Lu Great Uncle arrives, a bent, wizened figure half my height, 82 years old, with a straggly mystic’s beard and teak-tanned face. He is clutching a long-stemmed pipe and looking around him in a faintly baffled manner, as if he went to sleep in 1896 and is taken aback by the sight of horseless chariots. This figure is the local guishi, or ghost master – a herbalist, feng shui consultant and exorcist.
“What do you make of the building outside?” I yell over the noise of the cement mixer. “Good or bad feng shui..?”
“Good it is,” he beams. “Feng shui’d it I did.”
We relocate to the relative silence of Lu Great Uncle’s house, which is right next to the drum tower. We squat uncomfortably around his fire pit in a grey, cement room, and he talks me through his life, including his poverty-stricken teens, the inheritance of his gift for second sight from his father, and the various elements of parapsychology that he taught himself from books he got on a rare trip to Hong Kong. He speaks Mandarin, but occasionally slips into Kam without realising it. But, oh, he can talk. I have a list of seven questions to ask him and I talk him through them before we start. But when I begin with “So, Lu Great Uncle, tell us a little about yourself…” (using the nin particle for respect that I rarely ever bother with when talking to the Chinese), he gives a 15-minute reply that manages to answer all seven questions in an unceasing oration.
Despite having previously claimed he was not able to tell my fortune, he then proceeded to tell my fortune. He took note of the date and time of my birth, counted on his fingers and thumbs for a while, ruffled through a book, and then began reading out a series of poems and portents, which amounted to: “You are smart, you are diligent, you have a good heart. You have a golden life with few hurdles. At 42, you were sick at heart. You will never want for anything. Your parents are still alive. It is known. You have a son? You will have another. And you will die at 81.”
This all takes a lot of calculation and book-flipping through his meticulous hand-written notes, so much so that the director is already bored and moving the cameraman around us to get cutaways and close-ups. But Lu Great Uncle continues to look at his notes and write observations on a scrap of paper. Suddenly, he leans over to me and whispers: “When you were born, the sun came out.” And my fortune is told.
Out today to a world-famous series of valleys of Mesozoic rock, known in Chinese as the “Rainbow Ridges” for their beautiful multi-coloured strata. Do not believe everything you hear.
“It’s just fifty shades of brown,” says the director.
Our driver, who has been supplied by the marketing office, answers her with a weary and hostile tone, which makes me think that he has to say this rather a lot.
“Don’t you have eyes? Can’t you see the subtle gradations? Anyway, the many colours only really show up after a rainstorm, but in the sunshine, at the sunset, in springtime…” He continues to list an absurd set of parameters for the valley looking the way it does in the pictures. We soon discover that even the publicity shot that brought us here, taken in the valley, was in a location that was impossible for a car to reach, and had been created with the magic of Photoshop.
I start to realise why the visitor centre has three windows: one for information, one for tickets, and one for complaints.
Four locations in the park are set aside for scenic views, but all of them have been thoroughly ruined, festooned with toilets, construction sites, visitor centres, and in one place, a permanent loud-speaker loop of a man singing a song about horses. Also, mirabile dictu: camel rides. So the director gets the driver to drop us off at a secluded spot where I can wander along the base of the mountains, while our drone buzzes above me.
“Don’t actually climb the mountains,” warns the driver, “because there’s a fine.”
We walk a couple of hundred metres across the plain, and start to set up the drone. Immediately, a jobsworth on a moped beeps his horn and drives onto the plain with us, gouging up deep tyre tracks in the soft wadi.
“You can’t go off the road,” he shouts.
“We can’t go up the mountain,” says Clarissa the fixer. “We can go off the road.”
“No you can’t!” The security guard is quite adamant about this, despite the fact that he has no trouble riding his motorcycle into the middle of it, and from the tracks all around, he is not the only one.
“Yes we can!”
“On whose authority?”
Clarissa waves a pink piece of paper from the Marketing department, who have given us access at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But this isn’t good enough, because the security guards only answer to the Head Security Guard, and he is having lunch, while the Head of Marketing is somewhere in the park that doesn’t have radio reception. Clarissa and the security guard argue for so long that we could literally have done our drone shot and left again. Meanwhile, a group of Chinese women see us standing on the plain and decide that if we are there, they can go off the road, too, and start climbing the slope. This results in the surreal sight of the security guard bellowing at us that we are not allowed in, while three Chinese women cavort behind him, taking selfies on the supposedly forbidden ridge.
