Sunday, March 28, 2010

Soaking with the Mosuo

The Mosuo and bathing 
In the opposite direction (northwards from Lijiang) towards Sichuan province lies the lake referred to as Lugu (Luguhu). Here it are the (officially not recognized minority) Mosuo who function as the main drawcard. The backdrop not being sufficient enough, tourists from all over China come to witness the culture where to be woman is king:
'In an effort to promote Lugu Lake as an interesting tourist spot, the Chinese government advertised the area as "the Woman's Kingdom", a fully matriarchal society, and implied that the women are sexually loose, taking male partners often, and at will. Books with promiscuous covers and amateur paintings with naked and scantily clad women are sold in every shop. Locals are forced to wear "traditional costumes" with the threat of ¥20 per day fines for non-compliance'.
While intrigued by this kind of different culture, one might ask why come all the way here to bear witness to this? Surely a book such as that of by Yang Namche Namu and Christine Mathieu (2) is enough to understand the culture, though it also describes the beauty of the countryside.
But no. Answers to this inexplicable reason to visit Lugu Lake and the surrounding Mosuo heartland are more complex.

At the heart of the argument are distinctions about superiority apparently. Matriarchal is backward, patrimonial is modern. That's how Dru C. Gladney (1) sums up the mainstream view in the book 'Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects', while giving examples of the exoticizing and eroticizing of minorities in modern China, which are additional motives for seeking out Mosuo culture. These motives, I have to admit, are not exclusive to China. See portrayal of Nat. Geo. which have no problems with near naked Ni-Vanuatu for instance, but all white-skinned unclothed persons are neatly blurred. See also my own posting on this subject in Soaking in Southeast Asia: Cliffhanger.

Though much is made of the difference between Mosuo and Chinese culture in Namu and Mathieu's book, notable is the mention of Mosuo enjoying hot springs au-naturel and how this is being prevented by the (Chinese?) authorities (2). More on this development in historical context:
'During the Cultural Revolution, local officials thought this practice [bathing naked] was uncivilized and they added walls to separate men and women. Over time, however, the Mosuo began taking down the walls until the point that they hardly existed. When the area was open for tourism in the 90s, the government forcibly separated male and female bathers. Eventually, the area was reopened for communal bathing after the government realized its value to the local Mosuo people'.
Possibly to exemplify the contrast between the culture's, more has been made of the naked soaking than in reality existed; i.e. a supposed superiority of the Mosuo over Han Chinese due to the former's inability to distinguish between the clothed and unclothed human form without erotizication.
That said, the cultural differences still add to the Lugu lake area attractions:
'In addition the Mosuo of all ages engage in naked bathing at the Waru hot spring, seeing the body as simply a part of the normal pattern of things. For many Chinese, such visits permit a view of fascinating customs found in a beautiful part of the country ...'(3)
Or as in this publication:
'In early 1988, I saw a young man from Sichuan anguishing in the courtyard of the local government; his expensive camera with a telephoto zoom lens had been forfeited when, from behind a towering rock, he photograped the naked bathers in a roofless hot spring in northern Yongning' (4).
Mosuo's soaks
After extensive web search, I still have to proceed beyond the one hot spring, which the above mentioned authors (2) situate near Yongning village. It is often referred to as Wenquan, however Wenquan is just Chinese for hot spring. More commonly it is named after the nearby village of Yongning or Waru (3), I'll stick to the latter. Besides positioning the soak 10 km north of Yongning Tourchina adds:
'Now this place is equipped with proper facilities for people wanting to soak and relax in this comfortable hot spring'.
As opposed to before when ...?
This cached reference describes the (perceived?) past:
'So at any time of the night or day, up to hundreds of naked men and women can be seen bathing together. They play together and have fun. Mosuo people have a very relaxed attitude towards the naked human body and they do not regard nudity as a taboo'.

'A group of Mosuo women and tourists bathing in the famous hot springs of Yongning, Yunnan province, China. August 2007'.
By Sara Gouveia.

