This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter 17: Biking to Burma: Buddhist Monks and Hot Springs.

My laziness meant a late start the next day, wobbling through the centre of Jinghong in the late morning heat, with my backpack strapped precariously behind me on the pannier rack. But it took only 10 minutes to get out of town, onto a level road which undulated through fields of emerald green rice stalks. There was a warm dry breeze, and within half an hour I had to stop at a roadside shack to buy the first of many drinks. The road branched south and passed through a cluster of Dai hamlets.

The Dais lived in large, flat wooden houses perched on stilts of tree trunks or brick. At ground level they kept animals and stored wood and vegetables. The enclosed first floor was the living area. Each house has a double-layered, tiled roof, with a gap between for ventilation. Most of the Dai houses had their rooms open to the road. so I could see Dai girls squatting preparing food, or hidden behind screens, showering from a bucket. Apart from an occasional truck or tractor, there was no other traffic on the road: it was an 80km dead end, tailing off among the low jungle hills of the Burmese border.

xishuanbanna china 1994

After an hour, I saw my first young Buddhist monks: mischievous 10-year-olds with shaved heads, wrapped in saffron togas. They larked about on the roadside and rode old bicycles that were too big for them, so they had to put their feet through the frame to pedal. There was supposed to be rainforest in this area. hut I didn't see any. The landscape was a patchwork of wet rice fields, interspersed with lines of rubber trees, dripping their while sap into small pots. Animals were everywhere: pot-bellied sows followed by a clutch of piglets snuffling the roadside, scrawny chickens scavenging through rubbish, herds of ducks being shooed by a farmer from one pond to the next, water buffalo tethered in muddy pools, and lizards scurrying oft into the undergrowth. On my bicycle I could freewheel down this quiet avenue, passing through several kilometres of rubber groves without seeing anyone. It was peaceful: Just the sound of birds and the wind, and I was happy.

xishuanbanna china 1994

People were surprised to see me. The men and boys would shout hello: a nice. genuine 'hello', not like the parrot-like squawk and sniggers I got in other parts of China. The young monks would nudge each other and shout "Hello! I love you!". Little girls in flowered sarongs would clasp their powdered cheeks in shock and turn away. The Damenlong road stayed level and cool under the shelter of the trees. It skirted a lake on which a Dragon Boat was practicing to the rhythmic pounding of a drum. And I stopped every hour to have a lychee Juice or a bottle of fizzy orange.

By late afternoon I was about 50km from the Burmese border, and virtually ail the local people were Dai or other minorities: no ethnic Han Chinese. Yet the signs were all in Chinese only, and the young locals spoke putonghua. At one of my stops I asked a reticent woman how to say hello ('Muong yi') and thank you ('Ling yi') in the Dai dialect. Then I tried these out at the next kiosk, but the bare-chested young lads stood around just looking at me with mine incomprehension. Putonghua worked better. 'Not much fun around here,' one young man said, "If you go into Jinghong you can go to restaurants or see a film, but here life is so boring."

And they asked me a few questions, the same questions everyone asked me in China:
'Where are you from?'
'Are you a foreign student studying in Beijing?'
'How did you learn Chinese?'
'Are you travelling by yourself? (And why?)'
'Are you here on business or on holiday?'
'How long will you stay in China?'
'How old are you?'
'Are you married?'
'How many kids do you have?'
'What do you do for a living?'
'Is China better than England?'

Another 10km further on. and I was beginning to think I wouldn't make it to Damenglong that night, I decided, so I stopped at another shack to ask the way to some nearby hot springs. The kiosk owner was Han Chinese, and welcomed me like an old friend. After the routine questions, he said: 'China must seem really crap when compared to England'. No. I replied, this area had many good points: the beautiful scenery, the pleasant weather, nice food. And I said England could be a dangerous place for crime. 'It's the same here now,' he exclaimed. 'Especially at night - there are some really bad characters about. ‘You ought to be careful. With all this opening-up in China there are so many big changes in society,’ he complained. 'Things aren't what they used to be.'

