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The Development of Xishuangbanna
I have basically decided that I won't be able to put up with anyone complaining about anything ever again. This should mean a lot coming from someone who takes great pleasure in complaining about anything and everything. The reason for this recent decision is my two-day hike through a remote area of China's Yunnan Province called Xishuangbanna. This region is occupied by hundreds of small villages and seemingly almost as many minority groups. It's a region where only a handful of people speak Mandarin, where most roads are impassible by anything larger than a motorcycle, and where people live on what they produce with their own hands. I stayed two nights in the region, but only the first night was spent in a villager’s home. The following is a brief account of my experience:
I started walking from the largish village of Manguanghan because that's as far as the road went. I walked around the construction of a new road (gravel) and followed a wide dirt path off into the rolling hills. After about 5 minutes in the sun I pulled out my umbrella and used it as a parasol, not caring how stupid I looked. Believe me, you would have done the same. It was so hot I can’t even think of a clever way to say it; it was just plain hot. The trail wasn't difficult to follow because there seems to be only one that zigzags through the countryside connecting all the villages.
As I understand it, there are four major minority groups whose villages are mixed and scattered throughout the region. So you can't draw a border between them because they overlap, yet a single village only seemed to contain a single ethnicity. The villages all seem to be built on the same model, houses raised up on columns. The ground floor is for the livestock and the other two stories are actually only one with a high roof for the smoke from the indoor fire pit. The clothing of each ethnic group seemed to be very colorful headdresses and wraps for the women, and very plain functional clothes for the men.
I was most certainly not the first foreigner to follow the trail; I was in fact following the directions of the Lonely Planet guidebook for China. Even before I could ask for directions from villagers (which was simply to say the name of the next village I was trying to reach) they would point off in some direction and say the village that they were already sure I was looking for. The only frustrating part for me was being thrust back into a state of verbal helplessness. I didn't even know the word for "thank you" and after I did learn it, the language changed with the very next village.
I happened to be visiting Xishuangbanna during the first days of its Water Splashing Festival. It’s the new year for (I think) all the ethnic groups, and splashing water is meant to wash away the dirt and sorrow of the previous year making way for a new, clean one. The wetter you get, the luckier you’ll be in the new year. The first days are observed by special meals and prayer (every village has a Buddhist temple or shrine) and the third day is an all-out, village-wide water fight. As I walked from village to village, I saw that children start the splashing early. Bowls and buckets get filled in streams and aqueducts and guided right to some “lucky” friend’s back. Fortunately I remained only an observer.
I reached the village of Manpo (Bulang ethnicity) by early afternoon on Monday and had intended to push on. But while resting in a sort of community area I struck up a conversation with a man who could speak strained Mandarin. He was busily shaving his 4-year-old son's head as he insisted I spend the night in his home. At first I politely declined since staying in Manpo would necessitate a second night in the region, but then I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to find lodging elsewhere by nightfall. So I followed this man, named Ai Zhai Xiang, up to his house. (The name of every man in the village begins with “Ai”, and every woman’s name begins with “Ni.” So I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Zhai from now on.)
Before I go on I need to mention that Americans are very well-liked in the village because the recently built school (a cement-and-white-tile eyesore on the edge of the village) was built with 70,000 RMB from an American living in Kunming. Thanks to him and the (so far) polite travelers who have passed through, Americans have an outstanding reputation in the village of Manpo. The school, like all others in China, isn’t free though. It costs 5 RMB per student per day of instruction. It’s a large asking price for these villagers but there’s no cheaper way to get a Chinese teacher out to the village. I learned from another villager that their expenses usually only total 10 RMB per month because they make everything else they need. I never learned how much they make from selling their crops.
My first impressions of Mr. Zhai and his life were pretty heart-wrenching. Mr. Zhai introduced himself as a farmer and told me a little about the work he does. He was shirtless the whole time I was there, displaying a few scars plus a significant oblong bump the size of a pill in the center of his chest. He explained that this is some sort of tablet with his name inscribed on it that his father inserted into his chest when he was very young. This is apparently not a village-wide custom, and in fact I never quite understood why he had this tablet other than it might have something to do with being raise to be a monk. (He said he “graduated” after a few years.) Mr. Zhai also sighed about how old he was, already having a 4-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. I figured him to be around 30. He corrected me, “23.” Almost nonchalantly in conversation he mentioned that his children are actually his 2nd and 4th; the 1st and 3rd passed away. I also learned that the woman he introduced as his mother was actually his step-mother; his real mother passed away when he was 4. He prepared a dinner (his wife went to eat with friends) of spicy fish, scrambled eggs with a weed-like vegetable, and a coarse “red rice.” He explained it was rice from his own field, the kind that Han Chinese don’t like to eat. “They like to turn it into white rice, but I like it better this way.” We also drank this sort of clear whiskey, like Chinese baijiu, but much more fowl tasting. Still we toasted with smiles. He then rolled out a mat for me to sleep on that night.
The second wave of impressions hit me like this: Mr. Zhai said that a few nights ago 4 American women had stayed at his home for two nights. He was encouraging me to stay longer but I explained that I had to move on. He also said that he had seen me on the road earlier when he rode past on his motorcycle. First thought, “Oh that was you?” Second thought, “Oh you have a motorcycle?” Then his younger sister came in with her friends; she had just returned from “the big city” (Damenglong, not actually that big) with some new clothes and was showing them off. She and her friends could speak very clear and standard Mandarin; they study at the new school. I started to realize that Mr. Zhai, a simple farmer, was branching out into the hotel industry. I wondered if the details of his life were mentioned to invoke sympathy and a charitable donation. They may still very well be true, but he might not have otherwise mentioned them.
These two opposing waves of impressions crashed together to leave me with the following conclusions: I’m glad that Mr. Zhai makes money from tourists. I’m even glad that in a year or two the road through Manpo and the region will likely bring loads of tourists who by that time will be greeted with gaudy hotels, souvenir kitsch, and staged ethnic dances. Sure, there’s a part of me that regrets this quiet rural village being turned into a tourist trap, but that part is the selfish traveler in me. Because life in Manpo and much of Xishuangbanna sucks, a lot. Besides the beautiful natural scenery, there wasn’t one thing there that made me want to stay longer than I had to. I didn’t find it quaint to visit poor villages, see smiling, filthy children, or meet brightly adorned, old women (who were probably only 30) bent under a load of vegetables. Because for me this was a vacation but for them it’s just life, every single day, until they die at around 50 or 60 years old. I’d rather see Manpo as a tourist hellhole instead of an impoverished one. Some might say that tourism will ruin the Bulang culture, and they’re probably right. But if adding a hospital to the village and teaching some basic hygiene (such as, after you cut up that raw chicken be sure to wash the knife before using it on those vegetables) ruins their culture then so be it. Others might say that I’m too set in my ways as a rich westerner to appreciate the simple tranquility of village life, and they would be right too. I couldn’t handle living in Manpo for the rest of my life, but it’s not because they lack a McDonalds. I really don’t know if I could work a field with only my hands and some basic tools, then live for the rest of the year off its yield. But I do know that I really don’t want to. So I was grateful for every swig of my bottled water, every photo taken with my digital camera, and especially for the seat on the bus that took me from Bulangshan (21 miles from Manpo) to the city of Jinghong. And by the way, I paid 10 RMB for the night and two meals at Mr. Zhai’s home.
Written April 17, 2004 by Shelley Timmins (shelleytimminsatyahoodotcom)
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