Sunday, November 18, 2007

Eating History at Mother Lake, China

A culture dominated by women! No marriage! Sex as pleasure! Fresh food in abundance!
The Mosuo people can be found on the shores of Mother Lake (Lugu Hu), at the foot of Mother Mountain, on the border of China's Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. Their story is told best by Yang Erche Namu in her memoir Leaving Mother Lake (2003). Now Namu has opened a guest house on a peninsula overlooking this remote and beautiful lake. Here the intrepid tourist can experience the lake and enjoy a taste of Mosuo culture with Namu's extended family.

We arrived at Mother Lake after a stunning 10 hour scenic bus trip from Lijiang along the Yangtse River through 5 mountain ranges. On arriving at the guest house, we were served hot butter tea (salty and tasty) and sulima wine (like a rich sherry) by Namu's cousin and then taken to a nearby restaurant owned by her brother and his family. Here we selected fresh fish and vegetables in the open kitchen for our dinner served in a large wooden room decorated with a Tibetan shrine and posters of Namu. The food was very fresh but not particularly spicy or exciting.

The next day, after a breakfast of Mosuo pancakes (a kind of leek flatbread) we were taken by pig trough boat to Bird Island for a picnic. The women rowed and the men cooked. The main course, a live chicken, travelled with us in the small boat. While we explored the island, the chicken was boiled with potatoes and vegetables. Again, the food was very fresh and nourishing but a little bland. However, it went very nicely with beer chilled in the pristine lake.

That afternoon we were invited to tea with Namu's mother who still presides over the family compound in a small village on the Sichuan side of the lake. We were served butter tea, sulima wine, and fresh crispy cakes in a tiny room with an open fire, a poster of Mao, and 3 or 4 Mosuo hams hanging from the ceiling. This room is exactly as described in Leaving Mother Lake.

Fortunately our fellow guests were fluently bi-lingual and could translate Namu's mother's conversation about her famous daughter and the old ways. When our Chinese friend asked if they still followed the old customs and spoke the ancient language, she answered in Mandarin "You are many and we are few". Her daughters have moved to the city but her sons have stayed behind. She proudly showed us her goat and a new room she has built for her youngest son and his family. Offering us more food for the journey back, she did a little dance step and wished us well.

After visiting the wetlands at the end of the lake and the sacred cave in the heart of the mountain (now reached by chairlift), we finished our day with hotpot back at the family restaurant surrounded by mounds of food and many children.

The Mosuo people in their remote land are a colourful reminder of a unique culture which has been almost lost to the world. Because of Namu and a small band of cultural anthropologists, we can live a little of that fascinating history.

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