Flashback to Yunnan, 1997

Somewhere on the “road” between Tenchong and Guyong, . .

As darkness falls, very cold quickly slips into freezing. Our late October quest to contact an isolated group of Lisu is stymied in the remote high-mountain divide between the Irrawadi and Salween watersheds of Yunnan, China. The map shows a highway, but what we’ve been traveling along is a slippery red, unpaved, and deeply rutted passage through the mountains. It would not rise to the definition of road in most places, never mind highway. It travels between Tenchong and Guyong and carries on into Burma after threading through countless high passes and switchbacks. But ahead of us at a bend is a semi-truck folded at a disturbing angle— it is loaded with four mammoth teak logs, wallowing up to its axles in mud, and blocking traffic. In both directions, lengthening lines of government-issue baby blue trucks wait — those heading toward Burma are hauling consumer goods and weapons, those returning are laden with the teak ancients. A few private vehicles, mainly small jeeps like our basic Japanese model, are also caught.

This is the third such obstacle of the past two hours in which we’ve covered less than 40 kilometers; our high spirits evaporate into shivers as a few truck drivers argue on, thigh-deep in the cold red clay, without much conviction.

As the sun dips out of sight, a thin backlit figure crests the hill and maneuvers carefully down the slippery alley toward us. His huge basket, brimful of kindling, knee-length blue trousers, and crossbow, identify him as Lisu. “Seushae dja” (go slowly) my companion, 67-year-old anthropologist Otome Hutheesing, advises him as he passes. The all-occasion greeting among the Lisu in Northern Thailand seems particularly apt.

He stops and smiles, taking in the situation. If he’s surprised to be hailed in his native tongue by this grandmother clad in unfamiliar, Thai-style, Lisu clothes and her companion of indeterminate age and tribe, he doesn’t show it.

“Why don’t you come back to my village?” he says, shifting his burden, stating the obvious: “This is no place to spend the night.”








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