I am in Chiang Mai in Thailand at the moment, scouring the markets for hand woven cotton, indigo, hemp and tribal textiles. I have just witten a newsletter for my website and then realised I should keep up my travel blog too but I just don’t have time for both, so if you want to continue to get travels and textiley type news, please sign up here and you will get a slightly more regualr newsletter. Thanks for following my Asia Textile Journey blog!
I’m still feeling a bit bruised and battered by the EU Referendum and its aftermath. Textile Traders would not be in business without the “free movement of people”, as I’ve been free to travel almost anywhere in the world ever since my teens when I worked as a chambermaid in France!
Like our friends and colleagues on World Textile Days we work closely with people all over the world. We trust them with our money, our stock, our kids, our security. Without these “foreigners” we would be nowhere.
Anyway, to cheer myself up I got thinking about some of the people who I rely on, who have grown up with me and who I call friends. So here goes …
First of all Turkey – always stuck between Europe and Asia, but at the moment getting the worst of both worlds – we don’t seem to want them in Europe, and IS bomb them because they don’t like them talking to the West. I first went there in 1981 to teach english and fell in love with the country.
After a couple of years, I came back with a few rugs to try and sell. “Just take them, send me the money later”. I hardly knew the guy, he just trusted me to do the decent thing. Very Turkish! I’ve been going back regularly ever since.
It’s time I said “Thank You” to the innumerable women weavers in umpteen villages who have allowed me to sit in their living rooms and back yards taking photos and notes, to the dozens of carpet sellers in Istanbul, Ayvacik, Antalya, Izmir, Selcuk and Anamur who have shared afternoons and hundreds of glasses of tea with us as we slowly look through piles of stock – “Don’t ask the price, just enjoy”
Special thanks to Musa, Ramazan and Nazmiye who taught us about natural dyeing and self sufficiency, to the Bozyak brothers who enthused us with the Dobag Project and to Musa and Saliha in Anamur with whom we have shared so many laughs and so many meals around the “sofra”.
And then in Indonesia – I’ve been going back for 33 years now, and parts of Java have the familiarity of home. It’s always the same – I start each visit appalled by the poverty and the degradation of the environment and end up charmed by the kindness and tolerance of the people, envious of the strength of their communities and entranced by the culture.
In Indonesia, I have to thank numerous men and women making incredible batik and ikat textiles who have smiled and answered my questions or just allowed me to sit and watch. Thanks to Hani, and Nia and Agus and all the guys at the “Indonesia” and the Duta.
But especially Tono, a becak (bicycle rickshaw) driver, our first “fixer” who packed thousands of cantings into hundreds of boxes, talked Indonesian politics with us when it was not safe to do so, found lovely ladies to take care of our boys when they were little, came with us to puppet show “all-nighters” and introduced us to dozens of knowledgeable people. And then the inestimable Susi, his replacement, who lets me hang out at her house, lends me her bike, finds cake, sorts out my Indonesian sim card, takes me round the city on the back of her motorbike and performs a hundred little kindnesses and huge favours I couldn’t do without.
And finally Northern Thailand. I spend more and more time there nowadays and even then never want to leave. So many people to thank and appreciate: the women who give massages at the temple round the corner; Mr and Mrs Beer who hire us bikes, motorbikes and cars and stay cheerful in spite of having to deal with hundreds of us dumb foreigners every week; Panee and her family the best indigo dyers in Phrae; Ray in Chiang Mai who posts stuff to me when I run out; Nui who always makes sure I get a bed no matter what time I turn up; the girls at the Post Office who look after us every year, manage to clear a space for us in their tiny office, and stay cheerful in spite of having to answer the same dumb questions to a constant stream of us foreigners every week; H’mong headman Win and his wife who have made us welcome so many times in their village in the Mae Sa valley, and never forgetting Poo and her little group of tailors who make my garments and manage, no matter what I throw at them, to get them all finished on my very last day.
Of course we’re all different – I LOVE that we’re different. I make my living by talking about, learning about and trading in the things that make us different. It’s spine tingling to hear the call to prayer at daybreak or monks chanting through the night, to come across a group of tribal women in full regalia, or witness strange and exotic ceremonies.
What’s surprising is just how similar our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns are.
I think its time we in Britain got over ourselves and started thanking our Lucky Stars!
