30 April 2011

7. - 30 APR: Flight to Kunming, Shilin stone forest

A two-hour flight delay screws up our schedule a bit... Anyway we get to Kunming and head of to the Shilin stone forest. Shilin actually means "the stone forest". It’s a long drive, and we don’t get there before the early afternoon. Great weather and very pleasant walk in the karstic formations.

There are zillions of Chinese tourists, but when I ask our local guide whether there might be a less beaten track he says yes, of course, and off we go. In a second we are alone with the rocks and the water canals, taking pictures from the precisely designed walkways that snake around them.

All of a sudden it’s eerily silent! Great. After a while we meet some ladies who are returning from the fields, dressed in bright colors and all wearing a wide straw hat.

As we head back to the bus the sun is setting, and a few more ladies approach us. These are vendors of table cloths and little embroided wallets, five for a dollar. We all buy some, they are in heaven!

The ride back to Kunming is not easy. Lots of traffic. We don’t get to the city before 8pm or so, too late to attend a concert of local music I had planned to take the group to.

29 April 2011

6. - 29 APR: Shangri-la, lake Bitahai, Shudu and visit of town, shopping

Lake Bitahai
In the morning we make a trip to lake Bitahai, the highest in Yunnan at 3500msl. Nice walk along the river, abou three kilometers. We also take a short ride on a boat, a rip-off at 5 dollars to sail 10 minutes locked inside an ugly ferry. Would have been nicer to walk that distance as well. Then a drive to lake Shuduhai and another pleasant walk of a kilometer and a half. Tons of Chinese tourists all around. Not as many yaks as we had hoped to see, but still we see lots of the archetycal animal of this region in the meadows that paint this landscape.

28 April 2011

5. - 28 APR: Drive to Shangri-la, via leaping Tiger gorge, Tibetan villages

We leave Lijiang for a drive north, toward the Himalaya. At the Yangtse we cross the “border” between Yunnan and the Shangri-la (formerly Zhongdian) districts. Right after the bridge over the river we turn right and drive to the “Tiger Leaping Gorge”, nothing much really... but the Chinese are pretty good at making this look like a never-to-be-missed natural wonder!

We actually drove to the gorge on road on the north side of the river, but it would be possible to hike on the trail on the southern side. One or the other... if you hike one way (maybe some 3 km) you can not drive back.

After lunch at a local eatery we walk back about 30 min. to the bridge where our bus is waiting and move on and soon we are in an area inhabited by Tibetan people.

We stop at a couple of villages, Navadi and Civadi. These are not rich people who live here but the houses we see are rather big and well maintained. It is not easy to communicate with the locals, but I try and one young lady invites me inside to have a look at her home. A huge kitchen/living room displays huge chunks of smoked pork hanging from the ceiling, and a large stove in the middle of the wooden floor. There are also baskets with yoghurt left to ferment and solidify.

Some ladies are weaving wool in their yards, with lots of little children playing around. No men are to be seen, probably working in the fields. On some roofs, a small red flag, meant to bring good auspices for the next harvest, flutters quietly in the evening breeze.

Next to each home is a huge wooden frame, where grass will be hung to dry.

A friendly people that made for a warm if fleeting encounter that could have been more significant had the language barrier not closed off any meaningful communication.

in the evening we arrive at Shangri-la, formerly Zhongdian. The old name was changed after the Chinese government decided that the city was the mythical Shangri-la described by John Hilton in "Lost Horizon". Few questioned the decision, and the new name was an immediate hit for tourists.

You may also want to watch the film "Lost Horizon" by Frank Capra. This movie is in my opinion superior to the book it is based on. I found the book a bit boring, while this movie is all but! Many aspects are clearly very incredible, but then again this is a novel, almost a fairy tale, not a travelogue.

The main point I came away with is that somewhere there might a Shangri-la near all of us, we must only open our eyes to see it, accept it and be ready for change. The worst favor we can do to ourselves is stick to the beaten path.

