(Editor's Note: This is the first column in a four-part series on Taylor's recent trip to south China's Yunnan province.)
Yunnan, one of China's southernmost provinces, means "south of the clouds." It's a name fit for fairy tales and other childhood stories, one that hints at hiding something behind its cloudy veil. The name couldn't be more spot on.
True to the guidebook references and travel blogs I read beforehand, Yunnan really is an enchanted and diverse land of tropical jungles and frigid snowcapped mountains; of rich, colorful farmlands and barren plains; of thriving cities and culturally preserved backwater villages. For 10-days, my friend Layla and I would take a whirlwind tour in the province in China's south.
Jinghong, not three hours from the borders of Myanmar and Laos, was the first destination in our province wide escapade. We took an overnight bus, the cheapest option since rails have yet to reach this part of China. I awoke the next morning to see palm trees and tropical plants spreading across the landscape. Welcome to the jungle, I thought.
Predictably, based on my luck, this part of the trip wasn't all fun and games. Because Jinghong, in a region exotically named Xishuangbanna (pronounced she-shwang-bah-na), was located far from Yunnan's other major tourist spots in the north, my thoughts were that it would be more real, more rugged and less touristy. I was wrong, very wrong, on all counts.
The first downer was our visit to a botanical garden near Menglun, a two-hour bus ride over dirt and dilapidated road from Jinghong. This was supposed to be one of the best gardens in the region and would have a wild array of tropical flora and fauna. It wasn't and it didn't. Most of the flowers were dead or dying. Their color and energy was all but lost - like my feelings for Xishuangbanna, which was quickly failing to impress. The only exotic animal I saw was a small lizard. Another animal howled at me from a distance but never revealed itself.
On our way back to Jinghong, we stopped in Menghan to see a Dai minority park. Yunnan is home to 25 of China's 55 minority groups. The Dai are one of the largest groups in Xishuangbanna.
"Park" definitely wasn't the best word for this place - it was more like a minority zoo. The only difference was the minority "attractions" here could come and go as they pleased and probably weren't going to try to eat us. A steep admission allowed us to watch the Dai families working, cooking, cleaning and lounging around.
Zoo similarities aside, a re-enactment of the Dai's water splashing festival, usually held every April during the Dai's New Year celebrations, brightened up the overall dreary and depressing atmosphere of minority exploitation.
In Dai culture, water symbolizes purity or the ability to wash away the past and start anew. Splashing water is a gesture of goodwill toward one's family, friends, neighbors or anyone who happens to get in the way of a water-filled bowl.
The faux festival began calmly enough with Dai men and women clothed in a vibrant menagerie of red, blue, green and yellow dresses and robes splashing rose petals dipped in water on everyone's arm. This was for luck. The group then moved into a shallow pool surrounding a large water fountain, picked up small plastic containers and began splashing about. The water spiraled into the air and the faces of anyone too close to the festivities.
The next day we visited what was described as a "real rainforest," an out of the way park not many tourists knew about. Maybe this would be jungle I was looking for.
The forest preserve was packed with loud, camera-totting Chinese tourists who took just as many pictures of me - a wild and exotic specimen if ever they saw one- as they did of the plants and trees. And since it was located next to a major highway, my fascination with the trees and lagoons was frequently interrupted by the honking of cars and trucks as they whizzed by. On top of that, the weather was a bit on the torrential downpour side, which didn't bother me that much since I was, after all, in a rainforest.
Part of the preserve eventually wound off into thicker jungle away from the freeway and mob of tourists. The path followed a small stream and eventually wound its way up a hill that provided a stunning view of the lower canopy of the rainforest and the ravine below.
After two days in Jinghong, I was soaked, over my budget and without a single photo of a wild monkey (I was promised wild monkeys by guidebooks and friends), but still glad to have trudged through the rainforest and surroundings.
Our next part of the trip - two days trekking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge - would make up for the disappointment in Jinghong and prove to be the most challenging parts of the whole Yunnan adventure.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.