Full Circle: (Exotic) Odysseys Through (Oriental) Rainforests on (Outlawed) Tour Buses

Ah remember walkin along Princes Street wi Spud, we both hate walkin along that hideous street, deadened by tourists and shoppers, the twin curses ay modern capitalism.
–Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting

There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres.
–Pythagoras

Peacock Princess

The dancers hop around the stage, dressed in polyester costumes, accompanied by the music of electronic lutes. The women are uniformly attractive in their false eyelashes and youth. Most of the men look mediocre, but two tall chiseled fellows keep pushing their way to the front of the ensemble, aware that they’re the stars of the display.
Now the dancers flit their way backstage for a quick change. Soon they’re back, some in flower cuffs that radiate petals from their necks, others in imitations of Miao, Hani, or Dai ethnic dress, beaded, tasseled and zipped up. It’s a production of “The Peacock Princess,” a Dai folk tale that parallels “Swan Lake,” in the largest indoor auditorium in the town of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province.
The audience is overwhelmingly Han Chinese, and most of them are tourists. The town follows an official demographic policy of “three-three-three”: one-third Dai, one-third Han, and one-third other minorities. The province is known for having 25 of the People’s Republic of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. As tourism in China booms, however, more and more Han Chinese flock to so-called minority attractions to watch ensemble performances, tour ethnic villages, and eat and drink.
“Han run pretty much everything,” says a cab driver, a transplant from Jiangsu province. “The local people are too lazy.” After a moment, he reconsiders, “Well, not exactly. The Dai king is still a big shot around here. The government couldn’t build that new airport until he gave the go ahead.”
Indeed, the locals are far from complacent in this business. A tour of a traditional Dai village is often a classic fool’s gold scam. In this case, the gold is silver—a young woman brings a group of tourists into her family’s traditional Dai home, raised on wooden stilts, in an ostensible cultural exchange that ultimately turns into a marketing pitch for fake silver trinkets.
Not that tourists aren’t easily duped. At the end of her spiel, the woman brings out a black velvet-draped table hitherto hidden in a corner. She whips off the cloth to reveal gleaming silver bracelets, belts, cups, and bowls; a king’s ransom in ancient times. The tourists descend on the shiny things like magpies.
The Chinese tourism business is the business of spectacle. The production of “The Peacock Princess” imitates the most lavish of Broadway musicals or Disneyland shows, but without a multi-million dollar budget. It’s no Tchaikovsky ballet. Men in cartoon elephant suits pretend to play fake gourd flutes, while music emanates from speakers. The flute syncing is impressive, but when one player misses a beat, he smiles sheepishly at the front row and continues pretending. The show must go on.
Despite the peacock glitz and glitter of the production, certain movements emerge like jewels from sand. The dancer who plays the Peacock Princess is a slender, sickle-backed young woman. Her white dress billows from her body as she arcs around her prince in uncertain pirouettes. She circles toward him; their fingers nearly touch.

Bread Loaf Bus

A ubiquitous form of transportation in China, next to the classic motor scooter, is the bread loaf bus. Named for their shape, the vehicles are precariously top-heavy and so often tip over that their sale has been outlawed. Many buses, however, are still in service as tour vehicles. Prized for their large carrying capacity, the buses zoom cheerfully down mountain roads. I could swear I’ve seen their wheels leave the ground, but the passengers inside usually provide a heavy enough ballast against catastrophe.
Inside the bus, the tour guide, if he is a good one, is a combination of travel agent, marketing representative, and comedian. Our guide, the son of a Han father and Dai mother, quips trivia about the local culture. I wonder if he ever gets tired of repeating the same stories day after day, but he seems animated, if rehearsed. He’s a thin man with crooked teeth. When he walks down the bus to collect our ticket fares, golden rings slip and slide on his bony fingers.
“This is such a good deal,” he tells us. “If you had bought the tickets on your own, it would have cost two times as much.” We take him at his word.
The passengers in the bread loaf bus are a decent representation of the Chinese middle class. An older father tells us proudly that his children, a daughter and a son, are both enrolled in “international” schools in Shanghai. Two friends, women in their early thirties, trade iPhone photos on the WeChat social network. A family with an adult daughter hardly says a word the entire ride. Two families are accompanied by sets of grandparents.
The tickets in question afford entrance to a Dai Water Festival show. According to our guide, the Dai celebrate the New Year (in April by the Gregorian calendar) with a water fight from dawn to dusk. Capitalizing on this novelty, daily New Year’s Water Festivals have sprung up around the city. Before we make it to the show, we make an obligatory stop at a tourist-centered jewelry store, a common but unadvertised itinerary item on Chinese tour trips. For a commission, the tour guide drops his passengers off at a jewelry store in the middle of nowhere for an hour or so and “encourages” them to make purchases.
We eventually make it to the Water Festival, which takes place in a round amphitheater. Middle-aged local women splash water from a shallow circular pool onto giggling visitors, who stand all around the edges. At one point, a fully grown Asian elephant is brought out, flapping its ears at the arcs of sparkling water landing on its back. Like our tour guide, its feelings about all this are unreadable.
The festival is not one for those in search of authenticity, unless they can find it in the faces of the women selling plastic bags of dried coconut and papaya and sugarcane juice, or the peddlers weaving through the crowd, pressing flower and nut shell garlands into hands, for a price. This is the New Year, rehearsed and paid for, but perhaps no different from any other. Soon the water women are parading around the amphitheater, baptizing us with splashes from plastic bowls.

