Oct 10, 2006

Xishuangbanna village trek

Hiking through the jungle is one of the best attractions in Xishuangbanna. Lonely Planet, Let's Go, and some other travel publications describe in detail a 3-day hike from Damenglong to Bulangshan village. Well, as of recently, said trek does not exist as it is described in those books. Apparently there's a massive contruction project, and the entire route is overrun with machinery and heavy trucks. As one traveller wrote in the advice notebook in the Mei Mei Cafe in Jinghong, unless your idea of scenery is rock grinding machines and construction zones, pick another trek.

Although it's more expensive to hire a guide than to go on a do-it-yourself trek, I opted for the former. I signed up for a 2-day trek organized through the Mei Mei Cafe that was along a route I had never read about, nor would have been able to find without a guide or a very detailed map and route description.

Trek day 1

The trek started with our small group taking a public long distance bus from the Jinghong number two bus station to Mengyang. About one hour outside of Jinghong, our guide, who referred to himself as Mr. Rush (actually named Yu Mao-Jin), hollered at the driver to stop, and our group hopped off the bus into what looked like a giant road construction project. This was the site of a planned highway linking China to Burma and Thailand.

We walked about one hour along the construction zone, and then followed the trail uphill into the jungle. Thirty minutes later we arrived at our first minority village. Its inhabitants were the people of the Jinuo ethnic group, the smallest of the 56 Chinese ethnic groups recognized by the PRC.

We ended up spending about three hours in the village, eating a filling lunch of cured pork, corn, stir fried potatoes, beans, rice, and local green tea, freshly picked from the surrounding hills. After we had loafed about for two and a half hours or so, the German couple of our party was getting ansy. "This is more of a sit-around-the-village-and-eat tour and not so much of a trek.", one of them remarked. The schedule-driven Germans were ready to get hoofin' again, but I trusted the trek leader to let us wait around as long as possible so we could complete the hike during the last part of the day. It's best to rest during the midday heat and hike during the morning and late afternoon.

Jinuo house exterior

Jinuo house interior with mosquito net

Soon after lunch, I filled my Nalgene bottle with the villager's fresh tea. We all got a good look around the village and the guide negotiated our entrance into some of the locals' homes to have a peek. In one home, only a 5-year old girl was at home while her parents were at work in the fields. She graciously let our guide and us in to take a peek around, and arranged some small stools for us to rest on. Then she went back to her work of hanging the laundry to dry in the sun while intermittently copying Chinese characters in her schoolbook. In this Jinuo village, most of the homes were of the Dai style, made of wood, with a steep roof and with the living area raised above the ground by stilts. It was quite fascinating to see, but not someplace we'd want to live.

After our trapse through the Jinuo village it was about 3 PM, and we still had a good four hours left of hiking through terraced tea fields and rubber trees. From the Jinuo village, we hiked down a steep hill through green tea plants to another path. I stopped to nibble fresh baby tea leaves along the way.

After another climb, we passed by a Jinuo school that looked like an American log cabin schoolhouse from the early 1800's. In the rear corner of the classroom sat a single chair. It must have been the dunce chair for the class idiot.

Jinuo schoolhouse interior

Jinuo children

The hiking trail carried us through lush jungle, across small streams, and up and down steep trails. Crossing some of the tea terraces was quite dangerous, as the path was only two feet wide. To the left was a sheer drop of ten feet to the next terrace, to the right side a vertical wall for the next terrace upwards.

Although long pants would have been the best protection against the stinging nettles and overgrown weeds that we plodded through, I had opted for a pair of shorts due to the heat. The temperature was in the high 80s and humid, even in the dense forest. Long pants would have been unbearable. After an hour of walking through the weeds my shins were covered in microscopic lacerations and were itchy from the contact with the unfamiliar vegetation. The Australian girls in the group voiced complaints in the same vane.

On this particular day of our hike, sunset occurred exactly at 7:00 PM. Fifteen minutes prior to that, we came to a clearing in the middle of a terraced corn field, containing two rickety huts, each 10 feet square. They looked like a place where Joseph and Mary would have asked to spend the night. In this case, I reckon that the pigs or sheep were kept there. Given that it was close to the end of the day, I expected that our guide would start negotiating a place for us to spend the night. He initiated a conversation with a middle-aged Han Chinese couple who had the appearance of having been hard at work all day in the fields. The woman had on a navy Mao-suit top and green low-top PLA shoes. Her gnarly hands were tanned to the shade of Hershey's chocolate, and her fingernails had grit under them as if she had just changed bunch of car oil filters.

