Village life on the border

Central Stupa, Jinghong

Out of all the provinces in mainland China, as mentioned on a few prior posts, my most loved province is wondrous Yunnan. Great weather all year ’round – even in the hot humid months mainly b/c of the clean air quality. Big industry polluting provinces seem to have skipped this province as a whole which gives way for perfect weather. Yunnan is often associated with a coined term of endearment “above the clouds” for its heavenly formed clouds and vast landscapes. Yunnan is home to China’s 2 most picturesque rice terraces – Yuanyang and Dongchuan, photographed by the millions. Yunnan is also a place of diversity … but wait … aren’t all Chinese people, just Chinese people? After all … don’t we all look alike? If you grew up in the west like I did, that’s what our limited education system would have us believing. After living in China for a few years, I began to understand and recognize the suptle facial characteristics of people – at least from a regional perspective. Shorter from the south, taller in the north – in a general sense. Facial features too. This one is a bit more difficult to explain, more with bone structure, eyes, skin coloration and the like.


Yu la, 56 yrs old, Huayao Dai woman , Mannuwo village

Far from ignorant belief, of the 54 chinese ethnicities, Yunnan inhabits a wide range of ethnicities from the Han, Miao, Yi, Dai, Bai, Zhuang, Tibetan, Hani, Hui and to a lesser degree Ahka, Jinuo and Kongge peoples each with their own language (not dialect) and ancient cultural history. More than this, Yunnan is an agriculturally rich environment as well, producing the country’s best tea, coffee and a myriad array of fruits and vegetables – many unfamiliar to western palettes. This is what draws me to Yunnan … people and culture. This is what drew me yet again to a special zone not far from the Myanmar/Burma and Laos border. This is Xishuangbanna.

Gracious Ahka ethnic minorities playing temporary hosts

Upon landing at the surprisingly large airport (of maybe 10-15 gates) of Jinghong, the architecture leads you to believe you’re in SE Asia somewhere. Being a border area, strong cross0ver influences in landscape, food, culture, architecture and people confuse the senses as you know you’re still in Mainland China. Temples, for instance, are right out of Thailand/Myanmar complete with elephant statues and tall slender golden stupas. Even the festive dress suits the backdrop. It’s a bit strange having pineapple thai sticky rice and other traditional SE Asian dishes in what you know is still China.

Various ethnic groups at the weekly market.

Before entering this buffer zone, there was a “border crossing” much like they have from state to state in the US, except this border was manned by several of China’s Army complete with full-on battle armor. Pulling us over, having to show Passports, we were asked to get out of the car whilst an over zealous trooper questioned our entry into the zone. Apparently, there’s a huge drug traffic problem crossing the border into China so I guess they’re a bit squeamish about anyone who doesn’t look the part of a local. After a few telephone calls, taking lots of photos of us and our IDs as well as our Guides, they finally allowed passage after about 30mins.

Heading closer towards the border in the ensuing 2 days, deep into what appeared to mostly be jungle and miles upon miles of growing tea, sugar cane, bananas, mountain rice, the bumpy dirt roads seemed endless. Gladly, our Guide knew every turn and switchback as we flawlessly found village after village of the Ahka, Dai and Bulang people. The deeper we went, the more “raw” it got. Villages became more sparsely spaced, ‘roads’ got worse (at times having to get out and help push our car through the deeply rutted mud), dwellings became more primitive. So too does the food. From the familiar to the unfamiliar, if you can sometimes get past our own insecurities around what’s food vs. what isn’t (as a western palette goes), you’ll come away with a richer more fulfilling experience. What’s so different? In the west, we domestic just about everything except cows, pigs and chickens – our main source of meat. Here, chickens & fish run/swim freely  about until they’re called upon, an occasional dog and squirrels, worms and ‘rats’ (actually guinea pigs to more precise) are considered staples along with a whole host of plant-based stalks, stems and leaves prepared in ways we’ve never thought of are both delicious and nutritious – all grown wild and organic. This is real food. What makes going to the supermarket so natural? It’s all very much a part of the brief immersion of life as it was centuries ago.

Small, but proud Kongge & Jinuo people

As a natural light (preferred) shooter, I have the ability to shoot from sunrise to (past) sunset. In fact, I love midday photography as I head indoors for portrait opportunities. All I have to do (with a bit of finagling) is use light beams darting in from near darkness inside traditional huts as windows and doors are my friends. And, when that’s not enough, I make light by either adding a bit of it via flash and/or grabbing light from outside and bouncing it off of a reflector – whatever it takes to spill creative lighting on my subject. This challenges your knowledge and limitations of how the camera works in harmony with certain settings which must be done in a few seconds as the light changes as quickly as a mosquito bites (of which there are plenty here in this tropical wonderland).

Friendly Bulang people


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