The photos are from the Stone Forest in Yunnan 2007. Local Sani minority dancers from nearby Lunan and surrounding villages perform local folk dances. The Sani are a branch of the Yi nationality.
The Rumour /道听途说 Ruili 瑞丽 is open!
Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] is a common Cantonese slang term and ethnic slur for Westerners.
The rumour spread like wildfire around the gweilo* hangout cafes in Dali: Ruili 瑞丽 was now open to foreigners. Margie and I looked at a map and thought:’ why not give it a go?’
China in 1990 was a very different place. Many areas still remained firmly shut to Western visitors, which is why the opening of any of these previously closed off areas caused an immediate stir in the small backpackers’ community. Travellers trying to ‘out-travel’ each other would excitedly head for these newly opened areas, chasing adventures and cool anecdotes to share in the next gweilo café they’d find themselves in.
Deciding to go to Ruili 瑞丽 was one thing. Actually getting there quite another: in those days Ruili was a two day bus ride away from Xiguan 下关 / Dali City大理, with the bus overnighting in Baoshan 保山.
It is difficult to remember everything from the long trip down to Ruili 瑞丽, but I remember the incredibly polluted river running out of Xiguan 下关 and passing through several rural markets. And I’ll never forget the incredulous faces of the receptionists at the Baoshan transport hotel保山交通宾馆 when two foreigners joined the other Chinese passengers for the overnight check in.
Descending rapidly after Baoshan 保山, the road then crosses the Nujiang 怒江 / Salween River and you can begin to smell and feel the sweltering heat of sub-tropical South East Asia.
I remember a strange incident at a check point just before crossing the Nujiang River: Military Police, obviously looking for drugs or other illegal goods, boarded the bus and almost took it apart; nuts, bolts and all. They then dragged a passenger, a young soldier, off the bus and gave him a vicious beating, before dumping him back on the bus. At one point, I feared he would never be seen again.
Arriving in Ruili 瑞丽
We eventually arrived in Ruili at 12.00 midnight on the second day and no sooner had we got off the bus than we noticed there was something different about this town. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the whole place was buzzing: bars, restaurants and dodgy ‘massage parlors’ were all doing a brisk trade. The streets were filled with Chinese, Burmese and ethnic minorities milling around the open shops and street markets where hawkers were still touting their wares. Welcome to Ruili, 1991.
All this nocturnal activity was in stark contrast to the rest of China: in 1990 /91, even in Beijing 北京 and Shanghai 上海, such nightlife as there was, mostly packed up before 20.30. Ruili seemed to be on another planet altogether!
We checked into a brand new hotel, only to find it was so new that there was no running water and only the reception area was connected to the electricity mains. The following day, we escaped at the break of dawn and managed to track down the modest Ruili Binguan 瑞丽宾馆, where we bagged a cheap dorm room and where, to our immense surprise, we bumped into Glen and Lisa, an American couple we had met in Lijiang 丽江 a few weeks earlier. In fact, it turned out that the 4 of us were the only gweilos in town.
What to do or see in Ruili?
That was precisely the question. As Ruili wasn’t mentioned in any guide book (we were using Lonely Planet China, version 2) we set about trying to find the sights. Luckily, Glen and Lisa, who had taught English in Taiwan, could speak some Chinese,. After questioning the bewildered locals as to what we should see, we soon discovered that the actual sights were somewhat underwhelming.
A pagoda here, a huge banyan tree there, and the Burmese border crossing were about all the tips we could get from anyone.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting thing about Ruili was the incredible mix of people on its streets, the colourful markets and, why not, the sleazy, seedy ambience that hinted at clandestine wheeling and dealings.
Among the more exotic of Ruili’s various dodgy businesses were the wet markets (live animal markets), where the usual suspects blamed for causing the current Coronavirus outbreak and the previous SARS epidemic could be found in cages, waiting for the wok: cats, bats, rats and pangolins to name just a few.
Ruili in 1991 played host to jacks of all trades: Burmese Muslim merchants, jade traders, rich Chinese buyers with pretty young girls on their arm, hookers, pimps, drug dealers and addicts… and… beating them all for novelty: Kachin rebels (景颇族; Jǐngpō zú; in Chinese; members of an ethnic tribe struggling for an independent Kachin state) on rest and recreation after fighting the Burmese Junta. It was a kaleidoscope of peoples definitely worth coming all that way to see.
We found ourselves being wined and dined by rich Chinese jade dealers who seemed to think it gave them status to have Westerners at their table when negotiating with their Burmese counterparts. The whole thing was surreal and rather ridiculous.
After all, why invite people you don’t know to a slap- up meal? They couldn’t even speak to us; they just pointed at the food and urged us to eat! In hindsight, having a cheap Burmese meal with a few cold beers in the marvelous Sweet Café would have been much more fun. But that was the kind of thing that went on in Ruili in 1991.
