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Trekking in virgin tropical forest

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The banyan tree in the tropical rainforest in the Xishuangbanna.

Trekking in Yunnan Province (always contained in last minute China travel deals) takes you about as far away from typical China as you can get, and for the most adventurous there's spectacular virgin tropical rainforest and an awesome jungle mountain. Mark Melnicoe scales the heights.

Jungle trekking in China? It's not the first thing that comes to mind for most people considering tourist spots for a Chinese getaway.

But in Xishuangbanna, you're about as far from typical China as you can get - its people, land and customs are more aligned with Southeast Asian nations such as Laos and Myanmar, on which it borders. This mountainous, southernmost region of Yunnan Province contains much of China's biodiversity - both in plants and animals - and a wintertime trip can take you out of the cold and into a warm and green natural wonderland. 

One great way to get close to nature here: Join a trek, where you can group hike on day-long or multi-day walks through the region's rainforests, with opportunities to overnight in tiny villages where ethnic minority groups live.

One of the most experienced groups leading such hikes is Forest Cafe led by Lai Wenyan, who goes by her English name of Sara. She and her brother, Stone, take turns leading the group's treks. A big added bonus: You get to stay overnight with Dai and Aini ethnic minority families who live in the villages, eat meals with them and learn a bit about their lives.

Our group of five hikers - three Germans, one American and one Chinese - met Sara on a late January morning and set off for the town of Galamba, 45 very bumpy minutes away via a small, public bus. It was the first of many modes of transport we would utilize over the ensuing three days. From the colorful marketplace in Galamba, where everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes and Mao posters were sold, a driver took us in an SUV past enormous banana plantations to a lonely spot near the Lancang River. The river is named Mekong as it flows downstream through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea.

There we boarded a narrow, metal boat just big enough to handle all six of us, plus its driver. We motored about 90 minutes downstream, past a shoreline heavily punctuated with beautiful rocks backed by frequent sandy beaches and green mountains, through water that alternated between smooth pools and mild whitewater rapids.

At one point we stopped and Sara briefly got off the boat and returned with the biggest papaya I've ever seen - about two-thirds the size of a volleyball. It easily supplied all the fruit our group needed for lunch, which we soon ate while sitting on rocks. From this spot, off we went for three days of hiking.

The first hour was spent along a trail that hewed close by the river. Then we started climbing and traversed a trail that took us through a land of ferns, tall deciduous trees and green plants with leaves so big they could cover a small Volkswagen. In the distance, the blue Lancang River emerged below mountains stripped of their native vegetation and planted with acre after acre of rubber trees.

Soon we came upon the small Aini-minority village of Mengsong, where Sara had scheduled a rest. No one seemed to be around but we heard voices and singing in the distance. It turned out that a 78-year-old villager had died a few days before our arrival, and everyone was attending her funeral at a home just up the road. As we walked past, we stopped to observe.

The gathering seemed more like a party than a funeral, albeit with a wooden casket being carved by several men. Some of us gingerly took out our cameras which records our experience of China travel  and Sara, who speaks the Aini language, checked with someone and gave us the go-ahead to take pictures. Townspeople had flocked in and around the typical village home - made of solid wood and elevated about three meters off the ground.

The grandson of the woman who died invited our group to stay and have a meal with them. We spent the next two hours eating rice, fish, chicken, spiced vegetables and soup, trying to engage in small talk to the very friendly people, young and old, at what turned out to be the middle day of a three-day funeral.

Finally, it was time to go. After two and a half hours of up-and-down hiking, at dusk we reached the Dai village of Guanmo. Like all villages of Xishuangbanna's biggest minority group, this Dai village sat along the Lancang River where you can have trekking but popular China tours. The wooden houses surrounded an area of new construction, as all of the village's old-style wood homes are being replaced by modern brick-and-concrete structures. This will represent a big lifestyle change for the inhabitants, who only started getting electricity in the last 20 years.

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