After a prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“So that was Guìlín!” I exhaled, sinking deep into the back of my chair as S plonked a couple of beers down on the table. We’d just returned to our base at Backstreet Youth Hostel, pretty much collapsing at the bar. “Maybe we should have gone for two nights” she yawned, stretching her arms, “ah whatever… no regrets!”
Our flight from Xian to the southern city of Guìlín was a swift two hours and fifteen minutes. But with so much to see and do in the surrounding area, not to mention the clock ticking down on our flight to Amsterdam, we’d decided on just one day in Guìlín. But boy had we made that day count!
We headed out for breakfast shortly after sunrise. From there our first port of call was the city’s premier attraction Seven Star Park, a 120-hectare stretch of gorgeousness situated on the eastern side of the Li River. It took us three hours to get through everything, starting with a riverside walk peppered with stone bridges and wooden pagodas. Here and there the path ascended sharply, providing moody, misty views of Guìlín’s signature limestone hills. Elsewhere, we passed through a deserted sculpture garden, stopped to admire a trickling waterfall and crossed a dramatic section of the river via the elegant stone arches of Flower Bridge.
It was such an uncompromisingly muggy day we were relieved to get the chance to cool off in Seven Star Cave, a one thousand meter long limestone affair with stone-pillar walkways and razor-sharp stalagmites. Entering a sizeable rocky chamber at the cave’s far end, we stumbled upon a cosplaying Chinese couple in the middle of a photo shoot. They were both in their late teens with catwalk good looks and an affected melancholia for the clicking photographer. The girl wore a simple blue princess dress, the boy an enveloping white robe that came up over his head. Nodding at us courteously, they continued about their business as if we weren’t there, even when I joined the photographer to get a blatant shot of my own.
By the time S and I left Seven Star Park we’d built up quite an appetite, so we quickly set about hunting down lunch. We found it at a roadside shack where a bad-tempered man sold choose-your-own-ingredients-stir-fries, pic n’ mix style. I went for pork, S opted for chicken and then we stabbed our fingers at the various red baskets of veg. A handful of mushrooms… some grated carrot… a spoonful of bean sprouts and a sprinkling of runner beans. He cooked it all up in front of us and it was absolutely delicious.
With our bellies full, S and I embarked on another long walk, heading across the city for a stroll around Shan Lake. As soon as we arrived we saw the famous Sun and Moon Pagodas, a pair of dramatic twin structures said to symbolise the brightness of Guìlín’s future. The forty one metre high Sun Pagoda is the world’s tallest copper structure and has an elevator to help visitors up its nine floors! The seven-floor Moon Pagoda meanwhile, made of marble, is connected to its sibling via an underwater tunnel.
It was early evening by the time we got to the restaurant street of Zhengyang Lu. But the area seemed very touristy and we were less than impressed with the overpriced fish dishes we ordered. Thankfully the night was salvaged at Central Square, where we joined the crowds to take in the nightly water and light show from the ostentatious Lijiang Waterfall Hotel. A much-celebrated Guìlín landmark, this Guinness Book of Records approved building draws in visitors every evening at eight thirty as the entire length and width of the hotel transforms into a flowing waterfall. It was quite a sight and a fitting end to a fantastic day.
China’s most impressive rice terraces can be found outside Guìlín, extending further out into the isolated rural villages of Guangxi autonomous region. The most awe-inspiring are those that make up Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) Terraces, a two and a half-hour drive from the city. Leaving China without seeing the rice terraces would have been criminal, so we booked a day tour with a local company called CITS. We didn’t really want to go down the route of an organised tour, but the terraces were an absolute bugger to get to and we didn’t have the extra days needed to go independently, stay the night and then haul ourselves back to Guìlín.
The bus trip over was spectacularly awful! There were around twenty of us, both Asian and Western tourists led by a Chinese guide who spent the whole journey squawking information at us through a loudspeaker. He didn’t stop for air once, yapping on for about twenty minutes in Chinese before offering a barely comprehensible two-minute English summary. And then it was back to the Chinese. After a while I tried to drown him out with some music on my iPod, but somehow his shouty narrative was able to penetrate Metallica’s Black album! Which was actually quite impressive. Twisting up and around the increasingly steep mountain roads, the rippling green views from the bus window were magnificent. Sadly I was too dizzy and queasy to fully appreciate them, so it was with some relief that we finally pulled up at the mountain village of Huangluo Yao, home to the so-called Long Haired People.
Filing out of the bus into the misty morning, it had just started raining by the time we reached Yao’s main street via a wobbly wooden footbridge. We were greeted by a welcome committee of middle-aged long-haired ladies, who offered us umbrellas and cups of piping hot green tea. The village’s entire existence revolves around the long-haired quirk. Aged just twelve years old, Yao girls begin the growing process, the elders treating them with secret ingredients made of rice-washed water and medical herbs. For the people of Yao, long hair represents a happy healthy life with prosperity and good fortune. They go on to grow their hair as long as two meters and it’s only cut once during a lifetime, usually at the age of eighteen or just before marriage.
A few of the women took us to see a village house, a creaking wooden structure with multiple floors accessed by precarious stepladders. All the rooms were sparsely decorated, such as the bedroom we traipsed though that contained just a large bed, a lone dressing table and a massive mirror. The living room was similarly simple, with a little girl sat on a small rug watching cartoons in front of a bulbous old TV. She didn’t even look up as we all passed through.
