Starting in the capital city of Kunming, Braham traveled from Dali to Lijiang through Yi to Lago Lake and to Zhongdian and Deqin and the sacred Kawagebo Mountain. Each region has its own culture and ethnic tradition and is trying to preserve the old way of life while adapting to the economic realities of modern life and tourism. Along the way, Laurence met various individuals--including the famous Chinese dancer Yang Liping--and learned of a movement of conscious people fighting against the onslaught of modernism to preserve their cultures and identities. They shared with him stories about the misty mountains that stand majestically in this land "south of the clouds," and explained how such mountains are sacred to all who live in these regions.
About the Author
Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist, and author. He is the leading advocate for the Himalayan Consensus, a fresh, innovative approach to development that emphasizes empowering people with local pragmatism instead of broad sweeping globalized ideology and theory.
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Conversations with Sacred Mountains
A Journey Along Yunnan's Tea Caravao Trail
By Laurence Brahm
Ibis PressCopyright © 2017 Laurence Brahm
All rights reserved.
If you want to hear the words of spirits ... Then I suggest you find the mountain.
Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province. The airplanes from Beijing arrive here. The airport reminds me of Bangkok, which all goes to show that this is probably the only province in China that has gotten its act together on tourism. This is because the people of Yunnan look south to Thailand and Southeast Asia for their inspiration. Less influenced by Beijing, they try a different approach here.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. In ancient times, Chinese emperors banished rebels to Yunnan. In those days, Yunnan was considered the furthest border of the Chinese empire, inhabited by hill tribes locked in by mountains and valleys and who clung on to their cultures. As for those rebels banished there by the emperors, they learned to survive in the hills from the tribes.
When I first visited Kunming over 20 years ago, it was a charming city of old wooden and gray brick buildings tottering along canals in leafy tree-lined streets. Now all the old buildings are gone and the trees have been uprooted. It is a so-called modern city consisting of lots of cement and glass. The city charm was obliterated for the international flower exhibition years ago and the local government thought it would be very international to destroy everything relating to the natural environment of their city by covering all the flowers with cement. So when you arrive in Kunming, it looks like any other Chinese city. But it is the starting point of any journey in Yunnan. One must begin the journey by leaving the city.
Kunming has become a kind of rock-and-roll town. Factories along the old canals have been converted into studio lofts, where a number of creative artists work between the seasons. Like travelers, these artists really use the city as a stepping-off point to other places along the Tea Caravan Trail.
The Tea Caravan Trail literally runs north to south from Simao and Pu'er, Yunnan's rich tea-producing soil valleys. One route cuts south through the Red River Valley, extending to Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. The second and main route runs to Dali, Lijiang, the Lugu Lake, Zhongdian, and overland past sacred Kawagebo Mountain to the holy city of Lhasa. From there it veers off to Shigatze, then to Nepal and India.
Crossing the Tea Caravan Trail, tea was brought to India, and in turn the pony caravans brought Buddhist sutras back to China. It was through the Tea Caravan Trail (sometimes referred to as the "Southern Silk Road") that a commodities, ideas, and philosophy synergized into a confluence of culture between East, South and Southeast Asia.
In ancient times, light-footed mule and pony caravans treked along this train. Tightly woven baskets of tea compressed to look like bricks, were piled on their backs. The ponies had special saddles which allowed for packing vast quantities of these tea bricks. The journey was arduous and trecherous. Along the way, different ethnic groups each had their own station on the Tea Caravan Trail. So a journey to bring tea to India, meant traversing across different tribal worlds and passing through the realms of their beliefs.
At each stop along the Tea Caravan Trail, local people had their own sacred mountain. They worshiped the spirits of the mountain, which in turn protected them. Another way of explaining this, is to understand their relationship with the natural environment as one of awe and respect. By caring for their environment and the sources of water and food that it provided, nature in turn took care of them. They observed the unspoken rules of nature. When flowers opened in the spring, melting mountain glaciers nurtured their fields and grasslands. Hand-hewn canals served as conduits from the mountains through villages and towns bringing crystal fresh water, and their civilzation flourished.
