Zhaoxing

November 5    continued ...

After a day of bus rides we were deposited at the edge of Zhoaxing just as the sun was setting.  With our backpacks on, we headed down main street.  Zhaoxing welcomes around 700 visitors each year ... some of those Caucasian.

Before we had reached the side street where we turned up to the Zhaoxing Hotel (not direct link) we knew we were going to like Zhaoxing.

The hotel had our reservations and once we were finished checking in, one of the staff walked us out the front door, back down and further along main street until we came to the edge of town.  There stood the hotel's annex ... "the VIP section".  Up three flights of stairs and along a wide veranda he opened the door to our rooms.

The rooms were a nice size with two beds, desk, closet and coffee maker.   The outside walls were made of wood strips.  When we turned off the lights vertical lines of light from the outside shone through and made night-light patterns on the opposite wall.  The wall between rooms was more substantial.  The western style bathroom sparkled and we looked forward to showers. 

Not many eating places were still open, we did find a little restaurant by the traffic bridge which had an English sign saying "Coffee / Pizza / Tea  / Beer / Red Wine".  The pizza was good, the noodle dishes were just-okay.  With pijiu (beer) bottles raised we celebrated our safe arrival in Zhoaxing.

November 6

Before the sun broke through the morning mist, kissing the fields and village roof tops, the people of Zhaoxing were already busy in the rice paddies. 

In town, others were building or repairing dwellings, two men hauled a long heavy pole on their shoulders, women cooked food and spread out rice, corn and chillies to dry.   Some women washed their long black hair by the river, after which they tucked in a wide comb on the top of their heads and aptly wrapped the long locks around the comb into a bun. 

Below our seemingly-tree-house veranda there was a constant movement of people coming to a basin in the river.  Within an hour people had come to wash themselves, wash long strips of indigo-blue material, gut and clean chickens, wash dishes and food.   All of these comings and goings in the village were done to a constant drumming of women pounding material with wooden mallets.

 
The life's blood of the village is the Zhaoxing River which runs through the middle.    With a history of over 2000 years, this village has now reached a population of 4,000 and with all that goes on in and around this river, it is surprising how clean it appears to be.
 
 

Crossing the river are numerous bridges ... some simple double log foot bridges, others ornate wind and rain bridges and one that is wide and made concrete for motor vehicle traffic, oxen, horses and carts as well as people.  Because of it's wide flat surface, it is also used for drying rice and peppers.

         

 

The plan was to head into the centre of town to find some breakfast.  Stephen and Angela were going to make a video, so Sherrie and Terry went a round-about way to get there, crossing over one of the wind bridges, passed one of the five drum towers and up through the narrow village.

The drum tower is the highest and most revered structure in a Dong village.   Each clan has their own drum tower.  A clan, with only one or two surnames, would erect their own drum tower.  Only in the Dong village of Zhoaxing will you find five drum towers, representing five family branches - Xin, Zhi, Li, Yi and Ren.

In the past a large drum would be placed in the tower and used to signal danger.  The clan would gather for orders from the head person. 

Lavishly and proudly decorated, they are the clan's centre piece -- their social centre --  used for simple evening socializing where they could visit and sing traditional songs.  It's also the place for gatherings when other villages visit during festival times. 

A drum tower is made of fir wood from nearby forests and is shaped like the fir tree which is sacred to the Dong people. 

Men were busy preparing support logs, perhaps for a new home.  Old fir trees in and near villages are believed to be home for protective spirits, therefore should not be cut down.  If one of these village trees must be cut, the person doing the cutting must sacrifice an ox, and the wood may only be used to build a drum tower.  So strict is this custom, that even the wood chips must be burnt within the drum tower and never in a person's home.

 
 
 

Still today during tourist season, they will gather in traditional costume and share their heritage.  There may be other tourists in town, but we have been the only Caucasians in our view.

We walked up a short hill, peeked down alleyways and met up with the main road going out of town ... not the way we came into town but the way we would leave.  

 

Walking back towards the centre of town we walked by the local sawmill.  It took up a space just slightly larger than a North American double garage.   The only other building machinery we had seen in town was a table saw being used by a fellow installing window frames. 

The Dong people are proud of their architecture, and have every right to be.  Every drum tower, bridge and home is built by tightly interlocking wood pieces together with little need for nails or screws. 

A well built home can survive over a hundred years.   They are usually built on three levels -- the bottom floor is mainly used for livestock and grain storage  (some places in town the bottom floor is used to house a business);

 the middle floor is where the family lives and sleeps, often three or four generations;  the attic, or top floor, is used to dry grain, vegetables and clothes. 

