Tonghai (通海县) is a town in the Chinese region of Yunnan, on the road between Yuanyang rice terraces and the county seat: Kunming. Chinese as well don’t know Tonghai so much, except for people keen in swords and knives. The town has an ancient tradition of master armores, so could you happen, got off from your bus, to be approached by an old woman trying to sell you a claps knife. But in Tonghai there is, among others, a good reason to visit it: the Mongol village of Xingmeng (兴蒙蒙古族乡), just around 10km far away and easy to arrive at.

Xingmeng is the biggest (about 5.500 inhabitants of wich 5.400 are Mongols) among a group of villages in the area referring at XIII sec., when armies of the Yuan dynasty, straight descendant from Gengis Khan, conquered the kingdom of Dali, then ruling over this part of Yunnan. Emperor was Kublai Khan (the Marco Polo’s Great Khan) and the region had a great value as base for military campaigns toward South-East Asia; campaigns that nevertheless where not always successful for the Mongol dynasty, by now under Chinese culture influence. Noteworthy as during Yuan dynasty Mongols were the soldiers, but administrative figures were mostly Muslim coming from Central Asia.

When Yuan dynasty, in 1368, felt down due to the Mings, Yunnan was a last stronghold, for a 15 years long resistance. In this background we can find the Xingmeng Mongols story. A group of Mongol soldiers went into hiding, to escape the new dynasty armies. They arrived on the banks of Qilu Lake (杞麓湖), devoting themselves to farming and fishing, marrying women of Yi local ethnic group. Peculiarity of Mongol community of Xingmeng has been the saving its customs, for example in dressing or houses building. The secrecy of these old soldiers lasted until 1979, when Chinese government officially acknowledged them as minority. Probably, after 1368 defeat, Mongol soldiers were more reluctant than Muslim administrators to entry in the new state hierarchy, maybe as well for a different attitude more warlike, less apt to compromises.

Nowadays Mongols of Xingmeng – called Khatso as well – speak a Yi dialect, but strong is the allure for a recovery of Mongol language, in so far delegations have been sent to Inner Mongolia for inviting teachers in Xingmeng to learn Mongol. Dressing, houses style and religion have been kept in the course of time instead. Xingmeng is a Buddhist village indeed, but the surrounding area has a big Muslim population, as showed by the existence of the mosque of Najiaying, an important one. The main temple in Xingmeng, called Sansheng (三圣寺), is consecrated to the biggest figures in Mongol history as Gengis Khan, Ogodei e Kublai Khan, out-and-out pantheon. Hui Muslim population refers itself to Cheng Ho, a Chinese admiral of Islamic faith instead.

Walking through the narrow alleys of Xingmeng is a fascinating exercise. This village is only 130km from Kunming, so could be a good opportunity for a short trip, maybe during the Naadam. At the present in Xingmeng there are 10 thousand of tourists yearly. To arrive in Xingmeng the easiest way is to take a vehicle departing from the Tonghai bus station, if you access to a highway don’t worry, it’s the right way!