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 16: Jinghong: Home of China's Thai Minority.

Xishuanhanna felt like a different country after the cool spring days of Kunming. it was midnight when we landed at Jinghong airport, and the darkness was thick and sweet-seemed. The buildings looked like they were from Thailand or Bali: ornate pagoda roofs and murals of peacocks and elephants. Palm trees swayed in the warm night breeze and large mosquitoes caressed my face.

There were Dai (Thai) minority women waiting in the small arrivals hall. They were small and their dark-skinned faces were blanched with powder and rouge. It was hard to tell if they were fifteen or thirty five- They wore collarless pink blouses and sarongs that almost touched the floor, with a silver chain around their impossibly narrow waists. They looked pretty and summery in their flowery straw hats, though their flat linen satchels gave them a hippy edge.

I was taken aback by the friendly, easy-going attitude 1 encountered while searching for a ride to my hotel. 'Just hop in, we'll give you a lift,' said a driver of one of the tour buses. And after an unhurried wait for another passenger, he drove me through the deserted centre of this overgrown tropical village, to the Banna Hotel, without payment. Not like China at all.

The night clerk at the colonial cluster of buildings that made up the Banna. was dealing with a group of Guangzhou yuppies who wanted the best rooms. They waved wads of l00rmb notes at him and talked in loud Cantonese. I felt almost ashamed asking for the cheapest dormitory bed after their show of affluence. But the clerk just .smiled and said gently: 'Of course, let me show you where they are'. But before we could leave, one of the Cantonese women came back to complain "Can we change our room? It really stinks. Have you had a foreigner staying in there?' she asked in Chinese. 'What kind of smell?' asked the clerk. 'Really strange - sweaty, or like a toilet.' she said. 'We've no other rooms, I'll sort you out in the morning,' said the clerk.

I had the dormitory to myself. Lying on the bed, it was too hot for sheets and I lay in my shorts under the mosquito net. The room was thick with the incense of a mosquito coils and the faint whine of insects searching for a hole in the net. I wondered if they were malarial and wished I’d taken my chloroquine tablets earlier. At first sight the next morning, Jinghong was like a little Saigon. The streets were wide and lined with palm trees, the architecture colonial. The local Dai people were languid, cheerful and wore conical .straw hats as they rode round in trishaws in the rising mid-morning heat.

xishuanbanna china 1994

The town prospered on border trade and tourism: there were black Mercedes cruising the streets and shiny 4-wheel drives up from Thailand parked in the shade. Yet behind the facade of sarongs and elephant statues, beyond, the Dai houses on stilts, this was just another concrete Chinese town. The stores carried the same cheap merchandise as in Guilin and Wuzhou, and it was Canto-pop as much as Thai music that boomed out of the hairdressers and boutiques. There were the same 'Liberation' trucks rumbling down the streets and the same ubiquitous Chinese 'tuolaji' tractors hauling trailers full of watermelons in from the surrounding fields. The writing was all in Chinese script and people spoke "putonghua" This was no last outpost of Thai culture in China.

Jinghong was a holiday town, the streets lined with open-fronted tour agencies offering the same trips to the same places: the Bamboo Shoots Pagoda, the Banyan Tree That Looks Like An Elephant, the Laos frontier market, the Stockaded Village Of Hani Maidens and the Burmese border post of Daluo. The recent opening of Jinghong's modern airport had made Xisuanbanna the exotic tropical playground of China, accessible to honeymooners from Beijing and factory outings from Chengdu. I wanted to go down to see the Burmese border, but not by bus. so I decided to buy a mountain hike. I was helped in this by a local lad, Adam. who wanted to practice his English on me. He told me all the local shops were closed for three hours at lunchtime for a siesta, and invited me back to his sister's house for lunch.

After giving me a saddle on his rusty bike across the muddy Mekong. I discovered that lunch was quite a big affair of several dishes. As we sat eating delicious peppery chicken I asked Adam for information on the local area. Was there malaria round here? No. When was the rainy season? June to September. Did the local people speak Thai? No, only a northern Thai dialect. What was it like in Burma? Dangerous and poor - don't go there! Adam himself was not Dai, but was originally from further north in Yunnan. He was learning English and trying to get a Job with one of the thriving tour companies in Jinghong. He and his sister asked me umpteen questions about England: Were we Buddhist in England? How many times did we eat rice a day?

They didn't believe me when I said their food was better than what I would eat in England: 'Surely not! We are simple people, we can't afford good food. But in England, your standard of living is so much higher than here.' I tried to explain how a ham sandwich didn't really compare with this array of spicy vegetables, eggs and chicken, but they wouldn't hear any of it. 'If you like it, come again tomorrow,” they said.

Back in Jinghong, when the shops re-opened at 2.30pm, I settled on a 12-speed mountain bike made in Shanghai, for 650rmb (about £60). There were plenty of bikes to choose from and the quality wasn't bad. Mountain bikes were also very popular with the locals: it was strange to see graceful Dai girls cruising round on thick-tyred, off-road bikes. The next step after buying the bike was to get it registered with the police, across the road at an intimidating tower block that had photos of drug smugglers being paraded for execution posted outside. The 'Gonganju' (police) officer on duty was friendly. 'You're lucky you know,' he said as I handed over my 5rmb fee. 'You wouldn't get registered so easily anywhere else in China. They'd want to see all your papers. I'm doing you a big favour.'

He took out his steel punches and hammered my registration number onto the handlebars, then handed over my 'bicycle driving licence' in clear plastic wallet. I was registered to cycle in China.

Jinghong Xishuanbanna

Cycling was the best way to get around Jinghong. It was cool and quick, better than tramping the hot dusty streets, and it allowed me to observe people close up without being pestered or stared at. People smiled at me as I pedalled up to the free market, a 1km stretch of stalls selling everything from flyblown meat to Vietnamese pith helmets. I bought some bungy straps and a spanner, and thus prepared, I was ready to pedal to Burma. Sat at Chuchu's Cafe on Jinghong's main street. 1 sipped a banana milkshake in the cool of the evening. An Australian guy, just arrived in on the two-day bus journey from Kunming, laughed at my plan to cycle around Yunnan province. 'Not a hope in hell, mate. Have you seen the hills?' No, I hadn't. 'You're dreaming,' he said. Then he changed the subject to expound on his idea that 'the Chinese, Jews and Indians controlled all the money in the world.' I decided to go took at my maps.

Back in the stuffy dormitory, one of the Dai chambermaids peered over my shoulder at the Yunnan map spread out on the table. 'This is my home village, she said, pointing to Mengia on the Laos border. She was a plump, spotty girl, wearing the traditional long dress. 'Where is your home town on here?' she asked me. I tried to explain that England was not part of Yunnan, or China. My maps had been a bit of a let-down, despite all my preparations, in the end. the best maps I got were the locally-bought "Map of Scenic Spots and Communication of Xisuanhanna" and a road map of Yunnan, in Chinese. I hadn't been able to afford the USAF Air Navigation maps. and the German Helles maps I'd bought in Auckland were hopelessly inaccurate: towns in the wrong places, roads that didn't link up and names that were out of date. The only other useful maps I had were photocopies from the Times Atlas and a modern Chinese atlas. I looked at the route I would take the next day; 80km southwest to Damenlong, and tantalisingly close to the Burmese border. To the Golden Triangle!

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