rice terraces outside Sapa, during a rare spell without fog

The workings of the tourist trail around Sapa.

The thing about Sapa is its scenery outside town, something we hadn’t really appreciated yet because of the low clouds. But one day, driving in the direction of Lao Cai, we have more luck. Much of the fog has disappeared, and the rice paddy landscape unfolds after every bend in the road, steep terraces filled with water. With a bit of imagination we can even project some sunlight into the picture, and then you realise why all these tourists come to Sapa!

more terraces, with even a hint of sunshine

perfectly cut profile

perfectly horizontal layout

some of the terraces are already water-filled

and with the view relatively unobscured, they are indeed beautiful

Filled with enthusiasm, we also book a walking tour, a sort of a one-day mini-track, past some of the ethnic minority villages and through the rice paddies. Our guide, an enterprising young lady, herself from the Hmong minority, picks us up from our hotel early one morning. In the mist – there is mist every morning, but the weather forecast for Sapa is sunny and dry, even relatively warm. My suggestion to wait for a while, see if the mist clears, she waves away: “if you wait for the sun to leave Sapa, you’ll never leave”. Right! It would have been nice if our guidebook had contained some text to that extent, then we might have reconsidered our travel itinerary – we do get a little fed up with the weather, to be honest.

some terraces barely visible in the mist

We walk down from our hotel, to the small lake in the centre of Sapa – from which we cannot even see the other side -, and through some local suburbs, where some of the mud tracks are being replaced by concrete slabs. Which have just been laid, so we cannot walk there yet, are being forced into the even muddier side of the path. Concentrating on where we put our feet, we hardly notice that we have left town and are now walking through the countryside. Still on the muddy track. Still in the mist. Tall bamboo grows on the side of the path, indicating that behind, there are houses. Very occasionally, some rice paddies shimmer through the clouds, too.

the first village, with water buffalo and pigs

corn cobs drying

and traditional black Hmong dresss drying, after dying

view from the village

cash crops, also in terrace form

and some more terraces – you cannot get enough of them, even in the mist

the ladies with the baskets, Hmong and Red Dao, in this case

A village appears, suddenly. On a clear they we could have seen in from far, but now we come upon it, in a flash. Wooden houses, with corrugated iron roofs. Waterbuffalos being fed, pigs, and the smallest piglets you have ever seen, scurrying around. Chickens, ducks, and lots of dogs, mostly good looking and well-nourished. But overall, this is a pretty poor place. Outside we do walk across the paddies, and lots of other agricultural fields, growing cash crops. Everything in the distance remains obscured.

The old woman who attached herself to our small group in Sapa, with a basket on her back, full of minority garments she is trying to sell to us, is being joined by two more ladies, with similar baskets on their backs, and similar intentions. Not much further we spot another small group, with two or three tourists and a guide. And with another two ladies with baskets on their backs. Obviously walking the same route.

collective work on enlaging a rice terrace, removing the stones

not everybody is a tourist, on the trail

kids playing in the mud, once again barely visible

Around 12, we arrive in a small village, this time with lots of more modern houses, a garment sewing place, and a few restaurants. We choose a table upstairs, with a good view. Of the insistent fog. And of many more small tourist groups, all with a guide and a few women with baskets, that appear out of the clouds covering the track. Slowly, the restaurant fills up. With tourists. This idea of an adventurous walk through distant villages and remote rice paddies needs some readjustment. This is a major tourist highway, everybody walks this walk, and in the same direction. Imagine how this will be in the high season. Or if the mist dissolves and you could see the whole path!

In the end the scenery never becomes like the spectacular photos we see in the brochures and on the walls of the hotels. You just need to be lucky for that, I think. But it is nice to be outside, walk for most of the day, wander through the different villages, of Hmong and of Red Dao; see the differences between those who do, and those who obviously don’t benefit from the tourist industry. When we arrive at the end of the trail, our guide effortlessly picks out our minibus amongst the many other minibuses, for our transport back to Sapa. Where we arrive half an hour later. In bright sunshine!

cash crop nr. 1, yellow orchids being prepared for the Tet festival

blooming, they are fabulous

Red Dao women collectively working in the garment industry, preparing for next day’s tourist invasion

and closer to Sapa, tea plantation in bright sunlight

Sapa town, in a rare moment of sunshine

Wintersport-like Sapa is not the most exciting place in Vietnam, especially in miserable weather.

