– By Paulyn T
We emerge from a dense thicket of forest, stumbling into a sea of green meadows, undulating hills and endless, glorious sky. It’s early morning in southwest Yunnan. Beyond the stunningly rugged landscape, I have no idea what to expect. From a distance, high-pitched beeping sounds suddenly cut through the serenity. The noise signals that a falcon has been released to hunt. All at once, pandemonium breaks loose.
“Start running! Go! Hurry!” a falconer bellows in Mandarin as his team of hunters begin hurtling forward through the fields, expertly dodging sharp twigs and horse manure with ease and without so much as a second look. Around us, trained German hunting dogs yelp and bark as they scatter haphazardly, leaping excitedly as we join the chase, trailing the legendary falcon in its airborne pursuit.
With cumbersome video equipment strapped to our shoulders, we scramble up and down the slopes, muddied paths and knee-high turf before, at last, the falcon swoops down and strikes a pheasant like a guided missile. There’s an explosion of feathers, and the falcon pins its hapless prey to the ground, victorious. “It’s quite rare for a falcon to catch anything,” one of the hunters say as he shoots us a grin. “You brought us luck today.”
Few know of the indigenous Naxi falconry culture, an activity only engaged in by men that can be traced back over 700 years. As it so happened, we were the first foreigners to hunt alongside these falcon hunters, and now offer this experience exclusively to our travellers. But in the face of changing times, falconry is a dying art. Its future is uncertain. Still, some of these Naxi falconers hope to preserve and pass on this heritage to the younger generation of men.
Unfortunately, the ancient art of falconry is rarely found in other parts of China today. But the customs of Yunnan — a province set high on the southwestern frontiers and shielded from the rest of the nation by its unruly, mountainous neighbours of Sichuan and Guizhou — have always stood apart.
In the region, 26 ethnic minorities (out of China’s 55 officially recognised groups) can be found dwelling amongst a stew of mountain peaks, quaint villages and the remains of vanished kingdoms. Every minority has its own culture, spoken language, cuisine, distinctive form of dress, festivals and belief system — each offering a glimpse into old China and an entirely different experience from the big cities.
For a different kind of cultural experience, we sought out a local family living in a Yi village to learn about more their daily life and activities. With the village chief as our host and guide, we followed a moss-carpeted trail leading to the mystical town. Secluded and serene, the village is reminiscent of a simpler time, where daily life has remained unchanged even in recent years. The village chief’s daughter, for instance, is the first person in the village to attend university — a fact that he shares with us proudly.
As we wandered through the mixed broad-leaf forest of poplar and quercus trees, the place was noticeably pristine and peaceful. There were no markings or signs in sight. It felt as though the pace of life had slowed to a crawl as we passed grazing yaks and free roaming horses.
Once we’d reached the village, we came upon the chief’s cousin cooking up a storm in time for our arrival. In his barely-furnished farmhouse, we sat down around a foldable table laden with rice, organic buckwheat bread made from buckwheat harvested from their fields, fried mushrooms and black organic chicken stew — a dish only prepared for important guests. “I raised the chicken myself with organic feed for almost six months,” he said. Blown away, I thought to myself that we were strangers, but learning about his act of generosity instantly made me feel right at home.
Over lunch and during the rest of our time together that day, I realised that in this tiny, remote village, we would have been hard-pressed to find this level of hospitality anywhere else; where strangers are practically regarded as family, no matter where they are from. It was a truly humbling experience to witness people who have so little be so willing to give away so much.