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Published: December 15th 2009
19-Hour Sleeper Bus
Catherine and I on "Margaret" the sleeper bus. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Bodry)
Many people think of China as a land where the dominant characteristics of society are homogeneity and obedience. This is true, to a point. For example, when I asked eight-year old Chinese students to write laws for an imaginary country, two of the most important laws were "protect national secrets" and "carry an identity card." But China, especially southwest China, is also home to an impressively diverse group of ethnic and cultural minorities.
The only problem, of course, is reaching these places, and transportation in China can be a headache.
The most popular way to get around China is by taking the bus. In rural areas, you don't even need to buy a ticket. The easiest way to hop a ride is to put out your hand and hitchhike until a bus with empty seats sees you. This is in fact a very efficient method of transportation, since towns and villages are spread so far apart. Since most people don't have cars, they often bring various types of cargo on the bus with them and store it in the bus aisle between
Paper-Making VIllage of Manzhao
The Dai minority community in this village makes paper by hand. Here, I am checking out paper pulp (Photo courtesy of Catherine Bodry)
seats. These items range from TV/satellite equipment and planks of wood to sacks of grain, corn, and boxes of live chickens. Not to worry if you can't find a seat - there is usually a sack of grain to sit on.
Unfortunately, smoking and spitting are popular on Chinese buses, as well. On one bus ride, the men next to me began smoking, so I opened a window. That would be fine, except the guy in front of me kept opening his window to spit out loogies and snot, which threatened to fly back into my window into my face. I opted for the second-hand smoke rather than the fine spray of bodily fluid.
For long-distance bus rides, it's necessary to take a sleeper bus. Longer bus rides, such as the 19-hour delight I recently experienced, have two drivers for safety reasons. I was, however, horrified to learn that our bus was twenty years old and was on its last trip before permanent retirement. Sleeper buses have the potential for pleasant travel, since passengers are able to fully recline on beds. However, the mixture of cigarette smoke, smelly feet, and the sweet lullaby of snores and spitting distract
Hani Village of Donghe
Very few people in this Hani minority village spoke Mandarin, instead speaking their local dialect.
from this comfortable atmosphere. On my last sleeper bus, I woke up ten hours in to find cigarette ash on my leg from the man on the bunk above me. If you find the experience of a bus ride too unsavory, there is always the motorcycle for short-distance excursions. Chinese people love to zoom around on these things, but no helmets, of course.
In order to visit the more rural minority villages, it's also necessary to find places to stay at night within an hour or two of your destination. This usually means staying in a village or small town. Expectations of hotels in China are drastically different from those in the United States. Hotels in rural areas average about $7 a night, and about $3 if you're sharing a room. Of course, don't expect much for your money. Toilets are squat-style and are sometimes only "flushable" by pouring a bucket of water down the drain. Sometimes the "pillowcase" is a hand towel laid on top of of an unsanitary pillow. In the most rural areas, even electricity is not guaranteed. Many areas are powered by generators, which are unreliable and tend to stop working, resulting in candle-lit dinners,
Hani Woman Weaving
The women in Donghe buy raw cotton, pull it into thread, dye it with local materials, weave it into fabric, and then sew and embroider it into clothes. They refuse to buy outside clothes.
showers, and bedrooms. Authentic, yes. Pragmatic, no.
But I have to say, it's 100% worth it. Most of the people in rural areas are welcoming to the point of treating you like family. In a small Hani village, one elderly man invited us into his home to rest and drink tea. Although he mostly spoke his ethnic dialect (unintelligible to me), he said in Chinese, "America is good. China is also good. We are all one family." At a cafe in Menglian, the owner, a woman named Nanqing, not only lent us warm clothes off her back and treated us to a free dinner, but she also arranged motorcycles to take us to her home village, where she hosted us for a day.
Nanqing belongs to the Wa minority, which is possibly the most exciting and fascinating minority group of China. This transnational group located in the jungle climates of both Myanmar and the nearby borderlands of China has quite an exciting and illicit history. Famous for their participation in the opium trade, many Wa villages practiced headhunting until the 1960s. Heads of victims would be placed inside Wa homes, and were thought to bring better rains and
Hani Woman in Menglian Market
The Hani people are famous for their elaborate headgear.
crops. Known for their wooden drums and red and black clothing, the Wa are simultaneously intimidating and welcoming, both fierce and smiling.
The morning of our trip to the Wa village, the hills were covered in morning fog. As our motorcycle drivers climbed into the hills toward the village, the fog began to lift, and cultivated fields bordered by jungle-covered hills began to emerge on either side. Upon reaching the village, Nanqing gave us a tour, pointing out medicinal herbs and plants along the way. The people in the village of Nanya build their own houses out of wood, and spend their days hard at work in fields.
The Wa women were excited that we had cameras, and put on their traditional clothing to dance. They asked if we could take pictures while they danced and give them to Nanqing later for them to have in their village.
Here were twenty Wa villagers asking
for me to take pictures of them. I could have died and gone to heaven.
The villagers performed several dances. My personal favorite was when the women crouched down behind one of their men, who slowly walked away from them. As he
Wa women dancing in the village of Nanya. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Bodry)
walked, they began to crawl after him, weeping, but burst into grins and giggles throughout the procession.
Many Wa traditions, such as local dialects, hand-weaving, embroidery, drum-playing, and dancing, are still practiced. However, there are several modern additions. Many Wa women, for example, like to wear pink these days instead of red. They also wear an abundance of fake silver buttons on their clothes, which used to be real silver and available only to those with money and status. Their necklaces and bracelets, however, are still made of real silver.
As the day drew to a close and we had to leave, I thanked Nanqing for bringing us to the village. I was truly overwhelmed by both the warmness of the villagers and the strength with which they go about their daily lives. "Their lives are difficult," she said. "But every day they have open hearts." And it was true - the village was full of smiles.
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