Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Hidden Attractions in Mengla County

                                                        by Jim Goodman  

looking north from above Mengxing
       Most visitors to Xishuangbanna spend their time in and around the city and on day-trips to the Dai Park, the pagodas at Damenglong or various places west in Menghai County.  If they venture into Mengla County at all, it will be to Menglun, about 60 km east, just inside the county boundary.  The sprawling, fascinating Botanical Garden is just across the river from the town and is certainly worth the excursion.  The only other place in the county to see many travelers is Mengla city itself.  And these are people passing through on the way to or from northern Laos and may not even stay long enough to look at anything.
Dai girls in Manla
       Thanks to the new highway, the journey from Jinghong to Mengla only takes about three hours, as it skirts around the highest hills or tunnels through them.  Buses on the old road took nearly the whole day, having to climb a high mountain south of Mengxing, then up and down hills before the descent to Mengla plain.  Of course, it was a far more scenic route, with views of the hills to the north and lots of forest on the way.  The new route runs mainly through low hills full of rubber trees.
       As the view from the mountain pass just south of Mengxing indicates, the northern half of Mengla County is much hillier than the lower elevations of its southern districts.  Of the northern towns, Manla is basically a Dai village turned into an administrative center.  Xiangming, on a road branching west just south of Manla, is the prefecture’s only Autonomous Yi District, mainly inhabited by the Lalu branch of the Yi who migrated here from Jinggu County in Pu’er Prefecture in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty.  They also have settlements near Yiwu and north of Manla.  Some of them moved on into northern Laos, where they are known as the Lolo, the original name for the Yi.  About 57,000 Yi live in Xishuangbanna, comprising 5.6% of the population.
Longshi Jinuo village
        Their clothing style—side-fastened tunic, usually blue, black trousers and turbans--and housing type—timber posts, brick walls and tiled roofs--resembled that of the rural Han in their original homeland.  They were not as distinctly different as the Miao and the Yao settling in the county then as well, but coming in the area long before the Han had any significant presence, they probably impressed the Dai as very different kind of people.
        Xishuangbanna’s Yi do not share a couple of the most famous Yi characteristics common to bigger sub-groups in the province.  They do not celebrate the summer Torch Festival.  Villages do not have a bimaw, the Yi spiritual specialist who keeps the traditional books written with the unique Yi alphabet, covering myths, legends, pharmacopoeia, ritual rules, moral aphorisms, and so forth.  Like other Yi, though, they keep an ancestral altar in a corner of the dining and receiving room and make offerings at New Year and other occasions.
       In Xiangming the local government last decade revived the Baishijia Festival, honoring Jin Xian, an ancient martial hero.  When drafted into the army to fight a foreign invasion he promised his village he would return by the next lunar New Year.  As it turned out, he didn’t show up until the 8th day of the 2nd moon.  He was, however, laden with decorations in recognition of his valor in combat.  So the festival is held on that day to celebrate his return.  The revival was a typical government-sponsored event, dominated by songs and dances, but for once the traditional Yi costume was the fashion of the day.  From 2011 the festival has also been staged in Yiwu.
above the fog in Yiwu
       In the mountains west of Xiangming, aside from a few stray Miao settlements, the villages are mostly Jinuo, a mountain-dwelling people who only reside in three areas of Xishuangbanna; here in the Kongmingshan area, as well as Jinuoshan and Mengwang districts in Jinghong County.  The paved part of the road out of Xiangming ends after four kilometers and the dirt road begins climbing uphill several km further from the large Dai village of Manlin.   After passing thick forests full of flowering trees, interspersed with tea gardens, it reaches the new Miao village of Andong.  From here a road north goes to Xinfa, and then on to Longshi, through the heart of Jinuo territory.
tea gardens near Yiwu
       According to the prefecture maps, this is a designated Scenic Area.  Longshi lies on a spur with a clear view of the blunt peak of Kongmingshan directly west.  The Jinuo here do not ordinarily dress in their ethnic style and the characteristic stilted houses that still prevail in Jinuoshan are absent.  A few are modern style, but most are simple wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes for their televisions.   And perhaps because of the television influence, only the older generation still uses the Jinuo language.  Everyone else converses in Chinese.  Like their cousins in Jinuoshan, they cultivate tea rather than rice.
Yao man in the Mengla market
Aini woman in Mengban
The prime center for tea production in the northern half of the county is Yiwu, in the hills south of Manla.  Vehicles have to turn off Route 213 in the valley and climb up to the city.  It’s a small town, mainly Han-inhabited, with Yi and Miao villages within walking distance.  Tea merchants dominate the commercial area, while tea gardens lie along roads in every direction out of the town.  A walk along the road north of the town in the early morning gives one a spectacular view of peaks above the low clouds of early morning, especially Kongmingshan.
the aerial ropeway walk
       The Yi who might be in town dress in modern clothes, but a few Miao may also be around, the women distinguished by their bulky, pleated skirt.  Around 12.000 Miao live in Xishuangbanna, mostly in eastern Memgla County, comprising 1.1% of the prefecture’s population.  Like the Yi, they came here in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, migrating from Guangxi, but are a small fraction of the over one million Miao in Yunnan and the over seven million throughout China.  They are not congregated in any particular area in Banna, but scattered in the hills among other minorities.  
       Forced migration has been a theme of Miao history since ancient times.  They settled in remote hills and secluded valleys until expanding Han populations began encroaching on their territory.  Then they would revolt, drive out the Han and face massive military retaliation, forcing them to surrender their land and move south.  Originally from central China, and there are still Miao communities in Hunan, different sub-groups eventually settled in China’s southern provinces and over the border into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