As far as the guard is concerned, he is doing his duty by obstructing us until his superiors confirm otherwise. Clarissa makes a point of taking his uniform number. He makes a point of setting his mobile to record, and placing it in his top pocket. After half an hour has been wasted, the director announces that the park can shove its publicity up its arse, and Clarissa pointedly rings the marketing department to tell them after travelling a thousand miles to get their rocks on film, that we have wasted our allotted time waiting for a man on a moped to get out of the way, and that their rocks will consequently not be appearing in the National Geographic documentary, even though they boast on all their signage that National Geographic decreed them to be one of the ten wonders of the natural world. We stomp off back towards the car park, from where we sneakily film some footage over the fence, after the director sees a nice view when she goes into the bushes for a piss.
Our driver, however, who seems to know everybody and everyone, knows another place where he can get us in. The mountains there are sort of like the ones in the park, he says, and he knows a dry riverbed between them, where we can get some good shots.
Which is why I find myself driving a Buick, wheel-spinning my way along a wadi, sending flints and quartzes flying, bumping along the ridges and gullies carved by spring streams, as the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon buzzes overhead, and our spare camera, bolted to the dashboard, films me at the wheel.
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.
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.
The valleys are so narrow that they are usually in shadow even when the sun is scorching on the red cliffs above. Then, the sun moves into the right position, and suddenly the moisture bakes off the wooden roof slats in clouds of steam, as if the building has caught fire.
The Lisu derive their surnames from their former tribal designations, which were moieties of Snakes, Lions and sundry other animals. Which is how I come to spend the morning with Mr Pheasant, who is here to teach me how to make a crossbow, and who arrives wearing a goatskin that makes him look like a troll doll. He starts with a log, and whittles it swiftly down into the shape of the body with an axe and a machete. Any wood will do for the body, but the bow has to be wild mulberry – domestic mulberry is never flexible enough. The string is made from hemp bark, and is sharp enough that I cut my fingers trying to draw it back. The quarrels, or darts really, are bamboo dowels the size and shape of a chopstick, fletched with a twist of bamboo leaf.
Mr Pheasant only speaks Lisu, so is not a whole lot of fun as an interviewee, but he has been well briefed by the Naxi town tourist adviser, arriving not only with all his raw materials, but with “one he prepared earlier”, so that we can leapfrog ahead in the tiresome sanding scene to get everything done before lunch.
There are so many comedy opportunities for the target. A Chairman Mao poster? A picture of Jason Statham (inexplicably found on the front of a giveaway sexual health magazine). The camera assistant suggests a plastic bottle of water, which might entertainingly spurt out its contents if shot. But in the end we plump for a boring mat with a target daubed on in charcoal. Both Mr Pheasant and I hit it with ease, while the director of photography cowers behind his camera, worried about the likelihood of me shooting him in the head.
At lunch, the tourist officer observes with astonishment that “the Foreigner” is able to use chopsticks, rather ignoring the fact that (a) everybody else around the table is also a foreigner, from Singapore, and (b) I have been eating Chinese food since before he was born. Nothing puts things in perspective after your third academic degree like some hayseed expressing surprise that you can use cutlery.
After lunch we are dragged back to the same courtyard in the hills. The tourist office has plainly decided it is convenient, as indeed it is, but it creates headaches for our director of photography as he tries to shoot it so that half the episode is not spent looking around the same shed. This also involves a log, from which the neck and body of the si xian qing are carved in a single piece. Mr Bee, however, is persuaded to hurry things along after a few axe blows, by lighting up his smoke-billowing chain saw, and making swift work of the difficult bits. He hollows out the base, and sands it down, before fixing the front to it using bamboo pins that turn out to be the remnants of the morning’s crossbow darts.
I don’t seem to be doing a lot today, but I don’t know if that’s because the director has lost the will to live, or if I am just getting better at this. Certainly, I haven’t had to take 20 takes to get something right this week. Instead, I pop up my head, do a piece to camera in one or two takes, and then go back to the sidelines for another twenty minutes until some other stage in the process is reached. It feels like I am not doing enough, but I counted back through my appearances on camera today, and I am still saying plenty of stuff.
