Posts Tagged With: Xishuangbanna

Exploring Yunnan: Our Adventure Returning Back to Jinghong

The day before, I mentioned to Xinmeng that Sam and I needed to be back in Jinghong, capital of Xishuang Banna, by the next day. I thought it wouldn’t be an issue. There should be enough buses going back to the capital, right? Well, she got wide eyed and said: “There’s only one bus, it goes to Menghai, and it leaves at 8:00am. The village is a 2-3 hour hike from here!” She said we had two options: 1) leaving right then and make it to Bada (the village with the one bus) right at sunset, or 2) she can try to put together two motorbikes to Bada before sunrise. Sam wouldn’t be healthy enough to hike 3 hours that night…so there was only one option: motorbike. Her husband and his brother volunteered for the job. I thanked them and the family profusely. They already have hard lives as it is. They work all day in the fields, take care of two babies, and host visitors and now they will be taking me and my sick friend early in the morning to Bada. Before going to bed, I paid for our visit and added extra gas money for the motorbike ride. I went to bed and set my clock for 5:45am. The sun would rise at around 8:00am.

I groggily woke up and silenced my alarm. I shook Sam awake, packed up our things, and met Xinmeng’s husband and his brother outside. It was dark and the stars were still out. The Milk Way had already faded though. I hopped onto the back of the husband’s motorbike and held onto his shoulders. I looked at Sam as he held onto the brother’s waist and said: “This is going to be an adventure!”

Then we were off. The head lamps were our only form of light as we bumped along the uneven dirt road. I looked up at the stars and saw the big dipper in the middle of the sky, upright, not pouring into the horizon. The space station brightly flew through its handle and hurdled down behind the mountains. After 20 minutes, we crossed to the other side of the mountain range. The crescent moon emerged from behind the tea plantation hills and shone above Venus. I told the husband, “what a beautiful moon!” He quickly glanced at it and didn’t take much notice. He’s probably seen it many times before. As the moon and Venus set, the sun began to rise. The landscape started to show color: the greens of the tea plantations and forests became visible and the pink of the blossomed trees also made an appearance.

I was in awe of the scenery when the husband started conversation: “How is your friend?”

“He’s doing much better. He just needed a day of rest.”

“That’s good to hear. Are you two married?”

“Ah! No! We have known each other since middle school.”

“Are you together? Is he your boyfriend?”

“No, he is not. We are just good friends”

“HUH? Then why did you two share the same room?”

“To save money.”

The husband was so astonished to hear that we shared a room. To him a man and a woman sharing a room has only one significance, which you can probably guess for yourself. I laughed it off and said that it’s a bit different from where we’re from. Friends can share rooms, even beds, without anything to worry about. He asked more questions about my culture and I asked him about his life in Thailand and meeting his wife. The two of them both had fond memories of Thailand. It seemed like they preferred it more than here.

Forty-five minutes into the trip, my hands began to lose feeling from the brisk cold wind. The entire motorbike was bumping along a makeshift cobblestone road. I couldn’t tell if I was shivering anymore or if the bumping was in rhythm with my body. I noticed we had passed a sign saying we were approaching Bada. We were almost there! I looked out at the horizon, the sun was almost up. We had to make it to the village soon. We were chasing the sunrise!

Before entering the village, the husband asked if I needed to use the bathroom. He said the bathrooms are dirty and far away, so it would be best to do business in the mountains. I said I was fine and we continued down the path to Bada. We made it just in time to have a bowl of noodles and buy snacks. I treated the husband and brother to breakfast, thanked them for everything, and went on the bus.

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Women Selling Goods Early in the Morning in Bada

Before we knew it, we were off again. I watched the sunrise as it hovered over the mountainous terrain and lit up the colorful scenery. I looked out the window and watched the tea plantations and mountains pass, as well as breathed in fresh air. The older man next to me (who kept staring at me) was smoking something strong that didn’t even smell of a cigarette. He wrapped something into a blunt and smoked it. We were in the golden triangle…so who knew what he was smoking! I breathed in the mountain air, watched the Dr. Seuss-like striped mountains pass, and was slowly lulled to sleep.

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View from Bus

I woke up in urban Menghai. We took a bus to Jinghong and spent the rest of the day there. We saw a nationalistic Jackie Chan film called “十二生肖 (12 Zodiac)” and ate a lot of Western food. I was glad to finally give Sam something substantial to eat! We left for Kunming that night by plane. It was hard to imagine that we were in Manmai that morning when I got on the plane. What a day.