The restored original version is great even with a few scenes missing and replaced by a slideshow with the original soundtrack.

Recensione: Benvenuti nel paese delle donne, di Francesca Rosati Freeman, ****

A sud delle nuvole

Un viaggio straordinario 'a sud delle nuvole', alla scoperta di Nu Guo, il paese delle donne. Qui abitano i Moso, un'etnia strutturata in grandi famiglie matriarcali. Un sistema unico, nel quale le donne 'portano sulle spalle' un'intera comunità e i valori su cui sono costruite tutte le nostre società sono rovesciati. I Moso, infatti, rifiutano il matrimonio e le coppie passano la notte insieme per separarsi all'alba.


L'Autrice Francesca Rosati Freeman  ripercorre il viaggio di Namu, la protagonista di "Il paese delle donne" (Sperlig & Kupfer) nello Yunnan, la provincia cinese dove abitano i Moso, una piccola minoranza etnica presso la quale le donne hanno un ruolo preminente e molto speciale.

Un'interessante approfondimento sociale e poltico di una piccola realtà della Cina del sud ovest. L'autrice visita ripetutamente la regione e riesce ad entrare nelle case e dar voce a tanti Moso che altrimenti non ascolterebbe nessuno. Il libro mette a nudo i successi ma anche le contraddizioni dell'amministrazione cinese in questa regiona, dagli estremismi del maoismo alla maggiore autonomia dei giorni nostri.

Consiglio di leggere entrambi i libri, sono complementari tra di loro.

Book Review/Recensione: Leaving Mother Lake, by Namu and Christine Mathieu, *****

Recensione italiana di seguito


The Tibetans refer to Moso country as "The Country of Daughters" because of their unique matrilineal society. In Moso culture, daughters are favoured children. There is no word for father, marriage is considered a backward practice and property is passed on from mother to daughter. This book is the haunting memoir of a girl growing up in a remarkable place. In her village, Namu was known as the girl whose mother tried to give her away three times because she would not stop crying...

27 April 2011

4. - 27 APR: Lijiang, Jade Dragon Mountain, Baisha, market

Up early and off to a bus ride to the mountains of Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Mountain), where we leave the bus and buy some tickets. To do so, one must go through a weird sort of hangar, with a whole series of stands selling anything from oxygen bottles (in case of mountain sickness) to T-shirts, to traditional Chinese medicine, to dried frogs... I end up buying some CDs of local music.

A chairlift takes us up to the “yak meadows”. The view of the peaks from the top is stunning, and the white snow against the blue sky provides a perfect frame for the Buddhist gompa on top of a hill that we reach with an easy 20 min walk. The gompa is not the most impressive I have ever seen, still, it's good to see it here, open for business.

A few yaks graze around, it is all by the book! Not enough time to savor the atmosphere unfortunately, time to go back. I detest fixed schedules when traveling but today I have no choice, I am in the hands of the local guides. To make things worse, some of my clients, especially 50+ single Italian ladies, complain to me! Oh boy...

Lunch is in a typical restaurant in Baisha, the capital of the old Naxi kingdom and still one of their major centers, where murals from the Ming dynasty were once world famous, before, yes you guessed it... the Cultural Revolution did irreparable damage to them. Some of my companions begin to display uneasiness with Chinese food. (Figures...) I, on the contrary, find the fare fed to foreign groups to be too edulcorated, its taste made way too plain to adjust to the wimpy palates of Western tourists. Therefore, after making sure everyone has his plate full, I go and eat with the driver and the guide, who get REAL Chinese food: hearty, sometimes spicy, sometimes VERY spicy, and sooooo good! As of today this will become my standard operating procedure for the rest of the trip.