Mechanical Buddha

A gilt Buddha statue, 49 meters high, looms over Xishuangbanna. It’s the showpiece of the Mengle Great Buddhist Monastery, the largest Theravada Buddhist site in China. 300 monks pray at the monastery daily, but today not a one is to be seen. To reach the Buddha, we take 2,000 steps up a small mountain, interspersed with temple halls.
When we reach the temple at the feet of the Buddha, an angry old man bursts out its doors. He curses the tour guide, stuffs his feet into his shoes, and flies back down the mountain. We raise our eyebrows at his apparent irreverence and step over the threshold into the cool temple.
We soon discover the reason for the old man’s rage. A guide leads us clockwise around the temple, depositing us at successive stations like children at a craft fair. At each station, we are asked in solemn tones to buy commemorative candles, statuettes, or bracelets, items which become successively more costly as we rotate along the temple—all the better to reach nirvana. A woman tries to sell us a lotus-shaped candle for 25 yuan. When we don’t take the bait, she lowers the price to 15. We escape her clutches, and the eternal spiral, by stuffing a ten-yuan bill into a donation box.
Escape leads us to an observation deck, high above the city. From here, everything is a miniature kingdom. Bridges and cars are toys, and the river is a distant ribbon. The Buddha presides over a circular plot of land, a wasted area like some Tolkienesque fortress. Officials plan to one day turn it into a park.
As we descend from the deck, we enter into another hall, occupied by a statue of a sitting Buddha. Touring monks from Thailand snap cell phone pictures. Above them, large paintings depicting Siddhartha Gautama’s life encircle the hall. They start from the entrance and end behind the Buddha’s back, like a continuous comic strip.
The paintings are strange. The usual clouds and halos mingle with weird futuristic imaginings, some downright psychedelic. In one painting, the Buddha is flanked on his left by a metallic city full of steel-blue towers. On closer inspection, floating vehicles zoom between the buildings, and in the sky are what look like flying saucers. On his right is a misty, wooded glen: Between two columns of rocks issues a mysterious blue light.
Following the progression of the paintings, I walk behind the statue. There, in the darkness cast by the Buddha’s back, is a wall to ceiling painting of a demon. His eyes bulge from his red face. His tongue lolls, and horns sprout from his veiny head. I step back quickly, but in retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention. For if the golden Buddha could hide a demon behind his back, there may very well be an accountant inside his belly.

Market Economy

Any good trip requires an inventory of the food consumed. The complimentary breakfast buffet, an industry standard in China, is vast enough to fill any intrepid belly. Staples include steamed buns and noodle bowls, as well as sliced white bread and pastries. Buffet trays of vegetables—bok choy and potatoes fried to an oily sheen —line a banquet table. A pot of bitter Arabica coffee and a kettle of Pu’er tea, both produced in Yunnan, are nods to the local flavor. The backdrop to all this is the main Xishuangbanna hotel, boasting marble floors and a diorama with real Land Rovers.
Another staple is the convenience shop, though not the chain markets familiar in the United States. Although these small shops sell much of the same goods, they are independent, manned by their owners who sit and fan themselves behind the cash register. The shops themselves are often little more than an alcove just off the street. The narrow shelves, cluttered or neat depending on the owner’s inclination, are stocked with items like mango creme Oreos and Pocky. Each has an ice cream freezer, crammed with mung bean popsicles and ice cream cups. In warm Xishuangbanna, the freezers are insulated with a thick cotton blanket to cut refrigeration costs.
The nocturnal sibling to these shops is the Jinghong night market, which winds under the bridge over the Mekong river. Here, anything imaginable is for sale, from electronics to nail decals to long underwear to real tattoos. But we’re really here for the food, which comprises an overwhelming majority of the market. Fruit juice vendors jostle for space with barbeque stands, which will grill anything imaginable: river eel, cuttlefish, fungus, potatoes, and more. The entire scene buzzes under hot fluorescent firefly lights rigged to generators.
If the night market and the convenience shop go hand in hand, then their natural antithesis must be Xishuangbanna’s only Walmart store, at the anchor of a busy intersection. Entering the store, however, the same variety of goods and foodstuffs are found for similar rock-bottom prices. The only major difference seems to be that the store is air-conditioned and the workers are uniformed in Walmart’s trademark blue.

