Existing Member?

xEurasia Odyssey

Lugu Lake

CHINA | Monday, 7 October 2013 | Views [2342]

Lugu Lake

Lugu Lake is among the most beautiful places in China. It borders both Yunnan and Sichuan provinces surrounded by mountains. There are a number of minority cultures that have kept their traditions alive in the region, of which the Musuo are the most prominent around the lake. UNESCO recognizes Musuo traditional dance and music, and they are reputed to be the last living matriarchal system.

 According to the Hotel brochure, translated by Jack my guide for a day and a half, the lake is situated at 2690 m. (8825 ft.) above sea level.  It has 68 sq. km. The deepest part is 93 m. and the average depth is 40m. The water is clearly visible down to 12 m. and is pure enough to drink. Swimming and boating other, than the traditional pig trough, Zhu Shao, boats, are not permitted in order to keep the water clean. There are five islands in the lake, four peninsulas, and one long inlet. 14 pebble beaches grace its shoreline, mostly on the Sichuan side. The climate averages 12.9 C (ca. 55 F) during the year. For about 10 months there is blue sky and fresh air, the remaining two are during monsoon season in the summer.

 There are villages on both sides of the lake.  The bus from Lijiang stops on the Yunnan side and one has to take a taxi to cross the border to get to the Sichuan side. The Yunnan side by the bus stop is more upscale than the areas on the Sichuan side, which are more traditional. Lugu Lake town, which comprises 90 villages, is part of Sichuan. Most of its area is water, however, including 15,000 hectares  (over 37,000 acres) of wetlands, which include the National Wetlands Park of the Grass Sea or mountains, like the Holy Mt. Gemu.  (In China, villages belong to towns, which belong to counties, which are part of prefectures. Cities can be either a prefecture in itself or a mix of multiple prefectures.  Provinces can also be single cities, like Beijing, or like a state/province in N. America.) Of the many villages in the town, 22 are Musuo, of which 18 are on the lake. The village next to the hotel, Gu sa Village, has 53 families with about 300 people. Gu Sa means rich fields in the local language. Hemp grows everywhere here and the hemp plant seed is one of the ingredients in yak butter tea; its bark is also used for weaving clothes.

All told, there are about 8,000 Musuo living in the Lugu Lake region. Their buildings are built with wood and look like log homes with tiled dragon style roofs. They are built around a central courtyard and the complex has a grandmother’s house and separate one for girls over the age of 13. The uncle, the grandmother’s son, also lives in the complex. There is a golden stupa room for the family priest/lama. There was a Musuo Museum on the Yunnan side that I visited that was laid out as a typical house, with the exception of a separate section that contained a number of Joseph Rock’s photographs and artifacts he had collected. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to photograph the photographs.

Joseph Rock was perhaps the first Western scientist to study the region. He was an Austrian-American botanist, who taught himself eight languages. He sent back whole caravans of specimens to Harvard for further study.  He lived on one of the smallest islands in the lake for about 27 years in the summer, while he wintered in Lijiang when he wasn’t off exploring various places in the province. He is famous for his botanical work and also for his study of the Naxi and Musuo cultures. Besides this section, however, I was allowed to take pictures and the museum guide was very detailed in his explanations to my questions. 

When entering the museum there were two murals on the entry doors. One of Tszuma Sope – Goddess Gemu on White Horse; the horse is said to bring blessings.  The other was of a Mongolian man with a tiger on a chain.  The Mongolian’s face looked to me like Padmasambhava, but the story was that the painting referred to Kublai Khan’s taming/conquering the Chinese dragon in 1253.  Kublai Khan used this region as one of his local hubs.

 As this is a matriarchal culture the grandmother is the most important member of the family. The Grandmother’s room is off to the left in the courtyard. There are two steps up and down to enter the room and one is expected to bow when entering.  The steps indicate that there is something sacred about the entry into the grandmother's space. The room is in two main sections divided by a stoop on which the majority of the room sits. At the back of the entrance is a table with a fireplace in front of it, and in the back corner is a Buddhist shrine. There is a long bench along the wall for visitors to sleep or sit.  From the rafters above hang various pieces of pig, arms, legs, face and two bag-like things, which are the lining of one of the pig’s inner organs; I was told the liver, but can’t be sure about that. At the back on a table is a large pig carcass that has been cleansed of all inner organs, blood and bones, then filled with salt, pepper, wine and a preservative.  The carcass is sewn and kept for 7-8 years on the table or somewhere else dry in the house as a sign of wealth and prosperity. The tradition for doing this seems to have started in the distant past when people didn’t usually have enough to eat, nor any way to preserve meat beyond a few days. 

