Monday, October 12, 2009

Saudade in Xijiang

Saudade is a Portuguese word that crops up in Brasil a lot. It means something like nostalgia or a sense of loss or absence - I'm not quite sure because I don't have my pocket Portuguese dictionary on me just now. Anyway, you can hear it in many Brazilian songs. The feeling creeps up on us one day in Xijiang. We both are thinking of home. It's probably the grey skies and pending drizzle that does it. As usual when we get these feelings we start to talk about the people and the things we miss. It's probably not the best way to deal with it, but eventually we get on to the people and things we don't miss. And that does the trick. We've been enjoying our time in China so far, but the weather and Xijiang leaves us feeling a little off kilter.

It turned out to be an effort getting here. When we reached Conjiang, in Guizhou, to catch an onward bus, there were no tickets left for the 11 o'clock bus. In fact no tickets left for the rest of the day. We were stunned. This meant staying an unscheduled night in what looked like a one-horse town. Well, there's a river and a road and a bridge, and a lot of newish buildings. Later on we saw these were shielding little wooden houses up on the hillside. Undaunted we quickly did a tour of all the bus station hotels. There are plenty. One place said they had rooms, but when the manageress saw we were foreigners, she said no. Hotels have to be registered with the police to accept us - although we're sure we've already stayed in plenty that aren't. At another place the price of the room yo-yoed so much we gave up trying to pin it down. Everytime we tried to clarify the price it moved. The trouble is that hotels show rates that are ridiculously high, say 280 yuan, when the room can be had for something more like 80. Eventually we found an okay one at the Conjiang Broadcasting Hotel. Next we went to find food, and fell on our feet. A row of restaurants had tables of raw ingredients on display. You pick out what you want and it gets tossed about in a wok for a short while. The wok's usually so hot that the oil catches fire, but instead of everything coming out incinerated and burnt to a crisp, it's perfect. That little spoon of MSG probably helps it along too. If you're unlucky the cooking oil smoke blows past you, leaving you choking for breath and eyes watering, but the more sophisticated outfits have huge fans to disperse the smoke onto passersby instead. Like teargas. And that was it for Conjiang. Not much going for it at all. The onward bus the next day was a bumpy ride on a road half built. It was a long journey and we were delayed when the bus driver decided to pick a fight with a minibus driver. At one point in anger he picked up a rock. He knew it was a mistake almost straight away and the other man went beserk. Luckily there were plenty of onlookers to intercede and push the silly fools back to their respective vehicles. But our driver nearly totalled the bus and probably all us passengers too in trying to overtake the minibus.

So here we are in Xijiang, a very large Miao village (the Miao being another ethnic minority) and wondering what on earth went through the heads of the authorities when they 'tidied' this place up. It really is kind of awful how the main part of the village has been rebuilt, with a huge pedestrianised street down the middle, extra wide for the tour groups, lined with gift shops and hotels. New bridges have been built, and walkways introduced - it doesn't look too authentic even to our untrained eye. Chimneys on houses are cleverly disguised as trees - growing out of the walls. I couldn't find a single litter bin, until I realised all the tree stumps were bins. At some point it seems funny. Towards the end of the day some awful karaoke kicks off and can be heard all over the village. Then we realise it's the daily folk extravaganza put on for the visitors. Neither of us feels inclined to go and see. Nor do we go for the dressing up in folk costume - although it really is the thing to do in these places.

In the morning we head out of the village and into the rice terraces along a path that climbs and winds it's way into the mist. It's trying to rain and there's a chill in the air. It feels like Autumn. What a strange sensation. Later we notice quite a few yokels wandering into the village. There's a drunk staggering past and a street barber doing a roaring trade. These are the tell-tale signs that it's market day. At one end of the village there are stalls set up selling all kinds of clothes, food, bric a brac. Loads of folk are here, the women with their hair tied in another distinctive knot, the old women covering it with pink towels. In other places they use traditional woven cloth, but here the pink flowery hand towel is king. Even the Miao are modernising. We mooch about with all the locals - weighing up the farming tools, the vegetable seeds, the embroidery cottons, the underwear, the padlocks, the Hello Kitty sandals. Steamed buns are going like hot cakes, so we have a couple too. At the meat market there are puppy dogs for sale beside the chickens. Some of them look ridiculously cute. Oh well. There's a good range of vegetables for sale - baskets of beansprouts, bamboo shoots, leeks, tomatoes, cauliflower - this might be the best we've seen in a long while. In one corner some blue polythene hides the drinkers, but outside there's a stack of beer crates. We survey the bustling scene. There's not another tourist to be seen. Maybe they're all down in the new concrete plaza waiting for the folk extravaganza to begin.

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