After lunch off to town for a visit of the food market, with impressive displays of all kinds of delicacies, clearly a successful farmers’ market that may not be very communist but has all its shelves full. Very colorful cabbages and other greens are on display next to bright red chili baskets that will spice up local dishes. Southern Chinese cuisine is known for being generally more spicy than the rest. In a semi-dark covered pavilion a number of butchers are busy chopping and skinning all kinds of animals, but especially pigs and cows as I can tell. No refrigeration system is in sight but the meat looks very fresh, I suppose there must be a high turnover.

I bought a red mahjong set, kind of old looking if not necessarily that old. Nearby, a palace that used to belong to an old pre-revolutionary governor exudes some ancient charm. I especially appreciate its old wooden doors. Many frescos all around, we are told by our local guide, were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, but these doors survived because local farmers painted them over with portraits of Mao.

We then move on to the park of the Black Dragon Pool. It is a stunning location, with lots of history, art and architecture which we only have time to taste in part.

There is an old and very big camellia tree. It has its own guardian, who is well known because he has had this job for over 50 years. He says, through our guides, that the Red Guards wanted to cut the tree down as it was an "old thing" but he stopped them and told them they would have to kill him first, and they gave up. Who knows what really happened but the tree is here!

Dinner tonight brings a new guest: Baiju, the rice liquor that will accompany most of the rest of our dinners in this trip. Sort of similar to grappa (very sort of) it can be made with rice or sorghum. It has a rather coarse taste but can go down very well after a hearty Chinese meal.

26 April 2011

3. - 26 APR: Fly from Chengdu to Lijiang, Yunnan. Naxi concert

Alalalei! (Hello!) is the first word in Naxi language I learn from our guide upon arrival in this small but pretty and efficient airport in Yunnan province. Zhubaysay (Thank you!) is the second. Swallow, (the name of our guide) welcomes us in this peculiar province, where most of all the minorities of China live.

In Yunnan province, forty-five million people live in 400,000 square kilometers, an area  almost one and a half times the size of Italy, and of them, one third belong to national minorities, i.e. non-Han peoples. Twenty-five of China's fifty-six national minorities are represented in Yunnan.

The number of Naxi is small, less than half a million people, but Swallow thinks it's probably set to rise a bit since national minorities are not bound by the one-child policy of China. She, however, married a Han Chinese and therefore is stuck to one kid! :-( She says there are quite a few who break the rule. In this case they have to pay 300,000 Rmb (about 30k euro) for a fine. Alternatively, some couple just don't declare their second born. This can be difficult in a city but is relatively easy in the countryside. A third option is to sell the child to couples who can't have any. Finally, quite a few end up aborting their second child.

She takes us around town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Black Dragon pool park is a serene spot, and very clean... everyone comes here to have their picture taken, and for good reason. A place to be savored for a few hours. A typical Chinese garden, with pagoda, lake, bridge, tower...

My most interesting meeting is with a ninety-something year old man at the Yufeng temple. He is a gardener, and has been tending to an extremely old camelia tree for many decades. He sort of sits there by the wayside, but says that during the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards came up the hill and wanted to cut down the tree, seen as some sort of decadent symbol or whatever... but he stood up and told them they would have to cut him down first, at which point they gave up and left. Not sure what to make of the story, but the obesssion with the damage inflicted by the fanatic Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution is a recurring refrain in this trip.

Dongba pictogams
We also have a chance to visit the Dongba Research Institute, where the old Naxi language is still studied and preserved. It is perhaps the last pictographic language in the world, composed of some 1400 pictograms, ie little drawings, unlike the Chinese ideograms which are composed of graphic symbols that don’t necessarily have any resemblance with the object of their representation.

At 20:30 we get a chance to listen to a concert of traditional Naxi music in the town's concert hall. This is no tourist trap, but an amazing group that resurrected an old musical heritage that had been destroyed to near extinction during the 1950s after the repressions of the "One Hundred Flowers" campaign in 1957.

The musicians are almost all octogenarians, with a few exceptions, among them a lady harpist and an amazing lady singer. They are led by Xuan Ke, who was imprisoned for twenty-one years (until 1978, after Mao's death) for his key role in founding the orchestra. He was allowed to restart it in 1984, and today the ensemble plays some original instruments which were saved from destruction at the time of One Hundred Flowers and then during the Cultural Revolution by some brave locals who hid them from the Red Guards at their own risk.

