In search of a story filled with interesting characters and good times, music, drinking and mayhem, Stephan Larose recently spent three days partying at the Snow Mountain Music Festival. He interviewed a few bands, got all his nasty clothes stinking like campfire smoke and spent long periods in a near-hypothermic state. Here is that story.>>>
Powerful crosswinds sawed wildly around the plane as we approached Lijiang Airport. Still a few hundred feet in the air, we slid sickeningly to the right and then rotated left. Hurtling forward at 300 kph the plane careened directly ahead, despite being pointed 45 degrees left of the runway. The mental image of us flying practically sideways into catastrophe had me almost laughing until we were hit with another volley of turbulence whose violence cleared my eyes—oh yeah, if we hit the runway like this we'll flip the plane, explode, and be reduced to tiny blackened shreds of fused flesh and clothing even forensic investigators won't be able to differentiate from charred bits of beef noodle amid the flaming wreckage! More sickening lurches to the left, then right. Nervous giggles and moans from other passengers follow a particularly sharp crack as the plane is raked by another vortex. Suddenly everything gets calm, the plane stabilizes, and the landing is perfect. Loud sighs of relief. Pretty hairy for a beginning... I wonder what it foreshadows...
During the thirty minute drive into Lijiang, patches of sunlight in farmers' fields glow like fool's gold, the false promise of clear skies soon to buried under hulking vessels of sodden cloud the color of Antarctic algae. The skies darken to gray-green by 6:00 p.m., but I'm still comfortable in my shorts and T-shirt. Good ol' Canadian temperament…
By the time I meet Brian and John, the rain is pounding down. John runs down the irregularly cobbled alleys of Lijiang's Bei Men Old Town using my massive red and blue suitcase as cover, followed by Brian who shouts in praise of the foul weather while raising his open bottle of Beer Lao to the sky. By the time we get to John's bar, Stone the Crows (130 Wuyi Lu, Tel: 158 9438 4361), John and I are shivering from the moisture and cold. Brian is freezing, one of the awnings along the way having overflowed and dumped a bucket-full of water squarely on his head, a one-in-million bullseye he laughs off while ordering a whiskey to warm up. I pull up a stool, grab a rocks tumbler full of Jameson's Irish and declare my October National Holiday begun. Cheers boys!
So would begin a week of constant near-hypothermia, inebriation, song, dance and celebration.
When my old friend Brian called me up to ask me to visit him in Lijiang for the Snow Mountain Music Festival, I was overjoyed. I hadn't seen nature, let alone been to an outdoor music festival in ages. Here was an opportunity to get out of the big city, do some great photography, enjoy the company of a whole bunch of randoms, and listen to lots of great music. I couldn't ask for a better vacation!
We sidled up to the bar and started catching up, getting to know John, his Chinese partner and girlfriend Dan Dan, and Brian's fiancé Jo in the process. As we raised glasses and enjoyed laugh after laugh, Stone the Crows began to fill up with a motley collection of backpackers from Singapore, Hong Kong, Norway, Holland and the U.S. It'd been a long time since I'd found myself in the company of young international travelers, and good company it was. For all for them the road ahead was wide open, adventure beckoned around every bend, and every day new forks of opportunity were presenting themselves. All around me was the glow of smiling eyes, the roar of full-bellied laughter and a host of unpronounceable names belonging to people making crude jokes and passionately relating tales they'd recently lived.
Tipsy, happy and energized, a few of us made our way to 2416 Studio (Jin Xin Lane, No. 19 Guang Yi Street) through the impenetrably labyrinthine twists and turns of Lijiang's old town. Seriously, if you are a first-day traveler here on your own, do not go out and get drunk without someone who knows the town. Trying to figure your way back to Mama Naxi's Guesthouse (78 Wenhua Lane, Wuyi Jie. Tel. +86 888 510 0700) at 4:00 a.m. requires augmented cerebral functions, and a seriously homing pigeon-level sense of direction. Naturally, when you're in the opposite state and retarded on alcohol it'll be a bit more challenging, so let's just call it straight up impossible.
2416 Studio is a spacious Jamaican-style bar with a wood-built open-air courtyard tended by a comely cross-dressing lad (it was a costume party) offering dirt cheap tequila shots and tasteless jokes about short people like me. Naturally, I liked him. All around the thick wood-beam frame of the courtyard were Jamaican flags and hangings depicting cannabis and Bob Marley. In the middle of the bar, a large bonfire blazed bright.
