sunny day, lushi

Although less famous than the Silk Road, the Tea and Horse Route (map) had three branches: the commercial route (Lhasa to Chengdu), the official route into Tibet (Lhasa to Kangding, where it reconnected with the commercial route), and the Yunnan-Tibet route (Mangkang to Kunming), which threaded through the Lincang mountains until it met up with the official route in Kangding. A small commercial center on the Yunnan-Tibet route, Lushi was located at the nexus trails that threaded through the Lincang Mountain Range.

Local farmers continue to live in villages along those ancient trails and still use pack mules to bring supplies from the town to surrounding villages. Mrs. Zhang discovered us wandering on one of the partially cemented trails that led to the river and invited us into her family compound for tea.

Mr. Zhang’s grandfather built the first building in the in the 1930s. Each subsequent generation added to the complex, and today the compound has three main buildings and a separate section for farm stock, a kitchen, and solar panels for heating water. With the family responsibility system, the Zhangs obtained several mu (666 2/3 sq meters) of land, where they have planted feed corn, walnuts, and vegetables. Their daughter has moved with her husband to Kunming and their son has opened a small shop in Lushi. One of the three buildings is for him and his girlfriend upon their marriage. The Zhangs earn between 10-20,000 rmb ($US 1,750 – 3,500) a year, which has been almost completely invested in building the house and their children’s education.

We chatted about their lives and in turn, they asked about ours. After half an hour, we took our leave and headed back toward Lushi. I remarked on the difference between walking in Lushi and Shenzhen, where I have been stopped by guards when trying to climb Jingshan Mountai in Shekou, let alone invited in for tea. My friend replied that the more commercialized a village or town, the less hospitable the residents.

This experience has me thinking about the potential and paradoxes of hospitality. In Lushi, if a door was open, we could walk into the compound and expect to be welcomed. The previous day, for example, Old Mr. Zhang (same surname as the village Zhangs) sat with us for 40 minutes, chatting about local history. We offered to continue the conversation by sending photos to the qq accounts of younger family members, who are online. At the same time however, when deflected through tourism, hospitality slips from a social practice into a commercial strategy. During this trip to Dali and its hinterland, we have stayed at hotels where our hosts are friendly, helpful, and pleasant and yet we do not feel obliged to grow the relationship.

Today I am wondering about hospitality in globalizing times. Social hospitality remains an important means of transforming strangers into acquaintances, even as commercial hospitality has expanded with the growth of tourism. The difficulty, of course, is that many of us travel hoping to encounter social hospitality and end up frustrated by differing expectations about the obligations of commercial hospitality. So just what do hosts and guests owe each other when the bill can be paid in full and yet we now live in a global village?

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rainy day, lushi

We drove about eight hours from Dali to Lushi (鲁史), a market town (镇) in the Lincang Mountains (临沧山). The last 80 kilometers covered a narrow road, which twisted through dramatic slopes and was, in places, covered in thick mud and rocks from a rainstorm the night before. The trip and the unreliability of the roads created a sense of distance from my everyday life; lack of access to internet reinforced this sense that I was far from the modern world. Moreover, I found it difficult to understand local Mandarin, let alone the local language.

And yet.

The layout and size of the old city area remind us that Lushi was once a vibrant center of mountain life. Peasants packed mules with tea, walnuts, and palm leaves and then set out on narrow trails to sell their goods in seasonal markets in Fengqing (凤庆), Nanjian (南涧), and Weishan (巍山). Old Mr. Zhang told us that during WWII, national forces from Guangdong and Hunan stationed at Lushi. In the not so distant past, Lushi was more prosperous than Fengqing, which only rose to local prominence as a county seat during the Mao era.

Moreover, this was not a trip that placed me beyond the reach of gaokao results (all 42 members of the graduating class of 2012 found places at university), Olympic broadcasts, and packaged snacks. We stayed at a clean motel and ate regional specialities, including jizong mushrooms in spicy oil (油鸡枞) and broad beans stir fried with local pickles. There were telephones and high heels, motorcycles and cigarettes, angry bird balloons and electronic toys scattered through out the crumbling buildings and old stone walkways.

The restructuring of the relationship between Chinese cities and their hinterlands that began during Maoist collectivization and intensified with post Mao industrialization not only favored coastal cites, but also disenfranchised rural China. Today, Lushi is a painful contemporary to Shenzhen precisely because the mountain town has been so obviously positioned at the underdeveloped edge of the modern world and not because that’s what it once was.

Impressions of a rainy day in Lushi, below:

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