A Summer in Southwest China: Pt.1 – Where

It is hard to be general when describing where I spent this summer in China – my experiences and the communities I grew attached to were anything but general. Yet it is impossible to be narrow in describing the where of my summer because of the overwhelming volume of those communities and experiences. I’ll try and hit the mark somewhere in between…

My summer began, and throughout its course returned to, Chengdu. Chengdu is one of China’s utterly massive 1st-tier cities – the 5th largest with an urban population of over 17.5 million. It stands apart not only for being one of the most geographically inland and Western of China’s mega-cities, but also because its pace and residents are known for being much more relaxed – locals would tell you lazy – compared to its Eastern counterparts.

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Downtown Chengdu

This was good news for me as I am not one for the mega-city life, so Chengdu’s numerous quiet tea-houses, parks and generosity were all greatly appreciated. My time in Chengdu was still as close to a “typical” Chinese experience as anything, probably because it was only place I visited where the Han ethnic majority of China was still the majority.

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A portrayal of a Han Emperor from the Three Kingdoms Period in the Wuhou Temple, Chengdu

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Pandas from Chengdu’s Panda Breeding Research Center

My arrival in Chengdu was also the only certain destination I had the whole summer, and after a week of recovering from jetlag and familiarizing myself with the city my remaining time in Southwest China became that of constant mobility – it was rare that I was settled in the same place for more than 3 days.

One of my first stops was the Tibetan grasslands of Northwest Sichuan which hold a culture and lifestyle completely unique to anything else I experienced in Southwest China. The grasslands were a point of pride, the best in China locals told me. And so nomads and their yak herds scattered the open landscape for hours of bus rides across the region.

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A place of prayer for Tibetan Nomads in the mountains outside of Langmusi, Gansu Province.

My time with a nomad family was one of my most treasured experiences of the trip. It is no exaggeration to say life revolved around the yak – from the tents of yak hair kept warm with a yak dung stove, to a menu of yak products cooked over the same stove. Also, in no place I have experienced more rigid gender lines or harder-working women.

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Trying my hand at yak herding

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A incredible sunset on the Tibetan Plateau. Our yak tent is visible in the background, every night each yak is tied to ropes around the tent.

As my summer moved across Sichuan, the scenery remained breathtaking and I began to take towering mountainscapes for granted. But I was moving across ethnic lines which were constantly fluctuating, defined by different environments and so no community’s beautiful ethnic markers or cultures were the same.

I was planted in Lugu Lake, an alpine lake spanning the border of Sichuan and Yunnan, longer than anywhere else this summer. I didn’t know until I arrived that it was fabled for being one of the most beautiful scenes in China, as well as having some of the “cleanest” water.

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Lugu Lake at sunset, Goddess Mountain and Lige Village – where I spent most of time while at Lugu Lake – are in the background.

That Lugu Lake is one of China’s most romanticized tourist destinations and that it’s local people – the Mosuo who are are said to constitute the world’s last matriarchal society – may be one of China’s most exocitized ethnicities made for fascinating contexts and a week full of memories.

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Mosuo Bride in traditional dress on her wedding day.

I spent the largest chunk of the summer moving around the incredible Liangshan (Cool Mountain) Yi autonomous prefecture of Southern Sichuan. As its official name suggests, the region is a geographical core of the Yi minority.

As I moved between country townships and villages. locals were deeply proud of their shared Nuosu heritage while quick to point out the cultural characteristics which separated them from the next county. It was the Nuosu of Liangshan, their rich history, incredible culture and overwhelming love whom I became most familiar and fond of this summer.

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Yi women are known not only for there incredible ethnic markers which involves a variety of headwear, but also their silverwork.

Even though my summer was defined by shifting cultures and minorities, the regions I passed through can’t be simplified with obvious ethnic borders. Lugu Lake was sprinkled with Yi families and the Tibetan highlands often had a surprising number of Hui Muslims with their elaborate mosques alongside monasteries.

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A monastery and its stupas in Kangding, SIchuan. I was roped into walking circles around the eight stupas and rolling my prayer beads for at least 30 minutes with elderly Tibetan woman.

It was rare to find even a village without a Han presence. The incredible Gongga Mountain – noted for being China’s largest mountain east of Tibet and its quickly disappearing glacier – and its vast region were such that ethnic lines of Tibetan, and Han were extensively and intricately overlapped.

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Baiwu Lake at the foot of Gongga Mountain, locally known as Minya Konka.

I am deeply indebted to every location I spent time in this summer, for every community swept me up in a generosity I had not previously known – often leaving me feeling uncomfortable and grappling to understand my position in homes so far from my own.

Now that the summer has finally ended, I am left not only incredibly appreciative but troubled as to how I could ever repay the countless friends who gave me so much. But I have grown attached to these friends and communities and am excited to return in the future when I will be better equipped and prepared to make sure our relationships are reciprocal.

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A friend in her traditional dress in Butuo County.

In the meantime, there is a responsibility in maintaining these relationships across the world which I already feel weighing on me as I begin to sink into new experiences now in India.