Saturday, January 26, 2008

'lectrofishin with Otis and Maynard

so we are snowed out of the overland routes we were planning on taking: the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge to the dusty town of Daju and from there to Lugu Lake and on to Muli Gorge and the Daocheng National Park ... would have been nice but alas the snows make it necessary for us to re-strategize.

So i say we head back to Dali Town for another stab at suicide i the dark hallows of the Bad Monkey and a silver smuggling expedition to He Qing village, where i have an accomplice waiting. An 18-year old Bai silversmith with questionable upbringing.

We have had a good few days here in Shaxi, the last surviving market town on the old Horse and Tea Trade Route. First thing we did was hike up the old salt trade route to Ma Ping Guan (Horse Pasture Pass) a lookout village and tax collecting outpost left unscathed by the ravages of 20th century China. The path is red dust and stunted pine trees with deep ruts for the horses and raised mud walls for the men and women. There are a few places where smooth stone slabs have been tossed and turned by time. They were originally laid down by caravan drivers who hoped to keep the path alive even in the rainy season. Its about 15km to the village and we were quite pleased to arrive after 4 and one half hours. We arrived and were immediately escorted to chief Ren Da's house where he gave us tea and sweet rice ball soup with poached eggs and sugar. drool drool.

We walked down the path to the bridge -- the spot where caravans and local villagers threw down and eventually agreed on a tax for the goods they were carrying. Friday marked the completion of the renovation of the bridge and in this staunchly traditional village this means incense, chanting, cymbals and drums, big huge lunches, firecrackers and appearances by local bigwigs. We admired the tung and groove technique of bridge building "There are no nails here in the main support structure as far as i can see" said Sammy the Grubby Handed. "Don't quote me I'm drunk."

Anyway we went to watch the women prepare for the ceremony with dance and cooking. The chief's daughter in law was a skinny cute little pistol all energetic, darting here and there and screwing up her little freckled face. Me and Sammy were in love. Her husband, the chief's second son, is a super chilled out little dude with a white Yankees snowcap and Grade A Man Skills. They danced and told jokes and we were the hit of the party. The little girls squirmed and twisted their hands in front of their faces, stuck out their tongues and made wide eyes at us and then their mothers ... the older girls giggled and asked how old we were, the older women introduced their daughters. it was all good.

The next day the ceremony was almost canceled by a freak all-night snowstorm. But after a few tense hours the officials said they were coming and soon thereafter the women scuttled up to the Temple of Guanyin, Provider of Sons and Confucius Guardian of Filial Piety and Social Order to burn that incense, raise those chants and get them fires a'burnin. The men cut cedar boughs, wrote out the worklists in red ink with paintbrushes and chopped wood, carried stuff and smoked around the bridge, inspecting the joints and warming their hands.

Around three pm the officials showed up and all the men had a powwow in the schoolhouse while the girls donned their headdresses and put on masks of composure that kept slipping. Finally the cry went out and the whole village followed two young boys down from the temple, around the bend to the far side of the bridge. There was a furious banging and firecrackers were exploding everywhere, women sang nasal tunes and the eldest man shouted out blessings in an almost faltering hoarse tenor. The two youngins had a cauldron of smoking cedar betwixt them and two be-costumed bearded fierce looking fellows played the part of tax collector. Everybody marched past, a band of saggy old teetering men banging cymbals and drums, and placed a few pennies into the tax collectors pouch. After three crossings, the ceremony was over and everybody retreated back to the temple and the schoolhouse to have another powwow and prepare lunch.

Here the villagers took their chance to let out grievances in front of the chief and the officials and we almost asphyxiated in the small room as one villager yelled till he was red about timber prices, contracts and labor cost.

We ate good. Beef and lamb and pork and taters and cabbage and a lovely sauce and 'shrooms and all the good stuff. Fat and stankin', we hit the road back across the mtn pass to Shaxi 'fore the snows and rains made our stay at Ma Ping Guan a semi-permanent one. Lord knows we would have had a few accidental conceptions had we stayed.

We marched back along a muddy red path with the officials and one horse. Sammy only has a pair of Keen sandals -- perfect for everything but muddy mtn hiking. So i got a few laughs out of that. I raced the local villagers down the mountain and they were quite impressed. I have always been good at running down mountains. The instant eye foot communication is something i enjoy so much. It is truly a moment by moment life when running down a mountain and each step gives you a chance to improvise, look ahead to plan the next step, look down to find the best step, step, slip and catch, look up, jump and run, find that step, improvise, look ahead to plan the next step ....

we arrived at the bottom of the mountain just as night fell. We staggered back to the place we are living, took cold showers, laughed and went to sleep. More later.

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