The Last One (part 1)

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November 20th 2015
Published: November 20th 2015
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A squealing truck over the mountains, to CheTian.

So, this is the truck: doors must be pushed twice in order to be opened. Rusty treadles must sometimes be kicked to react. And of course, you have to occasionally wrestle the wheel as some kind of desperate bullfighter wrestles crazy bull, just to move it away. With this kind of truck the driving on the freeway would be considered dangerous and not legal. Yet our road is countryside narrowness which looks as if it will never wind itself to the top of the hills. There is no police. And there's the special circumstance of the weather. You can almost see some invisible creature throwing buckets of white rain from nonexistent sky. It's not really rain, it's not snow... I do not know what it is. Fog looks like the snow, frozen in the air. And real old snow is laying on tree branches, making them look like skeletons. Every definition of every word seems to have Chinese specifics. You can only breathe in and you already know this is not the West. You look just for a second and you know it can only be China.

OK, I might be exaggerating a little.

But this is the truth: it feels as if this road is all of the world that there is. Up and down into nothing. And we are like miniature dots, lost between many levels of whiteness. I sometimes do not see the road, and I am not sure if the driver sees it. Who is the driver?

We are driving in the direction of Hunan province. Close to this places there's MaoerShan, Cat's Ear Mountain, 2142 meters high – highest in Guangxi region. AiMenJie pass that we were driving through is about 1000 meters high. After an hour of driving the colors make a victorious break through the whiteness, and there's...

... Chetian. The city is compressed on the river shore as an afterthought. As momentarily peaceful war ground between concrete and nature. Streets are narrow coincidences. Main street is also a market place, continuous promenade of extreme crowds. In the small stores you can find anything – relatively special items are local mushrooms and vegetables, and lynx's skin, and ox’s scull, covered with Chinese characters.

People are eating or watching TV, and they do it in »opened living rooms«, looking on the street. Instead of front doors there's a »missing wall«. The architecture tells an important lesson of Chinese socialization: eating food is a social occupation. (And the word privacy doesn’t really mean much). As the only foreigner in town I quickly become a known attraction; and people are getting up from their fireplaces and making heartfelt invitations with full mouths, chi fan, chi fan!, come here, eat with us!

It's easy to make friends. Of course the definition of a friendship is basic. No one knows all of your history and no one can really understand all of who you are. If he knows what you want and helps you get it, he is already a friend.

»Yet I have to tell you I have no insurance!«, Zeng Shungquan says just before he jumps on the motorbike. He studied in Heilongjiang, he translated two textbooks (about macro and microeconomics) from English to Chinese, yet he found his paradise on his farm. He also says he likes to write his own stories. His sentences actually sound like perfect beginnings for some stories. Like his introduction to me: «You need a friend, not a translator. «

His speech about insurance makes me laugh. The road across mountains made me feel fatalistic, but I am even more fatalistic because this is the last trip after one year of staying in China (in 2010). I am not thinking about safety, I am only constantly thinking about saying goodbyes.

Shungquan is my first guide – I should say friend – in Chetian, and he drives me to XiaoDiJieshang, a village which is about 15 minutes of drive away from Chetian.

There's some modern buildings and some magnificent wooden houses. Xiao di bridge was built in 1934, moved to another place in 1966, and renovated in 1993. The hills are crowded with wooden Miao "palaces". Older women here or in Chetian wear their everyday clothes, black trousers, blue jackets, blue or black scarfs over their heads, and giant earrings which pleasantly elongate their earlobes.

Middle generation will not wear this.

I have to explain. China officially has 55 national minorities - together with Han majority 56 nationalities. In practical experience - and especially here in the south, here in Guangxi region - they represent an incredible dispersed tornado of writings, histories, languages and habits. Multitude of sometimes extremely different yet coexisting cultures is a fact that's sometimes hard to understand and swallow. Coexistence was not always peaceful - there were battles between different minorities and also battles between Han people and minorities - but now, and for a long time already, there's peace. Many are afraid of Han influence on the cultures of minorities, but the more time I'm spending here, the more I am thinking that this mutual influence is a “basic Chinese make up” since historical times, and I am rather more afraid of influence of American pop culture on Chinese culture.

Unofficial name of local Miao people is Wu Pai Miao or »Five roads Miao«; it might not be correct but most people in the area confirmed it. Locals say that some of their »colorful festival clothes« are saved in a »cultural center«, and they take them out when they need them. But in the same breath they'd say that another minority of this area, Panlong Yao (»round dragon«, which refers to long band around their heads), cares about their festival clothes and traditions more. It might be just modesty.

CheTian has 30 000 hectares, around 24.500 habitants (in 2003), there's more than half, 13.334 Miao people, and around 482 Yao people living here.

Everything is still in a sign of spring festival.

»What do we do for the festival? Families and friends visit each other. The first visit in New Year will bring good luck. You can call it spring visiting. Our zhongzhi, the sticky rice with fillings and wrapped in leafs, are differently from those in Nanning – they are triangular, almost cones. Before the festival we will surely kill at least one pig, and then store it for the visitors. «

In front of every Miao house there's Yao Qian Shu, »money tree«, which they put in front of the house on the first day of New Year, and if you shake it... it brings good fortune.

We walk around, and Shungquan is showing me a »specialty«: big wooden case.

»What kind of specialty? I don't understand. «

»You don't know what that is? «

»No. «

»It's a toilet. «

»Oh – a toilet? «

»There's a small ladder on the side, we used it to step up, squat over there, in the middle, and do the thing. They don't use this one anymore – in fact, most people don't use it. That's why there's no wooden wall that would hide you. But yes, it used to be a toilet. «

When the box was filled it was probably taken away. Its contents were maybe used as manure. It is a model of simplicity and practicality. And I cannot help but compare how many things the city needs for doing something so basic. Place, design, pipes, water, heating, decoration, paper... Sometimes I cynically think that one of the major goals of development is to make the toilet complicated, beautiful and comfortable, and then hide it.

When we come back from a walk, I do not see his motorbike, and I'm thinking it's stolen.

Shungquan laughs: “I would be relieved! Jiu de bu qu, xin de bu lai! The new won't come until the old goes. «

Then we see it. Still there, intact. I don’t really think there are many thieves here.

I am invited to his home, yet it is another hour of drive away, and we both know that if I want to write about this place, I need to stay for couple of days and focus. So it's another goodbye...

The next day I go to the mountains alone. Narrow streets gets you to the trees quickly, and then up. The road is bad. Nature slowly gets itself out of towns garbage armor and becomes wonderful – the kingdom of smaller, yet still exquisite titian, terrace fields. Clean spring green color of rice blades. Brown autumn trenches that look like stairways. Shungquan said, as much as I remember, that nowadays less people would grow rice, and more of them would grow potatoes, corn, pickles... It's worth more (and the work is not so hard). Some houses here are modern, some wooden, some combination of both. I cannot really imagine how this roads allowed the transport of the material...

(This is an old article, from 2010. Approaching New year reminded me of it. I've set the location as Guilin, but in fact it is at least 3 or 4 hours away from Guilin - this place, Chetian, is not listed.)


21st November 2015

Jiu de bu qu, xin de bu lai!
The new won't come until the old goes. Spending time with Chinese minorities is to me one of the joys of China. I may write a blog one day of one such delight in Guangxi. Until then I'll enjoy being transported by reading your blogs. Thanks Peter.
22nd November 2015

Oh, I'm looking forward for that! Always makes me curious to read about other foreigners experience here! Good luck, Dave -

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