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…..

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Qingyan, Guiyang and on to Kaili Part 4 of China's Far Southwest

In the morning, we drove northeast towards Guiyang, the provincial capital. The mountains, now, were gentler and the largely empty motorway ran past newly harvested paddy fields. At Guiyang we turned south off the ring road, through Huaxi and on to Qingyan.

Qingyan Walled town 
Chairman Mao hated Chinese architecture and had little respect for history. A 1958 survey listed 8 000 historic monuments in Beijing: Mao decided to retain 78. Today’s regime has more respect for Chinese history - and recognises how effectively such monuments separate tourists from dollars, so the greatest danger is now over-enthusiastic restoration. The same is not true of vernacular architecture. China has many people to house and tower blocks are being thrown up in every town and city. The bulldozing of cities’ older quarters may be indiscriminate, but the provision of clean, new, draught-proof apartments with running water and electricity means there are few protests – and, anyway, it takes a brave person to protest in China.

Qingyan, a complete Qing dynasty town, is, then, a rare survival. It may have been tarted up and turned into a tourist trap, but that is the price it has to pay.

Stone flagged streets between single storey houses
Once through the impressive town wall, we found ourselves in stone flagged streets between solidly built single storey houses with projecting eaves. If visiting Anchi had been like stepping back in time, this was like stepping into a museum gift shop. The town still has a thriving resident population, as was obvious during the school lunch hour, but most citizens make their living by selling things to tourists.

We visited a large and active Taoist temple, peering into the fortune-teller’s offices outside, and a smaller, quieter Buddhist temple; the two Christian churches were locked. Several large houses sat in grounds beside the road. We paused in the doorway of a house once, reputedly, the home of Zhou Enlai’s father, though I have been unable to find any reference linking the family to this area.

A melange of sugar and nuts beaten
with large wooden mallets
Many shops sold tourist trinkets, and those that did not sold food. The Chinese do not generally have a sweet tooth, so it was unusual to see confectionary being prepared and sold. A melange of sugar and nuts was being boiled up, poured onto tables and beaten with large wooden mallets. After cooling, the sticky, chewy slabs were perfect for removing filings from teeth. Elsewhere, smoked pork hung from frames, pigs trotters, stewed and glazed, were heaped in vats and piles of spices were laid out on tables.

We might have lunched at one of the many restaurants, but Dylan had other ideas.

Huaxi, just far enough south of Guiyang to be considered a separate town rather than a suburb, is the home of Guizhou University, Dylan’s alma mater. Whether the restaurant he chose still doubles as a garden centre was unclear, but tables were laid out in a huge greenhouse amid trees, shrubs and gurgling water features. Despite a higher standard of cleanliness and comfort than we had become used to, the food was not special. The spicy green tofu was good, as was the bowl of bamboo served in its own steamer, but the fried pork and potatoes with a dip of what tasted remarkably like tomato ketchup was less exciting.

Several species of terrapin
After eating, we wandered down to look at the seafood. The array of tanks, with price labels attached, blurred the distinction between aquarium and menu. There were fish, eels, lobsters and many crabs, including a tank full of the rather sinister Horseshoe Crabs that I had seen before only on wildlife programmes. The largest tank, too small for its occupant, held a substantial turtle. ‘For show,’ said Dylan, ‘he’s too big and old to eat’. The same did not apply to the various species of terrapin.

Scorpion soup
One tank contained not sea creatures, but several hundred scorpions. A few scuttled about the floor, but most lay in a heap, waving their nasty little tails. Lynne and I believe that if people think something is food, then it is arrogant to turn your nose up at it and stupid to refuse to even try it. We brought our daughter up with the same attitude, and this is her photograph of a bowl of scorpion soup, taken a couple of years ago. She ate the broth but when her Cantonese dining companions picked up the scorpions, broke them open and sucked out the insides, she could not bring herself to follow suit. It may go against my philosophy, but I strongly suspect I too would have quailed. I find it difficult to understand the thinking of the first person who looked at a scorpion and shouted ‘lunch’ instead of the much more sensible ‘run away’. Maybe it was desperation, but the price made it clear this is no longer food for the desperate. So why?

Modern Guiyang
Guiyang has been described as the obscure capital of one of China’s poorest provinces. It does not feel like that when you are there. Fifty years ago it was a conglomerate of tumbledown houses, now it has enough towering buildings and complicated road systems to qualify as a thoroughly modern city with a quietly confident, almost metropolitan, air. Surrounded by mountains it is a compact and tidy city. Although the mountains are reputed to concentrate the pollution, that was not a problem the day we were there.

 Mr Wu parked beside the Nanming River. Since Huanhgguoshu we had crossed a watershed; the Nanming was the first river we had encountered flowing north towards the Yangzi basin instead of south towards the South China Sea. The old centre sits beside the river and consists of two Ming pavilions and a small park. It is pleasant enough and the view of modern Guiyang upstream is impressive, but the city has little else to offer the casual visitor. Fortunately, we were only staying one night.

Old Guiyang (and young me)
That evening we walked around the block looking for somewhere to eat. Finding a restaurant in China is rarely difficult, but the usual tatty little places looked unfrequented and unappealing. Eventually we spotted a larger establishment across the road, which seemed to be bustling. Inside, we were quickly ushered to the only remaining table and were seated before we realised it was a hotpot restaurant.

