Editor's note: This article was written by contributor Matthew Hartzell, who has been to Ximeng four times in the last three years. He first came to Yunnan in 2006 as a backpacker. In 2009 he returned to China to learn Mandarin and ended up in Kunming. He's been in the Spring City ever since.
When not tinkering with map design and topography, Matthew can often be found on his bike. During his three years in southwest China he has traveled to 115 of Yunnan's 126 counties, and bicycled through 66 of them. You can follow him on his blog (requires proxy) and read about his cycling exploits at the website crazyguyonabike.
A little history
Ximeng (西盟) is a place few people have probably heard of, but the residents there would like to change that. They have been hard at work building their little city into a tropical, ethnic-themed destination, anticipating an influx of tourism something like what Xishuangbanna has seen. But don't let that put you off — while tourists are beginning to arrive, their numbers are a mere trickle so far.
On the Myanmar border, tucked into a corner of Pu'er Prefecture (普洱市), Ximeng is a long way from Kunming. Even Simao (思茅), the capital of Pu'er, is six hours away by bus. Before the 1950s, Ximeng didn't have any maintained roads. Then it was largely off the radar of the mandarins in both Beijing and Kunming, inhabiting the ambiguous border region between China and Burma.
Jinghong (景洪) and Ruili (瑞丽) were on the main trade routes to Southeast Asia and thus had imperial garrisons and Han settlers. Meanwhile the Wa (佤族) and other minorities inhabited the hilly areas in between. Headhunting and other traditional practices were ended in 1952 when PRC authorities arrived in Ximeng. Remnants of the Guomindang's Yunnan army had delayed them for three years, after which many soldiers fled to Burma and became involved in the heroin trade.
Today jade and lumber are more common imports than opiates, which have largely been eradicated in the last decade. Many of the Wa in the semi-autonomous Burmese Wa State across Ximeng's border have family ties in China. Their independent streak may have rubbed off as Ximeng's Wa preserve a fierce sense of identity and ethnic pride.
The Wa dominate Ximeng and make up 72 percent of the population — the rest mainly divided between the Dai and Lahu minorities. The Wa are scattered throughout Pu'er and Lincang border areas, but Ximeng is one of only two officially designated Wa Autonomous Counties, the other being Cangyuan (沧源).
New County Seat
Any visit to Ximeng will likely begin in the New County Seat (新县城), which was constructed from scratch in 1999. It replaced the Old County Seat which was deemed to be inconveniently located atop Awa Mountain (阿佤山). It's a tiny city, befitting a county of its size and population — at 91,000 souls, it is the third smallest in Yunnan.
You won't find a single traffic light in town. What you will find are a great deal of shiny new buildings designed to mimic traditional Wa colors, motifs, and imagery, all topped with fake thatched roofs. The cynical will note that there's nothing traditional about the six-story concrete shells beneath these facades. At times the whole place gives off a fake, Disneyland aura, albeit one set amidst gorgeous natural scenery.
However, setting aside the matter of authenticity, one has to admit a great deal of effort and artistry have been put into this design, and that the result is a genuinely attractive county seat. Beautification projects of this sort are usually financed — largely through debt — by local governments. However, due to its poverty and strategic location, Ximeng received subsidies for the project straight from Beijing.
The idea is that the attractive new city will help to bring in tourists. So far, however, unless one shows up in Ximeng during the Wooden Drum Festival (木鼓节) travelers are likely to have the city mostly to themselves. Its curious architecture aside, the best thing New County Seat has going for it is its stunning location.
The city overlooks Longtan (龙潭), an exquisite natural body of water nestled at the foot of a mountain range covered in tropical forests. For 30 yuan, one can enter this nature reserve and take a roughly 90-minute walk around the lakeside boardwalk that passes through the jungle.
A side side trail leads up the mountain to a waterfall grotto known as Longmoye (龙摩爷), where thousands of cow skulls hang suspended from trees and cliffs in what could be a set piece out of an Indiana Jones movie. Although this "sacred shrine" was in fact built from nothing in 1999 to attract tourists, it's still an impressive, if eerie, sight.