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Exploring Yunnan: Day in Manmai Bulong Village

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Map of Xishuang Banna and our Travels (map taken from this website)

I woke up the next morning to find Sam sick as a dog. I think drinking the shot and a half of rice wine was the culprit. Our plans to hike through the rainforest to the neighboring village were on hold. After taking care of him and putting him back to bed, I then went upstairs to find the family going about their daily lives (playing with the baby, preparing to go out to the tea plantations, etc). Xinmeng’s mother cooked us breakfast, which I ate by myself. Breakfast included thin fried fish with sesame seeds and noodles with processed ham.

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I ate quickly and then walked out to the open part of the second story. The village was situated on the side of a mountain, so the view was amazing:

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Drying Clothes with Scenic View

After talking with Xinmeng, I decided to get to know the village of Manmai and Bulong culture. First of all, here is a Wikipedia article about the Bulong (or Blang) people of China. They are one of the 56 recognized ethnic minority groups in China with a population of over 90,000 people. They primarily live in Yunnan province. While I was walking through the village, the sound of construction and children laughing filled the air. It seemed like every able-bodied person in Manmai was helping their neighbors build or renovate houses. I wondered where the villagers got the money.

I happened upon a young monk shoveling sand into a watery mixture of cement. I asked him what he was doing. He was surprised that I spoke Mandarin and was a little flustered. He spoke in broken Chinese: “Building my house, it is this one.” He pointed at a house that was in the middle of being built. The foundation and structure had been made, but they had yet to make walls. His friend came over with a shovel and they began to talk and laugh in the local dialect. I did not want to get in the way of their work, so I waved goodbye and went on my way. I then almost ran into two little boys screaming down the street as they avoided water being splashed on them by the group of girls who were on the second story of a bungalow (house with stilts) with a bucket.

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I begged for mercy and quickly passed by. Their parents, it seemed, were helping build the house next door. I could hear the girls giggling as I continued down the path. I was happy to see such a lively community and to be a part of it, even as a stranger. As I reached the edge of town (which didn’t take long), I found the local Buddhist temple. I climbed up the steps and saw two men: one was a very old monk and the other was a middle-aged man holding a mat. He laid the mat onto the floor and helped the old monk lie down. He wanted to sun bathe. I meandered around the pavilion, avoiding them to give them space, and observed the southeastern style architecture.

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Manmai Buddhist Temple

Suddenly, the middle-aged man tapped my shoulder and mumbled something to me. He beckoned me to follow him. He opened the temple doors and showed me a room with walls covered with stories. I followed him in and looked at the colorful pictures and characters. He then brought me to the front of the Buddha statue. Inside the temple was an assortment of colorful cloths hanging from the ceiling that contrasted against the golden Buddha. The man left me be. I followed the stories on the wall, trying to decipher their meanings. I did not understand the language that went with each picture. It looked like Sanskrit. When the man returned, I asked him what language it was and what the stories were about. He explained in broken Mandarin that the story wasn’t about Buddha, but someone else important in Buddhism scriptures. I did not really understand what he was saying, but he read the stories to me in the different language. It was soothing. I left the main hall and entered a bright red hallway that led back outside.

I went back to the house and checked on Sam. He was still sleeping. I then went hiking up the mountain that the village rested on and explored the tea plantations up there. I then moved down to the bottom of the village and skimmed the rainforest. I did not enter it, fearing that I would lose my way.

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Locals Going About their Day

When it was nearing dinner time, I hiked up back to the house. I asked Sam what he would like to eat. He said that he can’t eat anything except for fruit. I went upstairs and met up with Xinmeng. She spent the entire afternoon in the fields and was resting. I asked if there was anywhere in the village to buy fruit. She said that luckily someone from Menghai had come to the village today to sell goods, one being oranges. She was kind enough to show me the way. She held her baby in a long cloth wrapped around her shoulders and waist as we walked to the seller. I ask about her life:

She was born in this village the same year as me, 1990. Back then this village was much poorer. She finished up to the third year of middle school and then at age 14 moved to Thailand as a migrant worker. She worked there for many years. She loved being in Thailand. The work was simple and the pay was better than in the village.  She also met her husband during her stay. They got married there. However, she moved back to the village when she became pregnant. That was a year ago. She said the village had changed a lot since she left. The government is giving locals money (up to 10,000 yuan) to renovate their homes and improve their standard of living. She mentioned that the reason for this development was not for tourism, but rather for the betterment of the people’s lives. Her family had renovated their house 4 years before, but then the government only gave them 2000 yuan. She is now living with her husband, mother, father, brother, brother’s wife, and two little babies.