Mr Bee ties guitar strings to the body by looping them through a bent piece of fence wire, and then makes a bridge out of a spare piece of wood. Then he heats a poker in a fire and starts burning through the balsa-like wood of the front, tuning and strumming, then poking another hole, and repeat. Moment by moment, the sound becomes fuller and the resonations stronger. Suddenly, he drops the poker and begins to play a tune, and the guitar is finished, smoke still curling up from the newly-bored holes.
Our sound man is ready with his boom mike to pick up clean audio of the new instrument’s first tune, as the alien Lisu melody fills the courtyard, wisps of smoke rising from the guitar along with the music. This gives us a segment from our Lisu episode complete, but hopefully something that will lead into the dance ceremony shooting tomorrow, and also a music track that we don’t have to pay for.
Today we are out in the countryside near Suzhou, amid lakes and rice fields, to talk to Mr Gu, one of the last people in the area who can be bothered to raise silkworms. There’s enough time in a year to raise five generations, but there simply isn’t enough demand for his silk anymore, so he’s dropped it to just one.
The farmhouse is grotty and ramshackle, all clucking chickens, yappy dogs and mangy cats, although when we send our drone over the top of the mulberry trees, there is a fantastic vista of fairytale Chinese Lakeland.
Indoors, Mr Gu takes a handful of silk cocoons and throws them into boiling water. Before long, they start to unravel, and he teases out a few strands and begins winding. Then he lets me take over: each cocoon is wound with 1.4 kilometres of thread, in a single strand. They look like spider silk, but easily take the punishment of being dragged out of boiling water and wound on a bobbin. Mr Gu says he boils 20,000 cocoons a year, which would make a strand of thread long enough to go around the world.
He has been a little spooked by the crew showing up “with a foreigner” – in fact, most of the crew are foreigners from Singapore, of course, but he means me. This has led him to call the local propaganda office, who have in turn sent a flunky to lurk around telling us that we should be filming the nice bridge in Nanxun. He’s getting on my nerves, not the least because he’s one of those Chinese who talk about me in the third person, as in “does he take sugar?” even though he has been told twice that I am a visiting professor in a Chinese university.
The director and I argue over another piece to camera – a one-minute monologue about changing conditions in the silk trade that I need to say eleven times, without putting a word wrong, while wandering through a grove of mulberry trees. Did Jili silk win a gold medal or a gold award at the Great Exhibition? What year was it in? Should we just say “19th century”, or will that only confuse people?
An interviewee can say anything they like on camera — in a phenomenological sense, we are interested in what they believe to be true. But a National Geographic presenter has to be academically robust, which means anything I say has to be backable by two printed sources — not something I read on the internet, something I can point to in a book if it is queried by Standards and Practises four months later. This isn’t really a problem if you’re in a library, but i’s a huge deal if you are standing in a field somewhere outside Shanghai, and asked to come up with a sixty-second speech out of thin air. My ability to say things like “I reckon we’ll find a paragraph on this in Hyde (1984)” is one of the things that got me this job.
We do get a moment with the nice bridge in Nanxun, an O-shaped arch over the canal, high enough to allow barges loaded with raw silk to pass through on their way to the south and the silk-weaving cities that would make it all into textiles. I must gabble a piece to camera against the failing light, while a dozen twats assemble nearby to peer through the viewfinder and/or talk loudly to their mates about what might be going on, when what is clearly going on is that I am trying to record a piece to camera. We get it on the fourth take, with the sun setting, and the director makes me run around the canal bank and up to the bridge so I can walk across it. To get there, I have to parkour across a building site and, at one point, grip the window ledge on a restaurant, pretending to be nonchalant as a bunch of surprised diners stare back at me.
Back up the mountain today, no clouds and tropical heat, to pick oolong tea with a bunch of old grannies, who are all wearing conical straw hats. The director thinks it would be great if I could get one, too. Do they have any spares?
There is a lot of tooth-sucking and shouting in Hokkien, and then one of them says:
“You can just put a bag over your head!”
