August in China: Stuck in the Mud

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We left Guangxi and headed north to Guizhou, still sticking to Dong territory. We took an early mianbao che (minivan, literally: bread bus) back to Sanjiang and swapped our loaf-shaped transport for a bus that had seen better days. To our surprise, we were not the only tourists headed to Zhaoxing, another Dong village. There was a European couple that looked like faded hippies hidden at the back.

Thinking that this would be an uneventful journey like our last bus ride, we were annoyed when our bus stopped along an ugly mud road winding alongside a murky river. There was construction going on at the embankment above us, most likely a brand new highway. We sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Soon, people got off the bus as there were no signs of people moving.

A motley bunch of people stood and squatted by the buses. There was a group of fairly trendy girls from Guangdong with a contemptuous attitude. They weren’t pleased at all to be in their high heels on a mud bank. Buying a pack of melon seeds from a tribal vendor who appeared from nowhere, they spat melon shells disdainfully at the bus tires. Others haggled and heckled the vendors, complaining that ¥10 for instant bowl noodles and hot water toted from kilometres away was daylight robbery. It was lunch time and they were annoyed that they wouldn’t reach their destination in time for the noon meal.

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I got bored observing all the bored people and headed to the front of the column to check out the cause of the jam. There must have been a mudslide because the road was impassible. A small covered truck was stuck in the mud as it tried to negotiate the tricky bend. There were lorries, trucks and buses of all shapes and sizes waiting behind it and no one dared to take the space at the inner lane for fear of meeting the same fate.

People milled around and pointed and it didn’t seem like much could be done. Lots of people muttered suggestions and then out of the blue, a mixed group from different vehicles organised themselves and started putting pieces of flat stone into the mud. I was taken aback by how someone had evidently gotten things going simply by example and the rest just wordlessly followed. Even the ticket seller lady from our bus helped out. I was very impressed by this show of solidarity and proactiveness. To me, it was yet another sign that China had great things ahead and was not to be trifled with. Later, Willy told me that something like that would never have happened in Spain and that we’d probably be stuck there for months instead of hours.

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In the end, the stones were not very helpful as the truck tried in vain to get unstuck. Before long, an excavator from the highway construction came over and dug us all out of the jam.

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Now what surprised me even more than the stone-laying was this: once the track was clear, the first few trucks moved to the side so others could pass. The drivers agreed that those in the buses needed to be on schedule more than the trucks and that the trucks could make matters worse by getting stuck again. Better to let the slightly more nimble buses ahead first. I was pretty much floored by this big-picture thinking. It’s the one event that impressed me the most about Chinese people.

Before we could hustle to get back on the bus, we were told to stay put and wait for the bus to roll up and pick us up instead. Don’t worry, they can recognise you.

Wow.

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August in China: Zhuang and Dong Food

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In the Zhuang village, one of the local specialties was bamboo sticky rice. Glutinous rice was soaked in water and mixed with corn, mushroom and carrot. The mixture was then stuffed into a bamboo section then roasted over a charcoal fire. The fragrant rice would swell to fill up the whole container and form a delicate layer of rice paper coating the entire length of bamboo. It was delicious.

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It’s probably one of the earliest convenience foods. Locals would take the prepared raw bamboo packets with them as they went into the forest to work. For lunch, they would build a fire and cook the bamboo packets. Et voila! Lunch on the go. The best part was that the packaging is biodegradable and left in the forest. Free hands to take timber back to the village.

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For the tourists’ bamboo rice, grills were put behind the restaurant. Check out the nifty built-in handle carved out of the bamboo.

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At the Dong village, we ducked into this little noodle shop for lunch.  It was the only food shop in the vicinity and it had only one dish on the menu. The best part was watching our noodles made before our eyes outside the little shack. This was mingling with the locals at its best.

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As we eagerly waited for our noodles, this group of boys happily slurped theirs down. They were eating with such gusto, it had to be good.

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And it was! This version was slightly lighter than the one in Yangshuo. It had far more fresh vegetables (pumpkin shoots, very yummy) in it and there was the option of adding extra chilli to taste. Wonderful. It cost all of ¥3 per bowl.

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August in China: A Village Market

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We were delighted that our visit coincided with market day. The market comes round to this corner of town every eight days, so it was a lovely bit of fortune we had. There were lots of villagers from all over coming here to stock up on necessities and buy and sell livestock.

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Bird flu or not, I was delighted to find a makeshift stall selling chicks and ducklings. Some of these chicks were so energetic that they managed to hop up onto the wire mesh in an attempted escape. The stallholder would simply toss them gently back to join its brothers and sisters.

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There were lots of ducklings of various ages on sale. Some were just a few days old and the older ones about a week or so old.

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They were packed into rattan carriers for transport back so they could be fattened nicely back on the ponds.

