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February 25, 2012

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Trekking in virgin tropical forest

TREKKING in Yunnan Province takes you about as far away from typical China as you can get, and for the most adventurous there's spectacular virgin tropical rainforest and an awesome jungle mountain. Mark Melnicoe scales the heights.

Jungle trekking in China? It's not the first thing that comes to mind for most people considering tourist spots for a Chinese getaway.

But in Xishuangbanna, you're about as far from typical China as you can get - its people, land and customs are more aligned with Southeast Asian nations such as Laos and Myanmar, on which it borders. This mountainous, southernmost region of Yunnan Province contains much of China's biodiversity - both in plants and animals - and a wintertime trip can take you out of the cold and into a warm and green natural wonderland.

One great way to get close to nature here: Join a trek, where you can group hike on day-long or multi-day walks through the region's rainforests, with opportunities to overnight in tiny villages where ethnic minority groups live.

One of the most experienced groups leading such hikes is Forest Café (, led by Lai Wenyan, who goes by her English name of Sara. She and her brother, Stone, take turns leading the group's treks. A big added bonus: You get to stay overnight with Dai and Aini ethnic minority families who live in the villages, eat meals with them and learn a bit about their lives.

Our group of five hikers - three Germans, one American and one Chinese - met Sara on a late January morning and set off for the town of Galamba, 45 very bumpy minutes away via a small, public bus. It was the first of many modes of transport we would utilize over the ensuing three days. From the colorful marketplace in Galamba, where everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes and Mao posters were sold, a driver took us in an SUV past enormous banana plantations to a lonely spot near the Lancang River. The river is named Mekong as it flows downstream through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea.

There we boarded a narrow, metal boat just big enough to handle all six of us, plus its driver. We motored about 90 minutes downstream, past a shoreline heavily punctuated with beautiful rocks backed by frequent sandy beaches and green mountains, through water that alternated between smooth pools and mild whitewater rapids.

At one point we stopped and Sara briefly got off the boat and returned with the biggest papaya I've ever seen - about two-thirds the size of a volleyball. It easily supplied all the fruit our group needed for lunch, which we soon ate while sitting on rocks. From this spot, off we went for three days of hiking.

The first hour was spent along a trail that hewed close by the river. Then we started climbing and traversed a trail that took us through a land of ferns, tall deciduous trees and green plants with leaves so big they could cover a small Volkswagen. In the distance, the blue Lancang River emerged below mountains stripped of their native vegetation and planted with acre after acre of rubber trees.

Soon we came upon the small Aini-minority village of Mengsong, where Sara had scheduled a rest. No one seemed to be around but we heard voices and singing in the distance. It turned out that a 78-year-old villager had died a few days before our arrival, and everyone was attending her funeral at a home just up the road. As we walked past, we stopped to observe.

The gathering seemed more like a party than a funeral, albeit with a wooden casket being carved by several men. Some of us gingerly took out our cameras and Sara, who speaks the Aini language, checked with someone and gave us the go-ahead to take pictures. Townspeople had flocked in and around the typical village home - made of solid wood and elevated about three meters off the ground.

The grandson of the woman who died invited our group to stay and have a meal with them. We spent the next two hours eating rice, fish, chicken, spiced vegetables and soup, trying to engage in small talk to the very friendly people, young and old, at what turned out to be the middle day of a three-day funeral.

Finally, it was time to go. After two and a half hours of up-and-down hiking, at dusk we reached the Dai village of Guanmo. Like all villages of Xishuangbanna's biggest minority group, this Dai village sat along the Lancang River. The wooden houses surrounded an area of new construction, as all of the village's old-style wood homes are being replaced by modern brick-and-concrete structures. This will represent a big lifestyle change for the inhabitants, who only started getting electricity in the last 20 years.

Overnight in a village

We stayed with the Aibas. The Dai ethnic family hosted us for dinner and breakfast, with the mother and teenage daughter doing all of the food-preparation and cooking while father and son mostly puttered about. The paternal grandmother, always smiling and bringing out stools for us, also lived in the modest home with her husband.

Cooking was done on an open fire in the main room just inside the front door. The "kitchen" was the open space near the fire pit, where vegetables and meat were cut up and prepared. Pots and pans hung on the wall near the fire.

Later, the daughter would spread out big sleeping pads and quilts on the floor at the other end of the big room where we would sleep. In the room sat a small TV and at one end was an old refrigerator. There was no furniture. For meals, we sat in a circle, on tiny stools surrounding a small, portable bamboo table that was brought out and placed in the middle.

Outside, many of the townspeople sat beside little campfires they had built in the evening. These fires seemed to serve as a focal point for the village's social life. A group of men invited me to sit with them at one such fire, but the language void made communication all but impossible.

When we got up the next morning, a thick fog enveloped the village, and it was surprisingly cool. Roosters made sure we were awake early. It was then, 24 hours into our trek, that I realized I had not seen a toilet since we started. In Guanmo, you just went to the back of the house and found a place behind the bushes and tried not to disturb the pigs, chickens and other foul that made enough noise to alert half the village to the fact you were back there.

As we made our way out of the village after breakfast, families sat outside watching, and children would light up if we simply smiled and waved to them, their mothers and sisters smiling back. Guanmo, it seemed, was a very friendly place.