If we believe Britain is overcrowded, try Java (145 million on an island roughly the size of Britain). If we’re worried that our culture is being taken over, spend a couple of days in Bali or the old city in Chiang Mai, or on Phuket or Koh Samui, for goodness sake. If we’re concerned about refugees, try the camps in southern Turkey or the Thai-Burmese border.
What the referendum result has shown though, is that we live in a country of great inequalities. If anything comes out of this to address that, then there may be some good come of it!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged Anamur, Antalya, Ayvacik, batik, Brexit, Chiang Mai, Dobag, ikat, immigrants, Indonesia, Istanbul, Izmir, Java, Jogya, northern Thailand, referendum, refugees, Selcuk, Thailand, Turkey, world textile day | Leave a Comment »
So we’ve bought plenty of ikat, we’ve got a good idea of reasonable prices and I’ve got my “eye in” for regional designs, hand spun cotton, what natural dyes are available and what have you. Now it’s time to widen the search
1. Watublapi… and a textile lover’s heaven
I’ve got the phone number of a guy called Daniel who knows about the local ikat. district. We arrange to meet at a market town called Geliting about 10 kilometres outside Maumere. It’s Sunday morning and it seems everyone’s at church, but we eventually get ourselves into a crowded bemo. We’ve no idea where to meet Daniel but as the only “Bule” in the place, we’re pretty conspicuous, and sure enough he finds us without difficulty.
Daniel is a fine looking guy wearing a hand woven indigo top and a large boar’s tusk. He shakes hands and introduces us to our ojek – motorbike taxi guys, who are taking us to Watublapi. The road goes higher and higher through scattered villages, and the air gets cooler and cooler as we drive into deep wooded hillsides of primary forest. Half an hour later we arrive and an archway tells us we are at a Cultural Centre for Traditional Dances and Ikat weaving. Daniel shows us the local cotton trees- tall! We take photos, ask questions, poke the cotton seeds, ask more questions, and at this point he realises he’s got four complete textile nerds on his hands and he’s in for a long day. Finally we are introduced to one of the village’s best weavers and sit down for cups of Flores coffee and sweet crackers.
Before long, the front yard is transformed into a working panorama of the ikat process for start to finish. And all for our delight! First the cotton is “ginned” on a hand turned wooden press which squeezes the large seed out of each tuft. Moving on, the cotton tufts are fluffed up using a bow with a tight wire. I’ve seen this process done in almost exactly the same way in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan (with wool) and in Laos with cotton. Next the cotton is rolled into neat little turd shaped pieces and Mama sits down at her spinning wheel. Putting the yarn between her left toes and turning the wheel handle with her right hand she spins the cotton into thread with consummate ease. She’s fast, accurate and makes it look blindingly simple. I think better of asking to have a go.
Next is the tying frame where the spun yarns are tied into patterns using palm leaf twine. Next the dyeing – indigo, mengkudu, mango peel, lobah leaves, candle nut, ground coral, ash lye, turmeric (3 different shades from one piece) We have many, many questions and we begin to realise that Daniel is no ordinary guy with a passing interest in showing us a bit of ikat and hoping we will buy some. No, he is a dedicated and enthusiastic natural dyeing expert who has conducted research and many experiments into various recipes and methods.
Mama Kristina has some pieces for sale but not a lot, the reason being that a couple of months ago ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY people from four different countries came off a cruise ship and spent over ONE HUNDRED MILLION rupiah in the village! Well… what hope have we against that?
Daniel invites us back to his “studio” . I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this textile lover’s wet dream. Several lovely women, including Daniel’s wife Nina, two students, an older weaver and a dyer float about in beautiful naturally dyed tops and sarongs. There are hanks of yarns in every natural colour you can imagine, dyestuffs are laid out, pots are boiling and bubbling, an there are bamboo poles full of beautiful ikat pieces in subtle indigo blues and mengkudu reds and browns. What can I say but O.M.G.!!
We go through to Daniel’s garden where he has around a hundred mengkudu plants ready for his weavers and neighbours to plant out, as well as indigo plants, turmeric and mango. We sit down to more Flores coffee (to add to our slight hysteria) and banana fritters and ask questions, watch dyeing, watch tying, watch weaving and take photos and then more photos. Daniel is paid by the council to teach traditional weaving and dyeing and to research and document traditional ikat motifs. (but I can’t imagine the pay is very good) However he also gets things made for fashion designers in Jakarta, and teaches foreigners, both of which pay considerably more. His enthusiasm is clear. He loves nothing more than chatting up old village ladies and finding out what they know about motifs and the old ways.