 
 
 
 

As we rounded the corner to the concrete bridge, we saw a man in front of the Mei Di Inn searing the hair off lao shu rou (rat) with a blowtorch. 

Once he had finished, a lady took them in a plastic bowl of water and cleaned out their insides, appearing to leave the heart and kidneys in place.

Rats are a special treat for the people of Zhaoxing.  They prefer wild forest rats to raised ones. 

 

Right next door is L'étranger (a French word meaning "The Stranger" or "The Outsider") Cafe & Restaurant.   We have to admit ... even though the Chinese food we have been eating on this trip has been outstanding, the English menu gripped us with the offer of "Eggs, Toast & Bacon   ¥15" (about $2) and American Drip Coffee ¥20.   We went inside and met Ellen.   What a charming lady.  The name of the restaurant describes her and her husband in this village.   Ellen, a Canadian, met her husband, Monk, while travelling in China.  After marriage they looked for a village to call home and settled in Zhaoxing.   Her hospitality was exceptional and her help invaluable ... oh, and the food great.

Upstairs there are two eating areas, one inside ... great for cool evenings ... and another with two open sides for a great view of activities around the concrete bridge.

Before leaving, we purchased some Pringles potato chips (the only place in Zhaoxing which carries them) and some pijiu. 

We told her we would be back for dinner.

 

Crossing back over the concrete bridge we stopped to admire bundles of nuomi (also known as sticky rice, pearl rice, sweet rice, waxy rice, botan rice, mochi rice) drying in the morning sun.  Written history of this rice goes back over 1100 years. 

To the Chinese, rice is the symbol of life itself.  When a Chinese person greets another instead of "Hello. How are you.", their greeting would translate into, "Have you had your rice today?"

On the other side of the bridge, regular rice continued to dry while a lady pounded off the kernels of rice using a wooden rod.

Rice is a part of the majority of Chinese meals.  Even made into noodles and wine.

 Although we were told it is polite to leave something on your plate to show your hosts that they have fed you enough; it is also told that it is impolite to leave even a grain of rice in your bowl. 

From a store down the road, we purchased some fruit and bottled water.

After sitting on buses all day yesterday, the idea of a hike seemed a good idea.   We went back passed our hotel room and headed out of town towards Xia'ge.

The dirt path ran above and between rice paddies out farther into the valley, where it began to climb gently at first and then steeper grades.   Our efforts were rewarded by stunning valley views.

      

We stopped at a little bridge which we nicknamed "The Peoples Bridge of 9 Fortunes".  From our day bag we took Ted, bottled water, fruit and the Pringles (a silly man's "quackers").  Life is too short not to have fun.      

         

With the picnic finished, we packed up our trash and kept climbing upwards until we reached the little village of Xia'ge.   It would seem they don't have a great many Caucasian visitors ... the walk would discourage many tourists.  

We were looked at with questioning curiosity but as soon as we said, "Ni hao" (pronounced "nee-how", meaning "hello") and smiled, a welcoming smile would beam back.

Shadows were getting long and on the flat surfaces around a drum tower ladies were gathering up the rice to protect it from the night dampness. 

An old gentleman, smoking a long pipe, surveyed the village from a lofty perch upon a hillside, among the tombstones of his ancestors and probably family and friends he had outlived. 

Children kept themselves busy without the use of video games and battery powered plastic toys.  They could wander around town because here everyone is family.

We picked a path at random and climbed down between wooden buildings separated by rice paddies and algae topped ponds.  

Algae is gathered and used to feed livestock.

Around a second drum tower men were using the space to notch logs.   Without the aid of a sawmill, two men worked a handsaw to split logs in half lengthwise.

It was time for us  to leave Xia'ge if we were going to make it back safely over unfamiliar uneven paths and rock steps to Zhaoxing before dark. After Sherrie had emptied her pockets of gold balloons for the children, we began our decent into the valley.

Our souls were humbled and our spirits lifted by the awesome colours and textures of the sculpted hillsides. 

As we approached Zhaoxing we knew we didn't want to leave tomorrow ... we wanted to stay longer in this fascinating and hospitable place .   There was a difficulty.   Zhaoxing did not have an ATM; it did not have a bank.   We were going back to Ellen's for dinner, we would ask her advice. 

 

In town, ladies were weaving.  The belt loom commands that one lady in the harness-held loom controls the tautness of the warp (the long threads), while the other ends are tied to an upright building pole of someone's house.

Other ladies working together weave the weft (the cross threading).   We wondered how far tonight's work would take them down this stretch of thread, for soon it would be dark. 

We told Ellen of our desire to stay and our lack of cash for another night's stay until we reached a bank.   She asked how much we were paying for our room at the Zhaoxing Hotel (around ¥350 or $50).  "Expensive," she said and added, "Would you like to look at another place; I could take you there now?"    We were so appreciative of her thoughtfulness and her time.  

