Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (15,000′) is holy to the Naxi (“nashi”) people, whose priest lives up there, with a tourist chairlift. The Naxi, a matriarchal Chinese minority related to Tibetans, traditionally worship the spirits of rocks, rivers, and especially this mountain, which grows some 500 healing herbs, many unknown elsewhere (also: 300 different rhododendrons).
In this botanical wonderland east of the Himalayas, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, David had a consultation with the famous village healer, Dr. Ho, a figure of great cross-cultural interest. “I was raised by Christian missionaries,” Ho told the Daily Telegraph, (in one of many news stories). “But there were many other religions, too – Muslim, Buddhism, Confucianism and Naxi.”
In 1986, Bruce Chatwin wrote a travel piece in the Times which made Ho, and his clinic in Baisha, a tiny mountain village at 8,000′, something of an international legend. Chatwin was fascinated (as we were, as everyone would be) with the Naxi: “Their religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine,” Chatwin wrote.
Shamanism didn’t go over well with the Red Guards. Ho lost everything (but his herbal–a 19th-century edition of The Book of Flowers–buried safely under his floorboards) to attacks and round-ups during the Cultural Revolution. His books were burned and he was thrown in prison.
Times are way better now. He treats visitors from everywhere for donations, and locals for free. We went initially hoping to find something for altitude sickness. We were welcomed into his cluttered home office, attached to a storage room with big jugs of powdered herbs, roots, and mountain flowers. He sat David down and began a consultation concerning his habits, aches and pains, and lifestyle and well-being.
David would prefer to start this blog post this way:
“What I love is, in Baisha (Dr. Ho’s village, part of Lijiang), among innumerable Buddhas, shawls, tablecloths, time pieces, wandering dogs and free-range chickens, there is but one Dr. Ho. Perhaps 2 — his son, who is practicing to replace him. Though not anytime soon. The post has to give a sense of the stupid souvenirs. The dumb-ass stuff. And also that Dr. Ho has become part of the whole tourist trade.
That should be the beginning.” (David says).
“And include Tibetans throwing fireworks, not for the New Year but to get people away from the stalls of their competition. Write about the cobblestones, the dustiness of it, the bright sun, & almost overlooking Dr. Ho. And the woman before us who seemed to have a good consultation. And say that if you can’t afford to visit him for a consultation, you can reach him online for his teas (and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic) at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
David continues: “He asked about my work, and detected from feeling my pulse that I had lower back problems and neck problems. He asked about my prostate and wondered if I had hemorrhoids (no). His check-up agreed with my known problems. He noted that unlike many Americans, I wasn’t obese. He checked alternating wrists 3 or 4 times and said my qi was pretty good. His skin was baby soft. He attributed it to his Healthy Tea, which he gave me wrapped in paper.”
“The donation we made was about $30, about the same as my co-payment in the U.S., and I got more face-time and bedside manner. The tea’s herbal mustiness reminds me of every health food shop I’ve ever been in. My qi may be balanced, but I got the sense he was going to outlive me.”
(Now 90, Dr. Ho is prepared to pass the baton to his son, Dr. Ho II, who chatted us up at the clinic. He said the Mayo Clinic has correspondence with Ho regarding a leukemia case.)
This story has several layers.
Unlike our David, Bruce Chatwin didn’t visit Dr. Ho for a medical consultation, but to learn about Ho’s teacher, Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian-American self-taught botanist who lived in Lijiang, funded by the National Geographic Society, 1920s-’40s, cataloging wild plants and traveling colonial-mandarin style with caravans of servants. Rock’s National Geographic articles inspired readers far from China, like the author of Lost Horizons — (who never left London). It coined the term Shangri La (probably a corruption of Shambhala, the mythical Tantric heaven-on-earth).
Ho’s mountain, and Lijiang (spelled “Li Chiang”) also turn up in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:
And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock’s world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air
This northwest part of Yunan province — China’s ‘wild’ southwest, bordering Burma–is called “remote but accessible” (and Lijiang is “the best preserved ancient town in China”).
A major road will soon cut through (we saw massive construction). The three vast gorges that rivers carved here, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau–the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and the Nu–are twice the depth (on average) of the Grand Canyon. (In the pic, we’re hiking a popular route on the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge.) The highest mountains exceed 20,000′. It can’t be a surprise that species, that traditional medicines, thrive here which exist nowhere else on earth.
I wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). And separated by the peaks and river valleys, a dozen unrelated ethnic groups like the Naxi still speaking so many different languages, still wearing traditional clothing. Although the women dancing in the picture above were doing it for tourist donations. Several Naxi orchestras perform ancient music for tourists, as well.
“Uneasy symbiosis” ? Our tourist presence helps preserve the old cultures, deeply embedded in this astonishing landscape, which might otherwise disappear as young people move to cities. Logging caused massive flooding, so when it was banned, tourism became the biggest game in town. During Lunar New Year week, millions of newly middle-class Chinese families were out enjoying tourism just like us. (I kept thinking, it’s not their fault they are so numerous, that wherever they flock, and like us they go where it’s beautiful and culturally rich, that it becomes a swarm…a sea of humanity…a crush…a horde.)
David says he doesn’t mind letting me end things. Here: I hope the evolution our tourism inspires is as balanced — at the very least — as David’s qi.