Fiddler on the Silk Road

To Gyuri, for his birthday
To Shaxi, one of the most beautiful and most archaic caravanseray town along the tea-horse-road, the millennary caravan road enters through the northern gate, together with the stream running along it, and leaves it through the southern gate, to soon reach Heisu river at the bridge once crossed by Marco Polo. Between the two gates it is flanked by tea houses, and narrow pedestrian alleys branch off it. Some of the wealthy trading houses standing in these alleys have already been converted into guest house, for the wanderers of the modern-age Silk Road. Others are still inhabited by old people, who also cling to the coattail of tourism by renting a room or selling souvenirs on the tables in the front of their houses.

“Today we have room for rent: both standard and with king size bed!”

The door of the house offering room for rent is open, waiting for the guests. Music is heard from inside. We look in. In the middle of the big hall, right opposite the door, an old man with beautiful, lined face is sitting on a chair, and playing erhu, two-string Chinese violin.“May we come in?” “Of course, qing zuo, qing zuo, sit down, please!” We are offered place at the big table, just in front of the old man. The family members are sitting around. To the right, a historical film is running on the large TV screen, but the sound was taken off. The old man plays with closed eyes, looks inwardly, as if he were transmitting to us the music from within, precisely, clearly, with an impressive lightness. Like the fiddler of Okudzhava.

shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1 shaximusic1

After about half an hour of continuous playing, the old man takes a break. He does not look at us, he jokes with the family. The European public is unusual for him, but he likes the situation. We call him to listen to the recording. He puts on the earpiece, and listens inwardly with the same devotion as before, as if he were comparing the two sounds inside.

shaximusic2 shaximusic2 shaximusic2 shaximusic2

He starts asking questions, but his strong dialectal accent almost cannot be understood. He takes out a medicine box from his pocket, rips it up, and writes his questions in Chinese characters: where we came from, what we are doing here. We talk in writing for a while. Then he sits back, plays again. The head of the family stands up from his place at the TV, and photographs him so, that we also could be in the picture.

Some fifteen minutes more, and then he shows with his hand, that he is dry, and wants to drink. He puts the instrument in the corner, and he is poured a glass. We also see timely to say farewell. We thank to the old man and the family, we bend. The head of the family accompanies us to the door.

On our first day in Yunnan, in Dali, we were invited by my friend Shi Tanding, one of the most successful Chinese folk music collectors. Since 2006, she has released more than two hundred CDs from the music of Western Chinese ethnic groups. In her lecture finished well after midnight, she demonstrated with several recordings, how vivid hist musical culture is still today, how much it penetrates the life of towns and villages, and what excellent performers still can be traced. This bautiful encounter has now illustrated it.

Photos by Gábor Illés, Dani Kálmán and Tamás Sajó, videos by Dani Kálmán

A village in the valley

When traveling from Dali, the northern center of Yunnan, to the west, the Burmese-Tibetan frontier, some ten miles ahead of Nuodeng, the thousand-year-old royal salt mine town, the road makes a sharp bend. Turning to the right, a beautiful small river valley opens up gradually. First the lines of the nicely cultivated terraces are laid before us, like a fascinating nomadic carpet, and then unfolds itself the village lying in the valley. Seen from the road carved in the hillside, the overlapping mosaic of the whitewashed or adobe brown façades, curved tile roofs, carved gates and irregular windows of the hundred-year-old houses is lined up on the other hillside like the houses of Český Krumlov on a picture by Schiele.

Egon Schiele: Krumau an der Moldau, 1914

Many times I went along this road, and passing by the village I always wanted to stop the bus, so that I could go down to the valley, enter the Schiele picture, ramble through the streets, admire the carved gates, and cross their threshold. Now the time has come.

