At the countryside bus terminal in Daluo, China, the bikers have tan faces weathered by the elements and eyes wide with hope that someone will hire them for the twenty-minute journey across the border. Amid shouts of Tou du! Tou du! — “Smuggling! Smuggling!” — Kang is quiet. He doesn’t try to force his presence on anyone. In a fitted brown canvas jacket and tight indigo jeans, he is almost fashionable. The cheap lime-green flip-flops, however, throw the ensemble off balance. Only Chinese and Burmese nationals can pass through the official crossing that connects Daluo to Mong La, Myanmar. Yet many Chinese citizens don’t bother to acquire the proper permits. They hire bikers to take them across the border via mountain paths — in part for the thrill, but also to save money.
I ask Kang how much he charges for the ride. One hundred renminbi, or about $16. No hassle, no haggle, no hustle. I hop on.
Kang’s bike is a Honlei, just another cheap two-wheeled death trap made in China. It’s an all-purpose machine, not a sports bike, rugged though not built for rough riding. The entire fleet of ferrymen in Daluo use the same model or something like it. In China, you take hold of whatever limited options you have, and make the best out of them.
The ride is not kind. At times, we roll right along the cliff. Uphill climbs are steep enough that I slide off the back of the bike several times. Downhill glides toss me off the seat more times than I am comfortable with. There are a few stretches where the road flattens out, but that only lasts for a few seconds before the path is again pockmarked. Kang does his professional best to negotiate our way into Myanmar.
“How do you know that the border police aren’t around?” I ask.
“I went over the hills right before you arrived,” he answers. “We’re safe for now.”
Those hills are Kang’s home. He’s a Daluo native and has been zipping between Myanmar and China for as long as he can remember. The border is porous, partially because Yunnan Province and Shan State share the same bloodlines, and families often straddle both sides of the invisible demarcation that indicates where one nation’s sovereignty ends and another’s begins. I don’t know when we technically left China, but it doesn’t take long before we encounter men in Eastern Shan State Army uniforms. They wave us through the checkpoint without checking my passport. The normal rules of immigration don’t apply.
I first became interested in Mong La last year, after I spent some time with a few Chinese men who buy, sell, collect and drink tiger bone wine. Some of the men I met with have even taken trips to Vietnam to eat pangolins. In general, they believe consuming rare animals has incredible medical benefits, though some do it primarily as a sign of their status and wealth. Mong La has been reported in the news as a hub for the trade of endangered animals and their body parts, mainly to cater to the Chinese appetite for exotic foods. That may have been true in the past — there used to be at least one bear bile farm there, and a restaurant had bear meat on the menu — but I found it is no longer the case. It was causing too much unwanted attention, so those operations were shut down or relocated. A few women in the downtown wet market still have things like tiger pelts and pangolin scales for sale, but most of them are fake. The mummified “tiger paws” are actually from large dogs, the “tiger pelts” are dyed dog furs, the “tiger penises” are from deer. Once in a while, a few men from China stop to gawk without the intention of buying anything. When I ask the women about the animal parts, they grin and admit that their stuff isn’t real. But if a sucker comes along once in a while, they’d gladly relieve him of the contents of his wallet.
Away from the wet market is one small shop that sells tiger bone wine. According to several practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine whom I met in Yunnan, it’s the real deal, made by a Shan woman. She sells one jin at ¥800, or US$130 for about a pint. It’s strong, made from steeping a combination of tiger bones, herbs, and roots in Chinese rice wine that is as strong as vodka. It’s a bit too expensive for me.
“Wait,” she says. “I’ll let you try a cup.”
She disappears behind a wall at the back of the shop, then emerges with a teacup—her single teacup, for her own use, which holds less than a shot. She rinses it out with bottled water and wipes it with her shirt, which doesn’t look like it’s been washed recently. Then she pulls a worn, oxidized ladle out of a yellow plastic bag hidden behind one of the glass counters, and dunks it into a five-foot cistern. After swirling its contents for a few seconds, out comes the wine and the filled teacup is placed in my hand, like something small and precious. The liquid is a pale amber, and reeks of old herbs, like any Chinese apotheke. I drink it. It isn’t too bad. A little gamey, a little salty, a bit of a burn. It tastes like the snake wine I drink once in a while in Hong Kong, but a hair heavier.
