Yang Erche Namu walks through the depart- ures hall of Kunming airport dragging a heavy red suitcase almost as tall as she is. She might be hauling cinderblocks. 'Gifts,' explains Namu, breathing hard. 'Every time I go back to Lugu I need to take more and more gifts. My family expects it.' Being interviewed in an airport is nothing new to Namu, as she is known, with her jet-set lifestyle. But this is the first time she has invited a reporter to return to her home at Lake Lugu. She belongs to a famed community on the Sichuan/Yunnan border which, with its matriarchal social structure, has given the area the name the Country of Women. Her people are the Mosuo, part of the Naxi ethnic group, which comprises one of China's 55 ethnic minorities. It is a long journey from her home in Beijing: two-days, two planes and seven hours by car over rugged ground. But compared to the modes of transport employed when she left home two decades ago, involving four days on foot and almost a week in hard-class train carriages, the trip is luxurious. Then she was a 13-year-old running away from a small village in which she felt trapped, and from a mother from whom she was estranged. Few in her tribe expected her to survive. To her people, the world beyond their mountainous home was largely unknown and incomprehensibly vast. Not only did she survive, she thrived, making her way to Shanghai, where a combination of luck and talent secured her a place at the prestigious Conservatory of Music, where she was the school's first Mosuo student. By the time she graduated she had already begun her career as a singer, taking her sultry voice to nightclubs in Shanghai and later Beijing. 'I was singing mostly pop songs memorised from bootleg Taiwanese tapes,' she says. 'It was the mid-1980s and they were popular, even forbidden.' Namu was the first Mosuo to record pop and rock albums; she has also featured on several movie soundtracks, including that of The Joy Luck Club. But pop singer proved merely an early career plateau for Namu. As expressions of minority pride became fashionable in China in the late '80s and early '90s, Namu's exoticism made her a hot property. She was singing to larger audiences, travelling to different cities, and before long an endless stream of compliments on her striking beauty convinced her to try her hand at modelling. Suddenly, the newly fashion conscious couldn't get enough of Namu, whose image embodied Shanghai chic and Shangri-la mystique. 'In 1998, the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan voted me Best Dressed Woman in China. Later, Bazaar [a Shanghai fashion magazine] called me China's Sexiest Woman,' she declares. A few years ago, her modelling career in full flow, Namu began what she now calls her most rewarding pursuit, writing. Her 12 books can be found in bookshops throughout China, and blend tales of traditional life among the Mosuo with advice designed to help women lead more empowered lives, romantically and financially. (On this trip, scores of people were to recognise her at Kunming and Lijiang airports, immediately descending on terminal bookshops to buy volumes for her to sign. In flight, two stewardesses approached to tell her how much they enjoyed her work.) To many, Namu has become a role model for women, especially minority women struggling to be successful in Han-dominated China. But she has her share of detractors, people who see her as a lucky opportunist who has cashed in on the public's fascination with Lake Lugu and the Mosuo's 'women-in-charge' sexual practices. In a recent review of her autobiography Leaving Mother Lake (co-written with American anthropologist Christine Mathieu, who has lived among the Mosuo), Matthew Forney painted an unflattering picture of Namu, insinuating that she has sold her heritage for a place in the limelight, calling her 'China's favourite walking, talking ethnic minority.' Chinese tabloid newspapers have likewise run cheeky, gossip-filled articles alluding to Namu's 'free love' ways. Namu finds this amusing. 'People assume that because I am a Mosuo I have a lot of lovers. When I see these things written about myself I think, 'Wow, if only I were this person that everybody thinks I am, maybe I wouldn't be so damned lonely.'' Namu says a lifestyle of constant travel and non-stop demands has left her with little time for romance, at least not the successful kind. To illustrate this, she puts a copy of a Chinese home-and-garden magazine on the table of the coffee shop in which we're talking. Inside are pictures of her new apartment in Beijing's swanky Embassy district. 'I designed this myself,' she says, pointing to a shot of a larger-than-king-sized bed, 'but I am still waiting to share it with the right person.' Though a Buddhist, Namu is no fan of quiet contemplation. On the 45-minute flight from Kunming to Lijiang she alternates between five-minute cat naps and elaboration about various projects she is working on. She is starting an eponymous fashion label she hopes will introduce a fusion of Tibetan and minority fashions to the big cities. 