Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture (Liangshan) is in southern Sichuan, and home to the Yi people aka Nuosu or Lolo. Dating to 3,000 years of living in the mountainous lands and enveloped in valleys, the Nuosu of Liangshan created a unique religious-culture that guide their daily lives.
I took a 5 days trip to Riha town and trekked around the villages. Riha township is the nearest town where I started my trip. Basic restaurants and no guesthouses are around here. The journey from Zhaojue to Riha is 45 km and takes approximately 3 hours that crosses many villages and slowly ascending the elevation. The mud road is slippery after the rain, the driver required expertise to turn the tires around from the mud, for many moments I thought the car would plunge off the cliff.
Vast mountain ranges, no clear road to the villages from foothill, we randomly picked a starting point to climb up to Longgou township. The rain from previous day did not really help. Shoes carried wet mud, as climbing up the feet got heavier. It took around 1 hour to see the first mud-structure house. In the back of my mind, I thought about how do the villagers’ commute and how do they access the hospital.
Villages scattered on these ridges that constituted 15 to 70 plus households each. They are mainly elders and children living here. The weather is all-year-round cold. On summer days, a fleece is still required. The elders usually wrapped their bodies in indigo-raw-wool capes while sitting outside of their home.
About Yi People
The broad notion is that Yi people are dispersed in modern-day China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The subgroups in China resided in Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunan. In southern Sichuan, Liangshan is home to the largest Yi population. The geographical divide has resulted in 10% to 40% mutually intelligible between Yi dialects. My Yi speaking friend from Guizhou could not fully understand the Liangshan dialect and vice versa.
About Liangshan Yi aka Nuosu
Liangshan is a mountainous region and many villagers still claimed the highland residents. Terrace farming is an important method for the villages due to land scarcity. Culturally and social-structurally also drew distinctions between the subgroups. For instance, Yi in Yunan practices patrilocal marriage which differs from the Liangshan Yi’s neolocal marriage. Given the importance of Marxism’s notion, Yi society is labeled as “a slave society” based on its caste-class system: on top is Black Yi, the noble class, and the second is White Yi, the commoners and the base is mgapjie and gaxi.
Religion & Writing System
While climbing up I was told to spit on the cremation ground, which I saw nothing but ashes. The locals believe in spirits and the act of spitting is to despise the spirits. It’s very common to see dead chicks hang above house entrance or trees.
Animalist and ancestor worship is the main belief in Liangshan, as well as a small number converted to Christianity. Since the 1980s, China’s opening policies have helped to revive this practice. The religious practitioners are the mediators between human and supernatural spirits, namely Bimo, sunyi, and monyi.
Bimo holds a high-respectable statue in the Yi society who acquired the knowledge of the Yi scripts, medicines, and astronomy, etc. through “White Yi” male lineages. The Yi people consult the priest for births, weddings, funerals, and illness and wealth, etc. Practically bimo is the only group of people who could read and write the Yi scriptures. The power of writing knowledge that the Bimo acquires allows them to create Yi’s literature, arts, and philosophy, etc.
I was excited to meet this Bimo who was willing to share his booklets and the other tools he uses. Their work is no different from other people, working on farms.
The other two religious practitioners are sunyi and monyi (female shamans). They perform drum beating and dance to mediate with spirits and clients. Unlike Bimo, sunyi and monyi can be from any background. In the last decade, all religious practitioners are easy to be found in markets. They travel to the main towns to make livings or moved to the low-lands. They attract followers from outside of their main circle. Some of them have to take up full-time jobs in towns while keeping shamanism practices.
In big town’s markets and monthly organized markets, these religious practitioners are found with believers surrounding them.
House & in the Villages
Due to conflicts and invasion, the Yi people’s ancestors chose the cliff and highlands as a strategic place to build homes. Around the villages, no paved roads seem. It’s not pleasant to walk here on rainy days.
The traditional houses constructed in mud walls and wooden pillars in villages. Houses are only one floor in a triangle shape and not built in grand style, with no separation rooms. When walking into Yi’s home, the bed is on one end and the kitchen is on the other end. The floor is usually mud ground. Every house comes in a yard where the chicken coop and pigsty installed. Houses rarely come in a barn or storage room, the harvest potatoes are pile in one corner. Inside the house, two yellow light bulbs swinging off the ceiling. Some families are well-off furnished with tv sets.
Food in the Highlands
Yi people are extremely hospitality that makes me embarrassed to accept their offers as resources are livelihood in the remote areas. Whenever we walk into a village, someone would offer to slaughter a suckling pig. Piglet is a source of income and worth a few hundred yuan. They slaughtered one piglet as an offering to the guests and serves it with potatoes and dried vegetable soup. It’s the best feast I got from every village.