A current firsthand experience by a long-distance rider:
'Had the place all to myself, and soaked for over an hour. The water felt warm, but not hot, smelled heavily of minerals, and actually fizzed like soda pop. ... After the soak I kept riding to see if there was anything up ahead. There was another hot springs – Lao (old) Hot Springs – a few kilometers up the road. Later someone back at Lige said that was the “better” hot springs because the water was hotter, but it sounded pretty crowded'.
So maybe two hot spring sites? In the Footsteps of Dr. Rock from 2005 adds:
'There is now a "resort" here where pools have been built for tourists. There will probably be other pools built by the time you read this'.
And now for the bad news from 2009:
'Construction of an airport near China's last matriarchal society in the southwestern Yunnan Province has started, authorities said yesterday'.
Innocence ends?


(1) Gladney, D.C. (2004) Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and other Subattern Subjects. Published by Hirst and Co, London, United Kingdom
(2) Namu, Y.E. & Mathieu, C. (2003)
Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World. U.S.A.
(3) Arlt, W. G. & X. Honggang
Tourism Development and Cultural Interpretation in Ghanzi, China. In: Ryan C, & G. Humin (Eds.) (2009) Tourism in China: Destination, Cultures and Communities. Routledge, New York, U.S.A.
(4) Shih, C-k (2010) Quest for Harmony: the Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, U.S.A.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shangri La Soaks

In the northern most section of Yunnan province, lies Diqing Autonomous prefecture, where the dominating minority consists of mostly Tibetans and Lisu. Tourists is important here such that the Chinese town (officially the county of) of Zhongdian (Gyalthan to the Tibetans) has been re-named as Shangri La, the mystical nowhere land, which in itself refers to the incorrect use of Shambala by the author of lost Horizon, James Hilton, which is a state of enlightenment rather than a physical place (1).

One of the tourist things to do is hike round Meili mountain, located in Zhongdian county. On the way there is the hot spring of Xidang (Xi Dang, Xidan). In contrast to the trek the hot springs are not so photogenetic:
'The hot springs themselves could be experienced in a series of small, seriously grotty (to borrow a Rough Guide favorite) shacks'.
Funny how this was published on the Not so Lonely Planet site by Andris and Cara!
Dmalling is disappointed:
'The hot springs were sort of like a bathtub -- just a concrete basin with a faucet that tapped into the hot water in the ground. The basins were housed in what looked like a bathroom. Getting your feet wet is really the extent of what you could do here, no swimming in a warm refreshing pool'.
One of the
best blogs ever (presonal view) retraces Dr Joseph Rock's footsteps, amongst others around Meili mountain. I wonder what the Dr himself would have thought of the hot springs? His disciple describes it as follows:
'These few bathing sheds were run by a Sichuanese guy who seemed extremely bored with his post. It was very cold and damp there, so the warm baths were a welcome chance to get the circulation going - at least temporarily'.
Closer to Town
More accessible are two soaking sites not far from Zhongdian itself. The most popular of the two is
Tiansheng Qiao (Rangjung Dosam), roughly 10 km south of Zhongdian. Besides the hot spring, the area is known for it's natural bridge formation. Combining these tourist attractions means the need for development. Usually celebrating the natural soaks of the wider western Himal area Daniel Winkler remarks:
'Big hot pool, steam cave, cooling off in the river, awesome setting. These springs, although developed, are great!'

Photo with no description.
Taken from above the natural bridge, the hot springs (large circular pool) are on the opposite bank.

Only 6 km from
Tiansheng Qiao is the hot spring of Xiagei., the provincial tourism site is one of the few resources on this hot spring:
'It is located beside a river and below a cave. Private rooms are available but it is nicer to swim in the public pool. Shops sell bathing suits if you are in need of one. This is one of the few completely natural, mostly local Tibetan, clothing optional hot spring areas you will come across'.
It's good that this website distinguishes different hot springs. Many web references (such as this one by Rough Guides) refer Xiagei as being Tiansheng Qiao. A Dutch language email by Bart also refers to the separate existence. Roughly translated:
'The Tiansheng Rockbridge is a hole in the mountain where the river runs through. It's great ... together with the other intrigued locals (who have been in the Xiagei hot spring for weeks, even though it's freezing). The women are not that ashamed, they were all in their monokini! The Chinese tourists though preferred to soak in the purpose built swimming pool with their floaties'.
Possibly the two are one? This web site describes a distance of 500 m. It's the details which lead me to think both are the same ...:
'This was a private pool and an entrance fee was charged. There was also a public pool located about 500m away where the locals soak in and also open to visitors who are not too concerned about their modesty or the lack of it (topless Tibetan ladies)'.
(1) Arlt, W. G. & X. Honggang Tourism Development and Cultural Interpretation in Ghanzi, China. In: Ryan C, & G. Humin (Eds.) (2009) Tourism in China: Destination, Cultures and Communities. Routledge, New York, U.S.A.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Where to soak in Lisu land?