“I’ll put a bag over your head, you cheeky c—” I begin, but the director kicks me.
A straw hat is found, and a woman shows me how to pick the leaves.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she says. “You’re just grabbing the top three leaves and snapping off the stem. That might bruise the leaves before they’re ready for processing, but more importantly, if you do that all day every day, you will sprain your fingers. You do it like this.” And she levers three leaves off the stem by lifting her arm, not her wrist. while resting the stem on her index finger. It’s a deceptively small nuance, but one of the little things that we are there to capture.
I start to explain to the camera what she said, demonstrating… until she grabs my arm and says: “No, no! You’re still doing it wrong!”
“Yes,” I say, pointing at the camera lens, “I’m showing them!” It is good television and looks very natural. One of the most difficult micro elements of filming on this show has been the public’s inability to grasp that we need to shoot everything wide and again in close-up; that even impromptu moments require a second take for reactions, and that when demonstrating something I have learned, I often need to first get it wrong again. This is not a problem on a closed set with just a few people; you can explain it and they get it. It is only a problem when a crowd gathers and gets in the way, and everyone appoints themselves an expert.
The cameraman switches to his macro lens so he can zoom right in on my fingers doing it wrong, and then doing it right. This means selecting tea buds that aren’t in shadow, and making sure we both know which one we are talking about, and then slowly rehashing the events that have already been shot at a distance, repeatedly.
However, for reasons that defy understanding, we have an audience that has swelled to eighteen people, thanks to a local fixer we call Mr Jangles because of the fistful of keys that hang from his belt. He is apparently some kind of bigwig from the Iron Guanyin Appreciation Society (don’t laugh – their online feed has 30,000 subscribers), who has decided to document our documentary by taking pictures with an outmoded Canon and his BINGBONG annoying mobile phone. The director has already shouted at him three times to get out of shot or stop jangling in the background of every scene. Plus the usual drivers and wingmen, several random tea-pickers, a guy who was passing on a motorcycle, and our entire crew, which is nine more people. Oh, and someone’s hatchet-faced Chinese girlfriend. who waits until I am halfway through the shot before yelling from the trees: “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”
I have nothing to do for hours on end, and then often a tiny window to perform every task planned, in the right framing, in the right light, with the right sound and background, without a passing motorcycle or granny with a hedge trimmer. The whole crew have done their level best not to cock everything up. All I have to do is say the words in the right order, without forgetting what they are, even though they are often in Chinese. If I get it wrong, then a light change (we are all hyper-conscious about the position of the sun, and the lag between takes is often enough for it to be palpable) or sound change will mean ten more minutes’ faffery. It wastes everybody’s time and concertinas our schedule later in the day, which will often mean a cancelled shot from the end. Time is money, and we will never return to this mountainside, so that idle heckle has just cost us a shot from the end of the day.
When I am talking to camera, I am trying to remember what I am supposed to say, obviously. A 20-second speech has to be carefully plotted so as not to accidentally imply that Taiwan isn’t part of China, or mix up oolong with pu’er, or forget to mention the right dynasty, or offend National Geographic’s Standards & Practices arbiters, who will make us throw a take away if they don’t like it. So the last thing I need is gesticulating, whispering, hand waving, or people dicking about with their phones (BINGBONG). It’s difficult enough to remember at all times to maintain eye-contact with the lens, rather than the director or cameraman, who are usually also in my line of sight, so the last thing I need is Mr Jangles poking his head out from under the tripod to try and sneak a photo.
Mr Jangles, in fact, has appointed himself the director’s assistant, and insists on “translating” anything she says and bellowing it up the hill in Hokkien. However, since he doesn’t actually speak English, he usually forgets the words “don’t” or “not”, and is the cause of several unwarranted mass exoduses of grannies, packing away of cameras, disappearing straw hats, and other continuity nightmares. But for some political reason I don’t comprehend, we can’t get rid of him, or any of the people he is shepherding around in his car. He then reveals that he has already been uploading his pictures of us straight to the internet, which is not his right to do, and technically contravenes several terms in our contracts.
