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…..

Monday, 1 November 2010

Xingyi and on to Huangguoshu: Part 3 of China's Far Southwest

Despite its strange shape, Xingyi is a typical Chinese city with wide streets laid out on as precise a grid as topography allows.

So many of these old wooden houses have been
destroyed in the rush to modernise
Without Dylan and our driver, the estimable Mr Wu, we would never have found the Minorities Museum of Marriage. Tucked away in the few remaining back streets on the southeastern edge of the city, it occupies a beautiful old wooden house constructed round two courtyards. Many of these houses, once the homes of the despised bourgeoisie, have been destroyed in the rush to modernise and build upwards, but I hope this one has a secure future.

Although there are exhibits of musical instruments, embroidery, jewellery and elaborate ceremonial headgear, it is more a collection of photographs than a museum.

The Miao are the main minority represented. Descended not from cats, but from a group that migrated from northern China a couple of thousand years ago. There are some 10 million of them, mostly in Guizhou, but also in the neighbouring provinces and in Laos and Viet Nam. Dylan, we learned, was himself a Miao, the first from his village in eastern Guizhou to go to university. 

With a degree in Chinese Ethnic Minorities, Dylan’s interpretation of the pictures gave both an overview of Miao life and the inside story. There are some sixty sub-groups of Miao speaking mutually intelligible dialects of the Hmong-Mien language family. The Han identify the groups by the colour or design of their traditional costumes: there are Red Miaos, Black Miaos, Small Flowery Miaos, Short-horn Miaos and Long-horn Miaos (Dylan’s group), to name but a few.

The horns, long or short, and colourful clothing were well represented in the wedding pictures, but courtship was also covered. Once, marriage among first cousins was the Miao norm, but long, long ago it became usual for a young man to marry a girl from a neighbouring village. This may be genetically healthier but it does raise obvious logistical problems. It has also led to the tradition of uncles receiving payments from bridegrooms as compensation for not marrying their daughter. There were more traditions of bucolic charm, but others were less pleasant. In one picture, a smiling young couple each held one wing of a live chicken. They were then supposed to run in opposite directions allowing the shaman to deduce the advisability of their marriage from the twitching and bloody remains of the unfortunate bird. This seems an inefficient way of foretelling the future, and a bit hard on the chicken. Dylan assured us the practice had long been discontinued.

Next morning we drove beyond the city’s western edge to the head of a valley that drops, almost imperceptibly, from the plateau. A slope rises steeply to the south of the valley, while to the north a phalanx of heavily wooded, weirdly pointy karst mountains march off into the distance. This is Wangfenglin, ‘The Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks.’ I cannot vouch for their being ten thousand, I made no attempt to count them, but there are considerably more than several.
This one is Hu Jintao.....

 Ignoring the car park and ticket office, we first ventured along the flat valley bottom to the nearest village. Hu Jintao, no less, had paid a visit some years ago and was very impressed with the scenery. The restaurant where he dined displays a picture of him sitting in the courtyard surrounded by local dignitaries. I sat in the same place. He has fruit and companions, I am alone and the red outlines on the wall behind had faded, but otherwise, as you can see, you could hardly tell us apart. Drivers are normally phlegmatic seen-it-all-before types who rarely venture out of the car park, but Mr Wu not only walked with us, he became quite animated, took many photographs and even phoned his wife to tell her where he was.

...and this one's me
 Chairman Hu’s visit resulted in many of the houses being improved, but agriculture remains basic. One or two farmers were using rotovators, another was ploughing with a buffalo, while a woman was attacking a harvested rice paddy with a mattock - a job that would keep her occupied all day. The village fields are divided into small irregularly shaped plots and each farmer is allocated several separate plots, so everybody has a share of the best and worst land – exactly as in medieval England.

‘I want my father to buy a rotovator,’ Dylan said, surveying the scene, ‘but he says he understands buffalo and he’s too old to change.’

We returned to the car park and its waiting fleet of ten-seater buggies. The area geared up for tourism after the Chairman's visit but only one buggy was required to transport the four of us and the two waiting Chinese tourists. We climbed the valley side where viewpoints allowed us to look down on the villages clustered below, and across to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of mountains beyond. The views were dramatic, despite the slight haze. Mr Wu, sat behind us, taking photographs and being just as excited as we were.

