Far West in the Far East: Twenty-four hours in Xiding

On my trip to Xishuangbanna a couple of weeks ago, I was able to time a trip to Xiding with its weekly Thursday market. A vibrant, colorful affair filled with photogenic Hani women, various animal parts, string tobacco, and pretty much everything else under the bright morning sun, the market was an obvious draw to the town. But Xiding is also a great place to hike around the rolling hills, as there are many minority villages in the area.

On the map, Xiding is very close to Menghze, where we stayed the night before. We caught an early-morning bus, bumping along a dusty, flat road in the midst of dormant rice paddies. After a completely straight thirty minutes, our bus hit the mountains and started climbing. I had no idea Xiding was in the mountains, so it was a pleasant surprise to measure our progress by the views we were gaining. The bus twisted up hillsides for another 30 minutes, finally reaching a sunny, thin-aired Xiding.

We saw only one hotel, which cost my friend and me each about $2.50 for a shared room. The bathroom was in a back courtyard, next to the smokehouse. We weren’t to have electricity until much later that night, so using the windowless bathroom was an exercise in bravery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was traveling with a friend who was researching the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. We decided to follow the dirt road that continued out of Xiding in the hopes that we would come across a minority village, and after two hours of walking along the cultivated hillsides, we found what we were looking for. Shaded by thick growth, a small village full of wood homes with thatched roofs sat quietly, looking at the same view as Xiding.

%Gallery-80168%Within minutes, a man invited us to rest in his home with a cup of tea. He chatted with my friend, while his wife and grandchild looked in, sunlight illuminating them in the doorway. From there, we followed a path between homes and came across an old woman weaving on a giant bamboo loom, a good fifteen feet of thread stretched out in front of her. A young man probably in his early twenties and dressed in a suit was the only person who spoke Mandarin. He translated for my friend, who asked about the the woman’s weaving: Did she spin her thread? Yes. Did she dye it? Yes. Who did she sell it to? Other Hani people. He opined that the older Hani were stubborn and backwards, because they refused to wear modern clothing and were very poor. He was on a visit from Shanghai, where he had been working for a year, and his feeling of superiority was obvious in his clothing choice.

After taking photos and watching a giant pig snuff around the dirt yard where the woman stood weaving, we set back to Xiding and arrived starving, just before dark. No electricity, so dinner was a candlelit affair, and afterward we wandered around the dark village trying to spot constellations. My friend is from the East Coast and has only seen the Milky Way twice in her life; I live in Alaska and am used to star-filled winter skies, but on this night I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in China.

We got up early the next morning to experience the market, which was filled with photogenic Dai and Hani women. The typical produce, meats and baskets of bean curd filled the sidewalks, but there was also a street-side dentist, hill tribe clothing (I bought legwarmers, which caused a bit of a stir when the women insisted on tying them on for me), angel-haired tobacco, and cheap knock-off clothing. The Thursday market was obviously the place where villagers came to do their one-stop shopping.

Since there was only one bus out of town, we bought our tickets early, boarding at noon, and then headed back down the way we came, the bus threading through steep hillsides covered in rubber trees.

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