'Eventually I plan to have stores in Shanghai and New York. But the flagship store will be in Beijing,' she says, adding that the Chinese capital has 'soul'. She is also putting the lion's share of her book royalties into a museum of Mosuo culture on Lake Lugu; one of the reasons for this trip is that the project has hit some snags. Always the multi-tasker, however, Namu is also serving as the screen guide for a BBC TV documentary about the lake and its surroundings. As self-appointed cultural ambassador of the Mosuo, Namu feels she can do no less. It is almost midnight when she arrives in Lijiang's old city, where the film crew awaits her. In the morning she will accompany them on the final leg of the journey, 200 kilometres over roughly paved roads. ON THE SEVEN-HOUR RIDE from Lijiang to Lugu, Namu seems pensive: returning to the place and the mother she ran away from so many years ago is always bittersweet. As an infant, Namu's mother swapped her for a neighbour's boy because, as she writes in her autobiography, she would not stop crying. The neighbour couldn't stop Namu crying either, and sent her back a few months later, but the incident set the stage for what Namu's friends and readers know to be a complex and not always comfortable relationship with her mother. 'Things are better between us now, but while I would very much like to feel close to my mother I don't think this will ever happen. Not in this lifetime, anyway,' she adds, laughing. In Ninglang, the crew stops for a quick lunch and one suggests buying a gift 'candy, perhaps' for the Mosuo matriarch. 'No candy, mum has no teeth left,' Namu replies. 'Buy her some cigarettes, or better yet, booze.' As the taxi approaches the town of Da Luo Sui, Lugu's tourist hub, Namu talks about the changes that have taken place. 'Now Mosuo people have mobile phones, they can go to school, earn money to buy things. But tourism has also brought a certain tackiness.' She points out a number of prefab tourist hotels under construction on the edge of the stunning lake and waves her hand dismissively. 'All these are owned by Han Chinese, not Mosuo.' But she does not deny feeling responsible for the exploitation. She knows that, more than any other person, she is responsible for putting Lugu on the tourist map. 'I can't take it back. Tourism is here to stay, and I can only try to help my people make the most of it.' As the car follows the curve of the azure lake, the tourist town on the Yunnan side gives way to a primitive landscape on the Sichuan edge. The dirt road is now barely a rut alongside the water. The car plods along, passing tribespeople tending to their chores. They point at the car, waving and yelling, 'Hey, Namu is back!' She makes the driver, who will later ask for her autograph, stop so she can catch up on the gossip. The car pulls into the lot in front of Namu's home, a larger version of a traditional Mosuo house, with four rectangular sections arranged in a square around a courtyard. Two lambs are tied to a farm cart and a peacock perches on a motorcycle seat. While the television crew moves equipment into the interior courtyard, Namu dispenses gifts to her extended family, handsome young men in jeans, colourful vests and cowboy hats, and beautiful women wearing long, flowing skirts. Namu's mother is nowhere to be seen. 'She is still inside. She doesn't want to seem too sentimental, you know, rushing out to greet her daughter, who she hasn't seen in months,' says Namu with a touch of sarcasm. Across the courtyard, in a large room in the farthest corner, several young men and one wizened, wrinkled old woman sit around the glowing hearth that is the centre of every Mosuo family. The men sit silently, and the woman holds a burning ember in steel tongs to light her cigarette. A TV crew member stands in the doorway. The old woman looks at the man and takes a long drag on her cigarette. 'Please accept this humble gift,' he says, presenting her with a bottle of Shaolin Rice wine. The old woman nods and takes the package. 'Sit, sit!' she says finally, and pours the first of many cups of yak-butter tea for her guest. Yang is a woman of few words. She sits drinking and smoking, the silence punctuated only occasionally by a polite question from the new arrival. 'Are you happy that Namu has brought a TV crew to film your village?' he asks, adding that the show will probably be watched across the English-speaking world. 'Very nice,' she answers. He asks if she has read Leaving Mother Lake, in which she plays a prominent role. 'Too busy for books.' 'Namu has done a lot for Lake Lugu, and for the Mosuo people,' he says, drinking the thick, pungent liquid in one gulp. 'Don't you think?' 'That museum she is building on the lake is so ugly!' says Yang. This quiet contemplation continues for another 30 minutes until Namu comes in and takes her place around the hearth. Her mother nods, handing her daughter a cup of tea. There are no hugs, no kisses, not even a 'welcome home'. In her mother's presence Namu is transformed from the intractable, spirited woman known to millions of people into a meek shadow. While she behaves almost imperiously towards her brothers (she is, after all, Mosuo), with her mother she is the picture of the docile daughter, seen and not heard. 