THE DRAGON BOAT RACE

The day of the Dragon Boat Race began for me at THE DRAGON BOAT RACE 5.30 a.m. when the innkeeper slaughtered a pig outside my bedroom door THE DRAGON BOAT RACE. The squealing was enough to awaken the dead, and I THE DRAGON BOAT RACE opened my door on to a courtyard that ran with blood. I had come from Dali THE DRAGON BOAT RACE by ferry across Lake Er Hai to the village of Haidong for the annual Ho Ba Jie festival. The Dragon Boat Race would be a highlight of the ceremonials. Haidong wasn’t marked on my alien’s permit and I had feared they would turn me off the ferry, but in the event the boatmen were too busy to make an issue of it. The race was not due to start until the afternoon but all through the morning many gaily decorated boats arrived in Haidong’s bay. From the cliffs I watched sailing junks, their tall rectangular sails taut with the wind as they rounded the point. Occasionally I heard snatches of song coming from men and women crews.

The dragon boats were painted with dragons and flowers; there were red and gold flags fluttering from their masts, and as they came in to moor they let off strings of firecrackers. More firecrackers could be heard in the village and when I walked through it there were mounds of flaming straw being used to singe off pigs’ bristles. Five other pigs were being prepared to feed the crowds who were invited from the villages around the lake. Market stalls were set up in lane crossroads and along the village waterfront, selling things like hot sweet buns and roasted pine cones with delicious pine nuts inside. The sellers and buyers were mostly Bai girls dressed in their Sunday best. Shocking pink abounded. Babies and toddlers were wearing red bonnets of different styles studded with silver decoration; one bonnet framed the baby’s face like a sunburst of triangles, some had ear-whorls, or pompoms on springs, many had protuberances like horns, or prows at the crown and neck upcurling and strung with extra silver chains. Stopping to buy a snack I made the mistake of choosing a doughy pancake that was filled with crushed chilies.

They nearly burned the roof off my mouth and it took four cups of cold tea to revive me. In the village square a fencing match had begun with a spirited display by two men, then by two women. The latter were fiercer and more aggressive, and each lunge was accompanied by cries of Hai, heh, ha’, and an intent catlike narrowing of the eyes. Eight men in flowing robes leapt into the fray wielding long rapiers. At first they battled in pairs, thrusting, lunging, retreating, battling across the ground so fast that the crowd, myself included, fell back in a wave to avoid the blades slashing out around us. One pair were so ferocious they cleared the arena, and even when the smaller man dropped his sword he fought on, using Wushu techniques that I’d seen practised in Kunming, kicking the taller man in the chest. He leaped the blade as it slashed underneath him, and dodged, jumping and kicking, until finally grabbing his fallen rapier he killed’ his opponent. At noon a bugle call rang out to tell the boat crews to make ready and the crowd moved down to the lakeshore. Six boats representing six lakeside villages were each manned by seventy to eighty men, with two or three men to each oar. The oars were twelve feet long with small square paddle-blades. The race course was marked by buoys and flags, starting near the village shore and running across the bay to the temple point, where the boats had to go around the last buoy and return the same way. They would run in two heats of three with a final race between the two winners. All six boats began by rowing a lap of honour. To try to keep their strokes in time each boat had a gong tied to its mast, and a man to beat out the rowing tempo; for encouragement they also had flute musicians and firecrackers on board.

The boats moved ponderously, their long oars dipping slowly and evenly into the water, and were steered by a plank of a rudder with two men at the helm. Behind the six dragon boats came a flotilla of followers, jockeying for good positions where they could drop anchor and watch the race. It was a hot sunny day, I sat with crowds of villagers on the cliffs. Unfortunately the summer’s breeze gradually became a wind and by the time the first race started the wind was fierce and the waves were a mass of white-cresting rollers. As the starting-gun fired the oarsmen scrabbled frantically with their oars at the water, few keeping time with the gongbeat, tangling their oars together, and looking from a distance more like drunken galloping centipedes. A green-vested team drew ahead, working slightly in unison. Spray flew from their thrashing oars and from the waves crashing into the wooden prow. Once the boats had rounded the end flags they had the wind behind them. They surfed forwards, the green one was still ahead but a boat with two yellow dragons on its sides was making a late challenge. Each race brought enormous excitement and the oarsmen took part with such enthusiasm that several oars got broken as they smashed together in leggy tangles. The final winner was the blue-vested team from Haidong, whose relative skill gave them the well-earned prize of 200 yuan ( 60). As soon as the race was over, the ferries which had brought people from all around the lake began hooting to warn passengers of their departure. I hadn’t realised there would be a Dali ferry but was glad to stay an extra night in Haidong, especially since the ferry would be full to capacity. People couldn’t wait for the gangplank, they waded into the water and swam around while friends already on board tried to pull them aboard too.

I hadn’t noticed any other European people at the race, and one of the Dali boys told me that although a few tourists had tried to come they had no permits and had not been allowed on to the ferry. It made me realise how fortunate I was to have come early. Perhaps I was the first foreigner to see the Dragon Boat Races on Lake Er Hai. On my return to Dali I fell into trouble with the security police, partly for having been across the lake, which they told me was closed. When they asked to see my alien’s card I pulled it out of my pocket and some old bus tickets fell out with it. The policeman picked them up, and unfortunately for me, among them were the tickets I’d used on my journey to the Sacred Mountain. That heralded a five-hour session at the security office. They were polite but insisted that I write an official confession. My confession was duly made, with my apologies for my error. I certainly hadn’t meant to break the law. They explained that only the township of Dali was open and that no side-trips of any description were allowed. The Sacred Mountain had never been open to foreigners.

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