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Ecotourism in Yunnan (Part III)

How does the challenge of hiking through Yunnan give rise to the process of self-discovery?

December 26, 2007

How does the challenge of hiking through Yunnan give rise to the process of self-discovery?

After dinner last night, we went to the village hall for song and dance late into the night. I danced next to a young Lisu girl who explained that she had just returned from a few months in the nearby town where she had worked as a waitress in a restaurant.

Lila Buckley:
Ecotourism in Yunnan

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

She came back because the wages were low, the work was endless and she missed home — she was forgetting her language and dance. Even if there wasn’t much work in the village, she explained, life was still better there, and she had hope for the future.

I sit now in the courtyard of Lao Zhang’s home. There were washbasins and warm water ready for us to wash our hair when we woke this morning, and now breakfast is being prepared as we sit in the morning sun sipping tea and discussing today’s hike route.

My writing is interrupted by conversation with others in the group. After three days, they still can’t get over the fact that I am left-handed. There are endless comments about what it means, and why there aren’t left-handed Chinese people.

Everyone seems to have a theory about this, and they never tire of sharing it with me.

Then, using my Chinese name, someone says, “I haven’t really felt that Huiming is an American,” and they all agree that, except for the left-handedness, this foreigner is not all that different from them. The group eventually turns back to converse among themselves, and I return to writing.

But then Fu Laoshi, the professor from Beijing, calls out my name thoughtfully, as if pondering a philosophical question. “Bu Huiming,” he says to no one in particular. When I look up, he continues in an almost accusatory manner, “Your name sounds Buddhist.”

“You guessed right,” I reply, pen still to paper. But as soon as I lay the pen down, the conversation turns to the Chinese Buddhist monastery in California where I went to grade school. I explained that I don’t consider myself Buddhist, but I respect and am influenced by its teachings.

“Well, if you don’t believe in Buddhism, what religion do you believe in?” He prods on, now talking loudly across the courtyard.

“None,” I respond, not sure I really wanted to declare my spirituality to the entire group. “You don’t believe in anything?” he asks with incredulity. “I believe in the forest, the mountains, nature.” I decide to risk the truth.

“Then,” he declares with satisfaction, “You are a Daoist.” And the conversation turns to Daoist philosophy of humans and nature. Soon we are called to breakfast — a beautiful spread of Yunnan mixin rice noodles with assorted pickled vegetables and a hot broth.

It is now early afternoon — and we are waiting to eat lunch before we begin our hike. We spent the morning at Lizucun school, where we explained to the students how our ecotourism project would bring people from far away into their village to help them protect their land and improve their lives.

I have mixed feelings about this form of aid, but believing I do not understand enough to comment, I kept my mouth shut and simply observed.

“Why do you live in a place of such beauty, with such clear air, thick forests and clean water and are still so poor?” asked Fu Laoshi of the 100-some students assembled in front of us.

“It is a question of education,” he continued. “We have set up this project in order to help you understand how to turn your rich forests, water and soil into wealth!”

We left some books, school supplies and clothing with them after the speech and then climbed into our vehicles to head up the mountains.

Today’s program is to hike the mountain pastures. I write now from our base “camp” — where we have finally arrived after an arduous several-hours’ drive up a barely constructed road through a barren clear-cut forest.

Only half of our vehicles survived the trip, so we had to walk part of the way, while the remaining vehicles made relay trips to pick us up.

I am feeling more tired today than over the last few days. My throat is scratchy, and my whole body aches. My knee is bothering me from the steep ten-hour hike yesterday. I’m not sure why I feel so weak today, but I am determined to make the hike.

This trip is transforming something deep inside of me. I grew up in a forest much like this, and I have always loved the trees. But I have never felt very confident physically with hikes and “trekking”-type adventures.

I have vivid memories of terror as I would stand above an impossibly steep slope as a young girl, people calling below with impatience as I stood frozen with fright above.

Asthma and injuries in high school made me feel handicapped and physically miserable on past hikes. I had long ago concluded that although I loved nature, I was no athlete, no outdoorswoman.

But here I am — outdoors, hiking, sweating and loving it. My heart is more peaceful than it has been in a long, long time. What’s more, I am holding my ground, hiking alongside experienced outdoorspeople and locals, carrying my own belongings on my own back.

The group is all so supportive of each other that I haven’t even had the opportunity to think that I won’t be able to carry on. It is making me think forward, to finding more opportunities to put myself back in this kind of place, with these kinds of challenges.

Time to hit the trails — I will sign off for now.

Editor’s Note: Read Part II here and Part IV here.