Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #67: Yunnan Province, China: An encounter with Dr. Ho, the legendary Taoist Doctor of the Jade Dragon S

#66: Yunnan Province, China:

An encounter with Dr. Ho, the legendary Taoist Doctor of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

03 NOV 2002
I have arrived in Jinhong, capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture at the souhern tip of Yunnan Province. I’m staying at Xishuangbanna Binguan, and may leave for Laos on Wednesday.

It was a horrible 20 hour bus journey from Kunming, initially through a smooth highway, and then through awful old winding roads up and down the mountains. A new highway is being built that would cut the journey to one third to half it is today.

I have finally left Northeast Asia and entered Southeast Asia. Xishuangbanna is the tropical part of China. Very hot and humid here. The main ethnic group here is Dai, who wear sarong, and are no different from the Thai and Laotian peoples in spoken language and customs. The written language is based on the Burmese script and one look a the signboard here and you will realise you are in a different world from Northeast Asia.

05 NOV 2002

In Jinhong, Xishuangbanna
The gentle autumn winds blew across the foothills of the snowcapped Jade Dragon Snow Mountains and Naxi women worked on the fields in their bluish costumes – an unusually surreal atmosphere to Baisha (meaning “White Sands” in Chinese), a remote village in northwestern Yunnan, China. Suddenly, the serenity of the scene was interrupted by an old man with a goatee, dressed in a white medical gown and cap.

“I am the famous Dr. Ho,” he said.

Oh yes, that famous Dr. Ho, � la Bruce Chatwin. Bruce Chatwin, one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century, first wrote about Dr. Ho in The Times, calling him “the legendary Taoist Doctor of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain,” whatever that implies. Dr. Ho is a medical doctor, full stop, and there isn’t anything Taoist about him. Chatwin’s article turned Dr. Ho into one of the most unusual characters lurking around this corner of China. Dr. Ho has become the regional celebrity. A stream of famous people (as well as non-entities like me) drop by his house in Baisha. This sudden bout of celebrity must have gotten into the head of Dr. Ho since he spends most of his time making his presence known to every foreign visitor.

“Come in, come in,” Dr. Ho said, “You must have heard of me. I am in every English Guidebook, French and Dutch too. Lonely Planet, Rough Guides…” he went on and on.

Tim (more on him later) and I stepped into his clinic. It looked like a personal hall of fame rather than a rural clinic, with hundreds of news clippings with Dr. Ho’s photographs, as well as thousands of name cards. It is interesting to note that most of the articles testify to his fame, rather than his skills in treating patients. In fact, Lonely Planet warns about his dodgy tea and that guests are often asked to pay “what the tea is worth”.

Dr. Ho handed us files that contained articles and assorted letters regarding his fame. Then he poured us tea, what he called “my famous herbal tea”. John Cleese, the British actor who had also visited him, supposedly said, “interesting bloke, crap tea”.

“Look at this letter,” he pointed to one with faded ink, dog eared, complete with tea stains, an indication of the number of hands that had held it. “This Swiss man was cured of cancer,” (after inking my tea), he said, “That hospital asked me about my miracle cure, yes, another proof of my skill.” This American’s tumour had completely disappeared,” he pointed to another letter, “but he didn’t give me any money. That’s fine, because I am happy so long as people are cured of their sickness.” Have more.” He poured tea into our cups. I wondered how much I should pay him later.

Then he shoved a visitor’s book at me. “This book is for Singapore visitors. See, many of you guys have come here.” He passed another much thicker one to Tim. “Many Americans were here too, and all of them love me.” He walked around his room. “Take your time, look at all the articles. See how famous I am.”

I was curious about Bruce Chatwin and so asked about him.

“Yes, I remember him. He came and we chatted about my work. Then he wrote about me. He died a few years ago.”

He seemed reluctant to talk about the man who had made him famous. The way he put it, he sounded as though Chatwin died only recently. In fact, Chatwin died in 1989. I wondered if he was embarrassed that his fame was due more to a well-known writer’s license rather than his own medical credentials. Tim was concerned about his temperature and got a pack of herbal powder from Dr. Ho.

“You will be OK in no time,” Dr. Ho said.

Tim gave him twenty yuan for that, less than three American dollars. Then he passed us more documents and articles, as if we hadn’t enough.

“Thanks, Dr. Ho, we have to make our way to the Fairy’s Peak Temple,” I said.

“Yes, OK, thank you for visiting. Remember, when you get back, tell more people about me.” Ho said.

Sure, and so we succeeded in escaping from the infamous Dr. Ho. I am not sure what to make of this colourful character. Perhaps he is lonely, craving for some attention. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain may be beautiful and living here may sound idyllic, but life can be boring, even for an old man. The visit of a writer more than a quarter century ago created a most unusual person in this remote part of the world. In a strange way, Bruce Chatwin continues to live here. If you are a fan of Bruce Chatwin, visit his creation in Baisha, the pretty hamlet in the foothills of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Yunnan is one of China’s southern most provinces, and perhaps the most diverse one in terms of geographical landscapes and ethnic makeups. During the past few weeks, I visited snowcapped mountains soaring up to over 4,000 meters above sea level, as well as hot humid tropical rain forests. Yunnan is the home to over twenty-six ethnic groups (including a group of 13,000 Mongols who are descendants of Kublai Khan’s army, trapped here since the collapse of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century).