The Burmese Connection Sweet Café
As I mentioned before, by far the most interesting people we met were the Kachin rebel commanders, back from fighting the Burmese military Junta. They used to hang out in the Sweet Café, a real Asian hole in the wall, but with more character than any posh banquet hall.
Some of the commanders were women, and they all spoke pretty reasonable English. They were a great source of entertainment with their stories of heroic exploits whilst fighting the Burmese army.
After its clientele, the next best thing about the Sweet Café was definitely its breakfast: milk tea, fried eggs, great fruit juices, and even Mohinga, a delicious Burmese spicy noodle soup with catfish and herbs, the perfect cure for a vicious hangover. Nowhere in China could beat the Sweet Café when it came to a tasty breakfast!
Burmese and other foreign produced products were ubiquitous in the street markets; including the infamous and totally politically incorrect Darkie toothpaste that had been renamed Darlie two years previously. Obviously, what was being sold had passed its sell by date.
And speaking of border, the border between China and Burma / Myanmar must have been pretty porous at the time, as the rebels explained that they often came to Ruili when they needed a bit of a rest. It seemed that the Chinese were turning a blind eye to their comings and goings. Actually, the Chinese authorities were turning a blind eye to almost anything happening in Ruili. But that was Ruili in 1991.
Of course, these laissez faire policies didn’t quite apply to Westerners. Some travelers told us they’d managed to sneak across the river to the town of Musé in Burma, only to get arrested and deported back to China, where they were made to write a self-criticism for having violated the laws of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously, this anecdote and the written self-criticism were worth their weight in gold, as the ultimate proof of ‘travel cool’.
And needless to say, if you did anything like this today, you’d be sent to prison. But that was then. China and Ruili in 1991 were not what they are today.
Back then, the Chinese authorities hadn’t really worked out what to do with mischievous foreigners. It was almost as if the PSB (Chinese Internal Security) and travellers were involved in playing a good humoured game of cat and mouse with travellers pushing the boundaries between those areas that were actually open and those that were still off limits, and the PSB trying to interpret the continuously changing directives from Beijing.
On our return to Baoshan we spent two hours trying to convince the local head of the PSB, who incidentally spoke impeccable English, to let us travel on by bus from Baoshan to Jinhong景洪 in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 so as not to have to backtrack all the way to Xiaguan下关 and Kunming昆明. We studied the map together and he agreed it would be much shorter to travel direct from Baoshan 保山. However, his only answer was: “this area is closed to foreigners”. And that was the end of the matter.
All in all we spent three days in Ruili, exploring the border area near the bridge that linked the town to Muse on the Burmese side, taking a day trip to the sleepy, non-eventful towns of Wanding 畹町 and Mangshi, playing Chinese chess with the locals, and cycling out to the nearby景颇族; Jǐngpō zú ( or Kachin); villages where we were made to feel very welcome.
Our only regret is that the town of Tenchong 腾冲 had also just opened, but we didn’t know. At that time, Tenchong still preserved its historic architecture, which apparently has now vanished under the sledgehammer. A pity.
The pictures you see here are the prints I bought from the temple when I visited as photography is not allowed.
I love visiting the arhats halls in Chinese temples. These are halls filled with amazing figures and transcendent scenes. Arhats or 羅漢 luóhàn in Chinese, are often defined as those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana.
Arhats line the walls of many Chinese temples, but you’ll fine some of the most stunning examples in the 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, on the outskirts of Kunming, Yunnan Province. The temple’s arhat hall was built between 1883 and 1890 and includes 500 individual arhats 五百罗汉 Wǔbǎi Luōhàn. 500 is the usual number.
Despite being a relatively recent creation, given china’s long history,the lifelike facial expressions of arhats in the Bamboo Temple, their clothes and the colours, all take one back to a time that evokes China’s mythical past and conjure up the west’s romantic fantasy with all things exotic and Chinese.
An arhat hall is the China we imagine when we read such stories as Journey to the West 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义Sānguó Yǎnyì or the Water Margins or Outlaws of the West 水滸傳 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn.
For me personally, an arhat hall is the China I imagined as a kid having just visited the Chinese gallery in the British Museum.
Of course the above sentimentalism and romanticism about ancient China is a far cry from the reality of China’s historical past. A 5000 year history full of brutality and oppression, wars and conquests, famine, drought and floods. The China of Su Tong‘s Binu and the Great Wall and Rice. And Mo Yan‘s Garlic Ballards and Big Breasts and Wide Hips.
A moment of Peace
Nevertheless, for a few moments when I gaze at the arhats in front of me, I feel I am in the dream like world of China’s fantastical past. The China of its great mythical novels.
Not all arhat halls are the same.
In some temples, the arhats can be simple, almost monotonously similar, and painted in one colour; often gold.