A Taoist Monastery sits atop this Karst lump

The road descended to the valley floor. Instead of returning to the start, we left the buggy and walked into the next valley, heading towards a Taoist temple atop one of the smaller Karst lumps. It was a pleasant downhill stroll in warm morning sunshine. An amazing range of butterflies fluttered alongside us, though none would pose long enough for a photograph.

We reached the hill, but Dylan looked at the many steps, shook his head and led us to a Buddhist shrine in the cliff behind. This too involved plenty of climbing and our thighs were aching long before we reached the shrine. The cave has been sacred since ancient times, but the statues of the Buddha are relatively new, the originals being destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Graffiti from that time had been scrubbed out but was still visible on the cave wall.

A man approached us and asked, in English, if two of his students could be photographed with us. Then it was two more, then another three. I lost count of how many photographs we eventually posed for, but I decided not to let being a celebrity go to my head.

As at many Buddhist shrines, there was a vegetarian restaurant attached. Meat is not eaten in great quantity in this part of China, but it appears as a minor component in almost every dish, creating problems for vegetarians. For them, the Buddhist restaurant would have been a blessed relief, for us it was an opportunity to explore another facet of the extraordinarily varied local cuisine.

Four well dressed ladies playing mah-jong
We sat at one of the outside tables, the other being occupied by four well-dressed ladies playing mah-jong. I understand the game – at least in its simplified form - but I could not follow it at the speed they played. A flurry of small denomination notes changed hands after each game.

Lunch consisted of soup and a series of dishes based on mushrooms, cauliflower, aubergine and smoked tofu. This only begins to describe the food, each dish being skilfully garnished and flavoured. The centrepiece was a ‘fish’ of tofu, pressed into shape and roasted. Soya protein processed as minced beef has been available at home for years, but is, I believe, best avoided. That the inventive Chinese have done far more with this versatile material is hardly surprising. They have also done it far better.

The start of a white-knuckle ride
 Lunch over, we joined the mah-jong ladies in a shuttle buggy up to the head of the little valley. As it dropped us off, the local bus arrived and we hopped on that rather than wait for the tourist transport. We enjoyed a white-knuckle ride back to the car park, the driver keeping his foot hard down as he charged along the valley and bucketed through the villages, scattering livestock and children with loud blasts of his horn.

Having survived that, Mr Wu drove us round Xingyi before suddenly turning off the ring road into a car park. There were a few stalls, a ticket office and turnstiles labelled ‘entrance’ and ‘export’.

The flat land had given no indication of what was to come, but once past ‘entrance’ and through the tunnel beyond, we found ourselves standing on the lip of a deep, narrow gorge. The Maling Gorge is a 15-kilometre gash across the land, and this was its deepest part. We set off down the steps, stopping at various viewing platforms to peer at the river far below.

Waterfalls tumbled over the edge of the gorge
We thought we had endured more than enough steps in the morning, but quickly realised that had only been a taster. Half way down we came upon an exhausted looking man sitting on a stone bench and breathing heavily. ‘Stupid to go that way round,’ Dylan observed, ‘it’s much easier to go down the steps and up the lift.’ Maybe I had not been listening, but only then did I realise there would be a lift back up. My heart was lighter as we pressed on with the descent.

We eventually reached the river, 200 metres below our starting point. Walking beside the fast flowing stream we came across a succession of waterfalls tumbling over the edge of the gorge. This is limestone country and dissolved salts produced the same calcification process we had once seen at Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough. Here it was not teddies and toys being turned to stone, but the vegetation below the falls. The water splattered down onto a petrified forest canopy, the stone boughs jutting out like the eaves of a Ming hall.

We stood midstream on a swinging suspension bridge
 Given the narrowness of the gorge, the sunshine above and the deep shadow below, it was difficult to photograph, and we stood midstream on a swinging suspension bridge to find the best light. The path wound on past the remains of an old stone bridge and under the Yellow Dragon Falls before we finally reached the lift. This was no longer the deepest part of the gorge, so at the top there was a kilometre of uphill walking and yet more steps before we reached the car park.

That evening, we dined in a small restaurant a short walk from the hotel. We had also been there the day before; they had smiled and been helpful, so we visited again. Yesterday we had picked the flesh from a sizeable but unrecognised fish. Today, sitting under a giant poster of Chairman Mao (a rarity these days) we scanned the picture menu and chose a dish of fried tofu balls and another of what looked like ribs.

