Beneath the Jade Dragon


Lumu’s Tibetan House is a source of knowledge for the initiated in Lijiang. Unlike with the Chinese, most of whom do not even know what’s in their own neighborhood, here you can get up to date information about accommodations in the surrounding towns, highly recommended, but not available on the Internet, guest houses and restaurants operated by Tibetans, detailed hand-drawn maps of the paths of the 2,500-meter-deep Tiger Leap Gorge, and a photocopied bicycle map of the old town of Lijiang, which indicates the places where bikes can be rented. This is important knowledge, because the rental business is located at the edge of the large old town, beneath a modern block of flats, opposite the statue of Mao, where only hardcore leftists of the sixties would pilgrimage otherwise. The bike rental is 30 yuan, or 4 euros, for a day, with a 250 yuan or 36 euros deposit. Our goal is the string of little towns of the Naxi ethnic group to the north of Lijiang, beneath the Yulong Mountain: Shuhe, Baisha, Yuhu.



The Yulong Mountain, as befits its name, hovers above the plain like an enormous dragon carved with jagged contours out of a single piece of jade. I stop to take a photo. So that the electrical line that goes alongside the road does not cut the dragon at the waist, I walk a bit ahead into the abandoned rice field, where a thorny weed rips a large hole on my pants. No matter, Baisha is the center of traditional Naxi embroidery, so I hope to find a master who can repair it with a sewing machine.


An old paved street turns off the main road towards the center of the town. The old houses along it are being beautifully restored, the new ones are being provided with old-style porches and gates, in the spirit of the new times. In front of a grocery store, an old woman is washing vegetables in the stream. “Where can I find someone in the village, who could sew my pants?” “We’ll do it for you!”, she replies. She examines them, then she brings out a thread of matching color, threaded in a needle. She calls out the seller from the store. She looks at my legs, to find the best place to start the work, so I helpfully take off my pants. She turns away, with an embarrassed scream and giggles. While she is sewing in front of the shop, I am talking to the old man sitting at the old mahjong table: the grocery store is also a kind of a daycare home for elderly people. The pants are soon done, its value as handmade Naxi embroidery has increased significantly. “How much does the work cost?” I ask. “Nothing”, she says, surprised, and does not accept money even when I insist many times.

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“Where is the old town?” I ask. “That way”, she points further on the paved street, “but it’s very small”, and she shows with the hand, how small. The old town is in fact small, but very cozy. The town gate immediately opens onto the main square, flanked by good eateries. In the shade of a big tree, old greengrocer women and men gather for a conversation dressed in traditional Naxi attire. We lock our bikes to the town gate, sit down in the open door of one of the canteens, order beer, we get acquainted with the drama taking place on the stage of the main square and its actors.

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Three streets begin at the southern city gate, each one has its own profile. Along the one going straight ahead to the north, they sell embroidered and batik clothes in the old courtyards, both old and new, equally beautiful. Here you can also consult Doctor He Shixiu, the eighty-year-old miracle doctor, a local celebrity, to whom they come from far and wide for healing. In front of his house, a collection of newspaper clippings evidence his fame. The street going east, toward the mountains, is flanked by peasant houses, it heads out to the rice fields. The plum trees are already blossoming in the fields, though it’s only February, and in the background, like the Fuji, floats Mount Yulong. The oriental postcard comes home.


The street leading west, to the medieval Dabaoji Temple, is the main street of the town. It is flanked by small antique shops, tea houses, convenience stores. In one of them, a mahjong battle rages on, to the death, just as dominoes are played in Georgia. Some ten men are competing with a woman, the shopkeeper. The clicks of mahjong tiles emphatically striking the table, and the guttural sounds of short commentaries. They are aware of our presence, but they do not look up, they do not break away from the game.

