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The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of The Cosmos And The Stars


Lijiang, high in the Himalayan foothills and in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is home to the Nakhi people, whose blue and white traditional dress can be glimpsed around the cobbled alleyways and canals of Lijiang’s old city, and in all its surrounding villages.

The Nakhi (Naxi in Chinese) are descended from Tibetan nomads, settling into the Lijiang valley to grow crops and trade tea with Tibet and beyond, and despite incursions from the Han Chinese they have managed to preserve their rich and vibrant customs, language (the only pictographic written language in current use in the world), religion, music and their matrilineal structure. 

Their ancient Dongba religion rests on the belief that Nature and Man are half-brothers from different mothers, closely related and intertwined, and that the land and the forest are sacred and must be protected for future generations. The Nakhi were the original conservationists, really, and accordingly their customs reflect this:

“One of the most widely practised Dongba rituals, Zzerq Ciul Zhuaq (literally, to repay the debts of a tree), is often seen in the village of Shuming. The ritual was conducted if somebody was stricken with illness or bad luck, when a Dongba priest would be consulted. On many occasions, the result would show that the person had carried out logging or washing of dirty things in the forest, and the family or person concerned would have to ask the Dongba priest to hold the ritual near where the activity had taken place, and apologise to the nature god Shu.” (wikipedia)



In keeping with the importance of women in Nakhi culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress, as seen here. Immediately recognisable by their cobalt blue caps, they wear a white shirt and blue or dark red sleeveless vest fastened with knotted ties at the shoulder. A skirt is worn over their dark blue or black trousers, tied at the waist with a long heavy cotton sash embroidered at both ends with an intricate black and white geometric design, with both ends hanging behind. The most eye-catching feature though, is their extraordinary cape, black above and white below, worn over the back with broad white straps crossing over the front of the body, and embroidered with seven coloured circles. 






These circles intrigued me, and I imagined they must have symbolic meaning, but it wasn’t until I read the account of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary travel writer who spent some time in Lijiang in the 1980s, that I understood their significance:


“Apart from the bonnet, the women’s costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars – although the sun and moon, once worn on either shoulder, have now gone out of fashion.” 


(from ‘In China, Rock’s Kingdom‘ published in the New York Times, March 16, 1986). Quite poetic as a way of dressing, don’t you think?



Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures


Street Food of Lijiang: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs

Dragonfly nymphs. Not your average snack food.

The street foods of Yunnan have certainly been a surprise. For a start, in Yunnan they eat a whole lot of things that less adventurous foodies would consider inedible – fern fronds, tree bark, various flowers, lichens and bugs. Yes, bugs.What I can’t figure out is why, in a place that seems so fertile and prosperous, with blossoming fruit trees and fields weighed down with wheat, barley, onions and broad beans in great abundance, you would need to resort to eating bugs. Perhaps they just like them for the taste? I’ve had a taste of Yunnanese fried bees myself back in Shanghai, and given that they were surprisingly delicious (creamy, crunchy), I thought I should extend my bug repertoire and try some local favourites.
Bamboo larvae. Not delicious.

 The bamboo larvae, I don’t mind saying, were very forgettable, and bore way too close a resemblance to maggots for my liking – although to my great surprise my seven-year-old daughter found them terrifically tasty- but preferred to pull the heads off first, leaving them in a dainty pile on the edge of her plate. She won’t even eat gherkins because they ‘taste yucky’ but is quite happy to tuck into a plate of larvae, leaving me to wonder if she will be permanently scarred by living in China. The dragonfly nymphs, harvested from shallow lakes and ponds then air dried before deep-frying, were actually pretty good. The only catch, literally, was their sharp little mouthparts and tail parts which spiked the inside of your mouth as you ate, but they were not bad tasting.
Tree bark. With a bit of red pepper and spring onion for colour.

The tree bark was unusual in taste, and even more unusual in texture. It came out looking all crunchy and interesting, but that was an illusion because the texture was soft and leathery, with a roughness and chewiness that shouldn’t really have been any surprise at all. The taste was medicinal, somewhere between Friar’s Balsam and camphor. Not my favourite dish of the night, but at least I tried it.

Chicken Bean Flour Jelly
This is a Lijiang specialty, made from chicken stock and very, very gelatinous mung bean flour. The appetising grey colour comes from the mung bean flour, and is a little off-putting, but in the interests of you lovely readers and my own insatiable curiosity I ate some. Just like cold, sliced chicken stock jelly, if you’ve ever eaten a bowl of that for fun, redeemed by a whole stack of fiery chili and some peanuts. Actually, the peanuts were pretty good.
Upmarket bugs. A plate of mixed critters at a restaurant.
Lastly I introduce you to my hands-down favourite Lijiang street food. Crispy, salty, crunchy, with just a touch of spicy heat, they are exactly what they look like. Home-style potato chips, fried right there in a wok full of boiling bubbling oil in the street. These, at last, were delicious.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures