Thursday, July 24, 2008

Black Dragon Pool-- THIS is Lijiang's life force?

My visit to Black Dragon Pool, about a mile north of Lijiang Gu Cheng, was quite eye-opening, and befuddling. In my Lijiang, Hello! tourbook (written for an English audience then translated to Chinese, so that it serves as a language “textbook”—and apparently the proceeds goes to the local Naxi school) it states, “In many areas of this tranquil park, the water is so clear that it provokes the question, 'Wow was this just created?'” What? Definitely not as serene as it was made out to be. Trash, algae, pipes instead of majestic springs… where was the beautiful source of flowing Lijiang life I had pictured?

I entered through the southern gate, and traced my way upstream. The pond was now a park, for Lijiang Ren & Tourists to relax and frolic. I am in no way experienced to determine what is “allowed” in a lake providing water to a municipality—but I was confused as to how this was OK. There was trash littering the banks, though luckily the little bits thrown in were strained out by workers. Weeds proliferated the bottom, creating swarms of brown mesh. Soapy suds layered some sections of the lake. And, finally, black, chunky, algae-like fixtures coated various entrances. On the other hand, grits and strainers can be sporadically found filtering larger particles, and I think that weir-like structures, in addition to managing the flow, do some sort of cleansing of their own. I am interested to learn how all these factors affect the actual water supply.

Past the main Black Dragon Pool is the “Northern Expansion,” a man-made addition (unlike the historic Naxi revered pond) to compensate for the additional tourists. (There is also, I believe, the Qingxi Reservoir to cope with tourist demands… I must find out where this is, and how it fits in. Likewise, I know that Rockwell Automation helped implement a water supply addition a couple years ago. Where is this?) Instead of the pool emanating from a bubbling primary springs, however... it flowed into the Northern Expansion from, you guessed it, a large pipe. Hopefully I’ll make friends who can show me where this pipe—in my eyes a phony “Creator” of Lijiang—actually draws its water.

Utterly intrigued, I tried to follow signs to the “Sacrifice Area of Dongba.” What did this mean? And, more importantly, where was it? I could find no such place. Instead of one commemorative Area, however, I found little pockets of worship. Along the lake, in blips here and there concealed by willow trees, lay burned incense, charred red bits of paper, and prayer flags. A statue of Buddha every now and then tells me these are mostly Buddhism-related—but why so close to the lake, in the “area” specified as Dongba Sacrifice Ground? Another thing to find out.

Returning from my Sacrifice Area hunt, I made my way up Elephant Hill to see the view of Lijiang Old & New Town. It’s amazing how big this New Town is (see upper picture)—and to think: none of this was here until 1950, and it has since then multiplied over and over. For reference, the Old Town is in the dip to the left of the small Lion Hill (the short one with the temple on it, see lower picture).

My last (and best!) stop in the Park was the Dongba Cultural Center, which houses a collection of Dongba artifacts, shrines, temples, and living-breathing Dongba culture. A Dongba Lao Shi (Teacher, Master) lives here, fluent in Dongba language & writing, knower of all-things Dongba religion and culture. After he finished writing some “blessings” for a group of Danish tourists, I asked him (well with Louis’s help, his wonderfully helpful student who acted as a translator) about the meaning of water in Dongba wen-hua (culture). Success! My first little bit of Naxi cultural info. According to the Lao Shi (and, well, Louis) 30% of China’s Naxi population lives in Sichuan Province, near Tibet. The other 70% lives in Lijiang. According to the Naxi people, the Jinsha River (tributary to the Yangtze River) is the Naxi’s Mother. The River in Lao Shi’s village in Sichuan is the Naxi’s Father. The Water Spirit is named Shu—which I thought was the general God of Nature. I asked Louis: “so the same God of the Water is the same God of the Wind?” He laughed at me—apparently they are different Shus. I’ll need to learn more! In February, March, and April, the Naxi worship the Water Spirit. Likewise, in times of Flood or Drought, they also ask the Water Spirit to protect them. Furthermore, the Dongba Lao Shi made a huge effort to add, the Naxi ritually use water to wash away their bad spirits. (Hmmm, much like in Islam? How much of Islam came over through Central Asia to the Naxi through the southern Silk Road and other trade routes?)

After today, I now fundamentally realize how well the Naxi are at adapting. Within the Dongba Cultural Center, signs of Taosim and Tibetan Buddhism abound. The entrance itself has various images of Buddhist Bodhisattvas, prayer flags and Tibetan writing accompany shrines to the Wind God, and Taoist yin and yang signs adorn cloths covering the walls of various structures. My favorite find was a large, metal dragon. Both the curious and knowledgeable enter its steadfastly-opened mouth to find a Tibetan Buddhist wonderland: shrines, symbols, statues, burning incense—all Buddhist, and all in the Dongba Center. Knowing now how malleable the Naxi culture is, I wonder how much of their built landscape (my beautiful canals) are a product of a historic interchange of knowledge, materials, ideas, and ingenuity. Is the water system really Naxi? Or, were the Naxi just a medium for multiple historical traditions converging into one?

Finally, I have to add, I’m a walking contradiction: my interests are currently not 100% in tune with my actions. In the spirit of a true collegiate American, I can only work in a café—my laptop as my aid. (I need an electrical outlet and a caffeine boost—this is my excuse.) I’ve made two separate Lijiang cafés home (each with one of my favorite Yunnan teas), and while I once prided myself on the fact that not only foreigners frequented their tables but many Chinese tourists did as well (it’s true!)—I have since realized that they’re all Han (not Naxi) owned. My money (though to be honest, I think their stuff is reasonably priced) is going to the Han entrepreneurs--entrepreneurs who have moved in, forcing many Naxi out… Naxi who have rented out their homes or sold their property as this tourism balloons. I guess there’s no way around it—the selling-out system is the way it is, and the way it will continue to be as Lijiang tries to sustain the tourism that brought me here in the first place. Nonetheless, I still feel kind of guilty about it. It’s settled then—a compromise! I am going start looking for some Naxi-owed cafes. And a homestay must happen, soon.

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