As promised, today I begin my travel log series with our trip to one of the most well-preserved ancient towns in Central China, Fenghuang, aka Phoenix, in Hunan Province, during one of our most memorable trips in May 2008.
Although feeling exhausted from a long journey, on rough and bendy country roads, we were eager to explore when we arrived at our destination at 10 in the evening. The whole town was lit up beautifully, with reflections of pagodas, golden bridges and medieval wooden architecture. Live Chinese music was pulsating, as well as Western rock music from its various bars dotted on both sides of the river. On the cobbled riverbanks, street sellers displaying various goods, hand-made embroidered cushion covers and handbags; silver and other metal jewellery; sweet and savoury snacks; paper-flowers and candles to float onto the river, a special local custom in remembrance of loved ones. Drifting along with crowds of excited tourists, John did his usual, taking pictures, while the shopaholic me, bargained my way into various souvenirs and gifts.
Different from any place we’d visited before, Fenghuang was a real gem. We had a tour of the Old Town the following morning, as we walked along the stone-built walls, stopping from time to time to sample home-made dumplings and other local cuisine, nice and easy, no fuss.
Instead of museums and more shopping, we opted for a visit to a Miao village with our guide, Ah Mei, Little Sister in local terms. En-route, Ah Mei taught us a folk love song. “We Miao folks love singing;” she informed us: “We started singing as soon as we could talk, if not earlier. It’s a custom for the young boys and girls to court with songs. If you can’t sing, you’ll find it difficult to get a partner.”
During our hour-long coach ride into the Miao village, Ah Mei proved both informative and interesting, her voice sweet and her smile friendly. She was a fine story-teller too, taking us back in history, when the Miao tribes were hunted by the Han Chinese and driven away from their homes; their King led them into battles with bandits and Nationalists, and eventually found peaceful settlement under Communist rule. She really opened my eyes.
Stepping off the coach, we were led down a narrow country path, passing through terraced fields with cows ploughing diligently. The air was fragrant with wild flowers and freshly ploughed fields. As soon as the village came in sight, we heard songs, belted out by a small group of children, ranging from two to four years old. ‘They really do start singing early;” John commented. “No doubt, they’ll have no problems finding themselves wives in the future.”
“Let’s hope so;” I was thinking of the imbalanced ratio between male and female children in China.
After the singsong greetings, we were offered home-made sweet rice wine, another local custom, accompanied by welcoming drums. Entertainment of dancing and more singing went under way under a bamboo shelter, where John was picked to be a Miao bride-groom – one of the girls came over to discretely step on his toe, a sure sign of her affection. Totally immersed in the cultural learning, he retaliated by stepping on her toe. Before he knew it, he was dragged upstage, facing the Miao girl and responding to her love songs. Fortunately there were four other male tourists up there, so John was able to follow what they were doing. It was hilarious for everyone to witness an Englishman up there, not afraid of making a fool of himself. For me, it was a relief that the Miao village chief didn’t stop my husband from leaving, nor sent his ‘bride’ packing to go with us. Bigamy is not allowed either in China or UK.
On the way back, the bus shook and trembled at every rocky patch, as we came to a sudden halt on a very narrow spot, between steep hills on one side and the surging river on the other. Ah Mei directed our attention. “Look at your right side; do you see the remains of the bridge? We call it Tofu construction here. It collapsed just a week before it was due to open. The papers reported that twenty people had died. In fact, more than two hundred people were killed, including 200 builders working on the bridge, as well as women washing their clothes by the river below.”
It was reported on the Times and other Western media too. The local official in charge took bribes from the construction company and he was shot after the accident. We did not know then that more collapsing Tofu buildings and devastation were waiting for us at the end of our flight the following day. You can find out by reading my previous blog The Day the Earth Shook, recording our experience of Sichuan Earthquake on 5.12. 2008.
Thank you for joining me here and please visit us again for more travels to China. Next time I’ll take you to Gulin & Yangsuo. Click below to watch my video:
Yangsuo, Guilin & Miao Village