 When one enters the room one needs to turn right to the main section, which is again divided into a right and left section.  The right section is for the men to sit and has the male pole by it; the left side is where grandmother’s cupboard bed, the female pole and the women sit. The women’s pole is cut from the lowest level of the tree trunk, near the roots, while the male pole is taken from the middle section of the tree; both poles must be from the same tree and only by having both of them is the house strong enough. Young children sit in the middle. Fathers do not play a role in Musuo culture, but men do. The two most influential people in the family are grandmother and uncle, or grandmother’s son. Women over 60 earn the right to be called grandmothers.

 In the middle of the room at the back is the hearth, which has a large open round iron inset with three prongs to hold pots.  At the back of the circle, by the wall is a small insert for food offerings to the ancestors.  The wall behind the hearth has three levels of shelves for offerings and the back is beautifully carved dark wood with treasure jewel vase in a relief. Below and to the sides of the woodcarving are two wooden Chinese lions. Offerings are given to the ancestors with every meal before anyone else eats.  Fire plays a very important part in Musuo culture and the hearth is intended to be kept burning as an eternal flame 24/7. They worship the non-gendered Fire god as well as the Goddess Gemu and Tibetan Buddhist deities. Fire means happiness and well-being as it provides warmth and cooks food. Ancestor spirits are not just in and around the hearth, but also in the heavens, so sometimes the smoke from cooked meat – pig, goat, yak – is sent up through the rafters to the heavens above.  Incense is also offered to the ancestors as well as to the Fire god.

Beneath Grandmother’s cupboard bed is a storage area for gifts and money received. Diagonally across from her bed is a small door that is only opened for birth and death. They open it when a baby is born, and when they take the body out of the house after death wrapped in white cloth similar to a baby’s swaddling clothes. Once a person dies, both the Daba (Musuo shaman) and the Lama are called.  The Daba immediately performs send off rituals, while the Lama looks for the most auspicious time for the funeral, based on the deceased birth and death data.  Once the time has been chosen, which can be anywhere from a week to a month after death, the funeral procedures begin.  The three-day ritual begins with the Lama reciting scriptures for the deceased, the following day a wake is held with family and friends, and the third day the actual funeral proceedings take place under the auspices of both the Daba and Lama.  The body is taken from the house and placed in a small log cabin-like box that is on top of the funeral pyre.  Today various kinds of artificial inflammants are used to help the burning process.

On the opposite wall and facing the hearth is a poster of the Goddess Gemu on a white mare. She sits astride in a traditional Musuo white skirt and pink-red bodice with rainbow colored ribbons flowing from her hair, headdress and the horse’s saddle blanket. The goddess holds a flute in one hand, indicating the importance of music to the culture, and a trident with conch in the other, indicating the strength religion brings with calling to the gods.

 There are three major life event rituals and celebrations for the Musuo: Birth -the 30 days after a child is born; a Coming of Age ceremony when children reach age 13 which makes them adults, during this ceremony the children leave their kids clothes behind and change to adult clothes;  and the third is Death.

 It may seem strange that there is no celebration for weddings. The reason is that they never marry, but instead keep the traditional matriarchal ways, including ‘walking marriage’. There are a lot of rumors about this custom.  In essence, while the Musuo never marry, they do bond with one partner and often for life.  They are not promiscuous but do allow for a changing of partners if the relationship sours.  As they don’t need to go through a long drawn out divorce, life is much less complicated. In effect, if they change partners, it is on the basis of serial monogamy, and only within the culture. Musuo people who have relationships outside the culture are severely ostracized, unless they become famous as one young woman, Namu, did. She became a well-known folksinger in Beijing, then married an American, divorced him, and married a Norwegian.  She now has a museum dedicated just to her life. Her biography has been translated into a number of languages and was on sale at the museum for an outrageous amount of money (no, I didn’t buy it). {I later found it on Amazon for $15, which is considerably less than what it was being sold for at the museum!}

The courtship ritual is actually quite involved. According to a small brochure in the hotel room: Ahxia relationships begin when a boy sends his chosen girl a special dress and scarf. If she accepts them, then she is interested in pursuing the relationship. Once they are ready to become seriously involved the girl will tie a shawl waist belt around the boy’s middle.  This means they have become an Ahxia couple. Not all relationships end up as Ahxia relationships, however.  Children are thought to become adults at a ceremony when they turn 13, at which time they can participate in all adult activity, including choosing their own partners from other villages.  They often stay with each other for 2-3 years, but may change partners at any time. Around age 17 they are ready for an Ahxia relationship. When they fall in love the Musuo boy will leave his home around midnight with a cowboy hat on to spend time with his girlfriend.  Before he visits his girlfriend he needs three things: a cowboy hat to hide his identity (& to hang on the door as a “do not disturb” sign), pebbles to throw to the window (when she comes she opens the window or door for him, if she doesn’t want his advances he’ll get a bucket of water thrown on him. If allowed in he can climb up the side of the house and enter her room), he also needs a good relationship with the dog, so he brings meat for the dog to keep him quiet. By 4-5am the boy returns home and works in his own family’s fields. According to Chinese tourist sites, when a child is born, it stays with the mother. They may not know who the father is as the father stays with his mother’s family.  The local people, however, say this isn't true.  Both parents are well aware of who their children are, even if the father lives with his mother's family. The uncle takes on the father’s role and is very important because he looks after the family. The “Lover’s Walking/Grass Bridge” is said to be the path that the boys take to visit their girlfriends.

