It’s a bad sign when the highlight of your day is not falling down during a very muddy hike (note to self: buy hiking boots). Thankfully, for me, there were many other (cleaner) highlights during my trek through parts of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province.
Located in the far south of the province, near China’s border with Myanmar and Laos, Xishuangbanna is an autonomous prefecture known for its tropical weather, rain forests and ethnic minorities. It’s a lush area that closely resembles Southeast Asia in climate and culture.
The day after landing in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna’s small capital city (small = only one baggage belt at the airport), I embarked on an eventful day-and-a-half trip with WildChina’s local partner, Michael/Oliver (one English name wasn’t enough!) and two of his younger staff members, Ian and Vincent.
We started with a visit to a local market in Menghai county, which offered some interesting people-watching, particularly of ethnic Dai women wearing traditional sarongs, jackets and head scarves. The Dai, the largest minority group in Xishuangbanna, speak their own language with its own script, and their people are found throughout southeast Asia. They follow Theravada Buddhism, rather than Mahayana, the school of Buddhism practiced in much of the rest of China—which explains why their temples and pagodas remind me so much of Thailand.
Following a visit to one such temple in Mengzhe township, occupied by teenage monks, we started our hike in the countryside. Xishuangbanna has endured an unusually heavy rainy season this year, but the muddy roads did not deter my good-natured guides (who put up with me and my shoes).
Our 5-hour uphill journey (including breaks) eventually led us to Baka Village, a Hani minority village where we spent the night. The Hani are the second-largest ethnic group in the region, and unlike the Dai, who have thrived in fertile river basins, they tend to live on higher ground.
Here are some of the highlights from the hike to/from the village and the home-stay:
Sights Along the Way
- A young boy leading his family’s cows down the mountainside to graze
- A Buddhist monk in saffron robes speeding by on a motorcycle
- An elderly man making traditional, bamboo umbrellas by hand
- A family operating a small tea-processing workshop (tea is widely grown due to the warmer and wetter climate)
- A woman painstakingly tying blades of grass to make thatched roofs.
Most Memorable Moments around Xishuangbanna
- Ducking into friendly villagers’ houses to avoid the rain
- Seeing villagers’ faces light up with pure joy when Michael distributed photos he took of them during his last visit
- Realizing that the Olympics is being watched everywhere—even in the villages, thanks to satellite TV
- Enjoying a lovely meal with the hospitable Zhao family, who hosted us for the night (Mr. Zhao is Han, while his wife is Aini, a branch of the Hani minority). Conversation topics ranged from the wife’s fear of acupuncture to the status of their 10-year-old son, who lives far away with his grandparents in the town of Dali, due to better educational opportunities.
Strangest Moments around Xishuangbanna
- Waking up to the calls of roosters, pigs, dogs, water buffalo and who knows what else. I was suddenly transported back to the 1980’s and to the summers spent at my father’s village in India.
- Borrowing Vincent’s small MP3 player—an unfortunate move, as I will now always associate my hikes in Xishuangbanna with “As Long As You Love Me” and “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys (ugh) and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson.
I guess it could have been worse. He could have had Celine Dion on there.