Ikat plays a huge role in ceremonies and life events where its used for offerings, exchanges, debts, and obligations. Some pieces are so precious they spend their life hidden in chests deep in the forest shrines, only to be taken out every five years, some are woven to exchange at weddings, some are buried with the dead. Daniel knows over 100 different motifs; some were brought by Indian traders centuries ago (the Patola), some have Portuguese meanings (the Palm Sunday fronds, angels, candelabra and “corazon” sacred heart) some show mythical birds, fertile chickens, the horses which carry away the spirits of the dead and Mother Earth and Father Sky. We all come away knowing far more than we did before, but realising that there is much more to learn about ikat in Flores.
2. Lewokluwok… natural dyes and tiny shells
We’ve said goodbye to Bob and Magie and headed further eastwards to find traditional eastern Flores ikat. Lewokluwok is an extremely neat and tidy village just a couple of kilometres off the “Trans-Flores Highway”, and almost at the end of Flores island. This grand sounding road is actually part narrow tarmacked road, part rutted track and part something between as it is being steadily improved as we speak. The village has lovely trees and there are some birds in them (not always so in Flores where they are often hunted by youths on motorbikes with shotguns), neatly woven and bamboo houses with tin roofs, a modern Catholic Church and St Alfonso’s Catholic Village Primary where well behaved children are quiet and busy. There are some “rumah adat” (tribal houses), but our driver is from Maumere (about 75 miles away) and is as much in the dark as us about the language and the culture here.
As soon as we let it be known that we’re interested in “tenun ikat”, women start to bring along what they’ve got. Most have a couple of sarongs. The ikat here is different to what we’ve seen before. First of all, its all made in a very heavy hand spun local cotton. Secondly its mostly all dyed in natural dyes and thirdly, some pieces have tiny cowrie shells sewn in to the weaving which makes them even MORE attractive. We know almost immediately that we are going to have to buy something here as long as we can afford it. Most of the older ladies don’t speak Indonesian so the younger ones have to translate. So when we ask How much is it?, they’re not sure at first but they make themselves understood and we’re soon bargaining with fingers. The shell decoration is important in adat pieces (traditional ceremonial wear) and they add to the cost. – Don’t you collect them from the beach? – No, we have to buy, expensive! Before we leave, I’d like a photo of all the village weavers but, as one says – If you don’t buy, you don’t get a photo! And I can’t buy something from all of them!
3. And finally, Mawa
Getting to Mawa is tricky. First of all you have to get to Larantuka at the eastern end of Flores. It stands in a gorgeous spot at the base of a volcano which rises straight out of the sea, surrounded by clear blue water with other volcanic islands in the distance. It’s like the west of Scotland only with palm trees and 32 degrees. In spite of this, Larantuka is a shit hole. Don’t ask me why, maybe its just too bloody hot. To be honest, no-one can be arsed .. to be nice, to clean up the rubbish, to rent you a room, to get you a sheet for the bed, to stock mosquito repellent or even to sell you a beer. They just want to lie down in the shade with the piles of rotting litter and fish debris and collapsing buildings. There’s a picturesque wooden cathedral which is shut, and no-one can be arsed to open it. Oh well.
There’s life down at the port though, with frequent wooden ferries to the other islands around. We join the passengers, along with a cargo of 20 or 30 motorbikes, sacks of peanuts, garlic and coffee, boxes of biscuits, Indomie instant noodles and sugary drinks, trussed chickens and a couple of goats. The 4 hour journey is broken with a stop at Adonara island known locally as Murderer’s Island where the people hunted heads. Here we’re boarded by a rampaging hoard of feral children, wild patterns razored in to their shaved heads. They bring hard boiled eggs, rice wrapped in leaves and tiny packets of peanuts to sell.
After a dreamy cruise through volcanic islands we arrive at the island of Lembata and the town of Lewoleba – an important trading port in these parts. Here we find (to our frank astonishment) an excellent new hotel, very friendly people and plentiful bottles of Beer Bintang to boot. Even better you can drink said beer while gazing out at the port and the endless entertainment of huge ferry boats unloading and loading passengers and goods. When you get fed up with that the local youth take it in turn to dive off disused boats in increasingly amusing ways, while shouting out all the english they’ve ever learnt.