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In the middle of the street, an open pavilion. Old musicians are giving a concert on a weekday afternoon. Donations are welcome, but according to the tatsepao put out in front of the pavilion, their true purpose is the revival of the traditional Naxi music. This music, which has a thousand-year-old tradition, flourished before the Cultural Revolution, with several ensembles playing in every town. Its oldest version was called precisely “Baisha music” (白沙细乐, Báishā xìyuè), because it took shape and was preserved here, in the capital of the former Naxi kingdom, independent until 1271. Mao, however, banned traditional music across the country, and had the instruments broken. Most of the old musicians educated in the tradition have since died, and with them also a part of the repertoire. The survivors now try to pass on their knowledge, while they still can.


Naxi musicians, Baisha. Record by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017

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Domingo por la mañana


Aún no hay nadie en el atrio pero la puerta de la iglesia está abierta. El sacristán reza arrodillado ante el altar de San José. Al poco, algunos aldeanos empiezan a llegar, la mayoría con sus trajes tradicionales, las mujeres se sientan a la derecha, los hombres a la izquierda, según manda la tradición. Mientras el sacerdote absuelve pecados en el confesionario, cerca de la entrada, los fieles cantan los oficios en su lengua materna. Luego, el sacerdote enciende las velas del altar, suena la campana. Empieza la misa

Esto podría ocurrir en cualquier iglesia de pueblo de Transilvania cualquier domingo por la mañana. Sin embargo, estamos en el Tíbet histórico, entre montañas de seis mil metros de altura, sobre el curso del río Mekong, en la ciudad de Cizhong (茨中), en el Cedro tibetano (ཊསེ་ཌྲོ). El traje tradicional es azul y rojo, con un turbante rojo para las mujeres y un abrigo de piel de yac y sombrero de ala ancha para los hombres, que no se quitan ni en la iglesia. Hablan en el dialecto tibetano lisu. El texto de los oficios diivinos se entona con la melodía de los sutras budistas tibetanos. El sacerdote es chino.


Campanas y cantos tibetanos en Cizhong. Grabación de Lloyd Dunn, febrero de 2017

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La primera parroquia católica del valle la consagraron, en 1867, los padres de la Société des Missions Étrangères de París. Su fundador, el padre Charles Renou, pasó dos años en el monasterio lama de Dongzhulin, disfrazado de comerciante chino, para aprender el idioma antes de comenzar su misión tibetana. La comunidad creció rápidamente, pronto abrazó todo el valle y una segunda iglesia se erigió al sur, en la ciudad de Cigu. En 1904, durante la ocupación británica del Tíbet, los rebeldes tibetanos mataron a todos los europeos, incluidos los monjes franceses, pero la orden pronto enviaría nuevos misioneros. El siguiente golpe lo recibió la comunidad en 1952, cuando el gobierno comunista chino prohibió la religión cristiana, desterró a sus líderes extranjeros y encarceló o mató a los chinos. Los católicos de Cizhong, al igual que otros miles de diversas comunidades cristianas chinas, pasaron a la clandestinidad para celebrar sus reuniones en secreto, en casas particulares, durante treinta años. La prohibición comenzó a relajarse en los años ochenta. En 1982, los fieles recuperaron la iglesia que durante todos esos años se utilizó como escuela primaria. En 1990 la restauraron.

El techo de estilo románico, reconstruido después de la devastación de 1905, se parece más ahora a los templos chinos. Las paredes están decoradas con flores de loto chinas y los plafones de la cubierta con motivos tibetanos. Sólo los frescos de los pasillos, con escenas de la vida de Cristo, fueron destrozados durante la Revolución Cultural. En el altar mayor, un Cristo, y en los dos laterales San José y María, cada uno flanqueado por dos cintas rojas, con filacterias chinas en letras de oro. Dos bandas rojas similares lucen también a la puerta del atrio de la iglesia, al parecer colocadas hace poco, para la fiesta de enero de los Reyes Magos: 一 星 从 空 显示, 三 王 不 约 偕 来 yī xīng cóng kōng xiǎnshì, sān wáng bù yuē xié lái, «una estrella surgió de la nada, tres reyes se juntaron para admirarla». Como si nos estuviera hablando a nosotros, que, habiendo tenido conocimiento de esta extraña estrella, hemos venido a verla desde el lejano Occidente