Our first stop in Vietnam is Sapa, a former French hill station at an elevation of 1600 m, established to escape from the heat of Hanoi. But in January, during a wet and cold spell – apparently not that unusual for Northern Vietnam -, the height works against us, clouds once more obscuring any view of the surroundings. And rain turning Sapa into a mud pit, the potholes in the centre overflooding, cars splashing the water sidewards, motorbikes – and ourselves – negotiating the water streams running down from the sloping streets, and road works further adding to the misery. It is close to freezing at night.

 

the small lake in the centre of town

another rare moment of sunshine

but most of the time, the mud is running through the streets

Downtown Sapa is a small lake, an even smaller square, a church, a market place and three or four streets, all lined with hotels, restaurants and massage parlours. French officials have long been replaced by tourists, and from hill station Sapa has turned into a tourist town, with the feel of a winter sport centre, but then without the snow. We do try to explore the town as much as possible, during the occasional sunny spells, but for most of the time we are driven inside again, by the cold and the rain.

food is available, too, in Sapa

The highlight of Sapa is perhaps its Saturday evening, with an outdoor market of garments, bags, shoes and other unlikely products, and lots of young people come to town, for fun, and for flirting – this is the ‘love market’, where relationships used to be forged, although nowadays, with too many tourist cameras, the courtship is done elsewhere. The winter sport atmosphere is enhanced by a foam canon that spreads something snow-looking, attracting more enthusiastic, selfie-taking youngsters, whilst some music and dance is performed in the back. The local entrepreneurs surround the scene with food stalls, and do excellent business. Unfortunately, this Saturday evening it starts raining again, the market goods were quickly covered by plastic sheeting, and the games played in the centre court of the square end early.

lots of ethnic minority women in town

dressed with the stuff they try to sell to tourists

or perhaps, not these earrings

they are generally a happy lot, and enjoy being photographed – they are also not too persistent

‘love night’, Saturday evening in the square

and a show in the nearby snow palace

where a foam canon has created a snow-like atmosphere

as if the lights have been frozen

Sapa itself has nothing that is worthwhile, but it forms a base for visiting ethnic minority villages and local markets, and for treks varying from half-day village and rice paddy walks to multiple days serious climbing to Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s and Southeast Asia’s highest mountain – a trek which, we found out later, can also be done by half-day cable car and funicular railway to the top and back. (Had we known this in time, we would certainly have undertaken this trip – and, unprepared as we are, we would have died from hypothermia in the process.) Obviously enough tourism attraction to justify the ongoing construction of ever more hotels.

these haphazard tourists enjoy their first outside terrace of the week, and in some cases of the entire trip so far – another rare moment of sunshine

different colour Chinese eggs

Time to look back at our three weeks in China, and compare a little with 20 years ago.

Notwithstanding the fact that our three weeks in China have not entirely brought us the anticipated natural beauty and scenery, either because our expectations were too high or the clouds were too low, the reconnection with China has been a valuable, and very interesting, experience. First and foremost, there was the issue of communication. I had been led to believe that English, by now, is much more wide-spoken than it was 20 years ago. Well, not so in Yunnan, where English skills are almost completely non-existent, with the exception of a handful of school-age children who just about manage a “hello, what’s your name?”. No problem for us, of course, with my Mandarin-speaking travel companion!

I found this one in the men’s toilet – a sign of progress, both literally and figuratively speaking

and this I found in one of our hotel bathrooms, showing a considerable amount of empathy

And indeed, on plenty of occasions she got it right, managed to strike up a conversation, managed to arrange the basics. And on plenty of occasions the fact that we managed some Mandarin was appreciated, and relaxed our Chinese conversation partner. Especially amongst the younger generation people are quite open, self-confident, willing to chat – something that 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. Yet, it was not always easy. Quite a few Chinese simply don’t believe that a non-Chinese can speak any Mandarin at all, so refuse to listen. Or – and that, admittedly, happened especially when the team operated without my Mandarin-speaking travel companion, yet required some basic information, like the closing time of the restaurant, for instance -, there is the occasional lack of interest, an indifference towards communication, an attitude of “if you don’t understand me, that’s your problem, why should I bother. Why should I even try?” Especially among the older generation, they refuse to understand, refuses even to understand basic gestures, where we try to communicate with hands and feet. (Of course, where they did communicate, we didn’t always understand correctly, either, especially in bus stations.)

