When the Lijiang Express (a far cry from the old rust bucket that hauled us there from Panzhihua in 1991)- large leather armchairs, seatbelts, hostesses and blaring TV – pulled into modern Lijiang we feared the worst: we had arrived in what seemed to be a vast expanse of empty roads, half-finished concrete buildings, monstrous new hotels and souvenir shops… Was this going to be the Dali nightmare all over again? Adam most eloquently expresses his feelings on the over-exploitation of that once lovely village on our blog Holachina.blog » The Death of Dali / Shangri-La Tourism What happens when all of China and the world want to visit a small town? .
A friendly Naxi taxi driver drove us to the area near the waterwheels, which marks the entrance to the Old City. Immediately, we were shocked by the mayhem: we saw scores of Chinese girls dressed in fake Naxi costumes, tourist ponies, photographers, touts and, of course, hundreds of tourists milling about, or trailing after their megaphone-toting, flag-waving guides!
We quickly turned into one of the narrow, cobbled streets, these days lined with souvenir shops, and went in search of affordable accommodation, which we eventually found at the fairly atmospheric Old Town Inn.
Baishuitai ( A day trip from Zhongdian Yunnan Province)
Here is how we wrote about it in our Diary that day (Sept 3 – 2007): … It is a stunning, largely uphill ride, through dense forests and undulating meadows crossed by rushing rivers. On our way we pass the occasional nomads’ tent and several small minority and Tibetan villages.
The first is a rickety, wooden Yi settlement that is virtually deserted. According to our driver, a taciturn Tibetan, the Yi are probably out gathering mushrooms. Curiously, the subject of the Yi is the very first to loosen his tongue: he claims that the Tibetans dislike the Yi because they practise slash and burn agriculture and are responsible for the cutting down of the forests…. Moreover, in general, they are not to be trusted (his words, not ours). His outburst leaves us a bit baffled because, as far as we know, not all Tibetans are equally ecologically-minded. What to think e.g. of the extended use many Tibetans make of rare furs?
The historic city of Dali, situated on the shores of Erhai lake in China’s Southwestern province of Yunnan, has died and risen again several times during its long history. Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies raised it as part of their destruction of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Chinese Imperial troops put the city to the torch when crushing a Muslim rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. And an earthquake destroyed it again in 1925. After the earthquake, Dali was rebuilt in keeping with its traditional style, a mixture of large Bai courtyard mansions and small wooden shops and stores. Its layout within the old city walls remained the same, and the city was criss-crossed by beautiful flagstone streets. This was the Dali that we found in 1990 and liked so much. But Dali has died again and this time the enemy is probably much more dangerous than anything that came before. The enemy is called Shangri-la Tourism. My reaction on revisiting the town after 15 years was: Benidorm!
It has to be said that Dali was fairly touristy even in 1990. Hordes of local Bai women used to pursue the newly arrived backpackers down the streets, trying to flog batiks, earrings, hairpins and change FECs (the Foreign Exchange Certificates that foreigners got at the bank instead of the local currency). Restaurants offering the dreaded banana pancake and other so-called Western food were ubiquitous. It wasn’t the ‘real’ China; not even then. However, the businesses dealing with backpackers were generally family affairs run on a small scale, and once you had settled in and the grannies had given up on you as a lost cause, Dali became a pleasant place to chill out, recharge your batteries and recover from the considerable effort of getting there. Moreover, the scenery around Dali was and is spectacular, the surrounding villages beautiful, the local Bai culture (see Xizhou) fascinating and the markets pretty amazing.
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards descended on Xishuangbanna and wreaked havoc on temples belonging to the Dai minority who believe in Buddhism. In recent years many of those temples have been rebuilt or restored. Many young monks and local artisans have been encouraged to paint new murals on the temple walls. The result has been an explosion of colour and Manga- style imagery. Take a look at the following:
The hotel owner in Yuanyang had told us to get there early, as many of the hill tribe people have to walk all the way back and the market starts breaking up at around noon.
So we got to Laomeng at about 8:30, where we were among the first to arrive. We walked once round the town and had a look at the few stalls already set up by a small number of colourfully dressed Miao ladies and some older Yi women. Most of them seemed as curious about us, as we were about them. By the time we got back to our starting point, dozens of vans, carts and other vehicles had already arrived, unloading hundreds of passengers and all kinds of goods. They brought with them a kaleidoscopic mix of colours, as ladies from the Hani, Yao, Yi, Miao and Black Thai ethnic groups spilled out from the back and descended upon the market for a few hours of frenzied buying and selling.
For the next 3 hours we were treated to a visual feast that left us drained and out of film. Our driver had filled us in on some of the intricacies of the local costumes, so we were more or less able to distinguish between the women from the different ethnic groups…
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In February 1991 our bus from Kunming pulled into the dilapidated bus station of Xishuangbanna’s capital Jinghong. It had taken 3 long and uncomfortable days to get there. The bus was old and worn out; its seats broken and on their last legs, with sharp metal edges digging painfully into our sore thighs. In spite of the length and discomfort of the journey, most passengers, a mix of gloomy backpackers and Chinese officials, seemed unwilling to engage in conversation and no spirit of group solidarity had sprung up among us; something that usually happened (and still does) on long trips in China. Only we and a gaggle of youngHong Kongers seemed to be enjoying the tropical scenery and the gradual rise of temperatures. The main relief was provided by the nightly stops in extremely basic, but surprisingly clean road-side hotels and the decent food along the way.
