stories about strangers
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the beekeeper's apprentice // yunnan

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The beekeeper's apprentice

THE MOUNTAINS OF XISHUANGBANNA, CHINA

We were high in the mountains of Xishuangbanna, as far south as you can get in Yunnan, skirting the borders of Myanmar and Laos. The drive was typical, textbook beauty: lush curvy mountains thick with rubber tree forests, puer tea plantations and banana palms, and scatterings of tiny Dai villages and locals crouched behind never-ending piles of mandarins. Hidden among the fields of green, Leigh spotted an odd collection of wooden boxes near a tent on the side of the road and asked our excellent guide and new best friend, Sam, to pull over.

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After spending the whole day with us, Sam, by now, was used to our constant curiosity of the foreign foods of Xishuangbanna. He patiently answered all of my questions about the 100 kinds of noodles on offer at the market, as well as the local Dai fermented fish (cured for 2 weeks; banned from restaurants because of its 'danger' – a frustratingly common occurence in China), and indulged Leigh's every photographic whim. He was also our impromptu translator when a story hit us in the face, as it did on this very roadside.

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We had stumbled upon the current home of Wei Da Jing, a 17-year-old apprentice beekeeper who was manning his hives. Wei is fresh to the beekeeping life, and had been on the job for just two months and was here to learn from a master beekeeper. Their tent and hive set up is always temporary – Wei and his master move their camp as the flowers bloom and die. This particular spot was stationed at a sunny patch of yellow flowers known as 小黄菊 (wild chrysanthemum). "Once these flowers die, the rubber trees will be flowering, so we will move toward them," he told Sam.

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Like thieves in the night, the beekeepers will stealthily pack up their hives in the dark, once the bees go to sleep. "They are most active around midday, when they are collecting their nectar, by 10pm they are asleep in their hives, which is when we move," Wei explained.

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The hives were humming, and bees were invasively buzzing around Wei as he spoke to us. Pieces of jackfruit lay drying among the hives, used to feed the bees and give them an extra boost of energy once Wei bottles up their hard-earned honey. Sam, who also has a couple of his own small hives in his backyard, tells us you must always leave a little bit of honeycomb in the hive, so the bees don't get fed up and abandon you.

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We waved goodbye to Wei, a little perplexed at our whirlwind visit and incredible interest. Back at Sam's house, he gave us a bowlful of his honey. It was smooth, thin and runny, lacking the usual saccharine taste of honey but instead rich with a more savoury, spiced flavour – it tasted just like China.

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Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki