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 18: Damenlong: Border Guards and Dai Hospitality.

Damenlong was the end of the line: a dusty market town of hilltribes in ethnic costume. It took me a couple of hours to cycle down there from the hot springs, stopping oft' at a Buddhist temple-school to ask the young monks about their temporary vocation: they told me local boys attended the temple-schools between the ages of seven and 13, to learn Thai so they could study Buddhist religious tracts from Thailand. Their temple was next door to a state primary school which flew the red flag. so young monks in orange mingled with Young Pioneers in their red neckerchiefs.

xishuanbanna china 1994

Further down the road, just outside Damenlong. I climbed a hundred steps in the sweltering heat, up to the Bamboo Shoots Pagoda. This was one of Xisuanbanna's most famous tourist spots: it was even reproduced in miniature at Shenzhen's 'Model China' village. But that day the 300-year-old silver stupa was deserted and I sat in the shade listening to wind-chimes, looking out across a river plain that marked the border Burma, and wondering where everyone was.

My guidebook described the Damenlong guesthouse as decrepit, but ! found it to be quite pleasant and relaxed, tucked away in the compound of the Communist Party HQ; an echoing office building that looked like it hadn't seen much activity lately. My second floor room had a veranda with great views across to the Burmese hills beyond the town, and I lay down on a bench there for a siesta.

I woke up to see an upside-down head of a red-bearded man leaning over me. 'Hello, I'm Jack,' he said. Jack was the only other western tourist in Damenglong, an accountant-turned photographer from Norfolk who now worked as a translator for a Hubei TV station. He loved Xisuanhanna and had been hanging out there for a week. He took me down onto the main street, where the Dais, accustomed to living in stilt houses, had their restaurants on the first floor overlooking the street.

Over dinner. Jack told me how Chinese TV stations were trying to bring their presentation up to date, 'I suggested that our newsreaders finished off with a smile to the camera,' he said. 'But this was vetoed by the Party boss at the station, who said it would not be dignified for a Chinese newsreader to smile.' When it got dark, we followed the sound of drums, cymbals and whooping to a piece of waste ground where Dai girls were practicing their finger-twisting dances, parading in circles around a pole topped by a single light bulb. They were preparing for the forthcoming water-splashing festival of the Dai New Year.

We sat down to watch, next to two 12-year-old lads who fidgeted and giggled. 'Do you have a water splashing festival in England?' they asked us. 'No, we have a big fire and burn an effigy of a man who tried to blow up the government,' I said, trying not to sound barbaric. ' At midnight we returned to the guesthouse, trying to avoid the chained dogs that leapt out from dark doorways. The guesthouse staff were sat out in the garden playing cards. 'If you like the dancing there's a festival on tomorrow at the next village,” one of them said. I didn't sleep well because I was still suffering from my Guilin cold.

In the early hours I woke up suddenly, wheezing and claustrophobic under the mosquito net after dreaming someone was prowling in the room with a knife. Perhaps it was just the tropical spirits: there was nothing there except the geckoes on the wall.

Jack spent most of the next morning with his camera down at the market, trying to capture some of the shy Dai women on film. Even with a telephoto lens it wasn't easy for him: they seemed to have a sixth sense for detecting a camera lens and turning away. Meanwhile, I slurped some fried dough sticks ('youtiao') and soya milk ('doujiang') at a street stall, and went to see another stupa on a hill above the town. which was said to have an imprint of Buddha's footstep. The temple walls were covered by murals toiling the story of Buddha, showing him squatting in his yellow toga. The comic-strip-type story showed processions of tigers and horses and armies of ancient Siamese warriors escorting a princess riding on elephant-hack, sheltered by decorous, mufti-layered parasols. Buddha's footprint was in a small tabernacle. He must have been a big fellow because his footprint was a meter-long imprint in yellow concrete with live shapeless toes.

xishuanbanna china 1994

The Burmese border was an hour's bike ride away across a plain of rice fields, at the foot of some low hills. On the way, we passed young monks discarding their orange robes and swimming naked in the irrigation canals. And we were overtaken by tractors crammed with young Dais on their way to the festival, who smiled and waved and beckoned us to follow them. The border checkpoint was up a side road in the hills: a sleepy wooden hut flying the Chinese red flag. Two customs inspectors woke up from their 'xiuxi' siesta and brought us some tea. Not much traffic on the road, they said. Better try Daluo instead.

A truck pulled in from the Burmese side and the guard put on his cap and went to inspect- The Burmese riding on the back looked just like the local Dais, though they wore 70s- style psychedelic shirts, baseball caps and scuffed jeans. Beyond the checkpoint was nothing, just a road winding up into the jungle. Yet somewhere out there were some of the most productive heroin refineries in the Golden Triangle.

This strip of Burma bordering Yunnan was controlled by a Chinese opium warlord, Lin Mingxian and his Wa armies, who rivalled the Thai-border-based Khun Sha for power. The Burmese side of the border was a wild. lawless place, said to produce some 2.000 tons of opium a season with the tacit approval of the government in Rangoon It did not look very inviting. Back down in the nearby village, New Year festivities were in full swing around a newly-built temple.

Groups of young men sat outside on rattan mats. sipping firewater and nibbling special dishes from wicker trays. Inside the gloom of the temple, women, children and old men bowed down in prayer, chanting along with a squatting lama among a forest of paper prayer trees festooned with notes of renminbi, Burmese kyats and Thai baht. Outside, we were beckoned over by a party of young lads who were sitting under a bush eating bony chicken and toasting each other with firewater. They gave us sticky purple rice wrapped in palm leaves, and blobs of brown sweet jelly.

xishuanbanna china 1994

In their younger days they had all served as monks, they said. 'Why is your hair so curly?' asked one of them. 'Don't you ever wash it?' 'We've got shampoo that will straighten it for you.' said another, I asked them if they had visited the surrounding countries. All of them had been to Burma, a few to Thailand, 'Thailand is good fun.' they said. 'It's busy, like Kunming;. But Burma is no good. It's too poor, and they have the army. Some bad people there.' 'Could we sneak over and have a look al Burma from here?' I asked. 'It's not a good idea,’ one of them said. "Last year a New Zealand woman tried to walk up into the hills here. She was captured by the Burmese soldiers,' (he made a gesture to show hands tied behind the back) They kept her for a day, took all her things: her watch, camera, money. Then they handed her over to the Chinese border police who also fined her 300rmb.'

Firecrackers exploded as we chatted, prompting a cheer each time- Groups of people gathered around gambling squares that looked like a cross between hopscotch and roulette, and processions of more prayer trees arrived from other villages. The older men wore white trilbies and see-through white shirts like those worn in the Philippines. 'This festival lasts three days.' the young men told us. 'Today we eat and drink and pray. Tomorrow we have dancing and games- The third day we have water splashing.'

Later in the afternoon, as we got up to leave, the young men protested and insisted we go to their house for dinner. Why not, we thought. And, as we walked up through the village, I asked the man who invited us how many Chinese lived in the village. 'We are all Chinese here.' he said immediately, looking puzzled. I rephrased the question. 'How many Han Chinese?' 'Oh. None.'

The contrast between the glare outside and the dark interior of the Dai house meant it was some time before I could examine my surroundings. The house was made from ill-fitting planks of wood, leaving gaps where sun-rays streamed through on to the floor. Inside there was little furniture among the wooden beams, just wicker baskets, tools, a black and white TV and an old cassette player. We sat together, men-only. in a circle on a rattan mat. The women were elsewhere, preparing dinner. When the dishes arrived, our hosts apologised profusely. 'We are such poor peasants, we cannot offer you much. We only have a simple life.' The young man's father sat beside me, a tiny man, bony as a sparrow, wearing a blue vest. He scooped some of the rice up into his fingers and rolled it into a ball before eating it. Only the men ate together; the women would eat the leftovers, they said.

xishuanbanna china 1994

The Dai dishes were rubbery bits of intestine that could not be chewed. There was some peppery fish, full of bones, and a strange, spicy dip. 'Don't eat that dish in the middle, it will make you sick, he said, pointing to what looked like more intestines. Then they passed round more firewater and beer, and showed us photos of a distant cousin who had managed to settle in San Paulo, California. (He went to study, and never came back). 'Can you take me with you to England?' the young man asked. 'Life is too slow here in 'Banna. We are too poor. All we do is grow rice and watermelons.' I wasn't sure if he was serious because he smiled all the time. I sipped some green tea from a bowl and told him it would cost more than 10,000rmb for a plane ticket. He persisted, and I felt-uneasy. 'Come on let's go see the dancing,' I said.

xishuanbanna china 1994

Back at the temple in the twilight, young Dai women in pink and powder blue sarongs were dancing in pairs around a pole. They wore big golden ear-rings and had red flowers in their hair. They twisted their elegant necks and wrists to the sound of crashing cymbals, and the crowd whooped them on. Around the other side of the temple, young monks scampered up a bamboo scaffolding tower, readying to light the fuse of a 10-foot long home-made rocket. The projectiles were made from bamboo poles, with fluted pipes attached around the warhead, to make an eerie wail as they phutted in a fifty-foot arc up into the clear evening sky and then plop back into the paddy fields. After that, me and Jack cycled back to Damenlong as the sun set, in silence.

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