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Wonderful Walking in Xishuangbanna
By Luke Taylor (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-13 10:21

Pagodas and temples and a dramatic touch to the Xishuangbanna landscape.
It was getting dark and I was in the middle of the jungle near the Sino-Myanmar border, almost out of water, and without a tent.

Suddenly, a member of the local formerly tiger-hunting people seemed to rise directly out of the ground beside me; a tiny lady with blackened teeth and coin-sized holes in her ear lobes. She had climbed up a steep mud slope to reach the path, and beckoned me to follow her back down.

Slipping a little, we reached an encampment of stilted houses near a river where firelight danced through the cracks in the walls.

Though it reads like a novel, this is exactly what happened on my recent walking trip in Xishuangbanna in the southern part of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

The village where I stayed that night was Songeer, halfway between the towns of Damenglong and Bulangshan. It normally takes three days to walk the 48 kilometres between the towns, but a fast walker can manage it in two. Along the way you pass through a variety of minority villages: Weidong, Bannakan, Songeer, Nuna, Guangmin, Manpo and Manguanghan.

The inhabitants of Songeer are Lahu people, who settled in the area during the 19th century. Before that they were nomads.

"Lahu' may be rendered from 'Tiger-roasting' but the Lahu have given up their former, ferocious hunting habits. There were no striped skins visible in the hut where I was invited for dinner. Besides the green vegetables and potatoes, however, I was offered an unidentifiable, spicy meat... Tiger?

Although most Xishuangbanna minorities speak Mandarin, the Lahu of Songeer speak only their own language. Accordingly, hospitality was expressed through gestures. They made me sit beside a fire while I shared cigarettes with the adults (the Lahu, men and women, are avid smokers) and played with the children.

When the moon rose above the dark outlines of the forest vegetation, they showed me where to sleep, wrapped in blankets on the comfortably springy floor.

The Chinese Government has already wisely protected 2,500 square kilometres in Xishuangbanna as forest reserve land. Hopefully, it will also be possible to curb the deforestation becoming evident in many areas, including the walk between Bulangshan and Songeer, in order to prevent hillside erosion.

A brief walk up the path from Damenglong brings you to Manfeilong (White Bamboo Shoot) Pagoda. This magnificent pagoda was built in 1204, supposedly over a footprint of the legendary Buddha Siddhartha Gautama - a difficult story to verify!

During the Tan Ta Festival it resounds with celebratory rockets, but the quiet of a solitary hilltop allowed me to appreciate the pagoda's serenity.

Ganlanba (Menghan), my next stop, is a village beside the Lancang River within easy reach of the region's capital, Jinghong.

The author shares a smile with a little friend he met during his travels.
It is mostly inhabited by Dai people, the largest minority group in Xishuangbanna. The Dai were driven south by Genghis Khan's forces in the 13th century. Now, there are over a million in the region.

Their belief in the Hinayana version of Buddhism is evident in the associated pagodas and temples, some being rebuilt, and the presence of novice monks in trailing orange robes.

"Buddhism is a very important part of Dai culture," explained a monk of about my age. He was on his way to a Buddhist conference in Jinghong, and happened to share a seat with me on the bus.

"In every community some sons become monks. Monks are very educated, and can record their communities' culture," he added.

Like many foreigners, I was entranced with the Dai people. The women's clothing, consisting of brilliantly coloured sarongs and high-cut blouses, gave the charming illusion that they were dressed for the evening in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Every one of them was immaculately groomed; apparently, some Dai wash up to 10 times a day - and even more during their regular water-splashing festivals.

I even noticed, outside the Dai temple in Damenglong, a life-size sculpture of a Dai woman washing her hair.

The grace of their movements is echoed in the curls, loops, and tadpoles of their beautiful script. It can also be heard in Zhang Khap, Dai's solo narrative opera.

Visitors can sample the famed Dai sticky rice (Khao nio) cooked in a bamboo tube, which can also arrive inside a pineapple, or wrapped in banana leaves.

My personal favourite was a small spiny fish, roasted between bamboo splints, fresh from the Lancang.

For a very reasonable fee one can stay in the highly recommended Dai Bamboo House. There you sleep in the traditional Dai manner on the floor.

The roof of this building follows the design shared by all Dai houses, triangular gables sloping into semi-circular eaves.

I was fascinated to note that the Blang, Lahu, Jino and Va people also build their roofs this way. During a recent trip to Viet Nam, I even noticed it in the black Thai houses around Lao Cai on the Viet Nam border.

"There is an old story behind that design," explained a local Blang teacher I met. "The turtle is said to have taught people how to build their roofs, and the shape imitates his shell."

He also recounted an old legend accounting for the ancient friendship between the Blang and the Dai people.

"They used to be brothers. After the death of their father, the Blang brother left the Dai brother and went to live in the hills." He smiled.

Maybe that is why I have trekked for a day to catch this bus to Jinghong, where so many Dai people live.

Jinghong is now easy to reach due to improved roads. The trip, which used to take up to two days, can now be completed in around 14 hours on a sleeper bus, or in less than an hour by plane.

As more and more visitors take advantage of this access there is a risk that some of the local culture may be lost. This would be irreplaceable: It is essential that tourism in this wonderful area be carefully controlled.

The author is now teaching at Kunming University of Science and Technology in Yunnan Province

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