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The hidden attractions of Yunnan's Mengla County

This article was posted by in Travel and published

Most visitors to Xishuangbanna spend their time in and around the main city and on day-trips to the Dai Park, the pagodas at Damenglong or various places west in Menghai County (勐海县). If they venture into Mengla County (勐腊县) at all, it will be to Menglun (勐仑镇), about 60 kilometers east, just inside the county boundary.

The sprawling, fascinating Botanical Garden is just across the river and is certainly worth the excursion. The only other place in the county to see many travelers is Mengla City itself, and people coming through on the way to or from northern Laos often don't even stay long enough to look at anything.

Thanks to the newish highway, the journey from Jinghong (景洪) to Mengla only takes about three hours, as it skirts around the highest hills or tunnels through them. Buses on the old road took nearly the whole day, having to climb a high mountain south of Mengxing (勐醒村), then up and down many hills before the descent to the Mengla plain. Of course, it was a far more scenic route, with views of the hills to the north and lots of forest along the way. The new route runs mainly through low hills full of rubber trees.

As the view from the mountain pass just south of Mengxing indicates, the northern half of Mengla County is much hillier than the lower elevations of its southern districts. Of the northern towns, Manla (曼腊) is basically a Dai village turned into an administrative center. Xiangming (象明) — on a road branching west just south of Manla — is the prefecture's only Autonomous Yi District, mainly inhabited by the Lalu branch of the Yi people who migrated here from Jinggu County (景谷县) in Pu'er Prefecture in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty. They also have settlements near Yiwu (易武) and north of Manla. Some of them moved on into northern Laos, where they are known as the Lolo, the original name for the Yi. About 57,000 Yi live in Xishuangbanna, comprising nearly six percent of the population.

The Yi

Here the Yi clothing style — side-fastened tunic, usually blue, black trousers and turbans — and housing type — timber posts, brick walls and tiled roofs — resembles that of the rural Han in their original homeland. Yi are not as distinctly different as the Miao and the Yao settling in the county then as well, but coming into the area long before the Han had any significant presence, they probably impressed the Dai as a very different kind of people.

Xishuangbanna's Yi do not share a couple of the most famous Yi characteristics common to bigger sub-groups in the province. They do not celebrate the summer Torch Festival. Villages also do not have a bimaw, the Yi spiritual specialist who keeps the traditional books written with the unique Yi alphabet covering myths, legends, pharmacopoeia, ritual rules, moral aphorisms and so forth. Like other Yi, though, they keep an ancestral altar in a corner of the dining and receiving room and make offerings at New Year and on other occasions.

In Xiangming the local government last decade revived the Baishijia Festival (百诗佳节), honoring Jin Xian (进贤), an ancient martial hero. When drafted into the army to fight a foreign invasion, he promised his village he would return by the next Lunar New Year. As it turned out, Jin Xian didn't show up until the eighth day of the second moon. He was, however, laden with decorations in recognition of his valor in combat. So the festival is held on that day to celebrate his return. The revival was a typical government-sponsored event, dominated by songs and dances, but for once the traditional Yi costume was the fashion of the day. From 2011, this festival has also been staged in Yiwu.

In the mountains west of Xiangming, aside from a few stray Miao settlements, the villages are mostly Jinuo, a mountain-dwelling people who only reside in three areas of Xishuangbanna — here in the Kongmingshan (孔明山) area, as well as the Jinuoshan (基诺山) and Mengwang (勐旺) districts in Jinghong County. The paved part of the road out of Xiangming ends after four kilometers and the dirt road begins climbing uphill several kilometers further from the large Dai village of Manlin (曼林). After passing thick forests full of flowering trees interspersed with tea gardens, and from there a road north goes to Xinfa (新发).

According to official prefectural maps, this is a designated scenic area. It lies on a spur with a clear view of the blunt peak of Kongmingshan directly west. The Jinuo here do not ordinarily dress in their ethnic style and the characteristic stilted houses that still prevail in Jinuoshan are absent. A few are modern style, but most are simple wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes for their televisions. And perhaps because of the television influence, only the older generation still uses the Jinuo language. Everyone else converses in Chinese. Like their cousins in Jinuoshan, they cultivate tea rather than rice.

The prime center for tea production in the northern half of the county is Yiwu, in the hills south of Manla. Vehicles have to turn off Route 213 in the valley and climb up to the city. It's a small town, mainly Han-inhabited, with Yi and Miao villages within walking distance. Tea merchants dominate the commercial area, while tea gardens lie along roads in every direction out of the town. A walk along the road north of town in the early morning gives one a spectacular view of peaks above the low clouds of early morning, especially Kongmingshan.

The Yi who might be in town dress in modern clothes, but a few Miao may also be around, the women distinguished by their bulky, pleated skirts. Around 12,000 Miao live in Xishuangbanna, mostly in eastern Mengla County, comprising just over one percent of the prefecture's population. Like the Yi, they came here in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, migrating from Guangxi, but are a small fraction of the more than one million Miao in Yunnan and the seven million throughout China. They are not congregated in any particular area in 'Banna, but scattered in the hills among other minorities.

