A trip to Yunnan

Just made a trip to Yunnan, China. This is my first trip to mainland China (i.e., discounting Hong Kong and Macau), and particularly interesting because Yunnan is a province that has several so-called “minority ethnic groups”. Almost every city/place had a dominant group.

The trip started with a conference at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Gardens, where the Chinese Academy of Sciences is located.

For a while I’ve wondered what the original (non-Sinicized) name of “Xishuangbanna” is. When I got back, I found that it’s probably “Sipsongpanna” which is supposed to mean “twelve thousand rice fields”. If it sounds Indochinese, that”s probably right: the ethnic group dominant in this district are the Dai group, who have a language and culture closely related to the peoples over the borders, in Laos and Thailand. Actually, the writing and the look of the temples looked more Burmese than Thai to me, but many Chinese that I was eavesdropping on since landing in the county capital of Jinghong kept musing out loud that they looked Thai. In any case, Theravada Buddhism of the Siamese flavour is common here.

Jinghong, I later read from a random google book chapter, seems to be a sex tourism spot for Han Chinese males, who come looking for exotic Dai women. Unfortunately for them, most of the massauers or prostitutes they end up with are really Han women dressed in Dai costumes. So who’s the exploiter and who’s the exploited?

The climate of Sipsongpanna (pardon me, but I prefer this name) is tropical and wet. In fact, it has the northernmost edge of tropical rainforest in this part of the world. As a result, Sipsongpanna holds the richest biodiversity of Yunnan, and Yunnan in turn holds the richest biodiversity of China.

Unfortunately, in much of the lowlands, forest has already been cleared for rubber plantations. It seems especially obvious around sloping land, which has probably well-drained soil suitable for growing rubber. The price of natural rubber has been on the rise, which surprised me, for I’ve always thought than synthetic rubber has already mostly replaced the use of natural rubber. Much of this is driven by China’s domestic demand for tyres for its expanding automobile fleet.

Another interesting thing is that Kunming and Sipsongpanna has been experiencing a drought, some say for three years and some say six months. My guess is that it has been usually dry for three years, and the last six months was supposed to be the wet season but next to no rain fell.

One particular presentation at the conference mentioned the role of rubber plantations as water pumps, but the presenter decided to change the focus to something else as that research was already published. Put these together and it makes one wonder if the expanding rubber plantations may be worsening the drought situation? This isn’t a new speculation though. Back in 2008, BBC reported some local unhappiness among farmers, who were worried that the commercial rubber plantations would change the climate, which would impact their crops. Is it coming true now? Or is it aggravating a phenomenon that itself is a product of global climate change?

Later I went back to Kunming to carry on with the “holiday” part of my trip, with CW and her aunt joining me then on.

The type of tour group we joined is called an “ad-hoc tour group”, i.e. customers sign up a tour contract, and the next day, a bunch of such customers are put together under the care of a tour guide to check out a particular tourist spot. As a result, you get different tour guides almost every other day, especially if you travel to a different place every day. Your fellow travelers may also change everyday, depending on the tour package they chose. As our first tour guide mentioned, this supposedly provides flexibility and cost savings, but also, as we were to see later, has some perhaps undesirable results.

Kunming was relatively unremarkable, even as a provincial capital. For one, I never got to find out if there was a dominant ethnic group there.

Dali is well-known among those who have read or watched spin-offs of Louis Cha’s sword-fighting novels. The main ethnic group are of course the Bai group. Our tour guide was a rather quiet man called Xiao Zhao, of Bai and Yi descent.

The Bai assimilated much of Chinese art and culture. Bai architecture is distinctive: white-washed walls with grey stone bricks. Their white walls often carry brush calligraphy and painting. Needless to say, the favourite colour is white. They are also mostly Buddhists, with more influence by the Chinese Mahayana traditions.

Up north from Dali is Lijiang, where the main ethnic group is the Nakhi. The architecture of the Nakhi are quite different from the Bai: houses are mainly made of baked clay bricks, and the middle of the roof usually has a small effigy of a pixiu, or according to the guide called a waxiu because in the imperial times, only royalty could possess a pixiu, so the common peoples denied that it was the same thing.

The guide was Yang, a proud Nakhi, and spoke with a fiery look and a strong voice. The Nakhi were multi-religious, but most were either Buddhist or of the local animalistic religion, the Dongba, which itself draws much on Buddhist ideas. The Nakhi likely came over from the Tibetan plateau, and the Dongba perhaps descended from the Tibetan Bon religion, which was later assimilated into Tibetan Buddhism.

There was the joke that the Bai liked the stout and fair-skinned as husbands and wives, while the Nakhi liked the stout and dark-skinned. Like the Bai, the Nakhi also liked people with learning and culture, but for a different reason: because their own lives were mostly involved in more laborious work. So for the Nakhi, spectacled men were especially sexy. There is a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky; the Nakhi women proudly declare that they hold up the whole sky. The Nakhi women toiled the fields and did all the manual work, while the Nakhi men’s duty was to drink tea and play chess, so it was said. A dark-skinned and thick-bodied Nakhi girl was a proud sign that she could take good care of the family; a plump Nakhi man was a proud sign that the wife was capable and keeping him well-fed.

Another cute thing about Lijiang and the Nakhi was that their traditional form of writing, that looked like hieroglyphics, was still very much alive! Road signs had three forms of characters on it: Chinese, English, and this hieroglyphics.