I talk to Xuan Kue after the concert, he has no bitterness, just an incredibly strong will to keep Naxi musical tradition alive, and he is sorry that it is difficult to find young people to learn how to play it. He claims this is China's oldest music and must be preserved for posterity. So at 81 y.o. he keeps performing with his group every night to packed audiences of locals and tourists.

Leitoto (goodbye in Naxi)!

25 April 2011

2. - 25 APR: Chengdu, Sichuan province, China

It is pleasantly warm, about 25 °C. Passport control is fast, and customs officers could not care less to check my bags. In fact the only person they seem to be interested in checking thoroughly is a pitch black man who was sitting next to me on the KLM plane. Maybe it's a coincidence, random checks. Maybe not, and it's racial profiling. I don't know. They scan his luggage repeatedly with the X-ray machine, then let him go.

The airport is brand new and very functional, like many in China today. By the time we reach the luggage carousel all our bags are already there, spinning slowly around and waiting to be picked up. It reminds of Rome where a half hour wait is good reason to consider oneself lucky!

24 April 2011

1. - 24 APR: Depart Italy via Amsterdam to Chengdu, Sichuan, start of the trip

I am again leading a group of Italian tourists to Asia. I am quite excited, have not been to China for some time, and it's my first visit to the western part of the country. The focus of the trip will be Yunnan, but we'll also spend some time in Chengdu and along the Yangtse river.

Uneventful flight with KLM via Amsterdam nonstop to Chengdu, a "medium size" city of 12 million people in Western China, capital of the Sichuan province. "Provinces" in China are in fact huge regions, this one is about one and one half times the size of Italy and weighs in at 80 million people, as many as live in all of Germany.

Chengdu is a lively city, if not a most charming one. Much of the older treasures have been destroyed in wars and revolution. It will be up to this generation to make up by creating a new Chengdu that won't replace the old one, for that is impossible, but will allow the world to miss it less.

Keeping Chengdu windows clean

23 April 2011

Itinerary of a trip to South West China, 24 April - 7 May 2011


Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from this trip. I advise you to view the show at full screen.

 Trip to South West China, Yunnan, Sichuan and Yangtse

24 April – 7 May 2011

click on an itinerary to go to its post

in flight




01 April 2011

Bibliography: Books on China


This is a small but lengthening selection of many books on China I would like to recommend. See my separate lists on Hong Kong and Singapore. Click on each title to read my reviews and buy these books on Amazon.

Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from a trip to Yunnan I took in 2011. I advise you to view the show at full screen.

Guides and Maps

Goodman, Jim: Yunnan: China South of the Clouds (Hong Kong: Odyssey Books, 2009).

Mansfield, Stephen: Yunnan (Bucks, England: Bradt Guides, 2007).


Pisu, Renata: La Via della Cina (Milano: Sperling & Kupfer, 1999). Racconto di un'italiana in Cina negli anni cinquanta, con considerazioni a distanza di anni.

History and Culture

Donda, Massimo: Pillole di Cina (2013). Una macedonia di informazioni, disordinate ma divertenti.

Chang, Iris: The Rape of Nanking (London: Penguin, 2007). A controversial account of a horrifying episode of the Japanese occupation of China.

Chang, Jung: Empress Dowager Cixi (London, GLobalflair, 2013). Very sympathetic biography of a key woman in Chinese history.

Endo, Orie: Describing Intimacy  (2019) A book the secret language used by Hunan women.

Fairbank, John K. and Edwing Reischauer: China: Tradition and Transformation (Boston, Houghton Mufflin, 2nd ed., 1989).

Falcini, Giulia:  Il Nüshu, la scrittura che diede voce alle donne (2020). Il linguaggio segreto delle donne in Hunan.