hotels have come a long way – our Baoshan luxury hotel

Nevertheless, despite the occasional communication challenges, and despite the absence of Google, blocked in China (and thus no Google Maps, no Google Translate), we managed to get where we wanted to go. Of course, the tourism infrastructure was often absent, non-existent, too. No travel agencies, no city maps, no information provision. But then I realise that most Chinese tourists travel in a group, and most foreigners travel with a guide: everything arranged beforehand, no need for on the spot improvisation, or local advice. And yet, there were always just enough people to help, when it really mattered – when we asked four people for directions, there was always one who pointed to the right way. We managed to survive the hotels and the restaurants, and even the bus journeys.

with luck, dumplings for breakfast

Hotels have come a long way since our travel experience from 20 years ago. Everywhere we found relatively comfortable, mostly modern hotels, efficient, and more often than not with friendly staff. Not once did we have a squat toilet, even the more basic hotels had at least some rooms with Western toilets. Which is not the case with breakfasts: no fried eggs and bacon, no toast, no yoghurt, no fruit. No coffee or tea, even – we survived on Nescafe. Breakfast was noodles, and very occasionally only, dumplings or momos. Particularly memorable was the noodle breakfast in one hotel, where you could enrich your bowl with herbs, spicy sauces and even grated cheese, of which I put a lot. Too late I realised that there is no cheese in China; the grated cheese turned out to be finely cut garlic.

 

yet, we decided against it, in a rare case of squeamish-ness

these were for sale together with the Jianshui tofu

all kind of skewers, did I say?

But we relished the lunches and the dinners, real Chinese, always tasty, even the simplest greens, and always light. Like the Chinese, we took every opportunity to eat, and tried everything that looked even remotely attractive. Ok, the smashed chicken feet – we didn’t realise when we ordered what looked a very tasty dish – weren’t a success; chicken feet have many small bones, and when they have been smashed they become even smaller. But grilled tofu, all sorts of charcoal-grilled skewers, and many sorts of fresh fruits, in addition to the regular Chinese fare, went down well. We even found a cured ham that was on par with the best Spanish ham, and together with quail eggs, for several days this made for a tasty bite before dinner.

this was, for a while, our only form of ‘ham and eggs’

the ham had been smoked in these vats

for most of the time, we loved the food!!

the first bottle of Chinese wine we tried – through the sink

lots of variety in wine, these days

this would have been an alternative: moutaim Chinese grain alcohol

Where it went wrong was with the wine. From our earlier life in China, we were most impressed with the Yunnan Red, and less so with Dragon Seal and Great Wall, the two general brands. Nowadays, wine producers have not only multiplied, but also diversified, so we found many different Yunnan Reds. Our initial enthusiasm cooled quickly, however, after we had to flush the first three bottles through the sink. Undrinkable. Dragon Seal doesn’t exist anymore – at least, we never found it back -, and in the end Great Wall proved the most reliable alternative (not to be confused with Grape Wall, of course, yet another new producer). After a while, we gave up on wine consumption altogether.

I already commented on the street scene, motorbikes instead of bicycles. Lots of trendy cloths, and – not unlike the rest of the world – everybody on the smart phone. Chinese have always been noisy, at least in my memory, and with the advance of thee smartphone, this has just gotten worse. Because Chinese have the habit of speaking loud, very loud. Also into their phones. On the bus, for instance. Or in a restaurant. Even on the toilet – many of the toilets in older bus stations are open – they are talking in their phones. You get used to it (well, except to the toilet). In any case, Chinese don’t seem to be able to live without noise, whether it is a megaphone in the market, repeating automatically the same message every 30 seconds, or an annoying jingle in almost every shop. Or the car horn, of course, used on the sighting of another car, a motorbike, a pedestrian, or a dog or a chicken.

construction progress, which will soon put this ferry across the Mekong out of work

But most of all, there is the noise of construction – I have said it earlier. In the city centres, along the roads, everywhere the Chinese are building. That is not different from 20 years ago, when we saw Beijing grow. But now growth is everywhere; in each and every city we have been to, old houses are being pulled down and new high rise is being build, in every rural area we have passed, the pillars for new motorways are being erected. Seven days a week. And that may lead to some personal disappointment, perhaps, over the disappearance of authentic villages, original wooden houses or anything else traditional. But the Chinese have a different view, they see their country modernise rapidly. They are proud of that progress, and you cannot blame them for that. It is indeed an economic miracle: you may hear about it, read about it, but seeing it, it is inescapable. Impressive. Sooner or later, they will dominate this world. There is no doubt in my mind that that moment is near.

