Come with us on the tea-horse-road

First page of the guidebook 古茶马道 Gŭchàmădào, “The tea-horse-road”

The tea-horse-road beneath the Himalayas, on which tea was carried for five thousand years from southern Yunnan to the north, the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and gorgeous nomadic horses to the south, to the courts of the Tang Empire, the Nanzhao Kingdom, and the local landlords, only stopped for a moment in 1949, with the Maoist takeover. Nowadays it starts again, today only for gourmets yet, but surrounded by a growing interest. The small towns along the road, like Sleeping Beauties for seventy years, still look like after the passing of the last tea transport to the north, of the last herd to the south. To this journey we invite our readers in this November, when the weather is the most optimal in the subtropical Yunnan, and we can best travel across the central part of the former route, which is the richest in historical monuments.

From Europe we will arrive with a couple of transfers, in about one day, to Dali, Yunnan’s second center, the capital of the two-million-strong Bai people (proposed to the World Heritage List). The beautiful traditional old town lays on the shore of Lake Erhai, surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas. The ancient Bai people were among the most important merchants of the tea-horse-road, so after visiting Dali, we will spend the second day in Xizhou (the “zhen” endings on the map mean “walled old town”), the best-preserved old Bai merchant town a few miles to the north along the shore. The trade of the entire Chinese Silk Road was in the hands of the Muslim Hui diaspora, and we will also visit their mosques and excellent small restaurants. Our hotel in Dali – just to enhance diversity – will be in Yahveh Hotel, operated by Chinese Catholics from Beijing in the former monastery of the still functioning Catholic church, built hundreds of years ago by Catholic monks in traditional Chinese style.

From Dali we go through the foothills of the Himalayas, along breathtaking mountain roads, to Nuodeng, an important branch of the tea-horse-road, still in Bai territory. The salt needed to provide for the large number of horses was mined here, in Nuodeng, which was thus a kind of free royal town, similar to the Transylvanian salt mine town of Szék. In the 1400s the beautiful small town was melted by the Ming Dynasty into the empire, and then, having lost its significance, it stopped in time, preserving its former richness, its temples, its shops, its airy aristocratic houses, one of which will be our hotel for two nights. From there we visit the surrounding ancient small trading towns, like Baofeng, and the stunning mountain range.

From Nuodeng we come back on long, winding mountain roads, through passes, along river valleys and next to thousand-year-old bridges to the main line of the tea-horse-road, to Shaxi, the best preserved merchant town of the old caravan route (proposed to the World Heritage List), the center of the Yi people. We walk around the city, visit the medieval monastery and the Qing-era theater, and make an excursion to the 8th-century Shibao Monastery in the nearby mountains, the royal sanctuary of the former Nanzhao kingdom, the historical core of today’s Yunnan, which, until the 1300s, was a country in a par with China and Tibet.

From Shaxi we go over to the headquarters of the once powerful Naxi people, to Lijiang, “China’s Venice”, a thousand-year-old town permeated by three main rivers and many side-branches (World Heritage Site). This town, the richest one in historical monuments on our route, is completely bilingual: everything is written both in Chinese and in the Naxi people’s own thousand-year-old hieroglyphic script, which was also declared a World Heritage Treasure in 2005. From here we go to visit the old Naxi merchant town of Baisha, or one of the deepest canyons of the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge along the upper reach of Yangtse (part of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site), where we do a whole-day excursion. Not by walking which is only for experienced tourists (22 kilometers, up 1000 down 800 meters), but by bus, nevertheless going up to important viewpoints. On the last stop of the road we sleep in a particularly nice guesthouse. The next day we return to Dali, and from there to the airport, heading either home, or, if you want to venture a bit more in China, to the site of your new adventure.

So many people are interested in this road, that we must organize it twice, both times with about 18 participants. The first one is more or less complete, but in case of cancellation there may still be places in it, and the second is still open. The dates of the from Dali to Dali ten-day-plus-two-half-day tour are 4 to 15 November, and then 15 to 26 November, to which you should add one day travel there and one back, thus two weeks altogether. I can also give suggestions to those who, after the trip, want to further venture in China. The flight ticket from Europe to Dali on the above route is about 670 euro, and the participation fee 1000 euro, which includes accommodation with breakfast, domestic travel by rented bus or off-road vehicles (or on some tracks with public transport), and the guide. As for accommodation, it is important to draw attention to the fact that, as tourism is still in its infancy in many parts of this region (in some villages, in fact, I was the first foreigner they have ever met), thus comfort is also not always what we are accustomed to in Europe. For example, in Nuodeng they already have European bathroom and WC, but only three ones for eighteen persons in the whole hotel. Nevertheless, this hotel is the former home of a 14th-century aristocrat, preserved as it was, with the utmost convenience. If you are interested, write until 25 August, Friday, at the usual

