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Getting Away: Exploring Ximeng County

By in Travel on

Editor's note: This article is the second in a series of two about Ximeng written by Matthew Hartzell. Part one, covering Ximeng's Wooden Drum Festival, can be viewed here.

Around Ximeng

The Ximeng (西盟) county seat is small and one runs out of things to do there quickly, especially when there is no festival. However, getting out of town and exploring the countryside provides plenty of interesting diversions.

Just two kilometers to the south, at the bottom of a hill, lies the Dai town of Mengsuo (勐梭). It features several handsome examples of traditional Dai architecture and its market has fantastic Dai snacks like green papaya (青木瓜) and spicy cured beef (干巴).

Mengsuo's Dai architecture
Mengsuo's Dai architecture

In the opposite direction, about five kilometers north of the county seat, the main road spills down a canyon towards the Nankang River (南康河). A side road leads to another Dai settlement, Likan Village (里坎村). Past the town's temple a trail winds through terraced rice paddies and into the jungle, eventually leading to Likan Waterfall (里坎瀑布).

We were there during dry season and even then there was a substantial amount of water cascading from pool to pool down the canyon. A perilous bridge made of wooden planks lashed together with rope leads across the waterfall and bounces disconcertingly with every step.

Back on the main road and still heading north, one reaches the Nankang River valley. Turning right is the old road to Lancang (澜沧). We cycled it and it is fully paved and beautiful, with almost no traffic as everyone now takes the new road. It is not an easy climb — the road climbs 1,500 meters up to a 2,175-meter pass that is a craggy, Stone Forest-like landscape high above the rainforest below.

The bridge and waterfall at Likan
The bridge and waterfall at Likan

Turning left at the river instead allows travelers to explore the rest of tiny Ximeng County. After following the river for ten kilometers, there is a junction. If you turn right you will climb up Awa Mountain to the old county seat — now called Mengka (勐卡镇). This is another 1,500-meter climb, and that climb is one of the reasons the county seat was moved. The other main reason is that Mengka is vulnerable to landslides and the government was worried the town could slip down the mountain.

Our local friend told us the barbecue in Mengka was worth a stop. We weren't so sure. The marketplace was one of the filthiest places we have seen in China, and that about sums up the town as well. It is a snapshot of a typical 1980s-era administrative town frozen in time. If one should find oneself in Mengka in the morning, however, there are fantastic views of the "cloud sea" (云海) in the valley below.

From Mengka, a road heads west towards the Burmese border and a small township called Yuesong (岳宋乡). We spent some time in a village near there, but don't recommend it because the roads are in terrible shape. We visited during the rainy season, and the only ride out of the village was on a ridiculously overloaded truck, which we shared with 50 villagers headed to a wedding in Mengka.

The border with Myanmar at Natuoba
The border with Myanmar at Natuoba

The road north from Mengka, however, is paved, and also leads to the Burmese border. Natuoba (娜妥坝), situated on the border, is a dusty, one-street town with little to recommend it. There are occasionally visitors from across the border — who look the same and speak the same language as their counterparts on the Chinese side — who come over to buy a pig or household goods.

People have been known to illegally cross the border, which is easy enough to do because it is so porous and the area is sparsely populated. This, however, is inadvisable. If you cross the border, you are technically in Myanmar. In reality you have ended up in a geographical and political gray area called the Wa State (佤邦). It is under the control of the United Wa State Army, which was once considered the largest drug smuggling organization in the world.

Most of the opium poppies have been eradicated, but other drugs and illicit contraband still come across the border. Travelers are advised to stay on the Chinese side in Natuoba.

Musical instruments hanging on the walls of Natuoba's resident musician and instrument craftsman
Musical instruments hanging on the walls of Natuoba's resident musician and instrument craftsman

Ask around in Natuoba and you should be able to locatethe town's resident instrument-makers. He is a musician whose home is filled with handmade instruments of every kind — drums, flutes, strings, horns — all handcrafted and lovely.

Unfortunately, very few authentic buildings remain in Ximeng, as most of the villages have been completely rebuilt with modern materials incorporating modern aesthetics. This has largely been accomplished with government grant money.

While most buildings in the county seat are new incarnations of an old style, Masan Village (马散村) still has some traditional Wa buildings. They are beautiful bamboo and wood structures topped with thatched roofs.

