The Bump and Grind

After days of pleading, the director is persuaded to let us get the cable cars up the mountain. There are two stages, which eventually put us at 2800 metres, or in other words, the same height we were at last week in Lijiang. But now we have a vista below us that looks like the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon’s lower flanks were green with trees and shrubs.

The tourist office had claimed that the place would be rammed with travellers today, but it is surprisingly quiet. It takes until 11am for the yammering Chinese to make it to the summit and yell “MY NAME IS WANG! HELLO!” into the abyss, as if anyone will be impressed with that. Earnest notices inform passers-by that the cliff opposite is known as the Two Elephants Paying Homage to the Dragon or The Sleeping Buddha, and we launch our drone from the top of Thousand Turtle Mountain, the peak of which is criss-crossed with domes and lines like a cluster of tortoise shells.

This is the most breathtaking scenery I have seen in China, and it is still relatively unspoilt. Stern notices forbid smoking anywhere at the summit, and for once the Chinese seem to be obeying, leaving the area mercifully free of fag ends and forest fires. The peaks dip sharply into the valley below. In more developed parts of China, this would surely all be rice terraces by now, but it is still clad with wild forest. I am glad I have seen it before someone puts advertising hoardings and a shopping mall on it.

I am still not at 100%. Last night I dined on a packet of crisps and two cans of beer. I tried to eat something at lunch, but had to run for the bathroom when we returned to the hotel. Skipping a few meals will do me no harm, and it is preferable to being caught short out in the wilderness where the only toilet makes my in-laws’ shed in the forest look like a five-star hotel.

The director is better, but miserable about the state of the footage we have. So far we have one good episode, about the Kam and Death, and scattered fragments of three others, none of which really have any rhyme or reason to them. Tonight, we are pinning all our hopes on the Lisu Courtship Dance, which promises to be an evening of song, dance and booze, in colourful costumes, and will hopefully hold this episode together. But we have no interviewees so far, as the only person we have had any contact with who speaks Mandarin is the tourism officer, and he is a Naxi.

Wang Yonggang has arranged a tribal get together at his shed. He turns out to be something a big name in the world of lusheng-playing and climbing ladders of knives, and has even been whisked away to Paris to perform. Tonight he has rounded up a dozen of his mates, their wives and children, and stages a series of Lisu songs and dances for the camera, the men in their white tunics adorned with career-related patches, the women in their ornate red skirts, topped by jangly headdresses.

Overhead, there are more stars than I have ever seen before, so many in fact that I can barely recognise any constellations. Cassiopeia, which is a simple, recognisable W-pattern of five stars, has about thirty new members.

The first performance is the Welcome Dance, a ring-a-roses performed around the fire, into which I am dragged. I am not however, informed just how fast it’s going to get or how close to the fire, and I am left wheezing and coughing from the smoke. The director then announces that the cameraman was changing lenses at the crucial moment when the tempo switched up, and that consequently we have to do the whole thing again. On both occasions, the giggling Lisu flee for the shadows the moment the music stops, leaving me standing, dazed and panting, on my own by the fire, which ought to make for a good shot.

Then there is the Back to Back Dance, an important component of Lisu socialisation, and once in which I am fortunately not asked to participate, since it also comprises holding hands boy-girl-boy-girl, dancing around the fire once more, and energetically rubbing your arses together, first to the left, then to the right, repeat. “Back to Back”, I would suggest is probably a modern spin on what I would call the Arse Rubbing Dance, which ends with everybody piling into the shed, around another smoky fire, and singing at each other about their requirements for a mate.

“I would really like a girl with brown eyes,” sings one man, which is a low-level boss in China.

“I want a man with at least five cows,” sing the girls in response and one of the Lisu men gets up and glumly leaves.

This goes on until only a single boy and a girl are left in the shed, at which point he sidles over to her bench and they sing together softly, before sidling out into the night. The couple in question are actually married, and the director asks them how they met.

“We were doing the Arse Rubbing dance,” laughs the man, “and at the end she wouldn’t unlace her fingers, she just kept hanging on to me!” Sadly we don’t get their little love story on film, because the cameraman is already pacing outside waiting to leave, but the rest of the crew are encouraged to socialise for a while in the shed, sipping on crappy Xuehua beer and gnawing on baked potatoes from the fire.

There is a drinking song with much clinking of glasses, which goes something like:

I invite you to drink with me

I invite you to drink with me.

If you won’t drink with me.

Fuck you.

One of the dancers reveals that he can speak a little English, having graduated from a police college in the nearest big town. He is only the third person from the valley to get a bachelor’s degree (our tourist liaison was the first). The Lisu, he says, rarely think about tomorrow, and that includes their planning for education. They are usually married shortly after high school, a fact attested by the ages of the women present. One of the dancers, a leggy model who takes off her tribal dress to reveal denim hotpants over black tights, is not only married to one of the men, but appears to be the mother of a teenage daughter, not quite old enough to join in, who hovers in the shadows in a yellow sweater, mouthing the lyrics to herself and practising the steps.

We don’t leave until half past eleven; the director is still miserable, but the footage required to make this an episode about Courtship, and hence to fulfil our “Circle of Life” brief, is in the can, along with clean audio of the songs.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E04 (2017).

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