Exploring China’s peripheries: Southwest 西南
// Day 5: Yuanyang county 元阳县,
Honghe Hani and Yi Minority Autonomous Prefecture 红河哈尼族彝族自治州, Yunnan province
Done with Dali, it was a six-hour long sleeper bus journey from Dali’s Changshan Erhai back to Kunming. Due to the nature of the region’s terrain, the train ride would have taken far longer. I whined to myself as the bus did not offer the most comfortable of rides, but it all changed as it meant it afforded me plenty of time to chat with a Hani-minority woman seated next to me.
She offered me all manner of wisdom, despite profuse apologies via her self-perception that she was uncultured, compared to an overseas-born Chinese. On the way to Kunming to see her daughter striking it out in the big city (a luxury she gets twice a year at most), she left an indelible impression. Alas, when we reached our destination, the flurry of activity (anyone who has travelled to China would know how many rush to wait and wait to rush as if it were an Olympic event) prevented me from taking a photo of/with her. We talked about all manner of things, from the Sino-Japanese dispute, the South China Sea, from growth opportunities and healthcare, the list was long – above all it was a comment she made about her daughter that would stick forever. She said, when a girl gets older she actually becomes younger and more vulnerable. I digress, here’s a summary of that first-hand account that might be useful for readers:
1. Hukou restrictions have been somewhat lifted, making it easier to get work in other provinces with an identity card. Though primarily a farmer, she has traversed much of China to work in recent years, from Zhejiang further up north, and even to Myanmmar down south to seek work to save money to complete her house for her family – her two kids were aged 17 and 8, another reminder of the monolithic myth of China’s one-child policy, it simply did not apply to the rural class, and especially the minorities, or where it could not be enforced. The future of China might see a great depreciation of Han dominance because of this, but that is for another story.
2. Yunnan’s illicit drug problem due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle was a real danger to the livelihoods of the rural peasants – she related stories of relatives and friends, those who could least afford the habit – who had been lost down that track and how it has been cleaned up in recent years.
3. That it was hard for the peasant class to make more than 2,000 rmb monthly in Dali. She waxed lyrical about how those from the north like Zhejiang were simply much smarter and prettier/fairer (Yunnan’s elevation and proximity to harmful UV rays ensures one gets a tan pretty quickly) than they were, despite Yunnan having so much more to offer in terms of quality and range of agricultural produce. However, she warned that in places further up north, fertilisers for crops were used countless times a year whereas in Yunnan, the norm was no more than twice a year. Rather bewildered that someone from Australia would be interested in her hometown, she kept encouraging me to move to Yunnan, for they needed more brains who understood how the wider world worked. She kept taking an apologist stance for her uncultured-ness, and she was worried about me being bored. I told her no – she had more culture than many steel-citied dwellers I know, and I was lapping it all up.
4. After 10 years of saving, she finally managed to complete her 100sqm meter two-storeyed home at the cost of 200,000RMB, already stripped down as she had enlisted the help of numerous relations who were craftsmen and builders. Ten years ago, it would have cost a tenth of the price. She related how some farmers would strike it rich when government reimbursements (much more practical and lucrative in the past two years) kicked in if their land was claimed. In recent times, an already-built home would also be included in the compensation package. Insurance schemes have also finally kicked in, and at the lowest rung it cost just 60 to 120 RMB a year where the government foots 60% of the bill if one goes to a public hospital. China’s pressing problem of overcrowded hospitals and overworked healthcare staff is another matter, however.
From Kunming, it was then a six to seven hour drive southeast of Yunnan through long twisting mountain roads and snaking tunnels toward Yuanyang, the next destination. This again, is where China’s ethnic minorities were the majority at more than 88%.
Heinous would only begin to describe the 300km odd km journey there. Landslides were a dime a dozen with boulders the size of lorries a common sight along the highway that zig zagged along with the Honghe (Red River). There really isn’t any easy way to get to Yuanyang county – but all manner of people did – from the motorcyclists, to the trike riders, . Just earlier this week, there was a massive landslide in Yunnan that killed 46.