Guests of the Aini
Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
36Trip End Feb 03, 2008
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This is easy for her, even with her fifty-two years. Or is it sixty two years? She herself doesn't seem so sure.
We try to chat with her in our breathing breaks, when us waiguoren drink copious amounts of water, slather on sunscreen and insect repellent and chew on individually-wrapped snacks.
Dan and I can no longer count ourselves the fastest hikers in China.
That title must go to our Abu, the local guide we picked up in Menghun, a smaller market city in Xishuangbanna. Dressed in four layers of shirts and a fuzzy-inside pair of zip-up house slippers, Abu bolts up the side of forested hills, no need for a path. She strips bushes out of the way, kills venomous bamboo snakes with a good few whacks of a stick and seems to avoid the sticker bushes we think are out to get Dan.
It's a vacation for challenging myself, I think as we crest the first hill on our first day. The week before we went bicycling, a sport I am long unaccustomed to, and now, only a few hours into our first day of four hiking I feel like we've walked far enough.
The view below us is incredible, however, and I break into a smile and take off my backpack. The plain below is lined and re-lined with terraces and farming plots. I can make out the leveled, blackened patches of harvested sugar cane, the dark green tea plants on the higher levels. Far below I can see the thin white road we walked on from Menghun. Along the sides of the road I know are Chinese cowboys-men with umbrellas and rubber boots standing in the dark brown soil watching over water buffalo---and preteen yellow-garmented Buddhist monks. I can't see them from here though, as the sun has come out full force and we are busy trying to find our hats and sunscreen in our bags.
David and Dan both feel unwell, from food or general malaise we're not sure, and there's a moment discussion over who needs Dan's hat more. Dan gives it to David, who really does feel so bad he can't argue about it.
When we contracted our guide, Keive, in Jinghong the week before he told us he was concerned about "the lady," meaning me. We were going hiking for days in the jungle, to villages without plumbing, perhaps electricity.
On the first day, though, the ladies did best. Abu, the local guide, is clearly the star. She came to the market bearing her traditional tribal dress, sewn with silver pieces, and carrying a woven backpack, a brutal neck yoke of wood settling it on her thin shoulders and a braided strap she loops over her forehead to sturdy it.
Tone, the Norwegian girl who joined our party at the last minute, is a strong second. She is healthy and enthusiastic, and beats even Keive, who is wearing jeans while hiking on a hot day.
I like to think I was third.
Abu encourages us as we hike. She doesn't speak much Mandarin, just a smattering she needs for her days at the market. But we understand when she gives us a thumbs up, or a grin that shows us all five of her red-painted teeth.
The first day was brutal. None of us had been mentally prepared to go so far. When Keive told us Abu's village was a few hours out of town, we didn't realize it was a few hours out of town on a motorbike, but four hours uphill on foot. Upon reaching her village, Ang So, we crashed. David and Tone both slept several hours, and Dan and I took it easy walking around the village after Abu made us lunch.
Most of the houses in the 150-person village were built in the Dai style, even though these were not Dai people.
This means the houses are built on stilts, with an area under the house big enough for a person to walk under where they store the family motorbikes and where the pigs live. The family live together in an open-plan room on the second level, which is floored with planks. The gaps between the planks make it easy to drop food waste down to feed the pigs, although the family also feeds the animals in a separate area in the yard as well. The sleeping areas are covered over with woven grass mats and hay-filled mattresses, and cloth hanging on the walls helps keep out the draft. Under the steeply sloping roof is another storage area for baskets and tables and chairs that they can pull down when more guests come, like us four travelers out of the jungle.
Most of Ang So's houses looked like they had electrical lines running in, although we noticed at Abu's house that the electricity didn't work all the time. She also had a telephone, and so we assumed that must be fairly common in the village.
The village also boasted two small stores that sold mostly candy, alcohol and cigarettes, and a school with a wooden basketball court.
On top of the hill was another long community building, but we weren't sure of its purpose. A woman sat outside with a wooden loom, combing blue threads together into a midnight cloth. She smiled while we took pictures of her and the gaggle of children our walk had gathered.
As the sun set on Ang So and we walked back for the evening meal I was wishing we could stay another day in the village. That wasn't part of the plan though, as Abu was contracted to take us through the jungle to another village the next day. We would go to the village where her mother was from, she told us with gestures and some help from Keive.
That night Abu and her son and grandsons held a small welcoming ceremony for us. They cut pieces of white string and the son waved them over the food we were about to eat while saying some words-a prayer? We don't know. Then they tied the strings around our wrists and told us through Keive that any Aini village we passed would see the strings and know that we were friends.
