Sunday, November 10, 2013


"Nehow," I said, as I made eye contact with the Chinese-American family walking towards me on the street in my California neighborhood.  They looked startled to hear a familiar greeting come out of the mouth of a non-Chinese person, but seemed pleased that someone made the effort to say "hello" in their language.  The greeting was not contrived on my part, purely spontaneous, which surprised me.    

I've been thinking a lot about our trip to China and trying to process all that we saw and did, even though we've been home for almost two weeks.   Sorting through the 2000 photos I took transported me back to the many villages we visited,  the landscapes we marveled over, and the exotic food we ate, which most of the time was a little too weird for me, except for the vegetables and ubiquitous sticky rice.   


From Beijing we flew three hours south to the town of Guilin in the southwest Province of Guanxi and joined a group organized by a Chinese-American, who leads trips to China a couple of times a year.  I'd seen photographs of the Guilin area before, since the scenic karst formations along the Li River seem to be one of the most popular tourist destinations, along with Beijing, Shanghai, and the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian.   


The primary objective of this trip was to visit the small villages where some of the 55 ethnic minority groups live in three provinces in China's southwest, and to see the beautiful landscapes in a region that many Western travelers don't even know about, let alone get to see.  Since tribal culture is an interest of ours, we jumped on the opportunity to have another authentic experience, like the ones we had with the Mursi and Hammer tribes in Ethiopia,  the Akha in Southeast Asia, and the Mud Men in Papua New Guinea.  Like so many other tribal cultures around the world, these unique minority groups in China will fade into the woodwork as more and more young people leave their rural villages to ride the wave of fortune currently going on in the booming cities.    At the same time, the government is constructing massive high rise apartments throughout the entire country in order to move hundreds of millions of people from the rural countryside, where they have always lived and farmed,  into an urban lifestyle that wreaks of social dysfunction.  


Our first opportunity to interact with ethnic minorities was a visit to Huangluo, a Yao village where we met the Long Hair people.   The girls are allowed to cut their hair only once in their lives, usually at age 16, when it's time for them to marry.   The cut hair isn't discarded, but instead is saved until her wedding, and then she gifts it to her new husband.   Later, the hair piece becomes a part of her everyday hairdo.   The elaborate hair styles tell an interesting story.   If the hair is simply wrapped around her head, it means she is married but has no children.  If she wears a small bun at the front, it means she is married and has children.  If she wears a scarf around her head, she is telling the village she is looking for a husband.   In the Yao culture, it is believed that long hair will bring longevity, good fortune and wealth. 


Although I've read my share of fortune cookies over the years, I guess I'd forgotten how much the Chinese rely on superstitions, spiritual energy, and ancient myths to bring them closer to a good life, good fortune, and good health.    Feng Shui, Ying Yang and the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) are still considered important in the way many Chinese live their lives, construct their buildings, marry each other, and bury their dead.  "Place your bed in your room in full view of the door."  "Don't go to the hospital on New Year's."   For the Yao women, it is "never cut your hair."



The village of Huangluo was a little touristy, but you can't blame the Yao for wanting to take advantage of people's curiosity.  After a half hour of watching the girls dance, sing, and show how they wrap their floor length hair, we began our trek up the mountain to the village of Ping'an, where we would spend the night.  We knew in advance that the trek would require us to either carry our luggage up the long trail ourselves or pay a porter $5-10 per bag to carry it for us.  

Bruce and I downsized our belongings into two simple backpacks, taking just enough out of our regular suitcases for one night in the mountain village, but we still opted for porters to do the heavy lifting when we realized we could  help the villagers economically.   As soon as we arrived at the point where the steep climb began, we were rushed by a group of tiny, middle-aged ladies,  wearing wicker baskets on their back, eager to help us, and earn a few Yuan.  Two women about five feet tall and wearing pink hats grabbed our heavy packs, tossed them in their baskets, and scurried off, as soon as we made a deal and agreed to pay them $10 each.   After walking on a paved path through a maze of touristy shops selling kitsch, we began climbing the narrow stone steps with no guard rail and steep drop offs on one side.  We were told that our hotel was at the mountain's summit near the two flags we could see at the top.   It looked like a long way up to us.


After thirty minutes of climbing one steep and narrow step after another, I stopped to rest, thinking it would take me another hour to reach the flags, and I didn't want to burn out.   That's when  I heard someone call out my name.  "Hey Pam, over here."  I looked to my right and sitting on the porch of someone's house and drinking a beer was one of our traveling companions.  "What are you doing there?" I queried.  "This is our hotel,"  he shouted back.  "I thought we had to walk up to the flags," I replied.  "Nope, this is where we are staying, and there's a cold beer waiting for you."   

Something wet and cold was exactly what I needed after a schlepp on a very hot day.   Even though I'd ridden my bike up Mount Tamalpais just the week before, climbing steep stone steps used different muscles, and I was already beginning to feel the burn.  Thrilled that we didn't have to go any further,  Bruce and I quickly made our way over to the hotel's entrance where the two porter ladies were waiting for us with big grins, eager to be paid.   Using sign language and much nodding of heads, we thanked them profusely and made arrangements for them to come back the next morning to carry our packs down the hill.   We were told these porter ladies make eight to ten round trips per day, so they were eager to get to the bottom and wait for their next fare.   A couple of others in our group focused on the two flags and overshot the hotel completely.  It took an hour for our guide to find them wandering about near the flags, wondering where the hotel was.  Thankfully, they were found pretty quickly because they didn't know the name of the hotel, and even if they did, I'm not sure they would have found it since I don't remember seeing a sign.   The views looking down on the terraced rice fields were gorgeous, especially in the early morning light.  

Stories like this tend to find a permanent spot somewhere in my brain's cache of travel memories.  I will always remember the sweet faces of those two porter ladies and envy the speed at which they were able to negotiate those steep stone steps.  

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues.


  1. Italians have superstitions as well, such as not going into your garden on the Feast of the Assumption as doing so means you will have ants in your house for the rest of the year. As a joke one year my non-Italian father strung twine across the entrance to the garden with a sign that said "Ants Keep Out." My grandfather wasn't amused, although we didn't have ants that year.

  2. Thanks for sharing your trip, Pam. Beautiful photos and great stories, as always. I've always been a little so-so about traveling to China, but from what you've said, better sooner than later. I just don't understand the drive to destroy whatever is different.