Request a window seat when flying into Xishuangbanna. Bribe your fellow travellers if you have to. The way the region's fabled mountains burst through mist and low cloud is as spectacular as it is surprising.
This stab of disorientation is a good thing, for it instantly dispels any preconceived notions about China's homogeneity. It's China, Jim, but not as we know it.
The six ancient tea mountains of Xishuangbanna (pronounce it see-shwang-ban-na) in China's deep south are within striking distance of Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Laos, yet not really close to any place at all. My journey here begins with a two-hour flight south from the Cantonese megalopolis of Guangzhou to Yunnan's provincial capital of Kunming. Then it's an hour-long flight further south-west to Jinghong, Xishuangbanna's palm-lined, upwardly mobile capital. Our final destination, a town of 17,000 people called Menglun, is another hour by road. Not exactly convenient, but it seems only fair that travellers make some effort to get here; they don't, after all, let just anyone into heaven.
Although Xishuangbanna's tongue-twisting name derives from its old title, Sipsongpanna (translating to "12 rice-paddy township"), long ago the region was known as Mengbanaxi, meaning "miraculous utopia". In a land blessed with more rolling hills, sweeping valleys and rainforests than you can shake a digital camera at, it seems an entirely apt title.
There's beauty in diversity here. Most of Xishuangbanna's population comprises 13 ethnic groups, the most populous being the Dai people.
In 1953 the Chinese government recognised Xishuangbanna as a Dai autonomous prefecture and invested heavily to encourage its once-disenfranchised ethnic population to assimilate into greater China. Although these dispensations subsidised farming and improved infrastructure, six decades of economic persuasion hasn't fundamentally changed the border region's isolation and character. For centuries, invading armies, Christian missionaries and Chinese government officials came and went, while the Dai people steadfastly built their kingdom. The only ones yet to arrive in numbers are international tourists, although that looks set to change.
The mystique of these mountains is steeped in tea. While Pu-erh has long been prized in China, this earthy, wonderfully complex black tea has only recently been embraced abroad. While the name comes from the ancient trading post of Pu-erh in nearby Simao district, the tea's origins can be traced to Xishuangbanna, where much of it is grown. Before motorised transport, this precious cargo was carted from southern Yunnan to the rest of China via the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a 5000-kilometre mountainous trail that some historians believe was as vital to China's growth as the Silk Road. During the arduous journey by horse, traders discovered their tea began to ferment naturally, to the delight of the Tibetans and Beijingers at the end of the road.
Although parts of the horse track still remain, existing stretches are of more use as tourist attractions than transport routes. The start of the trail begins in Yiwu, a vast mountain range that also lends its name to a sleepy tea-growing village. My journey to tea enlightenment begins here, although commanding views and lungfuls of mountain air are reason enough to endure the bumpy and at times stomach-churning ascent from Menglun to Yiwu by car. Despite being a former commercial hub, the mountain community is conspicuously free of tourist infrastructure. People welcome curious strangers into their Qing-era homes. Tea pluckers stop to show travellers their work. Baskets of tea dry in the sun with playing cards used to distinguish different parcels.
Over cups of copper-hued Pu-erh with a sixth-generation tea merchant in one of Yiwu's side streets, I learn about its fascinating production process. Once dried, the tea is pressed into small discus-like cakes and left to ferment naturally; timing varies, but the best houses wait years before release. The taste changes with time. I taste Pu-erh up to eight years old, but I'm reliably informed that the best examples can live - and evolve - for decades. Just as important as age is the season of harvest; leaves plucked before Qingming (the fifth solar term in the Chinese 24-term calendar) - generally referred to as spring tea - are the most highly prized. Though tea rules, the provincial government is hedging its caffeinated bets by investing heavily in Yunnanese coffee. In a joint project with Starbucks, plants are being imported from Colombia, and Yunnan authorities have committed $500 million to increase annual coffee production to 200,000 tonnes by 2020.
Thankfully, there's another local investment more readily enjoyed. On the outskirts of Menglun, the 103-room Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa opened in February. It's the region's first international hotel brand and five-star property beyond the capital Jinghong.
From the grand temple-like lobby to the handsomely appointed rooms, Anantara Xishuangbanna's design brief presents as a luxe conjuring of colonial Asia: forests of carved wood, majestic staircases, high ceilings, stone bathrooms. Wat-like design flourishes, including gables adorned with chofas, echo Xishuangbanna's strong Thai influence. Within sprawling tropical gardens furnished with carvings and water features is a central infinity pool; clinging to its ledge is the best way to appreciate the nearby Luosuo River as it flows into the Lancang, the local leg of the Mekong.
The East and West are at play here. Tea and coffee specialists, for example, guide drinkers through the finer points of caffeine appreciation. Spa treatments use both the latest hydrotherapy equipment and local tea products. I graze globally, from outstanding macarons and featherweight Napoleons to Dai favourites such as grilled eggplant and bo luo fun (aka glutinous pineapple rice). From greeting to goodbye, it's a thoroughly polished package.
Yet even as the welcome mat is unfurled, Xishuangbanna remains a part of the Middle Kingdom, in tune with nature. The Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens, China's largest, are a leisurely stroll from Anantara's back steps. They're inhabited by more than 12,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants. Wild elephants roam the countryside; Jinuo, Bulang and Hani people forage in the same mountains for wild vegetables, mushrooms, truffles and honey. While eating insects is currently touted as a source of protein for the growing global population, the Yunnanese continue to chow down on deep-fried grasshopper and stir-fried bee larvae. Edible flowers? Roses, daylilies and umami-rich river moss were part of the diet here long before foraging for ingredients became fashionable with 21st-century chefs.