Bemos out to the rest of the island are sporadic and infrequent so it has to be an ojek (motorbike taxi) to Mawa, which is about 30 kms away. It’s on a peninsula with one of the two huge volcanoes which stand on either side of the great bay of Lewoleba. We’ve heard there is a typical Lembata style of ikat here. Its a pretty village on a glorious bit of coastline – white sand, turquoise sea, little fishing boats, elaborate graves looking out to sea (Grandma and Granddad always seem to get the best spots) Our ojek driver introduces us to his Mum, Monika. Word soon gets round and the women bring out what they’ve got to sell which isn’t much to be honest. There’s one beauty – a full sarong made of intricate ikat in hand spun cotton and natural dyes. That’s definitely the one to go for, so we very politely enquire if it might be for sale? A lot of discussion from everyone ensues and there’s a general unwillingness to name a price. – Maybe its an adat piece and you don’t want to sell? – I do want to sell. – Fine, how much do you want? – Two five – Oh two and a half million. Says I thinking, that’s pretty pricey but that might just be a starting price. – No twenty five, twenty five million rupiah I’m somewhat taken aback. That’s about ten times more than I’ve ever been asked for an ikat. We make all the right noises about what a beautiful piece of work it is and retreat. – Oh well, if you don’t want it, I can sell to the tourists.
Mama Monika tells us that a boat with a whole group of textile enthusiasts on board, docked here in May and bought up almost everything.
This is the one and only ikat weaving village where we come away empty handed. But its not a wasted visit. Just down the road there’s a group of men sitting. Two old guys are wearing traditional men’s sarongs, ikat sashes and palm frond “crowns”. They look amazing and as we pass them, I ask, very tentatively, if it might be possible to take a photo. – Of course, of course. Come in. Drink Tea! Before we know it the village headman (dressed in shorts and a T shirt) invites us to pose for photos with the two dukuns (the village shamans). He tells us that they are here to bless the digging of a new well. So although they may want daft prices for their ikat in Mawa, seeing it still being used for a ceremonial purpose is definitely worth the trouble of getting here.
Flores Ikat – a weaving miracle
I’m out in Indonesia at the moment, on the island of Flores – a couple of islands east of Bali. Jim’s with me and Bob and Magie are here too. They’re African textile experts but they’ve come to have a look at what floats our boat (textile wise!) So Flores is a great place to start, because the women of Flores produce some of the most beautiful ikat in the world (and while we’re on the subject of boat floating, there’s quite a bit of that too!)
To really appreciate ikat, you need to visit the villages where its made, meet the women who make it and most importantly, do your bit for the local economy and buy some of their stuff! So here’s a run-down of some of those village visits.
P.S. Some-one once came into our shop and told her mate, our stuff was all from Bali, where “they just bring it to you on the beach”. This blog is all about dispelling that idea – however, I have to admit, that in Flores, a perfect tropical beach is never that far away!
So anyway, back to the villages. The first one is Wolotopo…
…on the south coast, about 15 kilometres east of Ende in the middle of Flores. We faffed about for a while wondering how to get there and in the end just walked out into the street and hailed a bemo (minibus) and propositioned the driver who dropped off the other passengers and took us there – its called getting a “charr-terrr”. The road is a bit rough and its pretty steep in places but there are great views of the turquoise sea every now and again and before long, we’re dropped off at the village. Excited children run about shouting “Hello Misterrr”.
We’ve heard that’s it’s only polite to call in at the “Rumah Adat” or House of Tradition, to register so we make for some impressive old houses at the top of the village. We keep to the shade on the narrow paths between the houses, but every now and again we’re forced into the full boiling hot sun. The houses are made of bamboo slats or painted concrete with corrugated tin roofs and outside many there’s a woman weaving under a woven rattan shade. The weavers call us over smiling to say “Selamat Siang” and ask if we want a photo, or if we want to buy something.
At the top, the “adat” traditional houses reveal themselves – big wooden structures with high, broad thatched roofs raised on wooden pillars. Women and children sit on the porch, dogs sleep on the steps, chickens and pigs rootle about underneath and everyone smiles and waves. We can look inside but we’re not allowed to go inside – I didn’t fully understand the explanation of why not but I thought I heard something about giving a pig and as we didn’t have one to offer, I thought we’d be better staying outside. On either side of the man entrance there are a pair of carved wooden breasts, a pert round young woman’s pair on the left and a saggy old lady pair on the right… one can only speculate what that’s about…?