This bridge is known in China as the No. 1 Love Bridge in the World. It is truly a very romantic place with water, mountains and clear air. According to legend, when a Musuo girl or boy didn’t have a partner, they would go to the bridge and make a wish. They would then find a lover with whom they would stay together until death. There is a heart symbol on a large rock at the entrance by the Black Hat Temple, i.e., Bon,  side of the bridge.

According to other sources (the hotel brochure trans. by Jack), the bridge was first started in the Qing dynasty by the local clan. It was to help local people cross the wetlands.  It was an important security stop on the Tea Horse trail from central China to Burma. At that time the bridge was much bigger and longer, 3 m. wide with 6m long poles as connecters. If there were a war, they would simply remove the wooden panels from the bridge. Today the bridge is about 4.5 ft. wide.

The bridge crosses the Grass Wetlands, which is full of fish, shrimp, frogs, seabirds etc. As many Chinese like to eat frogs, this area provides good business ventures for the local people. There are 42 different kinds of birds that overwinter on the lake and in the grass sea.

Lu Shang Wa bend, near where my hotel is, is supposed to be the meeting place for the Goddess Gemu and her Dragon Lover, Hu Zhau. It is a good place for engagements; for if you become engaged here your love is said to  last forever.

 The Musuo believe in both Tibetan Buddhism and their Daba religion. There is a special annual Zhua Shan festival, which is associated with the earlier shamanic tradition, when there are horse races and koras around the holy mountain, Mt. Gemu, asking for blessings for the harvest. In Sichuan the festival is celebrated on July 15, in Yunnan it is on July 25th.

 Most of the Musuo’s follow the Black Hat (Bön) or another non-traditional Tibetan Buddhist sect, the Wan Sho.  Yellow Hats (Gelugpas) are also in the region, but not very many right by the lake. All the temples in the region were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but since about 2008, there has been a massive rebuilding campaign. The sizable Black Hat Temple was originally reconstructed in 1980 and is currently under another massive overhaul. The outside is almost finished, but the inside has just started.  They do have the prayer wheels in place for the backwards (in relation to other Tibetan Buddhist traditions) counter clockwise kora around the temple. As with other religious sites, even if the temple isn’t complete, the market next to it is and they were doing a lively business from all the tourists. The Black Hat Temple is right by the entrance to one side of the Lovers Walking Bridge.

 There are stupas and prayer flags flying all around the lake and hillsides.  One is never far from small temples, stupas or shrines. There is even one directly outside my room window and another by the hotel entrance. There are conflicting stories about when Buddhism came to this region, but from what I can gather, when Kublai Khan came, his troops brought a form of Buddhism with them.  Then another form came with the V. Dalai Lama in the late 1600s. As Bön is perhaps the most practiced variety, it blended well with earlier Daba shamanic religion, to the extent now that the dabas, who are the wisdom keepers of the tradition as it is based on oral transmission (the Musuo do not have a written script), are dying out and the legends with them. They also recognized Lobsang Lama as a “Living Buddha, ” but as he died two years ago, I was unable to learn more about why he had earned this title.

 I was able to find out a little bit about some of the legends of the Goddess Gemu. One of the most common is that Gemu was the most beautiful girl in the known world.  She fell in love with Hu Zhau, a dragon and he with her.  This was a forbidden love as dragons belong to heaven and people to earth.  Nonetheless, the two lovers arranged to meet at night; Hu Zhau would go to Gemu’s house after dark where they would then spend the night together. Hu Zhau always had to leave before daybreak so that no one would know about their relationship.  One night, he fell into a deep sleep and didn’t wake up in time. The Heavenly King found out and decided to punish him by turning him into a mountain.  Gemu was so upset that she cried and cried and cried; over seven days and nights her tears created Lake Lugu, which took the shape of a broken heart. Heavenly King then turned her into a mountain as well, where she rules from a cave.  Today the mountain lovers still meet crossing the waters after dark. Gemu is the female mountain and is also called the Lion Mountain; it is on the left side, which is inverted from most Chinese traditions.