Wooden Drum Festival
On April 10, 2013, Ximeng will celebrate its Wooden Drum Festival. Thousands of Wa — as well as Dai and Lahu — from the surrounding villages will descend on the county seat for a few days of revelry, drinking, singing and dancing. Those who enjoy traditional clothing will not be disappointed. Ximeng's men and women, young and old, all dress up for the festivities.
Thatched roof huts are set up all over town where locals receive guests and sell crafts and snacks. Not everything is impromptu. As is true of almost every ethnic festival in Yunnan today, part of the program is a fancy song-and-dance extravaganza, complete with a professional main stage, emcees, and television crews. Jaded travelers might question the propaganda in the message of "ethnic harmony" the program promotes, but to the performers from the countryside, performing in front of visiting officials is a matter of pride.
The performances do not disappoint. The eponymous wooden drums, which are actually hollowed-out logs, make an appearance. So too does the Wa women's famous "hair-shaking dance" (耍发舞). In between the official performances there are plenty of spontaneous musical performances and dance circles around a bonfire.
During our most recent visit to Ximeng, we found the county seat much quieter than during festival time. However, some of the thatched roof huts were still set up in the fairgrounds overlooking Longtan. Inside, locals entertained the handful of Chinese tourists who had ventured to Ximeng over Spring Festival. Nearly all the visitors were urbanites who arrived in their own vehicles as Ximeng is not yet visited by any package tours.
In the leftover huts, tourists could observe Wa men and women engaged in making traditional handicrafts. They could also sample the delicious alcoholic beverage shuijiu (水酒), which is fermented from red millet in a bamboo tube and comes served in a bamboo cup.
Snacks on offer included mixed herbs, vegetables, cold noodles and hand-wrapped lemon-flavored fish served in lettuce cups. We were told that the huts had been set-up on a semi-permanent basis, though that permanence may depend on future tourist numbers. Apart from the huts, there was not much in the way of cuisine in the county seat, except for an excellent rice noodle shop just north of the fairgrounds. It had the best selection of condiments we've ever seen, including fresh tomato salsa.
Other tourism-oriented activities were organized in town during Spring Festival. They gave us the impression that Ximeng's government is trying hard to put itself on the tourist map. One such event was the "traditional pulling of the wooden drum ceremony" (拉木鼓仪式). Led by shamans brandishing twigs to the beat of shirtless drummers, two teams dragged ropes towing a large log — the wooden drum — down Ximeng's main boulevard.
They were members of Ximeng's Song and Dance Troupe (西盟歌舞团), most of whom are attractive young women in skimpy "traditional" outfits. One wonders if these aren't also a gimmick to attract more tourists. They were joined by the hundred or so tourists in Ximeng that day — not a large number considering the crowds in cities like Lijiang and Jinghong during Spring Festival.
When the drum was in place, troupe members serenaded the tourists with a wild jungle dance, followed by their signature hair-shaking dance. This, it turned out, was a free promotion for the evening's performance in Ximeng's new theater (tickets 120 yuan). If it all sounds touristy and gimmicky, it was. The ceremony is repeated every day, all week during the vacation.
The real pulling of the wooden-drum ceremony takes place only once a year, in April. Ximeng's Song and Dance Troupe is a professional organization that performs regularly. They have toured extensively in China as well as Europe and the United States. Even if the whole event is staged, it's still quite a sight.
There is one direct bus daily from Kunming to Ximeng. It leaves from Kunming's South Bus Station at 4:30pm and costs 306 yuan. Those who don't like 13-hour bus rides should split up the journey by first stopping in Simao. This will make the trip seven hours from Kunming and another six from Simao to Ximeng.
The only other cities with bus service to Ximeng are neighboring Lancang (澜沧) and Menglian (孟连). For travelers in Xishuangbanna, Ximeng can be a good side-trip. It can be reached from Jinghong (景洪) via Lancang in about six hours.
New County Seat has several hotels, the most luxurious of which is the Longtan Hotel (龙潭大酒店) — which is also the only building in the county with an elevator. Rooms start at 200 yuan but prices skyrocket during festival times.
Basic hotels cost about 60 yuan for a double. Be advised that during festivals all hotels fill up quickly with visiting officials. If visiting at these times, it is best to make some local friends who are wiling to play host. Alternatively, one can bring a tent and pitch it in the designated camping zone.
Images and maps: Matthew Hartzell© Copyright 2005-2019 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.