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Hace tres días que salimos de Lijiang, la ciudad central del norte de Yunnan, siguiendo el curso alto del Yangtsé a través de las majestuosas cadenas de montañas de Hengduan y los pasos fronterizos tibetanos, siguiendo la Ruta del Caballo y del Té por la Meseta de Gyalthang. Aquí estaban los antiguos pastos de los reyes tibetanos, donde las caravanas de té podían sentir que habían superado la peor parte del viaje. También nosotros descansamos aquí por primera vez, en la ciudad de Zhongdian, recientemente rebautizada por el gobierno chino como la mítica Shangri-La para promover el turismo interior. A continuación, otro viaje en autobús de cuatro horas serpenteando por las escarpaduras hasta la ciudad de Deqin, en cuyo dominio las diez cimas blancas de nieve de la cordillera de Meili brillan tornasoladas al atardecer y al amanecer. Desde aquí no hay transporte público, hay que alquilar un taxi siguiendo ritualmente una negociación bien coreografiada, en chino, durante la cual hay que salir del coche airadamente, agarrando el equipaje y sacudiendo la cabeza con indignación, hasta que el conductor mismo te siga por la calle principal proponiendo un precio al fin razonable. El precio razonable es de cuatrocientos yuanes para dos –unos 50 euros–, ida el sábado por la tarde y vuelta el domingo por la tarde al valle de Cizhong, que se encuentra a setenta kilómetros al sur a lo largo del Mekong.


A medida que nos acercamos a la iglesia, los campos de arroz en la vega del río se sustituyen por un espectáculo muy inusual aquí, bajo los Himalayas: viñedo. Las uvas fueron plantadas por los padres franceses y echaron raíces en el valle, protegidas del norte, y se extendieron al sur. Su producto es entregado hoy a la bodega de un comerciante de Hong Kong. Lo encontramos ya en Shaxi como «el vino de los monjes», y se vende en muchos lugares del pueblo.

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Al norte, donde se abre el valle del Mekong, todavía podemos ver las cumbres de las montañas de Meili. Caminamos hacia la iglesia entre casas de madera tibetanas, cobertizos, puertas talladas. En algunas aparece una cruz entre los dragones. Calabash se revuelve entre naranjos muy productivos. Las ancianas de turbante rojo nos devuelven el saludo, nos invitan a comer. Los niños se esconden detrás de las puertas ante la visión de estos demonios de nariz larga. El convento, en su momento fundado para albergar monjas tibetanas enfermeras y maestras, fue más tarde una escuela y ahora está abandonado. Pero la iglesia ha sido muy bien restaurada. El sacerdote chino, que vino de Mongolia Interior, un hombre menudo y sin edad definible, pasea por el cementerio rezando el rosario. –¿A qué hora es la misa de mañana? –A las diez.

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Los fieles llegan a las nueve y media, se reúnen en los escalones de la iglesia. Todos entregan algún billete al sacristán o conserje que está sentado a la puerta. Para el mantenimiento de la iglesia, cinco yuanes, diez yuanes. En euros, de uno a uno y medio. La joven sentada a su lado registra cuidadosamente el nombre de cada donante y la cantidad en un cuadernillo. Un hombre de rostro serio llega con una bolsa grande de cartero, despega los anuncios rojos de la semana anterior que lucen en el interior de la puerta y coloca encima los nuevos. Hay muchos niños, la mayoría cargados a la espalda, otros dos o tres van de la mano: la ley china de un hijo no se aplica a los pueblos minoritarios. Los niños reciben la mayor atención en la iglesia. Se los pasan de mano en mano y son libres de correr y jugar en la parte posterior del templo.

