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Going remote for new year: Celebrating on the Nanding River

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As Lunar New Year approaches in Yunnan, travelers there, like anywhere else in China, have to make up their minds where they intend to spend the next several days. Plane, train and bus ticket possibilities shrink hourly. Restaurants start locking up for the holidays and I've spent new year in cities where the only place open to eat was a single noodle stall. Hotels in popular getaway destinations in Yunnan jack up the price for rooms and services, 500 percent in Jinghong (景洪), for example, compared to 'only' 300 percent for other peak times such as Water-Splashing Festival in April.

I faced this problem one February when I was in Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) to see the Jinuo Temaoke Festival. Being a solar calendar event, that year the festival took place several days before new year. But I didn't want to pay the extra money for staying in Jinghong, with nothing particularly interesting scheduled for the holidays anyway. So I decided to explore some place where I'd never been and settled on Junsai (军赛) in Lincang Prefecture on the right bank of the Nanding River (南汀河) — about 25 kilometers upriver from Mengding (孟定).

This city I knew from a visit over a decade earlier was dominated by the Dai nationality (傣族), with a few De'ang (德昂) and Wa (佤族) villages in the hills. I hadn't crossed the river then, but it looked similar to the landscape on the Mengding side — rice paddies and rubber tree plantations backed by hills. On the map, Junsai is identified as a Wa, Lahu (拉祜族), Lisu (傈僳族) and De'ang Autonomous District. Surely one of these minorities would be doing something for new year, I reckoned.

Deep into the countryside

An old friend and veteran Yunnan traveler joined me for this excursion and we took the long and sometimes grueling bus ride to Gengma (耿马), stayed the night and left for the Nanding River in the morning. We continued to Mengding to take a look, found it full of new buildings, all with Dai-style angled roofs, fancy hotels and only one restaurant still open.

Well, it was just two days before new year. We arrived at noon in Junsai — basically a one-street town — found a simple guesthouse and three small restaurants still open, so for sure we could eat this night. Whether they would close from tomorrow we didn't know yet, but I'd brought a duty-free bottle of 18-year-old Chivas, so if the drink shops were going to close, too, we anyway had decent liquor to enjoy for the holiday.

Most of Junsai's inhabitants are Dai and some of them were busy planting the winter rice crop. We walked out of the town on the road going upriver and passed two rather uninteresting De'ang villages. Their houses were modern ones of brick and concrete, without any temple, and only a few women wore De'ang style clothing, usually just the distinctive short jacket over a sarong.

At the end of Dabao (大包), the second village, a banner strung across the road welcomed everyone to the new year celebration ground. The venue was a slope that stretched down to the riverside, where a wooden swing had been erected and children were taking turns on it. Some tables had been set up between the swing and the stage a little ways up the slope, but vendors hadn't started laying out their goods yet. The stage arrangements hadn't been finished yet, but one of the men overseeing the work hailed us over, introduced himself and invited us to have dinner with them the following two evenings. Well that solved any food problems we might have had.

Returning to Junsai, we walked out the other end of town and down the road past the turn-off to Mengding, coming to a side road leading uphill. A wooden gate straddled this road, with a buffalo skull mounted on the overhead crossbeam. Got to be a Wa village, we guessed, and headed up the hill. Fortunately, the climb was neither strenuous nor very long. Unfortunately, the village wasn't Wa. It was Han and the villagers were rubber plantation workers.

Market day

So much for our exploration that day, but the following morning we discovered it was Junsai's market day, which ought to attract some ethnic minority visitors, we assumed. Dai women tended most of the stalls, the younger ones in modern clothes, the older ones in pale blouses and sarongs and big black or white turbans. Vegetables, grains, fruits, shoes and sandals, cheap clothing, new year gift packages and calendars were their wares.

A few De'ang women set up stalls, but we didn't see any Lahu, Wa or Lisu, or at least not anyone wearing anything ethnic-style beyond the Dai and De'ang women. The latter we could recognize by their waist-length jackets, with a little embroidery enhancing the back. But no one seemed particularly dressed up. No jewelry and nobody wearing the rattan waistbands I'd witnessed on De'ang women in the Mengding market years ago. They were very friendly, however, probably meeting foreigners for the first time ever. They couldn't speak much Chinese, though.

The market began shutting down early in the afternoon, so we walked to Dabao next. The fairground there was all set up, with vendors stocking goods on their tables, rows of chairs in place in front of the stage, and the swing by the riverside active again. On the slope above the stage were several food stalls, with small tables and stools at each, serving ordinary meat, vegetable and rice meals, as well as such exotic dishes as deer, dog and wildcat. More food stalls run by Dai vendors lay beyond the rows of seats in front of the stage. Beverages of various kinds were also on sale here, plus a couple stalls offering games of chance, like trying to loop bottles of beer with a small hoop tossed from ten meters away.

After a late afternoon stroll along the river we returned to the fairgrounds to see the man who invited us the day before striding down the slope to greet us, his hands outstretched in welcome as he happily escorted us to his table. We shared an opening round of drinks with him and his other guests while waiting for the cooks to bring the ingredients of our meal. They seemed quite pleased to have foreign guests, obviously for the first time. They all explained they had never met or even seen Americans or Germans before.

Junsai's not exactly on the usual tourist trail in Yunnan, and none of our fellow diners had ever been further afield than Mengding or Gengma. And on any given day, actually, neither Mengding nor Gengma is likely to have any Americans or Germans in the city. What they know about either country is whatever they have derived from state-run television. Other than that both countries were rich, they didn't have a clear impression. Nor did they attempt to make up for that by asking a lot of questions about our homes.

