By Maggie Rank
This village will answer to three names: Crow Mountain 鸦乌山, Red Cloud 红云, and Phoenix 凤凰. It’s too remote to be located on Google Maps. I have lived here since August 2014.
As it turns out, Crow Mountain is located in northern Tengchong, which is a county in western Yunnan, about 50 miles from the border with Myanmar. While Tengchong is now predominantly Han (the main ethnic group in China), there are some Hui (Chinese Muslim ethnic group), and many people of Burmese descent. Local teachers at my school say that the village was first settled during the Ming Dynasty, and most people still live in courtyard homes built of volcanic stones and mud, but the entire Tengchong region has experienced huge economic growth in the past 20 years.
Yunnan’s beauty has so far escaped most of the air pollution and urbanization that much of China is known for.
Yunnan Province has been the subject of a nationwide effort to increase tourism in China’s less cosmopolitan areas. Home to the greatest number of ethnic minorities and biodiversity, Yunnan brings to mind ad campaigns featuring actors dressed in ethnic costumes in front of brilliantly edited rural landscapes. Not to dismiss Yunnan’s beauty–it has so far escaped most of the air pollution and urbanization that much of China is known for–but certain tourist hot spots have become so commercialized that much of the charm is lost. Lijiang and Dali are two cities with “ancient towns” that now offer little more than shops where you can buy bongo drums or get a weave of neon colored cornrows.
Tengchong has not completely tapped into what it takes to be a “AAAAA” top rate Chinese destination. There is an inactive volcano, some wetlands, and several resort style hot springs, but it is fairly hard to access. There is an airport with four gates, and two long distance bus stations, but from Kunming it is at least a 17 hour drive. Back in the early 2000s, wealthy Chinese saw Tengchong as an ideal investment spot and funneled money into building illegal golf resorts and luxury spas. The local government jumped at the prospect of potential investors and quickly built acres of suburban style homes with the hopes that some Shanghai real estate tycoon would swoop in to finish the rest (i.e. the interiors, plumbing, electricity, advertising, etc.), but that has yet to happen. As a result, Tengchong is a rural paradise ghost town waiting to be discovered – perhaps Yunnan’s best kept secret.
A rural paradise ghost town waiting to be discovered – perhaps Yunnan’s best kept secret.
I live an hour and a half north of the city. To get there, you can take a public bus to a town about 10 miles away, and then flag down a car heading up the mountain. Once every five days the bus goes all the way to Crow Mountain, but there is no fixed time schedule. As the (original) name suggests, Crow Mountain is a rather austere place. The landscape is mountainous and coniferous. As you drive from the city into the sharply ascending hills, you will see tombstones dotting the fields and water buffalo being almost herded by withered old shepherds. In the distance you can see the famous Gao Li Gong Shan 高黎贡山 mountain range that stretches all the way to Tibet.
Most people make their living farming the rocky slopes, planting primarily tobacco, rice, and Three Seven 三七, a Chinese traditional medicine that supposedly treats heart conditions. Others work as miners and loggers, driving long treacherous distances on cobbled roads between China and Myanmar’s hinterlands. Given the lack of professional options, students are pressured to perform well in school so they can attend high school in the city and improve their chances of going to college. (Teng Yi Zhong 腾一中, Tengchong No. 1 High School, is actually the No. 4 high school in all of Yunnan.)
One of the distinct pleasures of living on Crow Mountain is eating. There are several local specialties that never fail to disappoint, namely ersi 饵丝 and yancai 盐菜. Ersi is a thin rice-wheat noodle served with pork broth, scallions, ground pork, sesame oil, soy sauce, and whatever other toppings are available. Tengchong is truly the only place where ersi can be enjoyed properly. Yancai are salted preserved vegetables (greens, turnips, carrots, etc.) that taste like funky pickles and can be used to spice up almost any dish (like ersi), or eaten alone.
Every fifth day is market day, which is the only time when fruits, vegetables, and most daily necessities are available locally. (Of course, most families have gardens and some butcher their own meat.) Tengchong is close to several prime agricultural regions and sources fruit that is ridiculously delicious and cheap. Pomelos, mangoes, persimmons, apples, pomegranates, bananas, and grapes are typical, and there are dozens of other fruits for which I do not even know an English name.
While I have become more prepared for the strange rhythm of life here, students have become more prepared for the strangeness that is me.
Working as a teacher at the village elementary school has been an exercise in patience and flexibility. The school operates with no academic calendar, and we are often not notified of events or changes until minutes before. Sometimes we work weekends when the principal feels like switching things around; sometimes I show up to class only to be told that it’s not happening because the students need to sweep the entire school; sometimes we lose power or water for days, weeks, or months at a time. Some of my students speak Mandarin, but most are only comfortable speaking the local dialect 方言. Communication has been an interesting challenge to tackle: while I have become more prepared for the strange rhythm of life here, students have become more prepared for the strangeness that is me. Nevertheless, kids are pretty much universally open and curious and I have enjoyed being their teacher.
It is difficult to put into words the place I have called home for the past year and a half, and it is equally difficult to capture the beauty and depth of this place through photography. Nevertheless, Kyle and I have tried and we hope you enjoy.
Photos by Kyle (except the ersi noodles). I visited Maggie at Crow Mountain during her school’s Sports Festival 运动会, a two day field extravaganza.