Traditional thatched roof home in Masan village
Traditional thatched roof home in Masan village

Back down at the Nankang River junction, turning left takes you on a winding road shadowing the river downstream for 30 kilometers. The road passes through several plantations where rubber trees have replaced native native rainforest.

Ximeng is playing catch-up to places like Xishuangbanna, which has been in the rubber business since the 1950s. Most of Ximeng's rubber trees were not planted until the 1990s, and thus have only been productive for the last several years. This slow adoption of a cash crop is one reason why Ximeng is still so poverty-stricken. It has the second lowest per capita gross domestic product in Yunnan, and relies heavily on both Beijing and Kunming for aid.

There is a junction where the road crosses the river. We explored the dirt track to the right, following the river all the way to the Burmese border. There we found a hydroelectric power plant under construction straddling the border. We were quickly picked up by the border police, who informed us we were not supposed to be in the area. This was the only time we were stopped by the authorities in Ximeng and we advise avoiding the road entirely.

Rainforest along the Nankang River
Rainforest along the Nankang River

Free of the police we returned to the junction and crossed the river, climbing 700 meters to a pass. There we found a small shop with a pool table run by a couple from Hunan. Oddly most of the small shops in Ximeng seem to be run by people from outside of Yunnan.

The dirt road connects several villages clustered along the ridgeline of the mountain we had just climbed. This was the most beautiful place we found in Ximeng. We stayed with friends in Xiao Bannong Village (小班弄村) and spent a few days hiking in the mountains and exploring the valley below.

Each morning we were greeted by a magnificent cloud sea and each afternoon we went swimming in the clean waters of the river. The valley itself contains a mixture of rainforest and agriculture — mostly banana, pineapple, rice, corn and rubber plantations. If visiting at the right time — May to October — you can observe rubber tapping and processing up close.

The river running through Xiao Bannong valley (image: James Affleck)
The river running through Xiao Bannong valley (image: James Affleck)

Rubber may yet raise Ximeng out of poverty, but not without a huge investment in labor. The rubber economy also comes at a cost to the environment, causing deforestation of the rainforest, a problem which we unfortunately observed in several parts of the region.

Staying in the village also gave us a chance to taste all sorts of local dishes. The local liquor shuijiu (水酒) here is better than in the county seat. When drinking, Wa custom dictates only one person should drink at a time. Before imbibing, one must toast the next person in line. The drinker chooses this person and acknowledges them with a two-handed toast while speaking the single word "a" ().

We ate pineapple fresh off the bush, field snails (田螺) from the rice paddies and had our first taste of sweet bamboo shoots (甜笋). They make for a delicious change from the more typical sour variety. If you have the chance, eat a quintessential Wa meal of cold chicken with herbs (凉拌鸡肉) and hot chicken porridge (鸡肉稀饭).

A meal of snails, fish, pineapple, and sweet bamboo shoots
A meal of snails, fish, pineapple, and sweet bamboo shoots

Traveling from Bannong junction, one passes through more rainforest before reaching tiny Wenggake (翁嘎科乡), the southernmost township in Ximeng. This is a good place to find accommodation. The road continues from Wenggake until it reaches the border at Menglian (孟连县). From there it becomes a dirt road that during the rainy season is often mired in deep mud.

Culture and Development

Ximeng is an interesting little corner of Yunnan. Thanks to its ethnic diversity and, until relatively recently, its remoteness, the region has kept its distinct culture intact and maintained much of its natural beauty. That said, many outward signs of traditional culture are absent in everyday life. At festival times however, the colors reemerge, as does the music and dancing.

The language, which belongs to the Mon-Khmer family rather than the Sino-Tibetan family, is an indelible part of Wa culture which has thus far been well-preserved. All of the children in the families we met grow up speaking Wa at home. Unlike some other minorities which have been "Hanicized" (汉化), the Wa have retained a strong sense of their ethnic identity.

Our Wa friends laugh and joke about how when they travel outside of Ximeng, their Chinese compatriots take one look at their complexion and assume they are from India, or even Africa, and are dumbfounded when they realize the Wa speak Chinese.