And, come to think of it, that is not different from what I thought 20 years ago. It just that they are much closer now.

a couple of haphazard tourissts, looking down into the gorge of the Nujiang

fish farm equipment in a lake on the way to Vietnam

Even the last part, driving through China to the Vietnamese border, is more of an effort than expected, but not unattractive.

Having completed our China plans, even though not always as spectacular as we had anticipated, not always as successful as we had hoped, it was time to move on to our next destination on this trip, Vietnam. From Xinjie we picked up a direct bus to Hekou, where one can cross to Vietnamese border town of Lao Cai. First one hour down to Nansha, then another two-three hours to Hekou. Piece of cake, really.

well-dressed tofu restaurant owner

the most frustrating thing: driving under the motorway, instead of on.

That it took a little longer to Nansha, well, that can happen. And that the bus than waited almost an hour in Nansha, well, that just gave us time to have a little lunch (roasted tofu, with a spicy dip sauce, in a small restaurant run by a woman in black leather hot pants, black tights, knee-high black boots and a bright red coat – not your most likely outfit for a cook). But that the bus subsequently avoided the fast, modern highway, and took the secondary road instead, thereby taking nearer to five hours as opposed to the expected two to three, that was just one more of those unfortunate, frustrating moments this trip seems to be full of.

the Red River, which we follow to Vietnam

 

some of the traffic on the secondary road

more fishing equipment, less industrial

the fish farms in the lake

exotic fruit market, from durians and pineapples to papayas and jackfruit

and starfruit

and dragon fruit – enough colours!

At least we were rewarded with attractive landscape, the road following what I think is the Black River, which extends into Vietnam. The river is interrupted by several dams, creating lakes behind them, used for extensive fish farming. The banks of the river, and the mountain slopes, are full of banana and papaya trees, and many more fruits, as a local market where we stop for lunch demonstrates. Several military police posts – indicating that we indeed get nearer to the border – slow our progress further, because of the need to note down our details, meticulously by hand on a long list of earlier foreigners who have passed here, even though the soldiers mostly have no idea what they write down (my name, in one case, is Netherlands). One of them, credit where credit is due, actually realises that it is my travel companion’s birthday today – but thus imagine the amount of detail that is being collected.

banana plantaations

bananas prtotected against the cold

Once we arrive in Hekou, Chinese efficiency takes over again. A taxi is waiting at the bus stop, and speeds us to the actual border crossing at the other end of town, where a money changer helps us off our remaining Chinese currency – turned into Vietnamese Dong, we are instant millionaires. We whisk through customs, the Chinese officers only briefly moaning about our earlier, and clearly suspicious, Iran and Uzbekistan visas. On the other side of the bridge, Vietnamese customs needs even less time, and five minutes later we sip a fruit juice on a terrace inside Vietnam. Where it is an hour earlier. You see, so you lose a few hours, and so you gain one back.

The sun is even shining.

the rice terraces of Yangyuan

The famous rice terraces of Yangyuan remained largely invisible thanks to the fog, but ethnic minority women made up a little for the lack of views.

Yangyuan is famous for its endless rice terraces, which attracts lots of Chinese tourists, and, if I may believe several internet-based resources, especially lots of Chinese amateur photographers. In fact, Yuanyang is two towns, the newer Nansha, which is at river level, and the older Xinjie, 30 km further, up the mountain. Nansha is a horrible, modern yet run-down industrial settlement just downstream of a hydroelectric dam, not a particularly attractive place to stay. The rice terraces are, of course, best viewed from high up, but Xinjie, less industrial, is in fact not much more attractive for it, and equally run-down. Still, this is where we based ourselves, with the idea to stay a few days to admire the photogenic scenery.

Xinjie, not a very attractive place, despite its terraces

Where we had missed the tourism infrastructure so far, Yuanyang is well organised. There is a fee to be paid by outsiders to the police on entering the scenic drive, there are walks, signposted in English and in French as well as in Chinese, and along the road circuit from where you can see the terraces below several viewing platforms have been installed, all with entry bars that only open after you have paid an additional entry fee. Just to make sure, outside these platforms fences have been erected, so that you are not going to see anything of the rice terraces without having paid up.

