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

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chapter 21: A BURMESE TAXI

At the Bamboo Cafe in Daluo, some bloodshot-eyed local men at the next table harangued me as I ate my usual stir-fried pork, tomato and peppers lunch. "How come you westerners are free to travel, but we can't? It's not fair.' 'You can go over into Burma can't you?' I said. 'What's there? Nothing hut hills! What can we do there?' they sneered.

But they weren't poor. They wore leather jackets and flashed their wallets full of renminbi. I left their resentful, maotai-glazed stares, and went to the coffee bar across the road, decorated with posters of 40s film stars and cuddly dogs. But as soon as I tasted the coffee I spat it out. It had a rank, metallic flavour, perhaps because the boy had used Burmese 'Lactogen with Fortified Iron' infant feed in place of powdered milk, Fed up with Daluo, I tried to get a bus back to Jinghong. but they wouldn't let me on with my bike. I tried hitching near the friendly policemen, without success.

Back in the town, I sat drinking a can of coconut juice and was wondering what to Jo next. when a blue minivan pulled over. A shaven-headed man wearing a red pom-pom skull cap and aviator shades hopped out and waved at me discreetly to come over. 'Going to Jinghong?' he muttered In Chinese. I nodded. 'How much you want to pay?' 'You say,' I said. 'No, you say' he replied, grinning at his sidekick sitting in the passenger seat.

xishuanbanna china 1994

We settled on a fare 10rmb higher than the bus price, and he disappeared into a noodle shack, saying- 'Put your bike in the back, won't be a minute.' His van was a second-hand Chinese Suzuki with the original markings scratched out and replaced with the characters for Daluo-Jinghong chalked on the side. A chunk of windscreen was missing. And it had Burmese plates: a Burmese taxi. Was it safe, I wondered? Was this driver one of those 'bad eggs' I'd heard so much about? I had visions of him driving off with my bike, or holding me at knifepoint on some quiet road. But I didn't want to stay in Daluo, I took a chance.

My Burmese driver leaned on the horn most of the way back to Jinghong. He spoke passable Chinese, but allowed his sidekick, a local Chinese, to speak for him. 'He is Burmese, you can tell by his dark skin,' the sidekick said. 'Do you have motorbikes in England?' asked the driver. "A few,' 'Are they more common in the town or the country-side?' he asked, pointing out a monk on a Yamaha off-road bike. He continued this line of questioning about motorbike for most of the trip; Were British bikes better than Japanese ones? How much did they cost? What were the British makes?

Then the subject changed to women and drugs. 'Do you like Chinese women? How about the Dai women around here: are they beautiful?' the driver asked. 'Yes.' 'Would you like to sleep with one?' 'Er, no thanks,' I said. 'Why not?' 'I'm married already.' 'So what? Your wife's not here is she?' They mumbled some Chinese words I couldn't understand. Then I realised what they were talking about: opium. 'Do you smoke? Do you want to try?' 'No thanks.' 'Have you been into Burma?' 'No, I can't. I haven't got a visa.' 'No problem! Why didn't you ask us - we could have taken you in there, shown you a good time.' 'I've heard it's quite dangerous,' I said. 'No, not really. So long as you don't get into an argument with the wrong people. Ah, what a shame.'

They pestered me a few more times about going with a local woman, but I pretended not to understand. Near Jinghong, at the lop of the hill. I asked them to let me out. What had taken me five hours to ascend by bike a few days ago, I now freewheeled in two, back to Jinghong, yet again.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.