While China’s northeastern parts such as Beijing and Shandong may represent the historical heart of the People’s Republic, it’s in the west where we find a unique cultural diversity that is so attractive to travelers.

Nowhere else in the country might one uncover the splendor of China’s varied minority population than ’south of the clouds,’ Yunnan. Situated on the southwestern corner of four other provinces, Yunnan also shares borders with three countries (not quite including Thailand and India), its proximity resulting in the highest concentration of ethnic groups in all of China.

However, with the northern Naxi city of Lijiang having become China’s hottest holiday destination for tour groups, nearby Dali a laidback retreat for younger backpackers, and Zhongdian a jumping off point for Tibet, south Yunnan remains a relatively unspoiled region.

From the concrete jungle of the provincial capital city of Kunming into the rain forests of Xishuangbanna, this writer bypassed the more popular route towards Laos and Vietnam for the less-explored areas around the Burma perimeter. My timing was perfect, as I arrived in the village of Menghun just before its Sunday market.

A quiet community accented with stilted wooden homes and a hilltop monastery overlooking the surrounding rice fields, the day’s drizzly weather served to enhance the village’s reticence. But through the gray I caught glimpses of color that revealed them to be the region’s multiple ethnic minorities. By mid-morning, Menghun’s relatively small marketplace, abounding with freshly slaughtered pig heads, brilliant fruits and vegetables, plugs of tobacco and a rainbow of textiles, became a veritable kaleidoscope of culture unlike any I have every witnessed. I was first met by the silky glory of Xishuangbanna’s majority population, the Dai, a 2000 year-old culture that fuses Hinayana Buddhism with elements of Thai. The Dai dress attractively in shimmering attire, but it is the younger Dai girls in their formfitting pastel sarongs who catch one’s eye before teasingly running away like nymphs.

Further illuminating the otherwise dark day were the Akha people, known as the Hani. Like a resplendent yet elusive jungle bird, the Akha appear from the deep lush hills only on market day, whence they adorn themselves in heavy layers of black brilliantly highlighted with intricately embroidered patterns. Descendants of the nomadic Qiang from Tibet, each Hani subgroup wear a different colored headdress to signify their tribe, not unlike the plumage of a proud bird, and lavishly accessorize in silver-studded bracelets and leggings, patchwork satchels and antiqued coins stretching out their earlobes. Tumpline baskets around their heads and teeth stained red with betel nut are commonplace.

Especially weary of outsiders, they timidly skirted all my advancements, however friendly persistence coupled with a sincere interest in their lifestyle soon granted me access to a tight knit Akha clan. They spoke very little Mandarin, and of course no English, so we relied simply on gestures and smiles in an attempt to learn about each other.

By noon the market had cleared along with the rain, the streets now lined with vivid knots of indigenous folk awaiting tractors to take them back to their respective outlying villages.

My continued journey through Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture would take me deeper into the surrounding tropical jungles, including a 50km trek from Bulongshan to Damenglong. But those are stories for another time. For now I will reminisce over that small yet colorful town of Menghun, for nowhere else have I ever witnessed such a definitive representation of China’s beautifully proud ethnic minorities.

Transportation:

1) From Kunming’s main bus station on Beijing Lu, express sleeper busses to Jinghong, capital of Xinshuangbanna, daily at 6:30pm (150yuan, 15 hours).

2) Shuttles from Jinghong to Menghun leave the No.2 Bus Station every 20 minutes between 7am and 6pm (15yuan, 2 hours).

Accommodation:

In Mengun there are several small boardinghouses, luguan, located on the main street near the bus stop (20 yuan each). A backpacker’s favorite is Baita Fandian (White Tower Hotel, 10 yua for a bed) on the outskirts of town and overlooking a lily pond teaming with fish and frogs. Directions are complicated so it’s best to ask locals to point you there

Regional Cuisine:

Rice is the staple diet of the Dai people, who were the first in the history of the world to cultivate rice as a food. Sticky rice baked in fragrant bamboo is a specialty. Xishuangbanna locals also enjoy nibbling on grilled pigtail from street vendors, and perpetually chewing on betel nut (binglang) mixed with lime, which gives off a light narcotic effect while staining the mouth red.

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Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author. Published 2008 in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books.

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Travel Photographer Tom Carter | On the CHINA Road

Tom  Carter
Travel photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in CHINA: Portrait of a People.
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