We were learning to appreciate the range of flavours that can be painted on to the essentially blank canvas that is tofu. The ribs had plenty of bones, but rather less meat than expected. In fact, there was a little softly melting fat and hardly any meat at all. We eventually realised we had ordered pig’s trotters. Sucking the bones was unproductive, but dunking the tofu into the trotter’s rich brown broth was wonderful. The warm day had become a very cool evening and the restaurant was, as usual, unheated. Plates of vegetables had been perfect in the midday sun, but rib-sticking stew was just what the evening demanded.

Dylan greeted them like favourite aunts
In the morning, we drove a couple of hours northeast before pausing at the Black Miao village of Anchi. The village is right by the main road and in sight of the modern town of Zhenfeng, but a lane between two wooden houses took as back a hundred years. Two old women wearing the eponymous black turbans were sitting in the sun. Dylan greeted them like favourite aunts and they exchanged news in Miao. Mandarin has four tones, which is four more than I can cope with, Miao has eight, which makes it oddly rhythmic, even musical in a Birtwhistle-y sort of way. Dylan greeted every Miao we met as though they were long lost friends or relatives: such is the Miao way.

Forecourts covered with drying rice
Wooden houses with buffalo sheds, chickens scrabbling in the yard and forecourts covered with drying rice stood beside fields worked entirely by hand. Only children charging round on plastic ride-on toys reminded us we had not actually stepped back in time.

Lynne was fascinated by the gravestones. Graves can be anywhere, between houses, on the edge of fields or wherever the shaman decrees is auspicious. What she particularly liked was the way they carry an extended genealogy, being regularly updated to include every new grandchild and great grandchild of the deceased.

The 2.5 million Buyei (Bouyei, Buyi or Puyi) mostly live in Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan. Although we encountered no Buyei villages, we did lunch in a Buyei restaurant in the small, predominantly Han, town of Zhenfeng.

The restaurant consisted of a series of private dining rooms and a lobby containing a Buyei cultural display. While Dylan ordered, we read the information boards. There is a long and ignoble tradition of finding humour in foreigner’s attempts to speak English, and I have no wish to add to that. I admit I speak five words of Mandarin and less Buyei, so I acknowledge my linguistic inferiority to the translator of ‘Buyei Cuisine’ board.  It remains, however, a fine example of what can be done with a dictionary and an almost complete ignorance of the target language.
Anyone for dog pump bowel?
(click to enlarge photo)
Our meal did not involve forget, politics, triangle politics, self-control or even dog pump bowel, but was excellent nonetheless. We ate soft tofu with pickle, an unidentified green vegetable cut into strips and steamed with chilli and garlic, black potato (black but not a potato) with ham and sweet peppers, and sticky rice cakes. The centrepiece was shredded pork made into a pudding by a covered of fat bacon, and then steamed for several hours. The Buyei, we concluded, eat well.

The Beiping River
 The road through the mountains to Huangguoshu was too new to appear on my map. Impressively engineered, it burrowed through hillsidess and swept over deep gorges. Leaving the car, we walked over the Beipingjiang Bridge. Buffeted by wind and with passing lorries shaking the suspended roadway, we gazed into the huge gorge and at the dark green Beiping River far below, and marvelled at both the works of nature and the works of man.

Huangguoshu is a series of small villages trying to build themselves into a riverside resort. At the falls, we strolled through an impressive garden of bonsai trees before encountering yet more steps. We could hear the water, but had to walk some way before we could see it. The Huangguoshu Falls are the biggest in China, but would not, I think, rank high in world terms, despite some local misinformation. We visited the Jog Falls in India in March, which is the highest single drop waterfall in Asia, but it was the dry season and the dam upstream was closed so there was hardly enough water for a decent shower. Huangguosho may not have been in spate, but there was plenty of water, the sunshine producing a shimmering rainbow in the spray. We could have walked all the way down to the river and taken a damp path behind the cascade, but we had already seen more than enough steps.

The Huangguoshu Falls
 The hotel at Hangguoshu was grim. The designer of the sprawling single storey building on multiple levels had thought little about disabled access. For us, three steps here and four steps there may have been trivial after all the stairs we had climbed, but when lugging suitcases they were undoubtedly irritating. The list of hotel facilities was lengthy, but all were closed except the vast outdoor pool, which it was far too cold to use. It felt like a resort hotel out of season, except that October is very much in season and we shared the hotel with several Chinese tour groups. Fortunately, Mr Wu was on hand to give us a lift down to village where a small unheated restaurant fed us well enough – though why they needed to keep the doors wide open was a mystery.

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