Oct 11, 2006

Xishuangbanna markets

Xishuangbanna has several well-known markets that allow you to encounter the surrounding tribespeople. From Lonely Planet, in order of popularity, they are Xiding (Thursdays), Menghun (Sunday), and Menghai (Sunday). According to one of the sisters at the Mei Mei Cafe in Jinghong, Menghai doesn't have anything interesting to see at its market.

Menghun market

I arrived at Menghun solo via two bus rides that connected in Menghai. Though it's a very small agricultural town, transportation to Menghun is convenient and there are frequent buses. In early October, when I visited, the locals were drying wheat in the streets. They would sweep the wheat around to cover the entire street and help it dry in the hot sun, leaving a one-foot border on each side so that pedestrians could walk by. Green tea leaves or peppers dried in small baskets on the street or on the roof of some locals' homes. Many townspeople kept Pekingese dogs as pets, and they would bark up a storm when they saw me approaching in my hiking boots.

A golden Dai temple and monastery on a hill overlooking the town was quite pleasant, and no one but a few monks were there. The jungle reached right up to the back of the temple and it appeared to make for some fun hiking if you had a guide.

On Sunday morning, market day, I followed the parade of tribespeople to the town's covered market area. In constrast to the previous day, which was sunny and hot, the morning air was misty and cool. I had to wear my long pants, and I was chilly wearing just a t-shirt.

The market was dominated by animals and vegetables. As I walked in, boxes and boxes of chirping baby ducks, geese, and chickens lay on the floor. Adolescent dogs were crammed together in a cardboard box with holes punched in it. These were dogs for eatin', not for keeping as pets. Making my way towards the fresh meat area, I saw a severed dog's head, a set of paws, legs, and a gob of intestines arranged on a wooden table. All the hair had been boiled off. A bright red pool of drying blood lay nearby. I wondered if it was the blood from the butchered dog. Nearby, a leathery-skinned, disinterested old woman sat on a short stool.

A few pool tables were arranged towards the center of the market place, and some tribesmen and Han Chinese played pool.

Towards the rear of the market, piglets in woven baskets the size of gym duffel bags were being traded. Chinese children surrounded the confined pigs on the ground, kicking and prodding at them until the pigs shrieked and howled, which prompted the parents to scold the kids. A hairy hog skin, fresh off the carcass and backed with a greasy layer of white fat, lay bunched on the ground like a beach blanket. A cow hide was stretched across two poles. Exhausted-looking butchers furiously carved off hunks of meat. Blood and meat fragments flew in all directions as they hacked the hog and cow carcasses with heavy knives.

Two duck butchering operations were running at full speed next to the pork and beef butchers. The duck shops were operated by small families, each in their own tiny storefront. The father would grab one or two ducks at a time, walk a distance away from the shop, slice the ducks' necks with a quick motion, and toss them into a basket on the ground. The blood slowly ran out of the ducks' necks and stained their white feathers. You could see the ducks becoming weaker and weaker as the life drained from their bodies. After a few minutes, they stopped moving. The limp carcasses of ducks that had already bled out were carried back towards the rear of the shop and tossed into a giant vat of boiling water. Outside the shop, two adolescent girls squatted on the ground; one girl plucked the feathers of the boiled ducks, the other used a paring knife to slice off the bill and tongue from the defeathered ducks. Mangled piles of ducks in various stages of dismemberment lay on the ground around the girls.

A tobacco vendor had several bricks of shredded leaves that a few local men squatted on the ground and sampled. In turn, each man took a two-by-two inch precut square of old newspaper, rolled up the leaves, and smoked it like a joint.

The Menghun market had many types of hot peppers for sale, more then one finds in Beijing. Dai people and the hilltribes tend to have spicier food than the Han Chinese are accustomed to. Apart from food, most products at the market were things useful to the locals, like fabrics, sweaters, baskets, and other woven items.

I noticed that the Dai people tend to have what look like jailhouse tatoos on their forearms. This is especially true of the men, who tatoo words in the Dai language with black ink up and down their arms. Females would sometimes have as few as one Dai letter tatooed on their hand somewhere. No one gave me a satisfactory answer when I asked them about their tatoos. It must be some type of Dai secret.

As long as they didn't end up getting butchered, market day was the highlight of the week for the town's dog population. Medium and large sized dogs walked briskly up and down the streets looking for scraps of food to eat. What looked like an oversized German shepherd mutt trotted by. I was relieved the dogs weren't interested in people and completely ignored me. I don't think that Cesar Milan's "calm assertive dominance" would have done anything with these dogs had they turned mean.

Xiding market

Xiding is not as easy to get to as Menghun. Some of the Jinghong backpacker cafes organize daytrips to Xiding with a chauferred car that will drop you off and wait to bring you back, for about Y100-150 per person. Leave that to the tourists, I say. We're travellers and backpackers, and the journey is part of the fun. There's no reason to rush this type of experience and do it as a day trip.

Buses leave from Menghai to Xiding at 10:40 AM and 3:30 PM, and return at 7:20 AM and 12:30 PM. If you miss these buses you're SOL and need to find another means of transportation or stay in town an extra day. Despite thoughtful planning and research, it would later turn out that for the trip back, our group would be one of those unable to get on the 12:30 PM bus. More on that later.

I arrived at Menghai with a hiking partner from the Jinuo village trek. Once in Xiding we met up with some Australians that were also on the trek with us. We had come to Xiding separately, but it was easy enough to locate the Australians. In this cow town with just three tiny guesthouses, I simply walked by each place and asked "Do you have three foreigners, two girls and a man, staying here?"

