Liu suggested lunch in Sanjiang, but the power was off and anyway a half hour drive to the Dong village of Ma’an promised more interesting fair.
It was quickly clear that Ma’an and its sister villages clustering together to form a small town, would be a different Dong experience. We were no longer in rural Guizhou, but firmly back among the tourists.
The smartest restaurant was full so Liu, rather reluctantly, took us to her second choice. Travelling with Liu was obviously going to be different, too. Dylan entered Miao villages with a sense of belonging and was equally comfortable among the Dong, though our comments about Dong villages’ relative untidiness produced a distinct glow of Miao pride. Liu, a tall, thin, rather prim Han, kept using words like ‘primitive’ and ‘simple’. She regarded the Dong as quaint, if rather grubby, exhibits in a museum, whilst we were porcelain dolls that she must not allow to become dirty or broken.
|Drum Tower, Ma'an|
If she had fussed around the open kitchen any harder she would have been doing the cooking. Unfamiliar flavours must not be allowed to upset our delicate palates, so she ensured every dish was appropriately bland and policed a rigid ban on chillies. We said we liked chillies, so she permitted the token sprinkling of three dried flakes on the top of one dish. We sent it back for more. Eventually we negotiated a tolerable if unexciting meal.
The villages had the usual Dong features, several Drum Towers, a Wind and Rain Bridge each and plenty of wooden houses but unlike in Guizhou, where nobody had tried to sell us anything, the bridges were lined with souvenir stalls. Several older women hawking only a handful of tenpenny tat employed the persistent, wheedling sales tactics that are only half a step up from aggressive begging.
|Wind and Rain Bridge, Maan|
The stalls are a consequence of a regular supply of tourists; the aggressive selling/begging starts when enough of those tourists are rich westerners (though few of us would actually consider ourselves ‘rich’). A critical mass of foreigners then drags in the chancers and con men intent on separating easy targets from the contents of their overstuffed wallets. As each side loses sight of the other’s humanity a tourist industry evolves dedicated to guaranteeing foreigners only meet ‘safe’ Chinese. They explain a watered down culture, take the character out of the food and generally ensure the experience never becomes too demanding. In Guizhou we had met people who were proud of their culture for what it was, not what they could get out of us. The Miao found us as exotic as we found them, but we were only two – plus the excellent Dylan – so they could show us genuine hospitality and we treated each other with courtesy and respect. Foreigners in Ma’an, though evident, were still well short of the critical mass, but Liu was part of a tourist industry primed and ready.
|A bowl of oil tea|
We stopped for some oil tea, a Dong speciality that had so far passed us by. Tea leaves are first fried in oil to bringing out their bitterness, then water is added along with a few peanuts and other less recognisable solids. The result is poured into a soup bowl and served with a spoon. It was a pleasant, though rather insipid brew. As we left Liu said, “she didn’t fry it as long as usual because that would have been too bitter for you, and of course she left out the chillies.” Liu was a victim of an industry that told her that she knew more about our tastes than we did.
We were happy to leave Ma’an and after an hour’s drive we arrived at Longsheng, an unremarkable town, but the gateway to the ‘Longsheng Scenic Area’. A brief stop was necessary in the huge car park outside the ticket office before we drove through the barrier and up the mountain road towards Ping’an, the village where we would spend the night.
The road does not quite make it to Ping’an, but ends in a car park a steep forty-minute walk below the village. As we stepped from the car we were besieged by porters, all anxious to carry our case up to the hotel. Although I am used to carrying my own bags, I was happy to give employment to someone who needed it, but I found it embarrassing that all the porters were women - some of them by no means young. We let Liu pick from the scrum, and we were soon handing over our case to a stocky middle-aged woman. It was too big to fit in her basket, so she strapped it to the top with an octopus clip and bounced off up the path leaving us trailing in her wake. It was a stiff climb and we were grateful to be walking unencumbered, particularly near the top, where we had to negotiate uneven steps in gathering darkness. We arrived short of breath to find our porter sitting calmly on the hotel steps. She then insisted on carrying the case up to our fourth floor room as the creaky wooden building had no lift.