Higher up than the houses is a site of old tomb stones and village totems and little shelters for who knows what purpose. Climbing up there gives a great view of the southern sea and the village’s satellite dishes. As we go back down we can see recent graves, nestled into the houses, elaborate tiled affairs with crosses, pictures of Jesus and Mary and plastic flowers. They are part of the furniture, kids play on them, dogs sleep on them and men sit smoking and playing cards on them.
. And everywhere there are gorgeous ikats – we can see women tying patterns using short lengths of lontar palm leaf into small bundles of warp threads which are stretched on bamboo frames. Others are weaving on their back strap looms, sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front. Everywhere there are smiles, friendliness, and questions about where we come from. The women have names like Johanna, Maria, Agnes, Freda, and Angelika – Catholics to a woman. They are almost all wearing the long sarongs sewn into a tube, and washed sarongs are stretched between two bamboo poles weighted down with full jerry cans or rocks. This keeps the shape of the garment while it dries. When we ask a woman if one particular sarong is for sale, she goes to feel if its dry yet. – Yes still a bit damp but no problem. How much you pay?
On our way back down we are invited into a house to sit on plastic chairs and watch TV which is showing an Indonesian version of “It’s A Knock-out” (for those old enough to remember it!) The view from the open window is stunning, even allowing for the fact that the family’s knickers are all hanging in front of it. So, Wolotopo, the first ikat village of this trip, and its a good one. We’ve bought a bit, probably paid a bit too much for it but we’re happy and ready for more.
Next we go to N’dona…
We’ve heard about N’dona, it’s well known for its ikat and we’ve seen some stuff from there in the market, so we’re keen to go. Again a nice bemo driver drops us off and promptly stretches out on the back seats to get some kip while we wander around. As soon as we set off we’re taken in hand by a rather loud chap in an official looking shirt who we can’t seem to get rid of. He takes us to see a very beautiful old lady who is sitting on the ground, working at her loom. Her grey hair is in an elegant bun and she has a mouth full of blackened teeth and dark red gums. She flashes us a lovely betel nut smile. Mama Sisilia is a bit of an institution here as we soon find out.
We’re encouraged to sit down, sign the visitor’s book and then look through a couple of books about ikat weaving in Flores. One is called Weavers Stories and is by an expert in Flores ikat weaving called Roy Hamilton. Mama Sisilia features as one of the weavers in the book and there’s a photo of her looking even more beautiful 30 or so years ago. Back in the 1980’s Roy Hamilton came here and researched ikat, and spent plenty of time chatting to Mama Sisilia. What a lucky chap!
Unfortunately loud guy is getting on our nerves a bit so we make our excuses and carry on through the village. There’s more ikat weaving being done here, but most interesting of all is the ikat weaving co-operative based down near the road. There are 17 members of the co-op including Mama Nurella and Christina who buy their cotton, dye their yarns, and often weave together. Their ikat is unusual these days because they use natural plant dyes only. They use indigo (called tarum or daun nila) mengkudu (morinda) mixed with various mordants including kemiri (candle nuts – which are a very oily nut which actually can be used as a light!) to give browns and reds, and to get a really bright red they add powdered leaves of the lobah tree. They also use turmeric (kunyit) mangrove leaves and mango skin.
We are invited in and pieces are brought out and hung on a long bamboo pole for our contemplation and consideration. We’re told the prices, which, unusually prove to be non- negotiable. I guess that’s the beauty of a co-operative. No one is bidding against anyone else. There are some beauties here, especially the indigo and white ones, which can’t be found in the market, so if we want some of them we have to buy them here and pay the price. Needless to say, we do….
Mama Sisilia at work Jim buys ikat from the co-op
And finally we get to N’galla…
Many of the most intricate and beautiful weavings seem to come from N’galla so it’s on my list of places to visit. When we tell drivers where we want to go, they start looking doubtful and backing away. Yes, its true the ikat weaving there is very good but the road is terrible .. I’m almost put off myself, but eventually Tobias says he will take us “as long as we go verrry slowly. It will take one and half, maybe two, maybe two and half hours.”
The road is bad, rutted, broken and with big ridges and potholes with no option but to ease the car verrry slowly in and out of so as not to crack the chassis or exhaust. It’s up and down through thick forest and heading always south with the sea spread out before us and tantalising glimpses of the village in the distance. Finally we reach N’gala wondering why on earth any one ever comes here and feeling sure that if you lived here it would have to be something very important to get you back on that road again. Or maybe we’ve just gone soft?
