South of the Clouds

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October 9th 2011
Published: October 9th 2011
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(Menghai, Yunnan Province)

“Yun” = “cloud”, “Nan” = “south”, so the name of Yunnan province means “south of the clouds”. While this is constructed the same as many Chinese place names, it is seems much more poetic than “Hebei” = “north of the river” or “Hunan” = “south of the lake”, and the like. Be sure to pronounce the “n” in both syllables: “yun nan”.

We are in now Menghai, a county seat in the district of Jinghong in the southern apex of Yunnan, nestled between Laos and Myanmar, and also very close to Thailand. All of Yunnan is known for its anthropological and biological diversity. This tropical portion of the province seems especially exotic. We are enjoying being surrounded by scenes of rice paddies, sugar cane, bananas, water buffalo, lampshade hats, colorful birds and flowers, bamboo forests (with some bamboo the size of large shade trees), Thai Buddhist architecture, and yes, tea. The pace of life is slow -- the clock is a little off of the sun due to the use of Beijing time in this western area, but the time of day does not really seem to matter. Life is good.

We left Chongqing 5
Our train heading south from ChongqingOur train heading south from ChongqingOur train heading south from Chongqing

Soon after we left the Sichuan plain the spectacular scenery started with this canyon in a tributary of the Yangtzee River
days ago by train, 27 hours to Kunming, Yunnan's capital, again with comfortable soft sleeper berths. Almost immediately we left he Sichuan plain, heading up the Yangtzee and then one of its tributaries, through spectacular canyons and then over mountains as night fell. In the morning were in Yunnan, and the drab architecture and appearance of the countryside in central China gave way to more colorful fields and gardens and public spaces and buildings designed with more flair. Even the 30-story apartment buildings down here seem to have some design or decorative element reflective of the style of some local ethnic group. And the country houses are interesting and diverse. It is as if the Cultural Revolution, or whatever took some of the pizazz out of the rest of China, was not effective down here.

Our destination was south from Kunming, so we crossed the city and caught a day bus (5 1/2 hours) to Ninger (formerly Pu'er), which Karen wrote about in a previous post about the beginning of the Tea Horse Road. During this ride we crossed the 23 1/2 degree line and officially entered the tropics. It was real treat to stay in this town, which is not in the guidebook, Jacob's idea for us to avoid the national Day holiday crowds. Here we had our first sticky rice cooked in bamboo shoots, great local citron fruit, and the incredibly tasty Yunnan pineapple.

After Ninger we caught another bus south to Jinghong (2 1/2 hours), the heart of southern Yunnan. Here, with Jacob's guidance, we sought out Dai food. The treat for the first meal was sticky rice cooked inside of pineapple, something we will all try to duplicate back home, no doubt. Our outdoor dinner, on the banks of the Lancang River (called the Mekong further south), was amazing. Dried pulled beef, sticky rice in bamboo, grilled eggplant, and, of course, stocky rice in pineapple, to name just a few. In the Jinghong night market we saw how the right rocks are polished to make jade, and, we discovered two more great tea shops. On our return through Jinghong we'll buy some more local pu'er.

Our sojourn here in Menghai county started with a visit to the small town of Menghun on Saturday so we could awake early for the Sunday market. Our small hotel in the center of town is run by a Dai family and features pictures of a young Mao Tse Tung in tile on the hallway walls. The night before market day features many parties in the local houses, possibly because friends and relatives of townspeople are coming in from all over the countryside. Unfortunately the small town karaoke bar scene was centered on the street below our hotel, and the loud, and poorly executed, singing lasted until 1 AM. But we still got up before 7 to watch the colorfully dressed Dai and Hani people arrive and set up at the market, which Jim and Kathy will discuss in the next 2 posts. The other big activity in Menghai now is the rice harvest, which is well underway. There is some kind of combine machine run through the paddies, carrying and transporting of big bags of grain through town on small tricks. drying of grain on sidewalks and on all available surfaces in a big, unused gas station, and removal of the husks on some kind of loud machines in building in town. However it all works, the rice here is delicious, and, obviously, fresh.

Here in Menghai, we've been enjoying the lively but not intense small city atmosphere, seeing water buffalo in nearby fields and side streets as well, and sampling more Dai food at an excellent restaurant recommended by one of the tea merchants. We also visited the factory of Tae Tea (English name), one of the better known pu'er producers. Tomorrow we head even further south to seek out old tea trees.


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