The One One Four’s Chris Tharp spent this August trekking through the jungles of South China and Northern Laos. In this two part series documenting his travels, Chris and his companions go from Shanghai to the Mekong River and south into Laos on a 25 day journey into parts of the world few people have ever seen. Along the way they met travelers and expats from around the world, eat steamed bee larvae, fired grubs, and grilled rat while numbing the pain of the ass-busting bus rides with the Chinese equivalent to soju, Baiju. In part one, Chris goes from Shanghai to Jinhong and met up with French expat Gregoire who into introduces him to the wonders of donkey stew. Check back this Saturday for part two: from Jinhong to Muang Ngoi.
I arrived in Kunming three hours late. My plane in Shanghai had been stuck on the runway while a savage thunderstorm slapped the ground, killing visibility and washing over the tarmac, reminding me once again that I was travelling during the height of the East Asian monsoon. I had spent the previous five days in Jeju Island with my girlfriend, and had endured deluge upon deluge. Busan – the city I call home – had spent much of the summer inundated with water, and I was now heading out into the soaked and rotting heart of the real jungle.
I met my travelling companions – Sammy, Sir David, and Angry Steve – at The Hump, a popular hostel in Kunming, the city’s ground zero for backpackers. That sat at a table on the outside roof, already looking worn and beaten. They sipped big bottles of Carlsberg beer, and were winding down after a grueling two-day train journey from Shanghai, where they had played hard and pissed away large sums of cash. What happened before was merely a precursor to the actual matter at hand, however: a trip through China’s southernmost Yunnan province, followed by a loop around northern Laos. Along the way we intended to trek into hill tribe country, swim, ride bicycles, cruise on motorbikes, endure punishing bus rides, eat strange animals and insects, and drink ourselves blind on lukewarm beer and local firewater, all the while taking in the tapestry of cultures that make up the region. A tall order, yes, but whom better to take on such a challenge, than our merry band of degenerates?
We spent two days exploring the environs of Kunming, which by all measures is a pleasant city, especially when compared to some of China’s industrial urban horrors. Kunming is modern and clean, with wide avenues and narrow side streets, where you can still get a taste of “old China,” most specifically in the many noodle shops found peppered throughout the city. It’s a great city to be explored by bicycle, since most of it is centralized. We did that, spending two days lazily rolling around its streets. Not to be missed is a hike up Xi Shan, the massive mountain outside of town, which we did on our second day. The view from the top is spectacular, and you can embrace your inner slacker and take a chairlift plus cable car down.
After an all night ride on the sleeper bus, we arrived in Jinhong, a Chinese town located on the slow rolling Mekong River, in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region. Xishuangbanna – or Banna, for short – is an area of rolling hills and verdant jungle, bordering both Myanmar (Burma) and Lao. It is home to a variety of hill tribe minority groups – most notably the Dai people, who are related to modern Thais. Each tribe is identifiable by the specific clothing they wear – ethnic uniforms of a sort. Jinhong is also popular with Chinese tourists in the winter, who come down to escape the extreme icy temperatures of Shanghai and Beijing. It’s a town being transformed into a Chinese travelers’ Mecca: gentrification is the name of the game, and before long the place will resemble a gargantuan outdoor shopping mall – complete with McDonalds – but with the façade of traditional Dai architecture. Western visitors are few – especially during the wet season – and we only saw a handful at any given time.
Jinhong is hot. You are in the tropics and you feel it. Huge palm trees line the roads, and the afternoon sun slows all activity to a sloth’s pace. We spent our days bicycling around and our nights at the Mekong Café, run by a wild-haired French expat named Gregoire. Gregoire is one of those guys whose personality is bigger than his business, and even if his food was lousy (which it was not), you’d still come in for the conversation and atmosphere. He’s lived in Asia for 30 years and is the definite go-to man for Westerners in Jinhong. A chef by training, he would hard sell us his specials of the day:
“You must try the donkey stew, it is fucking amazing! I guarantee you like it, or I give you your money back.”
“Listen my American friends, tonight I have wild boar – I kill the pig myself!”
Gregoire also organizes jungle hill treks, and after a couple of days we were off on one of his expeditions, accompanied by two young French medical students and a sprite of a young woman named Xing La, who was our guide. We stopped at the local market – the most colorful I’ve seen anywhere in Asia – where you could buy all varieties of fruits, vegetables, wild mushrooms, gutted and quartered dog, along with every part of a cow or pig conceivable, including ass and attached shit tube. We trudged through hill country, through cultivated jungle where they grew corn, tobacco, sugar cane, through villages inhabited by Lahu, Aka, Wa Zhu, Bu Lang, and Dai people. We stayed with Xing La’s family in her home village, where we feasted on local delicacies, including steamed bee larvae and huge, fried grubs. We got silly drunk on bai ju, and stayed the next night on a lake, where we swam, I lost a watch, and more bai ju was consumed. Sir David was even left behind at one point, but a search party was organized and he was thankfully located, having been abandoned only because he disappeared into the jungle to take a dump, au natural. We sang silly songs, smoked cigarettes, and learned the innermost yearnings of post-adolescent French backpackers. We took in one of the most lush and deeply green landscapes I’ve ever seen. We had a hell of a time.
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