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…..

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Kaili, Xijiang and Rongjiang: Part 5 of China's Far Southwest

Impressive fireworks - at 6.30 am
We were woken at five thirty by an artillery barrage which turned out, on closer inspection, to be firecrackers. I was still wrestling with the concept of sleep when there was a repeat performance, this time including rockets. They were impressive fireworks, but at half past six…..?!  Kaili, we discovered later, had been woken in celebration of a forthcoming wedding. I hope the noisy couple have a long and happy marriage – and enjoy it far away from me.

We left town on a good new road heading southeast, but soon ran into a roadblock. Some people who had worked on the road had not been paid. Promises had been made and repeatedly broken, so they had taken matters into their own hands, hauled a couple of logs across the road and stopped the traffic. There were some very angry people, but they were not interested in us, so they let Mr Wu improvise a way round the roadblock, in the knowledge that buses and lorries would be unable to follow our route.

It takes a brave and/or angry person to demonstrate in China. We can only guess at what might happen when the police arrived, as they surely would, but the most likely scenario involved the demonstrators being beaten and arrested.

Drying corn, peanuts, chillies & tobbacco, Jidao

A little further on we stopped across the valley from the Miao village of Jidao and walked down the rough road and over the stone bridge towards the wooden buildings. Jidao is a show village, which means the government have concreted the paths and put up a few signs, but otherwise life carries on as normal. Normal meant almost everybody was away working in the fields, but those who were left, largely older women, got the favourite aunty treatment from Dylan and greeted us warmly.

Entering one of the wooden houses, we met an old woman sitting beside a bucket of pork, carefully rubbing a mixture of salt and spices into each individual slab. The cured meat would eventually find its way into the smoker nextdoor.

Curing pork
Outside was the main square, and in the corner of the building opposite a small shop. The diminutive shopkeeper dashed out and grabbed hold of my arm. She seemed genuinely impressed by my enormous height, which was a novelty as I generally think of myself as being on the stumpy side. However, as she came up to my elbow, and I was a head taller than Dylan, who might also be described as ‘stumpy’, perhaps she had some excuse.

The sign on the ‘hundred year old barn’ possibly underestimated the age of the village’s second largest building. It is now a communal storehouse but was once used as place of retreat in the event of attack. The largest building had started life as a normal sized house but sections had been added generation by generation as the family had grown until it now occupied the whole of one street.

Walking the plank
Like Qangmen, the ground floors were for animals, the balconies were decorated with drying vegetables, and the village was built on a hillside. We walked through the village and down the hill to the stream, which was crossed by a plank bridge. We could have returned to the stone bridge, and that was Lynne’s preference, but eventually Dylan persuaded her to walk the plank – provided she could keep a firm hold of him.


Xijiang, the ‘biggest Miao village in the world’, is reached by driving up a side valley near Jidao, climbing over a pass and then dropping down into the deep valley beyond. It is a town rather than a village, several hundred wooden houses perched on a steep slope above a green river. Despite its remote location, it has been commercialised and we had to pay an entrance fee before negotiating a parking space among the tourist buses.

Lined up for a procession
Xijiang Miao village

At the entrance to the village, a group of women in ceremonial costume were lined up as if for a procession, shuffling on the spot to recorded music. We watched them for a while but they seemed in no hurry to move off. Dylan looked at his watch. ‘Time to go’ he said, ‘the show will be starting soon.’

Xijiang Miao village
We hurried off to join the crowd in the main square, but the show started late as a party of VIP guests insisted on demonstrating their importance by holding everybody up. I enjoyed the ‘pensioners’ choir’ and some of the folk instruments, but I am not a fan of dance at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. Scenes from Miao life were acted out to music. Girls skipping daintily through imaginary water filled rice paddies prettily plonking down the open-ended barrels used to trap rice paddy fish may have been idealised, but going fishing in full ceremonial dress, complete with silver horns, seemed a ridiculous idea. The final scene, the fantasy wedding of the Miao ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’ would have graced any production of Aladdin. I turned and caught Dylan’s eye. ‘It’s not like that, it’s just not like that’ he said shaking his head. The show was culture sterilized and packaged for undemanding tourists and did real Miao culture no service at all. It is customary to blame western tourists for this sort of thing, but of the five hundred or so spectators, four hundred and ninety eight were Chinese.

