Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan is one of the few places in China that stays warm and pleasant while the rest of the country is blanketed by chilly winter weather. Last week we were in the area, also known locally as ’Banna, for two of our favorite ways to travel China: trail hiking and a village homestay.
We returned to the small village of Nongyang, where the local Bulang people recently showed us how to prepare an edible kind of tea known as suancha. This time our destination was the small village of Mangang, on the other side of the mountains that lie behind Nongyang.
After passing through Nongyang we found the trailhead for the roughly seven-mile (10-kilometer) dirt path to Mangang, which is home to the Aini people, a subgroup of the Hani ethnicity that is also known as the Akha – the name by which they refer to themselves. We came across an older Aini woman who had been collecting bamboo, chatted for a moment and headed toward Mangang.
Padding along the trail, we encountered few people as we ascended. Both sides of the path were mountain slopes covered with tea bushes and towering bamboo. As we continued to ascend, the tea plants gave way to large patches of yellow wildflowers.
Once beyond the tea, there is little evidence of human presence other than the trail itself. We enjoyed plenty of beautiful vistas of the fertile valley below before entering a mountain forest for the last hour of our three-hour walk. Other than a couple of men harvesting bamboo and a family escorting water buffalo to Nongyang, we didn’t encounter anyone else on the path.
Upon our arrival in Mangang, we descended into the small village on a slightly steep dirt road. Just off of the road there was a girl in her early teens standing in the branches of a guava tree. She offered us guava she had just picked from the tree, then answered her ringing mobile phone while still in the tree.
We thanked her in the Aini language (“Nei mu ma”) and munched on the delicious fruit as we continued into Mangang. Entering the town, curious villagers said hello to us as chickens scurried and dogs looked curiously at the strange visitors who had just arrived.
We finally reached the home of Yu San, a local Aini man who would be our host. Mr. Yu and his wife provided us with tea, which we sipped on their simple concrete balcony that was the roof of a garage added on to his traditional wooden home. We sipped on the fresh tea and munched on locally grown macadamia nuts as we watched the sunset.
Meanwhile Mr. Yu and his wife were hard at work preparing us a simple, tasty and healthy meal of fresh local vegetables and meats. As the meal was being prepared, several neighbors from around the village stopped by the Yu household to say hello and check out their visitors from afar.
Once the food was ready, the dishes were set out on a short wicker table that is typical of dinner tables in Mangang and around Xishuangbanna. We sat on stools and devoured the small feast of stir-fried broccoli, corn and peas, local beef, a crispy local vegetable with a spicy dipping sauce and a soup made of wild greens and chili peppers.
As is customary in villages in the area, Mr. Yu offered us cigarettes and a bowl of potent alcohol to share with him as his guest. We declined the cigarettes but took him up on one bowl of corn alcohol, which we sipped very slowly.
Two other men from the village who had stopped by to join us for dinner had several bowls of the firewater, which loosened them up a bit and led to a wide-ranging conversation in which they answered our questions about life and customs in their village and we answered their questions about the outside world which seemed so far away.
As we finished off our last sips, Mr. Yu’s wife was busy preparing our bedding for the evening, which consisted of simple cushioning on the floor with heavy cotton blanketing. We tucked in and enjoyed the silence of a night in the countryside.
There was no need to set an alarm – there were plenty of roosters in the village ready to welcome the new day with hearty cock-a-doodle-doos, beginning around five. By seven, the roosters had coaxed us out of bed and we sipped on hot tea in the cold, crisp morning.
As the sun rose and warmed us up, we munched on a simple breakfast of fried eggs, toast and fruit, which we washed down with coffee and more tea.
We told Mr. Yu that we’d had a great time at his home and were very appreciative of his hospitality.
“I was worried that you wouldn’t like it here,” he replied, shaking our hand and smiling. “If you’re happy then I’m happy too.”
WildChina offers clients world-class boutique hotel and international-standard hotel options throughout China, but village home stays are probably our most unique – and for some travelers, challenging – lodging options.
The village homes we use for homestays are simple – but not squalid – and all have been previously scouted out by WildChina staff.
For some of our clients, the bathroom is where the biggest challenge in a village homestay lies. It’s understandable that squatty toilets can be daunting for people who are used to sitting down, but they are also part of the authentic village experience.
That said, even the authentic village experience is becoming increasingly modern. We were able to take a hot shower in the morning thanks to Mr. Yu’s solar water heater. We still had to walk half a minute down the road to the village outhouse for the “big convenience” as it is known in Chinese, but this was one of the little things that enabled us to better experience village life in Mangang.
As we prepared to leave the village and head off to our next adventure, tractors full of local women in traditional Aini dress chugged past us, with the women smiling and waving to us as they headed toward a day of hard work in the fields. We hopped into our 4×4, feeling a bit richer inside for having a better understanding of the village they would come home to at dusk.