Lisu Bathing
Located the most to the west in Yunnan province, close to the Burmese border, the Lisu minority live along the banks of the upper Nujiang (Salween) river, in the autonomous prefecture of Nujiang.

Lisu tradition dictates the local custom of holding a bathing festival co-inciding with the local new year celebrations. The tradition of holding a bathing festival is very much similar to the Tibetan custom. The tradition transcends the mountain themselves, Hindu have traditional bathing festivals as well. Unique to the Lisu is the involvement of hot springs, which seems sensible considering the time of the year the event is held.

This Lisu tradition called Kuoshi Festival (the New Year festival) determined to be from 20-22 December each year contrasting with Tibet's mid-summer bathing tradition. The practice though does have it's local roots:
'Legend says that the estuary of a huge pool below the cliffs at the foot of the east Gaoligong Mountain was guarded by a pair of little green sparrows. When local people gave parties, year after year, these green sparrows magically provided all the bowls, chopsticks, tables and chairs needed. Then a man failed to return the borrowed articles to the birds and enraged the Dragon King, who ordered that the pool be filled up. The birds turned into girls who bathed in the hot spring near the pool and departed. Consequently, early spring every year, local residents camp near the spring to offer sacrifices to the Dragon King and the magic sparrows, and bathe'.
Others simply see the custom of holding a bathing festival in more practical terms:
'By taking baths and washing off dirt with the sacred spring water, people hope for the forthcoming of auspiciousness'.
Then again the bathing is only a minor part of the festival apparently:
'The most interesting event of the Lisu people's traditional Kuoshi festival is the Hair-Combing Contest held on the first and seventh days of the first lunar month'.
The bathing festival seems to co-incide with the Lisu New Year, but might just follow the Kuoshi festival; the Bathing Festival is
'usually held in the first month of the lunar year'.
Which one could also describe as very early spring ....

'Every Spring Festival, the Lisu people gather at the Hot Springs by the Nujiang River
By taking baths and washing off dirt with sacred spring water,
people hope for forthcoming auspiciousness'.
Posted by Funansan.

How to Soak Lisu Style
Though soaking is part of the Lisu cultural tradition, this source puts the whole soaking process in more evocative terms:
'When the time comes, people from near counties and regions, wearing rich dresses and bringing food, luggage and even cooking stuff, keep pouring in. Tents cover the place, which is quiet in normal times. People all crowd together, singing and smiling happily, and the scene is full of bustle and excitement. The "Spring Bathing Festival", which used to be a day to take bath and cure diseases, now becomes a festival of revelry for people to spend holidays and dance and sing. Especially for youths at their life's full flowering, they gather together in dozens or even hundreds to compete songs, poems and look for lovers. It lasts all through the night and they never feel bored with it'.
No, soaking is not boring.

However, the web search on hot springs in the Nujiang Autonomous prefecture nearly all focus on the bathing during the festival as if no soaking takes place at other times. And unfortunately most of the reporting on the festival involves sensationalizing the methods of bathing. For instance eChinacities includes Nujiang valley hot springs in China's Top 5 Best Nude Bathing Areas despite the fact that the Lisu bathe only semi-naturally ....

It even means that simply the sight of seeing soakers soak can be the ultimate destination. From
'Every year, during the Spring Festival period, Lisu minority people will have bath together in hot springs along both sides of Nu River (the Salween). And held many activities such as poem contest, singing and dancing, etc, to celebrate the coming of spring season. This trip is specially good for photographing'.
The epitome of Lisu and Nujiang tourism according to
Photo posted with above quoted encouragement to sign up.

