Friday, February 26, 2010

The heart of remotest China

During my stay in Guizhou over the spring festival, I had the chance to visit a place which was really incredibly remote even for my standards, and I have already been to quite a few out of the way places in China. In fact I don't think I have ever been to somewhere which felt so remote and out of the world (well my world anyway), at least in China
The place itself was a little village in 织金 (Zhijin) county, which is located deep in the mountains of Western Guizhou. Guizhou is considered to be a bit of a backwater in China, and this county is considered to be a backwater even within Guizhou. I went to the village with my local friend, who happens to know someone who lives there. Otherwise, I am sure nothing in the world would ever have brought me there, and I could never have found the place on my own anyway. I am also pretty certain that I am the first non-Chinese person who ever went there, or at least the first in a very long time.

To get to the village, my friend and I first had to take a bus for four hours from the provincial capital Guiyang. After getting off in a little town in the mountains which reminded me slightly of the Far West, we got on a little mini-bus of the kind where you have to arrange a price with the driver in advance. Unfortunately the first mini-bus we took turned out to be driven by a guy who was either drunk or completely out of his mind, and probably both. I and my friend and the other passenger watched in terror as the driver skidded down little paths through the mountains at breakneck speed, swearing at any groups of children playing on the roadside or other drivers he crossed on the way. We all begged him to slow down, but our pleas seem to have little effect. I suppose that in such remote areas police checks on drivers are not common. As soon as we reached another little town we all got off, badly shaken and happy to be in one piece, and went and looked for another mini-bus with a saner driver. The next driver drove normally, but at one point a completely drunken local man got on and sat next to me, which was also rather unsettling. In any case, the driver finally dropped us off in the main "square" of another little town and drove away. As we stood there waiting for my friend's local contact to come and pick us up, I saw an elderly woman walk by in the traditional costume of the "long-horn Miao", one particular branch of the Miao people who are so called because the women wear animal horns as head ornaments, as this woman was indeed doing (see the photo). I could already see that I was in a very remote area, and my sense of adventure was ticking. Finally my friend's friend and another local man came on motorbikes and picked us up on the backs of their bikes (none of us wore any helmets of course). After riding along little mountain roads for another twenty minutes we reached our final destination: the little village where we were going to spend the night. The place had a feeling of real remoteness to it: just getting to it with ordinary public transport would have been impossible, and it was surrounded by mountains on all sides. There appeared to be only one main road going through the village, with one shop, a police station and a primary school. On a wall there was a large poster with a picture of two policemen, proclaiming: "dealing with social order, bringing safety and happiness for everyone", as if to remind everyone of the long arm of the state. I was taken to the house where we would spend the night. The conditions inside the houses were similar to those I had encountered the previous year in my stay in a village in Guangxi. There was electricity and a television, and also a measure of running water, at least cold water, but no real shower or sink. I had to clean my teeth and my face using a bowl of water in the courtyard. Of course, there was no proper toilet you could flush, and no heating, despite the cold winter weather (on the next day it actually started snowing slightly).
In the evening I ate in the house of some other local relations of our host, who were obviously extremely curious about having a foreigner staying with them. I found the local food quite delicious, even nicer than in other rural areas of China I have visited. Among the dozen people who ate with us, there was a young couple in their twenties. I later found out that they were only back to the village for the spring festival, but they are actually working in Guangdong. This is typical in small villages in China, in which the young people have all gone off to the big cities in the more developed provinces like Guangdong to find jobs, leaving the older people behind. Later in the evening I was taken to about four or five other houses to meet various local people, who were all very happy to entertain me and offer me food and drink. Their warmth and hospitality are genuinely of a kind which you can no longer find in the West, if you ever could.

The next morning, after eating two bowls of Yuan Tang for breakfast, I set off with my friend and our host for a walk through the hills surrounding the village. On the way we stopped at various farmhouses to say hello to various acquaintances of our host. The conditions and the lifestyle I saw were probably similar to what one might have found in many parts of Europe 50 or 60 years ago (in Britain it might be closer to 100 years ago). Some rooms did not even have electric lighting.

After walking for a while, we reached a village belonging to people from the Miao ethnic group (whereas the village where I spent the night was inhabited by Han people). This village has to take the prize for being the most traditional and untouched place I have seen in China. Many of the women still wore the traditional clothes of the Miao, which are extremely colourful and pretty (in the photo you can see a bit of the village). Even some young women wore them. Many of the houses were still in the traditional style, as far as I could tell. There were no roads which could reach this village, but you had to walk from the village for a few minutes to get to a road which cars could use. There were no shops, no schools, no police station, nothing whatsoever. The local children have to walk about half an hour to the village where I stayed overnight (which must seem like a metropolis to them) to go to school. Of course, the village is not completely untouched by the modern world. Electricity, televisions, and various consumer goods are visible in every home. We went into various houses, where the locals were obviously very curious about me. In one home, I asked my friend to ask the two local men we were talking to if they could tell us how to say "hello" in the Miao language. He asked them in Chinese, but they seem to find the question quite confusing, and couldn't come up with an answer. My friend insisted, asking them what they say to each other when they meet in the morning. In the end they came up with an answer, a Miao word which I have now forgotten. I suppose that if no one has ever asked you how to say "hello" in your language, you might find the question confusing.