When the food is ready, we circled the small basin and sitting on the low stools. Everyone uses the small plastic or wooden-made ladle to fetch the soup. Meats are chopped into large pieces that sprinkle chili, Sichuan peppercorn, and salt on top. Buckwheat buns, potatoes, or taros are commonly served. The buns are huge:). Dried vegetable soup is the main ingredient for the sour soup. These are their main diet and change seasonally.
Rice is grown in the low-land but in the highland potatoes and buckwheat are year-round food. The food from the farmlands is just enough for families to survive with very little extra to sell in the market. Corn is also grown in some areas. So do goats, pigs, and chickens as the main livestock.
This generous man was our host for lunch. He lighted up the firewoods and pour water into the large wok. The meat is chopped into large chunks and boil in this wok. Firewoods are commonly used for cooking. I haven’t seen a gas stove in the village. This large wok is for boiling meats and the broth is for vegetable soup. This home is the very few I saw used rattan wall to separate the room space.
Best time to visit Liangshan
Liangshan receives rainfall all year round. June receives the most rainfall in 147 mm and average humidity of 46%. Liangshan is wet.
November to March are the coldest months in the year with 10 Celsius as the coldest.
April to October are the best time to visit with sunny weather. May to July receive the most rainfall. It’s not ideal for hiking.
2 Days Xichang
4 days Xichang & Zhaojue & Meigu
4 to 7 Days Zhaojue & Atulie’er Village and other Villages
If you decide to visit Zhiermo town, remember to visit the Guli Canyon 古里峡谷景区.
Tip: Expect you will spend two days on transportation. You can visit Zhaojue in one day but not the other villages unless you have your own car.
How to get to Liangshan?
Xichang 西昌 is the capital of Liangshan. It connects through flights, trains, and buses. I flew to Chengdu and take a bus to Xichang.
Xichang Qingshan Airport:- Sichuan Airline, China Southern Airlines, and Shenzhen Airlines, and few others more operates direct flights to Xichang. The outbound cities are Chengdu, Chongqing, and Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. The flight is about 50 minutes.
Xichang Train Station:- Xichang Station and Xichangnan Station trains are the main stations. The main train line connects Kunming to Chengdu. Trains from Beijing, Chongqing, Xi’an, and Panzhihua also connect to Xichang. From Chengdu or Kunming, the train takes about 8 to 11 hours.
Xichang Tourist Bus Station is the main station. If you start from Chengdu, bus start from Jinsha station (7:30、8:30、9:30、10:30、11:00、12:00、13:00、14:00、15:00、16:00、17:00), Shiyangchang Station, and Wukuaishi Station operate bus to Xichang.
How to get to Zhaojue 昭覺 County & Atulie’er Village from Xichang？
Xichang East Bus Station 西昌汽车客运东站 is where you take a bus to the towns. The bus ride takes about 3 hours through the curvey mountainous road. Zhaojue and Leibo take different routes. Bus tickets sold out very quickly for the morning bus. It’s best you buy it a day in advance. No seat assign.
Zhaojue County, Meigu美姑 County, Bushi布拖, etc. are large towns in Liangshan. They have hotels, restaurants, and transportation that are easy to connect to small villages. Keep in mind that travel between towns vans are the most popular public transportation or hire a car. Some villages are not connected to the road which means you have to hike.
Atulie’er Village 阿土列尔村 went viral in the news for its long steep stairs to the village that is under the administration of Zhiermo township.
1) The bus route operates from Xichang to Leibo stop by Atulie’er. Just mention the village name to the driver.
2) Xichang to Zhaojue tp Zhi’ermo route is the longest. You have to walk 6 km to the stairs to Atulie’er village.
TIP: Keep in mind Atulie’er is a tourist village and some villagers are staying there. No accommodation or restaurants. Camping and staying at local’s home are the options. Ask around!
Where to stay?
No guesthouse in any villages except the large towns like Zhaojue and Meigu. You could camp or ask the villagers to see if they have accommodations. No where to buy food in the village. You either carry with you or check with the villagers. They would be happy to help.
Useful Information & Packing in Liangshan towns
- ATMs don’t support foreign cards and no money exchange in Zhaojue and other big towns. Withdraw in Xichang before departing to villages.
- Pack warm cloth and raincoat
- Waterproof hiking shoes
- Camping gears
- Basic Toiletry
- Power bank
- Day Trip backpack