An influx of visitors to China's Lugu Lake has boosted an area that is home to one of the last matrilineal communities in the world.
As the tourist bus trundles towards the lake nestled in the roots of the Himalayas, a sign arcs the road. It carries an image of two women in traditional dress paddling a boat. Colours radiate from the sign with lurid urgency: the water is aquamarine, the surrounding mountains neon and the girls' teeth pearlescent. "Welcome to Lugu Lake", the sign reads, "Welcome to the Kingdom of Women".
Lugu Lake is the historical home of the Mosuo, an ethnic minority with a population of 40 000 that forms one of the last matrilineal societies on Earth. Situated in the mountains bordering Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, the remoteness of the region has long preserved traditions. There was just one craggy road to the area for decades. Daytime electricity arrived 10 years ago.
But a recent influx of tourists is spurring dramatic changes in Mosuo culture. In 2012, 1.5-million tourists visited the region, nearly three times as many as the previous year. Improvements to infrastructure have made the lake increasingly accessible: a second road opened in 2012 and the completion of the £100-million Lugu Lake airport this year will bring an extra 450 000 people.
It's easy to see why visitors are attracted. Lush peaks surround the mirror-like lake. Villages of traditional timbre houses dot the shoreline – it's the Chinese St Moritz strung with Tibetan prayer flags.
The key reason people come, though, is to experience the "Kingdom of Women". "Mosuo people only consider girls as heirs," said La Cier (51), the eldest of six siblings, who became the head of the household when their mother died. Dressed in a floor-length cotton skirt and a red woven headdress, she explained that her sisters contribute to the family by working as migrants in cities. Other family members – brothers, nieces and grandchildren – live at home. "Women are more reliable than men," La said. "We gave birth to our children, we raise them, and we sisters serve the family. There's no need to ask for help from men."
As well as being the domestic bosses, Mosuo women have an unusual degree of sexual liberty. Men and women don't form monogamous partnerships for life. Rather they have "walking marriages" where the man visits the woman's bedroom at night, returning to his mother's house in the morning. Children born of these unions, which can be casual or last a lifetime, become part of the woman's clan – La's five siblings have three different fathers.
Historically, this led to wild misrepresentations of the Mosuo by central Chinese powers, which tended to cast the country's ethnic minorities as exotic or barbaric to propagate ideas of cultural backwardness. Salacious versions of walking marriage can still be read in guides in Luoshui, the lake's main tourist village. Here, there's a red light district where mainly south-east Asian prostitutes dress in Mosuo costume, acting out tourists' fantasies.
More modern marketing campaigns portray a female utopia. "From a feminist perspective, there's no cachet for virginity, which means there's no blame or shame or shunning because a woman has sex," said Eileen Walsh, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney, who has travelled to the region since the early 1990s. "You also have a system in which you never have abandoned women and children, you don't have divorce, you don't have bastards who spend their lives suffering, and you don't have widows." Still, Walsh cautions against labelling the Mosuo as matriarchal. She says matrilineal and matrilocal are closer to the truth: men hold the political power in Mosuo nobility.
As twilight descends on Xiaoluoshui village on the lake's north shore, coaches gather. In the central square techno blasts from speakers as women in sequined versions of Mosuo dress – Gypsy skirts, cropped jackets and elaborate headdresses – form a spiralling conga line with 200 tourists around a fire. The dancing gives way to a public karaoke session and then the crowd dissipates. Mosuo women plastered with make-up hastily pose for photographs before shedding their skirts, revealing jeans and high tops.
Yongzhen Lazuo (22) shows 100 tourists a day around the Mosuo Museum in Luoshui. At the entrance, near a moth-eaten stuffed bear head, are two garish paintings: the yak, she explains, represents the physical strength of men. The tiger symbolises women.
She earns £215 a month and pools resources with her boyfriend, whom she has lived with since leaving her mother's house. Cohabiting, she says, is better. And while she didn't always wish to be a tour guide, Yongzhen enjoys meeting new people every day. When asked about her dream profession, she smiles shyly before admitting she wants to be an air stewardess. "I think they are amazingly graceful," she said.
Tourism has been vital to the development of Lugu Lake, lifting many families out of poverty with remarkable swiftness. Hu Shunfa, a 42-year-old taxi driver, used to be a fisherman. "In my twenties Mosuo people could hardly feed their families and children had no clothes, not to mention schooling," he said. Today, Hu estimates 80% of families are involved in the tourist industry with annual incomes reaching £32 000, previously unfathomable riches. "Lots of families let their sons paddle wooden boats for tourists, or let their daughters dance," he said. Hu's wife, whom he met through walking marriage but has long lived with, runs a guesthouse.
Such radical changes in social structure cause Mosuo leaders concern. "Village heads are aware that certain things were being lost," said Walsh. "But who is this pretty but poor society being preserved for? It's being preserved for the urbanites so they can feel good about themselves and know that areas like this still exist."
Walsh said that if it wasn't tourism, modernity would come in potentially more damaging forms, such as a polluting fishing industry or the mass migration of Mosuo youth, as seen in other remote regions. – Additional reporting by Xia Keyu; © Guardian News and Media 2013