China is the first country I have backpacked where neither do I speak the language nor does almost anyone speak mine. Under these circumstances, communication with anyone apart from other tourists or people directly involved with tourists in major tourist hotspots is exceedingly difficult. Without the finances to hire an English-speaking guide, this means that when traveling in remote or off-the-beaten-track parts of the country, I am very much reduced to the status of a silent observer - watching other people without really getting involved. This and the five following blogs will be largely based around this principle - they will be largely photographic presentations of the different ethnic groups I observed at six different markets along the Burmese, Laos and Vietnamese borders. There will very little to write about these events because I only spent a few hours at each and of course no one there spoke English. The photos, however, should really speak for themselves in terms of giving an impression of the colour, vibrant atmosphere and strong retention of ages-old tradition that one can observer at these events. The influences on the costumes that the people wear in their daily lives appear to range from the artistic to the psychedelic to the near extra-terrestrial.
The difficulty in communications is exaggerated by the fact that Chinese people, despite trying their utmost to provide help every time we ask for it, absolutely cannot understand our miming or, often, anything other than direct verbal communication. Upon arrival in the town of Menghan we went to the nearest hotel. Having established that a room was available for a certain price, we stood around for a few seconds, the parties on either side of the reception desk staring at one another in blank expectation, probably both waiting for something completely different to happen. Eventually I realised action was needed so I began miming, pointing to my eye then up to the hotel rooms to indicate that we wanted to look at the available accommodation. This was met by blank stares. I repeated it, this time pointing at Lizz, myself and the receptionist, then moving my fingers in imitation of walking legs, pointing up the stairs, then to the rooms, then to my eye. Still more blank stares convinced me that the only way to do this was to get close to the receptionist, motion him to stand up and get him to come with us. This worked.
A similar thing had occurred when buying a battery recharger a few days previously. Having, after plenty of miming, established that one was available, nothing more was done. After a few seconds of standing around we did the pointing at the eye mime to indicate that we wanted to see it. This was met with such absolute bafflement that I was almost tempted to believe that the Chinese somehow do not even associate the eye with sight. Or possibly they just use some completely different mime to indicate seeing and looking. This has seemed more plausible since a woman put her finger to her nose to show me she was talking about herself, and since I found out how they represent the numbers with their hands: ten is two crossed index fingers and six is a fist with thumb and little finger extended (apparently these represent animals connected with the numbers but to me they looked no more similar to the animals mentioned than to the numbers).
Having finally booked in to our room we went out for a meal of noodles. We pointed to the ingredients we wanted the kindly, plump, aproned woman to add to our bowls before sitting down to wait. Suddenly Lizz, who does not like spicy food, jumped up and ran over to where the woman was about to empty a sieve full of chillies into her bowl. She waved her hand and shook her head to indicate that she did not want the chillies. The woman tilted the sieve slightly more and looked up at Lizz, raising her eyebrows in question. Lizz began waving her hands more urgently, widening her eyes and shaking her head. The woman smiled reassuredly and poured the chillies into the bowl.
The next day we woke up early and went out for breakfast at a different noodle cafe. The streets were still empty, the light illuminating the world as yet dim, the haziness of the air accentuated by the rising steam from boiling noodles and the smoke of grilling meat. One by one as we sat on short plastic stools at a low plastic table on the pavement, a trickle of characters began to appear for the market that within a few hours would have these quiet, empty streets full to bursting point.
Bursting point was reached and possibly exceeded around ten o'clock when people even from the furthest mountain villages had had time to get down to Menghan to sell their goods. Everything from clothes to plastic toys to food to jewelry was on offer. The characters present ranged from those dressed like Queen Nefertiti of the Egyptians to bands of women all wearing skin-tight dresses and carrying umbrellas of matching colours to a couple of ladies selling firewood and dressed in clothes dyed in a dazzling array of psychedelic pinks, greens, oranges and blues. A Chinese girl who spoke some broken English told us that these last two came from a village on top of a mountain very far away and were known as the "No-hair people" because their hair often fell out. And, looking at them, I noticed that only a few isolated tufts sprouted from the portion of their cranium not covered by their headresses. Many women also wore traditional jewelry of brass or silver, some of the earrings so huge that the wearers must have been gradually stretching the hole in their ear lobe for many years.
We paced up and down the main street of the market, soaking up the atmosphere, marveling at the costumes on display (little did we know that these would be vastly outshone at markets we would visit in the coming days) and taking plenty of photographs to make up for the lack of possibility communicate or take part. By midday the sun was scorching, we were drenched in sweat and tiredness was setting in. We packed away our cameras, found a cafe and sat down behind another bowl of noodles. Next to us a Chinese man held his bowl to his mouth, feeding noodles in at the rate of knots with his chop sticks, slurping noisily, pausing occasionally to mash it all around in his open mouth and produce a horrific squelching noise. While he sucked every ounce of pleasure out of his meal we sat doing our best to ignore him, transporting small quantities of noodles from the bowl to our mouths and doing our best not to spill anything.
Apologies for the lack of photos - the cards they are saved on have somehow become corrupted.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Yunnan Province
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