Jazz and Blues on the Pathway to Nirvana

Published 04 September 2017   

The colourful Shuhe Old Town

Written by: Katie Roberts

Yunnan Province is part of the ‘new’ China. Attracting domestic tourism and hosting over six major festivals a month Yunnan sees over 22 million tourists a year, only 5% of which are foreigners, so if you are looking for a destination that provides facilities, good food, panoramic locations, history, fantasy and appreciate the ease of arrival and challenge of exotic experiences, Yunnan is for you.

Out in the south-west corner of the country, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains lies the town of Shuhe. Shuhe, lying on a trajectory of tourism that meanders by rail or road from the capital city of Kunming to Dali and Lijiang, travellers can find themselves awash in hordes of selfie sticks, carried along through the cobbled streets of ancient towns past discretely disguised McDonalds, franchised yak meat sellers and tribal clothing stalls into luscious parks of weeping willows and mirrored lakes. Elegant wooden temples, ancient bridges and festooned gateways, old houses with new paint offer plenty of romantic niches for wedding couples to pose and for the traveller the chance to squeeze in a well angled shot or two, but this is not what you have come all this way for.

Old City Wall – Dali.

You’ve come for something very special. Shuhe on the surface, looks not unlike Dali and Lijiang with ancient cobbled streets, chunky city walls, intriguing side streets, crystal clear waters tumbling through picturesque gardens and the discordant ambience of a score of bands playing in bars after nightfall appealing to tourists who wander under the glow of their smart phones in search of a past that has long left town; yet just around the corner, with some amazing feng shui, is Park Hotel Django. Wedged between the bubbling of a pure water spring and a Tibetan temple Park Hotel is one of the area’s best kept secrets.

Since 2011 internationally renowned jazz percussionist Slim Rothaus has made Park Hotel Django his home. How does a world travelling musician end up here when his music has led him from his home in Denmark to New York, Mali, West Africa and all over South East Asia?

Just like a good blues song the answer was love: “Some years ago”, he responds “I was traveling around in Yunnan, and I saw this beautiful girl cutting flowers, she was inside this lovely coffee place in Shuhe. I told her something like, ‘Any place that has a piano is my home.’ About a month later, I got an email from her saying: ‘I got a piano, now you have a home.’”

Dr Ho in his studio.

And a home it is. Along with his wife, that beautiful girl, Jojo, Slim has created a place of easy going, flowing hospitality, comfort and charm. Some of the guests stay long term as creative residents, some are finding their way to this far corner in order to make music and spend some time with Slim gathering inspiration and for others it is simple good fortune and you meet them all over a veritable feast of music, local tea, good wines and fine food.

Arriving there with two talented musicians, Joe Cummings, a long time collaborator of Slim’s and Robi Supriyanto from the Indonesian band Navicula was a distinct advantage and to hang out with a musician of range and talent that extends beyond his training in jazz to reggae, bebop, Blue Grass, Chinese folk and grunge is a treat no matter your ability, or in my case lack of, and this is where Slim shows maybe, his greatest talent, as a host – Slim practices the old fashioned school of charm. While you may never have blown a sax or strummed an oud, while his adventures may have been wilder than yours, and despite his ruffled look of raffishness Slim is intent on making you welcome. From his invitation to cook in his kitchen, jam on the instruments, make drinks at his bar or rousingly carouse at an evening blues session Slim is about collaboration and inclusion and that encompasses showing a genuine interest in your life and giving you the absolute best advice to make the most of the area. “Get out, go to Baisha, get the real deal, we’ll arrange the transport”

The view back to Lijiang.

Located at the foothills of the Himalayas Baisha Village dates back to 618 AD and grew during the Tang Dynasty to become the prosperous centre of Lijiang in the Song and Yuan Dynasty. In the 14th century the Ming Dynasty governors moved over to what is today, Lijiang Ancient Town but continue to use Baisha as a religious centre. Baisha is an ancient town, not an “Ancient Town” and on a misty day, with a soft curtain of rain it was deserted of tourists with only the Naxi people, dressed in their regular clothing carrying on their daily rituals.

The Naxi Embroidery Institute, a rambling wooden complex that houses the training studios, museum and a gallery was our first stop. Esta, our guide gave us an insight to some of the less advertised aspects of China’s past, this exquisite, ancient craft of fine detailed embroidery was almost lost as during the Cultural Revolution it was decreed a luxury. Today the Institute trains women from remote villages to gain economic independence through the use of their embroidery skills, replacing the income lost when their homes were destroyed by the flooding of the Yangste lowlands and the government forced them to relocate into the mountainous area. Esta also explained, most comfortingly, how her Naxi culture subscribe to the Dongba belief that beyond death, after atonement, everyone goes to heaven.

Naxi lunch time.

Joe then directed us to Dr Ho, apothecary and eccentric, who has gained fame, although not necessarily, or not obviously fortune, through his dispensations of herbal tonics to the curious and celebrated. Joe had visited Dr Ho many years previously while compiling the first Lonely Planet guide books to the area. Dr Ho’s current day practice is run in partnership with his son, an equally eccentric and wizardly man who delights in showing visitors around the nearby botanic dispensary and physic garden where hand carved quotes in the hanging wooden moldings from luminaries including Michel Palin and Bruce Chatwin exhalt the virtues of the Doctor’s creed. In year’s past Dr Ho would spontaneously prepare lunches for visitors and show the books he had kept hidden from the Red Guards, who, on account of his father’s association with Namjing, the capital of the anti-communist Kuomintang, accused him of being the “son of a capitalist running dog”. These days he is, at 94, a little frail, albeit very healthy on his diet of plants and no cigarettes or alcohol and no longer serving lunch.

Instead of Doctor’s Ho’s plant based meal Irvan, our guide brought us to a Naxi kitchen for a traditional Naxi Hot Pot. The flavour and taste is aromatic, warming, tender and very tasty. The pot itself contains potatoes, celtus a local lettuce, and lots of pork bits, lots; dishes of crisply fried Holy Basil, tender Yunnan ham, steamed rice, morning glory and a spice mix of Szechaun pepper, ground peanuts, chili and shallots are served alongside, everything goes into to your bowl. Although not on Dr Ho’s prescribed list for longevity, it is now on mine along with the journey to the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain foothills. Winding through real ancient villages and goat dotted fields it reveals the fissures and crevices of enormous mountains rising up from wide, open spaces. Under the rush of clouds across curved air you can witness the tilt of the earth as the view stretches all the way in every direction, it’s an unmarked pathway to Nirvana and literally takes your breath away.

Contact :
Park Hotel Django Search on www.airbnb.com

Train Travel with :
CHINA DIY TRAVEL www.china-diy-travel.com

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