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.

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