George Soros in Luppa Island

Our partner blog, the Dunai Szigetek / Donauinseln is eight years old today. We celebrate the birthday with a post of the blog’s author, Dániel Szávoszt-Vass, specifically written for Poemas del río Wang.
It is an eternal question, how good is it for a community existing in blissful ignorance, when the wider world finds out about its existence, and hordes of tourists are attracted for a visit? For such isolated communities, one does not need to go as far as Papua New Guinea. You can find similar ones even in Hungary. What is more, one lies just seven kilometers from Budapest.

In Luppa Island near Budakalász, parceled between the two world wars, a unique architectural environment and micro-society emerged. In 1932, just a year after the inauguration of the experimental housing estate in Pasarét in the north of Budapest, the other Bauhaus reserve of Hungary was established here, on a one-street island in the Danube. Military officers, manufacturers, lawyers, architects, artists bought land here and spent their summer holidays in their cottages standing on high “legs”. The lawyer Tivadar Soros (originally Schwartz), father of George Soros, also bought here a cottage in the name of his wife.

Until it was parcelled, Lupa or Luppa Island was just a boulder with some lonely trees and a shepherd’s hut. Perhaps this is why it was called Mészáros (Butcher) Island. Administratively it belongs to Budakalász, but it is almost completely isolated from it by the Danube. It can be approached only across the water. It is completely covered during larger floods, so it is no accident that the airy ground floors of the cottages are primarily used for storage. During flooding, probably the inhabitants of Luppa Island are the most assiduous visitors of water level reporting websites.

In summer, Luppa Island is full of life. The surrounding Danube roils with motorboats, tugboats and oher hand-driven watercraft. On the shore, clouds of cyclists are wafted by the wind to the north, Szentendre and the Danube bend. Meanwhile, Luppa Island, nestling in the shadow of mighty plane trees, is filled with the noise of tinkering. The owners repair the damage from the spring flood, clear off driftwood, in order to prepare everything to receive family members and their guests during the summer. Not many unknown people visit the island. A few canoes stop here for a beer or for lunch, but they usually do not stay there for a night. They also feel that this is still a closed community.

A study by Bálint Ablonczy reports about the beginnings of the settlement in the island:
“On the 6-hectare island, 160 plots were parceled, each between 2700 and 8000 square meters. At the beginning, not all plots were sold, and the new owners built houses only on a few of them. (Some owners bought more than one neighboring plots.) The average plot size varied between 3000 and 4000 square meters, for which the buyers paid between 1200 and 1800 pengő. If they wanted so, they could also pay in installments. [...]
By 1941, 33 houses were built in the island. Their number rose only by two by 1947, but five of them were in ruins – not so much because of the destruction of the war, but due to the overwhelmingly devastating ice flood at the turn of 1944 and 1945. The first cottages already stood in 1934, and at the end of that year, the Budakalász-Lupasziget Baths Association was established in Fészek Club.”
The 33 cottages built before 1941 also included the holiday house of the Soros family, designed by Endre and György Farkas. The Budapest lawyer Tivadar Soros was born in Nyírbakta, to a family of ten children, and later died in New York. He was a famous Esperanto enthusiast. He had learned the language during WWI in Russian captivity. He also wrote in this language his memoirs, which contain many references to the summers spent in Luppa Island. Just like many other cottage owners, he bought the plot in the name of his wife. The Bauhaus-style Soros Cottage was completed in 1935. His designer, György Farkas had been acquainted with Tivadar Soros in Berlin, and later he married Klára, the sister of Soros’ wife Erzsébet. The two tennis courts in the island were established on the proposal of Tivadar Soros. The cottage was owned by the family until 1944. Then Soros donated it to a certain Hászka, in whose villa in Buda he was hiding during the Nazi occupation and the siege of Budapest, together with the famous architect Lajos Kozma, who was also a cottage owner in Luppa Island.

George Soros, born in 1930, also often spent the summer vacation in Luppa Island. It was not only a holiday, but also “work”. He established a newspaper, of which he was the author, editor, reporter and distributor. The periodical was called the Luppa News. And in times of flood, he sat in a kayak, and slalomed between the recently planted plane line, as evidenced by the following images.

