Monday, July 7, 2008
Walking in Guangxi
I decided to move on from Kunming and booked a train ticket to Kaili, in Guanxi provence, one of the poorest. Here the terrain was mostly little jutting hills of rice terraces and melon plantations and the like. As I neared the city I saw the odd labourer and his mate, bicycles rested against a bush or on its stand, out in the sticks working away. In kaili I wandered up and down a street, looking for a cheap hotel that was mentioned in my book. After a while a young guy offered to help me. He took me to a hotel that was reasonably cheap but was full until somebody checked out, maybe later. The guy took me to a noodle shop and at the table a mother and daughter came and sat nearby. The daugher, a fourteen year old ray of light, started talking to me in near perfect american accented english. The young guy said he must leave, probably because he saw I'd aquired two new helpers. They said they would take me to a cheap hotel and walked out, paying for my noodle soup before I realized what they'd done. The mother, a teacher at the local school, lead us to a hotel whose staff weren't sure whether they could accept foriegners. After some phone calls they told me I couldn't stay there.
They took me back to a more upmarket one on the street I'd been at before and spoke with the receptionists, getting me a reasonable rate of 60rmb for the night. Sunny, the daughter, helped me carry a bag up to my room on the fourth floor. She reminded me to lock and bolt the door at night. I shook her hand and thanked her for her help. "Nothing", she said, and asked me if there was anything else she could help me with. The wonderful hopitality some people show to strangers. I hope she makes her dream. She told me she wants to be rich. I expect she will be.
After a sleep, I wandered around Kaili, bought some shoes and ate fat noodles with beef and peanuts. Got a haircut for thirty pence (5rmb) and then drank a few beers, sitting on a bench watching the capitalitism going on around me, in this communist country. I thought about going to a night club but realized that I'd probably only get interest from prostitutes and that that was not what I really wanted. So I ambled home to my hotel room, passing a tassled doorway with a dozen or so women in tight skimpy cloathes sitting around and a young man outside, waiting to invite people in.
In the morning I took the mid-day bus to Xijiang, which is apparently the biggest Miao village in the world, with over 1200 homes and 5000 people. I sat at the back of the bus and was surprised when a young man carrying some kind of cased stringed intrument, along with his backpack, got on the vehicle as it was waiting to depart. I hadn't seen any western looking people since leaving Kunming. We introduced ourselves to each other. I shared the three hour journey with this australian, called Tim, chatting a little and looking out at the drizzle falling on the abrupt rice terraced hills. The bus wound along the winding roads. Inside with us were colourful miao people, the women with their hair in buns, held by large silver push-through pins, and some with what looked like towels wrapped on their heads. Outside babies were strapped to womens backs, as they walked the roads in large companies of labourers or friends. Wooden stilted huts sat alone in the hills, with pine trees ruling where rice land hadn't been cultivated.
Getting off the bus and standing for a few moments, as we surveyed the village, a woman came and offered us a room for 20rmb each per night. We followed her down the street and up a concrete path between the stilted houses. The narrow path went over a stream and up some steps, twisting some more. We were right in the midst of this traditional tribal village.
Tim and I were given some green tea and a key to the front door. We were told where to leave it outside when we left, so that whoever could get in later, and off she went back to her restaurant work. The lovely venture capitalist, she. We wandered the village a little. People were relaxed with us being there, giving us the usual extended stare, beyond western protocol, but nothing more. We took a route up some steep sloping and winding paths, which in days past must have been extremely muddy but were now pathed with a concrete mix. We took time to look at a sweetgum tree, which is totemic for the Miao, offering their homes protection. A plaque told us that the mother butterfly had been birthed from it and had layed twelve eggs, one of which gave rise to a famous ancestor of the Miao. At the top of the hill we were directed on by a friendly old lady but weren't sure where she meant us to go. We dropped down the other side, back and forth along the paths, with views of the terraces, trees and homes. On to the main street again we walked on out of town, beside the river, but turned back when dusk started falling.
Our host introduced herself in the evening, having cooked a meal for us and another tourist woman from Taiwan. Our cook was called Xiaomei and was friendly, instigating chat and keeping our tea-cup sized bowls filled with mijiu (rice whiskey). I hadn't had large amounts of this for some time and being in the mood for intoxication drank seven bowls of the stuff, talking rubbish as you do at such moments of inebriation. Going to our room and lying on my bed was the catalyst to a culinary projection. I managed to roll over and vomit on the wooden plank floor before turning back and falling asleep. I was content to have missed my sheets.
We'd arranged during this revellry, on my part at least, to hire Xiaomei as a guide for a hike through some of her local villages. I survived by drinking plenty of cola. We spent most of the day walking at a slow pace. We first stopped at Dawushao on the way, and witnessed some kids playing basketball on their court atop a hill in this very rural of places. They have them all over China. I made it known that I'd like a few shots and expected them to pass me the ball but it seemed as if I must gain control of the ball myself. I don't think these children were being intentionally unwelcoming but after a minute or so I lost interest.
