By Mitchell Blatt
Ancient Chinese poets and scholars had a tradition of self-exile.
They would escape to the countryside, sometimes leaving positions as court officials, to live a simple Taoist life and be inspired by nature. In July 2011, I sought out the transcendence of the Chinese countryside in the southwestern province of Guizhou.
After studying in Nanjing for four months and traveling through some of China’s biggest cities, I was exhausted by the fast pace of life and the inescapable crowds of people and buildings.
I went to Guizhou to experience peaceful villages, beautiful scenery and the diversity of China’s minority ethnic groups living in the countryside.My journey began in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County in Guangxi, Guizhou’s neighboring province to the east.
When I arrived in Sanjiang, a small minority city in the west of China’s Guangxi province, it was pouring down rain. I took shelter under a restaurant awning where I met a girl named Yang.
“Do you need help?” she asked me in English. “I’m looking for a hotel,” I responded in Mandarin. We talked for five minutes. She’s a local of Sanjiang and a member of the Dong ethnicity that is dominant here. Sanjiang is the capital of the Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County of Guangxi. There are 56 officially recognized ethnicities in China, but 92 percent of Chinese are Han. The Dong ethnicity is the 12th largest, numbering 2.9 million, and they are prevalent in western Guangxi and Guizhou.
Yang was a junior studying English in college. She wants to be a tour guide. She got her first chance to be a tour guide with me when she showed me around town that evening.
Sanjiang is a small city of 304,000 people built alongside the Xun River. At the center of town is a tall drum tower consisting of a 27-tiered pagoda. Drum towers in Dong communities serve as gathering places where meetings, performances, celebrations and social functions are held.
For dinner, Yang recommended dried stir-fried meat (“suan cai chao xi rou”). Dong cuisine blends spicy and sour flavors with pickled vegetables for an intense flavor. The Dong also have a unique breakfast offering called “oil tea.”
Known as “you cha” in Mandarin, oil tea is made when tea leaves are fried then steeped in water to create a thick tea which is then served in a bowl with puffed rice and cereal balls and optionally peanuts and green onions.
After breakfast the next morning, I was off to Chengyang, a group of villages 18 kilometers away known for its scenery and beautiful traditional architecture. Vans were lined up on the main road waiting to go to Chengyang. I approached one driver and asked how much. “60 yuan.”
“I’m not an idiot,” I said, using the vulgar colloquial term “sha B” for “idiot.” “6 yuan,” the driver quickly said as I started walking off, “60 yuan is for everyone in the whole van.” If you can demonstrate your knowledge of Chinese curse words, the merchants know you won’t easily be ripped off.
Chengyang I arrived in Chengyang to the sight of a 220-foot long wooden bridge over the Linxi River. Along with drum towers, the Dong people are famous for their wind and rain bridges, elaborately decorated bridges with roofs, flying eaves, corridors, verandas and pavilions.
The Chengyang Bridge is the largest wind and rain bridge in the world. Built in 1916, it is held together without the use of any nails or fasteners. Instead, the wood is precisely cut in order to be dovetailed in place.
Across the bridge is the village of Ma’an, one of eight closely built villages in the Chengyang community. Near Ma’an are a few guesthouse hotels. I stayed at the Dong Village Hotel, a wooden building overlooking the river, not far from the bridge.
The next morning, I arrived in Ma’an village square to watch the Dong Cultural Show that is performed every day at 10:30 am and 3:30 pm. The Dong women were dressed in blue shirts with white trim and wide metallic collars.
They wore black skirts and black ankle coverings with red bows above their red shoes. On their head, they wore metal hats with multiple points extending to display multicolored balls of fuzz.
The women danced, twirling red umbrellas, while the men, dressed in white button-up shirts, black pants and black hats, played bamboo pipe instruments with multiple pipes extending up into the air. They changed songs and dances throughout, at one point bringing out long windpipe instruments that took two people to hold as they were blown.
During the final number, the audience was invited to join in the dancing. After the show, I took a stroll around the village, admiring the old wooden buildings. The wood on buildings is faded in all different shades or brown and black. The community of eight villages, covering 12 square kilometers, home to 9,700 people, is easily navigable in a single day by a network of stone paths connecting them all together.
Each village has traditional architecture, a drum tower and bridges to cross streams. On the road between Dong village and Ping village was a market day. Farmers and merchants were lined up with produce and live animals to sell.
Chickens and ducks could be butchered on the spot or bought live to be butchered later. On a bus ride later in my journey, I would sit next to a man who had a live chicken clucking in his luggage.
Congjiang and Basha
After exploring Chengyang, my next stop was the Miao village of Basha where the traditional hunter-gatherer Miao people are still allowed to own firearms. I return to Sanjiang and take a bus from Sanjiang to Congjiang, a county seat 10 kilometers from Basha. <p “margin-bottom: 3pt; line-height: 150%;”>I woke up early the next morning and walked up a curving mountain road, taking in the scene of the Duliu River valley, until I arrived at a big wooden gate at the entrance to Basha village. Down the village road are modern buildings, including restaurants and shops.