And how is the experience seeing soaking locals?
'I left the competition place at noon and walked to visit their "zaotanghui" (public baths) gathering. Some women were taking baths in the hot springs, laughing and playing. Even when tourists focused their cameras on them, they did not behave in an offended manner. What a simple and happy nationality'.
So much for the modern man ...

Anyway, modernity plays a major part in the future of some of these soaks. The Sydney Morning Herald no less, also takes a soak with the locals:
'Men and women alike stripped to their underpants, Wa Ba's family and friends sat soaking in hot pools fed by a geothermal spring gushing from a mossy crevice under the gnarled roots of a banyan tree on the bank of the Nu River.
As his wife tended a kettle over a wood fire and young women drank cups of hot water straight from the spring, Wa offered round a bottle of his homemade rice wine, a clear brew strong enough to give a noticeable buzz from just a capful.
"Usually we take a bath here on the eve of the new year, so we're a bit late this year," said Wa, who lives in Dapicha, a village half an hour's walk away. "If you bathe here when the year is new, it protects you from illness" '.
Reported in 2005, it then goes on to mention that:
'But the hot pool enjoyed by Wa's group, the land of Pi's community, and perhaps even the tenure of his Lisu people in the Nu Valley, are threatened.
Just downstream from the hot spring, about five kilometres up from the town of Liuku, marker pegs stenciled "Liuku Power Station" are rammed into the earth beside a tunnel into the hillside. When built later this decade, the dam's reservoir will submerge the hot spring and many small farms and villages lining the river'.
Though the loss of the soaks is certainly a disadvantage, the projects (once completed) will certainly massively impact the local inhabitants and change their ways of life with no way back.
The consequences will also be felt in countries downstream, for instance now (in 2010) the Mekong is drying up along Thailand and in Lao, consequences attributed (by the press) to dams on this river.
That said, dams have many environmental advantages over alternatives but being highly intrusive is not one of them.

The opposition, though not entirely successful, has been able to stall the construction according to the Times (21 May 2009). Opponents are organised in the Save the Nujiang as well as Salween Watch.

The soaks of Nujiang
Despite the considerable wealth of information on how the locals soak, hardly any information is available on where they soak and definitely no personal experiences are described on the net.

Some places that are mentioned as having soak sites are Chawalong, which is located in the north of Nujiang prefecture. The photo available on flickr doesn't endear itself to potential soakers though ....

Elsewhere mention is made of hot springs, 10 km north of Liuki city, the prefectures administrative center. These are Laomudeng (possibly), Bazhaodeng, Baihualing, Denggen and Mazhanghe (source).

Monday, March 15, 2010


Featuring Yunnan
Southeastwards of Tibet, I have chosen to cover Yunnan province. Within Yunnan, Himal conditions are to be found in the prefectures of Diqing, Lijiang and Nujiang. Administratively neighbouring each other these three districts are also connected geologically and ethnically to the wider Himalaya region. Excluding other prefectures has been done completely arbitrarily; I have to set my limits somewhere!

What we know
Yunnan's government web-site (SeeYunnan) claims that there are many hot springs:
'Though we’re not sure who is doing the counting, there is a purported 700 hot springs in the region'.
Unfortunately these 700 soaking sites are far from being mentioned on the web, I doubt whether even pages exist on about 100 hot springs. Then again I am certainly not counting ....

The Northwest
Comprising the northwestern corner of Yunnan the chosen prefectures are home to a number of what main road China refers to as minorities. However in each prefecture the minorities are usually the majority. Dequin is dominated by Tibetan, Nujiang by Lisu and Lijiang by Naxi.

But in general, all have a somewhat 'primitive' way of enjoying the soaks, so much so that the way they bathe adds to building up a matrix of reasons for tourists to intentionally seek out these soaks, if only for viewing purposes!

In the following blog entries I'll focus on each prefecture in more detail, trying to sum up the locations of the soaks but more importantly looking at the traditions of soaking and how the wider outside society is both curious though also seeking to initiate change under the wider held 'belief' of what modernity entails....