The artist was hallucinating?
However, other arhat halls are an exuberance of colour and fanciful scenes making one wonder what the artists might have been taking when they created them. The Jinge Temple 金阁寺 in Wutaishan is a good example.
Contemplating the 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì Arhats.
When I visit an arhat hall, I’ll spend hours staring at their virtually true to life faces, pondering on who their creator was, and who he was basing them on, and speculating whether or not they were real characters who existed in the artist’s lifetime, or if they were just a figment of his imagination. Or as previously mentioned: was he on something?
In temples such as the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, 15 kilometers outside Kunming, the arhats are truly spectacular.
They are remarkable for the riot of colours; memorable for the individual expressions on the faces of the arhats; mind-blowing for the bizarre mystical scenes in which the arhats are placed.
The Bamboo Temple’s arhat hall is a creation of an artist whose powers of invention have run wild making it one of my all time favourite arhat halls. If you are in Kunming it is a must see. Below are the accounts of our two visits to the temple.
February 1991 and August 2010: two visits to the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì
Despite all of China’s modernization, it still takes just as long to get from downtown Kunming to the Bamboo temple 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì as it did way back in 1991.
Getting there in 1991
In 1991, you picked up a clapped out over-crowded bus in downdown kunming that within a few minutes had already reached the outer limits of the city. After that, the bus slowly trundled past verdant green rice paddies and along pot holed roads before eventually ascending up through the lush forest to the temple.
Getting there today 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì
Today, there are no green fields, just kilometers upon kilometers of monotonous suburbs and snarling traffic that hold up the comfortable modern bus. Only the last two kilometers on the ascent through the forest brought back any memories of the previous trip.
Chinese domestic tourists now come to the temple in large groups on air-conditioned tourist buses; they are then disgorged from the buses and unleased upon the temple: A few selfies later they return to their waiting vehicles and moved on to their next destination.
Domestic Tourists Can’t Enter The Arhat Hall
Due to their recent unruly behaviour, especially, the throwing coins at the arhats and patting them on the head for good luck, the monks do not let Chinese tourists enter into the arhat hall. Instead, they must be observed from a safe distance from which no damage can be done. It maybe one reason why the Bamboo temple is actually far more sedate than it was 30 years ago.
Individual foreigners, on the other hand, will be invited into the hall by the monks to stand in front of the arhats if no tour groups are around ( no photography).
Mayhem in 1991
I remember the mayhem from our visit back in 1991. Then, the Chinese visitors came with their Danwei (work group), and would fight their way to the front of the hall in order to touch or throw coins at the arhats.
All the visitors, men and women alike, were dressed uniformly in their blue Mao suits; I can tell you it was quite a sight watching the hordes clamber over each other to get to the arhats!
The incredulous, and at the same time resigned expressions, on the faces of the caretaker monks said it all.
In 1991 there used to be snack stalls and tacky souvenir vendors around the temple. Most of them (if not all) have gone now. The area is actually quite a serene given that this is one of Kunming’s highlights..
What you do have now is a decent indoor and outdoor vegetarian restaurant set in lovely surroundings from where you can sip a cold beer, eat a delicious veggie meal and watch the huge resident tortoises roam around the grass. What more could you ask for?
A hidden gem you could easily inadvertently miss.
Taijitu太极图 near Yunlong 云龙, Yunnan Province, is a freak of nature. It looks remarkably like the famous Taoist Yin-Yang symbol when seen from high above. Viewed from ground level you would never know it was there.
The climb up to the view point is made along a steep winding road. If you can find a vehicle to take you there it is Yuan well spent. You don’t get any real inkling as to what is below until you suddenly arrive at the scenic viewing area. From this point, the whole Yin -Yang shape just suddenly appears before you. It’s quite magical.
For more info about Taijitu太极图 near Yunlong 云龙
Click here: https://holachina.com/?p=2654
For info on how to get there Click here: I hope you have better luck than us.
A rain sodden trip to see local markets in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 Yunnan Province
Menghai 勐海 xishuangbanna 西双版纳 yunnan Province云南省
Our attempts to reach the Sunday market at Menghun 勐混 were thwarted by the monsoon: due to heavy rain the new highway between Jinghong 景洪 and Menghai 勐海 had collapsed and no buses were running that Sunday morning.
When we eventually headed to Menghai 勐海 a few days later the buses were running again, but only on the old road, turning the normally smooth 45- minute journey into a four- hour crawl .
The most chaotic scenes occurred at the exit of Jinghong, as lorries, buses, tractors and private cars leaving the city fought with those vehicles trying to enter the city to either get on or leave the old road.
The chaos was such that there were kilometres of traffic jams in each direction and not one person of authority was there to put some order to the mayhem.
