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Rural life in China town steady as rock
(Charlotte Observer)
Updated: 2006-02-05 17:01


BAOSHAN STONE CITY, China - It's been nine years since Mu Qiu Yue, 80, last left her village in China's rural northern Yunnan province.

After a lifetime of farm work, she's now retired and can't think of anything to justify the mile-long hike uphill to the bus stop or the 90-mile, five-hour bus ride to Lijiang, the nearest city.

Hewn from a rock on a ridge above steep, terraced rice fields and the Upper Yangtze River, Baoshan Stone City is nearly as isolated as it was 700 to 800 years ago when it was built as a fortification during the Yuan dynasty.

Its residents, 100 families who belong to the Naxi ethnic minority group, maintain their own language and traditions, rooted in the culture of nearby Tibet. They survive mainly by growing rice and pumpkins, raising pigs, and, lately, welcoming a few tourists.

Previously accessible only by foot, the construction of a new road has made it possible to reach the village from Lijiang by bus, but unless you're on an organized trek, the best way to go is to arrange a trip with a driver with a SUV and a local guide who speaks Naxi.

We found Lily Zhang, 26, who was trained through a program sponsored by the Nature Conservancy to preserve minority culture and promote ecotourism in parts of the Yunnan province threatened by overdevelopment.

Lily grew up in a Naxi family in a small village about 30 minutes from Lijiang, whose historic Old Town, rebuilt after a 1996 earthquake, attracts thousands of visitors each year. With a day's notice, she arranged for a driver willing to make the journey, assuming we would spend the night so he wouldn't have to make the round trip in the same day.

An hour or so out of Lijiang, just past a cable-car ride that takes visitors halfway up the snow-covered Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the paved road turned to dirt as it wound through farm villages.

Our driver stopped several times to let herds of mountain goats pass. He averaged 8-10 miles per hour as we climbed higher on a one-lane road of rocks and red clay through alpine forests in foothills of the Jade Dragon range, the start of the Himalayas.

Lunch was at a roadside restaurant with three tables covered in oil cloth decorated in a pattern of apples and oranges. The view was of the terraced rice fields carpeting every hill and valley.

When we reached Baoshan around 3 p.m., a man wearing a baseball cap, baggy blue trousers and black dress shoes grabbed our overnight bags and led us on a half-hour's hike down a steep path. He was Xu Shi Hao, the town's self-appointed greeter and unofficial tour guide.

The Green Food Restaurant Tea and Coffee, a guesthouse run by the Mu family in a newer settlement just outside the village gate, had basic but clean rooms for rent on the floor above the family's living quarters.

Our guidebook made much of the fact that the homes in Baoshan were cut from stone -- some at one time even had stone sinks and beds -- but many of the structures have been modernized with clay bricks and wood, and we found the architecture was less impressive than the chance to observe life without roads, mechanization or wheeled carts.

"Streets" were rocky paths slick with donkey dung. Pigs and chickens roamed about like members of the family.

Anything that goes into or out of the village -- lumber, sacks of rice, pumpkins the size of beachballs -- must be carried on the backs of humans or by donkeys.

Children can go to school in Baoshan through grade six. Middle-schoolers hike to the parking lot and catch a bus to a neighboring village. Those who go on to high school have to leave Baoshan and live in Lijiang.

Dinner with the Mu family was a simple meal of eggs and tomatoes, tofu, steamed pumpkin, pork and beer. Afterward, with Lily as our interpreter, we talked with Mu Qiu Yue.

Older women wear a type of costume that's almost like a uniform. Hers was a black smock with blue sleeves and a quilted cape with a pouch in front for carrying a baby. She has 10 grandchildren. Jade earrings dangled from her ears, and her hair was wrapped in a black turban.

Baoshan was too remote to be of much notice to Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, she told us. The village suffered, but not as much as some others.

Guards burned books belonging to her uncle, a shaman in the Naxi Dongba religion whose traditions were largely destroyed after the Communist takeover.

She remembers working hard, even at night after dinner. Now, with six children, all of whom still live in the village, she says her life is perfect.

Roosters and braying donkeys woke us before dawn. Mu Zhu Chang, the owner of our guesthouse, was up early mixing eggs, butter, salt and walnuts in a wooden churn for yak-butter tea. Breakfast was sun-dried mushrooms, pickled vegetables and baba, a type of pita bread made from wheat flour and fried in a wok.

We paid the bill -- $16.50 for the three rooms and meals for four -- and then started the 45-minute uphill climb back up the path to the car. A woman, coming the other way, passed us, carrying three long boards strapped to her back.

It was 8 a.m. There were 100 or so boards piled up in the parking lot.

The workday in Baoshan had begun.

City of Stone Lodging

Several families offer homestays. Inquire at the village or check with a travel agency in Lijiang. The Mu family operates the Old Stone City Inn with four rooms (shared toilet and shower). Some English is spoken.


Xintuo Ecotourism Co. in Lijiang can arrange transportation, a guide and lodging. Contact Lily Zhang at lilyxian163.com or visit www.ecotourism.com.cn.

City of Stone

Baoshan Stone City is about 90 miles northeast of Lijiang in China's Yunnan province, near Tibet. It was built on an outcrop of rock above the Yangtze River in the Yuan Dynasty between 1277 and 1294. About 100 Naxi families live there today.

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