Oct 13, 2006

Xishuangbanna

Xishuangbanna was a good place to go during the October 1st holiday week in China. This period is the so-called Golden Week during which Chinese tourists bend over and take it from hotel owners who jack up prices five or six hundred percent for a week. I was initially a bit worried that there would be throngs of Han Chinese tour groups buzzing about taking pictures of themselves while doing the two-finger "peace" gesture. Fortunately this was not the case and the entire region was pretty relaxed during the holiday period. Hotel prices rose at some places, only at some places in Jinghong, the major city. On average I ended up paying about Y30 for my own room during non-holiday times and Y40 or Y50 during the holiday in Jinghong, and quite a bit less in the more rural areas.

Map of China and Xishuangbanna region


Location of places within Xishuangbanna region


Damenglong

Since I wanted to see the 800 year old Manfeilong pagoda in Damenglong, just a few miles from the Burmese border, I took what Lonely Planet claims is a two and a half hour bus ride from Jinghong. In reality, this bus ride was along one of the bumpiest third world roads I've ever been on in China. I don't think our speed ever topped 25 MPH for the entire ride. On the ride down, I had the misfortune to sit in the last row of the bus since the other seats were occupied. Several times I was launched a good two feet vertically when cruising over chuckholes and bumps. On the way back, I made sure to claim a seat further towards the front of the bus. In total the trip was 3-1/2 hours of actual driving, plus another 1 hour or so of stopping to pick up or drop off random passengers and goods.

At the start of the journey, the bus pulled over to the shoulder in Gasa, a small town on the outskirts of Jinghong. A man carrying a 3 ft x 3ft x 2 ft white styrofoam cooler hiked up onto the bus and threw the box into the center aisle in front of where I was sitting. The lid popped off and I saw the contents of the cooler: a freshly butchered, bloody carcass of some kind. Since it was too wide for the aisle, the cooler was laying diagonally. I feared that whatever juices and blood were in there would leak out and run all over the bus.

Damenglong itself is a town of cowboys and yokels. There is one main street straight out of a western movie. The eight hundred-year old temple and monastery in town were worth a look, but driving for four hours each way over a bumpy road was a steep price to pay to see them.

The center of town in Damenglong. Yee-haw!

Manfeilong Pagoda, and not a soul around

Shucking sugar cane near Damenglong


Ganlanba

All of the guidebooks mention that Ganlanba is a great place to rent a bicycle and roam around the countryside. This may be true, but I did the bicycle trip after having been to countless other villages and having trekked through the jungle for two days, so the effect was lost on me. I think that a jungle hike or walking around Xiding are better than villages around Ganlanba.


Dai women at the Ganlanba market


Man waiting for the Mekhong River ferry in Ganlanba

At the Ganlanba market, there was dog meat for sale.
Seriously though, they did sell fresh dog meat there. If you really have a burning desire to see what one of the butchered dogs at the Ganlanba market looks like, see this. Skip it if you're sqeamish. It's not a pretty site, and a shame that this is being done to man's oldest animal companion.

Jinghong

Jinghong has an abundance of what are proclaimed to be Burmese jade stores. Indian looking men with stringy little goatees and ankle-length skirts sit in these stores and harrass Han Chinese passersby with shouts of "来看看吧" (come take a looky-looky). From one of the locals, I later learned that most of these so-called Burmese vendors are actually Pakistanis that went to Burma to get citizenship and then bounced over the border to China to open jade shops. Burmese jade is a must have for Han Chinese tourists coming to Xishuangbanna, and saying that it is Burmese improves marketability.

Man carrying a water bong in Jinghong


The Mei Mei Cafe in Jinghong is a great place to meet up with other hikers or travellers, or even book a small tour of some kind. The Mekong Cafe has more relaxing surroundings and is a better place to hang out and have a leisurely western breakfast or lunch. The stores in Jinghong have a reasonable selection of goods from Thailand, including authentic Red Bull, Mekhong whiskey, candies, and some other foods.

Backpackers that I met were of the opinion that the areas surrounding Jinhong were not that great for bicycling. It's much better to head several hours away and base yourself out of a small town if you want to see more of the region.

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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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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