a barely visible tree in the mist

rice terraces, for as far a we could see them

the lower we come, the further we can see

more terraces, view here less dependent on fog

They shouldn’t have bothered. Already, driving up to Xinjie we had spent most time in the clouds, literally, to the extent that we could hardly see the trees on the other side of the road, let alone anything beyond that. In Xinjie we found a driver who knew how to avoid the police checks, and also claimed to know alternative viewing spots. The first one or two of those still allowed us a spooky overview of the terraces, quickly disappearing in the grey, misty distance. Walking down from the road for a while, each bend in the well-surfaced but muddy path we followed provided us with more, and even wider, spectres of terraces – until the fog moved in, and all visibility was gone. Gone for the rest of the day, and the next two hours driving, or so, were either through, or above the clouds. Even the official platforms had been abandoned; clearly nobody expected any change in circumstances anymore. Not a Chinese photographer in sight. Back in Xinjie, it rained. Non-stop. We are just not very lucky on this trip.

the best overview we got, just before the mist moved in

ethinc minority woman

and another one – other minority

headdress and winter coat

another type of headdress

and this one, open at the top

 

two sisters, perhaps, same colour scarf

three of the dominant minority

Having said so, an unexpected surprise was that many of the women, old and also the younger ones, were wearing their ethnic minority dresses, far more than we had seen earlier in Xishuangbanna, and far more elaborate, too. Beautifully embroidered tunics, complete with headdresses and backside covers – I have no other name for those -, and even matching trousers. Never mind that part of the dress was often covered by modern-day winter jackets or rain coats. These people are not stupid, of course (whilst I, well, I picked up a bad cold).

Next morning it appeared to clear up, a little, at least in Xinjie. But soon after, even before we could have made arrangements to try again, the clouds moved in. Visibility back to zero. Were we going to spend another day in miserable Xinjie, in the cold, in the rain? Not really. We picked up the first available bus, and left. Back down again, through the clouds.

one of the Xinjie restaurants

carved wooden in one of Jianshui’s old streets

The old town of Jianshui is a wonderful labyrinth of cobbled streets, lined with old wooden houses (finally!) and with several touristic attactions.

Jianshui may be in Yunnan, that most un-Chinese of Chinese provinces, but it has been a Chinese administrative centre for a very long time. And it shows; this is not the casual, Southeast Asian feel we have come to appreciate, but very much China as we knew it 20 years ago. There is a city gate, in fact a few gates, but the main one, Chaoyang Lou, is like so many gates we have seen before, so recognisably China. Also recognisable: the birds in small cages, that are being taken out by their mostly fairly old owners, perhaps to be sold, or perhaps just to meet other birds – cages are happily put together to see if the birds will sing to each other. Other older people, predominantly men, but also women, are playing cards, majong, or a form of checkers, surrounded by lookers-on who comment on the progress of the game.

entrepreneur in front of Jianshui’s main city gate

wooden shop, and freight transport

men playing Chinese checkers near the city gate

some of the brid cages near the gate

row of shops and houses, painted and with wooden window frames

several courtyards behind the main entrance of a house

an old door, or perhaps not even so old, painted in blue

Jianshui houses, with traditional roofs

painted beams, wooden window frames, and carved-open shutters

grass landscape on a roof

The old town of Jianshui is a wonderful collection of well-restored, and some less-well-restored, old houses, many in use as shops or restaurants, or indeed, as our hotel. Wooden doors and windows are encased in brick walls, covered by the traditionally tiled roofs, many of which sport a grass landscape of their own. Drawings adorn many a house, some restored and others only faintly visible. A small Buddhist temple – the Chinese Buddhism again – is half-hidden behind an entrance, through which the smoke and the smell of incense gives away its purpose. Elsewhere a larger temple is being restored, so far closed to the public, but by navigating our way through a building site – here, too, construction is never far away, albeit less invasive than in what we have seen so far – we manage to gain a glimpse inside, including that of an attractive pagoda.

entrance to a small Buddhist temple

with an incense burner inside

pagoda of a larger, as yet closed, temple complex

two women outside, selling fruit

a man reading his paper

one of the temples in the Confucian Academy

plenty of seating, too, in the temple

the pensioners playing games in the temple gardens

Chinese checkers, with onlookers commenting

or just sit and watch

The biggest temple complex in town is a Confucian Academy, a large expanse including a pond with the inevitable pavilion in the middle, some landscaped gardens, and several nice temple buildings. In front of the complex, next to the statue of the man himself, lots of people enjoy themselves with games of cards. And inside, too. We have to pay an entrance ticket, but the pensioners, waving a little red booklet, have free access. Carrying folding chairs and a rolled up Chinese checkers board, they make their way to the side of the pond, where many others have already gathered for their afternoon entertainment. Some are playing, others watching the games – and loudly commenting on what, and what not to do next. Still others are content just talking, and observing the passers-by.

