One of the first nights in Dali, the same night we got the x-phase introduced, we also heard about the opportunity to experience the 彝族 (yi ethnicity) torch festival. This festival happens every year, all over Yunnan, but the main event happens in 楚雄 (Chuxiong). We were told that the whole city would be lit up with torches and bonfires. With some dissent and concern over losing the first four days of our Kunming homestays, the group decided that it was worth it to experience this once in a lifetime festival.
We spent the last two days in a Kunming hostel, and took a bus up this afternoon. Heavy traffic meant we arrived at Chuxiong around 5:30, met our gregarious host Liu Long, and left for dinner around 6:00. We found a restaurant with enough seats for all fourteen of us, and after eating we headed out to the main square for the night. It was 7:45. After 30 minutes of walking, we got to a small tunnel about six feet high and ten feet wide. Since there had been a few days of heavy rain, there was a foot and a half of muddy water at the bottom. A few eager festival-goers were sloshing through, but we turned around and took the longer way. After another 45 minutes of walking we saw that entry to the main square was blocked by a police barricade. Our host asked the policeman manning it and reported back alarmingly that “the tickets were all sold out.” We had all thought that this festival was free but after turning the corner around the square we saw a massive stage with strobe lights and a Jumbotron playing a low-res clip of fire. Entry at this point was also blocked by police, some holding automatic rifles.
Our host then decided to take us to the center of the Chuxiong 古城 (old city), where he thought we might be able to see some fire. We walked another half an hour, then entered at the northern gate. We wove our way through thick crowds and packed stalls, but didn’t see any fire. The deeper into the 古城 we got without seeing torches, bonfires, or fireworks, the more concerned we became. We finally arrived at the main square and were greeted with a green tarp covering the pit where the central bonfire was supposed to be held. A massive speaker in the corner of the square was blaring an announcement to the effect of: “there is no torch festival here tonight.” We asked around, and at first got the impression that somehow the city government waited too long to plan their city’s biggest event of the year, and so didn’t have any performers to light the fire, and not enough staff to ensure safety in the 古城. Then, it became clearer that because this was the first year of the paid party, and tickets were 100 yuan each (around 15 usd, but quite expensive in China), in an attempt to squeeze extra money out of this festival, the government had decided to shut down all fire activities other than this paid party. They wanted to funnel the tens of thousands of guests from all over Yunnan and China into this one ridiculously expensive staged festival. Walking back to our host’s apartment, we were dejected and frustrated.
After an unfortunately disappointing first day at the torch festival, our group’s spirits had noticeably dipped. Because of this, we had a relaxing morning. We first went to a Dai ethnicity restaurant and got traditional Chinese breakfast fare, consisting of noodles, 油条 (long Chinese doughnuts), soymilk, and steamed buns. Something interesting I learned about the Dai ethnicity is that they actually share a lot of similarities with some Thai cultures, especially in terms of cuisine; the character for Dai (傣) is even nearly the same as that for Thai (泰)!
In the afternoon, we headed to an open-air market for a late lunch. Something arguably as interesting as the market, in my opinion, was the bus we got on. As we approached the bus stop, what was immediately apparent was the massive line; everyone in Chuxiong, it seemed, was headed to the same market as us. As the already nearly full bus rolled in, everyone began to push against one another in a desperate attempt to be the first in line. It was utter chaos, and it’s honestly a miracle that everyone in the group was able to get on that bus; one of us even had to “push over a 55-year-old man,” the ends contextually justifying the means. Our friend and guide Liu Long later commented, “这就是中国感受。”: this is the feeling of China. He wasn’t wrong, and it’s hard to imagine the relentless horde of Chinese tourists without experiencing it firsthand. Tourism here in general seems to be on an entirely different scale, which is of course due to the difference in population compared to the West.
The market itself was mainly repetitive and tacky stalls, but there was one stall in particular that stood out: a tea shop specializing in uncooked Pu’er (生普洱) tea. Although I arrived later on, I learned that this store sells tea in tiny batches from Bangdong, a small village whose main industry is, unsurprisingly, tea. The tea itself was excellent, but what struck me most was the hospitality of the employees there. Even though we only bought the tiniest brick of tea, they still provided us with a seemingly infinite flow of tea, and then they even invited us a performance of traditional ethnic dances, along with seating at a viewing deck.
This dance performance was to be our first taste of the Torch Festival, nearly a day after our arrival in Chuxiong. We saw song and dance performances from the Yi, Dai, Wa, and Pu Long ethnic minorities. All of them were interesting, but what stood out was a Wa group dance performance; at one point, the lead dancer walked off stage and returned with a lit torch (this was also the point at which we all joked that we finally saw a torch at the torch festival). He then proceeded to run the fiercely burning torch up and down his torso, move the torch down through his pants, and even breathe fire using some sort of transparent alcoholic concoction. Unfortunately, we had to leave the performance earlier to make sure we beat the crowd for the bus, in order to avoid a repeat performance of what happened in the afternoon.
At night, we decided to head back into the old town on the off chance that there would be torch-lit festivities, as we’d been hearing a multitude of conflicting rumors. When we got to the Yi minority village, I saw the 100RMB entry fee, and dejectedly thought that to be the end of our Torch Festival experience. Suddenly, as if through divine intervention, Liu Long beckoned us into a nearby souvenir shop, and we were able to sneak into the festival area through a back entrance. I later asked Liu Long about it, and learned that he and an employee at the shop came from the same rural village, a fine display of the awesome power of Chinese 关系 (connections).
In the festival grounds, we were greeted by the sight of a large totem-pole-esque structure, around which were dancing Yi minority villagers accompanied by random Chinese tourists. Eventually, the main event of the evening came: 点火, the lighting of the torches. Unfortunately, even the official, government-sponsored event was somewhat disappointing for me; the lighting of the first torch was literally auctioned off, the villagers danced to 小苹果–a recent Han pop song–and, though I may be reading into this too much, there seemed to be a general lack of enthusiasm from the Yi villagers, especially from the older generation. It was obvious that the Yi culture was being corrupted and commercialized, but I suppose that’s a product of the greater commercialization and modernization of China in recent years. That said, the festival greatly improved when we got to light our own small torches and hold them up; with everyone holding torches and dancing around in a circle, I felt a part of the Yi Torch Festival as it might have been a century ago. In the end, even if the Torch Festival didn’t completely live up to the hype, this second day was certainly a redemption, and I can say with great confidence that I did in fact see torches at the Torch Festival.