Heping village, 和平村 Hépíngcŭn is so small, that it is not on most maps. The driver of the minibus hired for our minitour does not even believe that it exists, and he stops instead in the village of Guanping, fifteen kilometers earlier. “What do you want to see in this one?” he points over the dusty main street. “In this one, nothing. But go a little further”, I show him the pin inserted in He nods. It is not the first time that I can show something new in Yunnan to him, accustomed to the demands of Chinese tourists. We set off.

Three-wheeled tuc-tucs are parking in front of the river’s bridge, the rides of the most well-to-do villagers, who go with these to the city of Yunlong, ten kilometers away, and bring goods from there. Old stone lions watch them with a hard gaze from the balustrade of the bridge. There is no motorway beyond the bridge. We set off on foot to the village.

The lower main street is lined by elegant, classic Chinese houses, with high façades and magnificent carved gates. These are the houses whose whitewashed, two and three-story back façades look to the river and the road. Most gates are locked, and most façades are losing not even their plaster, but even their adobe bricks. The bourgeoisie has left the building.

As we move forward, eight Europeans with huge telephoto lenses, the doors of the houses in the sidewalks gradually open up, curious women climb up the stairs to the main streets. Even some men, as if they were just passing by. They watch us as if a filming were going on, as if a parallel reality were coming across the village. I address them in Chinese, they give a start, reply with a laugh, they also enter the picture.

We climb up to the upper street. Here is waiting for us the house which, seen from the highway, stands in the middle of the Chinese Schiele picture with its ornate gate as if it were a temple, the house of a big farmer, a keeper of historical secrets. The village is built around it in the picture. I have often imagined how a chariot stands in front of it, goods are carried in, they illuminate it, a dinner or a wedding is held in it. It has something about the inviting atmosphere of the old Transylvanian houses. Here we stand now. Above the beautiful gate, a marble plaque with a green inscription – sometimes obviously painted with gold-colored copper –, as it is usual in large manor houses.

Two meek men invite us in the porch of the house. Their grand-grandfather was still a servant, and after the bourgeoise, they remained in the house, which is only a shadow of its former self. The former painted wooden panels are covered with decades-old newspapers, but they are also coming down, there is no energy to renew it, let alone the house. The central atrium is conquered by grass, hens are creaking in it, a rusty maize mill stands in it for the late pigs.  One man calls me out to the backyard, he points to the back wall of the house. Ohe wall, drawings and inscriptions from imperial times, which were sheltered from destruction by the roofs of the stalls.

But the village is not dead. After the decades of decay, desolation and misery, it seems that some of the benefits of China’s economic boom starts to drift down here. Although the village, as shown in the social security tax register pasted up on the wall of the main street, has only a hundred and fifty-two residents, they recently started to repair a number of houses. They invite us to a courtyard. The adobe walls were replaced by concrete bricks, and the wooden panels with cheap tiles. The former stone pavement of the yard was poured over with flat concrete. Whatever survived Mao’s system, is now falling prey to the new world. Probably these are the last years, that the traditional villages hitherto surviving in the Yunnan mountains can be seen in their original form.

The lions of the bridge tighten their eyebrows even more, when Csaba turns on the drone. Someone might have made a phone call, because soon a police car comes down from the highway to the bridge. They do not even get out, they turn around and go back, leaving the foreigner to take aerial photos of the strictly secretive village. This is already the new world. The drone flies over the village. Under the shields of the gray roofs, the main street is a thin ditch, dark rectangles the enclosed courtyards. From bird’s eye, you cannot see the details.

Message in a bottle

Yünnan province is the land of unknown miracles. Among its northwestern mountains, near the Burmese border, lays Nuodeng, the thousand-year-old salt mine town, where, as we will soon present, time has come to a halt in the 1400s. And only eight kilometers away from Nuodeng is a natural wonder, where the Bijiang river turns back in itself, writing a veritable taijitu, yin-yang-symbol in the landscape. We would expect masses of Chinese Taoists to pilgrim here, as they do to the similar Český Krumlov, but not. While the Chinese-language European guidebooks all highlight the wonderful yin-yang-shape of Český Krumlov, the wonder of Bijiang river is virtually unknown. The Yunnan company, from whom I rent the bus for our Chinese journey, on looking at the itinerary, hesitates, and says: “Well, explain this to the driver.” I show the driver the pin inserted in during my Yunnan wanderings, but he doubts, since, in spite of being a local, he was never there. So, before going up, he tests the info at a nearby restaurant owner. And he does it well, because thus we also have a gorgeous Yunnan lunch before the wonderful sight.

