Riding a horse in Shandan, Gansu

For more than 2,000 years, Chinese armies sought out and trained the finest horses near Shandan, a town in northwest China's Gansu province.

That tradition ended about a decade ago, when cavalry units virtually disappeared from the modern Chinese military.

However, Shandan, located on the Mongolian border, has lately been attracting another group of people who admire horses: tourists and equestrians.

One weekend in July, I arrived at what used to be called the Shandan Army Horse Ranch, but since 2001 has been known as the China Animal Husbandry Group Shandan Horse Ranch.

It is huge. It takes more than an hour to drive from one end to the other. When it was still an army ranch, it ranked number one in size in Asia, and number two in the world.

More recently, some parts of the ranch were converted to farm land. But the first sub-ranch still maintains much of its original appearance. Here, a hotel and a tourism company catering to horse enthusiasts have been built.

I came at the best time of year for outdoor activity in Shandan, from July to August. Situated on the northern side of the Qilian Mountain, the ranch is 2,300 m above sea level, and for much of the year, the climate is very cold.

I checked in at the hotel and entered my name for a popular horseback-riding route. It was about 20 km long, and passed through a valley called Kulong Xia ("Valley of Holes"). The journey took between three and four hours.

I was assigned to ride a brown "Dundan", a hybrid of the Russian Dun and a local Shandan horse. My escort was called Xiao Ma, or "little horse", a 28-year-old local wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. He told me that my horse was one of the tamest in Shandan.

"Take your rein as if it were your girlfriend's hand - neither too tightly, nor too loosely so that she might run away," Xiao Ma said as he put the rein in my hands. "Remember, the rein is the connection between you and the horse."

I had some previous experience riding horses, but was never quite able to run one. When I rode horses in places around Beijing, escorts usually led my horse by the bridle and walked unhurriedly.

This time it was different. My escort was riding a horse beside me in the grassland. In such a place, both horses and people seem to have a strong desire to run.

"What's the difference between riding a horse and a donkey, if you don't let the horse run?" said someone who passed by, mockingly.

I kicked my horse's belly, and off we went. Just as the horse began to run, I felt that my hat was about to be blown off my head by the wind. I removed the hat and held the rein with one hand. Suddenly the horse began to run faster, and I soon lost my "connection" with him. The next thing I knew, I had been thrown off.

Lying on the ground, I remembered that earlier in the morning an employee of the tourism company had told me that "horseback-riding is a dangerous sport" while explaining the need to purchase insurance.

"Get on the horse again, or you will have a psychological barrier against him," Xiao Ma said. "You'll never learn to ride horses without falling off."

My waist ached. My right hand hurt because I had blisters from the rubbing of the rein. My glasses were missing. But I eventually climbed on my "tamest" horse again.

According to my guide's analysis, when I held the hat in my hand, the horse had mistakenly thought that I was going to hit him. He was scared and began to run faster.

I temporarily gave up the idea of running my horse and walked him leisurely again. "Little horse" kept closer eyes on me now.

The failure upset me, but I was consoled by the astonishing scenery. Different from most other parts of Gansu, where the landscape is barren, the Shandan Horse Ranch is a green world.

In the valley, the scenery was reminiscent of some places in northern Xinjiang, with various wild flowers, trees covered in mist and sheep dotting the mountains.

We crossed a river. It was not deep, but water splashed up by the horse soaked my trousers. Coming out of the valley, we walked onto a big dam, which gave me a wide view of the pasture, the reservoir and the horses.

Our terminus for the morning was a group of camps set up beside the reservoir, where we had our lunch. Outside the camp, a group of horses were eating grass and strolling freely in the pasture.

I was told that there were once more than 10,000 horses housed at Shandan Army Horse Ranch, but now there were only some 2,000.

Among them, most were native Shandan horses. The ranch also imported a few studs of foreign blood, such as the Russian Dun, English Thoroughbred and Arab. Their offspring, when crossed with female Shandan horses, are called "Dundan", "Yingdan" and "Adan" in Chinese. These horses are taller than pure Shandan horses.

Actually, the Shandan horse is also a hybrid. Mongolian horses, Tibetan horses, Ili horses from Xinjiang and Persian horses are all among its ancestors.

Growing up in the plateau, Shandan horses have a reputation for great stamina. In the 1960s, China used to aid the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with Shandan horses.

In 1988, Wu Shuli, a man from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, started a famous journey of traveling along China's borders on horseback. He finished five years later, after nine horses had died during the journey.

The undertaking contributed to Shandan horses' fame as Wu had claimed that Shandan horses had the most endurance of any breed he had used in his journey.

Today Wu is a coach of the Jiangsu equestrian team. He is also the general manager of Danma company, which runs the tourism business at Shandan Horse Ranch.

