A jungle trek is by it’s very nature, dirty. Dirty, no filthy, is exactly what we were. We, a motley crew of Thai’s, Australians, A crazy Danish nicknamed Dung Beetle and a tree climbing, bearded American all headed down south to the most tropical region of China to endeavour on a journey through the mountains looking over Burma. We stayed in ramshackle houses with tea farming families who lived in tiny poor villages in the mountains and hiked from dawn to dusk.
This jungle is in Xishuangbanna, an autonomous Dai region bordering on Burma and Laos in the the south of Yunnan Province, where I live. The Dai people are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Yunnan. They account for approximately 1/3 of the population of Xishuangbanna. A ratio that is becoming smaller and smaller as members of the majority Han population relocate down south to capitalise on the growing international and domestic tourism industry, profitable farming potential and, of course, the tropic climate.
After a 10 hour overnight bus trip, we arrived in the capital of Xishuangbanna, Jinghong, slightly bleary eyed. After a few weeks of unreasonably cold weather in Kunming, the sun being soaked into my skin and moisture in the air felt amazing. I was thawing out.
At Mei Mei’s, one of the local cafes catering to Westerners it was fresh mango juice all round. Xishuangbanna is famous for it’s ability to bare delicious fruits. This cafe provides a list of treks that are great to do in the region, with and without a guide. The shorter treks were without a guide, the longer treks were with a guide. An english speaking, bee keeping, spritely little man going by the pseudonym, Mr Rush. Full of spirit and delirious optimism we decided to choose the three day trek near the border of Burma, the toughest trek in the book that we could fit into our timeframe. I did later learn Mr Rush’s Chinese name, but I’ll leave him in disguise, because I want to divulge some of the somewhat “politically disagreeable” comments that he was kindly offering me as a hounded him with questions later on in the trek.
We organised to meet Mr Rush at 9am Saturday morning, being Friday morning we had time to kill, so we hired bikes and beelined for out of town. First stop out of town was picking strawberries at one of the many strawberry fields in the outlying regions around Jinghong. We picked about a kilo of strawberries each and downed them as soon as we finished. Picking fruit isn’t an easy gig, I’m going to think very hard next time I contemplate throwing out a half eating piece of fruit. Someone has hand picked it, working long hours in back breaking, awkward positions while getting paid peanuts. This trip has warded me off complaining about my life. The conditions that people live in, the lack of simple infrastructure like flushing toilets, electricity, ample water supplies is atrocious. Considering the amount of money that these people are generating for the local economy, they are most certainly not getting their piece of the pie.
A beautiful young woman with a new born baby, late teens to early 20s was working measuring strawberries while we were there. Nicole and I sat with her for a good hour, pouring praise over her baby who was absolutely gorgeous. She had that proud sparkle in her eye that only a new mother has. I looked behind her into her tiny little house, with a small bed with another small baby, (she had twins) and felt pride for her too. I think about all the lucky mothers at home who get the luxury of clean water, electricity and sewage among all of the other comparatively lavish comforts at their disposable when caring for a new born baby. Let alone two.
Our bellies full of strawberries we hopped back on our trusty mountain bikes and made for the nearest village called Gasa. Bicycle riding is a the perfect way to get around while sight seeing. Gasa was a quaint little village, relatively rich in comparison to the ones we stayed in throughout the rest of the trip. We were lucky to stumble across what I think was an impromptu village meeting. While the adults were preoccupied talking, arms and voices raised, about pressing village issues we were able to get some time with the local kids. One little boy had a killer mohawk and a stare full of the most attitude I’ve seen on a 3 year old. Another little girl was quietly following me around, I kept taking photos of her and showing her the photo. She made my heart melt.
After the onslaught of information about my trip to Chengdu that I posted on here, I needed a little break. I relaxed into my daily life here and in my daily life blogging isn’t one of my usual past times. That’s when I realised that I must be settling in and making Kunming my home. Many thoughts come over me every day about the idiosyncrasies of the daily grind in China though, so it is about time I get at least one or two of them down and give some kind of insight into my life here.
I teach three 12 year old girls English every Sunday, their English names are Lulu, Amy and Ann. I teach them in a 300 year old teahouse on a lake called Green Lake in the middle of Kunming. It is a natural lake with corroding white bridges and pathways crossing over the water, weeping willows delicately draping into their own reflections. Weeping willows are one of my favourite trees, along with Banyan Trees. At night on the lake, people congregate to sing opera, practice Taich’i, play Mahjong and smoke tobacco, gossip and dance, among other things. Wandering around there in the dimly lit evenings can be quite fantastical, you don’t know what kind of spectacle is around the bend.