With so many vehicles stuck with nowhere to go, local entrepreneurs ran between the traffic, selling anything from boiled eggs to grilled meats and soft drinks.
Overturned lorries and their spilt loads only further aggravated an already desperate situation.
In the evening as we settled into our clean but rundown hotel in Menghai we watched the well-organized and meticulously planned Olympic games taking place in Beijing on T.V and wondered if we were really in the same country.
Our first destination from Menghai 勐海 was Gelanghe, a Dai 傣族 and Akha / Yaozu 瑶族 settlement, some 30 kilometres southeast. We took the lazy and wrong option and hired a car and driver for 200 Yuan to take us to Gelanghe.
The road starts climbing into the jungle clad hills only a few kilometres outside Menghai affording stunning views of the valley below.
Unfortunately due to torrential rains the road had become a quagmire. Our van slid and skidded its way up and up. Twice we had to release it from the mud with stones and planks of wood until the van eventually succumbed to the inevitable and got completely bogged down.
We now became the spectacle. The passing Akha / Yaozu 瑶族, who we had gone to see, stopped to gawp, comment and laugh at our predicament until a tractor, the only type of vehicle able to navigate the road, and its friendly driver pulled us out of the bog and turned our van round.
Defeated we headed back.
To compensate for the aborted trip to Gelanghe, we visited the Bajiao Ting (The Octagonal Temple) at Jingzhen 20 kms from Menghai and the Manlei Buddhist Temple at Mengzhe, a few kilometres further along the road.
Although both temples are pleasant, they are reconstructions of originals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
The Jingzhen Octagonal Temple Bajiaoting 景真八角亭，had some pleasant Dai style Buddhist murals that depicted gentle rural Scenes.
However, the new paintings at the Manlei Temple, painted by young Dai artists are quite striking and the hell scenes are pretty gruesome.
While the outside of the temple looks rather plain, it’s interior is a riot of colour and the paintings are not for the squeamish.
Don’t miss Menghai’s morning Market just behind the Main road near the post office.
It has a real buzz and you might catch a few Akha, Dai and Lahu dressed in their finest.
Unlike the Menghun market 勐混 市场, the Menghai market 勐海市场 is a market for locals and people from the countryside around. The market gets underway at the crack of dawn and is heaving by 9.00 a.m. By midday it has fizzled out.
The next day we headed out to Xiding Market (See Article).
Menghai 勐海 Coming and Going:
It should be a brisk 45 minute to 1 hour zip along a new highway from Jinghong 景洪 to Menghai 勐海. That is if the monsoon rains haven’t washed the highway away.
Buses run continually throughout the day from both Jinghong’s bus stations. From Menghai’s bus station there are regular buses to Jinghong, Menghun 勐混, for the Sunday market.
There are inconvenient buses for Xiding and its Thursday market (see article). If you are heading to the Burmense border there are buses to Daluo. For the route to Ruili there are plenty of buses to Menglian and Langcang.
This was our plan but the rains made the trip a travel nightmare. Eventually we had to back-tract and head to Menglun and Laos. Outside the wet season this westward journey would make a great trip.
We stayed at the post office hotel. A clean double cost 80 yuan. Staff were extremely friendly.
Food was a bit limited in Menghai to say the least. Simple restaurants can be found along the main street and some noodle stalls set up at night near the main square.
Kunming, Yunnan Province. Catering staff receive a motivational pep talk from their boss.
Wine seller in the old Kunming 昆明 suburb of Guandu 官渡.
This Photo was taken in Yuanyang Market 元阳市场 Yunnan Province 云南省 in 2006.
It shows a women from the Hani minority 哈尼族 knitting while waiting to sell peanuts
Village of Wine
And is it still there?
Having just read a devastating article about the future of Cizhong due to the Damming of the Mekong River (No Recourse: Upper Mekong Dam Spells End for Tibetan Village), we decided to publish this review from our diary that we had never previously put up on the blog.
The Road from Feilai Si near Deqin winds its way to the bottom of the Langcang Valley (Mekong River Valley) in a series of dramatic hairpin bends. On the right the mystical mountain of Meili Xueshan teases and torments the traveller with rare glimpses of its summit and glaciers in a game of hide and seek in the monsoon summer months.
For one second it’s there in all its majestic glory and then the next it’s gone, hidden behind swirling clouds or an impenetrable mist.
As the road reaches the river at the bottom of the valley, the barren rock faces on the left that threatened to come crashing down on our puny vehicle give way to fertile green fields dotted by white villages and prayer flags.
Welcome to one of the most romantic places in China; the tiny village of Cizhong in China’s South West Yunnan province.
While there are many other beautiful villages in the area, Cizhong stands out because of the lovely Catholic church that dominates the centre of the village and its surrounding vineyards.
The church was built by French missionaries nearly Continue reading “Cizhong 茨中 Yunnan: From our Diary”