Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou province isn’t a smart city. Its buildings are old, from the 1980s or 90s. Constructions that were built hastily after the country’s opening up. But it’s not dirty, untidy or dusty like some cities, and while it looks dated and well-worn, with bushes and roadside plants a bit unkempt, it isn’t slummy or shanty townish. With its crowded streets, chaotic traffic and abundance of greenery it has an obvious southern flavour. Vendors with baskets of fruit or vegetables hanging from the ends of a pole balanced over the shoulder and sometimes conical straw hats reminds more of Hanoi than Beijing. Even some faces are more Vietnamese than Chinese. It has a vibe that’s exciting too, you know that there will be nightlife, bars and fun to be had.
Guizhou has always been a poor province; its mountainous terrain has made agriculture difficult and transport links with the rest of China weak. The result is a region that is less impacted by Han culture and the sudden industrialisation of the economy. In recent years there has been massive investment in high-speed rail, motorways and modern housing which has increased the wealth of the region, but it is still heavily dependent on tourism. And it is for the unspoiled countryside and traditional lives of the minority cultures that people come to visit.
There isn’t much to see in the city, tourists come here to start and end their trips but during Covid times visitors are scarce. One of the most famous attractions is the park that leads up to a monastery, it’s a good place to see large swallowtail butterflies and macaque monkeys. The latter crowd the paths where visitors feed them fruit, crisps and fizzy drinks and guards fire stones at them from catapults.
Taking the train to Congjiang is a quick introduction to how mountainous the region is. Not high peaks, but steep slopes that crowd around tiny valleys. It shows how little land there is for farming. Much of the journey burrows through dark tunnels that emerge into bright snatches of villages, twisting rivers and rice paddies. There is a high proportion of the dark wooden houses the area is famous for.
Congjiang is a modern town that has spung up around the high-speed train station. It’s described as a town, but it’s a huge sprawl of old apartments and open fronted uniform sized units used as shops and restaurants that is larger than the word ‘town’ suggests. It’s not ugly, but its unremarkable, It feels remote and insignificant. It’s a place to change busses and get taxis to the Dong and Miao minority villages, to start hikes around the beautiful countryside and eat delicious local dish of sour soup fish.
The most famous village in the area is Zhauxing, the largest Dong village in China. It’s a quiet town of two streets that run parallel to the small river that runs through it. The village is famously touristy and I was expecting busloads of groups, tacky stalls selling trinkets and handicrafts of the Dong minority. Perhaps in normal times it is like that, I’ve seen pictures of the crowds of day trippers squeezing and shuffling down the main street, but today’s it quiet with only a handful of tourists Even so there are plenty of locals hanging around the picturesque wooden buildings, filling buckets from the well and carrying sacks of fruit or vegetables as well as selling handicrafts.
Most noticeable is the many older men and women that still wear the local hairstyles and odd bits of traditional clothing but shy away from cameras. It’s nice to see that behind the costumed beauties that hang around the bell tower there is a culture still alive. Wander the narrow back streets and there are families preparing bamboo rats for dinner, sewing or making cloth, dying it in baths and hammering strips of material into a stiff fabric. There are several shops selling tee shirts and dresses in the local indigo colour, most have flowery designs of fish or peacocks.. In another country in another time, the laid-back vibe might have attracted the backpacker or the hippy.
The following day I hike out from the village following the stream across the paddy fields along the valley. There is a well-made path that twists up above the village and skirts the fields before joining a fast-flowing river where flutters of butterflies drink. There only other person is an old man working in a field. Its silent except the chirp of crickets, the occasional splash of a fish and the fading stroke of the cloth beaters that echoes down the valley.
In the afternoon we get a taxi back to the Miao minority mountain village of Basha. The journey passes several little villages with their dark wooden houses clustered around a bell tower. Unlike the unspoiled Zhongxin many have a splattering of modern concrete buildings around them.
One of the unique characteristics of Basha village is that they are allowed to keep their tradition of guns. The much-heralded freedom, is not a right to bear arms but a permission to use an ancient flintlock rife. It is capable of firing a spray of shot and has only ceremonial use. There is normally an entrance fee to the village but because there are no displays or dances, due to corona virus, and no other tourists, it’s all free. Even the staff seem to have disappeared and we walk around the museum at the entrance alone.