Miao women walk down the street in black dresses, wearing clothing styles that originated during the Qin/Han dynasties between 200 BC and 200 AD. Men walk down the street with old-fashioned musket style guns over their shoulders.
Even young Miao boys carry small pistols. Dirt paths on either side of the road lead to the Miao people’s homes built into the sides of the mountain in distinctive wooden architecture. The Miao people are officially recognized as the fifth largest ethnic group in China, comprising 8.9 million, but “Miao” actually consists of multiple ethnic groups, some of which have unrelated languages and cultures, including the Hmong, Hmu, A Hmao, Qho and Xiong.
The Miao of Basha village are classified by the Chinese as Black Miao, because of their black clothing, a group settled in southeast Guizhou that includes Hmu and Ka Nao ethnicities.
The main attraction in Basha is the gun show where men and women dance and sing. Men fire their guns into the air and perform hunting rituals. At the end of the show, one boy has his head shaved with a shear, a rite of manhood in Basha culture.
The next morning, I woke up early and took the bus from Congjiang to Zhaoxing, a Dong village 2.5 hours away.The journey was over an unpaved gravel road.
While staying in Zhaoxing for five days, I hiked through the rice fields in the mountains to the east and west. There are endless trails and more than a dozen small towns in the mountainside in the surrounding areas of Zhaoxing. One day, I hiked to the east to Shage, a village 3 kilometers from Zhaoxing in the mountains.
From there, I went to Tang’an, one kilometer from Shage. While Shage is a little deeper into the mountains and hidden inside a forest, Tang’an is right on the mountainside, offering a phenomenal view of the Zhaoxing River valley with Zhaoxing’s wooden buildings and the rice paddies, rising up the mountain.
At night in Zhaoxing, locals congregate under the five drum towers throughout the village. Fires burn at the various gathering spots, and there is a jovial intimate feeling about.
One thing that appeared to be missing from the Zhaoxing community was a large population of young adults, especially young men. Most of the people there were either children, mothers with children or older people.
Many of the men from China’s rural communities go to big cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Shanghai to earn more money working in factories. Guizhou is China’s poorest province and is among the hardest hit by migration. Its economy depends largely on agriculture, with peppers and rice being key provincial exports. Guizhou’s tourism economy is growing, as Guizhou is one of China’s most scenic provinces with picturesque villages, mountains, cases, and waterfalls.
<p “margin-bottom: 3pt; line-height: 150%;”>Most of the national development and wealth has so far occurred in eastern and southeastern coastal provinces. The national government is trying to address the problem of rural poverty by building infrastructure in the countryside. To the west of Zhaoxing, there is a newly built highway with hardly any cars driving on it.
After five days in Zhaoxing, I was off to my next destination: Sandu, a Shui minority city to the east. I first had to stop in Rongjiang on the way.
Rongjiang is another small county-level city of about 300,000. There isn’t much for entertainment or nightlife in Rongjiang, but there is a thriving counterfeit apparel market.
Finding a hotel in Rongjiang was a challenge. There is only one hotel in Rongjiang that serves foreigners: the most expensive one. Being the most expensive hotel in a tiny rural city like Rongjiang, it still wasn’t very expensive; just 149 yuan per night, approximately 22 U.S. dollars at the time.
I was told later that the reason some hotels don’t serve foreigners is that hotels that serve foreigners have to apply for a residential permit every day for their guests. Not every hotel is able to do so, and not every hotel gets permitted to serve foreigners.
When I was staying on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen, I had a similar experience not being able to stay at a particular hotel.
I left for Sandu early the next morning. The bus continued to follow highway 321 along the Duliu River as it rose into mist-shrouded mountains. I arrived in Sandu at about 10 am and dropped my bags off at a hotel and found a noodle place for breakfast.
There, I met some teens on a soccer team who were happy to talk with me and show me around the city. Sandu is a little bit bigger than Congjiang and Rongjiang, with a population of 314,000, and it’s more scenic.
There’s a walkway along the Duliu River, and across the river, there’s a hill with towers and statues lining the path up. From the top, there is a view of the city from the tallest tower.
Sandu Shui Autonomous County is the only Shui autonomous county in China and is home to nearly half of all the Shui people. The Shui are China’s 25th largest ethnic group, numbering 406,000.
The Shui are known for their distinctive language, which has 70 consonants and has a pictographic writing system.
However, few locals know their writing language. It was placed on the Chinese government’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2006 with the intent of preserving it. The number who can speak the language may also be on the decline, as the kids I met in Sandu said they all couldn’t speak it.
After climbing Sandu’s city hill, I went off to a small countryside village that my young friends recommended and hiked around on a rugged trail, having to march through a creek where the trail periodically disappeared.
I hiked slowly and enjoyed the views, as this was my last day in the country. Later that day I would take the bus to Guizhou’s capital, Guiyang, back to crowded city streets and chaos.
At Guiyang’s long-distance bus station, there were dozens upon dozens of buses, some from as far away as Guangzhou, 1,300 kilometers by bus.
Mitchell Blatt spent two months traveling through southern China in 2011. He is a travel correspondent for China for Examiner.com.