They have since become fishermen, perhaps the only group of Mongolian fishermen in the world), close to half of China’s fifty-six. These ethnic groups account for about one-third of the province’s population. If you visit the French supermarket chain Carrefour’s Kunming store, you find traditional clothing of some of the many ethnic and tribal groups of Yunnan. How native can you get? Maybe I should check out Wal-Mart and Parson’s Kunming stores too.

Yunnan is extremely popular for international backpackers. Lonely Planet says, if you have to choose one province in China to visit, pick Yunnan. Despite this, as well as its similar popularity among domestic tourists, the province retains its unique charm. Its diverse ethnic groups have done much to benefit from this boom in tourism.

I arrived in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, from rainy Changsha. I fell in love with this province of clear blue skies. Eco-tourism is the catch phrase here, and one even finds bins for bio-degradable rubbish and non-degradable ones. Sure, most locals still dump their rubbish in the wrong places, but having such messages loudly promoted is a start.

I took a five-hour bus. A decade ago the journey would have taken more than twenty hours to Dali, a city in northwestern Yunnan – located on the shores of a lake called Er-hai, “Sea of Er”. People who live deep inland have a tendency to call their lakes “seas”. Mention Dali to a Chinese and the first thing that comes to their mind are the Duan emperors of Dali, glorified as gongfu masters in Chinese gongfu movies and classic novels.

Dali was once the heart of a large empire set up by a confederation of Thai-related tribes led by the Bai people. The Nanchao Dali Empire once included not only Yunnan, but also large parts of Southwestern China and northern parts of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The empire was eventually destroyed by the Mongol invading forces. It was partially as a result of that invasion that set off the movement of the Thai tribes southwards to what is today Thailand.

Dali is a relaxed town where pretty local Bai ladies walk around in bright white traditional costumes (and their beloved mobile phones!). I spent a few days visiting the lake and the city’s historical monuments.

I met Tim, an American backpacker, who speaks five languages (and some basic Chinese words), in a backpacker’s hostel. I took a bus to a seldom-visited Bai village called Shiba, on its market day. Not for the first time on my journey through China had locals assumed that I was a tour guide with some white tourist. When Tim showed interest in local jade, the vendors jostled to make me various offers. If Tim made a purchase, I would get twenty percent. Considering my state of (un)employment, perhaps I should have persuaded Tim to buy something. It’s definitely an advantage speaking the language.

We dropped by a Bai eating place in Shiba and had tea while speaking briefly to the proprietor and her family. When we were about to leave, they not only refused payment, but also invited us for lunch. “Welcome again, guests from afar,” they said.

The Bai people are very friendly, as well as many members of China’s ethnic minorities. They seem a lot more relaxed and hospitable than most urban Han. My ability to speak Mandarin enabled me to chat with these people, something I was unable to achieve in Latin America, where I was attracted to colourful tribal costumes and traditions. We explored the tiny Muslim quarter of Dali and came across an amazing Catholic Church, built in traditional southern Chinese temple architectural style, topped with a cross flanked with Chinese dragons and kirins, the latter a Chinese mythological creature.

The Christians of Dali, living in splendid isolation in these mountains, had constructed a house of god in the style that they were familiar with, and in line with their own cultural traditions. I love this. Too many religious purists in the world are destroying their own cultures in the name of a foreign religion. I hope the Christians of Dali will continue to preserve this in times to come and not change because some foreign Christians have given them funds.

We also visited the local mosque (yet another place not listed in Lonely Planet), also built in traditional Chinese style. A large memorial plaque tells the tale of a local Islamic saint and his most un-Islamic sounding deeds. This saint, a native of Gansu Province, had fallen in love with Dali during his travels, and decided to settle here. He set up the mosque and an Islamic college to promote the teachings of the Prophet and Allah’s decrees.

During his free time, he often meditated in a cave nearby, where he communicated the word of Allah to tigers and dragons (!!!). One day, a black dragon appeared in Dali and the saint turned him into a giant bull hanging on a tree (sounds like shish kebab to me). On another occasion, he lifted hundreds of kilograms of giant goat liver (don’t ask me how this giant liver came about) up in the air. All these events impressed the local people and educated them on the powers of Allah, the one and only true god. After the death of the saint, his grave became a local pilgrimage site and miracles of all kinds continue to occur there, as the plaque reads.

I travelled three hours northwards through the soaring mountains along yet another of China’s many new expressways. These are the eastern foothills of the Himalayas. The vertical cliffs hide many valleys once isolated and remote from external influences. Lijiang, beautiful river, as it is known in Chinese, is also the heart of the Naxi country. It is the most magnificent Chinese city I have ever been to (Yunnan is my 18th Chinese province). Imagine an old city (next to a concrete new one rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1996 and the Old City surviving!) in a valley surrounded by mountains, flanked on one side by the gorgeous snowcapped Jade Draagon Snow Mountains.

