In Shanghai, exploring the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree web site, I noticed a query from a young woman from Kaili in Guizhou Province who was offering to arrange a homestay in a Miao minority village in the mountains. We exchanged emails and I was excited to meet her. But then I received an email saying she was in Shanghai and could we meet for the train ride to Guizhou in a couple days. I returned that I couldn’t leave that soon but I could meet her in Kaili…then I never heard from her again. A mystery…or maybe she got an offer from someone to pay her fare back to Kaili…who knows. But I knew where I was going next! From Shanghai I flew to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province and stored my baggage at a hotel there before boarding a bus for the three hour ride to the city of Kaili.
When I got off the bus there, I was directed to another station around the corner with several rickety old buses waiting for passengers to various villages. I had no idea which bus would take me to Xiuang, the village I had been told by the English-speaking receptionist in Guiyang that would be celebrating their New Year’s holiday. Then I saw a smiling family waiting near one half-full bus. “Xiuang,” I asked. Yes, they nodded. But while we were waiting to board, a couple of men outside a nearby fence a few feet from us motioned us to approach them. It gradually became clear they were taxi drivers that wanted to take us to Xiuang. Between my motions and their language we all agreed to share the cost of the taxi so we piled in and were off…on a harrowing short-cut along steep mountain dirt roads with thousand foot drop-offs…to our village!
The people in the mountains in this southeastern Chinese province are not Han Chinese. Eighteen different minorities live within Guizou province and I was here to visit the Miao people in this gulley-like valley with identical hand-hewn wooden houses climbing the hills on all sides.
The wooden houses are built on foundations of stone and constructed with wooden pegs…no nails or cement. Steep paths meander among the houses.
After some initial quandry as to where a hotel might be, if there was one, I came across a woman who led me to a small building…who would have thunk it was a hotel…for about $2.00 for the night. I was invited to join the family around their hotpot dinner downstairs…had no idea what I was eating but I was starved and it tasted delicious with smiling faces all around. No extra charge! There was no heat in the freezing room that night so I took the bedding off the other twin bed and added it to mine.
There are at least 130 different types of Miao people living in villages among the mountains and they have different dialects, headdress, and traditions. Yet, they all belong to one Miao minority. Their language is endangered as it has no written form and is used less and less among the younger generation who is often eager to learn English.
The next morning, walking along the main cobblestone path through the village I came across a young French couple…the only Westerners in the town…who were delighted to speak English with someone after hiking all over the mountains from village to village without a guidebook. “Just knock on a door” they said, and show the sign for sleep and eat and show money and you will be invited in,” they said. They were in their second year of travel before returning home to start a family. They had been traveling in the province two months and it was they who took me to Mr. Hou. Mr. Hou was the English teacher in the middle school there that drew students from villages all over the mountains. “By foot,” he said.
Mr. Hou invited me to stay for two days for $4 a day in his home, generously sharing three banquet meals a day around “hotpot” and dozens of small dishes of whatevers with him and his extended family of which there were many coming and going during each meal! While the men and women prepared the food, the guests all sang a local folk song. Then they asked me to sing a song…and I’ll be darned if my mind didn’t go panicky blank…all I could think of was Row Row Your Boat and I think that is really a French song! So I told them we had rock music and I couldn’t sing rock. They all nodded in agreement…to my relief I was off the hook!
The family and I joined round on 8 inch high stools and watched Mr. Hue chop the meat up on a thick round wood cutting block on the floor. Then slowly bowls of food appeared from another cooking room that the women had prepared and were set out on the floor around a “hotpot”or wok full of boiling broth sitting on a foot high round stand full of lit charcoal. Mr. Hue would chopstick some of the food he considered the best onto my small bowl of rice. The bones and small rejected bits were spit onto the floor. After every few bites the local hooch was poured round and after a song and a whoop everyone would gulp down the fiery fruit-flavored alcohol made by the grandmothers. It didn’t take long for the whoops and songs to exceed the eating. Humorously, I was given “just a small amount” each time..the villagers having experienced past catastrophes with drunk foreigners!
Finally the day came when the New Year’s biggest day would be celebrated…music, dancing…the women in wonderful traditional dress.
During the daytimes I wondered through the small cobbled lanes leading through the houses and shops…trying my best to avoid the firecrackers thrown at the visitors by the small boys. Although the New Years ethnic dances in costumes were delightful and the people warm-hearted and friendly, I was happy to leave the village. The small boys thought it was great fun to make the “foreigner” jump when they threw firecrackers at her feet…one landing on top of my backpack…nearly scaring me out of my wits. And on top of that Mr. Hou felt he had to direct my every move in the home…was terribly worried I would fall off the narrow log ladder to the upper level where he had cleared out a cozy room with a rock-hard bed. After all, I was “old.” 62! So by the third day I had had enough fireworks and directing!
While I was waiting for the bus back to Kaili, (there was no schedule…you just waited for the bus to show up) a newly-arrived young man from Amsterdam and I made friends with some Chinese English-speaking students from Hunan province who were there with their photography teacher and we nearly went to Langde village with them if there had been room in their van. I was sorry not to be able to go with these cheery young people who were so anxious to try out their English…some of the words inappropriately big and ostentatious…and some I didn’t even know the meaning of! Be sure to correct our English, they said! Well, we don’t use that word in normal conversation I would say and they would look so disappointed. We exchanged email “to practice English.”
“Kaili, Kaili, bystanders yelled at me as a small bus appeared…barely missing the food-vendors on either side of the dirt road leading up to the village. Then just as I was waiting to board, a Russian-American in his 70′s from NYC with a false leg nearly toppled off the bus with his bag into the street. We quickly traded some travel stories…he had been traveling for years the backpacker way all over the world…refusing to give it up…very inspiring…and touching…
I headed back to Kaili, a comfortable and colorful Miao urban city with great food down small alleys, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my hotel room harbored a broadband high speed internet connection! This was not only Asia, but it was China after all and the appetite here for technology and communication devices is insatiable.
After another bus back to Guiyang I spent the evening walking along the river than runs through the city, meandering up and down streets…getting lost and finding my way again…checking email at a large internet cafe with at least a hundred young kids all noisily playing video games. And eating wonderful street food!
The next night I headed off to Kunming on an overnight train…middle bed in a 6-bed compartment this time…but not without exploring the new Wal-Mart around the corner from the train station to replenish my battery supply!