I discovered Lushi (鲁史) while reading about the ancient Tea and Horse road (茶马古道). Nested in the Wuliang Mountains (无量山), south of Dali ancient town and the Erhai Lake region, Lushi is a well-preserved village steeped in history which is about to change dramatically.
Tuesday is market day. Like any rural market in China, it is happy chaos of villagers selling products ranging from live chicken, freshly slaughtered pigs, and vegetables to fertilizer, denture and rubber boots. This weekly market takes place in the two main streets of the upper village, the ‘modern’ part of Lushi which dominates the lower village.
The historical village of Lushi looked like an ocean of courtyard houses with gabled tiled roofs on top of which, solar panels and water tanks reflected the sun. An endless stream of cables which run from a pole to another was there to remind me that rural China is changing.
In the streets of the village I could only hear the brouhaha of the market. Women were hunching under the weight of woven basket strapped around their forehead in which they carry their groceries back home. They walked carefully in the cobble-stone streets which were polished by the passage of the horse caravans on the old Tea and Horse Road.
Remembering the past
An old man harboring a white goatee and wearing a navy-blue Mao era-like costume with matching hat was leaning on an adobe wall, smoking a cigarette in silent. He was visibly surprised to see a foreigner in his village. ‘Did you see the caravans when you were a child?’ I asked. His smile widened.
With a thick Yunnanese accent I had trouble understanding he explained that they were sometimes up to seven-hundred horses going through the village. They carried bricks of Pu’er from southern Yunnan as well as locally grown tea leaves to Xiaguan where they were transformed into Tuo tea (沱茶) and then redistributed along the road.
Lushi, its history and its culture have been irremediably linked to tea since the time of the Nanzhao Kingdom (750-937). Under the Ming and Qing dynasties, transportation of tea and other good intensified contributing to the prosperity of Lushi. However, with the development of roads in the 1940s and 1950s, the horse caravans stopped and Lushi, like other towns and villages on the Tea and Horse road, declined.
Change has already come
Aware of the cultural and historical value of Lushi, the local government and private companies have invested in the development of tourism, which, it seems, is the only way to develop specific rural regions.
There are a few signs that change is coming. First, many houses were being ‘renovated’ (in Chinese 翻新) and at least one compound was being transformed into a museum dedicated to the old Tea and Horse road.
Then, there were a group of students from the University of Southwest China in Kunming, doing a survey of the village. Armed with a detailed map of the village, their task was to go from one house to another, ask local about how old their house were and determine who in the village owns what courtyard. Ultimately, the students’ work will be used as a blueprint for a conservation. Properties that have a significant values will be protected.
At the bottom of the village a temple is under construction. Locals are working hard, carrying baskets of bricks, moving mud from one spot to another. Two women stop by and look at how strange I am with my pale skin, my facial hair and my big nose. They laugh.
– ‘So, you’re building a new temple in your village, uh?’
– ‘Oh no, it’s not new. We are just making it more beautiful!’ replies one of the lady
– ‘It looks pretty new to me, how old is the temple?
– ‘We are not sure, maybe more than one hundred years old. Go inside and visit’
I follow their advice and climb the stairs. I stumble upon a man from whom I learn he is the contractor.
– ‘How old is that place?’
– ‘Oh … well, it’s about 300 to 400 years old. I am not sure’ he says scratching his bald head.
– ‘It looks very new to me! … and the paint is still fresh’
He laughs. The original temple was 300 years old. We took it down and re-built it.
In the locals’ narrative, this renovation will make their temple more beautiful. I understand that a 300 year old temple made of stone bricks, adobe wall and wood will not last forever, but I find it sad that they are not able to re-build with the same time of construction materials.
How to get there and where to stay
Step 1 – Get to Fengqing
Lushi is located in the mountain northeast of the town of Fengqing (凤庆) in Lincang prefecture (临沧). Your first step to going to Lushi will be to get to Fengqing. There are buses from Xiaguan / Dali to Fengqing (around 5 hours) via Weishan and Yunxian, or from Baoshan (3 hours).
Step 2 – Get to Lushi
Buses to Lushi leave in the morning only. There is roughly one bus every hour between 7 AM and 1 PM. It’s a 2.5 to 3 hour bus ride in the Wuliang Mountain. It’s a windy mountain road. Beware : many locals suffer from motion-sickness!
In case you miss the last bus, you will have to spend the night in Fengqing. The area around the bus station is new and you will be able to find cheap accommodation easily. There is even a high-end 4 or 5 star hotel, the Dianhong Hotel (滇红大酒店), just a 10-minute walk from the bus terminal.
Step 3 – Stay overnight in Lushi
There are a few basic hotels (宾馆) in Lushi which offer simple but clean rooms for 40 or 60 RMB. Nothing fancy at all. With the development of tourism, things may change.
From Lushi back to Fengqing, there are only 4 buses at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 AM and 1 PM. Buy your ticket in advance for the next day at the shop next to the bus station.
Step 4 – Leaving Fengqing
From Fengqing to elsewhere. There is a regular service to Baoshan (3 to 4 hours) from which you can get to Tengchong and Heshun (3 hours) or Xiaguan / Dali (3 hours). Another option is to go to Yunxian (45 min) where you can take buses to Lincang, Weishan and Dali (via Xiangyun).