Bush people in Tianfang

From Jinping – the main town of the most ethnically diverse district in Yunnan, itself known as the most ethnically diverse province in China –, from Jinping the bus goes to Mengla first, taking the bumpy dirt road from Sanjia these days because the main road is being upgraded. It then passes through rubber plantations before it starts a long climb along a narrow brick-paved road with steep deep drops. No, no protective concrete or iron barriers, no. Higher up there is a confusion of several small roads that are not on my map – I’m not sure anymore where I am. We then get to a village made up of wooden Hmong houses: Tianfang.

Apart from the Hmong, tribal people from the area visit the small market. Locally they are known as ‘mang ren’, which best translates as ‘bush people’. Word has it that until five years ago, some even say two, they wore no clothes. It is hard to believe in chilly January. But it is a persistent story all over the region.

In autumn 2009 the bush people were officially classified as members of the Bulang ethnic group. That is surprising from a geographical perspective as all the other Bulang live at least 400 kilometres away at the opposite end of Yunnan province: southwest instead of southeast. It is also surprising given the rather ornate dress of the Bulang further west: quite a contrast with the rumored ‘dress’ of these tribal people in Tianfang. But if the classification was done on a linguistic basis it may yet be correct. I can’t judge that.

With the official recognition came a model village of neatly lined up white washed houses that the government built for them. It is half an hour beyond Tianfang.

Some of the ‘bush kids’ walk there with me. The boys run ahead, stay behind, follow the steep hill side higher up, every now and then come to see what’s up. The girls stay closer, find it fun to see themselves on the display of the digital camera. Close to the village they all dash home, turn around for a last wave and disappear.

Looking at their pictures again – their features are quite different from the local Hmong’s. And by the way, different too from the Bulang people I saw in Yunnan’s southwest.

Great Escape

This trip hadn’t been easy. Officials were drunk and annoying. Accommodation was poor – a mediocre guesthouse, a school, a dormitory for government workers. Bus drivers left me by the road side – ‘Full’! And there really wasn’t much there, in those remotest corners of  Jinping, itself a remote county in Yunnan province.

Towards the end I got to Wuyaping. I arrived after dark. The head of the village offered me cold leftovers – dog meat, some green leaves, rice. He made me sleep in his office. He lectured this was a special place to visit, emphasized the proximity of the Vietnamese border. He was drunk, annoying and rapacious. He suggested I buy him a computer. I paid four times the normal price for a meal and a place to stay.

The next morning I looked around. And there wasn’t much there. Soon I wanted to get out. There was no bus. At long last I got a ride. It lasted twenty minutes. Then the road was blocked by a crane, hoisting remains of a truck from the ravine. It was going to be there all day. And tomorrow. Nobody got past. Nothing to do but turn back to Wuyaping, said my driver.

In travel we are always rewarded for our frustations, discomfort and bad luck. Some people there were discussing a possible detour. My escape was great, on the back of a truck lying in soft bundles of clothes, among the Hmong traders whose merchandise this was, along a mountainous dirt road, remote and beautiful and with wide views. At dusk when it got cold they pulled out blankets that kept us warm. I shared one with the old lady next to me who kept laughing about it. I watched the stars.

Late that evening I reached Mengla that I know well and where I like to stay.