An American Abroad

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part IV

On Friday, I walked to the Jinghong southern bus station and caught a bus home to Yuxi. The weather was beautiful and the Yunnan scenery spectacular. These photos, hurriedly snapped from a moving bus, really don’t do it justice.
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This trip wouldn’t have been half as interesting without Rachel and her wonderful family. I resolved to make sure I always go out of my way–just as they did–to make visitors from far away feel incredibly welcome.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part II.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part III

On Thursday morning, Wang and Rachel once again picked me up and drove me two and a half hours southeast to a rural village about 50 kilometers from the Laotian border. The highway was jammed; the National Day vacation really lasts all week. After about an hour and a half we exited the superslab for a secondary paved road which took us through several medium-sized towns and a national preserve. The preserve is marked by high cliffs, dense rainforest vegetation, and caves that were used by the People’s Liberation Army during the war with Japan.
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Then we turned up a dirt road and got out at Meng Xing village #9, part of the town of Mengla, where the relatives of one of Rachel’s cousins live. Other relatives arrived around the same time. We were less than 50 kilometers from the Laotian border and about 150 kilometers from Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, where the French got their asses handed to them in 1954 by the Viet Minh. I was here:

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Li Jian Wei and his family live in what I can best describe as a rural row house, a long rectangular structure built of rough grey brick that is divided into housing for about a dozen families. I believe it dates to the early days of the People’s Republic. Jo En Lai took a special interest in Xishuangbanna and did much to develop its economy. He saw the Mengla area as a good source of rubber, and so collective farms were established. There weren’t enough local people there at the time to work the land, so the government “encouraged” (in Rachel’s words, the accuracy of which I cannot assess) people from other Chinese provinces to move there. Rachel’s relatives were one such family. More recently, the government has allowed individual farmers to run their own businesses and control their own houses and farms.
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Li Jian Wei’s house is pretty basic in its construction and amenities: conrete floors, corrugated metal roof/ceilings. There are three medium sized rooms, two of which are open partially to the sky, and a couple of small bedrooms. The kitchen sink is a pipe mounted low to the ground on a sloping concrete slab that drains into a trough.
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The stove is a wood-fired box with two enormous built-in woks.
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There are no kitchen counters or cabinets or closets.
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The toilet is a shed out back with a hole in the floor.
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Beds are blankets spread out on the concrete. There is trash and junk strewn about, some of which is occasionally taken out to a dumpsite and burned.
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Though his house is a very modest affair, Li Jian Wei’s farm is a source of obvious pride and delight to him. Shortly after we arrived, he took us out to see his rubber trees.
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He explained how he makes spiral cuts into their bark and peels it away. Then he drives a small metal trough into the tree at the lowest point of the spiral and hangs a cup below it. The rubber sap oozes out of the tree where the bark has been removed and spirals down the cut, goes into the trough and then into the bowl. It takes about six hours for the bowl to fill. A tree managed in this way will produce rubber for a good 35 years.
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The rubber sap is then poured into a large round bowl. Acid is added to get it to firm up a little. Then the resulting wheel of rubber (which looks and feels for all the world like a cheese wheel) is removed from the bowl, driven to a factory in town, and sold for ¥80 (about $12.90). Here is one of Li Jian Wei’s neighbors with his trike truck loaded up with rubber and ready to head for the factory.
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Beyond the forested area where the rubber trees grow is more of Li Jian Wei’s farm. Though the tropical soil is very fertile, the land is so hilly and steep that all his crops are jammed together. What to my suburban eyes at first seemed like nothing more than a riot of undifferentiated weeds was actually a very productive garden. Almost everything growing there is edible: peppers, melons, bananas, plantains, chives, ginger, bamboo, coconuts, and a number of fruits and vegetables I couldn’t begin to identify.
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He also has a pond stocked and teeming with small fish.
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He has chickens. He and his family subsist pretty comfortably on the food he grows.

Back at his farmhouse, some of the other relatives were cooking us a sumptuous lunch.
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All of this food is home grown. That Li Jian Wei’s wife and relatives could cook so many different and delicious dishes in such rustic conditions seemed almost magic. And it was delicious, especially the dumplings (made from fresh eggs and fresh ground chicken), the fish stew, the spiced bamboo, and a green leafy vegetable resembling spinach but sweeter. At lunch, Li Jian Wei’s wife brought out some hooch to toast my arrival. She makes it by fermenting and distilling rice mash, adding honey, putting it in a large glass jar and burying it for over ten years. The result was something smooth, sweet and potent that tasted very much like Southern Comfort.