One of the highlights of the seemingly-endless journey was an early encounter with one of Xishuangbanna’s many minorities. It happened during a toilet stop near Simao, when a pair of shaven-headed Lahu girls, who were walking by the side of the road, started screaming and pelted for cover in the jungle as soon as they saw Margie and I disembark. And we hadn’t even started peeing…
On arrival, we had the satisfaction of beating our unsociable fellow travellers to the reception desk of the Xishuangbanna Binguan (or Banna Binguan) where we managed to grab the last cheap room in the old wing and settled down to a cold beer and a shower of the same temperature.
An unlikely gem if ever there were one, Menglun’s dusty main road is a mishmash of small restaurants, cheap hotels and motorbike shops. Pretty it isn’t! But then one doesn’t come to Menglun to see the town, but rather the fabulous Tropical Botanical Gardens that begin after crossing a suspension bridge over the Luosuo River, only a few meters from the unglamorous main road. To really experience Menglun, stay at the atmospheric hotel set in the middle of the gardens; an oasis of serenity and a rare treat in modern- day China. The Gardens are huge, which is why you really need two days to explore.
Menglun should be a must for anyone embarking on a long trip around Asia. The Tropical Botanical Gardens are home to all the species you will become familiar with when travelling around Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, or the rest of China. Highlights include the Tropical Rainforest and the colourful Tropical Plants area. The Rainforest gives you a pretty good idea of the vegetation you will come across if you are doing any trekking in Xishuangbanna or in Laos, especially the Nam Ha Protected Area near Luang Nam Tha. Be prepared for extreme humidity.Continue reading “The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun”
We abandoned our driver, his car buried deep in the mud, and mounted a motorbike. Ironically, the previously treacherous mud bath soon became a reasonably smooth, semi-asphalted road. The drive was stunning: we passed Dai villages with their traditional raised wooden houses, thick jungle and vistas of mist-covered hills and valleys flashed by, and just when it seemed that the scenery couldn’t get better, we arrived in Xiding, looking like an island floating above the clouds. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the town revealed itself as a bit of a dump.
The small, grubby market town of Xiding may seem a strange destination, especially if you have to spend so much time and effort trying to get there, but its Thursday market is one of the most authentic ethnic markets in Xishuangbanna. A hive of activity from dawn to midday, the market attracts nearby Dai, Hani (Aini or Akha), and Bulang minorities. It is said that Lahu also drop in, but we didn’t see or recognize any. The only real sign of Han-Chinese presence are the huge military barracks overlooking the town, a reminder that the Myanmar border is only a few kilometres away.
The market occupies a large square, just up the road from the bus station, as well as some of the adjacent streets. There is nothing touristy about this market, the only things on sale are local produce, household goods and cheap clothes. A few noodle stalls feed the hungry shoppers. With everybody busily going about their business, nobody tried to sell us anything. The local kids, pipe- smoking old men and colourfully dressed women occasionally glanced at us with a certain amount of bewilderment, probably wondering why we had made it all the way out there. Even if you can speak Chinese, it is quite difficult to explain that you have come to see them.
This summer we crossed from China into Laos and found that the border crossing is a mere formality. We left the dour Chinese town of Mengla at 7.00 am and by 9.30 we were already in Luang Nam Tha. As it was pouring down with rain when we left the hotel, we simply took a taxi all the way to the border at Mohan, the journey took about 45 minutes on a spanking new highway and cost a very reasonable 150 Yuan. At Mohan we had to wait a bit, as the Chinese border post doesn’t open until 8.30 am, when the flag is raised with much pomp and ceremony.
There are, however, many other ways you can go: there are minibuses to Mohan that leave every 20 minutes from the Southern bus station. There is one daily bus from Mengla directly to Luang Nam Tha that leaves from the Northern bus station at 9.30 am. As we hadn’t been able to book tickets or even speak to the bus staff, we didn’t want to wait for this direct bus, in case there was a problem with us not having Lao visas yet and needing to get them at the border.
Sailing up one of the remotest and most striking stretches of the Mekong River with Laos on the right and Myanmar (Burma) on the left is a great way to enter China. The trip takes about a day and a half and is easy to organise.
The Boat leaves the Northern Thai town of Chiang Saen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Boats return to Thailand from the Chinese city of Jinghong on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
We got our tickets by ringing Gin’s Guest House ( 0 5365 0847 / 1023) in Chiang Saen in advance and making a reservation. You might be able to get your own tickets at the office of the Xishuangbanna Tianda Tourism and Shipping Company in Chiang Saen. The office is by the Mekong, a little way South, down Th. Rimkhong, though the telephone number 0 5365 1136, quoted by Lonely Planet, was no longer in use .
Tickets cost 800 Yuan or 80 Euros. If you are paying in Thai Baht it works out at about 4.000 B depending on the fluctuating exchange rate.
Your passport has to be handed in to Thai immigration the day before you leave. This is due to the unsociable departure time of the boat at 4.30 a.m. An official fee of 300 Baht is paid to Thai immigration for working out of hours. It’s 150 Baht if you don’t want a receipt! Your passport is returned to you on the boat. Apparently, at other times of the year when water levels are lower, the boat leaves later, around 6.00 am. Part of the year, the boat service is discontinued completely. Continue reading “Thailand to China by Boat”