The sun rises late in Yunnan, about 8 a.m. All of China uses the same time zone, which makes it easy for nationwide planning, but doesn't take the seasons or earth's rotation into account.
We set out well after sunrise on the second day, through Ang So and down hill. We were all enjoying the downhill hike until it occurred to me that with all these hills we'd soon be walking up slope again. And soon we were, after going through a half-drained rice paddy to get to a Dai Buddhist stupa, a type of tomb for important people that is used in local religious celebrations as an altar for devotions to the harvest.
Shoes off, we forded a fast-moving creek, then started our trip uphill again. The roads now were red and tan clay. Sugar cane fields bordered both sides of the road, and crews of workers going to harvest sometimes passed by, gawking at the six of us toiling upward.
We passed villages, often stopping to rest a bit or for Abu to chat with someone she met on the road. The villages have strange names, Ba O, Ga Che, Ya Ke, difficult to write in an English alphabet.
That day we rested near a pond on top of a hill. A nice breeze came from the valleys and dried up the sweat on our backs and brows, and we sat in the shade and enjoyed it while chomping on some stolen sugar cane. The fields around us were black from the burned cane, with little green shoots of the next crop already coming up.
Keive was just telling us that we would have a few more hours' hike ahead of us before lunch when a shout came up from a house on the other side of the pond. Abu and the unseen caller shouted at each other in Aini for awhile while David, Dan, Tone and I exchanged uneasy glances. Are we being yelled at for eating their sugar cane?
As it turned out, we were being invited for lunch.
The residents of the house were wardens of the fish in the pond and of the forests near by. Three old men with leathery faces and big pipes, they wanted to feed us lunch out of curiosity. We looked like people from TV, they said, watching us while we ate the food Abu cooked. The men themselves didn't want food, they didn't need to eat for days, they said, gesturing at the dozens of empty bottles of baijiu (rice spirits) in their house. They used the empty bottles and caps to line the edges of the dirt walkway going to their house from the pond, and bottles covered in clay created the steps to their front door. These men had time on their hands.
After we ate their water buffalo and fish (they didn't offer any baijiu), they wished us a pleasant walk.
We continued on the road through the sugar cane until it reached an intersection. We could go down, to a village, or up to the jungle, or down past some other farms. Abu asked some field workers who were harvesting a type of tuber. They gestured up, but told us to wait a bit with them while they lunched.
We sat and took photos of them, to their delight when they saw their own digitized portraits on the LCD, gave them some candy and took a nap. The women all wore red headscarves and had gold teeth. One woman with a frequent smile had all of her upper teeth capped in gold. I wondered how many potatoes she had to sell to amass that sort of savings. She liked how I looked too, and after a while came over to feel my leg muscles and compared them with hers.
They also asked Keive, our guide, if he wanted a wife, and introduced him to a young, extremely embarrassed girl working with them.
After a half hour or so with them we headed farther up the path, swinging walking sticks and chatting. Suddenly, Tone yelled.
"It's a snake," Dan exclaimed happily, poking the bright green thing with a stick. Tone had her camera out.
"Bu yao!" Abu yelled. "Don't." She grabbed the stick from Dan and beat the snake with it. Three whacks later the snake was twitching on the side of the road, and Abu was shaking and muttering in Aini language. Keive translated some of it.
"That snake could kill you in 10 seconds," Keive told Tone. "It sits in bamboo and drops on things."
The rest of the hike, I watched my feet nervously, and screeched a bit at some snake-looking twigs, to David's amusement.
We were still talking about the snake when the clouds overhead began to look a little heavy.
"It's going to rain" Keive told us needlessly. But it turned out he was wrong.
It wasn't just going to rain. It was going to hail.
Peanut M&M-size hail stones pelted us in our sanctuary under a clump of leaning bamboo for twenty minutes or so. Dan and I pulled out our rain jackets, testing their waterproofness for the first time, while the others just pulled their T-shirts tighter about them.
When the hail and rain had abated mostly we started walking again, being careful of the now muddy path.
A few hours before dark we reached the next village, Jie Zho. Abu's family housed us, but it seemed that we weren't offered the same amount of welcome as we had been given the first night. Keive wanted us to stay in a "modern" house and not a traditional one, as he said the old style one would have a muddy floor.
This meant Abu went to her cousin's and we stayed on the floor of some other relative's bedroom. This modern house wasn't really so modern, except for the concrete flooring. The electricity was out in this village as well, and the cooking was still done over a wood fire. But it was dry, and once we were all laid out on the floor under blankets, it was pretty warm too.
The next morning we agreed that we were having so much fun we would extend the trip for one more day in the jungle.
Abu found her voice on the third day, singing most of our trip as we tackled our most difficult trek yet.
