Thursday, March 29, 2007

Vietnot Part 2: The Olive Plain

As I write I'm back in Kunming, having hopped a 50-minute airplane flight (as compared to the 11 hour bus ride...) with Lee the day before yesterday. We've moved into our homestays and everything seems to be getting back in gear. But that subject matter is for another time-- I still have 5.5 action-packed Xishuangbanna days to tell you all about.

My first two days in Banna were sort of "warm up" for the rest. I made friends with Zoe and Alex, as previously mentioned, discovered the traditional Dai village hidden inside Jinghong, walked Jinghong's palm-fringed streets exploring, and tried some traditional Dai food (sticky rice in a hollowed out pineapple, SO good; pork and fried banana flowers, intense but excellent.) Diana was scheduled to come meet me on the second day, so I took my time relaxing, planning, and eating breakfast, and then rented a mountain bike from the shop down the street from my hostel. They gave me a map of a good places to bike in the surrounding countryside, and I set off.

I didn't really go where I tried to-- the map was outdated and my sense of direction is famously terrible-- but the ride was great nonetheless. I discovered another Dai monastery (my Bulang friend, Alex, told me that a small period of monkhood is compulsory for all boys in Banna, kind of like the army) and headed out of town, ultimately ended up on a dirt road winding ominously down into empty rice paddies. Before I got too lost I started asking for directions, unfortunately forgetting that they don't call the Mekong River by its Vietnamese/American name in China-- they call it the Lancang. Therefore, asking where the Mekong was was no help to me. I ultimately retraced my steps, but not before enjoying some beautiful countryside views. I next stumbled into a large park on the very south tip of Jinghong, a park filled with flowering trees and more Buddhist temples. My favorite of these temples involved a Buddha whose head was flanked by a flashing neon halo. Taking pictures of Buddha is forbidden (something about pictures stealing souls or taking away hallowedness), but if I could have taken a picture of this crazy collision of tacky modernity and exotic religiousness I would have.

I ultimately tired myself out and took a rest before Diana arrived in Banna at 5 PM. I had been incorrectly informed that there was only one bus to Ganlanba (roughly translated as "Olive Plain" during the day and had thought we would have to invest in a pricey taxi ride, but we successfully purchased bus tickets and, with some difficulty (again, bus stations in China are incredibly confusing and chaotic) found our way onto the minibus (really more like a van) going to Ganlanba.

A word about public transport in China: real busses only go to the largest and most significant Chinese cities. All other public transportation is in mini-buses, essentially shortened and mini-fied, or micro-buses, glorified mini-vans. These busses often take very rural routes and peasants and farmers can stand out on the roads and hail them at any time. It's... unique.

The minibus to Ganlanba was about 45 minutes, and it followed around directly down the Mekong (Lancang) River, as both Jinghong and Ganlanba are Mekong ports. The view during the ride was breathtaking, and we barely noticed that our butts spent more time in the air than on the seat. Getting into Ganlanba, I actually turned to Diana and said, "You have got to be kidding me." The place was way more South Asia than China. Swarms of people ate at roadside stalls, traditional Dai houses lined the street, the air was warm and humid, and palm trees stood everywhere. I decided then and there that a better name for Banna is Vietnot-- It's not China, and it's not South Asia so.... I'm so clever. I know.

We found a clean hotel with bathroom for Y60 for both of us (a little skeezy, though, with rooms available by the hour, special in-room pink mood lighting, and refillable condom dispensers) and set out to explore the town. We had some more traditional Dai food at a restaurant recommended in the guide book, and relaxed. A party was going on in the restaurant, and everyone was already drunk when we got there. As expected, men from the party started coming over to chat with the foreigner and her translator (Diana was, of course, not my translator, but seeing a Chinese face everyone assumed.) We were toasted with bai jiu and asked about American life continuously. One man informed me that "Americans have no love in their heart. Oh, but you do. Everyone else though, they don't." Soon after, he decided I had no love in my heart after all, and then he informed me that Chinese people don't get fat because they drink soup, and that Americans should drink more soup. Diana and I spent an hour or so wandering around nighttime Ganlanba before we turned it. It was awash with spotlights lighting up outdoor pool, poker, and majiang tables; flickering TV sets surrounded by children from the neighborhood; and shifting shadows of palm trees blowing in the slight breeze.

The next day we got up bright and early to find breakfast at a traditional food market, after which we rented bikes and found our way to a ferry point across the Mekong (an amazing minute and a half.) The guidebook had said to go up the hill, turn left, and ride, and that is exactly what we did. From 11:00 until almost 5 we road through the countryside. We passed through many villages, banana plantations, rice fields, watermelon fields, and stopped for a lunch of peanut butter and biscuits in a stand of rubber trees with a fantastic view looking out over the plain. We went through entire villages of traditional Dai Houses, discovered resevoirs coming from tributaries of the Mekong, and saw pigs so huge gray and wrinkly that they looked like baby elephants from the back. My favorite part was the country Buddhist temple we ran across, entirely by accident. I recognized the water serpents ubiquitous in Buddhist temples in Thailand and Banna, and we automatically got off our bikes to investigate. The temple was simply built but still breathtaking, and it felt like a true treasure, a discovery, something just ours.

I was starting to get really tired, so we headed back to the ferry, but on the way we were hailed by some Dai people eating lunch in a lean-to by a watermelon field. They asked us to eat with them, serving us the freshest watermelon I will ever eat-- I watched them use a machete to hack it off the stalk and serve it to me, dripped with juice and cool inside. They also gave us rice-- which I ate, figuring it was safe-- and offered us some of their meal, wild greens and water snake from the local stream. Diana ate, I declined. I did assent to some Guo Jiu (liquor made from watermelon), the strongest liquor I've ever tasted.

Diana's meal was probably not the best idea-- she began feeling sick not long afterwards, but we still had to make the long bike ride back. We had checked out of our hotel, but on the way back we decided to check in to a room for one hour so Diana could rest and I could shower. It was a wonderful idea, well worth the Y20-- I became clean, and Diana had a place to be sick.

Next time: the Menghun market, the temple, and our own personal South Western Chinese Amazing Race.

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