Hotpot is popular in many parts of China, but remains virtually unknown in Chinese restaurants in England. The tables have a hole in the top, like a commode, with a gas burner beneath. A wok arrives containing stock, a few vegetables and some lumps of tofu, and is placed over the burner. There are regional variations; in Sichuan a few chillies are added (‘a few chillies’ in Sichuan means forty of fifty’) and elsewhere the pot is divided ying and yang style with spicy stock in one side and plain the other. In Guiyang it was just plain, but we were given a spicy dip if that became too boring. Choosing other ingredients from the long list was a problem, but a young woman at the next table kindly lent us her linguistic expertise. Selecting from those items she knew the English for, we ended up with potatoes, a variety of sliced meats and some offal based meatballs. We had a good meal, but I can never entirely still the little voice telling me that it is perverse to go to a restaurant and then cook your own food.

Guiyang was the most northerly point of our journey, and next morning we turned southeast, heading, ultimately for Guilin in Guangxi Province.

It was a dull, cold morning and we drove along a deserted motorway through misty hills. We left the motorway at Kaili, heading away from the town before taking a narrow road into the mountains towards the Miao village of Qangmen.

Harvesting sweet potatoes
On the way, we passed three people harvesting sweet potatoes in a tiny field. A women was cutting off the tops and stacking them for use as animal feed, a man was mattocking the sweet potatoes out of the ground and another squatted in the mud cleaning up the potatoes and putting them in a sack. They were Miao so, naturally, we stopped to talk. They came, they told us, not from nearby Qangmen put from a village on the other side of the valley. When they had finished they would walk home, the heavy sacks hanging from carry poles.

...along the balcony vegetables are hung out to dry...
Qangmen is a Long-Horn Miao village of some 1500 people. The wooden houses have animal sheds on the ground floor, with the human accommodation above being approached by a balcony. Along the balcony vegetables are hung out to dry, corncobs, chillies, rice and peanuts all twisted into decorative shapes. Like most Miao villages, Qangmen is built on a hillside, so every living room looks out over the neighbour’s roof towards the communal fields below.

...more than a hundred people gathered in the central square...
More than a hundred people were gathered in the central square, squatting in groups or sitting on tiny wooden stools. There had been a funeral and the mourners had gathered for a communal meal. Most of the women wore a working version of traditional dress, but all had their long hair carefully oiled and elaborately coiled, with a comb stuck in the back to keep everything in place.

We were greeted by two women in full ceremonial dress...

a cup of rice wine

We had our lunch in one of the newer wooden houses by the main road. We were greeted by two women in full ceremonial dress, long horns included, who sang a welcome and offered us a cup of rice wine. Tradition dictates that the host holds the cup while the guest leans forward and has the wine poured down their throat. Commercial rice wines can be glutinous with some not altogether wholesome flavours but this home-brew was light and clean with a pleasant balance of acidity. It was fortunate that we liked it, because once one cup had been poured down us, the rules demanded that a second went the same way.

A wooden plaque informed us the owners were permitted to operate a tourist restaurant, albeit a restaurant with one table. There was also only one wok, but it was huge. One of them fed wood into the fire while the second poured in some oil and set about cooking our lunch. We watched her stir-fry some strips of pork before returning to the table to await our meal. Once the ingredients are prepared, Chinese meals are quickly cooked. Soon the table was covered with dishes; soup with tofu, spring onions with white radishes, green beans with pork, red radish strips with chillies and pork, potato strips cooked in stock, an omelette, bamboo with meat and bowls of the Miao’s favourite sticky rice.

It was a fine and filling meal
It was a fine and filling meal, briefly interrupted by more singing and more pouring of rice wine down our throats. Too often, tourists are served up a pre-packaged version of a culture on the verge of extinction. Just occasionally, in places where mass tourism has not reached, you meet people who are proud of their still living culture and are pleased to share it with you. This was one of those times and it was a thrilling and humbling experience.

A forest of fine meshed frames
We reluctantly said our goodbyes. A kilometre or so down the road Mr Wu stopped beside a small track heading into a valley. Dylan watered the bushes while Lynne and I walked down the track wondering what we could possibly find. Rounding a bend we came across a forest of fine meshed frames on which newly-made paper was drying. Inside the large cave beyond, three people were busy dipping more frames into vats of watery pulp. We knew we were going to see a papermaking factory, but had not expected it to be in a cave.

..beating pulp with a venerable mechanical hammer..
We watched the highly skilled, if rather repetitive, work for a while before driving on to Shiqaio, the papermaker’s village. Along a single street of wooden houses we saw old women picking over shredded bark, an old man beating pulp with a venerable mechanical hammer, a woman painstakingly separating the wads of damp paper brought up from the cave and sticking the single sheets onto a wall to dry, and a group of women counting and smoothing out sheet after sheet of finished paper. Apart from one man threshing rice in the street and another sitting on a sofa drinking beer, everyone in Shiqaio seemed to be busy papermaking.

new Shiqaio
With no distinction between home and factory, life went on as it has for the last century or two - apart from the addition of electric lights and an outbreak of satellite dishes. At the end of the street, stuck on a wall, was the plan of new Shiqaio. It seems the government intend to demolish the village and move it to a site across the river, where it can be opened up as a tourist attraction. A pity no one had asked the locals if that was what they wanted.

We returned to Kaili with mixed feelings. The Heaven Sent Hotel, right on the central roundabout, represented an emphatic return to the twenty first century. We checked in early enough to visit the post office  - a waste of time, as they had no stamps for ‘abroad’ – and to take a stroll round the central shopping mall.

The centre of Kaili - back to the 21st century
Later, we dined at a small restaurant where they boiled up individual meals in cast iron pots over a gas brazier. It was largely noodles in tomato sauce with a couple of pieces of sausage and a meatball or two, but we had enjoyed a large lunch and 45 pence each represented a cheap diner by any standard.

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