I have been thinking a lot today about Gwyneth Paltrow, and the kerfuffle that once erupted after she supposedly demanded to be taken a mere few dozen metres from her trailer to the set of Shakespeare in Love in a golf cart. Some media outlets condemned this as prima-donnish behaviour, although the Clements contingent immediately noted that she was wearing an Elizabethan dress and facing a football pitch’s worth of muddy ground, so her decision was probably intended to save her wardrobe mistress three hours of late-night laundry.
Similarly, Tom Cruise is notorious for having banned extras from his eye-line on film sets. This has been regularly touted as evidence that he is quite mad, really, but I will observe that as the producer of his own films, it is his own money he is wasting if a take is ruined because someone tries to snatch a selfie, suddenly slaps a mosquito on their neck, or downloads the contents of their left nostril into a nearby ditch. If I had a way of napalming the grove of trees next to the tea plantation today, and could thereby rid myself of a bunch of jangly, muttering interlopers, I would have happily done so.
Up the mountain one more time, to shoot me carrying 40 kilos of tea on a shoulder balance, stumbling along the ancient pathway that winds through the hills to Quanzhou, the sea, and the world. The director wants to drone me alone on the hillside, which entails lugging my hefty load for half a mile through the terraces, pretending that I can’t see the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon as it whirrs above me. It then slowly pans up and out, leaving me a receding speck in the sunlight, stumbling through the neat green steps of tea trees, as the sun sets on the distant hills. This will probably be the closing shot of the whole tea episode.
There is no more time. We were supposed to record my closing homily in the sunset, but Mr Jangles and a bunch of other issues have chipped a minute here and a minute there, until we have lost an entire set-up. The sun has gone down, so it’s a 90-minute drive back into Quanzhou, livened up in the Buick by the sound of the director watching the drone footage and discovering that Mr Jangles turns up in it, trying to take a picture of me from the trees with his bloody phone.
While reading about the botanists of the early twentieth century, I stumble across a reference in the works of Joseph Rock, a man whose prose is described by his own biographer as “brutally unreadable”:
“Between Dü-gkv and Nvlv-k’ö is a meadow called Mbamä. Here a large spring called Bao-shi gko-gyi issues from the mountainside under a grove of century-old maples where Na-khi sorcerers perform Zä-mä, a ceremony for the propitiation of the Llü-mun (Serpent spirits).”
The ceremony in question supposedly grants fertility to those who drink from its waters. Mack the fixer and I puzzle over the quasi-Tibetan Romanisation, and eventually work out that the place in question is now called Xuesong – the Snow Pines. Since we have nothing better to do, and any mention of “fertility” is a step closer to successfully completing the episode, we drive over to the spring, which is now an area of sheltered parkland, in the grounds of a temple.
We walk through shady forest paths around ponds and lakes of a clarity I have never seen before. The carp in the pond seem to be floating in mid-air, and the waters are crystal clear all the way down, linked by a series of bubbling waterfalls. The park is remarkably quiet and peaceful, thanks largely to the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people in it, and we climb mossy stone steps to a little shrine in the hillside. Here, between a golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and a stone statue of the Earth Mother, there is a hole in the rock where the spring of the Crown Prince God bubbles to the surface, watched over by the fat effigy of a young naked boy, swaddled in red ribbons. From here it cascades down the hillside, through several ponds, around a water wheel, and then into a fountain in the temple grounds, where locals can be seen filling up with buckets. This is an ideal place to film… and it is locked.
“GO AWAY,” shouts a horrible old lady through the grille. “WE’RE CLOSED.”
You can’t be closed, reasons Mack. This shrine is the focus of the entire park and we’ve all paid twenty kuai each to get in. What time do you close if the gate is still open at the front…?
There is a long pause while the old lady thinks through the ramifications of her various possible answers, any one of which requires her admitting that her daily routine comprises of knocking off early and putting her feet up. But we have filming permission from her boss at the front gate, who plainly expects the shrine at the top of the ridge to be open for another hour, otherwise he wouldn’t have let us carry our gear up the mountain.
In a great sulk, she lets us in and then hunches over the balcony, fuming at having been caught out. I dash off a piece to camera about the spring, and we are gone. It could have been a substantially more sedate piece, with me walking in the picturesque surroundings and talking about Naxi culture, but the hostility of the “caretaker” has kind of put us off.