Back to the girls, children in China work incredibly hard. I could safely say that they dedicate double the amount of time to school work than kids in Australia. This week they told me that they had no time for fun other than the odd bit of TV here and there, waking up at 6am every morning to do homework after being up until about 10pm to 11pm the night before. I’ve decided to try to make our lessons fun, or enjoyable at the very least. Next week we are going to do our English lesson on a cute little push peddle boat on the lake.
The owner of the teahouse is a lovely lady who I call Wang Tai Tai, meaning Aunty Wang. Other than having a quaint teahouse setting upstairs, she sells eco-friendly products, rugs from ethnic minority groups, imported vegan food from Taiwan and rows of photography books. I’m very lucky to have found this arrangement (the girl that was studying here in Kunming from my uni last year introduced me to her). Her kindness is overwhelming, she has offered me to work in the store to improve my Chinese, taken me to teahouses, shown me the tradition of making tea and how the teapots themselves are made. I’m going to start taking traditional Yunnan painting classes with her, well I’ll try my artistically uncoordinated hand at it and see how I go.
The hospitality that you receive in China from people who are relatively strangers has made me rethink the way that I should treat people visiting me either here or in Australia. I hope these good habits rub off on me. People just aren’t as hospitable in Australia, especially if you have only just met them. I don’t want to speak for all people, of course, because there are many naturally generous people who take care of visitors. There just isn’t this overwhelming sense of having to truly look after someone or make them your guest. It hasn’t been ingrained into societies cultural fabric as it has here over thousands of years.
A frost has fallen over the south west of China. Last week the daily temperatures fell to around 5,6,7 degrees Celsius. Now it is lingering at 10,12,14 degrees. Tonight we are escaping the dry, cold air in Kunming to the very south of Yunnan to a Dai ethnic minority autonomous region called Xishuangbanna to soak up some warm humid weather and the cultural and natural diversity that comes with it. More to come when I return sun kissed, with the air of lethargy that only humidity can give…
I want to read more about Buddhism. It is such an admirable way of life. The little that I know about the philosophy behind Buddhism I truly respect, I like the discipline involved in living life as a buddhist. The ancient history of buddhism and the architecture found scattered all over China is breath taking. When I was in Chengdu, Shu took Mitch and I to an ancient temple called Wenshu Temple. The colours of Buddhism are so bright and glorious! The gold buddhas, the pink and green lotus candles and the huge red incense sticks burning, there is such an overwhelming sense of quiet and peace.
I lit a bunch of incense and made a wish with Shu, I felt a little awkward doing it because I’m not buddhist. I felt like a bit of a new-age hippy phoney. I really enjoyed being a fly on the wall and wandering around the temple watching people bowing before the different buddhas for prosperity, intelligence and health and making their wishes.
Mitch and I also travelled out to Le Shan, which is a town about 2 hours away from Chengdu on a public bus. The town wasn’t much,but the mountain itself was so tranquil. There is a Giant Buddha carved into the cliff face, with a height of 71 metres. The fingernails of the Buddha were taller than me. The construction of the Buddha began 713 AD, it was the brainchild of a Chinese monk called Hai Tong. The cliff face in which the Buddha is carved hangs over a river, it was hoped that the monstrous carving would calm the rough waters that plagued the shipping vessels travelling down the river. This was not only an act of faith, but of practicality, the huge expended rocks that were carved from the the cliff were thrown in the river, which in turn changed the river’s currents and appeased the turbulent swells. The Giant Buddha was completed in 803 AD and still stands strongly to this day.
Also to be found scattered all over the sacred mountain throughout the sub tropical forest are scores of Buddhist statues, Chinese gardens, caves with exquisite buddhist carvings and temples. You could smell incense wafting through the air surrounding the temples, telling you that there was one just around the corner even before you saw it.
To get the best view, Mitch and I took a short boat trip down the river to look up at the Giant Buddha. This was such a laugh, everyone else on the boat were Chinese tourists who were not only lining up to take pictures of the Buddha but of Mitch and I! There were so many photos with Chinese people that day, it is quite an unusual yet amusing experience being the token white people!
It was such a lovely way to spend a day, wandering around the holy mountain. Yet one must remember that we are in China and a day doesn’t go by without some kind of minor or major complication!
We went to a restaurant to get some lunch after the boat trip and was everything but physically dragged into one of the restaurants near the river. We saw quite a few people in there so we thought we’d give it a go. Strangely, the menu didn’t have prices on it, a fact that didn’t bother us much when we were ordering it, we were too hungry to care. The meal was okay, we ordered a whole fish, supposedly caught fresh from the river (we were told this after wards and weren’t overly comforted by the information because like most Chinese rivers this one was not overly clean), a pork dish and some greens.