Yes, the people never forgot their shamans and lamas, who in turn always remembered to have a conversation with a sacred mountain. I went to find those shamans and lamas. In turn they taught me how to have a conversation with a sacred mountain.
This is the story of my 2003 expedition hiking along the Tea Caravan Trail. I travelled from Kunming to Dali, home of the Bai people. Then to Lijiang, kingdom of the ancient Naxi people who still have the oldest continuing hyroglyphic language in the world. Then on to Lugu Lake, home of the Mosu nation of women. Passing Yi mountain tribe villages still practicing slash and burn agriculture. Traversing on to Shangri-la country and ending the journey in pilgrimage to Kawegabo, the protector mountain revered by Tibetans.
At these stops along the Tea Caravan Trail, I found that each people honor their own sacred mountain. This story is about following the trail, and learning from them, how to have a conversation with the mountains.
"Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment ... I got a short note ... to say he was off on his wanderings again and would have no settled address for some months. He was going to Kashmir, he wrote and hence 'east.' I was not surprised."
I was born in New York City. I guess you could say I grew up in New York City. I lived there until I was ten years old. Then I moved to Connecticut.
One of my earliest memories was of sitting on the carpeted floor of our New York apartment, leafing through National Geographic. I was just a little boy. I was so fascinated by the photos – I could not stop looking at them. What fascinated me most were those pictures of laughing children, women with colorful bandannas wrapped around their heads, tribal headdresses of dangling old silver coins, and timber houses precariously built on stilts somewhere in Asia, tucked in misty valleys, propped on mountainsides. Somehow I wanted to go to these places and stay in one of those houses.
These places seemed far away. Sometimes, I caught glimpses of them on the 5 p.m. evening news with Walter Cronkite. Green Berets patrolling villages. I could see them sometimes in the scratchy footage, pushing through brush. I did not understand why so many soldiers wanted to blow up those timber houses on stilts. People told me it was to save the women and children wearing bandannas.
I remember, as a child, wandering through the Museum of Natural History in New York, dwarfed by huge dinosaur bones, big feet, stuffed bears and stuffed Tibetan antelope. I seemed to stare for hours at a long American Indian canoe. There were exhibits of manikins dressed in bearskins and wearing shaman masks, the force of which filled the entire room. I would stare up at the shaman masks for what seemed like hours.
The museum fascinated me. Cavernous corridors led into rooms with more manikins in traditional costumes – Eskimo, African, Arab, and Polynesian. As a young boy, I stared at the manikins, wondering what life was like for people in these places who really wore these clothes. Then one day, the museum opened its Asian room. I went to see it.
The hill tribe images returned. I could not get them out of my mind. Once again, I wondered what it would be like to live in a timber house on a mountainside with nothing else around, except poppy flowers floating in the wind and the sound of one's own echo dreamily calling out from within the depths of a chasm cut through terraced fields by a river flowing from melting glaciers in mountains that can never be climbed. I thought about climbing the mountains.
That was when I moved to Connecticut.
I took a course in high school on India and Southeast Asia. Interesting how two enormous land and cultural masses encompassing many millennium of history could be compressed into a single half semester class and taught to American high school students as "India and Southeast Asia". It sounded like something a cheerleader would say at a football match.
The autumn leaves fell one by one across my feet at a football match. I had forgotten about the teams and could not hear the cheerleaders anymore. My eyes were following the leaves, drifting with the wind that somehow came from far off mountains. My mind was already in the mountains. Then I thought about "India and Southeast Asia."
What they forgot to teach us in class was that the source of these powerful cultures is three great and powerful rivers – the Ganges, theMekong, and the Yangtze. These rivers meet before a sacred Tibetan snow mountain which cannot be climbed. After listening to a few more lectures, I began to look for the old National Geographic magazines. I was looking for the mountains, and for the people who live on the sides of the mountain.
I found them. In fact, I found a map tucked inside one old copy of National Geographic, illustrating where all of the hill tribes of continental Southeast Asia are – Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and a Chinese province called Yunnan. I had never heard of Yunnan before. It was not on the Walter Cronkite news reports. There were romantic illustrations of the Miao, Dai, Yi, and Long Neck Karen. They lived in timber houses on stilts propped on hillsides. They wore bandannas.