And finally up north from Lijiang is Zhongdian, which was recently renamed Shangri-La probably in an attempt to lay claim to the fabled valley that is a paradise on earth. The name itself is Tibetan, and so is the dominant ethnic group there.

Our tour guide himself was Tibetan from his maternal side, but Hui from his paternal side. Because ethnicity is always assumed to follow the paternal side, he is considered Hui by the government, but he considers himself Tibetan. I found that curious, given that apostasy is particularly serious from the Muslim perspective. While other Tibetan tour guides sported locks of long hair, ours was completely shaven. In fact, when I first saw him, bellowing out my full name at the door of my hotel in an attempt to look for me, I thought he was some former monk. His name was some unmemorable Tibetan name, so he asked us to call him Ah Qi, or Qi Ge.

One thing I noticed was how the tour guides were more (brutally) honest outside of Kunming, especially if they were of actual minority ethnicity. Qi wasted no time in pouring cold water on our expectations of this place supposedly called Shangri-La: there’s nothing there, just biting cold and brown grass, and in some places not even grass but bare ground. The actual place we’re referred to is actually a national park at high elevation, between 3.8 to 4.2 km altitude. Only in the middle of summer in July or August does the place transform to a green pasture nestled in a cool valley, with flowers blooming everywhere. So, the guide said, after we descended from the park: watch what you say when you get back, and don’t give others too high expectations of this place. “Shangri-La” was supposed to be fictional, and the closest thing that comes to it only lasts one or two months out of the whole year, the rest of the time being just another cold mountain valley.

Another thing was, the further you got from Kunming, the more critical the tour guides sounded of recent developments in Yunnan’s tourism industry. Zhao spoke of it subtly, sandwiching his opinions with mild compliments to the officials. Yang was quite a bit more  blunt. Qi called the system “broken”.

It turns out that this ad-hoc tour group system looked cheap on the outside, but was exploitative on the inside. It arose because of intense competition for customers, which in simple economic terms means lowered prices. But economics has the tendency to present an oversimplified summary of the actual mechanics that goes on. The innovative ad-hoc package idea reduces price but increases volume, therefore increasing revenue for the frontline tour companies in Kunming that collect the fee. But these companies subcontract these tourists to local guides and their local tour companies in the cities outside, who receive new groups every day but a reduced profit margin, and hence can only give potato and carrot stew, half-cooked rice, and fatty pork in salted vegetables for lunch and dinner.

One particularly unpleasant encounter was on the first day of Qi’s tour. Throughout the morning, he tried to hint in clumsy terms that he will soon need to do something, regarding money, that would kick up a ruckus. He was right. An “optional” component on the tour program, which involved a visit and feast at an “authentic Tibetan home” is not really optional, and everyone is expected to pay for it.

And so the ruckus began. Qi was desperate to minimise his losses by having as many people pay up as possible. He could absorb the costs of three or four people opting out, he said, but not half a bus. And half of the bus was pretty adamant on not “being had”. Despite Qi taking the effort to make several rounds of private negotiations with this adamant group, there was mistrust in the air. As far as these tourists were concerned, all tour guides were greedy tricksters out to get their money. Even more when they are of minority ethnicity. Can’t trust them.

But as far as I was concerned, I trusted Qi. Who, then, is to blame? It was the whole of Society, with its idiosyncrasies, that was to blame.

Another interesting thing that must be mentioned was when we were on a “luxury cruise” on Er Hai, the lake that is a major landmark in Dali. It was neither luxurious, nor was it much of a cruise, even as the lady on the PA system kept describing it as such.

So as usual there was this gimmicky option of taking pictures with ladies in “traditional Bai costume”. You can later buy the pictures, but only if you were satisfied with them, for 10RMB.

Let’s not even talk about how unruly the crowds of middle-aged men and women were in clamouring at the counter to check the photos. Some of them grabbed the photos from the salesgirls, and walked away. Just like that. Without paying. They then stood at the side, peering carefully, as though looking for some flaw of the photography to satisfy them that they were not looking their very best, while the salesgirls went absolutely berserk at the other side of the counter, screaming at them to come back and pay up. This was not just one or two doing this, mind you. We watched the whole pandemonium from a balcony above the counter.

When a salesgirl finally got a colleague to take over her spot in handling the ogres at her part of the counter, and fought out of the horde to confront these cheapskates and get them to pay up, they usually say “I don’t want it”.

That’s not all. They went back to the counter, took a scissors from it, and cut up their photos.

OK, fine, so maybe that was just the way things work around here. But one particular auntie cut it out carefully so that the part with her in it was intact, but then took the other remnants, and threw it back in the face of the salesgirl. And then the salesgirl went absolutely livid.

This kind of show seemed to be the norm around. It also probably explained why many working in the services industry were rude to potential customers. They’ve seen too much; as far as they were concerned, most customers are itching for a scolding to keep them civil.

And why aren’t most tourists civil? CW’s theory is that these were the “overnight rich”. Suddenly, they had a bunch of money on their hands, and could go travelling and buy gaudy goods. The transition created a behaviour that was out of step.

In all, it was an interesting trip, my first to China, and a first-hand experience on the cultural and social challenges and stresses the giant country is going through together with economic growth.

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1 Comment

  1. guess said,

    21 April 2012 at 13:16

    why go to china when china is here? hah


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