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Sólo han pasado unos años desde que el pueblo tiene de nuevo sacerdote. Respeta la ceremonia laica que arraigó en el último medio siglo. Así, la misa dominical prácticamente se duplica. De diez a once, los fieles rezan tal y como hicieron durante los sesenta años pasados sin sacerdote. Cantan el oficio en su lengua materna. Es el momento en que cada uno diga lo que considere importante para la comunidad. El cartero de rostro serio explica en tibetano los anuncios en chino que acaba de colocar en la puerta. La joven de la colecta también se levanta y lee de su cuadernillo cuántos han dado algo por la iglesia. A la entrada de los «huéspedes extranjeros» todo el mundo nos mira y asiente con aprobación. El sacerdote sale del confesionario a las once, enciende las velas del altar y da inicio a la misa «de verdad», esta vez en chino. La iglesia está llena, más de doscientas personas de las seiscientas que pueblan la aldea, de las cuales el 80% son cristianas. Unas chicas jóvenes leen las lecturas, el sacerdote pronuncia un sermón corto y concentrado que se escucha con atención. Antes de la comunión, a la frase de «Que haya paz entre nosotros», se dan la mano según la costumbre china, inclinándose uno frente a otro. Muchos se nos acercan también desde los bancos de los hombres, acogiéndonos con obvio placer en la comunidad. Entonces se forma una larga cola, todos van a comulgar.

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Me siento en la primera fila vacía de los bancos de los hombres para tomar mejores fotos. Los niños se sientan detrás de mí, miran a la cámara. Se la dejo, cambio a la vista en la pantallita y les muestro cómo hacer zoom. Se la pasan cuidadosamente, la prueban con emoción, enfocando puntos de la iglesia, al sacerdote, a los fieles. Me la devuelven pidiéndome que les saque una foto. Me dan un apretón de manos manos serio, de adulto.


Acabada la misa vamos hasta el borde de la ciudad para fotografiar los campos de arroz. Un solitario acantilado bordea el camino, con una stupa tibetana que se ha erigido allí recientemente. Subimos hasta ella por los cien empinados escalones. Sólo desde lo alto vemos que tiene un cementerio detrás, un cementerio cristiano. Hasta la Revolución Cultural probablemente hubo una cruz también en el acantilado, luego los budistas tomaron posesión simbólicamente de este importante punto. Pero el cementerio se salvó. Las tumbas tienen cruces, un fénix y un dragón para significar la resurrección y el cielo, inscripciones chinas, solo una tumba decrépita lleva una antigua escritura tibetana. Hace una semana, para celebrar el nuevo año lunar, el pueblo acudió hasta aquí a visitar a sus antepasados, como lo atestigua visiblemente el banquete ofrecido a los muertos según la costumbre china: naranjas, manzanas, plátanos, dulces, semillas de girasol.

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De vuelta del cementerio, vemos al sacerdote sentado ante un portal, hablando con los aldeanos. Cuando nos ve, su rostro se ilumina, viene a saludarnos extendiendo las manos e inclinándose ante nosotros. «Venid más a menudo», dice.


Sunday morning


The churchyard is still empty, but the church door is already open, the bell-ringer is praying on his knees before the altar of St. Joseph. Soon the villagers begin to arrive, most of them in folk costumes, the women sit to the right, the men to the left, according to centuries-old tradition. While the priest is hearing confessions in the confessional next to the entrance, the faithful sing the Divine Offices in vernacular. Then the priest lights the candles on the altar, the bell rings. The Mass begins.

This could be in any Transylvanian village church on a Sunday morning. However, it is not, but rather in historical Tibet, among six-thousand-meter-high mountains, along the upper reaches of the Mekong River, in the town of Cizhong (茨中), in Tibetan Cedro (ཊསེ་ཌྲོ). The folk costume is blue and red fabric and red turban for the women, yak skin coat and wide-brimmed hat for men, who do not take it off even in the church. The vernacular is the Lisu dialect of Tibetan language. The text of the Catholic Divine Offices is sung to the tune of Tibetan Budhist sutras. And the priest is Chinese.


Bell ringing and chant in Tibetan in Cizhong. Recording by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017

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The first Catholic parish in the valley was established in 1867 by the fathers of the Société des Missions Étrangères of Paris. The founder, Father Charles Renou spent two years in the lama monastery of Dongzhulin, disguised as a Chinese merchant, to learn the language, before beginning his Tibetan mission. The community grew quickly, soon it embraced the whole valley, and a second church was also founded to the south of the valley, in the town of Cigu. In 1904, during the British occupation of Tibet, Tibetan rebels massacred every European, including the French monks, but the order sent new missionaries. The next, even bigger blow hit the community in 1952, when the Chinese Communist government banned the Christian religion, exiled its foreign leaders, and imprisoned or killed the Chinese ones. The Catholics of Cizhong, just like thousands of other Chinese Christian communities, went underground, and held secret gatherings in private houses for thirty years. The ban started to ease in the 1980s. In 1982, the faithful got back the church, which had been used for elementary school. In the 1990 it was restored.