On and in front of the stage, Ren Min Gu Dui (The People's Drum Band) a six-man drum and didgeridoo ensemble were hard at work, shirtless, sweating, pounding irrepressibly primal rhythms out of their bongos and djembes. Around the fire looking possessed by Ren Min Gu Dui's beat-driven evocation of feral powers were about a dozen people doing the silliest dance I've ever seen; part funky chicken, part Amazonian tribal dance, part hippy sway. Hoots, shouts and animal sounds echoed in the night, the normally shy Chinese now wiggling, screaming and laughing unabashedly beside their foreign counterparts. Everywhere I looked, no pretense, no fronting, no worries. Everybody footloose, huge smiles on their faces. A far cry from plastic, status-obsessed Shanghai where spoilt nouveau-riche fashion victims dance in a brittle, arrhythmic parody of what appears to be corporeal mortification.
Thanks to Dan Dan, finding my way back to Mama Naxi's later on was easy; getting inside was another matter. Here's a little heads up to all of you thinking of traveling to Lijiang—all the guesthouses lock their doors at night and times vary. So if you go out, plan on getting back before lockdown if you don't want to sit there and bang on the door for twenty minutes.
The next day, we hopped in a van (RMB 15) to the Snow Mountain Music Festival grounds in Shuhe, the old town just outside of Lijiang proper. Brian, Jo and I were accompanied by two friends from New Zealand, Hana and Josh, who'd come to volunteer in Maciej Koterba's Happiness for the Children charity event, and to sell an incredible Vietnamese coffee Hana'd discovered during her travels a month earlier. Rough ground, wrapped in banana leaves for a day to allow tiny fungi to grow and then fine ground, this was a coffee like I'd never tasted before. It was a new form of chocolate. Rich, bittersweet, tasting lightly of banana cream and burnt cacao, it was unlike anything I'd ever tasted. I was instantly addicted.
Having collected my press pass, Hana, Josh and I went to find our lodgings only to be taken on a three-hour wild-goose chase as the organizers tried to figure out just where we were supposed to sleep. Truly there's no better way for a ridiculous situation to find its resolution than by coming full circle. After a long quest lugging my suitcase through the rain, a ton of pointless idling, and umpteen discussions about different room sharing arrangements we finally came back to the first guesthouse we visited (K2 Hostelling International #1 Guailiu Lane, Kangpu Rd, Shuhe, Tel. +86 888 513 0110) and settled on the same room and room share arrangements we started with.
"Ole shet man, es dat all the clothezez you bring? Your suitcase looks so huge and it's, like, empty!" Exclaimed Frank the Austrian fire-breather. He'd be sharing the cramped two-bed quarters with me for the next three days. I looked into the suitcase with mixed feelings. I'd just spent the last three hours lugging this massive thing all over the place, thank god it was light. But then, the weather was cold and rainy and I'd packed no raingear, just a single long-sleeved shirt, and a few T-shirts. Hey, don't blame me, I heard Yunnan Province was supposed to be spring-like all year round! Oh well, it was too late to worry about that, the concert had already started and we'd all wasted enough time.
Unfortunately for organizers, bands and fans, the weather gods were not being too kind. By the time we'd arrived to catch the Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project's set, the turgid cumuli—which resembled endless fields of round, ash-colored butt cheeks—hung so low you could practically reach out and touch them. Of course, this is something you totally would not want to do, especially come potty time.
The crowd was predictably small, but QRBP ain't no slouches. Not only are they one and all virtuosic talents on their respective instruments, but they play boot-stomping tunes about incest, huffing gasoline and shaving drunken sailors private's off with rusty razors—all at a frenetic pace no one can resist.
It might have been raining, the sky might have looked like a sea of wet toilet paper, and it might have been cold as hell out, but the crowd couldn't help it. Under umbrellas, ponchos and assorted rain gear, sandals, shoes and galoshes stomped in the puddles, hands waved frantically in the air and excited yelps echoed in reply to refrains too dirty to mention here. Some tattooed Chinese guy was even going at it bare foot and shirtless.
