August in China: Zhaoxing Town

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After a whole series of tiny villages made out of clusters of at most fifteen buildings, Zhaoxing was in contrast a village of villages having no less than five large drum towers. It was a bustling town by countryside standards, with several itinerant vendors selling farm produce and wild mushrooms.

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We entered through one of the three main gates to the village. This gate bears the sign proclaiming that it was the first village of Dong country.

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Like many villages, Zhaoxing straddles a stream that provides water for drinking and washing. Clustered along both sides of the river were many houses. Naturally, there were quite a few wooden bridges dotting the river

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Here, bridges were not just meant for crossing. As per Dong tradition, bridges were social places for relaxing, chatting and watching village life go by.

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Of course, drum towers were very important too. Zhaoxing is deservedly famous for its five grand drum towers. They each have different designs, according to Dong tradition that requires every drum tower to be different. Unfortunately we were drum towered-out and couldn’t be bothered to check out each one.

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It didn’t help that the drum towers were rather deserted because the day we arrived was a festival day. People were either busy with the preparations back at home or milling around waiting for the action to start.

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We ended up wandering around quite aimlessly, taking in unusual sights, like this one. Probably the whole village’s shoes were drying against this yellow door.

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I was incredibly tempted by the wild mushrooms on sale all over town. Willy was uneasy about it but I was quite taken by the idea of wild mushrooms fresh off the forest floor. It was too bad that our guesthouse lady-boss didn’t want to cook wild mushrooms for our dinner. She said that every year at least one villager would die from eating a bad mushroom. Her family didn’t eat them, so we couldn’t either.

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That was just too bad, but no mushroom dinner meant that we had time to have a look at the festival in the village.

August in China: Drum Towers of Northern Guangxi

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The Dong minority is also very well-known for its drum towers, probably even more so than its fengyu qiao (wind rain bridges). Every village must have at least one of these structures. Rising above each village, it serves multiple functions. It’s a community centre, a meeting place, a town hall, a fire alarm and all-purpose emergency service.

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Each of them is unique, a variation on a theme. Count the number of tiers and observe the carvings and you’ll notice that each drum tower is completely different from its cousins in the neighbourhood.

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Each is so much a centre of village life that shops open only in the vicinity of a drum tower. Here, they even build a small basketball court in front of the tower. It’s since been converted to a good space for drying rice.

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It was lovely to watch how grandparents congregated in the drum towers with their grandchildren. The sandwich generation was away working the fields, or in recent times, had already moved to the cities for work, leaving their children in the care of the elders.

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This place was almost like a childcare centre, until we realised that the caretakers weren’t really the grandparents.

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It sure looked like the grandparents ran the show, but it was really the TV that got everyone in here.

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August in China: Chengyang Bridge

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In Guilin, I met Willy, a Spanish fella who wanted to go off the tourist loop and see some real villages. We took off after lunch and headed up to Sanjiang (where?) in hopes of getting to Chengyang Bridge before nightfall. It was not to be. The minibuses had stopped by the time we rocked up and we had to take this modified tuk-tuk. It looks a lot sturdier than it feels and of course this photo opp was only possible because of a fuel stop.

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Chengyang Bridge is one of the most famous symbols of the Dong minority group. They are famous for their skill in carpentry, particularly in building bridges and drum towers. The bridges are called fengyu qiao (wind-rain bridges) and are very elaborate structures that look like several pagodas joined together. This is the lovely sight that greeted us.

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We were lucky to arrive so late because the entrance fee was something crazy like ¥100! For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t know exactly how much it cost. We called our inn on the other side of the bridge and the lady-boss came over to get us. She instructed us not to give in if anyone demanded payment and to tell them that any receipts would be at the inn. I guess this shows that the admission fees weren’t going back to the community!

Nonethelss, the fairy lights on the bridge were magical at night. Thankfully, the lights were switched off at 11 pm so it was relatively good for the environment.

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The bridge was also pretty darn good-looking in the day time. It was charmingly rustic and weathered. It was too bad that we couldn’t walk back across the bridge for fear of having to pay the dreaded entrance fee on the way back.

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Luckily, the complex of villages was on our side of the bridge and there was so much else to explore. We walked across several equally impressive bridges, none of them demanding entrance fees. However, all of them asked for a small donation in exchange for having your name carved on a stone tablet as a benefactor. Posterity for ¥10 sounded like a good deal, but since Willy had walked ahead and declined the offer, I didn’t bother and didn’t have the chance to ponder the consequences of donation and stone tablet.

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I thought this bridge was especially spectacular. It was a lot quieter and rose majestically above the fields. I guess it’s less famous for the simple reason that it was further away from the main road.

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One of the bridges led to the market and of course this was the most popular with the locals, especially the elders. It was a great place to hang out as it was breezy and there was a good view of the river. Some people played cards and dominoes while others just snoozed. What a great lifestyle choice.

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On this bridge I found a little niche housing the gods of the bridge. It was pretty old but well-tended. Cute.

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Quite serendipitously, we met this man who asked us what we were up to and invited us to his house for a cup of tea. Turned out that he was a great bridge builder who had done many projects in the big cities and even as far as Shanghai and Beijing. He showed us cut-out newspaper features on him and sheaves of architectural plans of bridges he’d drawn. He had shelves of models of bridges and drum towers all over his house. It was too bad he didn’t allow us to photograph those because he had plans to set up a museum featuring them. He was quite pleased to oblige us with a photo with him though.

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