While we were walking to the fruit seller, she said hello to everyone we passed. She knew everyone in the village and they knew her. The community was close-knit and friendly. We finally got to the fruit seller. While I was buying oranges, she bought a bowl of rice noodles and talked with the people sitting in the circle eating. I was happy she brought me to the fruit seller because I saw a more intimate perspective of the village. When I walked by myself, everyone treated me like an outsider. Not in a bad way. But, when I walked with her, the village seemed more personal and welcoming.

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Sunset from Xinmeng’s Balcony

We walked back and gave Sam oranges to eat. I ate with the family, talked, and watched television with them till it was very late. I became friends with Xinmeng. We were finalizing plans about how to get back to Jinghong the next day…turned out Sam and I would need to take motorbikes before sunrise to get to town on time…

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Exploring Yunnan: Traveling to Manmai Bulong Village

Sam and I caught a bus to Menghai at around 9:00am and arrived around 10:30am. The next bus to Bada was at 2:30pm, so we had time to kill and explored the small town. We ventured through a small market where a nice woman gave us a free taste of sweet rice wine porridge. It was tasty, but also very strong. We thanked her and slowly ate it while we continued on our way. In these small towns, there is normally a center where there is a large mall and supermarket, but when you leave the center and move to the edges, you run into random farmland between apartment complexes. Since this once was country, the city was built around it. It’s normally lost behind the 3-4 story buildings, but when you explore the alleyways (like what we did), you normally stumble upon them.

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Pond Next to Urban Countryside

From urban scape to farmland: behind us in this photo was an unorganized set of farmland with corn and rice paddies. We walked along the thin dirt path and crossed a makeshift bridge (three thick pieces of wood and one plank in the middle) to get to the other side of the village. The sun was beating down on us. It was so much warmer than Kunming. We found shady sanctuary at a Buddhist temple.

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Menghai Buddhist Temple

We sat next to a golden shrine and listened to the screaming of children in the neighboring elementary school. I looked for a bathroom to change into shorts and also to use it…what I found was a cement wall and a pile of bricks. That will do! We meandered around the village until 2:30pm was around the corner. We got on the bus and I immediately conked out…I woke up to this scenery:

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Scaling the Mountains on Bus

I always seem to forget Chinese countryside can be so beautiful. I noticed we had been traveling for about two hours out of the total of three. I thought I would ask around the bus (in total 10-12 people) for anyone who knew how to get to Manmai. I asked a few, but they shook their hands, mumbling that they don’t speak Mandarin. A 16 year-old Hani minority boy piped up and said he knew the way. I sat next to him. He wore fashionable clothing (black pants, striped button-up, black hat) and had a small guitar next to him. He went to Menghai to hang out with some friends and was heading back home to Mangwa, a village a bit north of Manmai. He explained that we could get off the bus early and hike two hours to the village. We had about 3-4 hours till sunset. I double checked with Sam to make sure he’s okay trusting his directions. Before we had time to really negotiate, the boy yelled at the driver to stop. He pointed at a dirt road and said hike down it for two hours and you’ll hit Manmai. Before we knew it, we were off the bus and all alone among mountains of tea plantations.

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Tilted Shelter in a Tea Plantation

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Sam and I Hiking to Manmai

We walked…and walked…and walked. At some points we hiked to the top of tea plantations, but since sunset was approaching, we kept to the path. We sang Disney songs, talked, and gazed at the scenery. It was a beautiful hike. We fortunately made it to the village right at sun down. We climbed up a hill to a shrine and watched the sunset from there: IMG_1856

Sunset Over a Wave of Mountains

It was dark when we entered the village. I asked around for a place to sleep. Most of the people didn’t understand Mandarin, so I resorted to body language. I put my hands together and imitated myself sleeping. She recognized what I meant and pointed down the hill. We continued through the dark path. I could make out bungalow homes (houses on stilts), but besides that it was too dark to see. We approached a home and ran into a smiling, middle-aged woman. I imitated sleeping again to her. She nods, mumbled in the local dialect, and ushered us into her home.  Thankfully her daughter, Xinmeng, who is my age and speaks Mandarin, shows us our room (a large mattress on the ground). Sam and I joked that we can pretend we’re married. Her mother cooks us a meal and Xinmeng’s brother hands us rice wine. It was so strong. It burned my esophagus even after drinking. I took two sips the entire night. Sam, on the other hand, drank a shot and a half. I was surprised!

