Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Banna Goes Wild, Part 1: Countryside Goose Chases

Our story continues:

Diana and I made our way down the mountain after the Dai wedding accompanied by David, an environmentalist who works for an international NGO in Kunming, from Maine. We decided we wanted an adventure-- a woman from a backpacker cafe in Jinghong had heard that I wanted to go to Menghun and had written down a place I should go while I was there-- in Chinese. She had written the name of a town-- Mengzhe-- and then four further characters, two that Diana and I recognized and two that we did not. We decided to try our luck, anyway, and asked someone where we could find the thing on the paper. We were directed to a micro bus that would take us to Mengzhe. While we waited for the microbus, I was again accosted by an Aini woman seeking to sell me something. When I assured her that her wares were beautiful but that I didn't want to buy anything she went as far as to put a bracelet on my wrist. It was only Y1 (about 11 cents) so I bought it, but then promptly changed tacks. I asked her her name, and that was all it took for her to forget her sales pitch. She started to tell me about her village in the hills and her two children, one of whom works in Jinghong and whom she misses a great deal. That was an important moment for me, realizing that I have control over the "authenticity" and personalization of the travel experience. I can control how people view me (as a really interested person or as just another tourist) and that I can also affect my own experience as a tourist. A really important lesson.

Diana, David, and I boarded the minibus to Mengzhe not long after that with instructions to get off "at the bridge" and catch a second minibus even farther into the countryside. The ride was incredibly bumpy but it went through some really breathtaking scenery-- rolling plains, rice paddies with tethered water buffalo, hills humping into mountains in the distance. We got off the bus at the same stop as an old lady also going to Mengzhe, but she was illiterate and couldn't read the mysterious characters at whose mercy we found ourselves. The second minibus went farther away from the "center" of Menghun-- as Diana remarked, the entire trip to Banna constituted a journey away from the center, constantly redefining what we thought of as "central" and "developed." First Kunming, a city of 4 million people, then Jinghong, a provincial city. Then Menghun, a little town... then Mengzhe, the middle of essentially nowhere, wreathed by rice paddies, featuring women getting on and off the minibus carrying baskets of chickens. On the minibus, we passed the famouns Jingzhen 8-sided pagoda and debated getting off to look but ultimately decided to come back. When we got to Mengzhe, we started showing people the paper and asking them where the attraction was located. At first we were told 4 kilometers and decided to walk it, but after 2 kilometers or so when we asked again we were told there were 4 more kilometers left. We hailed the first bicycle taxi, where the taxidriver quoted us the price of "liang jian" which sounded to us like "liang jiao" or, essentially, 2 cents. We were in awe of the cheapness of this price and accepted, but when we finally got to our destination (which was, indeed, the Jingzhen pagoda back from whence we came) the driver wanted Y20, a definite ripoff. We couldn't talk him down, however, and unhappily paid him.

Meanwhile, however, we managed to solve the mystery of the Backpacker Recommendation. The first two characters were those for "Jingzhen Pagoda" and the second two were "bus stop"-- we had been directed to go on the Mengzhe bus to the pagoda but had accidently gone to Mengzhe itself. It had cost us some extra money, but ultimately the adventure, very reminiscent of The Amazing Race, was worth it, and the pagoda was quite beautiful. We caught the last bus of the day back to Jinghong and had dinner at that same backpacker cafe.

There, I made a last-minute decision. I knew that it would be hard to get back from the Wild Elephant Reserve, one hour north of Kunming, in time for my morning flight Tuesday. It was already dinner time and there were no more public busses, but I decided that given that the cost was much lower than I had expected, I was willing to pay a taxi to drive me the 40 kilometers. We made the arrangements, I said goodbye to Diana, who was heading back to Kunming, and I set off.

Next time: elephants and rainforest and baby monkeys, oh my!

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