Walking from the performance area to the main street, Dylan met a ‘cousin’ from his home village who had recently moved to Xijiang to open a restaurant. There was, he explained, a lot of competition and he was struggling. Dylan loyally led us to his cousin’s little restaurant, but it was immediately obvious that the business was hardly functioning. We sat at a table and drank tea while the cousin chatted with Dylan about what he might cook. The speed with which Chinese restaurants provide food is based on all the chopping being done well in advance, but here nothing seemed to have been prepared. Dylan’s face became increasingly sceptical and we could see the cousin’s self-belief ebbing away as they talked.

Honey salesman

Leaving Dylan to solve the problem, we took a stroll through the market that occupied the main street and several side roads. A few stalls were aimed at tourists and sold handicrafts and silver Miao horns, but most provided for local needs. There was little order, a blacksmith selling spade and mattock blades (bring your own handle) stood between an electronic games stall and one hawking cheap clothing. A man with baskets of dripping honeycombs was filling old water bottles and another was selling cheap reading glasses, demonstrating their strength and durability by putting them on the cobbles and smacking them with a mallet.

While we were walking, Dylan decided his cousin was not up to the job. We would eat with Mr Wu in a nearby restaurant, while Dylan did the decent thing and endured his cousin’s cooking alone.

The restaurant was on the first floor of the building opposite and the planks moved uncomfortably under our feet as we made our way to our table. I wondered for a moment if the constructers had ever considered the possibility of solidly built westerners treading their boards.

Zhe-er-geng on sale in Hong Kong
The centrepiece of the meal was a firm fleshed, delicately flavoured rice paddy fish, but we also had shredded pork with mushrooms, some green vegetable and a bowl of what looked like thin tree roots with bits of bacon nestling in it. The bacon turned out to be smoked pork, the meat we had seen being cured in Jidao. It was too smoky for my liking – I want to taste what went into the smoker as well as the smoke – but went very well with the roots, called Zhe-er-geng in Mandarin. They had been gently cooked to retain some crunch and had a strong floral, perfume-like flavour, similar to Sichuan pepper, but without the mouth numbing quality. It was an excellent lunch, but every time I shifted on my little wooden stool, I could imagine the three of us plunging through the floor in a shower of rice, fish bones and tree roots.

The road to Rongjiang being constructed as we drove over it
 It took all afternoon to drive over the mountains to Rongjiang where we would spend the night. The distance was modest, but parts of the road were being constructed as we drove over it and twice we had to wait for road building equipment to finish a job before we could move on. Darkness had fallen before we reached our destination.

The Chinese love neon; arrive at any town after dark and you will be greeted by acres of red, purple and lurid green. Any town, that is, except Rongjiang, a dusty, untidy and unloved 40-watt bulb of a town specialising in dimly lit shops and dark vacant lots. Turning off what seemed to be the main street into a courtyard, we found the Dongxiangmi Grand Hotel.  Most of the grandeur was in the name, but our room was clean and comfortable enough.

‘Eat in the hotel’ was Dylan’s advice, ‘there’s nothing else here.’ It was after seven and he was concerned it might close before we got there. As it turned out they went on serving for some hours and the restaurant was a comfortable and apparently sophisticated oasis in the urban desert. Unfortunately, this was only an appearance. Our ‘fragrant chicken’ was dire: tough, lukewarm and in no way fragrant. It was our worst meal in China – and among the most expensive.

Later, we walked along the dusty main street to see if there had been an alternative place to eat. There were few people about and the town looked closed, but we did find another restaurant – and it was on fire. A knot of people, presumably the proprietor and family, stood outside in a state of shock, while the residents of adjacent buildings milled about anxiously. Very soon, a fire engine arrived, the flaming wok was quenched and the excitement subsided. There would be cleaning up to do, but there was no real damage.

Rongjiang means ‘Banyan River’ and we hoped it might make a better effort at living up to its exotically attractive name in the morning sunshine. It did not. Various industrial sites and the building of a new highway had churned up the chalky soil and deposited a layer of white dust over the streets, the buildings and even the trees. As we left, I tried to imagine how the town might look without the dust – it was still ugly. As our road climbed into the hills, Mr Wu looked back down into the valley and said something to Dylan. ‘He says it looks like Afghanistan’ Dylan translated.

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