looking into another complex

the great man himself: Confucius

the pavilion inside the lake of the Confucian complex

the entrance to the lovely Zhu Family Gardens

the first of many interconnected courtyards

and more interconnected courtyards, with lots of flowers

and one of the long galleries in the gardens

another explosion of flowers in one of the many courtyards

But the real gem is the Zhu Family Gardens, in the middle of the old town. Built in the 19th Century by a rich merchant, they have survived the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, because the family, apparently, was adapt in choosing the right side early on. Rather than gardens, this is a lovely complex of small, inter-connected courtyards each surrounded by wooden pavilions, decorated with lanterns, and with delicate paintings and calligraphy. Immaculately maintained flowers beds provide further colour to this really charming place.

All together Jianshui is a wonderful place to spend the day, which is exactly what we did. Never mind that here, for the first time, we encounter quite a lot more tourists, and many more foreigners, in one day than we have seen the entire trip in China, so far.

a bicycle in front of the Confucian pond

cherry blossom, as we have seen it everywhere in Yunnan

painted roof beam construction in the Zhu Family gardens

 

tobacco leaves drying in an Akhe village

The third and last entry on Xishuangbanna visits some of the minority villages around Jinghong, and ends at New Year’s Eve.

By noon the market was winding down again – which created an even greater traffic chaos. We escaped, and went to see a few villages in the neighbourhood. Here, too, we have to adjust our romantic ideas about authentic villages. Some villages, like a Dai village specialised in paper making, is entirely made up of new houses, many with bright blue roofs. Even in a more remote, and obviously poorer, Akhe village there is more concrete than wood around; development, in the form of comfort for the local people, has clearly arrived. The clothing, too, is driven by comfort rather than tradition, and minority dresses are rare; the young have mostly given up, only some older women still wear them. Late afternoon we returned to Jinghong again. Finally a full day’s work!

a modern Dai village, blue roofs and red temple

in every corner, every street, paper is being dried in this village

even the basketball court is being used to dry paper

tea growing on the slopes

an Akhe village, poorer than most other villages we visited

but here we find the original roofs back, finally!

and an old Akhe lady

more tea slopes on the way

the charming tourist village of Mengzhe, in the miserable rain

wood sculpture in the village

and plants, doing well with all that water

Which cannot be said of the next day. Full of good intentions we headed out, once again with our driver-guide, to Mengyang, a village north of Jinghong. It was pouring down the sky. Mengyang looked drab, the streets deserted. Not much fun here. Driver-guide took us, instead, to Mengzen, “a really traditional village”. With a parking place outside big enough for 50 tourist busses. Of which there were none, of course, it was still pouring down. To be fair, the village was quite charming, lots of wooden houses on stilts, well maintained, with room for pottery and papermaking classes, and with several handlooms, on the ground floor. And with the usual tourist trinket shops – entirely geared towards tourism. Which has its advantages. We hadn’t left the car for two minutes, still in the pouring rain, or a woman came running after us with two umbrellas for sale. You wouldn’t have had that in our romantic view of an authentic village!

the bridge over the Mekong at New Year’s Eve

and real Chinese entertainment, audible on our terrace

We gave up. We got back to Jinghong before lunch, still in dreadful weather. Late afternoon it cleared up a little, enough to have another beer on a terrace along the Mekong, where we returned later for our New Year’s Eve dinner, a sumptuous meal with fish, very black mushrooms and banana flower. We could have opted for a two-hour cruise on the river, with real Chinese entertainment, but we settled for a place with Karaoke, instead, also real Chinese. And whenever the Karaoke stopped for a moment, we could hear the Chinese entertainment from the cruise boats on the river.

the New Year’s Eve (and every night) view across the Mekong

fully dressed-up Akhe lady on the market of Menglun

The second entry about Xishuangbanna villages I use as a platform to post some of the many pictures from what is now the Saturday market in Menglun.

