There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Rongjiang, Zhaoxing and on to Guangxi: Part 6 of China's Far South West


We were soon in pleasanter countryside and, after crossing the hills, descended into the valley of the Duliu River at Tingdong. 

Tingdong livestock market
On a field below the road, Tingdong livestock market was in full swing. Walking down the grassy ramp we passed a huge bull buffalo tethered to a stake away from the other cattle. Miao may no longer dismember chickens in the cause of marital harmony, but bull fighting remains a big entertainment. These huge beasts are not pitted against men, but against each other in what must be a titanic battle for the honour of the owning family.
Young bull, 4500 Yuan, Tingdong livestock market
There were buffalo, humped cattle and a compact but powerful breed of what we would recognise as normal cattle. All looked in fine condition and we were offered a young bull for 4500 Yuan (£420).

A small lorry disgorged a load of bristly yellow piglets. They ran about their pen, swarming all over each other in a squealing pile of pigs. Back by the entrance a women pulled a black piglet out of a basket and held it up by it hind legs. The piglet’s loud complaints gathered a small crowd of potential purchasers.

Miao woman baskets of piglets, Tingdong Livestock market

Like livestock markets everywhere, it was largely a masculine affair, but the piglet woman was not alone; other women, were setting up food stalls or selling chickens and eggs. They were all dressed in traditional costume, short skirts or colourful pinafores worn over a tunic and tight leggings of a navy blue cloth with an unnaturally shiny texture. They were all Miao and wore their long hair oiled and coiled in Maio fashion, though the shiny cloth was originally a speciality of the Dong people, another ethnic minority of eastern Guizhou. Locally the Miao have adopted Dong clothing and there has been some intermarriage, although the two communities live largely parallel lives in separate villages.

From Tingdong to Congjiang we followed the Duliu River. Although its wooded valley is steep, the river is broad and shallow, sparkling over gentle rapids and swirling into lazy pools where fishing boats congregate. It is a clean, beautiful river, reminiscent of the Loire, except for its bright green colour and lack of chateaux.

Congjiang is a long narrow town jammed between the river and the mountain. The main drag is, of necessity, much narrow than in most Han towns, and we felt as though we were driving down a canyon.

We turned up a side valley to visit the Dong settlement of Yintan.  Most of the three million Dong live in eastern Guizhou with some communities in neighbouring provinces. Unlike the Miao, they build their houses in the valley bottoms. In Yintan, the ground floors are of brick with wooden overhanging upper floors. Yintan is built around the confluence of two streams, both of them full of rubbish.

An ear, some entrails.... Pork stall, Yintan
Every Dong village has a Drum Tower; a tapering wooden tower like an open pagoda. Larger villages like Yintan, which is more of a small town, have two or more. Built and maintained by one extended family, an extra storey is added to the tower for each new generation; some had fourteen or fifteen levels. 

Drum Tower, Yintan
Being in the mountains every village has a stream, and across every stream is a ‘Wind and Rain’ bridge, an elaborately carved wooden structure placed, typically, just outside the town. The bridges have two purposes, apart from joining one river bank to another. Situated between the town and its fields they provide shelter for agricultural workers during inclement weather, and in the evening they are a place where young Dong men and women can meet away from the inhibiting eyes of their elders

Yintan seemed a bustling little town particularly after the rural quiet of the Miao villages, but along with that bustle came clutter. Miao villages are unnaturally tidy, but in Yintan the streets were full of building material, discarded agricultural equipment and just plain rubbish.
We returned to Congjiang for lunch. In a private dining room on the first floor of a small hotel we ate an excellent fish, fresh from the Duliu, served on a bed of spring onions and chillies. Along with this came a dish or runner beans and aubergines, a bowl of mashed pumpkin, some pork with peanuts and chillies and a plate of quartered ‘thousand year old eggs’.  The eggs are not really that old, but have been buried long enough to become completely black. The yolks looked like the dyed yolk of any hardboiled egg, the black ‘white’ was shiny and translucent.  At first their taste was simply eggy, then a flavour of the sea emerged, like a fresh oyster, and finally there was an aftertaste where the rot and decay seemed to linger. I liked them – until that aftertaste kicked in. 

