57826 notes from yunnan

Bai music at a temple in Baofeng (宝丰)

The village of Baofeng sits mainly on one side of a jade-green rushing river, and we enter the town via a grand modern bridge, across which an old man is leading a herd of cows. The traditional old district rises up the western slope above the river, a warren of narrow, but tidy streets and closely set houses. Many of the doorways are adorned with red silk and paper lanterns, their frames are pasted over with Chinese inscriptions printed on colorful paper.

On a hilltop overlooking the town, there sits a temple complex. We arrive there to find it full of activity, a fitting closure to the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. Outside the temple, we can already hear pentatonic strains of music coming from an inner courtyard. As our curiosity draws us in, we are greeted shyly, but with many welcoming smiles, by people sitting around fires and preparing their noon meals. The inner courtyard is smoky from the temple fires, and spectators sit around on a low stone bench under a shady tree, listening to a group of local Bai musicians and singers.

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Musicians at a temple in Baofeng

Shaxi (沙溪) morning ambience

The town of Shaxi boasts an 8th-century arch bridge at its eastern gate over which very likely passed the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. In the recesses of it narrow streets, we find a worker shoveling refuse into the back of a truck. As in every town and city we visited, the garbage collectors make their rounds early in the morning, driving trucks that blare out amplified music to alert the neighborhood that is is time to bring out their trash. I record the ambience as I walk past. Near the end of the recording, a horse-drawn cart passes by, the canter of the beast setting off a shower of tiny bell sounds, an endemic feature of the local soundscape.

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Old Shaxi

Tibetan Roman Catholics in Cizhong (茨中)

From Deqin, we drive through steep valleys to the town of Cizhong, lying in a part of Yunnan that is historically Tibetan. There has been no rain, and the dry painted soil, variously colored of rust, ochre, ash or chalk, is whipped up along the roadside into dervishes of dust as we pass.

Nonetheless, the lowland fields are green and productive. Crop rows are crowded with lettuce and various other greens, local vegetables I have no names for. Farm animals feast on yellow straw or dried cornstalks, fattening themselves for the table. Chickens and ducks run freely, protesting loudly when a passing vehicle honks its way through. Listless dogs sleep on doorsteps, and barely trouble themselves to notice the passing strangers.

The Tibetan community of Cizhong is mainly Roman Catholic, the result of French missionary activity during the 19th century. On Sunday morning, some one hundred people, elders, young parents, and swarms of raucous children, gather in the town church, which is surrounded by grape vineyards and vegetable patches, to sing Catholic scripture in the form of Buddhist sutras.

Here, my traveling companion writes in greater detail about Cizhong and its Tibetan Catholic community.

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The Tibetan Roman Catholic church in Cizhong

Naxi musicians in Baisha (白沙)

We leave the city of Lijiang behind, still packed with New Years’ revelers, renting bicycles to take in a bit of the countryside before staging an exploration of the village of Baisha, a few kilometers to the north. The scene through which we pass is surrounded by fields and a dramatic backdrop of mountains. Arriving there, we find a band of Naxi musicians playing traditional music in an open shelter next to the street. The group members smile graciously as I slip some banknotes into the donation plate.

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Musicians playing in Baisha

A temple in Yunnanyi (云南驿)

Yunnanyi is a historic village on the Tea Horse Road, not yet developed for tourism. Saturday morning is market day, and the dusty streets are lined with sellers of meat, vegetables, and fish. We gradually wander up to a temple on a hilltop, festooned with colorful flags, and crowded with people sitting around cooking, chatting, and making their devotions. I enter a room in the temple complex when I hear singing and begin to record.

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Singer at a temple in Yunnanyi

A version of this text was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 24th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“