He moves like a ghost among the trees, prodding the undergrowth with his staff. He is old before his time, hunched slightly by the effort of peering constantly at the forest floor. But he has found something new, a fungus not like the ones he has seen before – a rich, rounded white cap above a thick stem. He gently pulls it up, taking as much of the stem as he can, and brushes away the earth. He sniffs it experimentally, and pops it, raw, into his mouth. Nothing happens…
In spite of all the efforts of the Chinese to ruin Lijiang with pony rides and quadbikes, bongo drums, muzak and tie-dye T-shirts, I can still sense some faint glimmer of how the place must have appealed in the past. In the hills beyond the city, a mile above the level of the distant sea, one can still find grubby temples limned with savage gods, garuda birds snarling from the shadows, and garbled tales of an ancient war with demons. I like the Naxi people’s music and their mad sorceries, their candies made from yak cream and the hunks of dried yak meat, the men with their hawks on their arms and the old ladies bent double with their baskets.
The nearest town is Baisha, literally “White Sands,” although that is a modern gloss on the original Naxi name Boa-shi – “Place Where We Slew the People of Boa.” The heads were piled in the streets like cairns, so say the Naxi songs. Nearby there is a picturesque mountain lake where the locals go hunting. Naxi legend says a traitorous princess was once caged on its shore to die of thirst within sight of all that water.
Even at the beginning of October it’s warm enough that we don’t need coats. The sky above is searingly blue, the waters in the nearby pond so crystal clear that the fish appear to be hovering in it like dirigibles. Our feet crunch on the bracken, and Big Li seizes a fallen branch to turn into a staff for me.
“You need this for poking in the undergrowth,” he says. “Because of the snakes.”
We are looking for mushrooms, but it’s the early autumn, after the best mushroom-hunting season in Lijiang, and the pickings are meagre.
I poke around the long-needled pine trees, and uncover a few ratty-looking fungi.
“What about this one?” I say.
“Poison,” he replies.
“Oh. What about this one?”
There are more than a hundred local mushroom varieties, but only 20 of them are edible. I would much prefer Big Li tell me a dozen times not to pick something than end up killing myself. I ask him how he knows and he says shyly: “My Naxi ancestors found out the hard way.”
There is a death or violent illness behind every one of his admonitions, but in half an hour we have assembled enough to fill a dinner plate.
We take them to a nearby Tibetan restaurant, where the cook has agreed to fry them all up. Well, not all. He grimaces at one of my finds, and throws it in the bin.
“Poison,” he says sourly, shooting a withering stare at my companion.
Big Li shrugs, as the oil begins to crackle in the wok, and the cook throws in a handful of green leaves and ginger.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.