Instead, we talked about things that mattered more to them — rice, rubber, floods, and what brought us to Junsai. Never been here, so curious. Where have you been? Well, Mengding, Gengma, for starts, as well as De'ang villages in Dehong where they live in stilted houses. And a host of other places in the province. So we could discuss Yunnan and that's something we all knew about. Yes, wonderful Yunnan, they assented, with mountains and valleys and ethnic minorities like our own De'ang right here in good old Dabao, which may not seem like much to seasoned Yunnan explorers but was going to be real special tonight and tomorrow night because it is our new year and we take it seriously.

New year festivities

So they were very moderate in refilling our liquor cups, lest we get too drunk to enjoy the show. A little after dark the seats began filling with spectators, fresh from their own banquets at home. Special guests we were escorted to the middle of the front row. After a short speech by a district Party official the show commenced.

Performed by local troupes and district villagers, consisting of several costumed dances interspersed with solo performances, the show was remarkable for having not a single De'ang dance or song, though the host village was De'ang. The first act was a Tibetan dance, with girls wearing blouses with extra-long sleeves that they waved through the air. Next came a Uygur number from Xinjiang, the first of three throughout the night, with men in long caftans and women in billowing pants and matching, bare-midriff blouses.

Other Tibetan dances, with leaping men in off-the-shoulder coats, a Nosuo Yi dance from northwest Yunnan, solo singers and instrumentalists and a couple of disco numbers comprised the rest of the night's program. The show concluded long before midnight, but as no fireworks were scheduled, the fairground stalls began closing down shortly after the show's end. We returned with the crowd to Junsai and opened my bottle of 18-year-old Chivas to toast the new year with a tumbler of whiskey each.

To our mild surprise the next morning, the official new year day, most of the small shops, including the little restaurants, were open for business, even if customers were very few. We took a leisurely walk upriver to Dabao, arriving just after mid-day. The hike made us hungry, but the fairground stalls were all open, including the food stalls with the exotic menus. Not getting this opportunity very often anymore, I couldn't resist having a meal of grilled deer and wildcat. The other stalls offered pork and chicken, but we would get that in the evening anyway.

That we did, as our hosts graciously plied us with one dish after another of various parts of these animals, punctuated with cups of rice liquor and convivial conversation. How did we like the show last night? Wonderful. It was totally unexpected, meaning, they thought, we didn't expect a show at all before we came, and meaning, as we thought, we didn't expect a show in Junsai to be dominated by dances from Tibet and Xinjiang. And tonight? Tonight was going to feature a Wa troupe, not from Junsai district, but from the mountains near Gengma.

Once again, after the meal we were seated in the middle of the front row. Six district Party officials sat on one side of the stage and rose when the young female emcee for the night introduced them to the audience. Then she introduced their American and German guests and we had to stand and make a slight bow to acknowledge the polite applause around us. Then the show could begin.

It was a lot better than the night before. The various Wa troupes — young female, young male, older female — were better coordinated, more practiced, and more exuberant, too. Aside from occasional solo singers — including the emcee herself — the performances were all Wa, even the instrumental soloists. The young Wa women, in their traditional, hand-woven, wraparound skirts and blouses, stole the show with their energetic choreography, incorporating bits of the Hair Dance in most numbers.

About two-thirds of the way through the show the emcee grabbed the microphone in between sets to tell the audience that life in Junsai was getting better every year. There was cleaner water, greater prosperity, etc. "Do you know why?" she asked the crowd. Nobody responded. "Do you know why?" she repeated, looking around at the people. Still silence. "Because of the Communist Party!" she shouted. At that the Party officials seated on the side of the stage stood up and vigorously applauded.

No one else did. The emcee looked a little embarrassed but the officials sat back down and the show resumed. Lethargic audience? No, for after another sight of Wa girls tossing their long black manes around in another sprightly dance the crowd applauded loud and long. After the last act the audience rose from their seats and joined the performers in a ring dance, led by musicians on lutes and gourd-pipes.

The crowd broke up after about a half hour and we joined the walk back to Junsai. Back in our lodge we uncorked the whiskey and drank toasts to our holiday good luck — a new year venue where we paid no surcharge for the hotel, better meals than we had imagined, genuine rural hospitality where strangers become honored guests, an unexpected small town public celebration and the bonus of a stunning performance of wonderful Wa dance troupes. Happy new year indeed!

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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I went with 3 other westerners to a Wa festival in Ximeng about 8-10 years ago - one of our number knew somebody who knew somebody, and the 4 of us got free hotel rooms (there couldn't have been more than about 5 other westerners at most there, and we were obviously invited so that the CCBC camera and other coverage would perhaps appeal to more foreign tourists). The festival was essentially a tourist show, very well choreographed and so forth, enjoyable, not 'authentic', with scores, perhaps over a hundred, of group dancers in a big outdoor amphitheatre which sat several thousands. Evening, in an indoor theatre, there was a play featuring the Wa, supposed to show their rise from ugly-barbarian savagery thanks to the arrival of PLA soldiers. Point is, this thank-God-for-the-PLA theme was embarrassingly overdone, reminded me of some of the more cardboard elements of dance of the Cultural R. period, and I almost walked out, as it seemed to me so single-issue and propagandistic that I felt it amounted to pandering to Han-cultural attitudes about the inferiority of the non-Han, especially the Wa - it was all Party propaganda about the end of headhunting etc, otherwise nothing really about the Wa. I wonder if this emphasis is particularly strong in such tourist performances concerning the Wa, given that they present easy targets for such a treatment. Yeah, I've read that certainly many Wa were indeed glad to see the end of headhunting, and I'm not necessarily disputing that it has been good that their long resistance, carried out from their mountains, to incorporation into a wider national society had finally come to an end back in the 1950s - however, the show I saw reminded me of the kind of thing that had once entertained the prejudices of 'White' people in the old American South, or in South Africa.

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