I wish I’d taken a picture of those fish, seemingly hovering, so you would believe me. But there is rarely time or opportunity for me to point a camera, or even carry one. I am in the car feverishly revising Mandarin technical terms for an interview, or swotting up on the next location. I am pacing up and down in a forest, trying to parse my lines. I am in a hotel room carefully trying to make sure my face and hair and clothes all look the same from day to day. Or I am thousands of miles away, trying to remember it all before it fades.
This picture was taken five years ago a conference/knees-up to celebrate twenty years of the faculty at Xi’an Jiaotong University. I’m pretty easy to spot in the front row, since I am the only white face present. I’d flown in to deliver a lecture about “The British Perspective on the Belt and Road”, which was something of an eye-opener for the audience, as I delved into the history of other nations’ outreach initiatives, and some of the likely unwelcome consequences. I predicted, accurately as it turned out, that Gwadar in Pakistan would prove to be one of the more obvious flashpoints, and that the Balochi independence movement would soon start targeting the Chinese. For saying so, I was reprimanded by an earnest Party member who didn’t think I should be rocking the boat.
The next day, I hang out with my friend Dr Qiao Zhilin, who has been racking his brains in search of a historical site in Xi’an that I had yet to see. We wander up to the city museum and then along to the Blue Dragon Temple, sited on a shoulder of land a couple of storeys above the surrounding terrain – Tang dynasty maps tend not to have contour lines, so the fact that medieval Chang-an was not as flat as a pancake often eludes scholars. The view from one of its halls would have rivalled that from the Great Goose Pagoda itself, and you would have seen the whole checkerboard of Chang-an stretching out to the north and west.
Zhilin is irritated that the view now looks like everything else. Climb the hundred or so steps to the gate, and all you can see is skyscrapers all around. The temple sat in ruins for centuries, until the place was mobbed by Japanese tourists in the 1980s. It turned out to be the place where Kukai, one of the most famous Buddhist missionaries in medieval Japan, had studied. He would return to Japan and establish the Shingon sect.
Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, the Chinese bodged the temple back together again, and in 1985 the people of Shikoku (Kukai’s birthplace) donated an entire forest of cherry trees, so it would look suitably Japanese every spring. Online information about the precise place where he studied is very confused. Wikipedia thinks that almost everything of any note in Buddhist history happened at the Ximing Temple, which I have never heard of, and seems to be a confused conflation of a bunch of institutions in the shadow of the Great Goose Pagoda. But Buddhist temple tourism is a fierce competition for the attention of tourists to go to a bunch of places that are all effectively the same, so the ability to say “Famous Monk Slept Here” is worth something, as is an entirely arbitrary forest of cherry trees, that only looks good for two weeks a year but is all any visitor seems to talk about.
The park is full of Chinese dicking around with badminton racquets and shuttlecocks, and a troupe of Uyghur dancers doing their hand-wavy dance thing. Nobody pays any attention to the museum in the inner temple area, although it fast becomes apparent why, as the guards have installed a loud alarm that beeps constantly if there is anyone inside. This helpfully tells them if anyone is on the premises, but makes it incredibly difficult to examine exhibits about enlightenment and harmony if you are actually there. It’s as if Westminster Abbey hired a clown with a bullhorn to stand next you and go HONK-HONK every time you looked at something.
We retreat to a sutra room near the back of the temple, where we are waylaid by a crazy-eyed security guard who wants to talk about Buddhism. Mr Yang has an odd aura about him that I remember all too well from the clientele at a religious bookshop where I once worked. He asks me “What sutras you have in England?” Diamond, I tell him. “Awesome,” he replies, “that’s my favourite sutra” and launches into a diatribe about how all religions are the same beneath the surface, and anything was okay except atheism, which was plainly a poison on the face of the Earth.
I think, I observe to Zhilin as we leave, that we’ve just met someone whose parents said he couldn’t be a Buddhist priest.
But he is just a security guard, protests Zhilin.
Is he, though? Is he?
Clinging by his fingertips to any reason not to be at the conference, Zhilin insists on accompanying me to the bullet train station, and pads after me all the way to the security gates.
“I really have nothing else to do!” he says, staying until I disappear up the escalators and he can no longer see me. At least, I assume he went home after that. Maybe he is still there.
