Guizhou: Xijiang and Zhenyuan

We had arrived in Kaili to visit villages of the Miao people, famed for their silver headdresses and ornate embroidered clothing. The Miao, also named Hmong in South East Asia, are a people of Southern China who were pushed by degrees by the Han expansion into northern parts of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand and became refugees after the Vietnam war for supporting the US, particularly in Laos. But the centre of their culture and population is around Kaili in Guizhou and Xijiang is their largest settlement.


Kaili street scene

Kaili, by contrast, is one of many slightly unsavory Chinese working towns of no cultural significance except perhaps on market days. On exit from the station we were besieged by taxi touts trying to take us to Xijiang, our Miao village destination for 140 yuan, but outside the station was a number 1 bus (2 also works) ready to go to town via the main bus station, where buses to Xijiang depart for 16 yuan each. The driver warned us repeatedly to guard our pockets and began a drive which became escalatingly claustrophobic as more and more people, largely working class males, packed in so tightly into the bus that people could barely move or get in or out and the driver had to keep shouting at them not to spill onto the back stair and stop the doors from closing, watching like a hawk through a multi-channel closed circuit video system.


Street sellers outside the bus station.

At the bus station we managed to get tickets of the 8:40 bus to Xijiang for 16 yuan each, had some snacks and eventually headed out of town, only to be stopped dead for a quarter of an hour by police closing all traffic to let some political big wigs make a visit to the town we were heading for. Police lined every intersection all the way from Kaili to Xijiang.

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One of the alleyways weaving up through the town

Xijiang is one of those cultural paradoxes. It is the largest town of the Miao, a beautiful town of traditional wooden houses beautifully set on two sugarloaf hills overlooking a sweep of a river in the mountains traversed by covered "wind and rain" bridges. But it has become a Chinese government tourist mecca. You arrive at a huge bus park where there is a ticket portal which everyone passes through like an international border. Luck of the devil we got a golden oldies discount - 50 Yuan each rather than 60 - although we had to pay 20 each for a short bus 2 km from the portal to the town proper, which seems steep since the bus ticket all the 40 km from Kaili was only 16 each, but it is actually 4 tickets designed to quickly ferry tourists round the viewing points.


Main street in Xijiang by the plaza

But this portal, which under any other circumstances we would regard as an intrepid traveling anathema is actually a kind of blessing. Unlike most of the tourists who arrive here for a day visit, we were coming to stay in the town for a few days, so once inside, we are in the magic circle, have paid our dues and now can reap the benefit of some of the best cooking we have found in China, free concert performances, delightful walks in the hills and - because of that great portal we paid to come through - almost no traffic.


Arrival in Xijiang and scenes in the main street


The evening concert held almost every night at around 6 pm.


Fireworks day and night as the local people celebrate.


Music and light displays in the evening. Food stalls down by the river.

There is a lesson in all this and it applies to travel in China generally. What is an intrepid traveling destination for us is a different thing for Chinese people. There are very few Westerners traveling where we have been despite them being renowned hotspots. We hae literally seen no more tan four other couples in our entire journey so far through Yunnan and Guizhou. Balance that with a huge Chinese population which seeks out places like Yuanyang and Xijiang as Shangrilas still having the remnants of pristine beauty and culture that has been ravaged by cultural revolution and industrial development alike and you can see why the crowds from Shanghai and Guangzhou flock to Xijiang. There is another lesson. Just as Xinjie sits over the Hani rice terraces so Kaili sits over the Miao towns. The immense Han population pressure and development mean these places are other realities hidden just behind larger towns and cities of marginal repute, surviving by the luck of fate.

We dragged our luggage up the cobble stoned street with the wheels regularly falling off mine, until we decided for Christine to stay in a shady spot with the luggage while I tried to find a cheap guest house. The current Lonely Planet and Rough Guide acted like there are only a couple of places you could stay neither of which seemed to exist any more with almost nowhere to eat and buy food. But that picture is light years out of date. Xijiang has been explosively converted overnight into a unique interface between a main street littered with expensive silver and trinket shops a smattering of expensive Chinese hotels and restaurants, seamlessly fused with an old Miao village-town which still exists relatively unchanged, as soon as you walk off the main concourse.