Many people came to Shandan because of Wu's fame. However, I did not meet him because he was in Nanjing when I visited. I was probably lucky, for I was told that Wu had an idea of "treating every tourist like an athlete".

I met Li Jianbin, a staff member of the company, who accompanied Wu during part of his journey around China on horseback. "We went through unimaginable situations. It was an experience that cannot be replaced," he told me.

In the afternoon, Xiao Ma took me to a nearby pasture to pick mushrooms. As my confidence began to recover, I tried to run my horse at a moderate speed. He was really tame.

My guide was a knowledgeable and experienced young man. He had worked at horse clubs in Suzhou, Beijing and Lhasa, but he returned to Shandan because he likes the weather here.

When we sat on the pasture to take a rest, Xiao Ma showed me locations in the ranch where some well-known films and TV series were shot, including Horse Herder (Muma Ren), Elementary School on a Horseback (Mabei Xiaoxue) and Wang Zhaojun.

Li passed by on a fast-running horse, and was soon out of sight. "It takes at least a year before you can run like that," Xiao Ma said.

(Time of traveling: July, 2008)


In the hidden world of Deqen, Yunnan

By Mu Qian

For two days, I lost contact with the modern world. There was neither a telephone line nor signal for a mobile phone in this remote Tibetan village called Sulu.

Located on the border of Southwest China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and only tens of kilometres away from the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sulu is a small village in Deqen County of Yunnan's Diqing (Dechen) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

Setting out from Shangri-la, capital of Diqing, we had driven for the better part of a day along the zigzag dirt road by the Jinsha River (the upper reaches of the Yangtze River) before we arrived here.

Among my companions were Wenzi, a 54-year-old man from Chengdu who had a hobby of shooting films of traditional folk music and dance, Haitao, a freelance writer from Inner Mongolia who was writing a book about Diqing, and Li Yao, a Shangri-la-based photographer whose works have been inspired by the beautiful scenery of northwest Yunnan.

When we got to Sulu, a group of Tibetan villagers welcomed us with qingke (a kind of highland barley) wine, hada (long pieces of silver white silk), and songs.

In this quiet village, there are only 25 households. We were lodged in the home of 53-year-old Nyanyung, who was the uncle of a friend of Li.

It was a typical Tibetan house in this dry-hot river valley area. The ground floor was used as shed for livestock. We came in and out from the second storey, a big drawing room. And the third storey consisted of bedrooms.

"It cost us 20,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan (US$2,466 to US$3,700) to build this house," said Nyanyung's second son, 23-year-old Sinatashi. "Here we needn't hire people to do the construction work, everybody in the village came to help. We only need to feed them with meat and drinks."

Sinatashi was sitting beside a stove, in which wood was being burnt to warm the drawing room. On the wall behind him, three pictures were hung beside each other: Panchen Lama, Bodhisattva and Mao Zedong.

Three years ago, to get to Shangri-la, Sinatashi had to cross the Jinsha River and climb a mountain to go to Derong County in Sichuan Province, where he could catch a long-distance bus. Before then when he went to his junior middle school in Deqen, he had to travel for three days over the mountains in a caravan.

Communications have much improved now, but strangers are still rare in this area. We were welcomed as a group of special guests in Sulu.

Most villagers had gathered in Nyanyung's drawing room for a welcoming party. We were treated to meat and drinks too, such as the delicious yak butter tea, and qingke wine.

And even more touching, we were treated to performances of singing and dancing. I was originally afraid of becoming drunk on the qingke wine, but what was really intoxicating was the folk singing and dancing.

The villagers formed a circle, and began to perform xianzi (or "ye"), a kind of song and dance performance popular among the Tibetans living in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
No matter what age or gender, they held each other's hands, except those playing piwang (a Tibetan fiddle) to accompany the performance.

The circle was apparently divided into two teams, which sung a verse each in competition with the other team. When the singing party changed, the whole circle changed its direction of dancing movements. Towards the end of each song, the tempo became faster and faster, until it was impossible to go any quicker.

Sulu village is governed by Yangla Township, which is particularly famous for its xianzi. And our host Nyanyung used to be nicknamed "King of Xianzi" in the area. That means he not only played the piwang well, but sang and danced well too.

"I started to play xianzi at the age of 8, and now I know over 100 tunes," said Nyanyung. "Being a Tibetan, you learn it naturally without having to study."

The form of xianzi seemed to be quite simple, but later I found that its simple form actually conceived of numerous variations. It was not like art that can be appreciated from afar, but more a physical thing whose power can only be understood by getting involved.

So naturally I joined in too, but I am not a Tibetan, and xianzi didn't come to me naturally. Every time I mastered the villagers' steps, they changed to another kind of dance step right away. Sweat was probably my greatest gain, and I found that dancing xianzi was by no means easier than in a nightclub.

