19-Aug-2008 -- After visiting 27N 102E earlier in the day, I started back on the highway up to Xichang. Xichan is not too far from 28N 102E, but I attempted that confluence before and I knew that it would take a little more preparation in order to get to that point. The point of 28N 103E was a little farther away from Xichang than I expected; perhaps it was because I was switching between maps of different resolutions and I didn't realize how far it would be from Xichang to this interesting confluence.
The lake at Xichang lies at a little more than 1500m, but the road rises up to a 3500m pass not far away from there. Very windy roads, quite sunny, and the Yizu minority people live up here in the high country. I saw some outdoor markets and street markets in some villages on the way to this confluence. It was a great drive.
When I got to within maybe 10 or 15 kilometers to where the confluence point lies, I turned on the gps unit while still in the truck. I went a little too far (and the distance to confluence point numbers on my GPS started to climb higher and higher) so I went back to the closest point that the road comes to the confluence - about 2.5km. I parked the truck directly on the road and a young local Yi person came up inquisitively. He was watching a group of cows gathered in the trees. He spoke Mandarin so we chatted for a little while and then I told him I was off to go hiking. He said he'd watch the truck for me - a kind gesture. This area is completely inhabited by the Yi minority people. They have a unique culture and language with a script completely different from Mandarin Chinese. They almost remind one of Tibetans, as the Yi also have dark skin, distinct features and often wear their traditional woven clothes.
This area had some many large fields covering the hillsides. I found a trail that headed down to the river, in the direction of the confluence point. On the trail I passed a young woman carrying an incredibly large load of hay on her back. As I walked behind her I thought of offering to carry the load for her, but I feared that I would not be able to carry it myself. (It's almost certain that I couldn't!) At the bottom of the hill there were some houses with tile and straw roofs and mud walls. I saw a few locals there and waved to them. They responded with smiles and turned to call out to others in the Yi language. There was a wide dirt path next to the river and I soon found myself facing a group of maybe twenty young boys. As soon as they saw me they shouted and started running in the other direction. They hid behind a school house being careful not to let me even catch a glimpse of them peeking back at me. They must have been terrified at the strange sight.
I was wearing sunglasses, hiking pants and a bright colored shirt, with a hip bag, water bottles attached and a rain jacket strapped to the bag. Bizarre attire to be sure. My white face was the larger shock though.
I passed by a few other houses and resisted the urge to take pictures of the locals and where they lived. Unless I had direct permission, I thought it would be impolite. This was a very poor area. I kept my eye on the river down below and continued walking along the path - looking for a place to cross over. I came up around a bend and found a half dozen kids, from maybe less than 2 years old to maybe six years old sitting and laying in the dirt. Their clothes were in tatters, a few of the boys weren't wearing pants. I little boy was holding the baby and picking at the baby's face as the little one cried loudly. I think it was bug bites that the older one was trying to help the baby alleviate. This was clearly the poorest place with the poorest people I had ever been to. I squatted down next to them. A few minutes later an old grandmother came out of the house with another child and a basket full of green beans. I find that the easiest way to disarm a stranger here is to have the biggest smile on your face and to wave kindly. People seem to let go of their suspicions quite quickly when you do that. I tried to talk with her about my plans to cross over the river, but she could only reply to me in the local Yi dialect. One of the little kids had another baby strapped to his back. He went to picking out the good green beans from the bad while he stared at me with no emotion in his face. I didn't get anyone to smile back at me, but at least they weren't afraid of me either.
I continued on and found a middle aged man and woman sorting corn on the side of the path. The man knew Mandarin and told me that there was not bridge across the river. But it wasn't a problem, he led me down a path next to his house and said we just walk through the river here. He wanted me to get on his back so he could carry me across, but I couldn't accept that. The river rock was quite slippery though, so I removed my boots and socks to wade across (the water was not very deep, but it was flowing kind of quickly). He lent me his foam slippers and he crossed barefoot. There are many other corn fields and houses on this opposite side of the river. I wonder if the river level rises during some seasons. If so, the many people that live on the other side would have a difficult time crossing that river.
I walked quickly along the paths, through the terraced corn fields and through the hills. It was a beautiful sunny day with bright blue sky. I met a few locals and made small talk with them. I could see that the sun was getting lower and I had to find the point soon so I could hike out and get to the truck before it got too late. The confluence point actually lies on a steep hillside nearby a little stream. It didn't take long for the GPS unit to zero out and I found that there were some "magical confluence beans" growing at the precise confluence point. It's a mystery as to who had the fortune to eat those special beans, but I imagine whoever has can expect untold blessing in their life.
Honestly though, this was a very thought provoking confluence trip. There are no tourist areas nearby, no places of note for anyone to come to this area - just a confluence. To be honest, this to me is what visiting confluences is all about. I was able to see the true side of Yi minority life here in that place. And despite the serious poverty, there is a strong draw to visit again. On the way back I met a husband and wife with their two boys and chatted with them. Then later I met a young man about my age. There were some younger guys with him as well as a few young women. Since he was more senior I only spoke to him. When I asked him about studying Mandarin, he said only men go to school there. The girls must stay home and do chores. In fact, only men could speak Mandarin, all the women only knew the local dialect. The women are such hard workers too! Some boys about 12 or so offered me a cigarette. I declined but they started right up smoking. The boys said that even since he was real little he was smoking.
When I continued up the hill I thought about that young man about my age. I'm an American, living and teaching English at a university in Sichuan. I thought about the differences in my life and his. Our level of Mandarin was about the same - though he probably knows more Chinese characters than I do. I thought, here in China I am a "hot" commodity because I am a native speaker of English and I can teach in schools. But this young man is a native speaker of the Yi language, with little training he could be a fine teacher as well. The only difference is my language is sought after and his is largely ignored by the outside world. And therefore one is paid well and the other is forgotten about. Quite a sobering thought to think about - what do I really have to offer? What am I doing to make a difference in this world?
Well, it was an amazing confluence trip. I suggest you go and try to visit it if you are nearby Xichang. You'll come back with a great appreciation for all that you've been blessed with, and a heart of compassion for these kindhearted people.