Our driver-guide came in handy for the next few days. We had intended to visit Menglun, southeast of Jinghong, for the famous Sunday market (according to our 2017 guide book, not the 20-year old one); just in time, Friday evening, we learned that the market had been changed to Saturday (just imagine the frustration if we would have turned up on Sunday morning…). So we drove to Menglun on Saturday morning early, instead, through beautiful countryside; the hill slopes filled with tea bushes and banana plants, the valley floors covered with sugar cane and spectacularly tall bamboo.

woven bamboo baskets, which fit exactly a small pig, to carry home easily

young ducks, on top of each other

and the cows, always good for a smile

breakfast with sweet dumplings, not a few!

enormous banana flowers

roots and dry fruits, mostly for medicinal application, I think

The market, along an approximately one kilometre long street, was already in full swing, with its associated traffic chaos at both ends. Markets like these are entertainment; from the pig section, where you can get a pre-packaged small pig to take home, to the chickens and ducks, to the shaman – the medicine man – selling snakes and frogs and powerful potions, to the colourful vegetables, and the colourful people – several different ethnic minorities stroll across the market, although perhaps not in the droves I would have hoped for. The Dai wear their elegant lungi-like skirts, and a somewhat subdued headscarf, the Aka have the brighter headscarves, the Akhe have a black headdress and a jacket colourfully embroidered on a black background; there are Thai women with elaborate hairpin-structures and colourful flowers, and another minority that covers their head with a towel. Whatever. Walking, it took us over an hour to reach the other side.

the shaman, or medicine man, complete with microphone

promoting his mambo treatment; and this are some of his potions, and their origins – snakes, frogs, he even had a small crocodile

market women

a group from the towel tribe, probably Water Dai

a Thai woman

and another one, admire the hairpin construction

another woman, not sure from which ethnicc group

this, I think, is an Aka woman, with colourful, mostly red, headscarf

this woman proves you don’t need to wear ethnics to be beautifl

some of the men are equally intriguing, but ethnic cloths?

neither am I sure whether this is ethnic dress at all

they meet up, the men, dressed in classic fashion

and an overview of the market street, from one end

traditional roof in Ganlanba, adorned with a peacock

For the first of three entries about villages in Xishuangbanna, we traveled to Menghan, or Ganlanba, along the Mekong.

well, one glimpse of the Mekong, but that is all!

There is a wide choice of small towns and villages to visit, around Jinghong. Confusingly, they all sound very similar, Mengzhe, Menghai, Menglun, Menghun, Mengla. We settle first for Menghan, also known as Ganlanba, a small town 30 km scenic drive south along the Mekong. For the time being still without a driver-guide. The plan was to go by bus, but a taxi driver convinced us, so we settled for the taxi, instead. The advantage of a bus is that the seats are relatively high, providing a good view of the world outside. The taxi windows were at the level of the concrete slabs that protect cars from driving off the road and into the river. Which have been placed along all of the 30 km scenic drive along the Mekong. We didn’t see much of the Mekong.

the typical Dai houses, on stilts, in the outskirts of Ganlanba

roofs decorated, often with a peacock

and utensils hanging outside

Ganlanba is famous for its Xishuangbanna Dai Ethnic Minority Park – the Dai are the largest minority in Xishuangbanna, ethnically related to the Thai -, where you can observe Dai ethnic minority life, including daily water splashing festivals laid on for tourists (inconveniently, the real festival is only once a year). You can also participate dressed up in Dai cloths, for a little extra charge. Right, exactly our thing! We skipped the Park. And wandered around instead, to the inevitable market, and in between the original Dai houses, impressive wooden constructions on stilts. Each Dai village also has a Buddhist temple, and in Ganlanba this was a nice old structure, decorated inside and out.

and chicken, ready for sale

colourful noodles and other foods in the market

the inside of the temple in Ganlanba

compelte with big drum, and little drum

the ratan bench below one of the houses

Jinghong is the capital of Xishuangbanna, China’s minority-richest area

Xishuangbanna’s friendly capital Jinghong has some attractions to offer of its own, and is a great base for further exploration of the area.

when it rains, umbrellas on the motorbikes

I will have to quote my 20-year guide book once more: “Sleepy Jinghong is the tiny and wonderfully relaxed capital of Xishuangbanna”. And now you think, “there we go again, massive development, complaining about lack of atmosphere, where have I heard that before?” And yes, there are the usual massive developments, especially along the banks of the mighty Mekong, which flows through town. London may have its Gurkin, Jinghong will have four, in the near future. Together with a whole string of huge river-view apartment buildings and five-star hotels, to accommodate tourism. Yet, despite all this, Jinghong is still sleepy, tiny and relaxed, unlike the other Chinese cities we have encountered in Yunnan. People are markedly friendlier, more helpful, too. Would it have something to do with the fact that Xishuangbanna is dominated by ethnic minorities rather than by Han Chinese? That many of these groups adhere to a different kind of Buddhism, more the Thai sort than the Chinese version? Or would it be the tropical climate, which divides in an emphatically wet season, June to October, and in a dry season outside that window? Which is now. Despite the fact that it rained on our arrival.