Not that eating in Xishuangbanna is about austerity. Southern Yunnan's tropical climate is ideal for growing tropical fruit; mangoes, jackfruit and bananas and more are sold year-round on roadsides and from the backs of trucks. They also feature at Menglun's wet market, one of the more authentic, vibrant pictures of life in rural China I have seen. Live chickens and seafood await their fate in cages and brick tanks. Produce, familiar and otherwise, is displayed on low tables and heaped in baskets for buyer perusal. Moonshine distilled from corn and rice is sold alongside bunches of fuzzy soybean plants and bags of mouth-numbing green Sichuan peppercorns. Though the clear, viscous spirit is disconcertingly packaged in recycled water bottles, I'm happy to report it's both potable and potent.
Street food is an even more compelling reason to explore the township, though I'd recommend limiting impulse snack purchases in the market to roast duck (a little tricky to eat on the move, granted) and salt-grilled fish. Beyond the market, however, the eating gets rather more interesting, especially in the mornings when it seems every second shopfront turns into a pop-up noodle stand. Of all the noodle vendors, the family stationed opposite the market on Menglun's main street seems busiest.
The food is honest and uncomplicated yet distinctly Chinese (look for a yellow sign above a roller door showing a bowl of noodles). Five yuan (90 cents) gets me a slippery hillock of vermicelli with scraps of braised chicken and all the garnishes my heart desires. I top my bowl with ladles of pickled chillies and vegetables. My investigations fail to unearth a dedicated dim sum restaurant, but I do find dumplings. Near the main roundabout, another family does a steady trade in jiaozi, ragged steamed dumplings loaded with pork.
While I can't fathom the music policy at the Sanrenxing nightclub, I'll vouch for the excellent xiao long bao sold in front of it each morning - springy balls of dough stuffed with minced pork, spring onion and ginger. Watching Aunty cut, roll and stuff each morsel by hand is my dose of street theatre. An impressive array of help-yourself condiments appears behind the kerbside kitchen. I make a beeline for the nanami, a thick, punchy tomato and chilli relish that will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with Thailand's fiery nam prik.
Being slipped watered-down tourist menus isn't much of a concern here; eateries in Xishuangbanna are calibrated to local tastes, in the cooking and the modest fit-outs. Menus in any language are practically non-existent, in fact, although signs outside restaurants often indicate house specialties in photographs or Hanzi characters. The ordering process for me usually involves entering the kitchen with my guide and pointing at ingredients in the fridge while discussing cooking methods.
After four days of extensive, no-dishes-barred grazing through the region, I'm pleased to report the hits far outweigh the misses. Standouts include the pickled vegetable soup, stir-fried pumpkin leaves and a winning dish of spicy frog bolstered by chilli, star anise, garlic and mint at Blue Garden Restaurant, a short and entirely worthwhile taxi ride from Anantara. Even closer, a stroll from the hotel's back gate, is the Dai Golden Bay Restaurant, a shack diner specialising in regional favourites such as Dai-style barbecued chicken and hand-shredded ganba, a local dried-beef dish.
During our tea plantation visit, we have lunch at Yiwu Tea Mountain Restaurant. The second-storey view of the surrounding mountains is inspiring, as is the kitchen's handiwork. A tureen of hot wuji tang, a sharp, medicinal broth enlivened with ginger, goji berries and the flesh of a freshly dispatched silkie is especially memorable. At Grass Hut Restaurant near Sky Tree Park in Tropical Rainforest National Park, the straighter-shooting likes of deep-fried baby river fish and local bacon stir-fried with beans are what I remember best.
Yet for all its olde-worldliness, Xishuangbanna has at least one foot planted in the 21st century. As I admire the colourful traditional costumes of Menglun women, indifferent teenagers loitering outside the supermarket have their eyes firmly glued to smart phones, their fast-moving thumbs negotiating the great firewall of China and updating Facebook statuses. While motorcycles remain the preferred method of transport, the occasional electric scooter catches me by surprise as it stealthily glides past. Elderly men and women practising early morning tai chi at the village's Five Tree Park sway gracefully to the classical Chinese music supplied by an iPod in a speaker dock.
While the recent arrival of national highways and a luxury resort are signs of things to come, there are other more subtle indications that Xishuangbanna is no longer in seclusion. Late one evening our party gathers in Menglun's "Barbecue Street", a stretch of footpath that screams to life at night when charcoal-toting grillers and rice liquor-fuelled revellers congregate. Clearly bemused by the gweilo that have sat beside them, a group of friendly teenaged boys invite us over to help put a dent in their sizeable stockpile of local Snow Leopard beer.
Many a "ganbei!" - the Chinese word for cheers - is exchanged. A steady procession of delicious grilled things of the porky and offally variety come and go, but our offer to chip in some yuan for our share of the meal is met with stern refusals.
Despite the limited lingua franca, it's clear that each party is thrilled the other is here. Our (mercifully small) glasses are once again reloaded by our hosts who decide another toast is in order. Exchanging sideward glances and grins with one another, they thrust their drinks towards us and shout in English, "Welcome to China!"