I haven’t seen him since. Filming on the fifth season of Route Awakening did not take me to Xi’an. An invitation for a speaking gig in Japan lured me away in the autumn when I would have otherwise dropped by. And then there was a pandemic, and one thing led to another…. My six-year visiting professorship officially lapsed, since it is the sort of thing that is renewed in person at a conference banquet. The postgraduate faculty has moved twenty miles west, so not even the buildings are the same. And the people I knew have gone.
For five years, Xi’an was a huge feature of my life. The overnight plane became as commonplace as a bus. I got to see several intakes of students come and go — for many of them, my family being the first foreigners they had met. But the five years since means almost everybody has gone — the newly arrived bachelor’s students who sat in the front row of my lecture, would have graduated two years ago. If I turned up on their doorstep tomorrow, maybe only a couple of postgrads would even know who I was, and even then only vaguely. All those many dinners and outings and lectures and encounters are all lost, like tears in rain. Three different professors at that December 2017 banquet suggested I might like to be a visiting lecturer at their universities, too, but these things take time, and application, and will, and more than anything else, legwork. It took years to build the trust of the faculty at Xi’an, to prove that promises to return were not empty platitudes. Qiao Zhilin and I still wave at each other occasionally on social media, and tell each other that someday soon normality will be restored, but we can never really go back.
My son, who grew up surrounded by an adoring cloud of Chinese girls, has pre-teen schooling obligations that mean he can’t just wander away to China for three months anymore. His mother, who was the reason we went to Xi’an in the first place, is not my wife any more, and she is also struggling with the logistics of returning to a place that is no longer the same place, with people who are no longer the same people, and is now lacking a free spousal interpreter.
As of this week, I have been gone for as long as I was there. The last time I was in Xi’an, the deputy mayor offered to make me an honorary citizen of the city. The next time I go, I expect I will just be another tourist.
We are off to Lijiang, home of the Naxi people, regarded in China as the cherries on the cake of nutcases, a quasi-Tibetan tribe famous for believing that they are descended from the survivors of the war with the snake people from space. Their God of Pestilence is depicted holding a steaming, fresh turd in his hand, and their shamans like to dip their hands in oil and set light to them so they can run around indoors throwing fire at people. They have the world’s only living pictographic language that causes all their sacred texts (and they have 20,000 sacred texts) to read like comic books, and their panoply of ceremonial artefacts includes “sacrificial puppets”. Their God of Banging is called Dsu, and the Ho-bpo ceremony involves praise to the Lord of Spunk. 150 years ago, they were still cannibals, although supposedly they have stopped doing it now. I am not making this up.
I try to interest the crew in my study of Naxi pictograms, but they display little interest in the symbols for “wizard” and “vaginal discharge.”
I am having trouble catching my breath today. It is after lunchtime before the director reveals that we are more than a mile above sea level, in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it is not my imagination; the air is thinner. Lijiang is nestled inside a curve of the “Golden Sands” river – it is 25 miles to the east, and also 25 miles to the west, and eventually it changes its name to the Yangtze. But here we are high, high up. Shangri-la, or rather, the town that purports to be Shangri-la, is only a few miles north of here. Peter Goullart, who was the local consul here in the 1940s, wrote in his autobiographical Forgotten Kingdom that matters get worse another mile up, where the thinner air makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, leaving all the Tibetans and related tribespeople permanently irritable.
The history of Lijiang is difficult to reconstruct, but a few historians have read between the lines of the Dongba recitations and the chronicles of the locals, and come up with the following. The Naxi themselves were once nomads on the desolate northern plains – this we can deduce from references in their most ancient funeral rituals to yurts and herds. This area was not even considered part of China until the Mongols conquered it. When Khubilai Khan’s troops arrived, a family of Naxi chieftains in Lijiang swiftly saw which way the wind was blowing, and willingly collaborated. They were instrumental in the Mongol conquest of the area, and maintained a constant war footing thereafter. Long after the Mongols packed up and went home, the Mu clan were sending raiding parties into the mountains and valleys, demanding tribute from the locals and proclaiming themselves as the rulers of everywhere from here to Tibet.