I remember unfolding the old map and using scotch tape to paste it on the wall over my desk where I did my homework. I told my mom I was going to memorize all the names of the tribes. I did. Then one day, I forgot about the map, and the tribes. I left it pasted on the white plaster wall in my childhood bedroom. I had already left.
I arrived in China in 1981 as a student. Everyone was wearing green and blue. I did not see any of the colorful hill tribe costumes that I had seen in National Geographic. All I saw were some dreary-eyed Tibetans hanging out at Beijing's railroad station. And lots of other dreary-eyed Chinese sitting on over-stuffed blue and green canvas bags, sleeping on the bags, waiting for a train ticket back to somewhere where they had not come from too long ago or would not be in a hurry to go back to again. Why were they all waiting for a train ticket? I soon learnt that, in those days, even to buy a train ticket in China, one had to use guanxi or connections.
When I left China at the end of 1981, I went to Hong Kong.
In those days, Hong Kong seemed like the center of everything. Indeed, it was the center of China business. Business was the center of life. Everybody talked all day long about business. Yes, I forgot about the hill tribes in their steamy mountainside timber cabins on stilts. That all faded in my mind under the intensity of contract negotiations and the shrill of deal making, market runs and currency fluctuations on the open, forward, spot markets – to be discussed over coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and drinks at night in the bars, and then in the clubs until early morning.
During the 1980s, I worked as a lawyer writing contracts for multinationals investing in China. I worked for a British law firm in Hong Kong, wore a black suit, a blue shirt with a white collar and cufflinks. I dressed like this every day. Sometimes, I felt as if I could not breathe – stuffed into this suit that was stuffed into elevators stuffed with people going up through floors and floors and layers and layers of photocopied documents in skyscrapers of photocopies reaching to the sky. I would ride up and down the elevators every day. At night, I would dream of the photocopies.
That was the life of a lawyer specializing in China trade in Hong Kong during the 1980s. Actually, none of the so-called "China experts" really understood what was happening in China in those days. But that was not the point. Neither did anybody else. So it was quite sufficient to ride up and down the elevators of prestigious central financial district luxury office towers and talk about things that you really did not understand. For lawyers, accountants, consultants and night club hostesses, everything discussed was billable by the hour anyways, and priced relatively in accordance with the real estate printed on the address of the name card, which you presented to potential clients with both hands and a slight bow.
When it came time to leave the office and go on vacations, most of my lawyer colleagues would hit the beaches and bars in Manila, Phuket, Pattaya, or play golf. Golf was extremely important to lawyers, bankers and their clients. They would whittle away enormous amounts of time trying to fit little balls into slightly larger holes using instruments totally unsuitable for the task. I never joined these golf vacations. In fact, I felt the golf courses should all be nationalized and turned into organic crop communes to grow food for the poor!
Instead of learning to play golf, I went to those hill tribe areas to hike. I was looking for timber houses on stilts, leaning on hillsides in misty valleys beside mountains which could not be climbed. I trekked through poppy fields in northern Thailand, found the Hani and the Yi tribes living in timber houses on stilts, wearing colorful headdresses made of old silver coins. They were just like the ones I used to look at in National Geographic. I began to photograph them. I kept taking pictures, just like the ones in National Geographic.
To my surprise, these tribes had something in common. They all spoke the Yunnan dialect of Chinese. The tribal elders explained, once upon a time, they came from Yunnan, a province of China, a place called "south of the clouds". It was a place of sacred mountains connected by a trail that used to be the caravan route for tea which they grew on mountainsides beside their timber houses on stilts, until they were driven out to Thailand during the years of civil war, where they stayed and grew opium. The tea went, by horse, following a route connecting one sacred mountain with another, eventually reaching Lhasa. The story confused me and I really did not understand. I was too busy taking pictures.