We were being watched by a cherubic old Chinese man, with a bald, serene face. 'This is granddad,' the kiosk owner said 'He was in the army when a shell went off right next to him. Deaf as a post he is now,' The old man smiled benignly at me and nodded. 'How long have you been cycling today?' the shopkeeper's wife asked. 'Five hours,' I said. They all guffawed. 'Five hours! We only ever cycle two hours at a time. In this heat any more is not good for you.' They sent me on my way, telling me it was not far to the hot springs. 'You can get a nice shower there,' they said The next village, Dongfeng ('East Wind'), was mainly Chinese: an ugly concrete place with the usual rows of lock-up garage shops, kala-OK parlours and MTV-halls.

As I searched for the turn-off to the hot springs, a group of people eyed me suspiciously from one of the shop fronts - I went over and asked for directions 'Come with us. we're going there too!' they all shouted. 'This lady here is the manager of the hot springs resort!' they said, pointing to a portly dame in a yellow frock. 'It's your lucky day. That's our truck, you can stick your bike on the back.' I did as they suggested because 1 couldn't face another seven kilometres of cycling.

We bumped through a beautiful landscape of rolling hills, Dai villages, wooden temples with silver stupas and crowds of orange-robed monks. The hot springs were part of a holiday theme park, built in Chinese style with pagodas and lakeside pavilions, somewhat incongruous amid the Dai villages. On top of a nearby hill were the white tips of a stupa and some fluttering prayer flags. The manageress had a rather stern demeanour, but she was comradely enough to help me struggle with my heavy bike off the back of the truck. Then she led the way past some green pools into a bar area where a group of attractive young girls sat around in that open-legged mainland Chinese posture, spitting out water melon seeds. 'These are my girls,' said the manageress. 'They are very competent and will do all they can to help you, if you ask.'

One of the girls jumped up and brought me a glass of tea, another look my bag away to find a vacant room. The rest gathered around and starred to ask me questions about England. 'What do English people eat?' 'How much do you get paid every week?' Is London really foggy all the time?' The resort was empty. Tour groups came and went from Jinghong, said the manageress, but there was nobody there at present. But there was one other tourist: sat in the same area - a .smooth-talking young man in a suit, from Nanjing. He had everyone laughing at his jokes, and he decided he would take me, the foreigner, under his wing. I joined him for dinner, where he flirted with the chambermaids, and toasted them with Tsingtao beer mixed with coconut juice.

'When you stay somewhere you have to show respect to the staff, isn't that right, girls', he winked and gave them some of his expensive spicy fish 'Ooh, what are you getting at?' said one girl. 'He thinks he's in with a chance!’ laughed the other. The Nanjing yuppie continued to compliment them on their smooth skin and slim waists, and poke fun at their strange Hunan accents. Between them they talked into the night about the special dishes from their different parts of China. 'What about in England?' they asked, 'Can English people eat Chinese food? We can't eat western food, especially cheese, Aiya! No.'

The Nanjing yuppie stated with some authority that English people could not afford to go out and enjoy themselves at restaurants or cinemas. He knew, because he had two American friends who went to live in London and they had told him so. 'A lot of Chinese want to go live abroad, but not me/ he said. 'I am too Chinese. T couldn't change my thinking. I wouldn't want to eat with a knife and fork, or lose my own dialect. I've seen that in other Chinese who go abroad. They come hack and they're not the same, they're not quite Chinese any more. No thanks! China is the only place for me.'

The chambermaids invited me to join them for some karaoke, but I was tired. Still, it was strange to see these prim girls picking up a microphone and burst into song at the drop of a hat. I went back to my room and tried to close the windows to dampen their echoing, tone-deaf ballads. I switched on the TV and found 'America's Funniest Home Videos' on Star TV. Here in the heart of the Xisuanbanna countryside, the modern world still intruded.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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