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The fruit stall was very popular. There were plenty milling around tasting the watermelon, bananas and grapes. I loved the grapes there. They were like none I’ve tasted before. These were huge, round and bursting with wine flavour. Sure, they had seeds and tough skins that had to be peeled or spat out, but the extra tannins only added to the tart, yet honeyed muscat flavour. I still dream of those grapes. Even the over-priced Japanese grapes couldn’t compare to these.

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Of course, we had to do more than just buy fruit. We ended up buying a live chicken for dinner! The stallholder was taken aback that these silly tourists would buy a chicken. Ours cost us the princely sum of ¥17.40.

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We carried it thus trussed-up all the way back. Willy happily toted it most of the way, basking in the astonished double-takes of passing villagers. It made a slightly tough but absolutely delicious dinner.

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August in China: Children in a Dong Village

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Children at the village certainly did live carefree lives. Walking through the paddy fields,  we saw these girls  taking their bath in the river. It was accompanied by lots of jumping, splashing and falling backwards into the water. Their mum washing things slightly downstream didn’t compel them to help out with the chores. I liked that they had so much of their childhood intact.

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There was a basketball court in front of one of the drum towers. Most of the space was taken up by rice laid out to dry, but the little space leftover was very well utilised. These boys had lots of fun showing off their shots.

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As Willy and I sat watching, some of the kids came right up to us just to stare. I guess they were quite shy and weren’t comfortable talking to strangers from outside the village. It was funny though how they happily grabbed Willy’s pack of airline crackers and took off with it, gleefully grabbing as much as they could. The sad part was that they weren’t good at sharing. Never mind offering us some, the small girls here didn’t even want to share among themselves.

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The boys were horsing around while we took photos. They later gathered round the camera, staring raptly at the screen. They pointed and laughed at each other and their images and then horsed around some more. The horsing around didn’t stop until some watermelon emerged from somewhere and they quieted to wolf it all down.

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August in China: A Walk in a Dong Village

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Just like its bridges and drum towers, Dong village houses are made of local wood. They blend charmingly into the forest, although some villages are much better kept than others. The first picture is of one that tourists frequent more.

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This slightly dustier village was a bit poorer, perhaps because tourist buses didn’t stop here. In this village, Willy and I had an odd sense that the people were wary and suspicious of outsiders. Even the curious children weren’t as open as I expected.

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Nonetheless, I was glad to see that there was some kind of government care in this village. At least the poster shows that they’re bothering to do something about female infanticide, reminding the minority groups that girls are a valuable part of their community.

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In the other villages, prosperity was showing in the form of spanking new houses. This one was very near to the main road. Everything was made from scratch from local timber. Nothing seemed to be metal or prefab.

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The villages didn’t have a proper sewage system. They relied on the age-old system of ponds, algae and ducks.  An outhouse  was built in the centre of each pond and presumably rotated between the ponds. Some of them were pretty clean, with melon creepers vines growing along the borders of the ponds.

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Others were equally pretty, with the red algal bloom. It was only after some thought that I realised why the algae was doing so well. They probably allowed the algae to grow, then drain the resulting water into the paddy fields as fertiliser and allow the ducks to get at the algae. Whether it’s correct or not is another matter,  it’s all pure speculation on my part.

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The back of the village opened out into the valley. The flattest parts at the bottom were filled with paddy fields, while the higher elevations had other crops like tea and corn.

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As we strolled along the back paths, villagers went on with their hard work on the land.

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On the other hand, we tourists went on to climb halfway up a slope and enjoy the beautiful views.

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I could stare out at this scenery every day, it’s so amazing.

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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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August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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August in China: Rice Terraces of Longsheng

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I took a day trip to Longsheng to see the famous rice terraces. It’s a verdant mountainous area populated by the Dong and Zhuang tribes. Their ancestors carved the terraces into the steep slopes creating this stunning landscape of  crazy curving green contours looming out of the mist.

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Each terrace had been carved out pretty much by hand and every inch of space was maximised. Some terraces were so tiny that the farmer had to stand outside the terrace to tend it.

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It was incredible how the terraces were all perfectly level. These were all done without the help of modern technology. It was simply mind-boggling to behold.

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Midway through the rice season, the paddy was just about starting to flower and seed. The different shades of green blanketing the valley really was a sight for sore eyes.

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Equally awesome were the wood houses also constructed into the slopes. Some of them were propped against the mountain-side with the help of stilts and others were simply split levels leaning on the rock contours. I loved how the complementary dark wood and red lanterns contrasted against the green green grass.

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I couldn’t quite get over the oddity of seeing a cluster of houses on the top of a hill. It must have been amazingly hard work for the first family to build a house there. Imagine lugging all the supplies, then chopping down the trees for timber and then putting it all together. Wow.

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And the views were just amazing. The mountain peaks looming in the distance reminded me that we may be able to carve up the mountains, but there would be another peak out there escaping our colonisation. There’d always be a wild spot out there waiting to be discovered.

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