Dehang; Out of Sichuan into Hunan; A bucolic diversion into the rice paddies; The Miao of Dehang

We were even with bad experiences and good in respect to sleeper trains in China. The first time from Xi’an to Chengdu hadn’t been very nice. But the overnight train we’d just stepped off from Chengdu to Huaihua in Hunan Province had been very nice indeed. The train itself was better, for one thing - newer and cleaner and with doors for the sleeper compartments. We’d spent a little extra to book the bottom bunks of the compartment, and I can see why they cost more. We’d never bothered paying for bottom bunks in India because by day they’re communal seating for all the passengers, and it’s nearly impossible to get everyone off them when you want to sleep. That seemed to be bad form on this train, though - the upper-berth passengers all sat in the hallway and we had our berths to ourselves.

Huaihua, I discovered, is a nasty hole in the ground - more or less literally. The square in front of the dilapidated train station is a huge excavation surrounded by hoardings, and the noise and the dust made the place intolerable. I wanted to leave as soon as possible, but we were stuck there for three hours until our next train left.

As we stepped down onto the platform and headed for the exit, we saw a thing that will be forever branded into my consciousness as the defining moment of my experiences in China. I’ve mentioned before that China is loud. Everyone shouts here, no matter how close they’re standing to the other person. The noise level rises exponentially with the number of people involved, and I soon came to understand that the loudest person wins the conversation. So it wasn’t with surprise, but with a horrified satisfaction at the aptness of the moment, that I witnessed two people standing on the empty platform. One was a rumpled train passenger with his wheeled suitcase beside him and an apprehensive expression on his face. The other was a stocky middle-aged train official in her uniform. She stood no more than half a meter from him, and I swear to you that she had a megaphone in her hand, her amplified voice blasting through it directly into his face. He gave no sign at all that he was bothered by this, or even that he really noticed it. That’s China.

The plan had been that we’d visit two of the geo-parks in Hunan and then make our way to the provincial capital of Changsha to board a train for Guilin in Guangxi. The lack of integrated ticketing in the Chinese train system caused us problems again, in that we could only book the first of those five trains from Chengdu. The next three trains were only short hops to Jishou, Zhiangziajie and Changsha and having to take hard-seat class didn’t bother us, but from Changsha to Guilin was very long and we couldn’t face the thought of hard-seat. We needed sleeper berths. Luckily we were able to get them from Huaihua. It was for a day later than we wanted, but I wasn’t going to argue. I can’t imagine how long we’d have been stuck in Changsha if we hadn’t been able to get tickets out beforehand.

We’re definitely getting further out into the sticks now. While Sheryl stood in the ticket queue I watched with gleeful fascination as a woman with a duck in a bag pushed forward to her own counter. The burlap sack had a hole in it and the duck had poked its head and neck out, quacking away with a furious lack of dignity. It tried to make a break for it a few times, but with its feet trapped inside the bag all it could do was flop around and try to roll away, raising a huge din the whole time. He’d never get very far before the woman would push forward again and the string in her hand slid the loudly protesting duck across the tiles.

The hard-seat train to Jishou was as crowded and pushy as expected. It was hellish getting the packs up on the luggage racks, but someone almost always helps out - it’s in everyone’s best interests to get the stupid laowai out of the aisle. At least we had seats and didn’t have to stand. There’s definitely a difference between soft-seat class and hard-seat. Lots of smoking in the seats, throwing trash on the floor, and that sort of thing. We arrived in Jishou around four in the afternoon and found the bus to Dehang village easily. Everyone else on the bus were, well, peasants. It seems so rude to use that word, but it’s not meant as a slur, that’s what they were. Agricultural types. Subsistence farmers. Peasants. They were all friendly, chatty and laughing at us (which was a nice change from angry, sullen and laughing at us). The trip to Dehang was less than an hour, along the river past rice paddies in gorgeous yellow light and slowly turning waterwheels used for irrigation.

Rice drying on mats in the village squareDehang is impossibly charming. The people are very relaxed, very friendly, and very quiet. There were a couple of token efforts at souvenir stalls but nobody really seemed to care if you bought anything. Dehang is a village of the Miao minority people. The women were very pretty and the houses were all wood with traditional pointed roofs. There were maybe a hundred houses in the village. A big stone-paved square was on one side with little alleys leading away toward the forked stream that ran through the middle of the settlement. A few short stone bridges arched over the water. Nearly everyone seemed to be engaged in making baskets or weaving on old wooden looms.

There were bushels of rice and little red peppers spread out to dry on every flat surface - every stone of the village square was covered with bamboo mats spread with rice, so roofs, balconies and bridge railings had all been pressed into service too. There were kids everywhere. So many of them! The Miao people, being a minority, are exempt from China’s infamous one-child policy and huge swarms of cute kids ran through the village. It’s funny, but I hadn’t really noticed the general absence of children in China until they suddenly appeared in numbers here.