After walking back to the village where I stayed the night, and eating a large lunch, we left the area. The way we left was as appropriate as possible. A few other local people also had to leave the village, perhaps to go back to work after the spring festival, so we all climbed into the back of a lorry which would take us to the bottom of the mountain. As the lorry left the village, a few firecrackers were set off to mark our departure. The lorry started driving down bumpy mountain paths. Although there were some stalls for us, I found that it was easier to stand then to sit down, since the lorry was jumping up and down so much. It was at that moment that it started snowing a little. Luckily I was wearing heavy clothing, but the wind was still bitingly cold. What made up for the discomfort was the scenery of the mountains rolling by. Although I have seen such sceneries before, looking at them from the open back of a lorry while travelling with a group of local people is rather different from seeing them through the windows of a comfortable tour bus. We passed quite a few villages and farms on the way, but since I was wrapped up in a hat and a scarf, the locals staring at us could probably not make out that I was a foreigner. If they could have done, their reaction would certainly have been one of complete amazement.
At some point we reached the edge of a really high mountain, and we could see a huge distance down below. There was a valley surrounded by mountains, with a river snaking through it, and we were looking at it from the top. The scenery reminded me a bit of the Lord of the Rings. The lorry slowly made its way down the mountain side, while I watched the amazing view down below. After about an hour we finally disembarked at the side of the river I had seen from above, and we took a boat down the river for another hour. After getting off the boat, I had to share a motorbike-taxi with the driver and my Chinese friend (it was the first time I rode a motorbike with two other people at once, although this is a common sight in China. Of course, no helmets to speak of). Then we finally reached a bus station and made our way back by bus to the relative comfort of my friend's home in Qingzhen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Being woken up at 5 in the morning by a train attendant trying to sell Chairman Mao memorabilia to the passengers

I spent yesterday night in the third class of the Guiyang-Chengdu train, and while in it I had one of the weirdest experiences of all my travels in China: being woken up at 5 in the morning by a member of staff with a microphone trying to sell Mao Zedong memorabilia to the passengers.

I was hoping that this year I would be able to avoid travelling over night in the third class of a Chinese train, in other words in a hard seat. Sleeping in a seat is never comfortable, but in Chinese trains during the spring festival it is made hellish by the incredible overcrowding, with people sleeping on the floor the whole way. I already had such an experience last year, and didn't want to repeat it. However, I was unable to find a ticket for a bed, so I had no choice but to travel this way. This year people are only able to start buying train tickets five days in advance over the spring festival period, to avoid the tickets being sold out ages in advance. However, if one wants to find a ticket for a bed, one probably has to arrive at the ticket station on the morning of the fifth day before they want to travel. I bought my ticket three days before I wanted to go, and a ticket for a seat was all I could get.

I was told that the trains to Chengdu shouldn't be too crowded, because Sichuan is a producer of migrant labour, rather than a receiver, and so after the new year's eve people would be leaving the province, not going to it. My local friend told me I would probably be able to change the ticket and get a bed once I was on the train itself. I was skeptical, and rightly so. The train was perhaps slightly less packed than Chinese trains can be around this time, meaning that getting to the bathroom wasn't actually a feat of acrobatics, however there were still plenty of people sleeping on the floor. I managed to find an attendant, and asked her if I could switch my ticket. She was very helpful and curious about me. She asked me where I had learnt Chinese, offered to teach me her language and asked me whether I thought her putonghua (mandarin Chinese) was good or not (!). She put my chinese name down on a list of people who wanted to switch their tickets, but in the end there were obviously no places available, so I spent the night on a seat.

My attempts to get some sleep were pretty useless. The enviroment was filthy, there were little children hollering everywhere (with their parents doing nothing to stop them) and I was sitting opposite an elderly man who kept drinking shots from a bottle of Chinese spirit and smoking, even though smoking is forbidden. During the evening, I noticed train attendants walking around the carriages selling toys for the children and toothbrushes or other goods. Even though they were dressed in an official uniform, they would pedal their ware and try to get passengers to buy the products, as if they were street pedallers. I found this rather surprising.