'Intellectually, I know it is impossible for me to prove my worth to my mother any further,' Namu says later. 'I have brought fame and fortune to my people, and still found time to build a new house for my mother. But emotionally, I am still trying to get her to acknowledge me, to tell me she regrets giving me away as a child. Though I know she will never do this, I still keep trying. It is like smashing into a wall and expecting it to break before I do.' The next morning, the film crew shoots footage of Namu as she sits around the family's hearth, talking about Mosuo culture and tradition with the show's host. Her 'ambassadorial' duty done, she is free to take care of a more prickly matter. Close to the family home, on land recently bought by Namu, sits an unfinished structure of concrete and glass, looking more Malibu than Mosuo. When finished, it will be a museum of Mosuo culture and history. But an interior designer has absconded with wages for the workers, putting the project on hold. And while Namu has had an offer from a Shanghai-based company to buy the place outright, she desperately wants to keep it in local hands. To ensure this she has called a meeting of the villagers to state her case. The only light inside the meeting hall comes from a perpetually lit coal fire, and for the first few moments, as Namu takes the seat closest to it, the only sound in the room is that of three dozen sets of teeth timidly cracking sunflower seeds. Then Namu speaks, greeting the assembly first in Mosuo, then Bai, before switching to Putonghua, which is universally understood. For 45 minutes hers is the only voice. She tells the assembly what they are already painfully aware of: that the Mosuo people of Sichuan, her people, are receiving almost no benefit from the growing popularity of Lake Lugu, and that while entire divisions of tourists are arriving on the Yunnan side, few travel across the lake to visit their shores. 'You all grumble that this is because the road around the lake is bad, or that the boat ride across takes two hours, but this is only part of the problem. The Yunnan Mosuo have worked hard to make their side of the lake into a paradise for tourists, but what have we Sichuan Mosuo done? Almost nothing! Why should people visit here to see some huts and pigs? 'Some people who have been to Lake Lugu congratulate me on helping to make my home such a successful place, and I am saddened that I can't tell them the truth - that my village is still poor. For better or worse, tourism is Lake Lugu's future. The question is, who will benefit from it? This museum is a good thing for our people. It will bring visitors and they will bring money. And if we don't finish it, somebody else will.' Namu pauses to take a sip of butter tea and a tribesman speaks. The tone of respect he uses makes it clear his comments are addressed towards the community's most prominent member. He is concerned, as are all the villagers, about finance: the workers have not been paid in weeks. But he agrees with Namu that the museum is of great importance to the Sichuan Mosuo, and that long-term collective benefits should be considered. The villagers agree to continue work on the museum. Namu will pay them part of the money owed, from her own pocket, and return to Beijing and Shanghai to raise the rest. In convincing the workers to finish the project, Namu has completed the toughest job she has come to do. The rest 'accompanying the film crew, helping with production and explaining the complexities of Mosuo culture for a Western audience' is relatively easy. That evening, Namu's family slaughters a lamb for the crew. The weather has been cooperative and the BBC has plenty of shots of the Mosuo people and their deep blue lake. Namu, however, is not joining the festivities. She is in her room, sitting around a small coal fire and writing in her diary. This trip has been a success: she has helped take Lugu to the outside world and ensured work on the museum will continue. Yet she seems unhappy. 'When I am travelling the world like a five-star gypsy I ache for this place, for the smell of the fire and the taste of yak-butter tea,' she admits. 'Yet when I am here I don't feel comfortable. I am trapped between two worlds. It's a very lonely place to be.' At dawn, with full bellies and slight hangovers, the crew pack up their gear. Namu is mostly silent on the trip back to Lijiang, where they will spend a few more days on another part of the documentary before leaving Yunnan. Namu must return to Shanghai; she bids farewell and heads for the airport. Inside the terminal is a small bookshop, and as Namu passes the owner notices the woman with the large red suitcase bears a striking resemblance to the author gracing the covers of many of the shop's volumes. 'Excuse me miss,' ventures the owner. 'Are you Namu?' Namu smiles and walks over to her, greeting the shopkeeper like an old friend. 'Wow, Namu in my shop!' she exclaims, proferring a pen and a copy of the bestselling Namu Can, So Can You. 'Where are you going, miss?' Namu pauses for a moment. 'Home.' She answers, pressing the signed book into the woman's hands. 'I'm going home.'