To Learn from the Water

12 Sep

A View from Shaxi's Cultural Center

I have been sitting next to a small, brown river, looking across the way to a half-moon shaped bridge. The rain is a light drizzle, and my heart has softened. At just over 7,000 feet, Shaxi is a temperate, green, lush, and settled village that has been occupied for over a millennium. Its shrines, temples, and grottoes date back to the 8th century Nanzhou Kingdom – a Chinese kingdom whose history is swollen with Tang, Tibetan, and possibly even Indian influence. For centuries, Shaxi stood as a waystation on the Tea and Horse Caravan trail between Tibet and Southeast Asia, supplying traders with food, whiskey, and lodging as they moved north (to trade tea for horses) or south (to trade horses for tea). Tibetans, Tai, Chinese, Yi, Bai, Naxi, and many other ethnic groups played their role in the great web of mountain trails that fed the Tea and Horse Caravan. And Shaxi was a village at the heart of this great network.

As I sit in one of Shaxi’s teahouses, I imagine what it would have been like to bide my time while waiting to join one of the caravans passing through town. Perhaps I would have seen a Tibetan horseman riding into town with seven or eight head, having traversed Kham for several days and woven his way down the Mekong basin and back into these mountain valleys on the Hei Hui tributary. It would have taken him a bit over a week to make it from Tibetan territory into these lower hills, though the journey would have been arduous. I imagine the teahouses at dusk, slowly devolving into alcohol laden taverns as traders disband their woes into drink and occasional violence. I imagine bandits riding round the outskirts of the village, finding the hills south where they might purposely get lost and reappear to the southeast in Dali in order to spend their spoils. But then I imagine the morning mist rising from the cobbled pathways and above the ceramic rooftops until they form low clouds on the green mountains that flank the Shaxi valley.

Perhaps I paint an overly romantic image of this place, an idealized – maybe even fetishized – western dream of the east. Indeed, that is what might eventually turn Shaxi into yet another casualty of tourism and eager development. But the image I paint in my mind of yesteryear is actually not a far cry from what I experience of Shaxi now. Its cobblestone pathways are as bright and intact as ever; the ceramic rooftops are clean and well-maintained. The new handcarved doorways simply replace some of the old handcarved doorways. Turkeys wander the streets, men smoke cigarettes and drink tea by the side of the roads, and traders sell wild mushrooms (a delicacy and a large contribution to household economy in this part of the Mekong basin). Travelers do, indeed, wander into town in the late afternoon, but the few of them that make it here are Korean, Chinese, or European tourists. Rarely do they come to sink their woes into a drink, which is fortunate for Shaxi (other towns, developed for their “quaint” characteristics, have become the scene of heavy travel-drinking). For now, the drinking economy is reserved for local officials and their late-night meetings. Rather, the travelers come to bask in their idea of tranquility, their longing for an agrarian life from which many of us humans have descended.

Over the past decade, a Swiss urban design group found their way into Shaxi and dreamt up a plan to renew, revitalize, and preserve Shaxi as a cultural heritage town. In 2001, the World Monument Fund designated Shaxi as one of “100 Most Endangered Sites” worldwide. Since then, the town has won almost one award per year for its efforts to maintain its historical facade. In 2010, Lonely Planet published the town in its China guidebook, opening Shaxi’s door to the ever-swelling stream of backpackers through eastern Asia. Now, its designation as a “Most Endangered” place is attracting the very interest that has sent so many other Chinese towns into objects of development. And to aid in this process, more and more travelers will discover this temporary provision of tranquility.

I, too, arrive here and feel a sense of tranquility. And although I am here to lead an expedition of eight travelers, I desire to stay longer, write more, and sink into the riverside peace of this place. So rather than attempt to analyze our human tendency to emphatically pursue technological progress and then demand regress – in the form of vacation, holiday, retreat, escape, or mid-life crisis – I seek to embrace the deep desire I have to find my own ground, my internal peace.

A small town by a river can provide me with a space in which it is possible to turn inward while staying in relationship with those around me, and I believe it can provide others with that space as well. When we can walk out of a door or gate and into a street where others are slowly strolling, where the streets are not built for speed but as meandering pathways with many destinations, where the wind and water can move freely around corners and brush up against our being…it is here that we can begin to feel how we are the cause of our own anxiety. We have choices, despite the overwhelming pressure for us to merge into the raging waters of commerce, international conflict (and attempt at resolution), and materialist passions.

On a river, the raging waters always eventually flow into a meandering system of eddies and stillwater. The channel always slows down and picks its relative side of the river. When running a river, however wild, we almost always have an opportunity to find a more direct path through the tongue of a rapid and take refuge in an eddy behind a rock. From our place of inner calm, we can watch the many boats that blindly seek the biggest water and disappear into holes, reemerging in a raging torrent and finally falling, broken and exhausted, into the swirling currents below. Outside of the thrill seekers, the most competent boaters I know are those who pick their line and gently adjust their way through the whitewater, enjoying every paddle stroke and watching as their own nervous system responds to the potential consequences. They have fun, but they know their way, and they slide into the stillwater and bathe in its depth.

Like these boaters, I seek the conscious pathway far from the chaotic pursuits of modern progress. Shaxi sits by a river, and I, sitting by the river in Shaxi, come to this once again: We humans can take some hints from the way a river runs by a town, and the way a town can sit by the side of a river. Ten years from now, this town may not be here in such tranquil form, and the river may no longer flow as it does now, but one thousand years from now, a river will likely flow again, and the ruins of this town may sit deep beneath the rubble of a 30th century civilization. And this year, I sat by what would be that rubble: a beautiful collection of homes and people that stands in the September mist of a river valley in the mountains of northern Yunnan.

-Max Woodfin

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