It's the end of the day when we reach Zhaoxing, a large Dong village that is being tarted up for the national tourist trade. The main road is a dusty mess from construction vehicles ploughing through taking concrete and aggregate to the new expressway being built on the other side of the hill. Everywhere in China there is construction work, catching up for lost years. Around the village there are signs of new build and old houses being dismantled, but incredibly it still retains a charming atmosphere. The locals seem to carry on with their normal lives as they always have done. But everywhere there are groups of Chinese tourists with monstrously huge cameras and tripods, clicking away endlessly. It's hard to tell whether they are desperately trying to capture digitally a way of life that is shortly to expire or to photograph the new 'improved' parts of the village. And, excuse me, but why are you pointing that 3 foot zoom lens at me? I'm only sitting on this bridge and watching the world go by. Stop it!
Gayle has learnt her first Mandarin. "Wo neng pai ni ma?" Can I take your picture? Some of the locals look surprised. The Chinese tourists just point a long black lens and shoot. It seems very rude, but no-one seems bothered. The rice processing is carrying on in earnest here - laid out to dry and gathered up again each evening. Fluffy baskets of cotton hang in the sun. Old and young women stagger past with yokes laden with rice or grass feed or buckets of foul-smelling shit. Not sure whether it's human or animal - some of the houses look too old to have toilets. A farmer returns from the fields with his cow and calf, and leads them straight into his house. The older folk are wearing the dark blue clothes of the peasant farmer. Standard issue green plimsolls. Conical hats. The women tie their long hair up in an unusual knot. The youngsters are looking more trendy - drainpipe jeans, assymetrical haircuts. Occasionally young women pass in traditional costume, locally woven and dyed deep purple with a sheen. But the women are dressed to perform for the tourists.
The new buildings stand out because the varnished wood is nine tones brighter than the old wood. Brick and concrete is being used on the ground floors, with wood panelling to cover up. We're not big fans of the 'beautification', but no-one can mind the locals getting new houses, new footpaths and bridges, can they? Interestingly, many of the hoteliers do not look like local Dong. Just a minute, we're being photographed again.
We try and escape the photographers the next day and take a walk with Roland to a neighbouring village. The path climbs up a hill and onto a dirt track that twists ever higher. We are rewarded with lovely views, but come no closer to the next village. Roland asks locals who pass by the distance. It always seems to be another 3 kilometers. Hot, thirsty and hungry we eventually turn around, but after refreshments we take a path to a village we can actually see. It's very quiet, with a few men working below a drum tower, and at one end a group of men and women labouring to dismantle another house. No nails. If you move house you could literally take it with you. This village has old paths, a dirt road, dilapidated buildings, but no photographers - it's the real thing.
On the bus when we leave the next morning we drive through a landscape coated in dust. The villages, the fields, the trees, the people. For many miles we are never far from the new expressway being constructed high up on the hillside. Huge concrete pillars rise into the sky waiting to be connected. Lorries rumble back and forth spreading more dust everywhere. The sky is a flat white and for a moment it looks like it snowed in the night. I'm sure it'll be a great road when it's finished.