In 1992, Bill Porter, a translator and interpreter of Chinese texts, produced a series of digestible, observant radio programs for a Hong Kong station about his travels through Yunnan in southwest China. Now, 14 years later, he has collected these pieces and reworked them for his latest travel narrative, South of the Clouds.
Without a set itinerary, Porter has the luxury of developing spontaneous plans based on recommendations and is not shy about talking to the locals. Getting as close as he can via boat, train, or bus, Porter visits many isolated villages, tucked away in the mountains. These villages are so remote that he often has to trek some distance before he arrives at the traditional covered bridge, put in place to indicate the presence of a nearby village to outsiders. Once there, he waits for a villager to pass and invite him along, at which point he is welcomed into homes and treated to a meal.
Porter is most curious about the ethnic minorities, which comprise a large percentage of Yunnan’s population, and often bypasses the more touristy options in pursuit of as much authenticity as he can find, with a keen interest in folklore and cultural customs. In the Yao tribe he learns that to become a man, a boy must fast for three days in total darkness without sleeping. At the end of the fast, the boy must jump from a three-meter-high platform without falling to reach manhood or try again the following year. Porter compares the different tribes and introduces their cuisines, from the less savory (such as a special dried fish prepared by the Tung tribe) to the delicious fried tea, which is made by frying tea leaves, soybeans, corn, peanuts and puffed rice and adding the ingredients to boiling water with scallions and peppers.
South of Clouds is an effortless read, due to the author’s economy with words, laidback narrative style and disarming honesty, and augmented with the inclusion of Porter’s own photographs. Porter is a true traveler, who wants to experience as much as he wants to see. For this reason, he tends to “enjoy backwaters more than provincial capitals,” which means there is a lot of uncovered ground for the reader to explore.