I toured Lashi Lake with Lily Zhang, a tiny dynamo Naxi woman who runs an ecotourism company (for more info see www.northwestyunnan.com). This is high end tourism--her clients are mostly American and European--treking and bicycling around the lake and in the mountains, visiting with local Naxi and Li villagers. The Nature Conservancy came to Lashi Lake in 2000 to do research on the environment and local Naxi culture, and decided to help start an eco-tourism company. Families from Lily's village investments from several families in her village as well as some start-up fun. In February, Lashi Lake is a destination for bird-watchers, as flocks of migratory birds stop at the lake on their way north.
First we visited Chen Yong-song's Green Education Center. He showed us his biogas operation (using latrine and pig sty waste to generate biogas for cooking, and using the byproduct for fertilizer), an ingenious system, quite low-tech and accessible, solving two problems--energy for cooking and waste disposal. He's helped many of the Naxi households around the lake to install biogas systems; in Lily's village almost everyone uses biogas.
There are about 28 small Naxi villages all around the lake. Lily's village is perched halfway up the mountain; we walked through it to her parents' house at the highest point. There are apple trees, crab apple, walnuts, and also peaches. Cherries, small tart/sweet are in season; Lily's father picked some from their tree and passed them around. He loves flowers, grows lots in their greenhouse and in the courtyard garden. They spread out pine cones, collected in the mountains, to get a powdery substance that when mixed with honey will cure a cough. You also use the powder in making noodles; it makes them smooth. A wonderful lunch cooked by Lily's mother, preceded by snacks of dried crab apples, dried peaches and walnuts (along with the cherries). Yunnan ham, salty and pungent, almost every household raises at least one pig. Fresh beans (lima-like), Chinese cabbage, egg with tomato. Lily's village has about 300 families; most are farmers. When she was growing up (she's now 35) life was hard, but young people stayed in the village, did farming, participated in all the local festivals. Later everyone wanted to go to the cities. The village now has mostly old people. Old women especially do Naxi singing and dancing every weekend, and sometimes go to festivals with other villages. "We encourage them to keep traditional culture."
Lily went through primary school in the village, but at that time to go to middle school you had to go to Lijiang, some distance away, and board during the week. Out of her class of 12, Lily was the only one to go on to middle school (and high school). It was very hard, having to be away from home, she didn't speak much Chinese, and the city and country children were quite different, didn't mix much. Now there's a new, quite grand primary school in the village. Children from Li villages on top of the mountain board there.
Lily's village is very peaceful, up in the hills, but down along the lake shore almost everyone is involved in the horse-riding business for (mostly Chinese) tourists. Along that road every family has at least four horses. We saw parking lots full of huge tour buses by mid-morning. Thousands of tourists and horses go out every day. Large billboards show a romantic vision of someone racing along on horseback; actually the horses plod in a row, tied to each other. The Chinese government has encouraged the horse-riding outfits as part of their efforts to divert tourists from Lijiang, an ancient Naxi city ten miles to the East which is overrun with package tours. Like all tourism/development there is good and bad: good because young people can earn a living, don't have to leave their villages, but bad for the environment.
After lunch we went on to talk with two people who used to do cormorant fishing. We went to find the first, in "Honey Village" (called that because people keep bees, make honey). He wasn't home, so Lily called him on his cell phone and he said he was just taking a walk in the mountains behind his house, would be right down. He is 58 years old, and had lots to say about cormorant fishing and fishing on Lashi Lake generally over the years. Lashi Lake used to be a seasonal lake, so there wasn't much fishing until after they built a dam in 1992 (also good and bad--they lost some farmland, but good for fishing and no-one was displaced). It is a great place for migratory birds, including cormorants, and they used to capture wild cormorants as they landed during the winter migration, keeping them awake and hungry (it sounded rather brutal) 'til they can be trained to catch fish. He bought a cormorant (presumably tame and trained) from Dali in 1996, said, "If the cormorant is good, he can catch 10 kilo of fish in one day." He had 20 cormorants at one point. The whole lake was once full of cormorant fishermen; one family had 60 cormorants. His father also used cormorants, but his sons have good jobs at the university. Soon there won't be anyone left who knows how to train cormorants. He really misses the cormorants, he said, but there's no way he would start up with cormorant fishing again. He also talked about other kinds of fishing: at one point people used explosives to catch fish, later they used nets where the mesh was so fine it caught everything. The fish in the lake were all disappearing, so all the local fishermen got together and tried to stop the people who were using illegal fine-mesh nets. Now more and more fish are coming back, and some people are back to fishing. The government also stocks the lake with some fish. He fishes every day now, with a (legal) net. "If I just relax and play mahjong it would be very boring. It's good to have some work to do. Life is not so long; I want to do something useful, helpful to others. I've been in big cities, but I like it here, where I do some walking in the mountains."
Next, we visited a skilled carpenter, who was busy cutting and carving the pieces for the gateway of a new house, together with his son. He used to do cormorant fishing and wants to bring it back. He had a rather dejected female cormorant in a cage, and wants to capture a male cormorant and then train their offspring .So who knows, maybe cormorant fishing will come back to Lashi Lake. He said he was a 5th generation woodworker and a 5th generation cormorant fisherman.
At the end of the day we visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple and monastery. The old one was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; this new one is very grand (and quite beautiful) and will be even grander as they are building a new pavillion/building up steps at the top of the mountain. Naxis are very compatible with Tibetan Buddhism and culture, Lily explained. This temple also trains young Buddhist monks, most of them boys of Tibetan ancestry living in Szechuan province. We saw young monks on a break, giggling, huddled around an i-phone.