Ailaoshan—the Ailao Mountain Range—begins in central Yunnan and runs along the south side of the Red River all the way into northern Vietnam. Ailao Mountain, at the top end, stands at 3166 meters, while its second highest peak, Phansipan in Sapa, Vietnam, rises to 3143 meters. But most peaks range from 1500-2500 meters. Lower Ailaoshan—Honghe, Yuanyang, Luchun and Jinping Counties—garners more traveler attention, especially Yuanyang, for its ethnic diversity and its spectacular, water-filled rice terraces. Yet similar landscapes and branches of the same minorities characterize the lesser known counties of Xinping and Yuanjiang.
Because stretches of low-lying flat land are rare along this section of the river, Huayao Dai made farms on the lower slopes of the hills by cutting terraces into them, usually reinforced with stone, irrigated by streams engineered to direct water through all the terraces and then through the village below. It’s the same system employed so famously in Lower Ailaoshan. And as the Dai are the oldest inhabitants of the Red River lands, they may have been the ones who originated it. The Yi, Hani and others were later migrants to Ailaoshan and the irrigated titian (step terraces) are not part of their mythology or traditional history prior to their arrival.
Besides the Dai, the Yi, Hani and Lahu participants also perform on stage. The Lahu dance is quite unusual. Half-naked males dance wildly around in a circle, blacken the faces of the girls nearest to them and then engage them in a mock free-for-all.
Yuanjiang City lies at one of the lowest elevations—520 meters—in the province, making it one of the warmest. Low mountains across the river are devoid of forests or any vegetation, but the plain around the city is richly irrigated and agriculturally productive. Because of its open location far from the hills the city and vicinity can be subjected to brisk winds, especially in spring, gusting In the afternoon and howling all night.
Yuanjiang is the administrative seat of a Hani, Yi and Dai Autonomous County. Several Hani groups live in the mountains to the south, the Yi in the eastern hills and the Dai along the river. Two sub-groups of Dai reside in the county: the Dai Ya branch of the Huayao Dai and the Dai La, a differently-dressed group more common downriver in Honghe and Yuanyang. The women wear side-fastened jackets with lots of color across the lapel and sleeves, worn over black tubular skirts with brightly embroidered leg-wrappers. They live in the same kind of houses, but as the riverside plains are wider here they mostly avoid hillside terraces and raise fruits, sugarcane and vegetables in addition to rice.
The town itself is a nondescript boring place only interesting on its weekly market day, when Hani come in from the hills. But in the Yinyuan plain are eight Bai villages, descendants of Bai who fled Dali during the wars that engulfed the crumbling of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the early 10th century. They speak a Bai dialect similar to Dali’s and live in houses with open courtyards behind the compound wall, Bai-style garden at one end with ornamental and medicinal plants, murals on the walls and an open-fronted main receiving room, very much like the Dali area.
On a small hill near one of the villages stands a thousand-year-old tree. Its trunk is so wide it takes eight men clasping hands with their outstretched arms to encircle it. Red Guards destroyed the temple that was once next to it, but at least spared the tree. Nowadays every year in the 3rd lunar month Bai villagers organize a procession to the tree and perform rituals in front of it.
From Yuanjiang a good road runs east about ten km to a Dai village next to a reservoir and then turns south and zigzags up the hills, which rise at least a thousand meters above the plains. After reaching Yangjie the road somewhat straightens out and remains high on the slopes. From here to Nanuo, another 35 km southeast, the landscape begins to exemplify typical Ailaoshan terrain, with steep slopes covered with water-filled terraces, speckled with tightly clustered Hani villages. The land just east of Nanuo is the most spectacular section and has been officially designated a Scenic Area.
The Hani live in mud-brick houses with tile roofs, usually, but not always, two stories and without a compound wall. The kitchen and dining-reception room are right inside the front door. Sleeping quarters are upstairs. Some houses also have small balconies, where family members and guests may sit and relax.
While the youth and men ordinarily dress in modern clothes, most married women prefer the Hani traditional outfit. They wear black cotton trousers, fastened by a belt with long embroidered or tasseled ends hanging over the buttocks, long-sleeved blouse and short-sleeved jacket, black around Yangjie and more often white around Nanuo, with some embroidered red stitch lines.. Coin buttons run down the jacket front, with silver clasps at the collar, but it’s usually worn open.
When the French Mekong Expedition passed this way in 1868 they enjoyed a wonderful reception from Yuanjiang’s mandarins. These were the first foreigners Yuanjiang folks had ever seen. When the French party reached the plains near Yuanjiang the city officials marched to greet them at the head of a party that included two hundred soldiers and porters to escort them to Yuanjiang. Some carried banners, others big character posters welcoming the members of the expedition. When they reached the city cannon boomed and an orchestra played.
A century and a half later, foreigners are traveling everywhere in Yunnan and nearly every city has had experience with them. In many highlands areas, though, a foreign arrival is still a special event. There won’t be any marching band or procession to meet them, but the traveler will find the people friendly and eager to make the encounter a memorably good one. For Ailaoshan people, hospitality is part of their nature.
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For more information on all of Ailaoshan, see my e-book TheTerrace Builders