Xiao Yu Inn with the friendly staff

After searching high and low and finding neither of the two guest houses suggested in the guides, I hailed up a house on a side alley and was offered a clean neat twin without ensuite for 60 yuan - a third to a quarter of the other 'budget' prices of 180 and 200-300 yuan, so we gratefully shacked up at Xiao Yu Inn. It's up a winding path into the old town, from the alley opposite the central plaza, rather than the tourist strip on the main street and great value and we plan to stay three days here and hang out. It's just like the creaking wooden houses of the Yao people in the Longshan Dragon's Backbone rice terraces we stayed in. For eating we went to the Zuimej Dining Hall on the corner by the bottom bridge.

Everyone seems to think I am some figure of curiosity which has a lot to do with my beard. For the second time here, as in Jianshui, the elders who sit around playing cards in the pavilion in the main street, invited me to sit down with them because my white hair and straggly beard makes them perceive me as one of a kind, even more of a kind, since Chinese men sport at best a wispy beard.

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Looking down on Xijiang from just below the col

Today I walked up to the top of one of the two hills past a tumbling array of Miao two-storied wooden houses, past the brewery for rice wine for which the Miao are notorious, the drumming arena and the Leishan dance plaza, then I ascended the opposing hillside, itself another part of the town's expanding profile and took some classic shots down over the town's double hillocks of jumbled multistory wooden houses. By the time I got back to town, the elderly ladies were doing the reed pipe dance in a circle in the central square so I went to fetch Christine.

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Free nightly evening performance.

Then there was a loud blare of music below and people began rushing to a free evening performance of creative dance Miao style in their elaborate embroidered costumes and bewitching sliver headdresses with spikes and spires, accompanied by reed-pipes of all sizes from piccolos to long bassoon-like thundering reed-pipes. Of course this is all a tourist performance and has none of the genuine significance of the great Miao festivals like the Sisters Meal festival, but it still centers on courtship and fertility and included a stand up song piece by the elders of the town so its a way of turning the culture of a people into a creative art form that is in many ways a win-win and seems to be appreciated on all sides, although one wonders whether the owners of the high end market stores on the main street are benefitting more from the arrangement than the Miao townsfolk themselves. As far as we could tell, we were the only Europeans present in a crowd of around a thousand.


Elders in the main street and a pack horse returning from the highlands.

So here we are, a good chunk of the way across China, in a quaint and paradoxical cultural enclave, holding onto tickets for the two key night train journeys which will in a few days propel us almost to the coast in Fujian.

By evening a crowd of Chinese arrived to stay in the guesthouse, which is probably used by tour operators to book in groups who want to stay overnight in Xijiang for a cut of the takings, so there was a lot of loud thumping and merrymaking. The wooden houses are like huge drums, so every footfall or door slam is cataclysmic, but we had a good night's sleep and the view from the front window this morning, although characteristically air-polluted, is awesome!


Circle dancing in the plaza with reed pipes

We had a great three days in Xijiang. The second day I did a trek right up through the town, past the village trees of protection and out into the forest above where the graveyards are, eventually winding up to the col linking the valley to villages on the other side, which you can see above the left hillock in the panorama below. I also went back to the nightly Miao costume dancing performance and videoed the entire thing for posterity. Although it's performance art and not a people's rite of passage festival it airs root themes common to the Miao - the presentation of rice wine, love and courtship and the celebration of womanhood.


Chinese tourists love to dress up in Miao costume

In fact we just missed the Sisters Meal Festival, the Miao seasonal courtship festival, which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare held on successive days, each phased in a string of different towns 30-50 kms apart, consisting of dragon boat racing, bull wrestling and other drunken mass sports, as well as giving coloured rice cookies to the object of your affection and parading in these crazy costumes through the streets of the towns.

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Panorama of Xijiang from the observation road across the river.

