[These "Travel Notes" are just raw brain-dumps, collected whenever I had a chance to sit down and type during the trip. See December's various topics for more reader-friendly post-trip writing.]
Xishuangbanna, Fri Nov 26: Haven't been typing much at all... arrived here Tue 23, been walking ten miles a day the first two days, fifteen yesterday, took it easy with about eight miles today. Lots to process. Been thinking, just haven't integrated things yet. Mere snapshots follow; no particular order.
Jinghong is a gorgeous environment. Jungle-y, when you get into the parks (and, presumably, if you get out of town). Banyans, broad-leaf canopies. Vaguely grid-like, but offset from cardinal directions... I've gotten turned around. Few street signs. Searing in mid-afternoon, but evening fog lasts until morning, great air.
Biggest shock when arriving in Jinghong, besides the 35F increase in heat, was street signage. In most of the PRC the signs are in characters, with English subtitles. Here they're mainly characters, but with subscript in Dai writing (which I first took as Thai). Sometimes English appears in a third line, usually phonetic Pinyin rather than semantics. Threw me. Felt like a graduate course: "Okay, your safety net's gone!"
The guys on scooters hanging out blocking sidewalks are usually scooters-for-hire, if they're wearing hardhats. Seen a lot more two, three, or four on a scooter than I've seen elsewhere. Not sure why; cabs are a significant fraction of traffic, and are significantly empty.
Expats in Dali set up heavy networks of friends. Expats in Lijiang seem individual entrepreneurs. Expats in Jinghong often seem in competition. Europeans disproportionately represented.
There are designer-label stores. There are beggars. Many of the beggars are women with 2-3 young children in tow. Inexplicable. Some beggars have damaged limbs. Some set up camp outside a particular restaurant or series of restaurants. Some peddle packages of peanuts, or roses (as in SF, although with different affect).
Feels like there's big coastal investment in this tropical, non-visa getaway. Large apartment towers going up on the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) just north of city center... feels like holiday homes. Beneath is Bar Street, about a mile of carefully-spaced bars in theme zones ("Snack Street", "International Zone" ("Mexico Bar", eg), "Rain Forest" zone, etc). Must have made sense to the original investors. Doesn't make sense to me, but I've seen a lot of abandoned strip malls in my time.
Lots of SUVs and campers and probably-too-big-pickups here. Good number of Lexus and BMW too. Suspect they're not townies. Bigger than motorcycles, guess that's the main thing.
Not sure if I've seen any Americans during this whole trip. Have seen a lot of Europeans, some Australians.
Jinghong is just the largest city in the province. Most of the attractions are out of town... an hour away, three hours away, seven hours away. Tour buses load up from the hotels before 7am, then stream back late after 11pm. I know I'm missing a lot of rural attractions on this trip, a lot of diversity, but I didn't come here to sit in a bus, I wanted to see people who weren't Robert Scoble. Staying in town is a more effective way to do that. Maybe next time.
I've been eating great food this whole trip, even when constrained to places with obvious hygenics. Today for lunch I had Dai-style beef... dried jerky, shredded, in lime and fish sauce with chopped garlic and scallions, loads of chopped chiles, cilantro (perhaps mint and basil), with a side dish of stir-fried boletes in red/brown sauce... big pot of Puer tea dark as coffee. This evening shrimp cakes, like fish cakes, but sweeter, less chewy. Big bold flavors, and lots of 'em. Mengzi-style Crossing-The-Bridge-Noodles, flavorful stock of chicken/duck/pork bones, bubbling hot then a layer of oil on top, assorted plates of chicken/pork/ham/fungi/greens/banana-flowers/peanuts added in turn to cook, then cold cooked noodles added as last step, 20Y. Fresh watermelon juice, tamarind juice, red sour berry juice, plus lots of plastic bottles of orange/lemon/grapefruit juice, mixed berry juices, various teas. I should've logged 'em as I et 'em....
Very notable here: As a westerner unaccompanied by tour group, I'm seeing a higher proportion of blank staring than any other place I've ever been. However, 90% of the time, a smile and acknowledgment of the other person brings about the same in response. You can't smile at people in San Francisco and expect the same. (The exceptions seem to be older people of perceptibly diminished capability, hardened patterns.) On the negative side, I've also apparently frightened a couple of under-five children, despite their parents' entreaties to say "halloo"... haven't had that happen on previous trips.
Outside my hotel there's a stone workshop, with the sound of the drill running from 8am past 6pm. A few times at 4am there have been loud half-hour arguments, perhaps drunken, outside the 24-hour noodle shop across the street. The car horns are often quiet just before dawn.
My language skills always drop back a year or so in realworld use, compared to home study. This time I did much much better when reading signage and in conversation with shopkeepers, random individuals.
Fewer people smoking here, and in Yunnan. Still a bit more than San Francisco, but not what I recall from the coastal cities.