At 5 in the morning, while I was trying to nap without much success, a young woman who was clearly working in the train, with a uniform, placed herself right next to my seat with a microphone. To my amazement, she started reading a long text about chairman Mao, and how he established the Chinese railway system (or at least I think so, since my Chinese is still not really good enough to follow what she was saying). After reading the text for about 10 or 20 minutes with her microphone so that the whole carriage would hear, she started to try and get the passengers to buy a series of little effigies of Chairman Mao, going on about their convenient price and their other qualities. Incredibly, no one complained or even grumbled, and some people even bought some of the effigies. Some people even managed to go on sleeping, despite the long speech. The Chinese ability to sleep in any circumstances never fails to amaze me. I on the other hand was not getting much sleep even before the woman came, and by now I was completely awake, and quite fed up too. I could not believe that a person officially working for the train company would start pedalling cheap goods to the passengers at 5 in the morning, waking everyone up. I have never experienced anything remotely like this before in a Chinese train. I didn't know if this was the attendant's own little side business, or part of her job requirements, but Chinese people who I have spoken to since told me that it is probably her own side business. Apparently they are allowed to sell things to the passengers privately. However, they should not be allowed to do this at such an unearthly hour with a microphone.

In the beginning I thought the woman was just making a speech about the achievements of Chairman Mao, and to be honest I would have prefered that. Even though being woken up at 5 to listen to political propaganda is not my favourite pastime, at least there would have been some point to the whole thing. One could even see it as a glimpse of what it was like in China 40 years ago, when if you were woken up at 5 by someone talking about the virtues of chairman Mao, you not only had to put up with it but probably clap enthusiastically too. But being woken up at 5 to listen to the train attendant trying to sell cheap rubbish to you? Why are people working for the state railway service allowed to sell non-essential items to the passengers, and pedal the qualities of what they are selling like television salespeople? It's really weird, and it shows complete disrespect of the right of the paying passengers to get some sleep. Then again, the train was supposed to arrive at 6, so maybe waking people up at 5 is considered to be fair game. On the other hand, I bet the first class passengers were not woken up at all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy year of the tiger from Qingzhen, Guizhou

The year of the tiger has officially started a few days ago, on the 14th of february 2010. I am currently staying with a friend in Qingzhen, a little town in the province of Guizhou, South-Western China (You can see the town in the photo). I have celebrated the Chinese new year with his family. As expected, the celebrations involved a lot of fireworks, good food, playing majiang and lots of children running around excitedly with the new year gala on television in the background.

The town I am staying in is a relatively small one, quite close to the provincial capital, Guiyang. Guizhou is one of the more remote provinces of China, and it has a reputation as a bit of a backwater. It is usually eschewed by tourists in favour of neighbouring Yunnan. Even so, I find the mountainous landscape to be very beautiful. Although it is meant to be one of the least economically developed provinces of China, I find the conditions in this town to be relatively similar to the ones I have found in other small towns across China.

Guizhou is one of the provinces with the highest proportion of non-Han ethnic minorities, about 37% according to statistics. Being in the remote South-West of China, it is not situated in the heartland of the Han (the major ethnic group of China), which is in the Eastern half of the country. Although the province was already under Chinese control over two thousand years ago, it was only during the Ming dynasty (which started in the thirteenth century) that the Han Chinese started migrating to Guizhou en masse, and the area really came under Chinese domination. My friend's family is Han, and he tells me that they descend from a general who was sent to the area around 500 years ago by the emperor.

As a result of the Han only migrating to the area relatively recently, the local dialect of Chinese is not too distant from Putonghua, the official standard Chinese. However there are still some big differences, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. Although I can usually catch some of what people are saying to each other in Beijing, I find I can't usually catch anything which is said in the pure Guizhou dialect. Most people here can also speak standard Chinese and attempt to speak it to me, however they usually retain a strong local pronunciation. What confuses me most is that, just like in other parts of Southern China, the "l" and the "n" are not distinguished in people's minds, and so they are constantly mixed up.

The weather is warmer here than in Beijing, however some days it can still be around freezing, and just like everywhere in Southern China there is no heating to speak of in the houses. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable side of staying here for me, since I am not used to spending every waking hour in uncomfortably cold temperatures. When I arrived, it was so cold that I could see my own breath inside the room where I was sleeping. The worst thing of all is having a shower. Luckily, every home is equiped with a table with a kind of stove incorporated, and families always eat on it and gather round it in the evenings to keep warm.

Since this is a small town, the main entertainment for the local people seems to be playing majiang. Since I have arrived, I have learnt to play the famous game with the local rules, which are particularly complicated. Local men often gamble large sums of money with the game, but when I am playing the sums are always kept smaller, so that I don't lose too much money (since I obviously can't compete with people who seem to play the game every other day of their lives). Many families here also posses a special majiang table, which automatically shuffles the chips for you and provides you with a new set. I have never seen this anywhere else in China.

I have determined that there are currently two resident foreigners in this town, a New Zealender who has opened an English school, and an American who teaches there (I happened to bump into the Kiwi at the only decent local bar). Otherwise no foreigners ever cross these parts. As always, this means that I am the object of much curiosity and stares. On my first day here, I was taken to the fanciest hairdresser in town to get a haircut. Of course, all the people working there were curious about me and keen to speak to me. My hair colour was the object of much admiration, since the Chinese always have black hair. After I left, the person who accompanied me told me that one of the boys working in the hairdresser asked her a question about me before we left. Apparently, the question was "why is his skin so white?" (In the photos , a view of the street outside my friend's home).