Monday, July 7, 2008
After noodles and fried egg, cooked up by our host, Tim and I hit the road. We drank a pitifully small cup of perculated coffee from a streetside cafe and then just caught the bus to Leishan as it was easing out of the station. From Leishan we caught another onto Conjiang. Between buses we met a student girl from Kunming, who was going the same way and became our translater. She was called Caiting. She spoke good english, having studied in New Zealand.
On the bus I listened to the Magic Numbers - buying that CD was a wise and inspired decision - watching the yellow rice terraces, dotted with shacks, rising and falling in my view, as the bus chugged up and then whipped down and around corners.
In Conjiang, as foriegners, we weren't allowed to stay in the cheapest hotels, so Tim and I took a hotel twin room for 100rmb. It was nice to have the comfort. Caiting, being chinese, got a room for 20 rmb just down the street. We arranged to meet for the evening meal and then again in the morning.
I'd read about a place called Basha, where the tribal residents dressed in cloathes going back to the Qing dynasty. With Caiting's help we found a group of young men on wide handle-barred and chrome shining motorbikes, waiting at an intersection. We arranged a fee and got on the back of our three motorbike taxis. They carried us up the hillside, rushing air and sharp cornering bringing excitement. At about 10 kilometres from the city we got to the entry gate to Basha. My driver went to stop, their being some men hanging around expecting a fee of entry but the other drivers whizzed by. We followed.
We saw men in dark blue, almost black, trousers and jackets, which we found out were made from cotton, dyed with what we think was a mixture involving fermented leaves (we saw leaves soaking in bubbling barrels, the liquid a deep blue), and duck egg-whites which gave the material a shine. It looked a little like PVC fake leather. The men had their hair in topknots and a few carried very old fashioned rifles and knives on their hips. The women wore brightly coloured tops of yellow, orange, blue, and purple. They were almost like bibs. Underneath were the deep blue jackets and pleated skirts to just above the knees, leggins to their calves. Some wore shoes or sandals but we saw other working women with loads spread on a pole across their shoulders, stomping and skipping briskly in their bare feet.
After wandering the mostly deserted cobbled and mud paths around the stilted wooden dwellings, bizarrely many with satelite dishes contrasting with the rural setting, we came to a clearing in some trees where perhaps thirty of these anciently dressed Miao people were sitting. As the predominantly young men and women, along with a few elders and a little girl, walked to leave the area, they asked us if we wanted to see a show of some of their traditional ceremonies. It turned out a chinese tour group had arranged and paid for the event. A lead man sneakily asked us for 10rmb each, which we agreed to pay serrupticiuosly later.
After waiting some time for the guests to arrive we joined them in the clearing and watched the enthusiastic dancing and bamboo flute playing. They stomped in wide legged stances and shook their bodies, with rocking of their torso back and forth, the men blowing through their instruments of sizes ranging from two feet to one central flute of about eight. A mock wedding was performed, in which a young Miao woman was carried into the clearing sitting side saddle on a beam, carried by some men, and clasping another held just above her shoulder hieght. She dismounted and men on one side took hold of her arm and tugged on her, she going that way, and then women rushed to take her other arm and pulled her back the other. This continued a few times until she settled with the husband to be in the centre. On this occasion a chinese tourist became the groom. At some point a skirt front was added to the bride to show that she was now no longer available. More songs and dances were carried out. The two beams were taken up by two opposing teams of men and what seemed like a mock buffalo fight was acted out, the pieces of wood being butted against each other. Then as a digression from the wedding theme a sharpened hooked blade, about a foot in length (rather like a mini sythe), was used to shave the hair of a Miao male, leaving the topknot in place.
Near the end of the event two girls came to Tim and I and held out their hands. We joined a circle of people where we held hands and tried to immitate the rocking movements and steps, to the rhythm of the flutes. A gangway of men was formed and we were led in pairs down this aisle, girl in hand, dancing to the end. Smiling at the experience I turned to clap and thank my partner but she was back talking with her friend and looking the other way. As a finale the men with rifles lined up and in turn fired their ancient firearms with their loud bangs and smoke. The whole occasion had an air of authenticity and the Miao folk clearly were having fun, the young apparently flirting and sweet talking each other.
After getting back to Conjiang early afternoon, the three of us decided to visit a town called Xiaohuang. We found a taxi for 120rmb, which we shared between us. It was an hour long journey to cover the twenty-seven kilometres along the dirt track. We passed villages of the Dong tribe, in which there are drum towers perhaps forty feet and up in height. We learnt that traditionallly they were used to warn of danger, such as an enemy tribe attack, or maybe fire. We passed the workers in the fields, bringing in the rice harvest and some walking the track weighted down with the produce on their poles.
The destination village was full of activity. Their were old ladies reeling in cotton which stretched fifty feet down the street, painstakingly keeping the many strands seperated and neat on the 8 inch diametre and foot and a half wide cylindrical wooden intrument. Three women worked around this device, one holding it tort and turning it, the others aiding and keeping the storage neat. Other women sat beside the road, outside their houses, hammering cloth with wooden mallets, which seemed to be to bring out the shine or to establish the dye within the fabric. It gave a constant rhythmic tick tocking to the town. Men were chiseling and shaping wood, contributing to the many building projects which seemed to be in progress. On one street corner was a gang of mostly older women shoveling and doing some kind of road work.
Old men sat smoking pipes on benches, looking out at the activity and dreaming. One stripping pieces off a long bendy strip of wood as a kitten restlessly sat at his feet. Two-wheeled carts passed, dragged by men, women and sometimes horses. This Dong town was full of similar colours to the Miao village we'd been to earlier. The dye for the cloaths fermenting in barrels, dyed cloth hanging on beams sticking from the wooden houses. The arched bridges reflected in the green brown water, which silently passed through the midst of this activity. And as we looked an inwardly centred man, cone hat tipped down over his brow, crossed a beautifully crafted wooden roofed bridge, load on back. Later a horse stumbled over followed by its owner.
We met some art students from a city called Guilin, at least a days journey away by bus. They were sketching the architecture and the faces of the people, trying to catch the ambience. Two asked to join us in a streetside noodle shop which only had one small table and foot high stools. We sat waiting for the kindling beneath a pot of water to do it's work, the simple flames licking the implement. We breathed in the moment. The wait meant something. We each got our bowl of noodles in turn, the two young women workers asking us what to add, from chilli to a little pork. We looked through the two artists sketching pads and congratulated them.
After school had ended young kids skipped down the hill from their classes, happy and simple, little backpacks hanging from their shoulders loosely. Back to mums, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.
After another little walk around we found our taxi driver waiting in his car and took the ride back to the city. On the way back, as we came around a corner, a group of eight or so Dong college girls, walking the long dirt track back to their homes, screamed a giggle at the approaching vehicle and moved to the side. Playful and supportive of each other. This rural life made me think back to my childhood and my simple upbringing, walking to and from school with my brothers and sisters. I have a memory of the first time, probably at about five years old, when I went to collect water from the stream for my mum.
The early days when I began school and my face and lips swelled up with the sharp air on my two mile walk along the route of moorland scenary. The hand-me-down cloathes. The free roaming of the countryside as I got older, sometimes with brothers and sisters and our endeavour to see if we could create an adventure and get ourseves lost. "You silly sausages", a woman who knew the family once said and took us home, spoiling our fun. Tired and sitting in the taxi I thought of the young boys we'd seen in town, perhaps four of them around one clapped out bike and its punctured wheels, pushing the lucky individual down the gently sloping road. We're the same the world over.