The jungle is not pure jungle, it can't be, not with villages in it. The villagers need some way to live, to pay for their solar-powered hot water heaters or the tiny bit of electric light they might splurge on now and again. They farm sugar cane, tea, yams.
We hiked through terraces of squat dark green tea bushes or past brown fields of yams, just instants before we entered the forest and found ourselves walking among huge clumps of bamboo, so tall the ends are bowed down by the weight of each cane's leaves, creating a feather-duster look.
Once we worked through shady thick, grasping plants to come out in a sunlit banana grove. In places the trail was so overgrown by brush and covered in red and brown fallen leaves you could easily imagine no one had traveled this way since the last time Abu visited her family in these villages-20 years, she said.
So, to give us a full day's hiking, we went off-road. Keive had a knife with him and would cut some trail while Abu watched the rear and helped us up. Once we crawled up a clay incline that had pretty small footholds, sticker bushes, and a few helpful vines. I tried not to think about spiders and snakes too much.
When we crossed the real path, sometimes we came across old men and women who were cutting firewood or caring for the rows of tea bushes that covered the tops of the hills.
Each time we met someone, Abu and Keive discussed our route with them. The distances to the next villages weren't as clear to Abu or Keive as we thought they should be, as neither of them had a real map. Abu had a pretty clear map in her head, and Keive seemed to think that no maps had been produced in this area, something I found hard to believe given it's proximity to the border with Burma.
About lunch time we came down into a valley that Abu said she knew. And, sure enough, soon we came upon an old woman loading sticks for firewood into her Aini backpack. She and Abu hugged joyfully. They hadn't seen each other for 20 years, Keive explained.
This lady was 80 years old, and as spry as our own Abu. She told us, through Keive, that the secret to her longevity was threefold: 1) give more, expect less; 2) have a good mood; 3) exercise often.
We tried to take pictures of their reunion, but the lady was extremely embarrassed and covered her face in her hands. The lady invited us for lunch at her house, where we were asked not to take photos as it might steal their souls.
We took plenty of pictures of the village itself, named Ba Ga, though, which had the best roofs, decorated with mirrors and symbols of luck.
After Abu and the lady caught up and the children got tired of staring at the foreigners, we headed off into the unknown. Now, not even Abu had been this way, but she had been told of a village where we should be able to get a place to stay.
The sun was going down when we came to our last village, Meng gam Shin Zai. A barrage of dogs and met us at the muddy creek on the edge of the village. Children saw us, screamed, and ran away. We shook our walking sticks at the dogs and laughed at the kids. A young man and an old woman directed Abu through the village to a house where a young mother invited us in to stay.
She had good Mandarin, a rarity in the villages, and Tone surprised even herself by conversing with her in that language for hours. Dan, David and I sat by listening and vowing to study harder when we got back to Foshan.
That night David, Dan, Tone and I, bone-tired, all slept on the same mat on the floor, squished between the fireplace and the wall, Keive's bed and the other wall.
We woke up on our last day early enough to watch the sun rise and photograph white doves flying over the village. The family cooked rice for us in hollow sections of bamboo we'd brought with us, split them open and we scooped the hot rice out of the bamboo with our fingers for breakfast.
We debated how much water to bring for the last hike-just a few hours back to Menghun, Keive said-said good bye to the nice woman who'd housed us, and set off into the morning light.
It quickly became clear that the road we were on was not going to get us to Menghun in anywhere near two hours, so we stopped at another village for Tone and David to buy something to drink. The villages don't stock bottled water, so they had to make do with lemon soda.
On the way, the wide dirt road took us up to a wonderful vantage point of the hills we had climbed on our trip, with Burmese mountains in the background and the flat valley where the Dai people live on the bottom. We saw the best vistas on that hike, though it was the least interesting, walking-wise, as we followed a road the whole time. That was fine by Dan and I, as Dan had broken both of his new hiking shoes over the trip.
The hike was much longer than the two hours we'd prepared for in the morning, but since it was so much easier walking than the days before it seemed shorter than it was. All too soon, we got to the crossroads near Menghun where Abu said goodbye and where we caught a minibus back to Jinghong. On the walk down to the main road, Abu successfully sold Tone and I all of her jewelry, without breaking stride, and Dan and I bought her hand-woven satchel bags and gave her some Australian canvas shopping bags to take her few belongings home with.
We arrived in Jinghong tired and dirty, and a little bit stunned. After days in the quiet jungle, breathing fresh air and avoiding snakes and bugs instead of cars and buses, even this small city seemed like a metropolis to me. A hard trip, but on par with watching the elephants as the coolest thing I've ever done.