Now it was time for day two of our trek, which turned out to be amazing. Again we turned up the Lancang and traversed a dirt road for a while, dodging motorcycles amid a river landscape with trees and foliage that seemed to grow ever more dense as we went along.

Then, without saying a word, Sara turned abruptly into a mountain of rubber trees and started leading us straight up, leaving the road behind. We suddenly found ourselves climbing breathlessly up the face of the mountain, past terrace after terrace of identical, equally spaced trees. We paused only once in a while on perhaps a 45-minute trek to the top of the rubber plantation, where the ground finally leveled out into a path.

The Lancang looked like little more than a blue line far below. We traversed a much more reasonable uphill trail for another half-hour before reaching a village, where we were fed a big lunch.

After the much-needed rest, we went into some uncharted territory, even for Sara, who had custom-designed this hike for our group after I had requested seeing some virgin rainforest. She hired a guide to meet us in this village and take us through what turned out, indeed, to be primary forest.

The guide hired a second guide to help him, and so now our group of eight was off to see the jungle. We walked along a ledge through beautiful forest before, again, starting to climb straight up across more terraces. We reached a ridge top and went level before turning and dropping down, crossing a little meadow.

A jungle mountain

And there it stood before us: A mountain that looked different from anything we'd seen before, covered in very thick vegetation, with jungle trees shooting high into the air, a riot of greenery underneath. It was perhaps some of the last unprotected, virgin tropical rainforest in Xishuangbanna - in all of China, for that matter. It looked impassable, but the guide took us straight in.

For the next couple of hours, we delighted in this tropical landscape, despite spending the first part of it, once again, climbing straight up. How the guide knew his way through this area seemed a mystery; there was no trail, no obvious way to go. The land was formidable - rock and soil underneath a dense canopy of plants and trees. Footing was often treacherous as we would get caught in vines. Branches would hit us in the face as we moved through.

We were out of breath from climbing and felt utterly lost in a primeval rainforest of wild banana trees, huge banyan and other trees and giant ferns. This was what I had come to Xishuangbanna for. It was exhilarating. We could hear birds chortling in the trees but didn't see them. Sara delighted in finding new species of flowers and plants she'd never seen. We took hundreds of photos but saw no animals save for a few insects.

Finally, we emerged to the other side of the forest, near the top of the mountain. An opening allowed us to see across a big valley to Pawa, the Aini village where we were to spend the night. Upon entering this Aini village, it was quickly obvious that it was less poor than Guanmo or the previous villages where we had rested. The homes were larger and in better condition.

Where we stayed was similar to the Dai home, except that it was raised off the ground and had two huge rooms in addition to the family sleeping quarters. Again there was no furniture. But just off the large, elevated front porch were small, separate rooms housing a toilet and a shower - welcome at this point in our trek.

Immediately upon arriving, we were invited to sit down on little stools and talk with the homeowner and a group of his friends. This little social gathering was a chance to learn something about Aini village life. Children travel many kilometers, some of it down dirt roads, to school and are gone from the village for a week at a time, returning only on weekends. Middle-school students come home even less often. In 1985, the government decreed that each home in Pawa would be entitled to a plot of rubber trees. This soon became the town's sole source of income. This has happened in many Xishuangbanna villages, in an effort to raise people out of poverty. Piaomen, the homeowner, said that people "were very happy" with the government move but one also sees the downside - destruction of the rainforest - on a large scale in these mountains.

In the morning, after a restful night of sleep all together in the second big room, Piaomen's wife butchered a chicken right on the front porch - considered a great honor for her guests - which we would eat for breakfast.

Then it was time for day three, which consisted mostly of walking down a dirt road, through more rainforest and banana plantations, to the Lancang valley. We caught a cross-river ferry back to Galamba late in the afternoon, ending our little odyssey.

If you go

? Getting there: Jinghong, the center of activity in Xishuangbanna, is served by a small airport, with most flights coming from Kunming. Flights there can be pricey. A good alternative is to fly to Kunming (see the Stone Forest), then take a bus (eight to nine hours) to Jinghong. They leave every half-hour or so from Kunming's South Bus Station. There is no train, as yet, to Jinghong.

? When to go: November to April is the dry season and best time to visit.

? Attractions: Beyond trekking in the nearby jungles, other sites make it worthwhile to spend a couple days in Jinghong. Wild Elephant Valley contains China's last remaining herd of wild elephants, whose number is estimated at 180 to 350, wandering in virgin rainforest. The Tropical Botanical Garden about an hour away in Menglun also is beautiful and worth a visit, as is the Mandian waterfall.

? Staying there: Jinghong is served by numerous hotels, from small to midsize and ranging up to 4-star. The clean, well-located Jinglan Hotel in the heart of the city cost me an average of 230 yuan (US$36.50) per night. It does not show up on hotel-booking travel websites, but Sara at Forest Café is able to book rooms there, in addition to other places around town.

? Information: (Sara's website) has lots of information, maps and links about Xishuangbanna. At Forest Café on Mengla Road and Mei Mei Café and Mekong Café (, next to each other on Menglong Road, you can purchase bus tickets, air tickets and get tour and trekking info.

? Trekking cost: Forest Café and Mekong Café charge a very reasonable 250 to 300 yuan per day for their multi-day treks. Other companies, which are not based in Xishuangbanna, charge two to three times that amount. The fee includes English-speaking guide service, overnight stays and meals.


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