Jinghong has changed. China changes quickly, so I knew to expect this when I went to visit friends in Jinghong earlier this month. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The area is less Sipsongpanna and more Xishuangbanna with each passing minute.
The Jinghong landscape now looks like any other Chinese town, with high-rise apartment buildings stretching for miles. I’ve only been gone a little less than two years — how does this happen so fast? I moved into an apartment two blocks from the Mekong River in 2006, mainly because I loved the quiet of a garden right on the riverbank where I could run and look at the water and listen to the birds and frogs in the early morning. By the time I came back from a visit to the States in 2008, the garden was gone, replaced with a new sidewalk and the shell of plans for new construction. Now, on either side of the newest bridge across the river stretch shops, restaurants, bars, and apartments. All covered in neon lights at night. The friend traveling with me commented that it reminded her of Disneyland. I was thinking Las Vegas. Either way, it is not the quiet Mekong River area I used to enjoy each morning. For that you will need to go south to Laos or Cambodia, I suppose.
Areas further from the river are just as bad. Sections of land that were once wide open fields for rice and other crops, dotted with villages of Dai wooden stilt homes, are now filled with 5-star hotels, shops, and an expo center (that is used for an event approximately once a year, thus far). Two-story shop buildings sell for $1 million US dollars. In a town where I paid about $100 monthly rent for a 3-bedroom apartment just three years ago. So far most of the new high-rise apartments are empty, though many of the units have been sold to investors from northern and eastern provinces. People who have never been to Yunnan, never visited Jinghong, have no idea what they have purchased in the form of real estate in Jinghong, and no notion of the true cost of their real estate “investment.”
Don’t get me started on the traffic problems caused by hundreds of new drivers who are used to getting around town on motorbikes and electric scooters. Car ownership is not inherently a good step forward — not when you’re talking about a small town with small roads and hundreds of thousands of people.
The clean fresh air that Yunnan is famous for is now dusty with construction and smoggy with exhaust in Jinghong. It could be any other town in China with a population of a few hundred thousand people, except for the facade of Dai architecture that the Han hope to capitalize on. Capitalize. A market freer than ever, while speech is still held captive. I scribbled this out in the Beijing airport on my way home, but was unable to post until I returned to the US, where Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube aren’t blocked.
Though I was perturbed by the blocked websites out of principle, I enjoyed the forced vacation from social media (only because it was temporary and not a regular imposition in my life) and felt like I had a more in-the-moment kind of trip since I couldn’t post and interact with people not directly in front of me. Still, at times my mind forms status updates, even when I’m not able to post them:
* 41 hours after the start of our 3.5 hour layover in Beijing, we were finally able to take off for Yunnan. Hundreds of flights cancelled due to fog, thousands of passengers stranded at the airport. You always think “It will never happen to me” — but sometimes it does.
* In my pocket are a few small green coffee beans from the trees on B Mountain – the first-fruits of the seedlings planted after the truck flipped during their transport (with me and three co-workers in it). Many emotions involved.
* The coffee roaster has made it to the cafe at last!
* Today I held a 7-week-old baby with one arm while using chopsticks to eat potstickers with the other hand. A latent talent revealed.
* I lost count of the mosquito bites I got while I was asleep each night of this trip, but the grand total of spider bites (or, more accurately, unidentified-Mekong-River-jungle-area-creature bites) while sleeping is 1.
You can build as many high-rise apartments as you want, but the jungle creatures will still find their way indoors at night.