Peppers drying on a bridgeI went off to find somewhere to stay, but I was completely useless that day. I couldn’t even find the river or a bridge to use as a landmark. Bemused, I turned matters over to Sheryl. She found us a place in a three-room wooden guesthouse overlooking the river beside an arched stone bridge. It was clean, dusty and atmospheric. I loved the smell of the wooden walls and didn’t mind at all when the building swayed whenever anyone climbed the creaky wooden stairs. The guesthouses here are all Nepali-style - you generally take your meals where you sleep. Food for Sheryl with her rice allergy might be a problem, we soon discovered. We’d kept her more or less alive in China so far but here everything was rice. All the noodles were made of rice, even. I finally wrote out the phrase “I am allergic to rice” and started showing it to people. That turned up enough yellow (wheat) noodles to get her by for the first day, but after that we’d found a little stall by the square selling our beloved Stick Food. Salty, spicy and good. Rolled up noodles, quail eggs and tofu strips. The food in Hunan and Sichuan makes me so much happier than in northern China.

Paths led out from the village along little streams through the rice paddies. Dehang rests at the bottom of a narrow valley surrounded by fantastically weird sculpted limestone crags and pillars. The streams all swarm with glittering dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. And lots of ducks in quacking mobs of twenty or thirty at a time. Little blue-tailed kingfishers swoop down into the water and tiny crabs lurk under the rocks - the villagers catch them and cook them, lined up on bamboo skewers. It’s a nice balance between tourism infrastructure and village life - the concrete paths benefit everybody. There didn’t seem to be very many tourists, though. We kept stumbling over a whole class of Chinese art students furiously sketching the wooden houses, but there were only three or four foreigners besides us (I remember in particular Ivan, a Spaniard who had somehow managed to convince his employer to sponsor his year-long world tour).

Moonrise over limestone spiresDehang is not a late-night sort of place. Its residents go to bed with the sun, and so there were no lights burning at all when we went for a walk late that first night. We watched the full moon rise over the limestone peaks in a violet and indigo sky. Venus peeked between two spires and followed the moon as the sky darkened to charcoal. It was unbearably beautiful. The moonlight was bright enough to read by and threw our sharp-edged shadows ahead of us as we followed the paths out away from the village, between the river and the rice fields. There wasn’t a single artificial light to be seen, and we could have been in any century at all. The village was fast asleep and we had the valley to ourselves, except for one toad who accidentally attacked my ankle.

We spent the next two days in walks among the limestone peaks and spires around the village. The walk out to Liusha Waterfall was pretty and we found derelict pedal-boats hidden in the hills nearby. Nearby, the Nine Dragon Scenic Route climbed up and through rock pools and fairy grottoes beside a roaring stream all overgrown with hanging greenery. Huge spiders with vivid stripes had strung their webs across the path and I was soon draped with sticky strands and irritated arachnids. The route ended in a cave behind a waterfall and a curtain of moss and falling water. Following my lead over some slippery rocks on the way down, Sheryl caused me a few seconds of panic when she slipped and fell into a pool. Our first thought was for her camera, naturally - flesh and bone heal but cameras don’t. It was fine, but she was soggy and unhappy. We laugh about it now. Well, I laugh about it at least.

We took a couple of walks up and out into the hills overlooking the village. The bamboo groves and the trees had grown too high for there to be much of a view but there were lots of toads and lizards. On the last day we took a big hike out of the valley away from the rice fields and up 1500 steps to the top of the peaks. Sweaty and dripping at the top, we looked down to see nothing but a hazy bank of mist. Not sure it was worth the workout but it was good to get some exercise.

The country around the village is a sweet place. The women working in the village all wear brightly-coloured pantsuits with embroidered cuffs, and ragged cotton versions of the same to work in the fields (the men all dress like slobs, the same as men everywhere you go). And the huge, emblematic conical hats are uniformly present to keep people shaded from the sun.

It was so fascinating to see the rice paddies at all stages of cultivation. The harvesting especially is interesting. Each farmer has his own techniques, but the steps are roughly the same. The standing stalks are bundled, cut and laid flat. Some farmers haul huge wooden bins out to the fields and smash the cut stalks against the inner walls to shake loose the grain. Others use pedal-powered wooden threshing machines with rotary paddles, feeding the bundles of stalks into a hopper and catching the grain as it pours out. The bundles are stood up to dry for hay and the grain is spread to dry on mats, then threshed again to remove the husks. The drying and threshing process is repeated until all the grain is husked, and the fields are flooded to make the roots of the cut stalks rot and make it easier to pull them up and replant.

Tourism has hardly affected these people. Modernity has hardly affected these people. Except for their shoes they could have been pulled from any time in the last thousand years. They don’t seem to care much about technology or have any real personal use for motor vehicles. They use steel tools, but their bins are made of wood and their baskets are woven from bamboo. It’s humbling to think that the only technological development of the last hundred years to have a real, measurable impact on their way of life has been the simple plastic hose - which saved them from the eternal, back-breaking chore of carrying water in buckets for drinking, washing and irrigation.

I loved Dehang. It would have been so easy to lose track of time and spend a week or two immersing myself in its sweet, slow pastoral life. But it wasn’t to be - we’re due in Changsha in a few short days, and our visa expires in two weeks. I was kicking myself for wasting so much time in the seething, ugly northern cities. It’s distressing, that I fell in love with China only when it was too late.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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