Sinatashi told me that villagers often gather to play xianzi at festivals, weddings, or after harvest. Every autumn, after reaping crops, farmers would take a rest for about seven days. And while the cows and sheep would graze freely in the fields, they would gather in a communal house to play xianzi.

Sometimes they start after midnight, and play till sunrise. Sinatashi said his grandma, 85 years old now, often watched fellow villagers sing and dance throughout the night.

Afraid that we might feel tired, the villagers did not dance throughout that night and finished our first night's xianzi by 1 am. I did feel tired after the day's traveling and dancing, and fell asleep quickly to the rhythmic snores of my six roommates.

The next morning, I heard a kind of bell when I was still dreaming. To me, it sounded very spiritual. I opened my eyes and found it continued.

As I got up and went into the courtyard, I saw Nyanyung's first daughter-in-law feeding grass to the cows. When the cows ate grass, the cowbells on the their necks began to ring.

I had heard the sound of a cowbell in a concert back in Beijing. Its distinctive sound had attracted my attention when a musician played it to create a special effect. But the cowbells sounded by the moving cows created a more intriguing natural harmony.

In this quiet environment, I seemed to have become more sensitive to sounds. Instead of listening to the ringing of my mobile phone, I listened to the sound of the wind, of leaves falling to the ground, and of the twittering of birds.

I also noticed another kind of sound in Sulu—children reciting textbooks, which came from a house higher up on the mountain. It was the village's primary school. All 10 students at the school were reciting their texts.

Forty-eight-year-old Drolma was the school's only teacher, and taught all subjects, but students above the third grade had to go to another village to finish their primary education.
Sinatashi, who graduated from the Ethnic Normal School of Diqing Prefecture, was one of the few people in the village to complete a secondary school education. However, having failed the interviews to become a teacher and a civil servant, he couldn't find a job and remained at home farming.

"Could you tell me what I should do?" he asked. "In this isolated place no one could tell me."

Unlike his two brothers who were satisfied with their lives supported materially by farming and spiritually by playing xianzi, Sinatashi longed for more in his life.

I couldn't give him an answer, except that I encouraged him to explore the outside world more if he had the opportunity, but never to lose his own identity.

In the evening, Wenzi played the video he shot of last night's party. It was a happy moment for all the villagers who came to watch it on Nyanyung's TV. Every detail, every expression of someone they knew would instigate raucous laughter.

For the villagers here, who watched TV for the first time only about four or five years ago, seeing themselves on the TV must have been extremely exciting.

Then another night of xianzi began. Knowing that we were leaving the next morning, both villagers and ourselves gave our all. Nyanyung, with his dazzling steps, demonstrated to us that he was still "King of Xianzi".

"The prairie is covered with flowers in spring. The time for the flowers won't be too long, but we will see each other next spring.

The fields are covered with crops in summer. The time for the crops won't be too long, but we will see each other next summer.

The river is covered with ice in winter. The time of ice won't be too long, but we will see each other next winter."

(Time of traveling: December 2005)


Passing by Zhaoxing--a small town in Guizhou

By Mu Qian

It is a little surprising to see the tourism scene flourishing in Zhaoxing, a small town located at the joint area of Southwest China's Guizhou Province, Central China's Hunan Province and South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

A subordinate township of the Liping County of Guizhou, it's a long way from any major city. I had spent nine hours on a bus from Guizhou's capital city Guiyang to Liping, and then another two hours in a car to Zhaoxing.

Most tourists seemed to have flown from Guangxi's Guilin to Liping, while the backpackers may have come from any of the three regions. Though hard to get to, the joint area of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi, occupied mostly by the Dong ethnic group, has preserved some of the most original natural beauty and cultural traditions in China.

Travelers from other countries can be seen from time to time in Zhaoxing. As a result, signs in English are ubiquitous, though it often takes some thinking before you can understand the meanings of those signs.
For example, "The Race Gathers the Ancient Handicraft Product Store" means "Ethnic and Ancient Handicraft Store", while "Chiyu Motorcycle the Appliance Maintain the Store" means "Chiyu Motorcycles and Electric Appliances Maintenance Store". You are also welcomed to stay at a hotel room with "televiolon" and "hot baht".

Unlike some places where everything has been made to cater to tourists, it seems that in Zhaoxing the local culture lives harmoniously with tourism. On one side of the town are hostels and bars packed with tourists, while on the other side is a river where local Dong people wash their rice and clothes, as well as themselves and their cattle.

You will learn much about the Dong culture by watching local people's activities, as long as you can stand the sight of ducks being slaughtered in the street and dogs' heads sold along with pork at the market.

