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Making a Pilgrimage to Colorful, Remote China

February 12, 1989|JEAN CONLEY | Conley, now based in Washington, worked for a year at the China Daily in Beijing. and

YUNJINGHONG, China — Perhaps the biggest lure of the Xishuangbanna region is that it is so hard to get to.

A remote, unspoiled corner of southwest China just above the Laos-Burma border, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture has been officially open to tourists since mid-1985, but only in the last 18 months have transportation and bureaucratic restrictions improved enough to make the trip feasible.

The geographical remoteness, and because Xishuangbanna (pronounced shee-shwahng-ba-na) is home to about 24 of China's 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups, are the two main reasons why the area is gaining in popularity for travelers who love a challenge.

Han Chinese, who make up 95% of China's population, are only one-third of Xishuangbanna's. Another third of the region's 600,000 people is the Dai ethnic group. Hani, Bulang, Jinuo and other small groups make up the rest.

Xishuangbanna is quite unlike the rest of China. The ubiquitous concrete block apartment buildings and drab shops of China's big cities are here Dai thatched-roof homes, built on stilts to escape monsoon flooding, and lush natural surroundings, including an estimated 5,000 varieties of tropical plants.

Groups Have Advantage

Most people travel to Xishuangbanna in groups. Individual travel is possible if you're lucky enough to get onto a scheduled flight from Kunming, capital of Hunnan Province.

But China's national airline, CAAC, schedules only seven flights a week on 48-seat prop jets to the area, and tour groups snap up most of those well in advance, causing the regular flights to be canceled.

Individual travelers may find themselves stranded in Kunming with tickets that are no good because the flight has been canceled, or they face the prospect of getting to Xishuangbanna and not being able to return to Kunming. Return trips cannot be booked in advance on domestic flights in China.

(Don't expect much help from Chinese officials in getting to this area. China has long been suspicious of its minority groups, and many Chinese ask openly why anyone would want to visit a minority area. Only after the Communists took power in 1949 was the symbol for "dog," until then included in the written characters for ethnic names, abolished.)

This uncertainty makes less intrepid travelers nervous, but for tourists persistent or lucky enough to wade through the hassles and red tape that are China, the rewards are great.

Only for Adventurous

The flight from Kunming is just under one hour over the beautiful reddish-brown Ailao and Wuliang mountains, which surround sapphire blue lakes and small settlements. Narrow dirt roads, which from the air look like thin copper ribbon, wind around and up the mountains.

The plane touches down in Simao, a warm and sunny but otherwise uninspiring town. This is where you begin the hair-raising 3 1/2-hour bus journey to Yunjinghong--sometimes referred to as Jinghong, the region's capital. The road has been paved in the last couple of years, but it is narrow and runs along the edge of sheer cliffs.

Compared to the overwhelming grayness of many northern Chinese cities, Yunjinghong is a splash of color. Dai women, wearing ankle-length pink, yellow or red form-fitting skirts and thin cotton blouses, stroll together down uncrowded streets.

Well-made wooden Dai homes, which have thatched roofs and are built on stilts about six feet off the ground, dot the landscape. Banana and papaya trees are heavy with fruit, even in midwinter.

Winter is the best time to visit, especially after a trip to sub-zero Beijing or Harbin, home of China's ice festival. March to October is monsoon season when the air is thick with mosquitoes. In winter the air is dry but warm, about 84 degrees in mid-afternoon, with only slightly cooler temperatures at night.

Hotel Alternatives

Most tour groups stay at the Banna Guest House in Yunsjinghong. The rooms are drab and Spartan but clean, with showers that alternately scald and freeze you. Mosquito nets are provided. The rates are good, 28 yuan (about $8 U.S.) a night for a double, and the food in the restaurant is adequate if not inspiring.

An official of the Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan Province was adamant that the Banna Guest House "is the only hotel now open to foreigners," but an adventuresome American couple traveling on their own said there are at least two alternatives in the city.

One is the Dai Minority Guesthouse just outside downtown, where three or four guests at a time are allowed to stay in a thatched-roof Dai house and eat traditional Dai food, which Dai cooks will proudly say combines salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes.

This combination is quite good, and there are ample opportunities to sample Dai cuisine even if you don't stay there. Rates are 2.5 yuan per bed (about 70 cents), with shared toilet and no showers. Only plywood partitions separate the beds, so don't expect much in the way of privacy.

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