Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Banna Goes Wild, Part 2: Elephants and Monkeys

The culminating segment of my Xishuangbanna trip involved the most animals, which was pretty exciting.

As previously mentioned, I made a last-minute decision to set out for Banna Yexianggu (Banna Wild Elephant Valley) at around 6:30 PM, then found a cab to take me to the park's entrance. The woman at the backpacker cafe had told me that about Y200-250 would be an appropriate amount to pay the driver, and although that seemed exorbitant to me I decided I would be willing to pay. When the cost the driver quoted me was only 150, and I got him down to 140, I was thrilled. The driver and I chatted as we jettisoned out of the city and into the countryside, and he was so helpful with driving me around once we got inside the park that I was inspired to give him an extra Y20 (about $2.50.) Later I found out that he was grossly overcharging me and the ride should only have cost about Y100 and I felt kind of stupid and angry, but regardless, Y60 is about $8 and he definitely needed it more than I do. Being in China gives you that kind of perspective.

What followed when we got to the Yexianggu hotel lobby amounted to the most stressful part of my trip. I had to do in Chinese what I barely would be able to do in English-- establish all the technicalities of staying in a hotel, plus the complexities of getting a security guard to walk you 4 km into the jungle to your tree house. It was exhausting and I think I was probably trying their patience toward the end, but ultimately I got all the information I needed. I waited around with some random guys (who probably worked for the park, although it was hard to tell) and they were surprised to learn I spoke Chinese, proceeding to grill me about all things American, including the Iraq war (touchy.)

The security guard who was to accompany me showed up after awhile and we set off into the jungle, which was such a cool experience that I barely even minded having to trouble them with arriving after hours. We walked on the paths clearly delineated all around the park, but everything around was warm, black, humid, and close around us, the dark filled with chirping frogs and the occasional night bird. As we walked, the security guard continually looked out for elephants we might run across (the valley is home to a large family of them, although I sadly didn't see any while I was there) and I taught him some English ("run fast!" "let's go!" "You speak English very well.") Eventually our walk took us to the elevated walkway portion of the park, which traverses the canopy, and then we were there-- "Home sweet home" was the last phrase I taught him, and then I entered the tiny tree house that was to be my home for the night. Two beds and a very basic bathroom without a sink, but quite cozy and filled up with the night sounds of the jungle. I fell asleep with those sounds in my ears. It was damn close to magical.

I had heard that the Valley becomes very touristy once it's open for the day, so I got up very early and walked the paths alone, watching the sun come up through the trees to dapple jungle streams and filter through hanging vines. It was incredibly peaceful, and I had a strong feeling that at that moment the rainforest around me was all mine. I saw some beautiful flowers and a couple tiny hummingbirds. Visitors are not supposed to go off the paths, but because there was no one around I had a chance to wander a little. I didn't go to far because my sense of the rules and my sense of direction (or lack thereof) kept me obedient, but tramping through quiet jungle was fantastic.

Around 9 or 9:30 the tour groups started arriving, all of them giving quizzical looks to the foreigner wandering on her own and expressing shock when said foreigner greeted them in Chinese. I had breakfast then, treating myself to some tea biscuits and peanut butter that I had brought, plus coconut milk drank out of a straw from the coconut itself (they were selling them at a cafe in a clearing in the jungle.) It was a delicious breakfast, and I sat by a stream writing in my journal and enjoying the morning.

After eating my fill, I began the slow process of exiting the jungle. On one path, Jinuo kids my age worked at a "jungle swing" that allowed you to sail out over one of the many trickling jungle brooks. It was only Y10, so I did it-- how many times will I be able to swing in the jungle in my life? I also made friends with the Jinuo workers-- one of them called me unexpectedly last night, actually. And one of the Jinuo boys declared that he wanted to take me out on a date, but although I gave him my phone number, he never called. Next on my way I met some men on vacation from Qinghai, which is next to Tibet. We had a long conversation as we all rested from the midday heat, and they asked me all about America. One of them even sang me a Chinese song as we walked, and I sang back a few bars from "Lean on Me" (which is quickly becoming an easy fallback.)

I spent a little extra time in the park itself, which is much more Disneyfied. There was an elephant show (depressing) that I quickly skipped in favor of the animals section. There was a beautiful butterfly garden filled with huge, exotic, colorful flowers and butterflies, as well as a monkey house where lots of different kinds of monkeys hung around on an island in the middle of a lake. Some workers were holding baby monkeys, and they let me hold one (something I've always wanted to do.) It climbed all over me and then stole my glasses, which was hilarious but only because I was quick-witted and got them back before he broke them or worse. The best part, though, were the wild monkeys who were hanging around the Monkey House. They were playing and swinging through the trees (although it seemed sort of cruel to the monkeys who weren't allowed out.) I've always loved monkeys.

It was a suitable ending to a fantastic trip. I caught a bus back to Jinghong for the night, where I met up with Lee and we spent the evening at the Mekong Cafe with my Bulang friend and a Swiss traveller who was my roommate for the night. It was sad to say goodbye to my Bulang friend, actually, just like it was hard to say goodbye to Banna, but I didn't take 150 pictures in 5 days for nothing...

Next time: A Portrait of My Homestay

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