Gernet, Jacques: Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276 (Palo Alto: Stanford U. Press, 1962).

Mo Yan: Red Sorghum (London: Penguin, 1994). A historical novel of China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. In italiano: Sorgo rosso (Einaudi tascabili).

Rampini, Federico: L'Ombra di Mao (Milano: Mondadori, 2008). Una facile introduzione ad un personaggio chiave del XX secolo

Rastelli, Achille: Italiani a Shanghai (Milano: Mursia, 2010). Storia della marina militare italiana in Cina dall'unità d'Italia alla disfatta della seconda guerra mondiale.

Redaelli, Margherita: Il mappamondo con la Cina al centro (Pisa: ETS, 2007) Fonti antiche e mediazione culturale nell'opera el gesuita Matteo Ricci.

Rosati Freeman, Francesca: Benvenuti nel Paese delle Donne (Roma: XL Edizioni, 2010). Ritorno nello Yunnan sulla scia di Namu (vedi il libro Leaving Mother Lake).

From Within the Country

Hessler, Peter: River Town (London: John Murray, 2001). A Peace Corps volunteer spends two years in China in the mid-1990s.

Namu and Christine Mathieu: Leaving Mother Lake (London: Abacus, 2003). The story of Namu, a gifted singer from the Moso minority in Yunnan. Pubblicato in italiano come Il Paese delle Donne (Sperling e Kupfer).

Xinran: What the Chinese Don't Eat (London: VIntage Books, 2006).

Films on China

Films on China

This is a small selection of movies about China which I have reviewed. In the US and internationally, you can buy movies on China here. In the UK you can click here to buy films on China.

Confucius (2010) by Hu Mei. Historical fictionon the life of the great sage.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) by Ang Lee.  Wuxia film in XIX century China.

The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) by Zhang Yimou. Fiction on palace intrigues at the Tang imperial court.

Farewell my Concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige. How Peking Opera spanned the history of China in the XX century through the lives of two actors and a woman who got between the two of them.

La Guerra dei Fiori Rossi (2006) by Zhang Yuan. Children in China compete against each other at school.

Happy Times (2000) by Zhang Yimou. A older man and a blind girl meet by chance, but can they be happy?

Ju Dou (1990) by Zhang Yimou. Tragic story of love and power during feudal China's last spasm in the 1920s.

The Farewell (2019) by Lulu Wang. ***** Based on a true story of family love for a grandma who is nearing the end of her life.

The Lover (1992) by Jean-Jacques Annaud. A rich Chinese man meets a pretty French lady in French-ruled Vietnam in the 1930s.

Lust, Caution (2008), by Ang Lee. Passion and war in Japanese-occupied Taiwan.

Mongol (2007) by Sergei Bodrov. The life of young Gengis Khan, the Mongol who would become emperor of China.

Not one less (1999) by Zhang Yimou. A young teacher must learn quickly in a rural school.

Pushing Hands (1992) by Ang Lee. A Chinese tai-chi master moves to New York

Red Obsession (2013) by David Roach and Warwick Ross. China enters the world market for premium wine.

Red Sorghum (1987) by Zhang Yimou. A woman struggles for her life while China moves toward modernity.

The Road Home (1999) by Zhang Yimou. A son who made it in the city finds his roots in his family's village.

Sand Pebbles (1966) by Robert Wise. An American naval boat sails up a river in China in the 1930s.

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) by Zhang Yimou. A peasant lady seeks justice in China's huge bureaucracy.

A Thousand Pieces of Gold  (1991) by Nancy Kelly. A love story to understand a piece of forgotten history of the Chinese in America.

Tuya's marriage (2007) by Wang Quan'an. The story of a woman who wants to marry another man to save her husband.

You and me (2013) by Zhang Yimou. A film on Chinese opera, not the best by this great director.

Youth (2017) by Feng Xiaogang. Young kids survive the traumas of the cultural revolution and the war with Vietnam to see the transformations of market reforms.