bridge over the Nanla River near Mengla
well pagoda in Mengla 
       Xishuangbanna’s 20,000 members of the Yao minority nationality also live mainly in eastern Mengla County, mostly from the Landian sub-group, who also reside in Jiangcheng, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.  Their women wear a tight pair of black pants to just below the knee, white leggings, a loose black jacket, a skein of bright magenta wool thread hanging down from the neck in front and silver ornaments in their hair buns.  They also shave off their eyebrows. 
pavilion at the Manlongdai bridge
       This Yao sub-group favored locations at lower altitudes than most other Yao and except for the Yiwu highlands established villages in remote valleys with nearby streams.  Traditionally the Landian Yao built one-story houses of wattle and thatch, with mud floors, and aligned them with the stream, facing upstream.  They are concentrated around Manla in the north and Yaoqu in the center
       A road along the Nanla River north of Mengla comes to a fork after 27 km at Nazhuo.  Another 11 km northeast lies Yaoqu, but it is a modern town and the Yao around here do not dress Yao-style nor live in traditional houses.  However, the fork turning northeast passes Naka, a typical Yao village along the Nanla River, where at least the females still wear traditional clothing.  They may also be seen at the market in Mengban, a few km upriver, along with Miao and Aini.
typical Manlongdai house/restaurant
Aini villages lie a couple of hours walk up into the hills directly east of Mengban.  Their stilted houses with attached, open-air balcony resemble those of Aini elsewhere in Banna.  But the women’s outfit is very different, without a skirt or lavish use of embroidery.  In this sub-group they wear a long black coat, with a bit of appliqué around the lapel, over calf-length black trousers.  The black headscarf features a row of silver studs in front, coins attached to the sides and silver chains with a pair of hoops at the ends dangling from each side.
       The road from Mengla to Nazhuo offers pleasant views of the river.  Parts of it are filled with half-submerged trees and thick forest flanks the eastern banks.  Fishermen ride rafts of lashed bamboo poles, about three meters long and half meter wide.  At bends in the river’s course the mountains to the east are visible.
temple compound near Manlongdai
       About ten km north of Mengla a side road turns west into a patch of virgin rain forest, one of the last surviving in the prefecture.  In most cases, people have to appreciate the wonders of such a forest from a ground-level viewpoint.  From 2007, another perspective became possible here.  An aerial ropeway adventure opened, offering a walk across planks mounted twelve meters up in the trees, flanked by heavily netted sides and a railing to hang onto while making the walk.  Only a few people are allowed on the walkway at a time, and it does sway a bit while used, but is perfectly safe.  The view is both up and down at magnificent tall and straight tree trunks, creepers, vines, epiphytes and a hundred shades of the color green.  The walkway ends in full view of a jungle waterfall.
the interior of Manlongdai's temple
       In Mengla City, most of the shops, restaurants, hotels and offices lie on the busy north-south road.  The residential areas are off to either side.  The little central park is busy mornings and evenings with local people practicing tai qi and other forms of exercise.  On the hill above it is the local Buddhist temple compound.  Just down the street is the Nanla Shopping Mall, with attractive buildings employing Dai architectural motifs, like pagodas on the roof, that include a supermarket, several boutiques, snack and drink shops and outdoor restaurants along the river.  A Dai-style pagoda well stands at the corner and a right turn here along Qingnianlu leads to the old neighborhood of Mansai, a collection of traditional Dai houses, a few of which double as evening restaurants.
       The latter are popular with visitors who stay overnight.  For afternoon meals, though, tourists and even Dai from other parts of the prefecture tend to head for Manlongdai, just several km north, an 800-year-old Dai village famous for its cuisine.  With scarcely any modern-style buildings around, just Dai-style stilted houses, diners can relish their meals in an authentic traditional setting.   Hosts serve them various locally grown vegetables, raw and cooked, steamed fish, boiled and grilled chicken, ground pork mixed with herbs and cooked in a bamboo tube, and Pu’er tea and rice liquor to wash it all down. 
Huilong Falls
       The village lies on the south side of a narrow stream, with the rice fields on the other side.  A modest wooden gate stands on one side of the bridge across the stream, while on the village side is a very ornate, red-painted gate doubling as a rest stop, decorated with carvings and a painted peacock below the roof apex.  Just beyond the north end of the village is the old monastery, with wooden walls and roof tiles, still the original building from centuries ago.
       Just two km away another Dai village, two centuries older than Manlongdai, has also retained its original temple compound buildings.  They’re a little dilapidated and they use a bit of corrugated iron here and there on the awnings above the ground floor.  Concrete pillars have replaced the wooden posts.  The interiors are quite well preserved, however, featuring lavishly painted altars, ceiling imagery and wall murals internal and external.
       In the jungle a short distance from Manlongdai is the most hidden of all of the county’s little-known attractions—Huilong Falls.  The waterfall plunges about a hundred meters from a tall cliff straight through the jungle.  To reach this serene and lovely site one has to find a guide to take one down a certain jungle path, then cross a creek and fight through the bushes, perhaps startling a porcupine on the way, bend under tree branches and crawl over boulders for about a half hour just to get into a position to see five of its nine cataracts. 
       Similar unexplored jungles still exist elsewhere in the county.  No doubt intrepid travelers In the future, driven by an insatiable appetite for unspoiled natural beauty, will discover new waterfalls, caves and scenic tucked-away ponds.  The list of Mengla County’s hidden attractions is bound to grow.     
in the heart of a tropical rain forest
                                                                         * * *                                                                                                  
                              for more on Mengla County and its people, see my e-book
                                           Xishuangbanna:  The Tropics of Yunnan


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