We stepped out into a street bustling with activity as dusk settled in. Food vendors crowded the streets with little grills and pots, offering their greasy cuisine to everyone who passed by. The place was like a smalltown Chinese version of a mall food court. Some people huddled around tables, rested on stools or just stood there, but all of them were interacting with one another, sharing an evening with the community, not locking themselves inside their homes and hypnotizing themselves with TV. There was a buzz in the air, like something was about to happen. Or maybe it just felt like that because we had moved from the quiet bus out into an area overflowing with energy.
Steve and I stood there for a moment, just taking everything in. No one seemed to notice us until a truck honked to get us to move out of the road. We moved closer to the food vendors, and the smell of hot food was too much for Steve after all those Power Bars. He opted for some kind of grilled fish, skewered with a kabob on either side. I was too worried about finding a place to sleep to concentrate on snacking.
As Steve munched on his fish, I asked him if I could look at the map. He could only nod. He wiped his greasy fingers on his shorts and fished for the map in his pocket. He handed it to me, and I took a look. It made it clear that we were to continue down the road in the same direction the bus was traveling. Then we would make a few turns before arriving at the Dai minority park, the place where we were slated to stay the night.
According to our trainers, the minority park was sort of like an Indian reservation in the states. The Chinese government apparently pays Dai people to live there and carry on their indigenous lifestyle. Tourists from all over China come to visit the park to see how minorities live. If they so desire, guests can stay at one of the many traditional Dai homes located throughout the park, to experience authentic Dai cuisine and even help with a little farmwork. The park is famous for its elaborate celebrations of the water-splashing festival, the Dai minority's most important holiday.
The park was one of the main reasons Route 4 was my first choice. When I travel, I like to become more than a tourist. I like to understand the nitty gritty details of a society, how the people really interact with one another without all that canned, artificial nonsense they feed you at places designated for tourists. The way our trainers described it, I thought that even though the park was a popular tourist spot, it would be our best chance to get behind the outer walls of a Dai house and see from the inside how a household really worked.
After a few turns and almost a mile of walking, we turned left and were greeted with a huge, white concrete entryway with a booth in the center and traffic lanes running under two large arcs.
"This must be the park," I said.
Steve nodded, and we walked up to the window to pay the required entry fee. To our surprise, no one was monitoring the gate, which was standing wide open. Confused, we walked under it calling for help to any attendants that may have been nearby. Now that we were looking for people, we realized how desolate the place really was compared to the busy town.
Unsure of what to do, we started to venture into the park when a man with a security guard's badge cut us off. He didn't speak any English. Surprise, surprise. I did my best to tell him there was no one at the front office, and that we just wanted to sleep inside the park for the night. He seemed to understand, and I thought he said something about paying the entry fee upon our exit in the morning.
Steve butted in on our already frustrated conversation.
"Just tell him we want to look aroudn at the park for a minute, and then we'll come back to the gate," he said.
I relayed the message as best I could, and we started to walk in. A few seconds later, we had flagged down a three-wheeled motorcycle carriage, and we were heading away from the security gate and into the sights and sounds of the park.
It must have been off-season, because the inside of the park was just as deserted as the front gate. We saw a few Dai houses being erected on either side of the long, sinous road. We saw some large, ornate buildings that looked like restored Buddhist temples from ancient times. In the middle of the park, there was a round courtyard with a gilded fountain in the middle which we assumed was used in the dances of the watersplashing festival. All this, and almost no people.
We had been told the place would be hopping with activity. We thought there would be dancing and merrymaking, and music wafting over from one side of the valley to another. Unfortunately, the advertisments had been misleading, or at least meant for another time of year.
When our crowded vehicle pulled up to the authentic Dai house, we realized that there was very little about it that was "authentic." Steve and I had been traipsing through Dai villages all day. They were not about to pull a fast one on us. The wood on the house looked too new and manufactured, unlike the dark natural wood we saw in the villages. When we went inside, everything looked and felt plastic and generic, not like a home. The rooms were small, and they had no beds.
In Chinese, I asked the attendant, "Where are the beds?"
With a flurry of gestures and fast words, he conveyed that they would bring the beds in later. There's no telling what beds that could be moved that easily would do to our aching backs. I shot Steve a glance across the room, and his face said it all.
"We don't want it," I said in Chinese, and I walked outside and got back into our taxi. This was the most blatant tourist trap I had ever seen in China, and Steve and I were a little disappointed. It's not that we thought we were too high-class to stay there. Quite the opposite. We took one look at the prices and realized it was too high for our taste, especially with movable bamboo beds.
When Steve and the driver caught up, they asked me what I wanted to do. I looked up the word for hotel in the English/Chinese dictionary, and I told the driver to take us to the nearest one. In a few minutes, as we exited the park, we passed our friend at the security gate. He waved and smiled. In less than a minute more, the driver had stopped in front of a tall building. He pointed to it and repeated the word for hotel that I had just learned. I thanked him very much and paid him a little extra for his trouble. He still looked a little disoriented as he rode away, like he was confused about what had happened in the last 15-20 minutes.
I hope this place has real mattresses, I thought, and we trudged up the steps to our shelter for the night.