“– Gyuri! – I tell him strictly. – What does this mean? What do you want here with this big money?
A light flashes in the two angelic whimsical eyes.
– I brought it to the Finns. They are fighting a freedom fight now. Daddy said.
I put Gyuri under gritty cross-questions. He patiently replies to the questioning. The money belongs to him. No, he did not get it from his dad. Neither from his mom. It is his. He earned it. How? In the summer. Because in the summer he is a newspaper editor, publisher and paperboy in one. They spend the holidays on Luppa Island. And then he composes a newspaper, the «Luppa News». He is the only journalist, editor, reporter and paperboy of the news. As if he is a chamber member? No, no. In any case, the newspaper was mainly bought by the adults, since children do not have money. He, however, can earn money in this way. Until now he kept the two banknotes, put aside for Christmas, in a plaster money box.
One can even see the plaster dust on the crumpled banknotes. He broke the money box, and brought the money. To the Finns.
Gyuri Soros, a fourth elementist, who had five B marks in his recent certificate, this apple-faced smiling little guest, the all-in-one editor-in-chief of Luppa News, the golden-hearted little Hungarian calms down, when we take over his gift. Then he closes his pen holder, he says good bye, reaches up to the door handle, and goes home.”

„Soros Gyurka adakozik” (Gyuri Soros donates). 8 Órai Újság, 23 December 1939. Quoted by Béla Nové

Gyuri’s mother was also not idle. She opened a confectionery on the ground floor of their cottage, since she had studied pastry at the renowned Gerbeaud. She obviously did not base her business on local demand, since 33 families on holiday could have not keep it alive. The world of the rowers, buzzling all over the summer, presented a greater demand. The confectionery was an interesting island of social equality, where the high bourgeois served the rowers belonging to the most various social classes. The rest of the cottage owners were not so sensitive to equality, and they asked the Soros family to pay more into the common cash because of their industry.

WWII and the icy flood of 1945, and then the nationalization of the buildings caused serious damage both to the buildings and the micro-society coming together in the summers in the island. Despite the nationalization (and then restoration) of the cottages, the extinct high bourgeoisie and the M0 bridge monster pulled on its neck, Luppa Island is still a delightful and special relic of the Danube.


Civil spirit

Castelmuzio is a hard-to-find small borgo, a little walled town, on the map of Tuscany. It has three dozen houses and two hundred inhabitants, but there is everything there for a proper little Italian town: a small square with a medieval church, narrow streets with vaulted passages, and, of course, cats. It has a monastery that was the location for some key scenes in The English Patient, and has a city wall of Etruscan origin, with a beautiful view over the hills of Val d’Orcia, where scenes from The Gladiator were filmed. And it also has something else.

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At the southern end of the city wall, where the entire valley opens up in front of us, down to Pienza, there is a small square, with iron tables and chairs. I’m looking for the bar to which they belong, because it is obvious that in a pragmatic place, a pragmatic entrepreneur would have long ago taken over the spot in collaboration with the local government, so that people could enjoy the gorgeous sight only in exchange for proper consumption. But I find no bar. Instead, I find a sign that tells us that the inhabitants of the borgo, the borghesi, have created, on their own initiative and expense, a civic salon on this little no-name square.

“This salon was dreamed and created by local citizens and entrepreneurs who believe in cooperation instead of apathy, in culture instead of disrespect, and in love instead of selfishness. A place where we can meet, talk, be silent, and think, and where our gaze can be lost in the green sea of the hills, where «to be shipwrecked is beautiful» [quotation by Jacopo Foscolo].
The Civic Salon of Castelmuzio”

On the little square, free wi-fi and free holy water help one to connect to invisible networks.

And something else is also free.

One of the two tables has a basket full of peanuts. At first glance, it seems like someone has left it behind. But a sticker on the table informs us that this is not the case. This is the peanut basket of the Civic Salon, which is constantly refilled by the salon for the occasional visitors.

“The peanuts are a donation from the Civic Salon of Castelmuzio for everybody.
We say thanks to the signora for not emptying the contents of the basket every morning into her own bag.”

Which also proves that civic culture has its own enemies, against whom it is necessary to constantly defend its achievements. But they obviously cope with them.


Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Everyone stands alone on the breast of the earth
pierced by a ray of sunlight
and it’s suddenly evening.
Salvatore Quasimodo: Ed è subito sera

“Evening shadow”. Etruscan statue, 3rd c. BC, Volterra. The name is from Gabriele d’Annunzio

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