After lunch, Li Jian Wei cut down a large bunch of bananas to give to the relatives who had come to visit. We packed them into the cars and after warm goodbyes were back on the road to Jinghong.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part II.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part II

After morning toast and a couple cups of coffee Wednesday morning at the Mei Mei Cafe, I rented a bicycle and crossed the Mekong River heading east. My route took me through parts of Jinghong that have been developed as tourist destinations. There were rows of handsome shops and restaurants fronted by elephant statues/streetlights/flowerpots. At the end of the street was a large Buddhist temple.
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New apartments are being built as vacation homes for wealthier Chinese people. And though I don’t usually post examples of Chinglish, the signs for this development had a certain crackpot poetry that was just too good to pass up.
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It didn’t take too long, though, before I left the rich resort atmosphere behind and was in the midst of some of the most severe poverty I’ve seen in China.
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Down one of those streets, though, was an amazing sight.

There were two kids, about eight years old.

Lying on a piece of cardboard.

Under a parked truck.

Doing their homework.

On a school holiday.

I had to admire their dedication and resourcefulness. It was doubtless cooler under the truck than it was in the nearby shacks. I recall that at that age, there was a sweetly neurasthenic quality to lying down in a confined space. And if I ever hear American students complaining that they couldn’t do their homework because they had no place to study, I’m going to think of those kids.

I didn’t get as deep into the countryside as I’d hoped; I wilted a little in the tropical heat. I headed back toward Jinghong, stopping along the banks of the Mekong to see motorcycles being washed and elaborate riverboats pulled up at a dock.
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I arrived back at my hotel soaked with sweat, but definitely happy.
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After a nap, I was picked up again by Rachel and her husband, who took me out to dinner with her high school English teacher, his wife, and a former schoolmate of hers who is now a cardiologist. Once again, the food was delicious (a beef stock hotpot, broiled potatoes with hot spices, and chive soup) and the company was warm and welcoming.
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Just when I thought the evening was over, we decided to head back to the Mei Mei Cafe for tiramisu and ice cream. Rachel’s extended family showed up and a good time was had by all. However, I’ve probably gained five pounds in two days from the constant eating.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part I

We crossed into the Tropic of Cancer on Tuesday at 11:15 am traveling southwest in a comfortable Nissan Tiida. Sophie’s husband Wang was driving and her father, Mr. Li, was riding shotgun. Sophie and I were in back. It was a much more comfortable and interesting ride than my last trip to Xishuangbanna.

It was National Day, the second or third biggest holiday on the Chinese calendar, a celebration the founding of the People’s Republic 64 years ago. Traffic was heavy but never stopped moving. In honor of the holiday (and probably to make traffic flow more smoothly) collection of tolls was suspended.

Rachel is a new friend of mine who works at Yuxi People’s Hospital. We chatted about our respective national holidays as the kilometers rolled by. I told her about Thanksgiving, but she already knew all about it from having seen an episode of her favorite TV show, Friends.

We passed by houses of the Yi people, neat white structures with circular symbols resembling hex signs.
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We stopped at the village of Mohei for lunch: rice, spicy beef with noodles, fresh bamboo with green onions, a tofu hotpot, fried pork belly strips, and grilled eggplant. The restaurant was little more than a corrugated roof mounted over a concrete slab and the kitchen was about the size of an American bathroom, but the food was good and plentiful.
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Once we were on the road again, the scenery became more dramatic. We drove by impossibly steep mountainsides that were meticulously terraced and planted with tea and coffee. I tried counting the terrace levels on the highest mountainsides and lost count around seventy. Foliage became more colorful, with purple phoenix flowers blooming by the roadside and banana trees growing in the forest beyond.
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We entered a rainforest preserve where elephants still live in the wild. In fact, the G85 is the only highway I’ve seen that has an elephant channel under the road so that elephants can safely cross–which raises the question, why did the elephant cross the road, anyway?

Mr. Li is 57 and works for the Chinese Department of Human Resources and Social Security. I remarked that he had seen a lot of changes in China in his lifetime and asked him what he thought the best and worst changes were. The best change, he replied, was that when he was young, people didn’t have enough food or enough money to buy food, if it was even available. Now people have enough food and money. But the worst change, he went on, was that people have lost faith. I asked what he meant, whether he was referring to religious faith, faith in government, or faith in society. All of those things, he said. “You used to be able to count on people to know right from wrong, for the most part. But then twenty years ago, China opened itself up to a lot of outside influences and now there are some people who don’t believe in anything having to do with right and wrong at all.”

In Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, I checked into the same fleabag hotel I’d stayed in last time. The desk clerk tried to charge me ¥260 a night. I was livid. I’d been quoted ¥200 on the phone last week when I made the reservation, and even that rate was more than three times as much as I’d paid a month ago. Canny Chinese businesses jack up prices ridiculously around National Day to take advantage of the surge in demand, but this was absurd. The desk clerk spoke no English, so I let loose with a tirade of pure gibberish with a few profanities mixed in. The clerk looked alarmed, glanced over at her manager, who nodded. Presto: it was all a big misunderstanding and we were back at a mere ¥200. The clerk collected my passport to run it over to the police station; foreigners have to register with the local authorities wherever they stay the night. I was stashed in room 407, the same putrid pink and purple room I had last time, which I shared during my stay with a small tan lizard.
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After a quick nap, I was picked up once again by Rachel and her family. We headed out of the city to the town of Gasa, where there is a Dai village devoted to the restaurant trade. According to Rachel, there had long been a Dai community at that site, but it was quite poor. About ten years ago, the government redeveloped the area and built new houses, a Buddhist temple, and other buildings. The houses double as restaurants–or maybe the restaurants double as houses–and the area is now quite prosperous, with 80% of the people in the community working in the booming village restaurant trade.
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Rachel’s family was warm, funny, and welcoming. Her grandmother, 88 years old, kissed my hand when she met me and seemed to generally glow with welcome and acceptance.
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Her two aunties bickered like a pair of old comediennes over the few words of English they shared between them. Her husband is a big NBA fan, and we made plans to watch some games together once the season starts. Her father asked if I wanted to have a drink with him. I accepted and soon some of the proprietor’s homemade rice wine hooch (presented in a repurposed plastic water bottle) was lifting our spirits. It being National Day, I toasted China, Xi Jinping, and Mr. Li’s family. The food was delicious and included rice noodles in a tomato-based stew, pork, chick and fish barbeque, some kind of vegetable that tasted like spicy peas, fried pickle skins, and lots of other dishes all served family style on a large lazy Susan table.
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It was wonderful to be among family. It was my 103rd day in China and was probably my best.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part II.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

Mekong River Blues

Fifty four hours after returning from Hong Kong, I found myself in another Yuxi bus station boarding the night bus to Xishuangbanna. It sure weren’t no Greyhound.

Do you wanna
Go to Xishuangbanna?
Then come along with me.
They got the Dai and the Thai
And the Hmong in Jinghong
And the shao kao can’t be beat.

Modeling the other passengers, I removed my shoes upon boarding and placed them in a red plastic bag. Then I stepped inside a space configured like the cabins at the Poconos summer camp I went to as a boy.
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There were three end-to-end stretches of double bunk beds, one by each row of windows and another running the length of the center. The counselor/driver occupied a special area up front while we camper/passengers filed in and dibs’d our beds. (Look! There’s Billy Collins on the lower bunk. And he’s making a lanyard!)

I tried to climb into the first available upper berth, but I just didn’t fit no matter how I contorted myself. The driver and some of the passengers stared and laughed. After ritually thrice declining the driver’s offer of more spacious accommodations, I gratefully moved to the rear, where the high bunk spanned the bus’s full width. There was already one guy up there on the left, so I snugged myself in against the right side. It was still far from comfortable: not enough headroom to sit up, not enough length to stretch out, and not enough padding to let me forget that the back of a bus is always the bumpiest part.
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I just dozed off when the diesel roared and the bus began to roll southwest. I drowsed fitfully and uncomfortably for the next ten hours, jolted to full consciousness by every middling bump in the road. When I finally disembarked it was raining and I felt remarkably unrefreshed.

Xishuangbanna is an autonomous prefecture of China and home to the Dai people, relatives ethnically and etymologically to the Thai. It’s situated on the Mekong River where China, Laos and Burma converge.
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The bus let me off in the capital city of Jinghong.

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A gateway to Southeast Asia, Jinghong is a very much a tourist town, for good and ill. It has cafes that cater to the vagabond set, warm, welcoming places that offer coffee, food, advice, beer, company, WiFi, and music. (As I write this, I’m sitting in the Meimei Cafe drinking Hani Coffee while they’re playing KC and the Sunshine Band doing “Boogie Man.” Anchun and her staff have taken excellent care of me here.)
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Next door is the Mekong Cafe, where Nuhi (a Dutch/Albanian mutt) and Greg (a Frenchman) serve up the best pizza in Yunnan.

The streets are thick with palm trees and the markets overflow with fresh fruit. The town is being developed as a vacation destination for the Chinese, however, which has had some unfortunate results. Large garish hotels blight the streets.
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Rows and rows of shops sell the same mass-produced wooden elephants, jade jewelry, and tea shop paraphernalia. It’s like Pigeon Forge, only dirtier.

I wanted very badly to get out of Jinghong and to explore the countryside. I made arrangements to rent a bicycle, but then I was hit by a wicked case of Chairman Mao’s Revenge and spent the next 36 hours laying sweaty on a bed in a cheap (¥60 a night, about $9.80) hotel room staring at the ceiling and doing a sad impression of Captain Willard in the opening of Apocalypse Now.

The flora and the fauna
Here in Xishuangbanna
I never will forget.
But I got gut-sick
And I couldn’t do dick
But puke and shit and sweat.

When I mustered up a little energy I was able to walk only a few blocks and snap a few pix before returning to bed.
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By the time my gut returned to normal, it was time to head back to Yuxi. I took the day bus back, which mercifully had a conventional seating configuration.

I’ll go back to Xishuangbanna and explore more of the region. From what I saw out the bus window, it’s a beautiful area. I hope that next time I’ll be in better condition to appreciate it.

There’s heavenly manna
Down in Xishuangbanna,
But next time I hope to lose
That keep-you-up-all-night
Stomach parasite
And the Mekong River blues.