We sit down in the empty market to eat our “nasi bungkus” and it takes hardly any time before women arrive carrying small children and a few weavings to sell (the weavings, not the children!). We resist them all and set off for the village centre. Its frankly an astonishing place; a large empty area bordered on both sides by huge wooden homes raised off the ground on short stone pillars and covered in very high, very thick thatched roofs. Running up the middle are old stone tombs and traditional or “adat” totem stones, smalls shelters for the spirits of ancestors, and the occasional satellite dish. Underneath the houses in the deep shade, are a few black pot bellied pigs, but there are women down there too sitting at their looms. Again we are greeted with friendly curiosity – its not every day that four bule (whiteys) turn up and soon every women in the village with something to sell has heard that there are potential buyers in town. I’d love to buy a lot, but we have to consider how likely we are to sell these large pieces. Nevertheless, we can’t go away empty handed, especially when the women tell us they need the money for the kids school.
Realities of rural life…
At Ende ikat market, I had been talking to Eddy Koko one of the traders we know there. He had told me to “go to the villages and see how much they want, then come back to me. I will be the same price or cheaper”. So how do you manage that? – I go there when they need money. Especially when they need money to pay for the kids school fees. He tells me totally unabashed. So, on the way there I quizzed our driver Tobias about the price of education as I know he has two small children.
– This fucking government, he starts, and gobs out the window in disgust. Enough said! Anyway he reckons that the cheapest you can pay for the village Primary school is 6 million rupiah per child per year. That’s about £300 and must be beyond the reach of some rural families. As the kids get older and go to SMP (junior high school) and SMA (senior high school) it gets harder still. If you want to get your child into a Catholic run High School its going to cost up to 20 million a year – never mind books and uniforms. And if you live in a village, a long way from the nearest High School, the kids have to board somewhere in the week and get meals too. Tobias’s wife Denti is running a restaurant and has four rooms she rents out at around 350,000 rupiah a night. Tobias himself is driving people around every day and we’re paying him 500,000 rps for the day, so I can imagine that it will be fairly easy for them to send their children to the Catholic run schools of their choice. (I’m not being sectarian here, its just that Tobias tells me that the Catholic schools are best and the most expensive) The women in villages like N’gella weaving ikat sarongs have more of a problem. A sarong must take a month or two to tie and weave, even if they buy ready dyed yarns, and they can’t sell them for more than about one million rupiah, and that is top side. This represents two days driving for Tobias, or just one night of renting out rooms
So, when Eddy Koko gets down here with his wallet full of red 100,000 rupiah notes, timed, no doubt, to coincide with the annual school fee collection time, the women need the money. These are the realities of life in rural Flores, and knowing all this, it makes it very hard to withstand the pressures to buy from these women. Add to that the fact that the ikat they weave is seriously gorgeous and you will understand why I am now looking at excess baggage allowances.
We have fantasised for years about taking a cargo boat down the Mekong River from China to Thailand. When we lived in Singapore, back in the day, we knew an old Chinese guy who did the trip regularly to buy jade in Burma. It always seemed like an impossibly romantic trip – and I am an absolute sucker for anything like that. Last year we went up to Chiang Saen in Thailand’s far north to see where the Chinese cargo boats dock. Now we are about to find out if we can get there from this end.
The passenger service has been suspended for the past three years because of an incident involving a Thai General, a large quantity of drugs and the shooting dead of 13 Chinese sailors! But we get some encouragement in Jinghong – you just have to go to the cargo port and ask around.
So we leave the comfort and friendliness of Caffy’s Hostel, saying goodbye to the new friends who shared the Christmas Eve feast, and take the bus to Guan Lei Port.
The bus winds slowly down small roads through wooded hills planted with acres of rubber trees and plantations of banana trees festooned with long plastic bags, like blue ghosts to protect the fruit.
Five hours later, we’re dropped off in Guan Lei next to the river. The Port Authority and Customs and Immigration Point is a brand new building with signs for Passport Control, Immigration and what have you but nothing’s happening. It’s totally deserted but for one chap in a smart green uniform who hails us in English. We are definitely encouraged. And with the aid of his phone translation app and my “useful phrases” we get on famously.
“These days there are no passenger boats” This we know.
“There are ships which go to Thailand” Oh good.
“Maybe not today” “What about tomorrow?”
We descend several steep flights of steps to the wide, fast flowing river below, and a scene of fervid activity. There are about 15 cargo boats, some being loaded, some unloaded and some waiting their turn. With the help of by now our favourite customs guy ever we soon find the one which is going to Chiang Saen this very evening.
