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March 4th 2013
Published: March 18th 2013
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Cement elephants in the river bedCement elephants in the river bedCement elephants in the river bed

They looked real from a distance!
Bus trips in China are often confusing - the bus stations move, drivers tend to drop their passengers outside of the terminals (often streets away) or you end up at a totally different bus station than the one that your guide book mentioned. And that is after you have had the challenge of actually purchasing the ticket! That is Jerry's job - I'm more than content to look after the luggage whilst he battles the queues and language difficulties. Upon our arrival in the busy traffic of Chengdu two and half hours later our bus stopped and everybody got off - it was not the bus station we had left from previously and should have returned to but a city street. We had no idea where we were... After being deserted by all the other passengers who headed off in all directions we tried catching a taxi to the bus station. The taxis we stopped (when they did..) simply said 'No!'. Eventually some people on a bus must have guessed what happened and as the bus drove past they all gestured over their shoulders. You guessed it - the bus station was just one block away but around the corner so we couldn't see it from where we were. If only our bus driver had pointed in that direction half an hour earlier....

We walked from the bus station along the river side to the city centre stop for the airport shuttle and spent the next couple of hours waiting for our flight to Jinghong. I booked our flight online and it was only at the airport I realised that we had a short stopover in Kunming. Upon our arrival at Kunming airport all passengers continuing to Jinghong were told to leave their bags in the overhead lockers and to leave the plane. We were the last passengers to leave the flight - we hate the way the Chinese people push and shove to get off planes quickly - and we double checked with the flight attendant re our bags as most people seemed to be carrying theirs. She said to leave them and to vacate the plane for the bus waiting on the tarmac. We showed the staff member at the bus door and he indicated a bus - we boarded and got off immediately as everybody had all their locker luggage. We showed our boarding passes which clearly said 'Jinghong' but we were literally pushed back on board the bus which then left. As soon as we arrived at the terminal I knew we were in the arrivals hall - certainly not somewhere we wanted to be with our flight departing in 20 minutes!It took ages for us get the staff to understand but eventually we were directed to the transit counter.

The young man there spoke some English and seemed to understand and told us somebody would come. We waited and waited some more and then panicked when we realised the gates for our flight had closed. We approached the man yet again - and then realised that he didn't really understand and we had just been pushed aside into 'the too hard basket'. Suddenly something clicked and he frantically started making phone calls. We did make the flight.... But only after we ran, with a China Eastern rep wearing high heels, to our gate - thankfully Gate 22 (with 135 departure gates we were lucky). And only after being thoroughly searched (including money belts) for the first time ever by security staff. The young staff member was on the verge of tears by this stage. A car met us at the gate and took us to the plane which left 10 minutes late. Thankfully we did have all our money and documents with us - they are permanently under our clothes. We were very pleased to arrive in Jinghong.

It was 10.30pm and as I had been unable to book a hotel online we decided to head to the 5* option in town, knowing that it would have 24 hour reception. I figure that is why we carry a credit card with us - you just have to blow the budget occasionally. We had an extremely comfortable night - fabulous mattress, marble bathroom and buffet breakfast next morning for $120. And quite a shock when we opened our curtains next morning - we were surrounded by a lush green golf course and a row of private condominiums. Though the hotel offered to drop the room price to $75 a night we moved out next morning. Though we were tempted to stay..There were certainly a lot of local tourists staying there despite the price - and we had the cheap rooms.

We loved Jinghong but the whole time we were in the city we felt as if we had already left China. It was so relaxed in comparison to the rest of places we had been to. With palm trees, wide streets, sunshine (it was very pleasant spring type weather), women wearing sarongs and a surprising amount of western tourists, mainly young backpackers. In fact the most western tourists we had seen in two months of travel in China. We found a comfortable hotel (Jinglan Hotel) for 138 yuan ($23) a night close to the string of western type cafes in the centre of the city. We were to spend a fair amount of time sitting under the trees on the footpath tables of Mei Mei Cafe. They even had chilled Aussie white wine!

Jinghong (commonly called Banna) is the laid back capitol city of the Xishuangbanna, the autonomous region of Yunnan which runs along the borders of Laos and Burma. The area is home to many ethnic groups, predominately the Dai people who are northern cousins of the Thais. The vibe and look of the city certainly appeared more Thai than Chinese. The everyday dress of the Dai women is a sarong and this form of dress was very evident in the city. It was great to see short sleeves and bare toes again after two months of layered clothes. I was very thankful to shed the layers for a cotton blouse - I was totally over having to cope with layers of heavy clothes every time I needed to use a toilet. Not fun in smelly wet squat toilets.

We spent a quiet day basking in the sunshine and with a cold glass of something in our hands. The city was covered in elephant statues, some pretty cute baby elephants playing all the traditional instruments of Banna (on a traffic roundabout) and some very effective life size statues of elephants amidst the trees which lined the sandy edge of the Mekong River which ran through the city. Next morning we walked to the local bus station and caught a small bus to the village of Mengyang which was a totally uninteresting dusty typical Chinese town - all white tile covered cement houses though we did find an older area of tiny wooden houses separated by narrow cement paths. Our guide book mentioned another village nearby called Manna'nan which was the home of one of the regions ethnic groups called the Huayao, a sub group of the Dai people. We never got there as nobody seemed to know the village but after one tuktuk driver seemed to know where it was we hopped on board his noisy little motorcycle taxi and left Mengyang.

He however took us a further 10 kilometres to Wild Elephant Valley - basically a theme park of performing elephants which we did not wish to see. We paid him (50 yuan), bought an ice cream and spent the next hour waiting for a bus to take us back to Jinghong. Not our most successful day out though the drive was pretty enough. Lots of lush greenery and we followed a stream - and the new freeway above us - most of the way. Tuktuk rides are always fun no matter where you end up!

Back in Jinghong later that afternoon we went to Wat Manting, Jinghong's main Buddhist monastery and the largest in Xishuangbanna. It was surprisingly run down, an almost empty shell of a building, with no sign of life other then two men sitting on the steps under the shade of the porch. There are many monks in the region though as all young Dai boys spend three years at temples learning to read and write. Over the next few days we were to see a lot of very young boys dressed in their orange robes around the temples we visited. Later that evening I had a wonderful, though rather painful, foot massage (70 yuan for an hour) at a local clinic. Most evenings we walked around the shopping streets in the cool of the dusk before spending a couple of hours over dinner and a glass or two of wine.

We had booked two day trips with a private driver through the Mei Mei Cafe - one (500 yuan) to visit Xiding Thursday market and surrounding villages, the other (400 yuan) to visit more villages enroute to Menglun where we planned on leaving the driver to return to Jinghong alone. From there it was only a few hours on a bus to the border with Laos. We only had a few more days left on our 60 day visa by that stage.

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