Betel Nut is common among some in this area, but apparently more in the countryside than in the city. Did see some of the telltale red splotches on the street near the Myanamar Jade Market, usually stafffed by Indians, but did not see anyone consuming, and could not find a source.
Sat Nov 27: Mid-day walk through Manting Park, a mile south of city center. Very quiet, only Mad Dogs and Englishmen.... Jungley. Lake. Well over a hundred peacocks. A cage of turkeys with whom I missed a date; multiple cages with a few macaques apiece. White Pagoda. More Buddhist reconstructions. The famous Dai splashing-water pool, empty, wood stacked in a brazier for a nighttime fire.
Sat Nov 27: Wrote the above, and did a lot of editing on previous Travel Notes, while sitting in back of the Mekong Cafe, drinking a fabulous pot of rich Puer Tea, smoking two pipes. Then, on to my Last Night in Yunnan, which was fabulously confusing....
First, walked north to the new bridge, across to the other side of the Lancang/Mekong, then north a mile or so to the old bridge. Dark, lots of bright headlights, changes in roadway/sidewalk, oncoming scooters, the rest. the NE side of the Lancang River here isn't as developed as the townie side yet, but shows the signs of change... lots of garages, monster truck tires, scooter repair, small shops where the two owners' bunks are visible when they roll up the shop door, sweaty guys watching their TV after the day's business is over. Lots of Dai barbecue places, glorious smells of smoke and citrus and grilling fish or meat or vegetables, people setting up tables at 8pm in anticipation of locals spending the rest of the night chatting with friends. Meanwhile, closer to the river, construction and empty new brightly-lit condominiums for sale, in expectation of coastal investment in vacation homes.
After a walk that seemed longer than a mile and had a few empty desolate spaces, came to the old bridge and informal convenience stores once again, barber shops with fashionable-looking young men tending hair even a few hours after dark, and foot-massage places which had three beds and three young ladies of dubious age and sanitation, people playing mahjohng or chess or cards or watching TV, and the reappearance of cheerful neon. Just before the bridge a few quarter-ride kiddie amusement rides, and a preplanned Dai Village bar scene, much smaller than that on the SW bank.
Back on the town side of the Mekong, ballroom/jitterbug dancing (but without the jitter) to radio-DJ's tunes which had western instrumentation but traditional frontier China sensibilities... lovely, such a contrast to the Internet Bar gaming scene. Back south down past the Bar Street scene which, on a Saturday night, apparently took only one table of a dozen patrons to rationalize the business investment. Back into CarHonk Central of Jinghong itself, and the evening's first and final bar stop at Banna Cafe on the corner of Manting Lu.
(I've been hitting nearby Mengzi Noodles and MeiMei and Mekong Cafes disproportionately because I know how to place an order there... Banna Cafe I had been to only once, and so owed them a visit.)
The music is what disoriented me. Willie Nelson with Rickie Lee Jones, an album, for starters. Then Merle Haggard, "Sing Me Back Home", which made me wish for George Jones' "Green Green Grass of Home" which was introduced to me by Ray Bierl many years ago. Then a group of Northern California newgrass singers, one of whom I could swear was Bethany Raines whom I had such a crush on before she joined Good Ol' Persons and got married, while she was singing with her brother Greg Pratt and Tony Marcus and Lesley Dixon in Random Harvest while I was playing with Bruce Stelter and Bruce Foss in Life Of Reilly, but the recording may not have been Good Ol' Persons because the lead singer enunciated the words so it couldn't have been dear Kathie Kallick, don't know... just put me offbase, the whole thing.
Then the waiter came by with a sheet of paper, and after a bit of time I understood that he wanted to check on some English prounciation issues. We spoke in Mandarin. He was Lao. I was quite enthralled by what he was doing, expat, speaking in a second language, trying to learn a third. The problem was the English "th" sound, which doesn't really exist in all other languages... a new skill. He got it after awhile, good for him. Meanwhile the jukebox did play George Jones singing "The Green Green Grass of Home", and I was really losing it, being on my second half-liter of 5% Lao Beer and walking about twelve miles on a pot of tea and some noodles.
And then... the jukebox played what sounded to me like an Irish button accordion. But then the second verse was Chinese open-throat singing, western Chinese, very distinct. Third chorus was definitely an Irish flute. I haven't been playing accordion for about five years, while studying Chinese, and so couldn't place the player... a half-hour later I could still hear the tune and believe they married an O'Neill's tune to a Chinese tune for some quick'n'ready fusion, but... it felt like the evening was speaking directly to me, giving me a sign, "Take these things and integrate them" or such.
I'm a little freaked out. Not uncomfortably so, just mind-changingly so. My last night in Yunnan, and it seemed to tell me to Do More. Maybe I should go to sleep now and dream about it....