A festival and market trip in Yunnan

Lahu in Mengka celebrating their New Year.

Kachin from Myanmar crossing the border to Ruili for a festival of the Jingpo: different name, same ethnic group.

Aini at Lancang market.

Limi Yi with their spectacular dress, living isolated in Wumulong.

Encounters with Wa, Dai, Bulang.

The plan was to visit ethnic minority festivals and markets in the southwest of Yunnan province. Markets take place any time of year. Festivals don’t, but shortly after Chinese New Year is a good hunting season.

It wasn’t easy to work out the exact days and locations of festivals. We searched the world wide web of course. That contradicted itself, as always. I banked on local lüyouju (government travel bureaus) providing reliable information. But ìf they picked up the phone they sent us to the wrong place (according to the bureau in Eshan we had to go to their village of Dalongtan, but nothing happened there) or they weren’t aware of a festival that in fact did take place (in Ximeng they hadn’t heard about the Lahu festivities in their county).

Festivals and markets aren’t scheduled to suit travellers of course. We had to hurry from Dalongtan to Eshan to Mojiang to Pu’er to Lancang in one day, changing buses at each place. And getting from Wumulong to Ruili within one day was a logistical challenge as well. Sometimes too we had too much time. We were stuck in Lincang for 24 hours with nothing much to do. (Need a map?J)

Bus stations were teeming with men and women leaving their families for another year after the New Year holiday, returning to the factories and construction sites in China’s east. Those family members didn’t see them off. Chinese don’t wave goodbye. Maybe it’s too painful. Being witness to it is one of those travel experiences that matter as much as the destination of a trip.

We first visit the village variety of the Lahu New Year. Music and dance, eating and drinking, music and dance, eating and drinking, on and on. The next day the main celebration is more ceremonial. There is someone who looks like a minister and something that seems like a sermon, there is prayer and kneeling down to earth and sacrifice of pieces of wood or bark. It is pure and a shock of colour. But I am swept away only when people climb en masse and with great sense of purpose through a forest to a second terrain at the top of the mountain.

Religiously it remains misty. Wikipedia about the Lahu: originally polytheistic, later Buddhism and Christianity were introduced. People in Mengka talk about “worshipping Buddha”.  But there is no sign of him. Above the only altar the only image is a photo of…. Mao.

The Jingpo festival in Ruili is adopted by the government. Even the local lüyouju knew about it. It is a large scale affair, and not as authentic. A group of women in Jingpo dress represent their village, but ethnically more than half are Han Chinese or Dai. I am watching a staged event. But people enjoy themselves, join the long line of dancing people that winds about the festival grounds. A brass band blows and beats fervently for hours at a stretch. How did this western music ever get here? Through the former Britisch colony of Birma?

Beyond the stage reality is more captivating. Many Kachin have come from Myanmar. With a ‘Red Booklet’, a border pass, they are allowed into China for a week, not the whole country but a border zone. A young guy tells me he goes back to Myanmar every seven days and immediately returns again with a new one week stamp. He effectively lives in China.

A man wants to show me photos in his phone. Kachin rebel fighters (or independence fighters, depending on one’s perspective) firing at the Myanmar government army. ‘Last week’, he says. I can’t verify of course.

In one of the festival’s market stands someone sells T-shirts of the Kachin Independence Army.

Calls to lüyouju: 15

Of which answered: 3

Calls to bus stations: 8

Calls from bus stations: 2

Military checkpoints: 5

That included thorough luggage check: 1

Kilometers (Kunming at beginning and end): 2.700

Ethnic minorities: 9

My co-travellers (all from Spain): 4

Other foreigners ran into: 0

David, Enric, Eva, Vicente: thanks for making the trip possible.

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