Now as long as the captain will agree, we are in business. It is conveyed to us that for 500 yuan each including a cabin and food, we can get a lift. It’s not cheap, but we’re not in the mood to argue.
“Are you husband and wife?”
“Your accommodation is being arranged” says his phone screen. Oh Joy!
Teams of what may once have been called “coolies” are loading boxes of Chinese apples from two huge articulated lorries. They are fit and mostly young and although its hard work and the sun is hot, they clearly enjoy it in a gung-ho sort of way. There’s still a hell of a lot of boxes of apples to load so there’s time to look around.
Further along two boats are laden with enormous chunks of timber cut from what must have been huge and ancient trees. These are being lifted by crane onto waiting lorries. Surely this must be breaking all sorts of international laws and agreements about stripping ancient forests from Burma or Laos? The Chinese Customs officers who are everywhere clearly aren’t concerned, even if we are.
Having imagined myself the only female amongst a load of Chinese sailors, I am mightily relieved when a young woman carrying bags of food whizzes up on a motorbike and steps on board. She sets to work in the galley and is clearly the cook. It turns out she’s also the captain’s wife and willingly gets stuck in to securing tarps and ropes. Once the apples are all on board, we formally emigrate from China along with the crew of four- the captain, the cook, engine-room guy and pilot guy. Strangely, at no time at all has anyone so much as looked at our backpacks. If this is such a reputed hotspot for illegal trafficking, I’ve spotted a loophole!
We say “Goodbye” to China at 6.30pm with the hills turning black and the sky pearly white. It’s completely magical and we can’t stop grinning – we’re actually going down the Mekhong!
Before it’s completely dark we pull in and Captain with head torch and machete jumps off to secure the boat for the night. This entails climbing the bank and slashing at jungle branches to find a tree robust enough to rope the boat to.
No sooner is this done than we all sit down to a feast – fried chicken, roast pork, scrambled egg, tomato and cucumber soup (better than it sounds) green veg in oyster sauce, fish soup, and hot chilli sauce. What a Christmas Day! Not much chat though, what with our lamentable Chinese and the noise of the generator.
As long as that’s running, we’ve got lights in our scruffy little cabin but it all goes off at 9.30. The night is very dark and full of strange booming noises whenever the boat rolls with the wind. As soon as it’s light enough in the morning we get going.
It’s cold and misty for a good 3 hours as we sit up on the bridge watching our progress through wild and empty gorges. In the gorges the river is deep and fast, and there’s more virgin forest on either side than we expected. Elsewhere the river is much wider. The captain and pilot have to pick their way past rocks and shallows. Fortunately, they do this brilliantly. Gradually over the course of the day, the sun breaks through and warms up, boat traffic becomes more frequent and there are more and more signs of habitation on both sides of the river. Laos on the left, Burma on the right. Small herds of buffalo, rubber trees, the odd fisherman, tiny thatched roof stilt houses, barges full of cattle or pigs, low water veg gardens planted in the river banks.
It’s just a perfect day that neither of us wants to end. However everything has to, and at 5pm Burma finally gives way to the north coast of Thailand across a side river. And to confirm it, there’s the “Welcome To The Golden Triangle” theme park with its towering Golden Buddha.
All too soon we have docked alongside the other Chinese cargo boats at Chiang Saen. We clamber over loaded decks, down a wobbly gangplank and onto Thai soil! Now there are just a few bewildered Immigration officers to negotiate and a lift in a Police pick-up 5 miles back upstream to the official Immigration Point (Thank you to another totally helpful Immigration official!) to be properly stamped in.
And that’s it, we’ve done it! In many ways much easier and less scary than I imagined, and in many ways so much more exciting and beautiful than I could ever have guessed.
The areas to the north and west of Jinghong are where the famous Pu’er tea is grown so we head out west. Menghun is billed as a pleasant village so it seems like a good place to start. But when we get off the bus at a bleak crossroad with tractors, construction trucks and motorbikes screaming past, we have one of those “What the hell are we doing here?” moments, that we have occasionally.
There’s not a lot to do in the evenings in Menghun, so once we’ve eaten we get into bed with a good book. An hour or so later a cacophonous din erupts – our hotel is obviously running a karaoke night. Distorted sound, tuneless singing, very bad Chinese pop, these we can just about put up with but when a party of men start shouting incoherently and are evidently intent on getting very, very drunk and fairly violent just outside our bedroom door, we reckon it’s time to cut our losses and run.