The last day we were in Xijiang there was a heap of fireworks in the square right on midday. They were Chinese day-time fireworks with different colours of smoke and big explosions. Later we realized it was a Miao celebration, with tables at sunset for a big meal laid out and all the young and working women joined in circle dancing to the reed pipes the way the old women do in the square for the tourists. They all gradually got pretty drunk on their notorious rice wine and the men set off a great heap of night time fireworks which fell all over the top of us.

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Yours truly with the Miao women in working costume at the party.

There were a lot of Chinese tourists photgraphing the women in their flowery work attire, but they also we're keen on photographing me so they solved the problem by getting me and then Christine to pose with the younger Miao women who work on keeping the whole enterprise going rather than dancing for tourists.


The restaurant along the street from the Minju Binguan.

Genuine Zhenyuan

We are currently in a river town called Zhenyuan pronounced very close to "genuine". It's ridiculously hot and moist. We found an exceedingly popular restaurant on the river which was so stifling Christine nearly passed out but they served great food. The menu consisted of a tick list entirely in Chinese characters so I photographed a plate we liked as it came out of the kitchen and then showed it to the guy taking the orders.

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This old town is famed for its main street of traditional stone buildings and is the most pleasant city in Guizhou province, or it would be if were a tad cooler. But we have a neat cheapish hotel Minju Binguan (although it has another name) for 108 yuan = $17 US right on the river with delicious air-con. I asked everyone in the main street where it was and nobody knew until I asked right in the foyeur.


Minju Binguan right next to Teastory Cafe in the same building

Today I finally managed to get some money out of an ATM after we began to run thin on the thousands of yuans and $US I have had stuffed inside my trousers since we left. Nearly all the ATMs in these off-the-track places we are going through work only for Chinese customers, but the Lonely Planet for once came through with the location of the one ATM in this town in the ICBN that recognizes foreign bank and credit cards.

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Tomorrow at the very odd time of midnight we leave here on a train for Zhuzhou and Hengshan mountain in northern Hunan for a one day rest stop before another overnighter ending at 3.30 am in the middle of the night in Longyan before connecting to the Fujian tolous - those multi-storey round houses that shelter over 150 family homes in a kind of fortified enclosure. From there we will be only an hour from the coast.

The next morning in Zhenyuan, it was almost too cool. Continental weather in the middle of China fluctuates fairly wildly, so one day can be stifling and the next quite pleasant and we went for a walk in an old neighbourhood by the cliffs and then I ended up climbing the mountain by accident when I went for a walk, with Christine waiting below, and ended up by the 300 km old great wall of Guizhou, discovered only in 2000, to keep out the warring tribes just like the great wall of China. The whole town is set in the midst of a wilderness.

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Looking down at the river and town from just below the summit

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Great Wall of Guizhou and the surrounding wilderness

We had a neat, although drawn out, final day in Zhenyuan. After racing to the top of the mountain with a view our over the Great Wall of Guzhou and looking round the neat old neighbourhood behind the main shopping facade, we had to check out at noon, so spent the rest of the day perched under trees in various parts of town waiting for our train at midnight.

To wile away a couple of hours I hired a push bike and rode out of town to a scenic area up a tributary of the river with little waterfalls, caves and eating places. The in the early evening we checked into a Dicos a Chinese KFC lookalike. There I suddenly realized we had lots of train links to book urgently or we mightn't be able to connect to the one remaining overnighter we had already booked and paid for, so I set up a new Excel schedule of the three links we needed by editing the pages I had made in NZ and then blew them up into 18 point screen size.

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Zhenyuan at night

We then caught a taxi to the station at around 8.30 pm and to our delight there was still one ticket window open and only a few people around. So I put the laptop screen up to the window and without any confusion the girl on the desk booked all our remaining links on the way to the tulous.

This proved to be highly fortuitous, because when we arrived in Zhuzhou station, it was huge and busy and we would have had no time to book a train leaving 20 mins after we arrived and get through security. As it was it was pretty hectic as we had to go backwards into the departure lounge avoiding the exit and have the gates unlocked for us into the crowed waiting lounge by the railway staff. They obviously haven't figured out a transfer process despite having country-wide computer booking at all stations!