Land Dam

The winding old road from Kunming (the capital of Yunnan province) to Xishuangbanna to the Yunnan Tropical Botanical Garden will be replaced within the year by a new highway, which will cut travel time in half. The bones of the highway are already laid down. They embrace Xishuangbanna like prehistoric ribs.
The electric zing of steel and concrete can be heard for some time when driving on the old road, but the sound is soon lost among the banana trees, which stretch out as far as the eye can see. The trees are not tall; these bananas are a short, fat variety that must be protected against the cold night air. Each banana is individually wrapped—they look like small sleeping bags dangling from the trees.
Not to be outdone, the rubber trees, like bent beggar men, are outfitted with one wooden bowl each, tied to the trunk to catch their precious sap. Hordes of these odd couples, these stout banana trees and slender rubber trees, march over the mountains. Tourists, rubber, and bananas, in their overrunning glory, are the three mighty pillars which hold up the region’s economy.
The mighty Mekong river shoots through Yunnan province before it curves through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia and reaches the South China Sea. An inflatable boat trip down the river reveals the full scope of the highway project. A series of latticed concrete beams hold back the mountains, which have been scooped away to make way for the road. Eventually vegetation will grow between the lattices, but for now they are bald and empty. The red earth of the mountain bulges through the gaps, as if threatening to burst through. River swallows scream at the sky, and farther down the river, the forest is thick as tree moss.
Our boat docks in a tiny bay. The boatman tells us to get off and take a break as he reels in a fishing net, cast earlier that day. We climb some steps to find construction in progress. In a flat clearing, space has been made for a sandy volleyball pit. Above, workers pour gravel into metal chutes, the sound like breaking glass or miniature avalanches. Thick stacks of bamboo are everywhere. Eventually, this clearing will become a riverside resort.
We snap photos and return to the boat. The boatman has finished reeling his net. “Nothing today,” he says. “But once I caught a fish that weighed a hundred pounds.” He casts out the net again. It whirls and wheels out over the water and sinks into the current. We get back on the inflatable boat, the engine sputters to a start, and we head back toward the city.

Earthly Mysteries and Celestial Spheres

Xishuangbanna marks my third trip with a Chinese tour group. The first was a journey through Qingdao in Shandong province, best known for German influences that culminated in the form of Tsingtao beer, and its official designation as China’s Most Livable City.
The second was through Hainan, an island in the southernmost tip of China. We were plied with coconuts and fried tofu, and stuffed to the gills with seafood. Our tour guide tried to con us a couple of times, bringing us to the wrong hotel and several jewelry stores.
In each of these tropical paradise destinations, there is one constant. Red-beaked seagulls migrate every year from Siberia to winter on the temperate coasts. Since 1985, tens of thousands have alighted each winter on Kunming’s Dianchi Lake, where the local people call them “the winter angels.”
Residents and tourists, gather each year at Dianchi to greet these familiar friends. Parents, who remember the first bold flocks, now bring their children. Carts along the lake sell fluffy loaves of French bread for a few cents per bag. The visitors toss pieces of bread into the sky. With steady precision, the gulls swoop and catch. The cool lake, which rivals Lake Ontario in size, shimmers and reflects their enigmatic flight.
How they found their way across the frigid miles to Kunming is a mystery, but generation after generation they come. They must be attuned to the magnetic stars, to the music of the celestial spheres; when they are startled by some invisible sign, they lift from the lake like spirits. They come, and they leave. Where they go once winter ends, no one knows. What remains only is the hope of their return.