Basha Miao village, up the hill from Congjiang, is the home of the ‘Long-haired Miaos’ but as it is the men who have the long hair, and they were all out in the fields, we had to take Dylan’s word for it.
 ...dark blue cloth painted with egg white..., Basha Miao vilage

The women, all in traditional costume, were hard at work treating cloth. The dark blue cloth (we saw a brown version elsewhere) was first painted with egg white, then with pig’s blood and hung up to dry.  Once dry it was beaten with large wooden mallets, the plonk, plonking sound being audible all over the village. After prolonged beating the cloth becomes shiny and, to some extent, waterproof.
The cloth is laid out to dry....., Basha Miao village

....and beaten with wooden mallets. Basha Miao village
The village was set among trees, high on a valley side, above terraced fields. Following a path lined with wooden frames draped in drying rice we reached a dell set aside for festivals. The local Miao are animists and a tree is planted at a child’s birth with the hope that, in the fullness of time, it will provide their coffin or at least shade for their burial place.

Leaving Basha we returned to the valley and continued downstream to Diping before turning up a side valley. We travelled deeper and deeper into the mountains and the road rose higher and higher. Terraced fields stepped down the valley sides towards the stream far below. The higher we climbed the more vertiginous the terracing became. Down the noses of truncated spurs, the terraces hung one above another like boxes in a theatre. 

Terraced fields, Basha

We climbed to the head of the valley and over a pass into the next one. Instead of descending, we turned along this valley side, first contouring and then climbing even higher to another pass.

We descended into a lush valley hidden deep in the mountains. Zhaoxiang nestles on the valley floor, a Dong town of richly mature wooden houses lining a main street with more horse drawn vehicles than cars.

Zhaoxing at dusk
We checked into our wooden hotel next door to the wooden police station and opposite a drum tower. Taking a stroll through the town, we found ourselves walking through a China we had thought only existed in photographs from the beginning of last century. If Rongjiang had been China at its ugliest, Zhaoxing was China at its most delightful.

We had a light meal at one of the barbecue stalls lining the main street. The lady of the house sat behind a brazier nursing a child, the food lying on skewers in front of the brazier. Her husband, specialising in fried rice, operated a wok over a gas ring. We chose skewers of beef, pork, heart (we think), tofu, green beans and a long green leaf threaded backwards and forwards like a concertina. We were relieved when it was served by number one son without any barbecued infant parts being included by mistake. My reluctance to eat scorpions is merely squeamishness, my objection to eating children - call me a bleeding heart liberal if you must – is more ethically based.

..popping the baby on the barbecue...

Returning to the hotel we could still here the sound of wooden mallets falling rhythmically onto cloth.


In the morning we crossed town to a restaurant for breakfast. Zhaoxing had risen early, we passed a silversmith’s where girls were hard at work on the polishing machines, and we could already hear the sound of mallets upon cloth. There are people whose whole waking lives are spent hitting cloth.

Zhaoxing in the morning

In the morning we crossed town to a restaurant for breakfast. Zhaoxing had risen early, we passed a silversmith’s where girls were hard at work on the polishing machines, and we could already hear the sound of mallets upon cloth. There are people whose whole waking lives are spent hitting cloth.
We passed two lads squatting beside a fire in a metal bowl, roasting rats on kebab skewers. We watched the fur sear off and the skin begin to blacken. Dylan reached behind their front door and brought out the rattraps – spring-loaded snares – which they set in the rice paddies every evening. I half hoped they would offer us a taste despite the rats looking supremely unappetizing. I was mostly relieved when no offer came. Presuming that, as no one would eat rat by choice, that must be all they had and they were far too poor to share, we wandered off to a less challenging breakfast of spicy noodle soup and a fried egg. Later Dylan told us later they ate rat because liked it, and in the market their catch would fetch a similar price to chicken.

Rat kebab

After breakfast we drove back to the top of the pass, then turned up towards the mountain top. The village of Tang’an offers magnificent views over the terraces down the valley to distant Zhaoxing. Built almost on a flat mountain top rather than a valley bottom Tang’an has been maintained in a strictly pre-industrial state in a Chinese/Norwegian collaboration to produce a living eco-museum. Its site is extraordinary, the views breathtaking, but the village itself is, for the moment, unexceptional. As other Dong communities develop, the isolation will help it maintain its deliberately primitive status, but the authorities will need to ensure the continuing cooperation of the villagers themselves.

Zhaoxing at the bottom of the valley
From the valley top we retraced our steps to Diping, the small town where we had left the Duliu River. We stopped for a closer look at the Wind and Rain Bridge, considered one of the finest in eastern Guizhou.

Wind and Rain Bridge, Diping

After Diping we followed the Duliu River downstream as the valley gradually widened, eventually crossing into Guangxi and arriving at the sizable but undistinguished town of Sanjiang. Here we said farewell to Dylan and Mr Wu and met Liu, our Guangxi guide and her nameless driver.
Ham on a motorbike, Diping

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