as so many Chinese cities, here, too, the grilled-in apartment buildings

quite impressive actually, from top to bottom

It started with the check-in for our hotel, where the staff where trying whatever necessary to understand what we wanted, and went out of their way to accommodate us – for Chinese standards exceptional. Or no, it started with the taxi driver who lifted our suitcase out of the trunk, first time so far in China, where everybody seems to be programmed to help themselves, don’t expect any service. And the restaurant owner, kind and patient and helpful, subsequently serving a wonderful meal; and the girl in the coffee shop, and at the supermarket counter. All very different from our experiences so far, all very un-Chinese. Southeast Asian, rather.

one of the pavilions on the Wat Manting complex

where people can leave their wishes tied to the ceiling of a corridor

Never mind that Jinghong, despite it obviously having been geared up to receive hordes of tourists, doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist sites, at least not to us. There is a Buddhist temple, Wat Manting, with a nice park attached to it, and a string of tourist trinket stalls. And an open air theatre, where actors and dancers clothed in an idealised version of ethnic minority outfit, play some kind of musical, in front of a few tourists. Never mind that many of those tourists – a minority village on an outing, and having dressed up for the occasion – were far more photogenic.

dancing girls in idealised versions of minority dress

and with flowers and combs in their hair

whilst the real thing is in the audience

with flowers and combs in their hair, but rather more decent jackets

the village on a day out, I guess

tourist trinket shops sell anything possibly of interest to the tourist

water lillies in the pond, reflected in the water

and who feeds the fishes?

Another great place is the Tropical Flower and Plants Garden, with lots of different flowers and plants; where we spent a very peaceful hour-and-a-half, wandering the various sections, the only noise coming from the occasional tourist groups, and from the tourist trinket stalls on the premises. And there is even a whole street, in the north of town, with only tourist trinket stalls, selling the main products of the area, being jade and tea, as well as the usual ethnic minority cloths, baskets, and what have you. It is just that there are hardly any tourists.

exotic flower

and another one, beautifully arranged, in the Tropical Flower and Plants Garden

one of the many tea shops in town, geared up for tea tasting

tea packages come in all seizes

Luckily, there are also several markets in town, always a great place to connect with people, and to discover the weirdest vegetables and fruits, many of which even we hadn’t seen before. Great atmosphere, good fun!

one of the farmers markets, selling greens

differently coloured roots, some of which I can identify

close up of one of them, cut open

this one I know, sort of, but it looks different from our squash

and another great variety in the market

not everything is fruit or vegetable

the suspension bridge over the Mekong

and the four Jinghong Gurkins, being built at present

view from the bridge

And Jinghong has the Mekong, of course. Making our way through the various river-side developments, we manage to get to the river itself. During the day, which was a mistake, because this place obviously only comes to live at night, the many restaurants, the bars, and a few dodgier places, too. The view from the terrace is of the enormous suspension bridge, and of construction on the opposite bank (the Jinghong Gurkins, amongst others), but the place is nice enough for a beer or two, and dinner one night. When not only the restaurants are operating at full capacity, but also the food stalls outside, selling a variety of attractive barbeque products, of which the oysters are perhaps the most unusual.

view of the bridge

several boats beached on a sandbank

and fishermen checking their nets

night food market, one big barbeque

and plenty of fresh red fruit juices

grilled oysters, anybody?

The only thing Jinghong has in common with our earlier China experience is its information provision for tourists – or shall I say, non-Mandarin speaking tourists (and not-entirely-fluently-Mandarin speaking travel companions). Once again, no travel agencies, no tourist touts, and that whilst tourism is obviously supposed to be a big thing here. Somehow, we had gotten hold of a photocopy of an English language A4 map produced by the Forest Café, which turned out to be located on the fourth floor of an apartment building. And which was closed. An attempt through our friendly, helpful hotel staff yielded a phone number of an English-speaking guide, who turned out to be out of the country. But who had the number of a friend. Who we managed to contact for a few days exploring ethnic minority villages in the surroundings. Finally, the real thing! This is what we had come to Xishuangbanna for!

the only bicycles in town, and I haven’t seen any of these being used

medalions hanging from a tree at the Buddhist temple