The Chinese hated Yunnan. The air was too rarefied, and the locals too odd, and they very happily left the Mu clan to it. The Mu chieftains, soon rebranded as princes, were sure to send some appropriate gifts to the coronation of each new emperor, and were thanked in turn by the conferral of official titles. When the Mongols retreated before the resurgent Ming dynasty, the Mu chieftains clung onto their power, for the same reason, which was that the Chinese really couldn’t stand the idea of such a desolate place, and were happy to leave the locals to it.
The Mu did not die; they faded away. In the 18th century, the Chinese reverted the Mu’s status as hereditary leaders, and instead incorporated them into the magistrate system of appointed governors. A few generations later in 1729, when the time came to appoint the next representative, Beijing surprised everybody by not appointing a Mu man at all. The princes had been dethroned, although apparently overnight, their demise had been coming for decades. Early in the 20th century, the consul Peter Goullart reported a banquet in Lijiang where the head of the Mu family was not even afforded a place at the high table. Instead, this shrunken, opium-addled old man was left to eat with the B-list. Now there is little to remind us of the Mu, apart from the stone bridge in Lijiang old town that was supposedly built at their behest, and a couple of mansions and monasteries endowed with what had once been their wealth.
Every conquest of territory downhill pushes other people further into the heights. The Kam once lived in the lowlands, but were shunted into the hills by the Mu conquest – the word for Kam in Chinese is Dong, and originally meant Good for Nothing, or perhaps The Hidden – the former definition has been deviously removed from modern dictionaries. Their famous songs sidle shame-facedly around the fact that they cannot read – a fact which we regularly encountered when filming there, when some of our interviewees were unable to write their own names on their release forms.
But as the Naxi pushed the Kam, the Kam pushed the Miao, who were driven even further into the heights, often living without fire or fresh water. But if the Miao were shunted, they also displaced someone. At the scrag end of history are the Yi, a people who even today have a fearsome reputation.
And then there are the amazonian Hlihin, reported in the diaries of Peter Goullart from the 1940s, when their brash, tough womenfolk would swagger into town with a couple of their husbands meekly in tow, on the search for new bridegrooms. Goullart treated several of them in his clinic, and reported that they were invariably suffering from advanced syphilis. We’re not going to visit them, either – in fact, I have seen no mention of the Hlihin in modern accounts, and wonder if they even exist anymore.
When the Red Army came through Lijiang on the Long March, the locals asked them who the emperor was these days. They had literally had no news from the outside world for fifty years.
Wu Meilun is an old lady in her seventies who has put on her posh Kam clothes to welcome us. Kam girls in the past would make their own costumes, and wear them on festival days to show off their skills to the mensfolk. Traditionally, Kam women would sit at their spinning wheels and spin into the night, with the old ladies retiring at around nine o’clock. The younger girls would then stick something called a “cat’s ear” onto their spinning wheel, so it suddenly started making a klickety-klack sound, advertising their presence to the local youths, who would pop over to chat them up, keep them company and “sing.” Spinning could then go on until the small hours, with occasional breaks for cups of tea, chat and “singing.”
“But that doesn’t go on any more,” sighs Meilun wistfully. Now everybody just vegs out in front of China’s Got Talent and looks at cat videos on their iPhones.
Meilun is here to show me how to make paper from citron bark, which she mashes up and mixes with natural gum, and spreads it out on frames to dry in the sun. I say citron bark, because that’s what the dictionary tells us it is, but the word in Chinese is goupi, which sadly also means dogfart. There is considerably merriment from the crew every time I get my tones wrong.
How long will it take to dry, I ask her.
Only two hours, she says.
We wait two hours. The paper is still wet. It turns out that the Kam of Dimen have as little appreciation of time as the Kam of Tang-an.
We can’t do any driving shots in the afternoon because Pan has taken the Buick into the hills to hunt wild boar. So instead we shoot a piece at the vending machines, in which I discuss the likelihood of me being suddenly overcome in the dead of night by the sudden desire for a toy sword, clockwork dinosaur or 50-pack of tampons, and rushing to the vending lobby to buy some.
“Let’s buy a plastic monkey!” I enthuse, feeding my five kuai into the machine to get myself a pointless monkey that lights up in the dark. Probably not a day we will win an award for.