The other guests were a French tour group. We ate our chicken and peanuts that night surrounded by European faces, as though we had somehow stepped into a Chinese restaurant in France.
In the morning we demanded a local breakfast of noodle soup with a fried egg and watched the French party picking at the sweet flaccid bread and scrape of unidentifiable spread that passed for a ‘western breakfast’. Then we went out and climbed the rest of the way up the mountain.
The Longsheng rice terraces are striped across the hillside from the 900m ridge to the stream 500m below. Built some five hundred years ago and still very much in use they are a tribute to mankind’s indomitable determination to wring a living from an unhelpful countryside. We stood on Longji (the Dragon’s Spine) looking down upon thousands upon thousands of terraces covering the flanks of the dragon and reaching out along his legs.
|Terraces reach out along the dragon's legs|
The terraces are, without doubt, a marvel. They look fabulous in spring when they are full of water, wonderful in the summer when the young rice is green, splendid in autumn when the mature rice is yellow and ready to cut, and magical in winter when covered with snow. Unfortunately, just after the harvest they just look brown and, with the hazy sunshine straight in our faces, very difficult to photograph.
When we returned we found our porter sitting on the hotel steps waiting for us. She had been there since eight o’clock to be sure to get the job. I still felt guilty about letting her carry my case, but I realised how important the small quantity of cash was to her.
|There goes our case|
At puberty Zhuang women cut their hair for the only time in their lives. They cover their heads until marriage, after which they wear their increasingly long hair coiled and uncovered. Two thirds of the way down we paused at a stall run by a middle aged woman and her teenage daughter. For a small payment from Liu the older woman uncoiled her hair and combed it out, holding up the cut hair of her childhood which had been incorporated like a hair extension. We took the obligatory photographs but felt uncomfortable, at best we were watching a freak show, at worst it was a cultural violation. Liu treated the woman like an exhibit, and was keen to take a photograph of us with her. I declined rather more quickly and probably more rudely than I should, but it seemed so wrong. Smiling, the woman recoiled her hair and pinned it on her head, doubtless she would do the same act many more times during the day.
|Our last brush with ethnic minorities|
This sad experience was our last brush with Chinese ethnic minorities – at least for this trip. We felt we had been privileged to travel through Guizhou and encounter the rural Miao and Dong cultures while they were strong, and while women still wore traditional clothes as a matter of course and not just for tourists. In the longer term, though, I suspect the cultures are doomed and it is not tourism that will kill them, but the riches and opportunities of the modern age. With the exception of electricity and a few agricultural machines, the rural lifestyle has changed little, but whenever we saw a village from above - and that was often in such a mountainous region - it was impossible not to notice the satellites dishes sprouting from almost every roof. Villagers see how their urban cousins live, or at least a version of it, and they want some of that, just as their urban cousins see a version of how we live and want their cars, dishwashers and pop-up toasters, too. The people will be assimilated into mainstream life and their culture, confined to shows like the one we saw in Xijiang, will be as relevant to everyday lives as Morris Dancing is to the English.
The end of a distinctive culture may be sad, but Miao life is no rural idyll. The people are small, the old people diminutive through a lifetime of inadequate nutrition and their tired, lined faces tell a story of hard toil. The traditional Chinese peasant’s dream of abundant food may have now been achieved, but we saw countless farm workers staggering along the roads, the baskets slung on their carry poles so heavy that their knees bent with the effort of carrying them. We saw people whose horizon would never be wider than the backside of the buffalo hauling their plough. We heard the echo of women whose whole waking life is spent hammering cloth. To return to a theme this blog has encountered before, I cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty just to please me. If they aspire to some of the advantages fate has showered on me, then it would be hypocritical to criticise.