"Where are you from?" came the first English words we had heard from anyone other than each other in several days. Turning to my right I saw two young, suited Chinese men walking next to me.
"England," I replied, "and you?"
"We're from Kaili," one of the men answered. We had been there a few days previously having taken the train fifteen hours to the east out of Yunnan province and into Guizhou. A few days spent visiting markets and villages on our way between there and here, the town of Conjiang in the south of Guizhou, had earmarked the province as one seriously worthy of exploration, possibly more so than Yunnan. Around twelve hours total had been spent on buses on the road south and during most of that time my eyes had been firmly fixed out of the windows on the lush, green, undulating, heavily vegetated landscape that suggested a vastly higher level of rainfall than anywhere we had been in Yunnan. Whereas in Yunnan concrete villages had stood out against the landscape like sore thumbs, here almost every house was built of wood in the traditional style; this had the effect of making whole villages blend
into the countryside around them without in any way detracting from its natural beauty. Many people in the villages, men and women, still wore their traditional dress every day although nowehere was it as outlandish as in Yunnan. Many also wore their hair in an attractive figure of eight topknot that I had not seen anywhere else and in some villages the men still carried swords at their side during day to day life.
The two men insisted on taking us to a small eatery and buying us a lunch of various different dishes of fried vegetables and meat.
"What are you doing here I asked?" Their English was not so good that conversation was really this simple and fast-flowing, but I will abridge what was really said so as not to bore the reader. Needless to say, much more effort, inventiveness and body-language was put into every question, answer and statement than can interestingly be conveyed here.
"We're piping salesmen," came the reply. "Today we're going to sell pipes here in the market then tomorrow we're moving on to Diping."
"Where are you going tomorrow?" one of them asked, his name so long and complicated
that I knew immediately on hearing it that I would never be able to commit it to memory.
"Zhaoxing," I replied.
"Ah, Zhaoxing," he said, smiling, "very beautiful place!"
Several hours further south, Zhaoxing was indeed extremely aesthetically pleasing. A largish village almost entirely built of traditional houses nestling at the bottom of a high-walled valley, the beauty of its location and of the buildings themselves had designated this village for development for tourism. Although guest houses were springing up left, right and centre, access was still only possible by the worst road I had traveled anywhere in China and it was perhaps this that had thus far spared Zhaoxing the fate of other beautiful, "historic" villages in China such as Yunnan's Dali and Lijiang. While a walk down Zhaoxing's main street would take you past several Chinese tourists and the odd Western one, it had still very much retained its own village atmosphere; children could be seen and heard playing down the side streets while adults sat on the pavements watching the world go by and engaged in a bit of work, often sewing in the case of women and carpentry or
construction for men. The owners of small Chinese restaurants still considered it an honour when we ate there more than once, happily giving us discounts and free cups of tea at the end of our meals.
South again from Zhaoxing took us across the border into Guanxi province and the town of Chenyang. This was an area inhabited predominantly by the Dong ethnic minority, a group who had managed to preserve more of their traditional architecture than any other we had visited. Every village in the area seemed to have a Wind and Rain bridge (constructed by hand and without the use of nails) and a drum tower, a place of meeting for villagers, the drums in the top of which had once been used to raise the alert in case of fire or attack. As we walked along river banks, over the bridges and past the towers, the tranquility of the area made a great impression on me. Life seemed so much slower here and the people had time to sit around in groups talking in the village square and wave or smile at passers by.
Back at our guest house in Chengyang that night the owner
and his brother, the chef, were blind drunk. After a not-so-tasty dinner the owner produced a few sealed clay pots from somewhere and had his brother smash the top open to reveal what I guessed to be rice wine inside.
"My personal reserve, we drink, tonight, you and me my brother," the owner slurred at me. "Next time you come here you pay only small price, because you my brother," he continued while hugging me.
A 27 hour train journey to Beijing on just a standing ticket proved to be less of a nightmare than it had originally seemed. I got invited to drink some extremely powerful home brewed alcohol with a group of Chinese, a group of 50 relatives who were heading to the capital for the May 1st holiday. Despite the impossibility of real communication, a few glasses of the remarkably potent brew made us fast if temporary friends.
The next morning I woke up having slept on the floor in the aisle between seats. My drinking companions looked like their heads were banging from the previous night's antics and no one spoke to each other again until we arrived at
our final destination, the previous night's raucousness gone for good and replaced by sombre, silent hangovers.
Click here for advice on independent travel in South West China
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