I talked with the family for a bit and then headed to bed. We had another early morning. We planned to explore the village and then travel through the rainforest to get to another Bulong town.

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Exploring Yunnan: Excursion to “Almost” Southeast Asia–Xishuang Banna

In order to save time, Sam and I got plane tickets to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuang Banna, and arrived at around 10:00am. We step out of the airport and smell humid air and then hear the gaggle of taxi drivers out front yelling at us “fee-ty! fee-ty!” They wanted us to pay 50yuan for a drive to Jinghong’s center. I asked if they could turn on the machine, but they said: “kaibuliao, it cannot be turned on.” Basically, the driver wanted to swindle us out of our money. A trip to downtown would be around $10-15yuan, but since we are foreigners and have “no way” to get to downtown, they decide to utilize this opportunity to get more money. This behavior among taxi drivers (street vendors, anywhere one can haggle) is widespread throughout China. It finally began to wear me down at this point. Month after month it’s always the same. It’s not that the money is an issue, but it’s how these people treat us that really affects me. They don’t see us as equals, as human beings, but rather as overflowing money bags. Also, it’s almost as if something is missing in their moral character…cheating, swindling, tricking are all awful things to do to your common wo/man. If this is seen as bad behavior, then why is it so widespread? Maybe it is due to poverty. One will do a lot for money.

I persuade Sam to join me find a public bus. We walk onto a large street that is lined with fruit sellers that sought shade underneath the the banyan and palm trees. We ask them for the closest bus stop. The man speaks poor mandarin, but points to the other side of the road and said to wait on the corner. We wait for 10 minutes and finally got on a bus. We paid 5yuan. We got off the bus and found ourselves in a humid, forested city. Are we really still in China?

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Jinghong

Sam and I walk down the street, found the city center where locals were practicing for a culture competition that night, and found a quaint restaurant next to it. We ate while listening to the music. At this point, Sam and I had no plans whatsoever. Our next goal was to find Meimei Cafe and figure out our next day’s agenda. After asking around, we found ourselves at the foreigner street and at the cafe. We drink the most delicious lemonade and look through packets of travel advice. The owner of the cafe approached our table and gave us some suggestions. He recommended a Bulong village near the border of Myanmar. He mentioned that it isn’t the easiest place to get to, but worth the trip. Sam and I decide to go the next morning!

From the cafe, we booked two beds at an international hostel (40yuan a night) and then walk to the Mekong River. We cross through a maze of alleyways and steps till we reach the shore. The sun came out! I actually had beads of sweat run down my forehead because it was warm outside! I can’t remember the last time I felt so warm. The Mekong was beautiful and blue:

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Hanging out on the Mekong River

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Kids Swimming in the Mekong

As the sun began to set, we returned back to the foreigner street, had Thai food (couldn’t find a Dai style restaurant in the area), and then we searched the area for delicious desserts. We come across a cafe that has a Spanish-French chef/owner who once was head chef at the Waldorf (is that the hotel name?) in New York. We ate and conversed with him. When he heard our plans about going to the Bulong border town, he was in shock and said “No, no, no, that cannot be done. Too far away and recently there has been issues around the borders of Myanmar.” He persuades us to go on one of his organized trips. Sam and I feel conflicted. The Meimei Cafe owner said “It will be no problem! You can do it.” and this guy said the opposite. Who should we listen to? We excuse ourselves to think things through and watch the performance that we saw the locals practice that afternoon.

The performance commemorated 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xishuang Banna. The performances ranged from dances, kongfu, to comedy skits. Each performance was judged (by who, I don’t know). My guess is the the judges were from the local government, most likely Han Chinese. Sam and I were the only foreigners in the crowd, besides us, the audience were locals from or outside Jinghong.

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Dai Ethnic Minority Dance (the winning routine)

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The End of the Show

It was refreshing to see a performance that was aimed for the community and not tourists. However, I wished I was able to learn a bit more of this performance. What are the power dynamics: who leads this event? Who are the judges? Who decides which parts of Dai culture can be performed? Who is the intended audience: Is this for the local community? Visiting officials? Tourists? History of the Event: Is this a local event turned into big-time performance? Is this a new event (the announcer mentioned this is the second year for this performance, but was it a much smaller scale before?) I’ll have to keep such questions in mind when I begin fieldwork in Lugu Lake. The politics within a community is complex and needs to be understood through many different frames.

Sam and I headed back to the hostel. We planned to wake up early to begin our travels to Southwest Xishuang Banna.

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