Two days of roller-coaster travel on unpaved roads and in old buses cramped with members of the Chinese Olympic Spitting Team. It was a long road to Xishuangbanna.
Tucked in the deep south of China's Yunnan Province, the Xishuangbanna region conjured images of thatched huts, tropical jungle, and a rainbow of ethnic minorities. But when we arrived in Jinghong, the regional capital, our hearts sank. We got the impression that we had arrived too late.
With the exception of ethnic Dai script and Mandarin Chinese characters competing for space on signs splattered across the city, Jinghong's atmosphere was anything but exotic; it looked like any other highly-developed city in China.
So we dodged our disappointment in urban Chinese homogeneity and over-development and headed for the hills and rural markets.
Gasa Market: Pig Face Salon
Armed with good-looking but overworked bicycles, we set off into the nearby countryside. Our first impromptu stop: the daily market at Gasa, an outpost of the ethnic Dai community. After surveying a typical market scene – rows of vegetables, gelatinous mounds, strands of local tobacco, electronic ducks laying eggs as they waddled – we found the highlight: a woman delicately plucking hairs from the head of a slaughtered pig. Her movements were quick and precise and recalled an ancient craft. She poked and pulled inside the pig's ears and dug into the crevices of its skin. The skin flopped like a Halloween mask, but it was real and it would appear at a local dinner table soon. We were mesmerized and repulsed.
Camera Shy, Camera Hams
We left behind the asphalt of Gasa and the thick red clay and the day’s flash rainstorms conspired to engulf our tires and shoes.
As we carved and sloshed our way through the surrounding Dai villages, children waved and greeted us, but disappeared each time we pulled out the camera. Perhaps they were genuinely shy, or maybe just tired of the occasional tourist and their not-so-occasional shutterbug mentality. We understand.
The children we met at a street-side market on our return to Jinghong were anything but shy. Dan was a star; the girls posed with their dog, grinned at the camera, giggled and gamed.
As the market emptied and wound down for the day, a woman whose stall was stocked with greens and fresh tofu served us a delicious and outrageously inexpensive meal. Good thing too, as we soon learned that our evening dining plans were toast: Jinghong’s night market had been razed recently to make way for even more development.
The Menghun Sunday Market
Early the following morning, we set out by local bus for the village of Menghun to catch the weekly Sunday market. Compared to the color and bustle of the ethnic markets in Yuanyang, the Menghun market seemed muted. But as we took a voyeur’s seat to the side of the action, the aggressive souvenir vendors – ethnic women decked out in elaborate head-wear and purses – ignored us and the market appeared an ecosystem with its own complex fluidity.
Though the outfits in Menghun didn’t live up to the dazzle of those on display in Yuanyang, the range of ethnicities compensated for the color deficit. The differences in facial structures were subtle, some appearing Tibetan or Turkic. People carried their history in their features and expressions.
In the thick of tradition, women sold vegetables and fruit while men sold tobacco and knives. Vendors counted their money and buyers balanced goods on their heads and backs. Traditional head-wraps and gallows-style sack-carriers co-existed with the practicality of modern bags and shoes. Pigs squealed as their owners shuttled them home in “pig suitcases” – imagine a natural fiber briefcase with pig feet poking through the gaps.
We returned to Jinghong in a small, shared minivan, packed with locals. The back seat and trunk were filled to the brim with goods.
Market day comes only but once a week.
Practical Details for Villages and Ethnic Markets in Xishuangbanna
- How to Get There: Overnight bus from Kunming or two days of brutal bus travel from Yuanyang (Yuanyang to Luchun, Luchun to Jiangcheng and spend the night, Jiangcheng to Jinghong). It's actually faster to take the bus from Yuanyang to Kunming and then Kunming to Jinghong, but you miss the adventure.
- What to Do: Xishuangbanna offers endless options for treks, bicycle rides and tours. Go to Mei Mei Cafe on Manting Lu or Mekong Cafe on Menglong Road and peruse their extensive information binders for details on tours, weekly markets and options for independent travel (cycling routes). Trekking guides hang out at the cafes. Relax with a massage at the Blind Massage School on the corner of Mengle Dadao and Jingde Lu. These guys have strong hands!
- Where to Stay: Several cheap guest houses cluster around Mei Mei Cafe on Manting Lu. We stayed at a guest house across the street from Mei Mei's for 35 RMB (double room with bathroom and A/C). Beware of the grumpy, old owner. He will walk into your room without knocking and sit down right next to you while you're in your underwear and ask you to fill out the registry. File under “too close for comfort.”
- Where to Eat: Mei Mei's on Manting Lu serves western breakfast, local dishes and western comfort food. The Xinjiang place a few doors down from Mei Mei's features the friendliest laghman (pulled noodles) maker on the planet. His smile alone is worth a visit, but the Xinjiang food he serves up with his wife is delicious and cheap. Several food stalls operate on Manting Lu down the street from Mei Mei's.
- Getting to Menghun Sunday Market: Buses leave every 20 minutes from the No. 2 (Local) Bus Station (different from the Long Distance and New Bus Stations). Buses also leave from the New Bus Station, but very occasionally.