She led us, in the dark, down the river and across a narrow foot bridge until we reach a hotel facing the river.   She introduced us to the owners, who took us up to a room on the third floor.   It was wonderful.  A little smaller in sized than the Zhaoxing's VIP rooms, but just as clean and with a western bathroom.  Better was the stretch of windows across one side of the room which overlooked the river.  We were thrilled and booked in for tomorrow night at the phenomenal price of ¥50 (a touch over $7).   As we were booking in, Ellen also translated for us that they could do laundry should we want.  "Oh, yes, please."

Back at  L'étranger Ellen and Monk made us dinner and Ellen was gracious enough to join us for some conversation in which she praised Zhaoxing and the people who live here  ... which explains some of the reasons why this young business couple want to call it home.

November 7

After checking out of the Zhaoxing Hotel we walked a block along main street, made a right hand turn down an alleyway, across from the Xin drum tower on main street and with a couple of zigzags were again on the river. The hotel was immediately on our left showing its fresh wood exterior and boasting the luxury of air-conditioning.  

Our hostess greeted us with her warm welcome smile and accepted our bags of laundry without hesitation. 

We left our backpacks with her, since it was far to early to access our rooms.

Another breakfast at L'étranger gave us an opportunity to thank Ellen again and have more of her good eats.   

In Zhaoxing there are five "Flower Bridges"; so called because of their ornate decorations and paintings.   Each is a covered bridge with benches for sitting on either side of the passage way ... a lovely place to sit on a rainy day or a cool rest area in the heat of summer.  Some, like the one over the river at the west end of town (photo left) sport two dragons on top. 

They all get plenty of use, but this one is the crossing nearest the school.  Students from grades four and up cross here and climb up the concrete paths and stairways to the top of the hill.  Today the pathway is being shared with the ladies who are using the long flat surface to dry their freshly indigo dyed fabrics. 

The school has two buildings, both three stories high.   On a side of one building are two large maps; one of China the other of the world.   Inside the classrooms (it was break time and for the most part the classrooms were empty) there were four rows of desks; eight desks per row; each desk sat two students on a narrow bench.  Doing the math it's (4 x 8) x 2 = 64 students in this classroom.  

Along side the school buildings a large dirt field was not being used at the time we were there, other than as a roadway for a cow and calf.

Two dormitory buildings are of the school complex ... one for boys and the other for girls.  It was interesting to note the girl's dorm was strung with clothes, while the boy's showed nothing of the sort.  On the school side of the boy's dorm a basketball hoop waited to be used.  On the school end of the girl's dorm, a makeshift ping-pong table had been set up and two boys were playing.   At the other end of the girl's dorm a single storey building was serving as a commissary where hot food was being served and outside women had fruit for sale. 

Across the dirt field opposite the dorms, a number of girls had gathered at a well to wash their hair.

 

The view of Zhaoxing from the school hill gives an appreciation of how it snuggles into the valley; how the drum towers peek above the roof tops; how the sight of new rafters speak of prosperity and well being.  With all these wooden structures the prospect of fire is rather worrisome and there must be some relief given by the use of electric hotplates and slow cookers as we saw in the appliance store on main street.

We made our way back down to the village and once again stopped along the way admiring the efforts of the ladies who make cloth the traditional way. 

 

The process starts with spinning cotton into thread ... a spinning wheel is a must-have in every Dong women's dowry.  Next the threads are woven on either a floor loom, a waist loom (as we saw last night) or a narrow loom (for making belts and straps).  The fabric is then submerged into dye baths of indigo which the women make from fermented isatis leaves.  It is a process which has kept favour over thousands of years because the indigo colour does not fade with time.

                      

 
 
 
 

The long strips of cloth are then rinsed in the river, and hung to dry from balconies, drying poles and flat surfaces ... such as the walkway up to the school.  Some of these steps seem to be repeated several times to produce the right depth of colour.  They are then treated in a mixture of egg white.

It is the egg white which penetrates the fabric that, along with the pounding, gives the finished fabric a lustrous shine.  To pound the fabric it is dried and folded and placed on a hard surface; the women sitting on small stools, hammer for hours with  wooden mallets.  The sounds of these pounding mallets resonate throughout the village and becomes a part of the memories of Zhaoxing.

 
 

There was some bustle on main street as the elementary school children mobbed a table of candy outside a corner store just down the street from the entrance to the school.  Depending what they chose, and some had great difficulty in making such an important decision, the cost was equivalent of 1 to 14 cents.  Another little fellow, perhaps too young for school, played quietly alone in front of his family's shop.