Our guide spoke to the peasant couple in the jibbery-jabbery, clipped Yunnan-Chinese dialect, and I could only make out that they were negotiating prices. Given the time of the day, I assumed that they were discussing how much for our group to spend a night in the pig pen and to cook us a meal.

Eventually our guide instructed us to follow Guide Number Two and march on ahead to our destination, a proper Jinuo village about one click (km) away. It turns out that Mr. Rush was negotating the price of two live chickens from the farmers. Our guide would remain there until nightfall when the chickens returned to roost, at which time he would catch up to us in the village, our night's dinner in tow.

While Mr. Rush waited with the two peasants, we marched on ahead down a steep downhill path. At the end of the path we came to a peaceful brook running through the woods. Soaked with sweat and stinking like a goat, I squatted down on the ground to rest. The young German couple caught up.

How great would it be to dunk my head in that brook and cool off after all that hiking, I thought. I bounced the idea off the Germans. "Go for it," one of them told me. I considered for a moment that fact that this was still China. Is there any freshwater body of water in all of China that you'd want to dunk your head in?

In all my travels in China, I couldn't recall any freshwater streams or lakes that I'd willingly want to expose myself too. Chinese people don't revere nature like we do in the West. A mountain stream in the West that we could drink from or take a quick rinse in just doesn't exist in China because it would have already been defiled in some way.

The rest of our hikers had caught up. I didn't have any more time to consider taking a wash in the stream. We continued walking for a few minutes around a bend in the river and arrived at the second Jinuo village. The first brick building we saw had "shop" scrawled on the side in Chinese. They had a selection of about five items, three of which were hard liquor. This building was adjacent to the house where we would spend the night. The house, again, built on stilts, had an ill-mannered dog chained to one of the posts, and she barked at us ferociously as we made our way up the steps of our Jinuo host's home.

As we slinked into the house where we would eat and sleep, I noted a makeshift toilet outside next to the river. The toilet was as simple as you get. It was composed of four chest-high posts, around which was wrapped a piece of plastic tarp to conceal the user. In the center of that were two paralell boards over the ground. That's it. And all of the human waste from the toilet would almost immediately run into the water. Good thing I didn't wash my face in that river.

Our host family was just coming back to their house from a day at work in the fields, and it would be another couple hours before we would eat dinner. Our group of hikers sat outside on the concrete and brick patio. Night came. We prepared our flashlights and slathered ourselves with mosquito repellent. The moon was nearly full, and the sounds of the river could be heard in the distance. The smell of decaying feces and urine wafted through the night mist, lingering on the patio. I positioned myself as far away as I could from one of the sources of the smell, which was a closet-sized shower room in one corner of the veranda. I hoped we wouldn't have to eat our dinner outside with the foul smell.

I hung out on the roof of the Jinuo house for a while longer. It was clear that someone should have remembered to bring a deck of cards. Some of us worked our way into the house to watch dinner being prepared simultaneously over an open fire and with a gas range. Dinner was the exact same set of country dishes that we ate for lunch, with the addition of a soup that would be made of the chickens.

At around eight o'clock, our trekking guide returned to the house. He walked up to the rooftop patio where we sat, carrying in each hand a clucking, inverted chicken. The elder male of the family emerged from the house. He bent one of the chicken's necks backwards at a ninety-degree angle, and plucked some of its neck feathers.

"That chicken is dead, right?", asked one of the Australian girls to her father.

"Of course it is. They wouldn't be plucking feathers from a live chicken now, would they?", he answered.

No sooner than this was said, the villager quickly slit the jugular of the struggling chicken with a bowie knife. In one quick movement, he swung the inverted chicken over a white soup bowl to collect the blood. The crimson blood splashing against the white porcelain looked like a modern art painting. After two minutes of draining the blood and shaking the chicken, our host begain to set the carcass aside. Suddenly, the chicken began to twitch and jump violently and the villager regained his grip for another minute. After that it was dead for sure. He followed the same procedure for the second chicken.