The roof of the Romanesque basilica, rebuilt after the destruction of 1905, resembles Chinese temples, its walls are decorated by Chinese lotus flowers, and its ceiling with Tibetan motifs. Only the frescoes on the walls of the aisles, depicting the life of Christ, were beaten down during the Cultural Revolution. On the main altar the statue of Christ, and on the two side altars those of St. Joseph and Mary, each flanked by two red ribbons, with Chinese citations in gold letters. Two similar red ribbons were also taped on the gate of the churchyard, perhaps not long ago, for the January feast of the Three Kings: 一星从空显示,三王不约偕来 yī xīng cóng kōng xiǎnshì, sān wáng bù yuē xié lái, “a star appeared out of nothing, three kings came together to admire it”. As if it were telling us, who, having gained knowledge of this strange star, came to see it from the far away west.


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We left three days earlier from Lijiang, the central city of northern Yunnan, along the upper reaches of Yangtze, through the majestic chains of Hengduan Mountains and the passes of the Tibetan border mountain, following the Tea Horse Road, on the Gyalthang Plateau, the old pasture of the Tibetan kings, where the tea caravans could first sense being over the worst part of the trip. We also had a rest here for the first time, in the city of Zhongdian, recently renamed by the Chinese government after the mythical Shangri-La to promote domestic tourism. Then another four-hour bus trip followed, up the steep serpentines to the town of Deqin, in whose domain the ten snow white tips of the Meili mountain range shine down with wonderful colors at sunset and sunrise. From here there is no public transport, a taxi must be hired by way of well-choreographed bargaining in Chinese, during which you must get out of the car together, taking your luggage, indignantly shaking your head, until the driver himself tracks you down on the main street with a finally acceptable price. The acceptable price is four hundred yuan for two of us, about 50 euro, on Saturday afternoon to and on Sunday afternoon back from the valley of Cizhong, which lies seventy kilometers to the south along the  Mekong.


As we near the church, the riverside rice fields are replaced with a quite unusual spectacle here beneath the Himalayas: vineyards. The grapes had been planted by the French fathers, and they put down roots in the valley, protected from north, and opening to the south. Its product is today delivered to the winery of a Hong Kong businessman, we came across it as “the wine of the monks” in Shaxi, but it is also sold in many places in the village.

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In the north, where the Mekong valley opens, we can still see the tips of Meili Mountains. We walk toward the church among timbered Tibetan houses, barns, carved gates, on some of them a cross appears between the dragons. Calabash twists on richly productive orange trees. Old red-turbaned women return our greeting, they invite us in to eat, children hide behind the gates at the sight of the long-nosed devils. The convent once founded for Tibetan nursing and teaching nuns, later a school, is now abandoned, but the church has been nicely restored. The Chinese priest, who came from Inner Mongolia, a small, ageless man, is walking about the churchyard, saying the rosary. “What time is Mass tomorrow?” “At ten o’clock.”

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The faithful arrive beginning at nine thirty, they are gathering on the church steps. Each of them gives paper banknotes to the bell-ringer sitting at the gate, for the maintenance of the church, five yuan, ten yuan, one to one and a half euros. The young woman sitting beside him carefully records each donor’s name and the amount in a booklet. A man with serious face comes with a large postman’s bag, peels down the previous week’s red announcements from the inner side of the gate, and he glues up a new one instead. There are many children, most of them carried on the back, two or three others led by the hand: the Chinese law of one-child does not apply to minority peoples. The children get the most attention in the church, too, they are passed from hand to hand, and are free to run around and play with each other in the back of the church.

