June 10, 2011 7:19 pm

Where the water buffalo roam

 
Long Horn Miao in Sugao Village, Guizhou

Long Horn Miao at the lunar new year festival in Sugao village

“Mommy, please don’t eat the brown one!” My 11-year-old daughter was pleading for the reprieve of my lunch: a hunk of stir-fried dog haunch that I was determined to stomach, whatever the consequences to her psyche or to my digestion.

Brown-coloured dogs, it seems, are tastiest – or so we were told on our recent trip to one of the least visited, but most spectacular, tourist destinations in China: Guizhou province, a land of karst and culture unique in an increasingly tourist-glutted mainland. Shanghai, Beijing, Xian and Chengdu are rapidly becoming staples of international tourism but Guizhou is an altogether different kind of China: older, friendlier, prouder, and purer. For those who enjoy tourism but hate other tourists, it is a paradise.

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One glimpse of Xiao Hong’s dog diner, in the Guizhou town of Panjiang, where almost every restaurant is a canine one, is enough to dramatise the difference. Eating dog is controversial in the rest of China – in April, animal rights activists liberated nearly 600 dogs bound for the wok after ambushing a lorry just outside Beijing – but, in Guizhou, dog is still a valued delicacy. Dog meat from Guizhou’s Huajiang town was recently declared part of the town’s “intangible cultural heritage” and the provincial government promoted Guizhou dog meat at last year’s Shanghai Expo.

My host, the tour company WildChina, does not normally offer dog on its menu of visits to the karst mountain scenery and ethnic minority villages of Guizhou. But I insisted: if dog is good enough for the people of Guizhou, it is good enough for me. Then I told the children.

I had already warned my two squeamish pre-teens that this would not be our usual China trip: a tour of famous temples and sacred mountains by way of low-rent video game parlours and seedy Chinese amusement parks. This time, we were going to visit the “real China” – Tiger Mom could not have said it any better.

So I left one child cowering in the back of WildChina’s minivan – sucking on a Sprite, munching Oreos and refusing to look out of the window – and marched the other one straight past a wok of simmering puppy paws to the counter where Xiao Hong was waiting to carve up some dogmeat.

Guizhou map

I was half hoping she would offer something other than brown dog: in the rigid hierarchy of Guizhou canine cuisine, brown comes tops but is swiftly followed by black, Dalmatian and white dog. But brown dog was what she had, so I banished thoughts of our own brown mutt back at home in Shanghai – the infelicitously named “Dumpling”, himself rescued as a puppy from a cooking pot – and tucked into a fragrant canine casserole laced with mint and garlic shoots, “smelly beans” and Guizhou chilli sauce.

Like termites, caterpillars, mopane worms, goat guts and all the other gross things I have eaten in my life, once was enough for me for dog meat: the taste just isn’t good enough to outweigh the notion of eating Lassie. But once will not be enough to visit Guizhou: I have been wandering the world for nearly 40 years but seldom have I had the sense of travelling so far back in history.

All the guidebooks drone on about the intricate embroidery and elaborate hairstyles of Guizhou’s many ethnic minorities – members of the 55 minority cultures recognised by the Chinese government (and celebrated whenever Beijing wants to trumpet its diversity). I imagined an endless array of fake cultural artefacts, produced by minority tribesmen pretending to engage in authentic traditional practices, right outside the tour bus stop.

But that was before I met Xiao Zesheng, our WildChina guide – a Guizhou native with no more tolerance for counterfeit culture than I have. He marched us off through the rice fields – balancing precariously on narrow dikes separating paddies of mud and dung and water – right into the farmyards and courtyards of villages apparently untouched by much technical innovation since the water buffalo. In the process, he showed us plenty of traditional embroidery and elaborate hairstyles but they were all worn by women chopping wood and planting rice fields.

Xiao and Nancy Tan, who is WildChina’s Chinese-American guide and has a broad Tennessee drawl and an unerring knack for keeping pre-teens happy, squired us from the realm of the “Old Han” and the Bouyei people, to sample a few of the sub-groups of the Miao (known in the west as Hmong), described graphically by their dress or headgear as the Long Skirt Miao, the Short Skirt Miao, the Long Horn Miao, the Big Flowery Miao and the Gejia (officially, a Miao subgroup).