Back out in the main street, long-haired reinforcements had been brought in to try and sell us their local crafts: wooden key rings, soft toy pandas and Yao-themed stationery, complete with wispy hair samples. S and I must have dispatched over a hundred búyàos (don’t want/no thank you) by the time we were ushered into the village theatre. We took our seats among the rows of chairs in front of a large stage, a beautifully designed village building façade complete with wooden viewing windows.
What followed was a fascinating Long-haired Performance, a dozen or so women dancing onto the stage dressed in red-black embroidered costumes. Launching into a pleasantly lilting folk song, they slow-walked up and down the stage to the rhythm of the music. As the song wore on, more women appeared at the windows, waving at the audience and, Rapunzel style, unravelling their hair down the front of the facade. They wore their jet-black hair high, tied in varying states according to their situation. Those with covered hair were single and awaiting a suitor, while married women presented themselves with a flat, tray-like bundle atop their heads. Some of them had coiffed hair, which indicated they were married with children.
From there proceedings took an odd turn. Approaching a microphone stand, one of the women invited three male audience members up onto the stage. Seconds later two Chinese men trotted up, along with a bemused-looking Australian. Each of the men were asked to choose a long-haired lady, before being cajoled into a slapstick pantomime act that served to explain the local courting process. Chinese man 1 was asked to sing a song to his beloved (!), while Chinese man 2 had his ass pinched by his lady (a local custom), much to the delight of the crowd who clapped and whistled in approval. By this point the Australian man was glancing back at his wife nervously, no doubt wishing the ground would swallow him up. Clearly wondering what horror of indignation was coming his way, he seemed greatly relieved when his sweetheart placed a large Hawaiian-like bouquet of flowers around his neck. Grinning at the audience anxiously, there was much laughing, clapping and photo taking.
But if Mr. Aussie had thought he was off the hook, he couldn’t have been more mistaken! In a final act of staggering humiliation for all concerned, each new husband was told to accept his new wife up onto his back, her arms wrapped around his neck. He was then instructed to jog around the hall carrying his beloved! The Chinese men loved the whole thing, hooting with laughter and punching the air victoriously when they got back to the stage. But poor old Australia looked as if he were ready to commit suicide. Not exactly a picture of health, he struggled to carry his woman and nearly dropped her twice! Returning to the stage, he was visibly sweating and not best pleased. Luckily this signalled the end of the show and we all filed outside, getting our bums pinched along the way. “One question!” asked S thoughtfully as we made our way back to the bus. “Where are all the men?”
Climbing higher and higher into the clouds towards the promised land of the rice terraces, our bus struggled a little to negotiate the winding roads as persistent rain lashed against the windows. All the while our tiresome guide waffled on and on and on about god knows what until we grumbled to a gradual stop. The road had become so narrow we had to change buses! So we all disembarked, getting into a leaner-looking vehicle for the remaining stretch. From there we had to tackle some hair-raising corners that left our driver with absolutely no margin for error! Eventually we could make out the faint outline of the terraces through the rain and dense mist. Then, just a minute or so later and praise the lord (!), we had arrived in the village of Ping’an.
The whole point of coming to Ping’an was for the supposedly breathtaking hike up to its summit and its amazing views of the terraces. But the rain was coming down hard and the ever-thickening mist doing a grand job of reducing any terrace-action to the most fleeting of glimpses. I tried to get a few shots but the results were crappy. About three quarters of the way up, a section of sky miraculously opened for just a moment to reveal a lush-green layered staircase. Fumbling with my camera excitedly, the guide stepped in to shit on my parade with an admonishing: “Now the path is very slip, don’t taking the picture, is too much dangerous”. In any case the mist had already closed back in and my temporary window had vanished.
There was a big old restaurant waiting for us at the top, which came as a relief. So we decided to drown our sorrows with tea and lunch. “You have two hours!” barked the guide, “then we walk back down!” Despite the miserable weather, all the choice balcony seats were taken so we parked ourselves in the far corner of the main hall, as far away from other people as humanly possible. The food was good, a beef and cabbage dish served with sticky, smoky rice served directly in its bamboo casing. It was one of the most expensive meals we’d had in China.
With plenty of time to kill, we headed out to the restaurant’s balcony and walked all the way round, grabbing some reasonable photos of Ping’an’s charming wooden buildings. But with another hour or so of restaurant-based thumb twiddling still to go, I told the guide that S and I were just gonna walk back down ourselves and we’d meet everyone back at the bus. He didn’t seem very impressed with this and started to protest, but we’d already walked off.
Much to our delight the descent proved pretty damn great! The rain stopped, the mist cleared and fragments of sunshine crackled through the grey sky as the landscape unfurled dramatically before our eyes. Suddenly we were able to get a real sense of why the region was hailed as one of China’s most beautiful and how sections of the terraced land indeed resembled that of a scaled dragon twisting and turning into the distance.
Back in the car park at the base of Ping’an and all we could do was sit in the bus and wait for the others. It was gonna be a long, tedious drive back with more noisy, pointless droning from our guide when all we wanted to do was sleep. Settling into our seats, I spotted a long-haired lady coming out of the supermarket across the road, a morose long-haired teen trailing behind her. Pausing for a moment to drop her shopping bags at her feet, Mama Long-hair fiddled with her coiffed bun a bit, then froze as she spotted S and I watching her through the bus window. And then she was waving at us with a wide grin and flashing a playful bum-pinching action with her thumb and finger. Scoopeing up her bags, she grabbed her daughter by the arm and headed off for the long walk back down to Yao.
‘The Long-haired Ladies of Yao’ is the seventeenth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.
Why not also check out my stacks of bite-sized travel reports from all over China.