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It has only been a few years that the village has a priest again. He respects the layman’s ceremony which took roots in the past half century, thus the Sunday Mass is almost doubled. From ten to eleven, the faithful pray so as they did for sixty years without a priest. They sing the Divine Office in their native language, then everyone can tell what he or she considers important for the community. The serious-faced postman tells in Tibetan language the announcements he glued to the gate in Chinese. The young woman collecting the donations also stands up, and reads from the booklet who how many gave for the church. At the entry of the “foreign guests”, everyone looks on us and nods approvingly. The priest comes out from the confessional only at eleven, he lights the candles on the altar, and begins the real Mass, this time in Chinese. The church is full, there are more than two hundred persons from the sixteen-hundred-strong village, of which 80% is Christian. Young girls read the lectures, the priest delivers a short, concentrated speech, he is listened to attentively. Before communion, at the call of “Let there be peace between us”, they reach both hands to each other, according to Chinese custom, they bow before each other. Many come also to us from the men’s benches, receiving us with obvious pleasure in the community. Then they stand a long queue, everyone is taking communion.

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I sit in the empty first row of the men’s benches, so I could better take photos. Children sit behind me, they look at the camera. I hand it to them, I switch it to LED panel view, I show how to zoom. They carefully hand it to each other, excitedly try it, monitoring with it the church, the priest, the faithful. They give it back, asking me to take a picture of them. They also shanke hands, seriously, manly.


After the Mass we walk to the edge of town to take photos of the rice fields. A lonely cliff is standing along the road, with a newly erected Tibetan stupa on it. We climb up to it on the hundred steep stairs. Only from the top do we see that a cemetery is located directly behind it, a Christian cemetery. Until the Cultural Revolution probably a cross stood also on the cliff, and then the Buddhists took symbolically possession of this important landmark. But the cemetery was spared. The graves bear crosses, phoenix and dragon referring to the resurrection and the heavens, Chinese inscriptions, only one old grave bears an old Tibetan script. One week ago, for the lunar new year everyone came out to visit their ancestors, as is attested by the banquet offered to the dead, according to Chinese custom: oranges, apples, bananas, candy, sunflower seed.

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On the way back from the cemetery, the priest is sitting in front of a house, talking to the villagers. As he catches sight of us, his face shines, he comes to greet us, reaching out with both hands and bowing before us. “Come more often”, he says.


Bridge over Heisui river


The old bridge of Shaxi spans the Heisui river at the Eastern Gate. The town did not yet exist when the bridge already stood. Over it passed the road of tea and horses from Erhai Lake in the south through the valleys of Hengduan Mountains toward the mountain passes of Tibet. Its predecessor had certainly been built in the 8th century, when the Tang Dynast began the shipment of tea from Yunnan to Tibet in exchange for horses. In its present form it was rebuilt in stone under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, together with thousands of its companions, that were meant to keep the Mongol Empire together. Marco Polo also passed over it. Later, when the Ming Dynasty in the 1390s after long battles occupied Yunnan, the last bastion of the Mongols, they tried to reinforce the cohesion of the empire through central founding of Buddhist monasteries. On the right bank bridgehead, just far enough away that the river would not flood it in springtime, in 1415 they built the Xingjiao Temple and Monastery. Soon the weekly market of Shaxi Valley also moved here, in the spiritual and military defense of the monastery, from the Aofeng Hill in the middle of the valley. In front of the temple, a market place was formed, and around the market place, the old town of Shaxi, the best preserved station of the road of tea and horses.

The bridge, which saw the town being built up, still keeps an aristocratic distance from the newcomer. It stands two hundred steps from the Eastern Gate of the city, and at the bridgehead it has its own Taoist shrine, where travelers, before entering the bridge, prayed for a successful return. They lit incense even in front of the two worn stone lions on this side balustrade of the bridge. They still do so today, although the time of caravans is over forever. The last one set out on the road in the 1940s, before the old world passed away also in Yunnan. A small wall is erected right before the bridge, it can be crossed neither by horses, nor carriages, only on foot. Only at night sometimes, when the bridge is dreaming, you can hear hoofbeats and the sound of copper bells.


Horse caravan in Shaxi. Recording by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017