When the bill came out it was 550 yuan! That is about AUD$100, this was the BIGGEST rip off I have ever experienced. We would normally pay 50 yuan at the very most for a meal like that. They were charging about 480 yuan for the fish alone! For a some fish caught out of the muddy river, bloody hell! I have never seen Mitch look this scary! He is one of the most non-aggressive people I know, but watching him looming over the tiny waitress (he’s 6″4) and the owner, talking harshly in Chinese, was a little scary.
Well, we certainly learnt our lesson. We were fuming, lucky we had a calming, holy mountain to stroll through back to the bus stop to settle our tempers. I wonder if a true Buddhist would be angry in this circumstance?
Pandas are pretty useless animals. They lounge around luxuriously eating bamboo for over 10 hours a day. Many, many years ago pandas were carnivores, now they are herbivores who mainly eat bamboo. Bamboo is high in fibre and low in nutrients, so pandas eat in excess of 20-25 kg of it a day to get the nutrients that they need. Also this is why they expend almost no energy. However, I did see some six month old baby pandas climbing trees like racoons.
Their survival in the wild and in captivity is strenuous. There are currently only 1,000 estimated to be found in the wild of South West China. It doesn’t surprise me because when the mother’s give birth to their babies, which they have carried for between 3 – 5 months, they are only one thousandth of its size. Grown female pandas are approximately 2 – 3 metres tall when standing and their babies are small enough to be held in the palm of a grown man’s palm. This is considered extremely premature, however is the norm for pandas. Female pandas often give birth to twins and of the two babies, one will often die. To add to the hard task of keeping them alive, after birth the mother’s can be quite rough with their babies. Often in captivity their carers have to rescue the babies from their mother’s firm hand and keep them in incubators.
Shu took Mitch and I to the Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu, her cousin works there in human resources. The pandas were just beautiful. They are massive, lazy and peaceful; big black and white blubber fluff balls!!
I had to put this big photo up to show how absolutely weird and hilarious these animals are! They have the physiology of a carnivore and the diet of the herbivore, so their bodies can’t properly absorb the nutrients in bamboo. These animals just don’t make sense!
Pandas are highly protected in China by the government. They are seen as a national treasure. If a person is legally convicted of killing a panda then the punishment is either execution or life imprisonment. An eye for an eye. Don’t get me started on the death penalty though.
Then there are the Red Pandas. They are probably the cutest animal in the world. Check this out. Aren’t they insanely cute?
Next Shu, our delightful host, took us to Jin Li Lu. Where we wandered around quaint traditional Chinese alley ways which had been maintained for tourism purposes. The streets were filled with gorgeous little craft shops, stalls full of colourful and delicious looking food, cherry blossoms and lanterns. Shu told me that some friends of hers had tried the food and said that the taste wasn’t up to scratch to satisfy the locals, but for tourists they were okay. They certainly looked pretty and made for great photo opportunities.
While we were wandering through the cobble streets in Jin Li Lu we found a tree with thousands of tiny satin bags with red tassels, Shu told me that it was a true love tree. That thousands of couples had tied these little love parcels onto the branches of the trees to signify their ever lasting love.
The majority of the people strolling through the little streets were domestic Chinese tourists, coming to visit from different provinces. Domestic tourism in Chinese is a booming industry in this enormous country.
That night for dinner Shu took us to a street full of restaurants where sales people would following you down the street for metres trying to verbally drag you into their tables! We decided on a restaurant which had attracted the most people, always a safe bet. Mitch ate a rabbit’s head that night!! I got some great glamour shots of the process. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I will eat meat now and then, but strangely, I would rather eat meat that doesn’t look like the animal that it came from. I know that it is illogical, but it’s the truth!
Oh and this is where the photos with strangers started. A couple came up to where we were sitting from outside the restaurant and wanted to take a photo with us. Oh my god!!! White people!!! There were at least 20 of these moments throughout our stay in Chengdu. Especially with Mitch, so many girls of all ages were queueing up to get a photo with him.
And he loved every minute of it…
After a lunch of Chengdu snacks we went to the site of the home of Du Fu and famous Chinese poet. He was born in Henan Province in 712 AD and died in Hunan Province in 770 AD. Du Fu lived throughout the prosperous Tang Dynasty, although a lot of his poetry showed pity in the plight of poor people who lived in his time. Du Fu and his family lived in a humble thatched roofed house made out of earthen brick and wood, with modest and minimal furniture.
Today, the grounds on which a life size recreation of his house stands are a tranquil escape of the chaotic Chengdu streets. There are stunning bamboo walk ways, secret gardens, trickling streams and plum trees galore. Here, once again, I felt overcome with a feeling of peaceful insignificance. It comforts me to think that although humans have ruined so much of the old world, there are still ancient legacies that are remarkable in nature, which will be carried into the future for generations. The Chinese are ferociously proud of their ancient history, which is an admirable element of their culture.