by Ernie Diaz
If you’re looking for one place in China where concrete hasn’t usurped nature, then consider southwest Yunnan. A land of mountainous Burmese jungle in all but politics, Lincang county abounds in every kind of biological diversity, right on up to the profusion of university researchers running about trying to document it all.
But if crawling through jungle thickets looking for the spoor of the elusive hog deer isn’t your thing, then take a tour down the Nanting River, called “The Last Paradise” by not particularly imaginative local tourism groups. Gentler and more manageable than the nearby Mekong, Nanting runs through 311 kilometers of country so inviting it’s a miracle the place hasn’t yet been turned out and blacktopped.
The Nanting feeds soil that grows a conservation society’s worth of endangered plants, over three thousand priceless Chinese herbs, and more than eighty kinds of tropical flowers. Rare birds and jungle critters roust amongst it all. They’ll avoid the swishing clatter of your North Face gear, but the baker’s dozen of holdout minorities won’t. The De Ang, the Li, the Lagu, the Bulang, even those reformed headhunters the Wa, all are easier to find than bottled water.
But don’t imagine only thatched huts and the occasional way-station pass for civilization along the Nanting. These tribes have been cultivating their good earth as long as the Han. High cliffs guarding the rivers bear paintings more than three millennia old that prove it. Stretches of rain forest along the Nanting are regularly interspersed by sugar cane and rubber tree plantations, terraced farms, and ancient tended bushes of the prized dianhong tea leaf.
Of all the local minorities, it is the Dai who hold cultural sway over this region, by their relatively great number. It is their wooden houses you’ll most likely stop by, lost, but so charmed by your reception you’ll look forward to losing the way at the next opportunity. It is their temples dotting the hills by the Nanting, China’s only monuments to Theravadin Buddhism. Their form of worship and their name reveal the Dai link to Thailand, and thus their observance of a water festival.
A water dragon was on hand at the birth of the Buddha, sprinkling him with fragrant showers. For this and more animistic reasons, not least the beauty of the Nanting River, the Dai associate water not just with life but also with peace, luck, and health. So in mid-April they give all and sundry the kind of treatment normally reserved for cats in heat. Any implement that can possibly contain water is used to douse friend, foe, family, and stranger alike.
They have the water festival in Jinhong, too, but we’ve warned you about that place. The water festival in villages along the Nanting is still spontaneous and joyful, where a lao wai may still hope for honored guest rather than monied interloper status, and be dragged down to the river for a splashing by a gang of lithe Dai maidens. You’ll forget your squelching boots by nightfall, when villages gather in circles, the better to hear each other sing and see each other dance, enlivened by local spirits. And if you don’t make it for the water festival, an eyeful of the peaceful Nanting is a Buddhist blessing in itself.