The Shan woman watched Mong La spring up from nothing, transforming from a collection of thatched-roofed huts to a town with running water, courtesy of the UN in 1994. Then the Chinese brought electricity and telecommunications, but the infrastructure had strings attached to money and debauchery. Mong La was developed by Chinese entrepreneurs to be a vice town, a place where anyone from China (though mostly men) could indulge in things that were taboo or banned at home—food made from endangered animals, easy prostitution, high-stakes games of chance—in a setting that is much cheaper than Macao, China’s glitzy answer to Las Vegas. The governing body of Mong La turns a blind eye to the massive casino operations, as well as the brothels that line a corner of Downtown here.
Everywhere in Mong La, it is apparent that the Chinese owned everything. That we are in Myanmar is only an afterthought. The Shan woman is a rarity: a local who doesn’t work for someone from across the border. She gets her tiger bones from China’s breeding farms, where they raise tigers for their own tiger bone wine produced at an industrial scale. “It’s a tradition,” she says. “It makes your bones strong and your blood pump smoother.”
In reality, the tiger bone wine is just about flash. The drink of choice in Mong La is lager: Tsingtao or Myanmar Beer. The center of “downtown” is a ring of outdoor food and beer stalls. A man half-drunkenly manages several tables by what can only be called Hooker Alley, a lane with a dozen or so brothels that operate without the fig leaf of pretending to be something else. I call the drunk man Laoban. Boss. He’s from Nanjing, on the other end of China, but once made frequent visits to Macao.
“I lost this much,” he says as he holds up a hand signal that for the Chinese means eight.
Eight million renminbi? That is just under US$1.3 million, not an insignificant sum.
He laughs, eyes red. “Eight million! That would have been great!” Sotto voce: “Ba yi.” Eight hundred million. One hundred and twenty-nine million American dollars. Or so he claims.
His son is in Canada, studying business. Laoban is estranged from his family. He’s in Mong La because he thinks Macao’s loan sharks won’t travel across the entire country and then cross a border to go after him. There might be fault in that line of thinking, but he seems comfortable with it, especially with wind in three sheets as he drowns himself in baijiu.
At least he’s generous. He leaves a bottle on my table and says that I can drink as much as I want. “It’s my private stock,” he says, “so finish it before I do! No charge!” I pick up the ceramic container and check its contents. There isn’t much left.
I spend four days in Mong La’s parallel universe. I meet Chinese men who haven’t been home in nearly two decades. I stroll through all of the casinos and find men and women with fistfuls of renminbi and bloodshot eyes, all playing the same game. Many of them look like they haven’t slept in a couple days or more, at least not well. In the largest betting hall, I am mistaken for an undercover police officer from China, and one of the hospitality officers offers to make sure a girl will “look after” me in my hotel room. Biking back toward Downtown, I saw the largest knock-off I have ever seen—an entire Sheraton Hotel.
After all of that, it is time to head back into China, to Daluo. I call Kang so he can pick me up. On our way, we’re warned by someone who lives in the hills that Chinese border police are on patrol. We brake hard. I peek through the line of rubber trees and see someone in a camouflage uniform and a red band on his shoulder. He’s squatting on the side of a dirt path, staring back at me. Kang says we can take an alternate route, but I need to bribe a man with ¥20 to cut through his land. I say it’s fine. The border police spot us again and chase us for a bit, but we veer off the dirt path and into the trees. It doesn’t feel safe, and we are slipping on loose leaves, but the border police don’t want to follow us into the woods, so we lose them. Kang knows the hills far better than they do. Their checkpoints are only a few weeks old. His knowledge of the hills has been gathered over decades, and soon we’re in China, on a paved road, peeling straight for the bus terminal.
Before I leave Daluo, I meet a gambler from Beijing. He had been in Mong La for three weeks, since the Chinese New Year holiday, when the whole country basically shuts down. At one point, he was up by ¥300,000 (US$48,000), but ended up ¥10,000 (US$1,600) in the hole. It’s not a huge loss for him, but he’s not happy about it. He asks me where I live. I say Hong Kong. He asks me about the Umbrella Movement. He asks me what I think about what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He says he was there when the crackdown happened. He thinks for a moment and says he doesn’t know why he brought it up; he doesn’t really care. He asks how I did at the casinos. I didn’t gamble at all, but I make something up. I tell him I studied mathematics, and describe a made-up betting pattern on the spot. It’s just pseudoscientific drivel, but he acts like he understands what I’m talking about.
His eyes never peel away from something unseen through the bus window. For him, my presence is merely a rest note. We sit in silence for several minutes. A driver climbs into the bus’s cockpit. The ill-maintained engine rattles before it pukes itself back to life, shaking off the last few flecks of Mong La from our jackets. It’s still morning. Acute rays of Chinese sunshine hit suspended Burmese dust as we head east again.