended to the Tibetan cabin for a meal of buckwheat bread and yak cheese, washed down with buttered tea and, in my case, a final cup of corn liquor. As it was not yet four o'clock and we were now fully nourished, we bade farewell to our hosts, their yaks outside the cabin, and descended down the same trail back to Jinzigou, arriving just at dark.

Now I was back in the familiar conviviality of an Yi village community, where people interact more often, do many things collectively, celebrate festivals and so on. How different it was from the lifestyle I had just observed on top of the mountain. The Yi yak herders reminded me of backwoodsmen in nineteenth century America, who built a cabin in the forest and, except for provisional trips to town, in the course of the day were more likely to meet a bear than another human. Yet American culture reveres them as representatives of a fiercely independent spirit.

Could that not be said of the Yi I met on the mountaintop? They opted for the solitary life over the community one. They chose immersion in nature instead of participation in society. For their occasional pleasures they rely on things like unexpected warm breezes in cold months, an especially brilliant sunrise and the birth of a healthy animal. And for faith, it's their own proud, independent spirit.

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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