It’s a remarkably well-preserved village, not a scrap of rubbish or plastic roof covering in sight. Even the safety warnings are sympathetically carved onto pieces of matching wood. The narrow paths between the immaculately maintained wooden rice stores and homes aren’t suitable for vehicles so the only sounds are the clucking of chickens running wild along the path and the far off rhythmic pounding of cloth. There are few people about and I wonder if they’ve left while there are no tourists to entertain.
We meet a group of old men. One is 87 years old and the other two are 99 years old,. The younger guy is talkative and plays up for the camera, clearly enjoying telling us about his large family and posing for pictures. He allows me to use his gun and I watch him set it up with a square of paper behind the hammer which reminds me of the caps I had in toy guns as a child. He tells me to keep it away from the face when I fire it which would make hitting an animal without aiming down the long barrel very difficult. I pull the trigger and am shocked at the noise and the quantity of white smoke it produces.
Later we meet a group of women chatting. There is a young girl, the first we’ve seen, carrying a pole across her shoulder but instead of the usual plastic bags or buckets hanging from the ends there are black woven baskets. We ask about them and they ignore us and fall silent. We ask if its ok to take pictures and they stand frozen like the dummies in the museum.
Kaili the capital of the south eastern part of Guizhou is only 125km from Congjiang, but as there is no train service or major road between them the journey time by bus is around 5 hours. We manage to get a shared car which reduces the travel time to 3 hours. The route goes over mountains in a series of tight hairpins, long tunnels and tall bridges.
Kali is a noisy city that’s missed the electric bike phenomenon and noisy two stroke scooters are still popular. The old part of the town, 2 long streets of beautiful architecture, is dominated by motorbike and traditional medicine shops. There is one short part where woven baskets and hats are still sold and a market where women sell fruit and veg in variously styled headgear and ear peircings. In another city this would be filled with ethnic artefacts and cafes to chill out and people watch, instead it’s a bustling photographic paradise.
Nearby is the tourist trap of Xijiang, another Miao village. Even in the midst of the pandemic its fairly busy. Nowhere near the numbers that squeeze down the main street on national day, but compared with other villages visited there are enough people to make a queue for a shuttle bus and the need to wait on a narrow path while a couple struggle past hauling suitcases.
There’s no doubt the wooden buildings are spectacular. Stacked on top of each other, rising up the steep hillsides, either side of the Baishu river. But beneath it’s perfect view there is a focus on the tourist that undermines its authentic feel.
It’s not just the fake flowers decorating the eaves of a large restaurant, nor the parades of costumed women and pipe playing men that welcome the arriving busses, nor the groups of girls artily poised embroidering along the river. Here, there is no sign of industry or commerce that’s not connected to the tourist. Wander from the main street and every building is in some stage of being re-constructed into a hotel. Their half-finished frontages reveal the modern materials used, the interiors have recessed spot lighting and plaster boarded ceilings.
In the main street there is a casting of two ancient figures. It has been damaged in one corner and shows the fibreglass beneath the bronze effect paint. A fitting analogy of the town.
The green skin train chugs slowly to Zhenyuan. Outside the dusty window, plunging valleys gorges house picturesque tiny villages surrounded by fields and clear streams. Harvest has started and there are people in the paddies, dragging carts and making sheafs from cut rice stalks.
A family sitting opposite us operate a white-water rafting business in Zhenyuan, a city they tell us is 70% Han. On arrival we find its certainly the liveliest place we’ve visited. Both banks of the river are a constant of bars, restaurants and KTVs. At night the two sides of the river, the bridges and the mountain sides that tower behind the wall of hotels are lit up providing a party atmosphere. We hop from bar to bar, Unusually for China, there are too many to drink at them all and we pick those with live bands playing popular Chinese songs. Its pleasant, but it could be Hao Hai.
The next morning we head off to the nearby Wuyang River for a cruise. According to the guide book it’s a more charming alternative to the three gorges. Not having visited the three gorges I can’t verify if that is true, if it is I haven’t missed much. The journey is an hour trip up and back along a sleepy river. Occasionally there are views of water cascading down the sheer cliffs of either side, or drips from overhangs of rock. There is no other river traffic, no birds or fish to see.
Back to Beijing
In the afternoon the train returns us to Guiyang to catch the plane back to Beijing. I’m the only foreigner in the 13 carriages and the only one that has to go to a covid testing station to complete a complicated form recording my details and fingerprints. It’s a tiring end to a free and easy week of travel and a reminder of the world I’m returning to. The beautiful countryside and villages have often felt like a simpler time and I feel sure that a longer stay, hiking out from the popular towns, would uncover hidden gems of Chinas past.