Clear, fast-flowing streams criss-cross the old city making it a mini-Venice of sorts. Elderly Naxi ladies were in their traditional blue costumes and young priests in bright yellow headdress were hymning ancient religious Dongba songs in the quaint Sifang Jie, the central square of the UNESCO-listed World Heritage city. Dongba is the ancient religion of the Naxi people. It’s a form of shamanism, with the worship of nature and its elements. Dongba’s religious texts are written in a hieroglyphic or pictographic form and found all over the old city on road signs. Well-off Naxi men walked around both the new and old cities with hunting eagles on their arms, like the Parisians walking around the city with their dogs after dinner. Can you get more exotic than that?

No wonder many Chinese backpackers have fallen in love with this place and have settled here, opening small inns and restaurants in the many pretty old Naxi houses with their squarish courtyards and compounds.

Lijiang is crowded with tourists and yet it remains true to its traditions. Every evening, the famous Naxi scholar, Mr. Xuan Ke, hosts a traditional Naxi concert. The orchestra, comprised mainly of elderly Naxi gentlemen, some of whom are in their 80’s, play thousand-year-old Tang Chinese music the Naxi princes of the Mu family acquired from the interior of China proper. This music was lost in the Han parts of China, but has been preserved in this remote frontier region by the Naxi people. (This is also similar to the Nanyin music of Singapore, where the Hokkien people have preserved Tang music lost in China, though I wonder for how long this will be preserved).

The Naxi people are an open-minded people who turned their homeland into a melting pot of ideas and religions. Visit the Baisha Mu family temples, and you will find frescoes adorned with common symbols of Dongba, Taoism, Confucianism and Tibetan Buddhism, the four religions that co-exist together in the Naxi country. The most prominent frescoe portrays Buddha (whom the Naxi believe is also a manifestation of Taoism’s supreme teacher, Laozhi) surrounded by Tibetan boddhisatvas and Taoist gods and dieties in their flowing robes, and scattered in the background, symbols of the Naxi’s own original Dongba faith.

I joined a group of seven Chinese backpackers, hired a van and a knowledgeable and funloving Naxi guide. We set off for the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a spectacular gorge along the upper reaches of the Changjiang (or Yangtze), known as the Jinshajiang (Golden Sands River)at this stretch. This is a beautiful but treacherous valley that has killed a number of hikers over the years. Falling rocks and slippery slopes are the main culprits, and yet they did not deter the sixty-eight year-old granny in the group.

We went up and down the cliffsides of the Tiger Leaping Gorge over two days, passing through the pretty village of Hetaoyuan (Walnut Grove), and had lunch at the Halfway Hostel, with an incredible view over the gorge. In fact, the toilet at Halfway, partially exposed to the open cliffs and clear blue skies, has a great view of the soaring heights and the snowcapped peaks of the Haba Snow Mountains. It is renowned in the Chinese backpacking world for having the best toilet view in the world!

We drove around the winding mountain roads of Lijiang and Diqing prefectures, visiting local markets, Alpine lakes, Naxi holy sites, as well as Tibetan and Yi villages. My favourite trick is to offer Yi tribal nannies cigarettes, have a light chat with them and then request a photo or two. Imagine these graceful dames who work in the fields with their amazingly huge squarish headdress sometimes one square meter in size!

Then to Zhongdian, a dusty, godforsaken ethnic Tibetan town in northwestern Yunnan, which was recently renamed Shangri La, in line with local attempts to cash in on the Shangri La � la James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, the mysterious land of utopia where man lives forever. Zhongdian, with its large Tibetan monastery complex on a bare hill, was my first introduction to Tibetan culture. Prayer flags fluttered in the skies while peasants spread their grains on the roads to dry, ignoring the numerous tourist buses passing through, to that supposed Shangri La.

The Chinese have caught the romance of Tibet, despite the obvious political differences. A few in my Chinese backpacker group (me being the only real foreigner) had been to Tibet, and they too, like many Westerners, have a romanticised image of the land and its people. Tibetan music and other images of Tibetan cultural symbols are all the vogue across China these days. However, the views of even the most ardent Tibet fans among the Chinese are very different from those of the West. They see Tibet as a part of China. They are trying to develop Tibet, to modernise it like the rest of China.

That explains why many Chinese volunteer to be teachers, engineers or doctors in the region (see this article), doing work no different from the U.S. Peace Corps or aid programs elsewhere in the world, although their work is seen as highly controversial to people in many parts of the world. What is encouraging are recent reports of increasingly high profile talks between Beijing and Dharmasala.

Dalai Lama is obviously concerned about his age and the growing signification of Tibet. Beijing is more sophisticated in its global public relations efforts. Maybe a deal can be struck somehow. It is Xinjiang that is more worrying. A growing insurgency of some sort has appeared in parts of western Xinjiang. The nationality issue is something China has to deal with, not just through military means but also politically, for the events in Moscow have shown that pure military tactics do not resolve long-term political issues.