Trust is key these days. On a recent journey up the Nu river, Aluo, our guide, shared his story of meeting Mei Zhang, the founder of WildChina, at the village basketball court in Lao Mu Ding.
She asked him for a cup of water; that was 23 years ago, when he was 27 years old. Mei was bringing two medics from Doctors Without Borders to serve in the area. In that chance meeting, with just a few words, she opened his eyes to the uniqueness of the mountains and rivers, where he was born and raised. She said she would come back with friends. She did.
But first, she needed Aluo’s help to find her way over the mountain to Cizhong church in Mekong valley, a trip which would take four days. She showed him a GPS, an instrument he had never seen before, and she carried a light weight tent, but Aluo preferred the comfort and reliability of the shepherd huts where was used to sleeping along the way.
A year passed with no contact, no electricity, no telephone. But Mei returned the following year, as promised, almost to the day, with 10 friends. Aluo noted her ability to glide between conversations with him in a few words of basic Yunnan Chinese dialect and her group of international and Chinese friends. He wanted to do the same, but his linguistic talents were in the range of local Tibetan dialects, not proper Chinese. Mei offered to teach him, beginning with the alphabet, and that set him on his humble, autodidactic way. In fact, when we sat together with Aluo and his family at the dinner table, our conversation grew nuanced with words like “delicious”, “tasty”, “yum-yum”. On our walks, we could differentiate between altitude and height, tall, like my husband and high like a mountain. A city girl myself, gazing at the various animals we met along our way, I could hardly distinguish a goat from a sheep, or a cow from a water-buffalo. Then came Aluo’s big question: “Do you have yak, home in your country?”
Alou is a Catholic Tibetan. I came here in search of the history of the missionaries in the region, and maybe at a deeper level to see if faith itself in Nujiang would be in some way different from my own. He lead the way over muddy mountains, to all the churches I desired to see. Aunties had the keys to the most rural shrines, while the others more developed and more western, remained locked. Aluo shared with gratitude the history of the earliest European missionaries, resonating with my earlier trips along the Mekong and in Gansu. While his story was warmed by the pride of local villagers who built the churches in his and neighboring villages with Chinese and Tibetan Catholic priests. These historic structures today are still in regular use and are kept under regional heritage protection.
Just over the mountain, is the village of Xiaoweixi on the Mekong river, where WildChina brought me earlier in the year. It is a region replete with geographic fissures at risk of damming. There, only a few months before, I had fallen in love with another church, or rather the faces and stories of the French and Swiss missionaries who planted vineyards, cared for the villagers and built said church in 1870. For months, I dreamed of their faces from the photos I had taken, and pieced together their stories with a translator and the help of French databases. Aluo shared with me that his grandfather had climbed the mountain a few times each year to go to school there at the church in Xiaoweixi. We developed an instant commitment to saving the church and those vineyards, brainstorming around resources and ways to preserve the exact spot.
Aluo’s cousins make a quite good wine, reminding me of the family wines my own grandfather made after immigrating from Italy to California nearly a hundred years ago. We shared family stories about wine and foods, noting everything in common about good farm to table food and wine.
Outside Aluo’s house, the home where he was born, where he now receives guests, rages a mighty river that also supplies hydropower to the Pearl River Delta. This is earthquake country, and as we experienced, landslide country all around. The villagers abide without an ounce of fear. They know what is larger than themselves, and they Trust. We share a common belief, and common Hope. This week away from civilization, to this micro-climate, the men of faith before us thought it was Paradise itself, dotted with churches and vineyards. It reminds me to go to the common roots of our faith and share around the table, Grace.
My thanks to Aluo for his sharing and Mei Zhang and WildChina for bringing me here.
Article and photos by Michelle Mope Andersson, D.Min.
Spiritual Director/Pastoral Counselor
Existential Wellness and Reconciliation
Healing the broken places of our humanity…
Healing the broken places of our humanity