Rice paddies near Xiao Bannong (image: James Affleck)
Rice paddies near Xiao Bannong (image: James Affleck)

Though Ximeng is small, its cultural influence outside of the county is growing in importance. Sigangli (司岗里) and Lao Han's Reggae Band both hail from Ximeng. Renowned choreographer Yang Liping (杨丽萍) researched Wa dances in Ximeng and incorporated them into her award-winning show Dynamic Yunnan (云南印象). Furthermore, 2012 saw the production of the film Awashan (阿佤山), which was shot on location in Ximeng.

While Ximeng has already invested in some of the infrastructure that precedes any tourism boom in China, that boom has yet to arrive. But is seems Ximeng is surely headed in that direction. If you are the kind of person who is disheartened by enormous tourist development in places such as Lijiang and Jinghong, it would be a good idea to get to Ximeng sooner rather than later.

Already, promotional banners attached to the walls of a construction site on the shores of Ximeng's Longtan lake announce the future arrival of the five-star "Misty Lake Resort" (佤山秘境). The banner pictures look lifted from similar resorts in Southeast Asia. Some feature images of foreigners practicing yoga on resort verandas while others show them sipping cocktails under thatched roof huts beside terraced pools.

If this is your idea of a vacation, then you will have to wait a few more years. By that time, Lancang will have opened a new airport, and Ximeng will be just a hop, skip, and a jump away for tourists looking for the next new thing.

A banner envisioning the future "Misty Lake Resort" on the shores of Ximeng's Longtan
A banner envisioning the future "Misty Lake Resort" on the shores of Ximeng's Longtan

Getting there

There is one direct bus daily from Kunming to Ximeng leaving the South Bus Station at 4:30pm. Tickets cost 306 yuan. Those who don't like 13-hour bus rides can split up the journey either in Simao or Lancang, both of which have multiple daily buses to both Kunming and Ximeng.

A third option — though not of help to those coming from Kunming — is the bus from Menglian, which also has frequent daily departures. Apart from the places just mentioned, Ximeng has very limited bus connections. Travelers from Xishuangbanna or Lincang will need to transfer in Lancang.

Bus transportation within the county is limited as well. Minibuses run between the new and old county seats, and two daily buses go to Wenggake. Getting to any other location within Ximeng requires hiring a vehicle. For cyclists, Ximeng does have good paved roads, except where it doesn't.

Ximeng's new county seat has several hotels, the most luxurious of which is the Longtan Hotel (龙潭大酒店). Rooms there start at 200 yuan but prices skyrocket during festival times.

Basic hotels are 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, you can bring a tent and pitch it in the designated camping zone. In the rest of county, accommodations are meager, but each township will have at least one very basic guesthouse.

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Another great article, Matthew. The food sounds wonderful!

Two small additions:

The Likan Waterfall is an absolutely amazing site for bathing (though the rocks are slippery), as the pond beneath the waterfall is tranquil and deep.

And the instrument-maker in Natuoba is not only a musician, but a shaman, who claims to be in contact with his ancestors. In addition to his amazing instruments, he also has an awesome necklace made from human bone inherited from his great-great-grandfather or some such. He's been on CCTV and is locally famous, and keen on preserving Wa culture. In general one of the most interesting guys I've ever met in China.

All in all, great article, Ximeng certainly deserves some love!

Indeed it deserves Love! I just came back from Ximeng and its area, on of the best thing is that during Chinese Spring Festival it is totally forgotten by the tourists. I have just seen them come specifically for some Wazu performances (sacrifices, singing, dances) which are really worthing btw. The Wazu dance is worth the shot to see the energy and grace communicated by this dark-skinned long-haired beautiful girls. The local Wazu (from Ximeng and Mengka the old town) are probably the most welcoming and friendly Chinese I have ever met, and definitely the most smiley and funny ones. They also seem to have a strong attachment with music (a lot playing guitar and drums, chatted with some good reggae players) which is really nice.
Another thing not mentioned here is a place 木依吉 (Muyiji) with a little waterfall and some ancients Wazu painting on the mountains. During rainy season people can swim. It is very close from Ximeng heading towards Menglian (south), maybe 2km.
The drink 水酒 is a must but I hope you like drinking cause if you start, they won't let you go :) The food is also incredible and unfortunately impossible to find this taste in Kunming (as the locals say).

Such an underrated city and underrated culture that deserves a passing by.

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