While we eat, a lonely man stands in front of the restaurant’s glass door, in a blue shirt and a military jacket, with an ageless, haggard face, somewhere between forty and seventy. For a while, he also looks at the sight which is a miracle to him, the unlikely epiphany, the eight white persons here, at the border of China, at the edge of a small town, in a roadside eating-house.

He tries to communicate with us, he waves the hand, smiles, grimaces. I open the door, speak Chinese to him, but he does not answer, this probably goes beyond the limits of credibility to him. I lift he camera. He immediately stands in a military position, salutes, shows his non-existent pistol.

For a while, I try to communicate with him, but from now on he only switches between these two gestures. I sit back to eat. He disappears. One dish later he comes back, and calls me before the door. He gives over a sheet of paper torn from a booklet, with beautiful calligraphic writing. I sit back, start to decypher it.

“I am from Chengdu, I was a soldier, I fought in the Vietnam war. My military number: …248. Sincerely, Yang Zhi Cheng, local resident. On November 17, 2017”

Chinese soldiers in the Vietnam war? I recall the Ukrainian Zenon from Bolekhiv, the former Soviet military officer, who told me in full about his Ethiopian and Middle Eastern missions, where officially no Soviet soldier has ever been. I search for it on the internet. The Chinese state leaked half-officially, what they had adamantly denied, that is, that three hundred and twenty thousand Chinese soldiers fought in the Vietnam war against the Americans. Can it really happen, that this man, who now saw white men for the second time in his life, wanted to tell them the secret, who he is, and what binds him to them?

While I’m reading, the chef bends over me. He quickly reads the letter, and then he shouts something to the man, while showing with his hand to get him out from there. By the time I finish the letter, and lift my head, he’s nowhere.

Morning in Dali

It dawns. The sun that emerges from the Lake of Erhai is not yet visible, but its light shines up on the ridge of Cangshan Range, the foothills of the Himalayas. The market in Dali’s old town rises up. First comes the spraying lorry, playing a loud Chinese opera aria, so everyone could get out of its way in time. Then come the costermongers from the neighboring villages, in Bai folk costume, bringing the harvest of the night on two-wheeled cords, or in a basket on their back.

In the halal meat store, mouth-watering pieces of meat are suspended, the passing men slow down and carefully examine them. A part of the Bais have been Muslim since the Mongol conquest, and their shops and eating-houses announce themselves in Chinese and Arabic letters. Bai folk music is sounding in the shop, the shopkeeper’s little girl is carelessly dancing to its tune in front of the shop.

In the market’s eating-houses they offer mian, hot dough soup, with a spoonful of minced hot on the top. The vendors come alternately to eat a bowlful of it. The morning is cold under the Himalayas, until the sun is up. The dumplings filled with vegetables or meat, the baozi and jiaozi, offered in bamboo steamers in other places, are not sold here. They cost two yuans more, they are too expensive for the people of the market.

An old Bai lady is selling fragrant spheres made from herbs. “What are they good for?” “For lavement, my dear. For soap. Buy of it, it’s just two yuans a piece.” We all buy of it, the lady’s face is dressed in a thousand cheerful wrinkles. “Ask her, how old she is”, they are urging me. “I’m eighty, baby boy”, she laughs. Her wrinkles suggest more, but her smile has not grown any older since she was a girl. “So don’t forget, this is soap, for washing yourself. Do not cook it for tea!”