We get up, pack up and ship out into the freezing night in search of some more salubrious lodgings.
This turned out to be a very good decision. The next hotel we find may be above another extremely loud karaoke bar but it is run by an ex Primary school headmistress and we feel we are in safe hands here. She is not going to put up with any drunken shenanigans from what are probably her ex-pupils. She is only slightly fazed at finding two middle-aged foreigners in coats and PJs on her doorstep at midnight. She phones her english speaking friend and goes to make up some beds for us.
To cut a long story short, this friend is Echo from Hong Kong who is a volunteer for an educational NGO. She is here on a six monthly visit to see the students they sponsor and she invites us to join her and her partner Wendy.
The following 2 days turn into a complete education for us too!
We start in the cold early morning visiting Dai and Bulang minority people who live in villages in the surrounding lowlands, then as the day warms up go onto poor Han Chinese families who rent land to grow tea and coffee, and finally as the sun and temperatures drop we go further up in the mountains and to villages of Akha and Lahu people.
The families have one thing in common; they are all poor enough to need help to be able to keep their children in school. Although China has a policy of 9 years compulsory (and free) education, many village children live so far from a High School they have to do weekly boarding which means money is needed for food and transport.
We hear stories of one parent families struggling to cope, fathers whose wives have run off, mothers whose husbands have committed suicide (swallowing herbicide is evidently the method of choice around here) aged grandparents bringing up children, handicaps, accidents and sickness, strokes, leg ulcers, kidney infections, drunkenness, beatings, casual labour, unemployment, prison, drug use, divorce and abandonment. Through it all the students are managing to stay at school and some even go on to further education with the help of this charity.
Echo is the official Mandarin speaker who has to get enough information on family income and circumstances and the kid’s school grades to get them another year’s funding. Wendy is the local who manhandles that minibus up some barely driveable roads, doles out anti-biotics and second hand clothes and chats to the parents and kids in language they understand. Together they make a formidable pair and my admiration for them grows the longer we see them in action.
We are usually silent observers although sometimes we are pressed into service to say something in english and try to get a response from the kids. Its a bit different in the Akha village though – here we receive big hugs and handfuls of chestnuts from the women of the family and soon they and their neighbours are intent on selling us something. It’s not often that foreigners stray into these parts and they’re not taking “No” for an answer. I buy a bag with coins and beads from a neighbour, Jim buys some embroidered Akha leg warmers from another old lady and then the schoolgirl’s grandma presses a jacket on me. She’s about the same age as me and she says she made the jacket when she was 18. It’s black with dirt and smoke but the embroidery looks great and I feel lucky to be able to contribute to the family finances and get something so special into the bargain.
Everywhere we go, we are offered tea – handfuls of dried black twigs which slowly unfurl into large dark green leaves in the boiling water. Through the day we are given handfuls of oranges, bags of monkey nuts, strange fruit which look like turnips, peel like mushrooms and taste like watery pears, chicken soup with the whole chicken, claws, beak and beady little eyes included, more oranges, little sour crab apples with chilli sugar to dip it in, roasted chestnuts and (to Jim’s disgust) small, whole, deep-fried birds.
Halfway through lunch on the first day Wendy and Echo mention that they have recently been driver and guide for a BBC programme – yes with a woman called Sue Perkins. Have you heard of her? Have I heard of her??? Only one of my favourite presenters from one of my favourite progs The Great British Bake Off!!!
Well fancy! Back in March, they took Sue and the BBC film crew around Xishuangbanna for 3 days, initiating them tino the famous Dai water splashing festival (an annual event which is now recreated for tourists twice a day in Jinghong!) and introducing them to an Akha woman called Miss Li, who features in the programme. “We’ll call her if you would like to meet up with her” they say!
So that’s how come the following evening we are sitting drinking tea out of tiny cups and eating tangerines in Miss Li’s shop at the foot of one of the famous Tea Mountains. We can’t help but notice some very tasty Akha tribal wear on sale.
Miss Li (as they call her) is quite a character who is intent on buying more land and opening a guesthouse up the mountain. I’m pretty sure she’ll manage it. It’s not long before we have talked ourselves into buying three jackets, all beautifully hand stitched, probably by the mothers or grandmothers of local Akha women. They are all much cleaner and probably better quality than the one I bought the day before, but that’s the one I’ll keep. It was made by a woman I met in one of the villages I visited as part of an amazing two days – welcomed into homes and given an incredible insight into the lives of other people.