Posts Tagged ‘Xishuangbanna’

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!

Dai women in the early morning chill

Dai women in the early morning chill

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.


Early morning mist

Early morning mist

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 (right) and Wendy at work

Echo (right) and Wendy at work

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.

Inside an Akha house - Jim looks at the fired birds with some horror!

Inside an Akha house – Jim looks at the deep-fried songbirds with some horror!

Inside a Lahu house.

Inside a Lahu house.

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!

Miss Li in her wonderful shop (and in her wonderful leather trousers)

Miss Li in her wonderful shop (and in her wonderful leather trousers!)

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.

The minibus made it through this! Echo and Wendy called this an TIC moment (This is China)

Wendy actually drove the minibus through this! Echo called this a TIC moment (sigh…”This is China”)


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Dai weaving

Hand woven Dai cotton mattress cover with a traditional design of peacocks and elephants

The journey to southern Yunnan to find the source of the tea for the Tea Horse Road is, like many things in China, hilarious, infuriating and wonderful.  It’s also a bit disgusting.

It’s pretty hilarious getting into bed and reclining on our berths at 9.30 in the morning as we board the sleeper bus. Then the various shenanigans of the bus driver and his mates are hilarious as they dodge the bus company inspectors and take on board first a load of huge spring onions (loose), followed later by dozens of motorbike tyres (loaded into the beds in the back when they run out of boot space) and finally several rattan baskets of live chickens.

It’s infuriating when we bump over tiny dirt roads and get stuck in village markets on our 15 hour journey and when we go at least 20 kms out of our way to deliver tyre man and his wife off at the wrong end of the toll way.

sleeper small

The sleeper bus

It’s wonderful when we pass through amazing mountain scenery, scenes of rural life and terraced rice fields.

And it’s disgusting when we stop at some of the most horrendous public toilets China has yet come up with (and believe me that’s going some) The toilets at both meal stops are right next to the pig stys, and there’s plenty of pork on the menu!

But then again it’s wonderful that for around 20 quid we can experience all that and really its not long before we are in Xishuangbanna region- China’s tropical south and the start of the Tea Road.

Jinghong is the capital of the region and it’s one of the most pleasant cities I have been to in China. The size, the number, the variety and just the utter splendidness of the trees which line the streets is enough to convince you that this must be a lovely place to live. Conversations with residents suggest that indeed it was, until the last few years. A familiar story of far too much development, massive apartment blocks expanding the town, and inappropriate tourist infrastructure.

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Nevertheless enough of the old feel remains in the lush parks and gardens, the shady streets and the wide Mekhong river banks.

The “hong” part of Jinghong means peacock and peacocks and elephants appear all over the town (symbolically, that is) We have come to visit a small village on the edge of town where the traditional house eaves sport the Dai symbol of the elephant’s tusk and the peacock’s head feathers.

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

The last of the Dai weavers?

Dai lady small

Mrs Shui demonstrates how lac is pounded to make a red dye

The reason for our visit here is to meet a Dai weaver. The Dais are very close cousins of the Thai Lue people who now live in northern Thailand and the supplementary weft weaving they use for making their sarongs and household textiles is very similar. Except of course, nowadays almost everyone just goes to market and buys a machine made skirt or sarong. Everywhere in China, traditional crafts like hand weaving are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, more as an object of curiosity than anything. However, coming under the general budget of “Tourism” there is Heritage Money available! Even as we speak, a “Dai Traditional Weavers Tourism Destination” is being built in the village where all the weavers will go to work. I can’t help wondering who will come and buy their stuff. Maybe only people like me?

Mrs Shui is about 50 and was taught to weave by her Grandmother. Now she is teaching other girls and women and there are presently 60 looms in the village. The loom she uses is quite simple with a two pedal action making the basic “sheds” and for plain weaving this is enough to make the alternate warp thread go up and down.

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom.

But when she wants to produce patterned cloth, it gets a bit more complicated. A system of bamboo sticks and threads above the loom (we call them “heddles”) which lift certain warp threads is used. To “set” this pattern by carefully counting out the warps and then threading it onto the series of small bamboo sticks is time consuming and a particular skill. Actually only ten of the weavers can do this.

And what about designing a new pattern and working out how this translates to the heddles? Well only Mrs Shui herself can do that. She says she is the last Dai woman in Xishuangbanna who knows how to do it. As I say, these skills are hanging on by a thread – and in this case, literally.Dai weaver heddles small





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