The Australians had the good fortune to locate the best of the three guesthouses, adjacent to the tiny post office. I, on the other hand, had chatted up one of the local girls on the bus on the trip up to Xiding and stayed at the place she recommended, which was an unmarked guesthouse about 500 yards downhill from the bus station on the right side of the road. My Danish travelling partner appeared to have had higher expectations for this town, and the snorting hogs and vicious dog chained in the back of the guesthouse I chose didn't help her opinion.

There were two restaurants in town, a yucky grunge pit by the Norman Bates bus station guest house, that is, the guest house we didn't chose, as well as a decent looking Hani minority-run restaurant with a nice veranda in the back. In preparation for dinner, I asked the young girl in the Hani restaurant to stay open until 8:00 PM for us. They normally closed at 7:00 PM, but that was too early for me to eat on this particular day, since my travel partner and I had brunched in Menghai at around 2 PM.

In preparation for dinner, I headed to one of the local shops and instructed them to put several bottles of beer in the freezer that I would go back to pick up around eight, before dinner. Many Chinese, especially in rural areas, drink their beer warm, and it takes some extra effort to procure proper chilled brews. Around eight or so, I rousted our dinner group and we headed to the restaurant. Along the way we picked up the icy beer. In the restaurant we met up with a Dutchman that my travelling partner and I had earlier crossed paths with in Xiding. His Xiding photos are really good.

As with many of the rural establishments I ate at during this trip, there was no menu at this restaurant. The young Hani girl that acted as hostess, waitress, and cook showed me to a table where some fresh vegetables were laid out, and told me what meats were available. I picked out a good sampling of items as well as some vegetables she mentioned only Hani zu people eat. Dinner for the five of us ran a total of Y30 ($3.75). I frequently spend twice that amount just for myself eating out in Beijing.

We concluded our dinner by slugging down two or three big bottles of chilled beer each. At 10 PM or so our voices were getting very loud and obnoxious, and we were degenerating into reminiscing about China stories focused on public urination and defecation. We decided it was time to call it a night.

My travel buddette had already retired to the guesthouse early, so I staggered the ten minutes back there alone with my flashlight, hoping no roaming packs of dogs attacked me. In the center of town I encountered a lone cow, which was being barked at and harassed by an angry German shepherd. I was glad the dog was snarling at the cow instead of me. Before going to sleep, I stumbled out the back side of the guesthouse, past the pig pen, chicken coop, and chained rabid dog to use the disgusting squat toilet.

The Xiding market had similar items for sale as the Menghun market, and the tribespeople came to town in the same way in tractors and packed in pickup truck beds. Xiding had a more crowded atmosphere, and more diverse types of people. It was an experience not to be missed. Given the choice between Menghun and Xiding, it would be hard to pick. I would say that both are worthwhile.

Although we each strolled around the market independently, our dinner group from the previous night had planned to meet up around noon at the bus stop to buy tickets back to Menghai and take off together. Standing around the bus stop area, a local woman suggested that I go to the office, which had just opened up, to buy tickets.

The Danish college girl, the Dutchman, two of the Australians, and I walked over to wait in line to buy tickets with a few locals. The ticket seller was a man hunched over a dimly lit desk in a room of the bus stop guesthouse. After selling each ticket, he would fill out a receipt in duplicate and mark it in his notebook. A local in front of us bought a ticket. The Dutchman, who was next in line, was able to thrust his wad of money in the ticketseller's face. Someone in our group yelled at him to buy several tickets for all of us, and we would reimburse him, but the ticketseller would only let him buy one. We interpreted this to mean that each person could only buy one ticket each, no multiple ticket sales allowed. We all lined up with our money ready, and waited. For five minutes the ticketseller stared at his desk, flipping pages in his notebook and making tick marks.

After patiently waiting for this time, without the ticketseller even so much as looking up once, I asked him, "Can we buy a ticket yet?"

The man responded with gibberish. It was the local Yunnan dialect. I asked him to speak proper Chinese and repeat himself.

"Mai wan le", he said, still in dialect, but this time I could make out what he meant. The tickets were sold out.

Why this man didn't tell us this five minutes prior is beyond me, but I should know by now that customer service doesn't exist in China, and Chinese service workers will do only the minimum work that they need to. In this case, the ticketseller wasn't going to provide any information unless he was specifically asked. Like a robot, the man would only respond to direct questions that you asked him.

None of us wanted to stay in town another night to wait for the next day's bus, so we looked for other options to get out of there. After hearing the news about the bus tickets, my Danish travelling partner, who absolutely couldn't wait to escape the town, bolted off. She ended up finding some Italian girls with marginal English skills who had chartered a taxi from Jinghong. I think she may have gone back with them, but I never saw nor heard from her again after that.

Being the team player that I am, I walked around for about three minutes with the Australians and eyed some of the tractors that the local tribespeople rode into town. No way did I want to take that for a two or three hour ride down the mountain road, but it would be my last ditch contingency plan. I chatted with a local man standing around in the market crowd.

"What to do?", I asked him. "Bao che", he said. Charter a whole car. He introduced us to his friend with his own car who would take us down to Menghai for 20Y each, just a few kuai more expensive than the crowded bus. We were as pleased as could be with this fortunate turn of events, and we made it back to Menghai in much more comfort than we would have otherwise, and in a fraction of the time.

In Menghai, we slugged back some cold beer and ate some local suan la fish for lunch. Later the Australians and I parted ways.

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Anonymous The Dutchman said...

I enjoyed reading your acccount of this foggy day in Xiding. And the Norman Bates guesthouse where I stayed (as the only guest, I believe) was actually quite ok. The only downside was that you had to use the public latrine across the street, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to your experiences at the other guesthouse.
Back in Jinghong, I ran into your Danish companion at the Mei Mei cafe, who told me triumphantly that she got a free taxi ride back to Jinghong.

12:29 AM  

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