We walked on and arrived at Xiaomei's parents. They were very friendly. Her mother had captivating cheek bones and generously protruding lips - a natural pout - and sweet intoxicated eyes. Her long vowels and tone governed sounds, with rising and lowering volume, was musical. She looked with open eyes and heart, sucking her tongue between her teeth as she listened to why I couldn't drink the mijiu they offered... because I'd been sick yesterday. Her and her husband laughed the knowing respectful laugh as Xiaomei told them of the night gone. We finished our meal and the father went back to his cigar smoking and watching. The mother took out some more mijiu and this time indicated that it was important for Tim and I to partake. She gave us both two shots of the spirit, holding the bowl in her hands and tilting it for us each time. Then she took the bowl in both her hands and looked at us to confirm the significance of the act, before taking two shots herself. When we were leaving their home both parents stood and took hold of our hands, heartily wishing us well. "Man zou", they said. Walk slowly. A chinese bidding to take care.
Walking through Paile we passed young men hanging around, sitting on motorbikes. A few sat down from the bridge we crosssed, by the river. Late afternnoon we neared Jidao, where we planned to see a bull-fighting festival. It seemed from what we'd heard that there were many of these, on a regular basis, and that they fulfilled something akin to that of the weekly football matches, which crowds converged on in England. A flash car passed us on the road and a young woman rolled down her window and shouted something. Xiaomei translated it as, "Call me, call me... I don't need your money". As she said these words the mystery woman beckoned with her hand and then the car was gone.
The bullfighting was awesome. A circle of hundreds of people formed a ring on the pebbled beach-like edge of a river. Others stood on a wall and many across the river on the rising roadside. Perhaps there were over two thousand people. The massive animals stood on the stony riverside, held by a ring through their nose and the tug of the masters hands, waiting their turn to fight. Each beast had a number painted on its side. When the time had come the two creatures were bought into the clearing and encouraged to lock horns. Sometimes they would see the other and immediately charge, the handler allowing the rope to slip through the nose ring as they did. Other times some tugging and pushing to put these males face to face was needed before they would lock heads and horns. They would push and shove, disturbing the loose surface beneath them, and then twist or flick the head to unbalance the other. There would be moments of great force matched with great force in which they were paused in stationary positions. Then a rush of adrenalin, a flick of the interlocked part and a step forwards. The other animal would stumble and be pushed down and back. Then a moment of fear and he would turn and run straight towards the crowd, which would scatter, and the beast plunge into the calm water, the other weighty piece of meat chasing behind. And all would be calm. The handlers came to take hold of them, splashing them with water to cool them down.
I watched the first fight as part of the ring of people but got enough of an adrenalin rush when I was confronted with having to move out the way when they came crashing passed me for the safety of the river. I'd already seen a group of germans concerned and standing beside a small ambulance, in which was one unlucky or foolhardy tourist photographer, who'd been knocked in the head before we'd arrived. Later I noticed a miao older man who had a partially healed over gapping wound in his upper lip and nose area. It was safer to stand on the wall.
In the evening we ate with some relatives of Xiaomei's and I managed to avoid the mijiu again by getting our guide to tell of my incident the night before. Tim drank a little and spoke some mandarin with the four other men we sat with. Then we left them to their drinking and went to see an event at the village meeting point, which doubled up as a basketball court. The young, mostly girls about ten to fourteen years old, did some karaoke and dance routines, which they were marked on by a handful of judges who raised their score cards. A middle aged woman sang a traditional miao folk song, which included a yodel in its very difficult vocal expressions. A dance was performed by about twenty women in miao traditional cloathes, some playing bamboo flute like intruments which sounded similar to bagpipes but with only a few notes.
We returned to the home of Xiaomei's relatives and woke the host lady to get in. It turned out that Tim and I would be sharing a double bed, in a room at the top of the wooden step ladder, above the kitchen. My legs could not fit stretched out on the bed, so I lay curled up on my side facing away from Tim and my feet up by the pillow end.
After breakfast and turning down some more of the home brew whiskey, we ambled down to the centre of town and watched part of a basketball game between Jidao and another local village. Some officials from Kaili pulled up in their shining cars, by the riverside, and were received with fanfare, the bamboo intruments being played by four older men in full miao garb. We walked a few kilometres to upper Langde, where another bullfighting festival was taking place. A happy old drunk, classical chinese whispy beard and cloathes, who came up to me speaking his foriegn words, which Xiaomei translated, told me of his poverty and asked for money, laughing to himself and some other old men.
We looked around the picturesque village, with its tiny duck pond in the centre, bought noodles and watched some of the fights. Xiaomei treated some women she met, perhaps half a dozen, to food, it being her duty being with foreigners who obviously had staggering wealth in comparison to the locals. We walked on back to lower Langde, hoping to get a bus back to Xijiang. The fights ended soon after and as we sat in the centre of town, by the the road, streams of people walked passed and stood around, like us waiting for a bus. Motorbikes and mini-vans were hooting. I closed my eyes and rested my head on my knees. After an hours wait in this chaos we got a two hour bus ride back to Xijiang and Xiaomei's home, where we ate with her husband and a friend of the families, Tim speaking a little mandarin with the men.