   

We wandered at a slow pace around town; looking into stores, through the market, over flower bridges (also called "wind and rain bridges"), and exchanging smiles with the locals.

   

As night announced it's coming, we returned to the hotel.  It was a perfect location to appreciate, in a small way, the daily lives of the people of Zhaoxing. 

Cattle  were leading  the way back home.  A little calf, seemingly new at this, stepped out too far on the edge of the walkway, tumbled down the stoned riverbank and landed in the water.  The mother seemed unconcerned.   After a few minutes it found its way back up the bank and continued to follow mama home.  

 
 

Ladies were again gathering up drying rice to protect it from dew. 

Taking advantage of the space and tables on the ground floor, we played a game of cards, had a snack and pijiu.  [For those thinking we drink too much pijiu, please remember the alcohol content is around 2.9% (consider it sterilized water) and less expensive than bottled water.] 

Upstairs we spent time hanging out our windows watching Zhoaxing prepare for the night.  

 

November 8

We caught the early morning bus out of Zhoaxing.   Again we appreciated the moderate speed and driving habits of the man behind the wheel.   Again we got charged ¥5 more than we were told it would be (¥5 more than the other passengers were paying) and again we chalked it up to an impromptu tourist tax. 

The bus climbed up above the morning mist, which followed the river winding through the valleys, and we took our last glimpse of Zhaoxing and felt blessed for the time we had been able to spend there.   Although we all felt we would have enjoyed even more time in Zhaoxing we were excited to learn what the rest of our China adventure would bring. 

When we stopped for gas at a small village and saw the otherwise cautious driver filling the gas tank with a lit cigarette in hand as he poured the open can of gas into the bus, we wondered if we would get any farther down the road than this. 

 
 

The road was narrow, dusty and filled with pot holes.   Some of it was under construction.  It was hard to tell which was which.  We passed two steers leading a herdsman down the road.  They got off to the side but kept going.   

We came to an unexpected stop.   A flat tire.

 

The jack would not work.  The bus "crew" stood around not sure what to do.

The steers and herdsman passed us. 

After sometime, a cloud of dust made it's way up the valley from the direction of Zhoaxing.  A bus pulled over.   "¥40 each to Guilin."   We paid the money and got on. 

It was a sleeper bus ... almost full.  The driver's helper sent Terry down towards the back on the far side.  

 
 

Then he gruffly directed a woman on the bed behind the driver's seat to sit up and allow Angela to sit down.  Sherrie suggested Angela stay with Stephen and that she would sit beside the lady.  No, the man in charge would not have that and insisted that Angela take the seat beside the woman and that Sherrie and Stephen sit together.

We are supposing it had something to do with a young man and a young woman sitting on a bed together.

 

A sleeper bus is just that ... a bus for sleeping.   It is usually used on long distance runs.   The bus is outfitted with three rows of bunk beds (two beds high) except at the back when there is one bus-wide bed which sleeps five.  Each narrow bed has a slanted back rest which enables the person behind to have some foot space ... that is if you are not over 5'6".  Each bed is outfitted with a pillow and a quilt. 

Half way to Guilin, the bus stopped for the passengers and bus crew to rest and eat.   Two slow cookers at the back of the open fronted restaurant held rice ... we helped ourselves.  Before leaving, we showed the lady the two empty rice bowls and indicated that we would like to pay but did not know how much.   She indicated, "no".  We tried again.   Again, she shook her head, "no" with a smile.   We had heard there was no charge for rice, but when we had had nothing else it did not seem right.   We thought we should pay something for we now had a better appreciation of how much work it took to get a simple grain of rice to the dinner table.  

 

We arrived in Guilin around 6pm, made our way to the Home Inn www.homeinns.com (note: English link not working at time of this writing).   The hotel was modern, clean and reasonably priced and painted a bright yellow inside and out.

 

Out the hotel door to the right was a lane way which had sidewalk restaurants and a CITS (China International Travel Service) office.  Through Frank at that office we booked our one-way passage on a Li River cruise and a room in Yangshuo.  We were very specific about which hotel we would prefer in Yangshuo and were surprised when he said they had room, for they did not when we had tried to book ourselves over the internet.  He gave us a receipt and assured us again of our accommodation.  

We ate at one of the outdoor tables across the laneway. The English menu held such offerings as, "medicine friendly chicken soup", "burns the little yellow croaker", "the palace explodes the diced chicken", "digs up the silk sweet potato" and "the element fries the snake gourd".  We took our chances and what we got tasted fine and, even better, had no ill effects.

We didn't really settle into the room but only prepared for an early departure in the morning.

    

click here to continue to November 9 and to Li River Cruise ...

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