In the cave she judges people after death and sends those who haven’t been good down the dark unending hole of Hell, while those who were good ascend to Heaven.

 The Goddess Gemu also protects the people as long as they don’t misuse her. The young man at the museum told me a different creation story.  Jack, my guide and translator, did his best to explain the following to me:

A long time ago, before there was a lake in this region,  it was just a large green meadow. A Musuo orphan boy helped the people watch over their animals, the yaks and goats grazing on the meadow. One day he found a huge fish in a pond.  He carefully cut a piece of meat from it for barbequing. (The Musuo love to bbq) On the second day, he saw that the fish was perfectly whole. He cut another piece from the fish and ate it again.  This went on for a number of days, until one day he told his secret to some of the villagers. They came out to the pond and also cut pieces from the fish, then used 18 water buffalo to pull the huge fish out of the water. There was a tremendous spray of water as the fish was almost hauled on land and immediately the grass meadow flooded, creating the lake. The fish was a form of the Goddess Gemu.

Musuo Grandmother saw what was happening and had the people get into the pig’s troughs and use them as boats, which saved them from the flood, and created the Zhu Shao boats that are still used on the lake.  In Musuo language, “lake” means “mother” because its water comes from Holy Gemu Mountain. Like a mother, the mountain gives milk/sustenance to her children.

 In this culture, cows, traditionally the symbol of a mother,  are instead a symbol of religion and hard work, while horses bring blessings. A white horse is a symbol of the friendly bond between animals and humans. Horses can also chase ghosts away. Unlike a few other places in China or in Kyrgyzstan, the Musuo would never eat horsemeat.

 The Daba religion is typical of other indigenous Shamanic religions in the region.  'Da' means to cut or to carve, and 'ba' relates to the slices from the cuttings.  It is said that the daba cuts away the veils between the worlds to reveal the spirits intent to the people, much the way a wood carver uncovers the picture in the wood.  The tree is cut, as is the animal, but they don’t die. Instead of being killed they are offering their properties to the betterment and well-being of the people. Hence the fish story. Different from many other shamans, the dabas do not collect the herbs for their healing rites themselves. They are, however, called upon when people are sick prior to going to a medical physician or hospital. They use bells and chants to call the spirits to cleanse and protect the patient. The Musuo believe in ghosts and evil spirits and the daba is able to call on other spirits to protect them. The daba is also considered a wise man. Some scholars believe that the daba can be either sex, but at the museum I was told they were only men.  They do not need to go through a near-death experience the way many other shamanic apprentices do, but rather simply want to follow this path.  The tradition is also not passed down within the family as it is with the Yi or Dongba, neighboring minority communities.

 The Yi Bawa are similar to the Musuo Daba, but as the Yi do not believe in Tibetan Buddhism, and have kept their shamanic practices, the bawa are increasing in numbers rather than decreasing as is the case with the dabas.  The Yi believe that spirits are everywhere and that the ancestors can protect the family.  When a person dies s/he either becomes a ghost, which is not a friendly spirit, or is sent to heaven. Similar to the Musuo, the Yi offer food and blessings to the ancestors with every meal.

The Yi have a creation story that says in the beginning there were 10 suns and 9 moons. It was impossible to live as it was far too hot, so a warrior set about shooting down nine of the suns and eight of the moons.  Due to his expertise, we are now blessed with a world that is neither too hot nor too cold, allowing plants to grow and animals to survive.

 Legends abound in this region, and I sincerely hope that they will be written down and translated before the last of the dabas dies and the stories become distorted. Even the priests at the Gemu temple by the cave were unable to explain the mural to me, but they did want a donation for being in there and outrageous sums for fortune telling. Legends are not just stories; they are the heart and soul of a people and when they are lost the essence of the culture is lost.  Much the way the heart of Tibetan Buddhism is being changed with the crass commercialization of the tradition in China as well as various other places around the world.

 Lugu Lake is a beautiful sanctuary that is on the cusp of becoming a major tourist destination.  The government is improving the roads in over the mountains from both the Yunnan and Sichuan sides, which will make it much easier for domestic tourists to get here. (The van I rode in took over five hours with only a brief photo stop to get here from Lijiang.) They are also building a new airport.  Temples are being built and renovated. At the moment, I am the only Westerner here and the only person who speaks English or any Western language. (Jack has already returned to Lijiang, and he was the only link I had to any known language.) This makes it difficult and fascinating for me, but I suspect that within a few years time Lugu Lake will be a destination resort not just for the domestic Chinese market, but for the international market as well.  Wildflowers, mountains, caves, a huge lake with islands, clean air and water, and unique cultures are a heady mix for the tourist industry. I just hope that it doesn’t negatively impact the local people too much.







Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About krodin

Follow Me

Where I've been


Photo Galleries

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about China

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.