Dinner went on the same way as lunch did. We all made sure to drink lots of warm Mekong River beer from the shop, peppered with shots of the locals' homemade 100 proof bai jiu so we'd get a good night's rest sleeping on the hard wooden floor. Between 11 PM and midnight we made our way to the floor to get a few hours sleep. We were segregated into two groups, with the guys sleeping paralell like the seven dwarfs in one area, the females lined up like chorus girls in another. Dirty blankets were distributed, as were stuffed plastic laundry soap bags, which were to be used as pillows.

Trek day 2

Despite the hard floor and lack of a matress, I slept surprisingly well during the night. I attribute it to the three shots of bathtub gin and warm beer that I had. In the morning I rose to the light from the wood open fire that the matriarch of the family had built. I went outside and washed my face and hair with cold water on the open veranda and observed a few local villagers walking about. The sewer smell had disipated during the night and it was quite pleasant now.

Inside the Jinuo house where we slept

Makeshift toilet next to the river

I wandered down the stairs past the she-dog as her pup suckled milk from her. She was no longer interested in barking and snarling at me. I took a stroll about the village and walked along the stream. The scene was pictureseque, but again the sewage smell started to permeate everything. Dogs, cats, and hogs wandered along the dirt paths. A huge black, hairy pig squatted down two yards from where I walked, and let loose with a vicious stream of urine. I didn't stay to watch the second act, but on my way back I noticed a black, steaming loaf of pumpernickel bread where he had been.

I went back to the stilt house, where it was time for breakfast. A meal of noodles and spinach in chicken broth awaited us. The Chinese trekking guides slurped their noodles furiously, and later helped themselves to a second bowl.

At around 9 AM, what I consider a very late start as far as hiking goes, we set off for the day. The second day's hiking was a lot easier than the first, since it was mostly along doubletrack dirt roads through rubber tree forests. Motorcycles driven by flip-flop wearing adolecents occasionally buzzed past us. For the most part, hiking was relaxing and noneventful.

We came upon a milipede, about 10 inches long and with a body as thick as a man's thumb. Other than that and a runned-over venemous snake of some kind, we didn't spot much wildlife.

At one point, hiking along the dirt road we encountered a half dozen locals and their motorcycles lounging about on the shoulder. They were milking their rubber trees and we wandered up for a look. Once collected into a small cup, the rubber sap looks like cappuccino foam. This is where the fun stops, however. After the rubber is collected from the trees, it undergoes some further processing whereby it turns black-brown and is formed into wheels, like French cheese comes in. These wheels smell like the worst country outhouse you've ever been in, and we had to breathe this noxious odor for latter half of the second day's hiking.

We hiked all morning at a quick pace, and at around one, we arrived at another small village where some of our group bought bottled water and drinks from a Han Chinese proprieter that had set up shop there. I was all set, having been drinking boiled water obtained from the villager's kettle.

Another half an hour after that, and we arrived at a Dai couple's house on the outskirts of Ganlanba. Our hostess was a cute young thing, a slender Dai woman with a light caramel skin tone and a pleasant accent. She and her husband had just been married and we got a nice tour of their traditional house. It was much like the previous few Dai-style dwellings we had seen.

After taking a ganders at the newlyweds' stilt house, we had about five clicks left through unshaded fields in the midday sun before making it to Ganlanba for the end of the hike. Fortunately, Mr. Rush bumped into a local minibus driver to take us that distance in about ten minutes. In Ganlanba, a decent sized small town, we found a proper restaurant and feasted on a lunch of various stir fried meats, fresh vegetables, and bowls of rice, chased down with icy-cold Mekong River Beer. Most of us had one 750 ml bottle each to help get our fluid levels back. Some of us even had two or three bottles each.

After lunch, we tooled around Ganlanba a bit. We took the passenger ferry across the Mekong and back, then walked through the town market where we got some good photos of a butchered dog's head and paws laid out on a table.

Back in Jinghong that evening I had a much-needed shower. Later, I slugged back another big bottle of Dali beer at the Mei Mei Cafe and chatted with some hiking partners about their next destinations.

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Anonymous Geoff said...

Great writeup on your trek! I'm looking to do the same thing and glad I came across your post. Thanks!

8:22 PM  

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