Colourful Guizhou - Guiyang Cultural Expedition
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
We were invited to attend a 4-day expedition to visit Guiyang and to learn about the Miao tribes of Langde Village.
We took a short 1.5hr fight from Dali and arrived at Guiyang airport around 8:30pm at night. We were greeted by a lovely girl at arrivals who brought us to our hotel just a mere 20mins drive away. Once there, we registered as guests, were given our Chinese tea door gifts and were informed that we pretty much had the next day free until 4pm, when we had to attend the opening ceremony of this event. To be honest, we didn't really receive much information before the trip. At this point we wouldn't be able to tell you what this event was about, we were just going to go with the flow. The hotel room was huge. We were happy that there was more than enough space for us both to do our morning yoga.
We woke up the next day and it was grey. There was constant honking all night long, I forgot about these city sounds. I didn't sleep very well because of it. It was dreary and drizzling, we didn't feel motivated to head out so we just had breakfast and lunch in the hotel, did some work and waited for the afternoon's festivities.
BY this point I had googled Colourful Guizhou, which is an international photographic competition that has been going on for 12 years. Later on, I also realised that we had been invited by China Daily, one of the largest media portals in China. The opening ceremony took place in a square not far from the hotel. There was a huge over-the-top stage with jugglers and opera singers while we waited for the VIP government officials to arrive. Once they did, it was speech after speech, including one from George, a guest photographer from Greece whom we had met earlier at the hotel. He spoke of his photography and his fascination with China. We later learnt that the speech was written for him. :p
After the typical Chinese style opening ceremony with an official launch moment and very big group photo on stage, we were starting to wonder if we were just the token foreigners that were invited to add variety to the scenery. We were led back to the hotel where a dinner had been prepared for us. There, we were finally able to meet more of the group. It was a mixed group of photographers, curators, artists, designers, and I realised I was the only female. Boo. The food was cold but fine and there was no alcohol oddly enough, not even watered down beer. The officials made their rounds to each table, toasting with tea. There was this weird kiwi drink that said it was 40% juice but didn't specify what the other 60% was . We gave that a miss. Most of us just went back to our rooms after because we had an early rise the next day to the Miao village of Langde.
The next morning most of us were on time. But there is always one or two latecomers. I wouldn't be able to look anybody in the eye if I made a group of people who I had just met yesterday sit in the bus and wait for me for close to an hour. But it didn't seem to bother them too much. Some part of me admired them, to be unaffected by other people's opinion of you must come in useful in life at times. Anyway, off we went. The 3 hour bus ride morphed into 4+ hours but we made it nonetheless.
We were dropped off at a carpark area and had to walk in to our hotel. The place looked like a newly-built touristy commercial village and our enthusiasm waned drastically. A lot of it was under construction, and many completed buildings were unoccupied. This couldn't be what we came here to see, I exclaimed silently in my head.
Luckily, it wasn't. It ended up being a combination of both things.
Was it a place built for tourists?
- Yes it was.
Were there still authentic elements of Miao culture that we were going to experience?
- Yes there were.
We learnt that Langde was just one of 13 Miao villages that are part of a campaign to boost tourism and promote Miao culture. We had all been invited to visit this village and to propose artistic ideas for exhibitions or installations for future events here.
We hopped on buggies which took us 2 or 3 kilometres inland. It felt a bit like Universal Studios but then we started to notice the natural beauty of the surroundings, the authentic wooden architecture of the villages and naturally everyone started snapping photos. The view was beautiful. After the initial oohs and aahs, we headed towards the restaurant to have lunch. It turned out to be our canteen for the next 2 days, we had every meal there. Fortunately the food was good - simple Chinese style cooking with fresh ingredients.
After lunch we had free time to explore the village on our own. Arthur and I hiked up a fair bit and were rewarded by a great viewpoint of the whole village from up top. I was also stung by stealth wasps at a pagoda rest stop. I feel it was their way of saying "keep moving". Luckily for me, Arthur is a walking pharmacy. He had some steroid cream which helped the swelling subside. Which it did, but only on the third day :(
That afternoon at 4:30pm we gathered at the entrance of the village were the buggies had dropped us off. It was local wine tasting time! Drinking corn wine is a big part of Miao culture. There were a long line of Miao women dressed in traditional garb each carrying a horn or bowl full of wine. You were meant to take a sip from each of them as you made your way up into the village. It was an intense bar-hopping of sorts. We did a couple of stops and then hung back to take in the sight instead.
We followed the crowds and ended up at the main square where we watched a traditional Miao show. The ladies were dressed to the nines with their headdresses and accessories, dancing and singing and force-feeding the first row of guests more wine. The men played flutes, some so long they went up maybe 2 metres towards the sky. They created a low hum which was interestingly beautiful and hypnotic. Perhaps the wine also had something to do with it. Although this show took place twice a day for tourists, you'd never have known looking at the faces and expressions of the performers. They were smiling so sincerely and were really committed to giving a great performance. I was touched by this.
After dinner, it was another show with bonfire. This show was to be a reenactment of a Miao wedding and as I was the only female in the group I "volunteered" for the role. And Arthur, the groom. I got whisked away and dressed up in a room by my new Miao sisters. I was thrilled to have this great photo opportunity! According to the culture, Arthur had to "steal" me away in the thick of the night. I had to climb onto his back through a window, but not before he downed 3 more cups of wine. He also had to run 3 rounds around the bonfire on this pebble path, barefoot! The Miao also want their men to realise it's not easy to find a good wife and that they need to work hard to keep her happy. Ok I might have made up that last bit.
By this time, everyone was a little happy-tipsy, but the night was not over. We had a self-introduction and discussion session with the organisers. We went round the table and introduced ourselves, what we did and so on. Naturally this dragged on much longer than we had hoped and towards the end we were all losing focus and were visibly relieved when we could call it a night almost 3 hours later.
The next morning I woke up excited as we were going to attend a local batik workshop in the village. The process involved drawing patterns on the cloth with wax and then dyeing it in natural dye, then boiling to remove the wax. The tools used to draw were these little pencil-like things with a triangular tip which you dip in very hot wax. It was so difficult to control the flow of wax, i really marveled at how they could achieve such clean lines and intricate patterns. In any case, I was grateful for the experience. The rest of the day was free time again, we decided to explore some other nearby villages and had a bit of a trek around. In the evening after dinner, we gathered to have another session where we could share our overall feelings from the trip, and more importantly to share any ideas we had for future artistic collaborations. Between everyone's contributions and having to translate between many languages, the session dragged on once again but it was a nice conclusion to the trip.
The next morning we caught a train back to Kunming from the closest town Kaili. It was a great couple of days, we made lots of new friends and learnt a lot about the Miao minority. Most importantly we made some good connections and perhaps one day we will return to Langde to create and exhibit our creative works. During our journey home, we felt very lucky to have had this experience and were filled with feelings of optimism, opportunity and motivation.