Xishuangbanna: Pu'er Mountain

I flew into Jinghong thinking how wonderful it was to escape the damp cold of Lijiang for the cost of a winter coat. The heat hit me. It was that oppressive humid heat that for some reason my body is well equipped for. The bright colors of the sun-infused environment soaked in just as fast as my sweat soaked into my shirt.

The two-hour flight took me to what might have been a completely different country. The faux village with bored tourists was an experience I was happy to trade in. I was ready for this part of the adventure. On the car ride from the airport, I kept my camera on my lap--a habit I learned and have never forgotten. So many early impressions are made on the ride from the airport. I take the time to sit, eyes wide opened, and ready for any available shot. Watching the world through the passenger window has, on more than a handful of occasions, led to great shots. Before I made photography the heart of my travel experiences, I would keep notebooks and write my thoughts, itineraries, and budgets. Occasionally alone and with no thoughts to write, I would sit quietly and stare at the blank page as if all I had to do was be present for the moment when the thoughts came to me. Just as with photography, writing while traveling is more of a companion than it is an ambition.

 

Southern Yunnan tourism centers around the dress, dance, and culture of the many ethnic groups which have been pushed to the fringes. The tourist market here is geared towards domestic tourists. My background in Chinese was a big help as I wanted to experience this part of China which could satisfy that part of me which dreamed of an adventure in exotic China. In most of China, westernization has been fetishized to the point of parody.

At a forest park, tourists were invited to participate in a mock wedding ceremony. The girls were all young, pretty and dressed in traditional dresses. it is unclear if this style of dress is in fact daily wear or only worn when they engage in ceremonies. The trek through the forest was a bit much for me on my first day in Jing Hong. I was so excited to be there that I hardly worried about collapsing from heat exhaustion.

The fringes of China offer a keyhole into parts of China less affected (I won't say untouched) by what has happened to modern-day China. I am also talking about state mandated abortion and female infanticide, apocalyptic pollution levels, the Cultural Revolution, famine, mass murder, civil war, a Holocaust, and revolution. Quite literally, there is no living memory in China of the China before it fell into total chaos. For mainland China, the 20th century was a bad year. So much was lost. The existing written history has been carefully manicured by the ruling party so that there is no contrarian view, dissenting view, or independent view. With the destruction of nature and loss of intangible culture, the country has also lost a lot of beauty. Beautiful women can be found in any major city. But beauty fights against the stress of city life and horrendous pollution. As a result, beauty suffers.


Southern Yunnan is also the region known for Pu'er tea. This tea stands out among the various Chinese teas. It is packed tightly into a disk and is much heartier than the Chinese green teas. Green teas crumble under weight, require boiled water to be cooled off before it can be steeped, and lasts for only a year or two on the shelf before it is completely oxidized by the air. Pu'er can be described as earthy. It should be steeped with water just after it has been boiled, can be infused up to 10 times before the dilution is noticeable, and lasts for years exposed to the air.

In 1999, I fell in love with China while a student abroad. Our group got to travel to Hangzhou as part of an academic tour. There we spent a morning at a tea farm which grew the famous Dragon Well tea. The liquor is buttery with a slight hint of almond. It is one of those perfect drinks that is hard to appreciate unless you have had an introduction to Chinese tea. As a starving student eager to ravage any crumb of knowledge that could save me from my personal misery, I savored this drink.

On this trip in 2010, I was hoping to gain a similar impression of Pu'er tea and thus deepen my love for China. I believed that the essence of Chinese culture could be boiled town to these few dry leaves. But as I would sit in the teachers' office drinking tea from a mug, that my student's mother once gave me, my office mates laughed. They said that I reminded them of an old man. On the airplane to China, Chinese passengers often preferred a glass of Coca-Cola over tea. Now I was far away from that mentality being that I was much closer to Burma than Beijing.

 Jinuo Mountain was a great choice. The biggest criticism levied against it on a site like TripAdvisor is that it is not very good for someone who doesn't speak Mandarin. Travelers also expect to explore the mountain alone which is probably ill-advised as there is a chance of getting lost or worse, getting found by a cobra.

My guide was a young girl of the Jinuo Tribe. She was very kind and spoke not a word of English, which was not a problem for me. She took me all around the mountain, pointing out various the plants and the way her tribe used them in daily life. She would interrupt herself to point out a bird, insect or various crawly thing that caught her glance. If often moved too fast for me to see but I appreciated how she was directing my attention. It has been years since I have been on a hike with a naturalist.

Example of Jinuo architechture

Among all of the things I got to see, the woman with the cobra was probably my favorite. I remember being excited to shoot the action as the snake weaved and slithered around as the woman seemed to be a moments hesitation from losing control of the snake. I was struggling to get a clear shot in the darkened room that it took me while to notice that my heart palpitations were trying to tell me something.

As we moved on, we were greeted by a group of elderly women dressed similarly to my guide. They were in a weaving room where they were carefully attaching a piece of yarn to the thorax of a butterfly. The old women carefully attached the leash to the butterfly and I saw my guide transformed from an attentive host into an excited little girl as they handed her the leash of her new little pet.

The butterfly was like a kite that she chased as the wind lifted its wings. But mostly the butterfly sat and slowly pulsed its wings as it sat on the girl's warm satin dress sleeve.

A puff of breath, gently blown, sent the butterfly skyward. She lost grip of the string and the butterfly struggled to fly under the weight of the heavy yarn--heavy by arthropod weights and measures--until eventually the yarn lightly tangled in the leaves of a tree overhead. A young man tried to beat the branches with a twig broom in hopes of shaking the butterfly loose. As I watched his hopeless attempts, I figured that I could lift the light man on my shoulder and he could reach the long string so to gently untangle the butterfly. It worked and we were able to save the butterfly. We then decided to carefully untangle the leash and let the butterfly go. It sat on the back of the girl's hand as it steadied itself after the minor trauma. She again gently blew on it. All of a sudden, it took flight. It was no longer than a couple of blinks that the butterfly was far out or reach and a couple more blinks that it was hidden again in the shadows of the trees.