For dinner, my local friend Xiao Li invited me to a restaurant with "race taste". At the restaurant, I found that we would have a hotpot with niubie. I had heard about niubie when I was in Liping. From my understanding, it is the digested grass in a cow's stomach.
"No, that's not the real niubie," said the chef of the restaurant, who allowed me in the kitchen to watch the way he cooked. "The real niubie is taken from the cow's intestine, just before it's too late to eat it."
After putting some garlic and chili into the hot oil, he took out a Coca Cola bottle of niubie from the refrigerator, which he said was from a cow killed that morning, and poured it into his pot. It was a kind of green thick liquid. Then he added some water and a kind of local herb.
Soon, the hotpot was ready and we began to dip all kinds of meat and vegetables in the soup. A lady at our table refused to eat it, for she believed that only niubie served in the morning was fresh.

I tasted the soup, and it wasn't bad. A little bitter, but the aftertaste was nice. Probably, it would have been even better if I didn't know where it came from.

Li said that niubie is very good for the stomach and intestine, and that we could also have yangbie, the equivalent of niubie from a sheep, but I told him that the niubie hotpot was enough for me for the night.
The Dong people have a saying that, "Foods feed the body, while songs feed the soul". When my stomach was full, I felt like having some music.

Luckily for me, a troupe from the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County of Hunan Province was visiting Zhaoxing, and there was a joint performance by them and a local troupe at an outdoor stage that evening. When we got there, the small square before the stage was already packed with people. We had to squeeze into the crowd.

Music has a special place in the Dong people's lives. Without a traditional written language of their own, the Dong people have recorded much of their history and culture in their songs.The "big song" (da ge in Chinese, ga lao in Dong language) of the Dong people was one of the most special forms of folk music that I have ever heard. It is a kind of a cappella in different parts, sung by a group of singers in bright voices that have been shaped by the unique environment of the area.

My local friends explained the lyrics to me. Some were about nature, while the antiphonal songs were mostly about courtship. Most impressive was the Cicada Song, in which the singers imitated the flickering of cicadas' wings with quick sextuplets.

Choirs of big songs have won many awards at national competitions and have participated in international arts festivals. More and more tourists who come to Zhaoxing want to see them perform, and now travel agencies and hotels in Zhaoxing can arrange concerts.

The performance I saw was good, but I regretted not coming here last spring. They told me that during Spring Festivals, those who went out to work returned home, and married women in their home villages. The Dong people then gathered to sing songs for days, not to perform, but to enjoy themselves.

That night, I checked into a small riverside inn where a double room cost 30 yuan ($4), with a shared bathroom. Here, I could enjoy a view of the river and the people who lived by it. Looking out of the window, I saw sets of fire along the river, not clear for what reasons, but with beautiful reflections in the water.

It felt tired after a day’s travel. Listening to the sound of the flowing water, I soon fell asleep.
Waking up on a sunny morning the next day, I took a walk around Zhaoxing. Like all Dong villages, Zhaoxing is surrounded by mountains, terraces, and forests. A river runs through the town.

The Dongs are very community-minded. Every Dong community has a drum tower (gu lou), a wind-and-rain bridge (fengyu qiao) and an opera stage (xi tai). The drum tower is a place where people meet to discuss community affairs and sing folk songs. The wind-and-rain bridge is for people to rest and the opera stage is where the Dong operas are put on, usually during festivals.

The town of Zhaoxing was formed on the basis of five clans, which developed into five communities named Ren (benevolence), Yi (justice), Li (propriety), Zhi (wisdom) and Xin (faith). As a result, there are five drum towers, five wind-and-rain bridges and five opera stages in Zhaoxing, making the town richest in traditional Dong architecture.

I decided to spend my last two hours in Zhaoxing idling on the wind-and-rain bridge of the Zhi community, where I met Zhang Gensheng, a 49-year-old primary school teacher.Zhang told me that tourism has made Zhaoxing a wealthier township in Liping, which is a poor county in Southwest China, but some families in Zhaoxing still have hard lives.

Learning that I came from Beijing, Zhang said he had a friend in Beijing named Liu Qingwen. A retired editor of the Legal Daily, Liu had been supporting one of Zhang's students to finish her study through primary school and middle school. Zhang had never met Liu, but they often wrote to each other.

"I had a friend in Beijing, and now I have two," Zhang said to me. "I hope I can go to Beijing to see the two of you some day."

On my way back to the hotel, I found out about the reason of the fire the night before. The locals were burning straws to obtain alkali, to be used in the making of zongzi, a pyramid-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.

People were preparing zongzi for the next day, the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, a festival of the Dong people and the time for the locals to eat zongzi.

Several people invited me to eat zongzi with them the next day, but I had to leave Zhaoxing in the afternoon. I wish I could stay.

(Time of traveling: July 2007)