I brought in my backpack some magic tricks, and performed them at night sitting by the hearth. The Hani and Yi were fascinated. Convinced I was a witch doctor, women brought me sick children, asking for cures. I only had asprin and some lomytol in my backpack. Breaking these into small pieces, I handed them to the women who gave them to their children. This disturbing incident taught me the need to bring medical facilities -regardless of how simple - to people in villages. Both rural and urban communities need these facillities. Somehow this encounter influenced me very deeply. Twenty years later I would set up medical clinics in Tibetan regions of western China. In some cases just having running water can prevent disease.
That night sitting by the hearth performing my magic tricks, the men of the village brought old guns and asked me if my magic could ward off bullets from their black powder hunting muskets. I confessed that I was not a witch doctor, and that these were only illussions. They asked me, what was an illusion.
The hill tribe infatuation kept me trekking. From hiking the Himalayan foothills of Nepal to jungles of Malaysia, I took a canoe up river looking for headhunters. Going from one Malaysian Chinese river trader's home to another, I made my way into the Borneo interior, finally finding longhouses of hunters who once hunted heads. I wanted to see the heads. Sure enough, skulls of Japanese soldiers taken in World War II hung from the center of a lodge. I slept in the lodge, under the heads. In the morning, I took more pictures.
Then I trekked through Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, visiting the hill tribes – Hani, Yi, Miao, Karen, and Hmong. After all of these trips – trekking and photographing – I would end up with the lawyers, bankers and businessmen talking over cigars at the Mandarin Hotel or Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. Over lobby lounge music, cigars and afterwork drinks, I would show them pictures of the Borneo skulls, the Burmese Long Necks, and Lao women weaving along the Mekong. They showed me pictures of girls they picked up at the bars in Phuket or Manila, during weekends playing golf. They thought it was strange that I did not play golf.
Then one day I sold my apartment in Hong Kong and gave everything away – tribal blankets, weavings, silver bracelets and statues of elephants. I put the photos in boxes, and packed the boxes into storage. The booming China market gold rush was calling in Beijing. As the boxes collected dust, I forgot about one thing – one day, they would have to be opened.
"She had the long, slender nose, high cheekbones, and egg pallor of the Manchu; her black hair was drawn tightly back and braided; she looked very finished and miniature. Her mouth was like a pink convolvulus, and she was quite still, except for her long-fingered hands."
— Lost Horizon
I first saw Yang Liping in Yunnan in the very early 1990s. I believe it was 1991. Her "Peacock Dance", mimicking a peacock, was both shocking and beautiful. I was stunned and mesmerized watching her live performance in Xishuangbanna, sitting together with a delegation of central bank officials from Beijing.
I had traveled to Yunnan as a legal advisor to a team of officials from the People's Bank of China to research and draft a law for negotiable instruments in China. Monetary policy had become my specialization after advising the central banks of Laos and Vietnam. The delegation had chosen to meet in Kunming and then Xishuangbanna, the home of ethnic Dai tribes, who are a lot like the Lao. After discussing regulatory restrictions for the manipulation of money, I slipped out the back door of our hotel, rented a jeep, and drove off into the hills looking for the Dai. I found them living in cramped villages built on stilts along misty rivers beside lonely white pagodas.
Excerpted from Conversations with Sacred Mountains by Laurence Brahm. Copyright © 2017 Laurence Brahm. Excerpted by permission of Ibis Press.
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Table of Contents
Sampling Disillusionment 5
A Peacock 19
Loft Dreams 27
Glasshouse on a Lake 40
Mountain Dreams 49
Searching for Joseph Rock 66
Finding Xuan Ke 75
No Dreams 85
Last Dreams 93
Tiger Folk 108
Nation of Women 119
The Horse Can Tell 132
White Water Terraces 141
A Street on the Tea Caravan Trail 148
White Horse Buddha 157
Temple Where Buddha Flew 172
Seeing the Mountain 179
Finding the Key 186
Moving Clouds 194
Entering the Mountain 198
Ascending the Mountain 204
The Blind Man and the Temple 211
Conversation with a Stone 217
Conversation with a Dakini 225
Reaching the Glaciers 233