August in China: Festival Day in Dong Country

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Mrs Lu invited us to a baby’s first month celebration. Half the village was going, so as their guests we had to go too. I didn’t get the logic, so I don’t expect you to either! As expected, the celebration was by the river. We got there a bit early as preparations were clearly still under way.

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This place would be a food inspector’s nightmare. The meat was chopped up right in the shallows of the river, while bowls were washed nearby in the same river water. It was all part of a day’s work.

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Next, the meat was cooked in a massive wok with plenty of river weed, wood ear mushroom and preserved vegetables.

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While waiting, most people milled around gossiping, Mrs Lu chatting with the rest about me. Others were more industrious, like this lady pounding her cloth with a mallet. Dong cloth is famous for its indigo cloth and in Zhaoxing, especially prized is the maroon shade achieved by adding chicken blood to the dye. A woman’s worth is measured by the quality of cloth she produces and the cloth has to be pounded to make it soft and easy on the skin.

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It seemed to be a multi-purpose festival day. There was a separate celebration for a teacher’s retirement just a few paces down the main street. They set off round upon round of firecrackers, filling the street with an almighty din and a screen of smoke. We stood and stared while waiting for our celebration to start.

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Finally, it was time. The children seemed to heed an invisible signal and rushed forward. Mr Lu barreled past, grabbing Willy along with him. He was to join the men to eat and drink the local moonshine. I joined the women.

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We each grabbed a pair of bamboo chopsticks and reached into a large wicker basket for a handful of glutinous rice. Next, we headed to an empty slot at a low table and started digging in. It went like this: if you’re an elder, sit on a low stool, if not squat. Pick a morsel of food from any of the bowls, followed by a mouthful of glutinous rice. Keep eating. Try not to pass out from the pain of squatting for an eternity. (It was probably only about half an hour.)

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The food was delicious! There was pork boiled with some kind of river kelp and wintermelon, vegetables in very spicy chilli and some preserves. All were very excellent and everyone happily dug in with gusto. There was plenty to go round.

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I stood up periodically, ostensibly to take pictures but really to rest my poor legs. The best part about the whole festival was that I never saw the first-month baby, the closest I got to one was to this friendly mother and toddler. Mrs Lu told me that it wasn’t necessary to see the baby and she was vague about how they were related, so we headed back to her house for tea.

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August in China: The Lu Family

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While strolling past the river, we saw a villager shooting at fish with an air gun. We stood and stared for a while, not sure what to make of this. Weren’t guns illegal in China? Then again, this was a remote place that could possibly be outside of the law. Why on earth was he shooting the fish instead of a hook and line? If he got one, how was he going to catch it and we didn’t see any fish in the river anyway. Turned out that it was just for fun and occasionally they’d get a small one.

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As we stood around for a while, a lady came up and started chatting with me. It turned out that she was the gun-fish man’s wife. She told me about the village and how they made a living on the farms in the outskirts. I was surprised to find out that they commuted to work every morning on the buses that regularly passed the village. They made enough money to rebuild their wooden house every five years, which was the norm in the Dong area, but rather flabbergasting to me. I thought rebuilding every ten years was already horribly excessive. (Case in point, my alma mater is being rebuilt only ten years after moving to a new building.) I suppose for them, rebuilding is a matter of affording the rent or whatever it cost to stay somewhere else while the new house was being built. Wood and most of the construction material would come from the forest.

It seemed to be a labour-intensive, but fairly idyllic life. There was lots of time to sit around and chat. People here had time to spend with others. I liked that a lot. It helped that everyone in the village was pretty much family. They all had the surname Lu. It was odd at first, but I later realised that most villages in China were like that, including my own ancestral ones. Wives were found outside the village and daughters were married off to a family in a nearby village.

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Here, one of the Lu daughters showed me a grasshopper they’d just caught. We were chatting away in the house as the sky darkened, and suddenly there was a slight commotion at the far while. A large grasshopper flew into a special trap woven from grass fibres and scratched loudly but vainly to escape. I asked them what they caught the grasshopper for, and the answer was an insouciant, “Oh, for fun!”

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Later that evening, Willy showed the kids a magic trick with cards. They were delighted! It kept them occupied while Mr Lu showed me the family photos. There were photos of him in military service, at the local attractions within the province and with the family.

They had never stepped foot outside of the province before and would never be able to get a permit to leave the country for a holiday. Nonetheless, they seemed resigned to that and appeared content with their lot in life. They were incredibly generous, even asking us to stay the night with them and not waste money at the guesthouse.

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Before going back, we took pictures with the family. They were very happy to gather the family round for it. We left with them telling us to please come back and visit soon.

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August in China: Zhaoxing School

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Willy and I took a little hike up to the local school. It was an interesting immersion in Communist slogans. On this mural, Deng Xiaoping exhorts the children that education is about facing modernisation, globalisation and the future.

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Here, the slogan very roughly translates thus:

A pair of obedient legs, a civilised mouth,
An intelligent brain, a benevolent heart,
A pair of nimble hands, a dependable person.

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I’m not even going to bother translating the whole of this set of slogans to underscore the core  values of society. Suffice to say, the parallel structure of eight glories against eight shames is very typical of Chinese slogans. It’s not even very communist in nature. See for yourself when you watch (real, not Hollywood) kungfu movies.

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The last crude slogan is pithy and cuts straight to the chase: If you don’t graduate from middle school, you’ll not be a good worker.

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I wondered what school really was like in these parts. Did they have to memorise these slogans along with their lessons like automatons? Or did they just play lip service and get on with other more important things? If only it was a school day, I could have taken a sneak peek.

August in China: Amazing Views of Guizhou

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Guizhou is one of the poorest and most undeveloped provinces in China. It is a mountainous inland area populated by minority groups. Its underdevelopment is mainly due to the difficult transport lines. Good roads are only now being constructed and there are very few major highways passing through the province. What makes development difficult makes the scenery uncommonly beautiful. Throughout the winding journey, we got used to the lovely views of the many shades of green, from the pine trees to the rice paddies.

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Each turn gave us another great view. Why bother with TV and National Geographic when you can look out at this all afternoon?

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I envied the villagers their houses with the amazing views. It looked almost Swiss alpine and was all incredibly idyllic.

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Soon we spied a dark patch in the valley below. This had to be the biggest town in the area, Zhaoxing.

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After an unexpectedly long journey that was half the distance we’d last travelled yet took twice the time of our last journey, we finally arrived at the last Dong village on our itinerary.

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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