When we allow ourselves to be seated, an endless energy fueled by alcohol and meat immediately fills the surroundings. The fellow next to us introduces himself as Lu and asks how many pounds of Chinese rice alcohol we can drink. After feeling the impact of the first glass on our stomachs, we decide to fill up on food as fast as we can.
The table is covered in bowls filled with smoked meat, wild bamboo, spicy cucumber and marinated peanuts. We know we have to be quick, because somewhere further down the three kilometer-long table, someone has initiated the first 'toasting wave'.
The Long Street Feast (长街宴) is held on November 30 in Lüchun (绿春). Lüchun is a remote district of Honghe (红河), bordering Vietnam. It was born as an administrative region out of a few neighboring counties during the early land reforms of 1958. The rugged landscape has traditionally been inhabited mainly by Hani people, who mostly produce rice and tea.
Forests on top of the hill were maintained to supply the rice terraces with water and seasonal bouts of wild herbs and mushrooms. A narrow strip of land on a mountain ridge was appointed to function as the county capital. The remote county town began to grow only in the late 1990s, a decade behind the economic growth spurt experienced by much of the rest of the country.
During the revaluation of minority cultures over the past few decades, many traditional minority festivals in Yunnan have been turned into 'official festivals'. Dates were fixed in the Gregorian calendar, and countless Han Chinese officials, photographers and tourists flocked into the towns and occupied every single hotel room.
The Hani Long Street Feast essentially became such an event. Traditionally, local people have always organized feasts along the longest street of their village for wedding occasions or on New Year's. Some ten years ago, the local government reasoned that Lüchun was in fact one long street and indeed very suitable for launching a massive feast. Invitations were sent out all over the country.
The morning of the feast, troops of musicians and dancers take part in a gigantic parade. The Mopi, the traditional animist shaman of the town, heads the procession in a horse carriage. Not only are all the different versions of Hani costumes and dances represented, there are also colorful groups of Yao and Yi participating in the dance.
An ingenious system has been invented to allocate cooking and serving tasks to the families in Lüchun. The town is full of people from in and around the area, as well as from far away. Most of them are taking a constant string of pictures with their mobile phones, but a good number do go for the actual experience. All Lüchun people go out in their most colorful clothes and tell outsiders about their festival with proud twinkles in their eyes.
Our table's hostess is very happy with us as a foreign group. Countless people come to toast with us and share food making her table a hotspot. At one point she has to borrow alcohol off one of the neighboring tables. As we attract attention, flamboyant locals mix in and start to dance with us.
We are invited to do a traditional dance called the 'Tong Ni Ni' (同尼尼). The simple rhythms become increasingly enchanting as more and more people gather around the circle. They might be as delighted to see our James Brown-inspired adaption as we are at being shown a glimpse of their traditional culture.
The craze of the Long Street Feast is over as soon as the last hungover guests manage to maneuver their 4x4 vehicles over the landslides back to civilization. As the madness dies down, it feels like this has served as a distraction for the untouched pristinity we witnessed in the rest of the county.
Most settlements are so remote and unconnected they haven't even heard of the big show. They work everyday with Lüchun's most precious commodity, its untouched nature and ancient agricultural rice terrace system. They do celebrate the new year, but separately in their own villages, still according to the lunar calendar.
Editor's note: Frank Hitman runs Zouba Tours, organizing alternative guided journeys in southern Yunnan. Every year he hosts one join-in arrangement to the Ailao Mountains providing a unique chance for travelers to participate in the Long Street Feast.
Because all hotel rooms during the event are booked by the government, he will arrange stays in pristine villages easily connected to Lüchun by road. The festival trip will be combined with two days of cycling through the fantastic countryside, visits to some beautiful cultural highlights along the way and a unique hike to a remote market town. The entire itinerary can be viewed online and spaces are limited.
Images: Anne-Sophie Markus© Copyright 2005-2017 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.