 
Huangguoshu waterfall

The Huangguoshu waterfall

They collected us in the provincial capital of Guiyang, about a two-hour flight from Shanghai. The highlight of our half day in Guiyang – a relatively charmless city, like most of China’s minor metropolises – was watching city workers dumping mud into the Nanming river as part of Guiyang’s attempt to be named one of China’s cleanest cities. After a lightning visit to the 78m high Huangguoshu waterfall, we drove to Kaili, a convenient if unprepossessing base for three days visiting the minority villages of south-east Guizhou. No one goes to Guizhou for the hotels: ours, the Heaven-Sent Dragon, was the best in town (even if hotel housekeeping seemed to think vacuuming the rugs to be an unnecessary luxury). Our last night, at the newly built Leishan International Hotel in Leishan confirmed the impression that Guizhou people would rather dump mud into a river, than take it out of a carpet by vacuuming.

Leaving Kaili one morning – Kaili means “let’s go to the rice paddy field with the water buffalo” – Xiao took us to do just that: scarcely 100 yards off the main road, we came upon a group of women, knee-deep in a field of mud laced with dung, planting rice seedlings. “Come in and join us,” they shouted – so we did, stripping off socks and shoes to slip and slide into the muck beside them.

After marvelling at the squeamishness of my Chinese-American children – adopted as infants from unknown Chinese birth parents who may also have been farmers – the seven planting matrons collapsed in laughter at our urban inability to insert a handful of rice seedlings upright, at the right intervals, under water. “Don’t waste,” scolded the matriarch of the paddy field, gently, as one child dropped a precious seedling without realising that it would yield half a pound of rice at harvest.

Soon the children were scampering off to watch a farmer ploughing with water buffalo and to stomp in cow pats with bare feet. After a pit stop at a local farmyard, where an octogenarian villager welcomed us in to wash at his water tap, we had to spend several minutes politely declining the planting ladies’ invitation to lunch. For in Guizhou, hospitality is the default: from almost every villager, a smile, a greeting, an invitation to rest or chat or drink water. One diminutive grandmother of the Old Han minority, descendants of Qing dynasty warriors sent from distant Nanjing to defend the empire’s borders in Guizhou, even thanked me for taking her picture. After nearly three years in Shanghai, with its relentless focus on the making and spending of money, I can think of nothing better than plunging knee-deep in an agrarian cesspool, with such friendly natives.

 
Backstreet in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

A backstreet in Zhaoxing in Guizhou

Of course, it is easy to confuse poverty with charm in Guizhou. Its people are among the poorest in China. They farm on seemingly vertical hillsides, terrace their fields nearly to the top of every available mountain, and plough by hand or with a draft animal – backbreaking work. They carry crushing loads by shoulder pole; beat laundry with a stick in oft-polluted waterways; and every grandma seems to have a sturdy toddler strapped to her back – offspring of the children she has lost to labour as migrant workers in a distant city. And they eat dog, not just because they like it – but because starvation is not something distant and medieval but a part of living memory. Many Guizhou people lost family members in the man-made famine of China’s Great Leap Forward; they still bring it up in conversation.

But more noticeable than the poverty, is the pride: in one village, a young man is making paper, from bark stripped from local trees. A blacksmith makes an axe; a middle aged man beats cotton to make a bed quilt; a potter, the sixth generation of his trade, fires bowls from clay glazed with charred rice bran and quicklime from the nearby hills. Outside every doorway is an old man or woman stripping bamboo shoots for dinner, or knitting, or sharpening a scythe with a whetstone; an Asian version of the world according to Bruegel.

But this is China, the land of economic development on steroids, where highways and railways and whole cities spring up, where yesterday there was nothing but paddy fields. Maybe next year, the sight of ladies planting rice in their embroidery will be gone from Guizhou. Maybe later it will be the water buffalo and, eventually, even the dogmeat. Either way, this is a world that cannot last for ever.

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Details

WildChina (www.wildchina.com) offers two Guizhou itineraries and can tailor-make others. Its seven-day “Hidden Minorities of Guizhou” trip costs from $1,760; the 12-day “Landscapes of Guizhou and Guangxi” trip costs from $2,800.

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