China's "Kingdom of Women"

Tourism, Tony, and the Tropic of Cancer
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 13 2006 1:03 PM

China's "Kingdom of Women"

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The border crossing at Hekou, viewed from the Vietnamese side 
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The border crossing at Hekou, viewed from the Vietnamese side

HEKOU, China—The guards at this border crossing don't look twice at your codeine, but they aren't overly fond of books. The random selection in my bag includes one with a photo of a prison cell on the cover ( Harmful Error: Investigating America's Local Prosecutors), one with the word "uncensored" in its title ( Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings by Mark Twain), and an epic by a Russian ( Eugene Onegin). All elicit suspicious grunts. But the book they really want to ban is the Lonely Planet guide. (Something about a section on Taiwan ...) I'm not carrying one, and after a little while, they let me in. Call me a cynic, but someone's making a killing on the resale of confiscated guidebooks.

The soft sleeper from Hanoi 
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The soft sleeper from Hanoi

I've arrived at the Chinese border via a soft sleeper train (a mere $13) from Hanoi, Vietnam, which wasn't a bad trip once I accepted that babies do cry. (I'd plugged in my own pacifier and let the Counting Crows sing me to sleep.) By 7 a.m. I've scarfed a plate of stir-fried morning glory and am ready for immigration. A guy converting currency (Vietnamese dong to Chinese yuan) warns about rip-offs at the bus station. "Don't give any man money for your bag."

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I know this, having read about "Hekou Tony" on a backpacker Web site. Sure enough, he's at the station, shoving a laminated tag in my face and insisting that my bag is "too big," so I must give him 30 yuan ($3) to put it on the bus. I hate people who prey on travelers, and tell him "bù." ("No.")

He's a persistent jerk, sneering and threatening me with arrest. When I take his picture and say, "Bring the police," he finally backs off, hissing, "I hope you die."

I will. Someday. And when I do, I'll be three bucks up on Tony.

Hekou Tony will be happy to help you part with your money 
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Hekou Tony will be happy to help you part with your money

He's only slightly scary—nothing compared to the toilets. (I'd been warned about those, too.) There's a reason to go to the gym every other day and suffer through deep squats with a weighted barbell on your shoulders, and that reason is a public bathroom in a Chinese bus station. I don't mind "squatties" when they're not gag-a-maggot filthy. This one's a tiled trough, no door, with a trickle of water and 10 years' waste running below.

The minibus isn't bad at all, though. The only other Westerner—an English kid—gets pushed to the back, but I score a spot behind the driver and stretch out my legs. The man in the next seat offers peanuts and the guy behind gives me a warm Coke. I reciprocate with pumpkin seeds. The scenery is alarmingly spectacular.

An early start on the minibus to Kunming 
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An early start on the minibus to Kunming

There used to be a train that ran along the other side of the river, but frequent rock- and mudslides have taken it out of commission. The reason is bananas. And corn. And any other edible thing that can be cultivated. I wouldn't rappel down these slopes in a safety harness, but the locals somehow strip the soil of bamboo and harvest their crops. The earth is gouged, scraped raw, and she bleeds. It takes a lot of erosion to out-muddy the Mississippi, but they're managing it on the Mekong.

I look at the ruined railroad and up at the naked cliffs and hope they'll hold while we pass below. The van crosses a dozen or so places where they haven't, jolting over barely navigable tracks where the pavement has been sheared off into the gorge. People are clearing the road with brooms and bamboo baskets.

Every space that can be planted will be planted. Terraced hillsides help feed the local population. 
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Every space that can be planted will be planted. Terraced hillsides help feed the local population.

Depending on which Web site or guidebook you read, the journey from Hekou to Kunming varies between 12 and 16 hours. Today, the bus makes it in only nine. But about four hours out of Hekou, we reach Hell. The sky has been steadily blackening, and I expect a storm. This is far worse.

In a vast valley high in Yunnan Province, China's manufacturing tiger purrs. Despite Yunnan's status as one of the poorest and least industrial provinces in the country, hundreds of smokestacks belch progress into the air. My chest begins to ache, and my breath comes short and hard. The guy in the next seat keeps smoking and throws a Coke bottle out the window. I check the map. We're crossing the Tropic of Cancer.

If this is the future, it is not pretty. The valley makes pre-EPA Pittsburgh look positively pastoral. There are few signs of the prosperity that often accompanies manufacturing jobs. The houses are crumbling huts. All of the people who aren't in the plants—mostly the very young and the very old—seem to be laboring in makeshift fields, wresting a little rice from the earth with no more than water buffalo and homemade hoes. Back home, Wal-Mart is slashing prices. In Yunnan, our economic competition is slashing and burning every square foot that industry hasn't appropriated.

I haven't come for the factories—though this is the ancestral home of my clothing and consumer electronics—but to check out this corner of China's booming tourist industry. The government has been pouring millions of yuan into convincing foreign and domestic visitors that Yunnan is the place to be. The region around Zhongdian has been redubbed "Shangri-La," and any halfway scenic spot is being spiffed up, signposted, buffed, and brochured into what the Chinese consider a desirable tourism destination.

In spite of the promotional push, word of Yunnan reached me via a Belgian documentary. I was numb in Phnom Penh after a day spent visiting the S-21 torture center and Cambodia's killing fields. Too depressed to go drinking, I flipped on the Discovery Channel and watched A World Without Fathers or Husbands. The film celebrates the matriarchal Mosuo ethnic minority. Located around Yunnan's Lugu Lake, "the kingdom of women" is portrayed as a paradise where free-loving females practice a catch-and-release system of courtship called "walking marriage." No divorce decrees, no baby daddies, no such thing as a "slut."

It sounds pretty sweet.

Cynthia Barnes' Slate series "Timbuktu for the Timid" was named as a "notable" piece of work in The Best American Travel Writing 2006. The editor in chief of Agoda.com, she's at work on her first book, Blue: Wanders From Arkansas to Timbuktu. She lives in Bangkok.