On my second trip to Asia, Michelle arranged to have me travel with a young student of hers, Dawa Drolma. Extremely intelligent, she was, of course, equally provincial. From a small village in Qinghai Province, she graduated from Qinghai Normal University* in Xining, a very large city in the far west of China, but she had no travel experience. She did, however, speak English very well. It was a tough job for her in many ways. The Chinese spoken in the regions where we spent much of our time was difficult for her to understand, so communication was exhausting. As her main task was to function as translator, it must have been quite frustrating. Also, we encountered some strange happenings that could only befall illiterate strangers…us! But those stories will come later in the story.
Yunnan Province is rich with the remnants of many indigenous cultures. In China, there are 55 ethnic groups co-residing with the predominant Han Chinese, and 25 of these can be found in Yunnan. Wanting to see cultural diversity, the trip was planned accordingly, dipping south west into the lowland rice and tea regions, where the Yi, Naxi, Bai, and Mosuo societies can be found*. Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, this canyon-filled landscape is verdant and lush, with the vast diversification of natural species gracing a habitat that has plenty of water and sun. But in the northwest, Yunnan borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the place most of us call Tibet. It is this part of China where we find the Diqin Plateau and mountains soaring to the heavens. Kawagebo Peak ascends a mighty 22,110 ft (6,740 m).
On my itinerary of “must sees” was a town called Shangri-La, basking at an altitude of well over 10,000 ft. It is supposedly the paradise James Hilton referred to in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, but I was attracted to it because of its historical Tibetan town. As it turns out, Dawa Drolma’s very best friend from college lives there. Visiting Dolma turned out to be life changing
* She ultimately got a scholarship to Duke University in South Carolina, traveling with student programs to Egypt, France…and who knows where else!
*Some 38% of Yunnan Province’s population are members of minorities, including the Yi, Bai, Hani, Tai, Dai, Miao, Lisu, Hui, Lahu, Va, Nakhi, Yao, Tibetan, Jingpo, Blang, Pumi, Nu, Achang, Jinuo, Mongolian, Derung, Manchu, Sui, and Buyei. Several other groups are represented, but they live neither in compact settlements nor do they reach the required threshold of five thousand to be awarded the official status of being present in the province. Some groups, such as the Mosuo, who were officially recognized as part of the Naxi, have in claimed official status as a national minority, and are now recognized with the status of Mosuo people. Wikipedia