Forced migration has been a theme of Miao history since ancient times. They settled in remote hills and secluded valleys until expanding Han populations began encroaching on their territory. Then they would revolt, drive out the Han and face massive military retaliation, forcing them to surrender their land and move south. Originally from central China — there are still Miao communities in Hunan — different sub-groups eventually settled in China's southern provinces and over the border into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

The Yao

Xishuangbanna's 20,000 members of the Yao minority nationality also live mainly in eastern Mengla County — mostly from the Landian sub-group — who also reside in Jiangcheng (江城), Lüchun (绿春), Yuanyang (元阳) and Jinping (金平) counties. Their women wear tight pairs of black pants to just below the knee, white leggings, loose black jackets, skeins of bright magenta wool thread hanging down from the neck in front and silver ornaments in their hair buns. They also shave off their eyebrows.

This Yao sub-group favored locations at lower altitudes than most others, and except for the Yiwu highlands established villages in remote valleys with nearby streams. Traditionally the Landian Yao built one-story houses of wattle and thatch, with mud floors, and aligned them with the brooks facing upstream. They are concentrated around Manla in the north and Yaoqu (瑶区) in the center.

A road along the Nanla River (南腊河) north of Mengla comes to a fork after 27 kilometers at the town of Nazhuo (纳卓). Another 11 kilometers northeast lies Yaoqu, but it is a modern town and the Yao around here do not dress Yao-style nor live in traditional houses. However, the fork turning northeast passes Naka (纳卡), a typical Yao village along the Nanla River, where at least the women still wear traditional clothing. They may also be seen at the market in Mengban (勐伴), a few kilometers upriver, along with Miao and Aini.

The Aini

Aini villages lie a couple of hours walk up into the hills directly east of Mengban. Their stilted houses with attached, open-air balconies resemble those of Aini elsewhere in 'Banna. But women's outfits are very different, without skirts or the lavish use of embroidery. In this sub-group of the Hani, they wear long black coats, with a bit of appliqué around the lapel, and calf-length black trousers. The black headscarves feature a row of silver studs in front, coins attached to the sides and silver chains with a pair of hoops at the ends dangling from each side.

The road from Mengla to Nazhuo offers pleasant views of the river. Parts of it are filled with half-submerged trees and thick forest flanks the eastern banks. Fishermen ride rafts of lashed bamboo poles, about three meters long and a half-meter wide. At bends in the river's course the mountains to the east are visible.

About ten kilometers north of Mengla a side road turns west into a patch of virgin rain forest, one of the last surviving in the prefecture. In most cases, people have to appreciate the wonders of such a forest from a ground-level viewpoint. But from 2007 on, another perspective became possible here.

An aerial ropeway adventure opened, offering a walk across planks mounted 12 meters up in the trees, flanked by heavily netted sides and a railing to hang onto while making the walk. Only a few people are allowed on the walkway at a time, and it does sway a bit while used, but is perfectly safe. The view is both up and down at magnificent tall and straight tree trunks, creepers, vines, epiphytes and a hundred shades of the color green. The walkway ends in full view of a jungle waterfall.

The Dai

In Mengla City, most of the shops, restaurants, hotels and offices lie on the busy north-south road. The residential areas are off to either side. The little central park is busy mornings and evenings with local people practicing taiqi and other forms of exercise. On the hill above it is the local Buddhist temple compound.

Just down the street is the Nanla Shopping Mall, with attractive buildings employing Dai architectural motifs — like pagodas on the roof — that include a supermarket, several boutiques, snack and drink shops and outdoor restaurants along the river. A Dai-style pagoda stands at the corner and a right turn here along Qingnian Lu leads to the old neighborhood of Mansai, a collection of traditional Dai houses, a few of which double as evening restaurants.

The latter are popular with visitors who stay overnight. For afternoon meals though, tourists and even Dai from other parts of the prefecture tend to head for Manlongdai (曼龙代), a few kilometers north and an 800-year old Dai village famous for its cuisine. With scarcely any modern-style buildings around, just Dai-style stilted houses, diners can relish their meals in an authentic traditional setting. Hosts serve various locally grown vegetables, both raw and cooked, steamed fish, boiled and grilled chicken, ground pork mixed with herbs and cooked in a bamboo tube, and Pu'er tea and rice liquor to wash it all down.

The village lies on the south side of a narrow stream, with rice fields on the other side. A modest wooden gate stands on one side of the bridge across the stream, while on the village side is a very ornate, red-painted gate doubling as a rest stop, decorated with carvings and a painted peacock below the roof apex. Just beyond the north end of the village is the old monastery, with wooden walls and roof tiles — still the original building from centuries ago.

Just two kilometers away another Dai village, two centuries older than Manlongdai, has also retained its original temple compound buildings. They're a little dilapidated and they use a bit of corrugated iron here and there on the awnings above the ground floor. Concrete pillars have replaced the wooden posts. The interiors are quite well preserved, however, featuring lavishly painted altars, ceiling imagery and wall murals internal and external.

In the jungle a short distance from Manlongdai is the most hidden of all of the county's little-known attractions — Huilong Falls (回龙瀑布). The waterfall plunges about a hundred meters from a tall cliff straight through the jungle. To reach this serene and lovely site one has to find a guide to take one down a certain jungle path, then cross a creek and fight through the bushes — perhaps startling a porcupine on the way — bend under tree branches and crawl over boulders for about a half-hour just to get into a position to see five of the fall's nine cataracts.

Similar unexplored jungles still exist elsewhere in the county. No doubt intrepid travelers in the future, driven by an insatiable appetite for unspoiled natural beauty, will discover new waterfalls, caves and scenic tucked-away ponds. The list of Mengla County's hidden attractions is bound to grow.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Comments

These are gorgeous pictures. The very first photo is a nice reminder of how close to the clouds we are in Yunnan. I say we as I am writing from NJ. :) In any case, thank you!

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