Josh, Brian, Jo, Hana and I had a dance circle going along with a couple American girls. At first the requisite dance moves: The shopping cart dance—walk, take product, look at product dump in cart, repeat; feed the chickens (looks like deal the cards)—spread feed around you in a semi circle, jump; roll the dice—lean back, shake a hand wildly, pitch hand forward. Suddenly some little white kid jumped in and break-danced in the mud, everyone cheered. Right after him came a Chinese security officer, not to break it up, but to give muddy break dancing his best shot to even louder cheers—the guy probably wasn't even on break.
With serious moves like that thrown down the circle had to seriously step up. Out came the weird moves: Stealing candy from a baby—lean down, grab, turn, running man; give grandma her anti-psychotics—lean, extend hand, then wave both in a frenzy; cross the street in China—an animated combo of running man with a bunch of stop/starts and simulated about-to-be-run-over freak outs; and other instant classics.
Freezing and exhausted, the crew, along with QRBP, moved out from the main stage area down Shuhe's pretty main drag to Mamamia, where pizzas, doner kebabs, micro-brewed beers and more live music awaited. We ate our fill and clapped for Nevada Bob before moving on to the Yeti Bar (41 Jiewei Cun, Shuhe Old Town, mobile: 152 8448 3905), another bar featuring an open plan and campfires contained in oversized woks. After foraging wood from a build site down the road (I wonder if that building will turn out lop-sided…) we piled the beams high and watched the flames climb, the heat stoking our thirst and renewing our energy. Soon it was hot enough for us to shed layers, our socks and boots steaming as wild conversations turned to fiery debate and hilarious banter.
By 5:30 a.m. it was time to go. Stepping back into the freezing rain I looked at my umbrella in doubt, one of the caps had broken off its stem, reducing the umbrella's effective cover area. Hana, Josh and I had to ask Brian and Jo for directions, having little recollection of the route we'd used to arrive, but felt confident once they'd gotten us on the right track. 75-minutes later, after taking a winding self-guided tour of every wrong way home, we found ourselves back at square one, deathly cold and pondering our next move. The threat of hypothermia palpable, we'd decided to simply hide under one of Shuhe's many gift shop/restaurant awnings and cuddle up for body warmth while waiting for the sun to rise when Brian popped out, literally from nowhere.
Brian and Jo had done the exact same thing as us, but serendipity had guided Jo's hand to an unlocked pub door. We quickly got in and jumped on couches, burying ourselves in cushions to regain lost heat. The respite from the cold was incredibly welcome, it already felt as if my core body temperature had dropped a couple degrees, but the comfort wasn't to last.
Brian's Irish, and though most people would find that statement self-explanatory in explaining his particular psychoses, I will, for the uninitiated, expand a little for clarity's sake. Brian is a volatile guy afflicted with delusions of both incalculable genius and persecution. The Irish are already fiery and passionate in general, add to that a hint of paranoia and a dash of alcohol-fueled separation anxiety (due to his towering intellect, not a need for mommy) and voila—psychological nitroglycerine!
We'd just been getting comfortable, an ember of warmth taking hold and starting to spread through my core, when the episodes began. First, screams at the top of his lungs to verify that we were indeed alone in the closed bar.
"See! Ha ha, nobody'll botter us—we've got de place all t' owrselves!" Then hoarse, fitful whispers—"We've got t' get de hell out uf 'ere, at any moment dey might come wit machetes an chop our heads off –I'm serious!"
For a moment, Brian stood frozen with both hands clawing his hair on either side of his head, eyes glazed over, unseeing all but scenes of vicious attack unfolding in his mind. He was the very picture of drunken panic. "Wait! There's got t' be a huuuge stash of alcohol here!" he cried suddenly before spinning around and diving into the back room. "Ha ha! I've found de muderload!"
"Dis is great!!" He exclaimed at the top of his lungs before shushing himself. "Shit, dey'll ere dat forr surrrre!" He squatted furtively, taking a big pull from his beer, his eyes darting from side to side in search of creeping, machete-wielding antagonists.
"Bah! Everyone in de world is crazy but me!" He said in a tone mostly neutral but just shy of bitter.
"Epitaph," expounded Josh and we all burst out laughing.
Continue on to Rockin' Snow Mountain: A Lijiang travel diary part 2
All photos by Stephan Larose