In a Snowy Miao Village, Two Build a Fire


Our first stop on this, our final long foray, is Langde, a quiet Miao minority village on the road from Kaili through the mountains to Guangxi. We arrived in Kaili by train, a 24-hour ride through the damp, weary, gray-misted countryside of southern China in winter. It’s good to be back on the road, with its small comforts and its chance encounters: Hot water for tea on the train, a long night rocked to sleep by the rails (since winter arrived in our mostly unheated Hangzhou apartment, the train is the warmest place we’ve slept in months) and a strange conversation in the dining car.

We ordered dinner at dusk, somewhere between Quzhou in Zhejiang and Shangrao in Jiangxi. We sat near an utterly dejected looking man. His face brightened at seeing (and compulsorially cheek-touching) Owen, but only for a moment.

He stared at us, along with everyone else in the car. Then he spoke: “That your son?”
Nick: “Yup.”
“Where you headed?”
“Kaili. You?”
“That won’t be long. You work in Zhejiang?”
“No. My son. I came for his court hearing (开庭).”
“Court hearing?”
“He killed his wife and her mom. Two people. Killed ’em both. Now he’ll be executed.”
Nick: “…”
“And now I’m supposed to compensate the wife’s family. Six hundred thousand RMB.”
Nick again: “….”
“I just lost my cellphone. While going to the bathroom. Fell right down the hole.”
Nick, finally with something to say, a mundane yet profound question: “Why’d he do it? Kill his wife, I mean. Why?”
“气生起了. Got angry.”
Now a really mundane question: “You and his mom live in Shangrao?”
“Yeah. With our grandson. He’s three.”
“Your son’s son?”
Nick was speechless again.
Our food came. Nick asked him: “Mister, have you eaten yet?”
After four refusals from the man, Nick got the bowl down in front of him. He was silent as he ate, looking down into the bowl, his chopsticks flashing and clinking violently to and fro. To eat slowly in such a situation is to seem self-important; proper humility must be shown by urgently and unhappily gobbling everything down as quickly as possible, hardly pausing for a single breath.
Then: “So young man, what country are you?”
“America? How much is a plane ticket to America?”
“There and back?”
“One way.”
“Might be 700, 800 dollars.”
“In RMB?”
“Up to 6,000.”
He fell silent again.

We arrived in Kaili the next day, stepping off the train into the same cold drizzle that had streaked down our train window for the last 800 miles across three provinces. Kaili is the capital of the Miao and Dong minorities prefecture here in southeastern Guizhou. Not wanting to waste any time in the town, we found a driver, an excitedly chatty Miao lady, to take us up the road heading south into the mountains as far as the nearest village. She clucked at Owen and fretted (okay, flattered) that her Mandarin was lacking compared to Nick’s. Then she tried out a few English phrases, “Gu de a fa te nu ne,” and “Nai se tu mi te yu,” and laughed hysterically when Nick raised his highbrows high and said he was amazed.

She asked why the heck we weren’t going to Xijiang, a Miao village-turned-theme park that was now connected to the rail line by a new expressway.
“We’re just looking to stay in places along the way to Congjiang,” Nick said. “Besides, we heard Xijiang is 商业化得过分了, too commercialized.”
“It is! And now they charge a 100RMB entrance fee!”
“So why should we go there?”
“It’s where everyone goes!”

Langde is also equipped for tourists. Built into a hill, its well-maintained black roofs rise steeply, with stone paths, swept mostly free of pig shit and trash, lacing between well-built wooden houses. Dried food hangs everywhere: corn and meat and spicy peppers for the long winter. That afternoon, we walked through the rice-terraced fields and up the road, watching the cold river rush past and under the occasional old water wheel pump. A water buffalo paced back and forth under a bridge, not sharing Owen’s excitement. Men on motorcycles bumped past on rock-strewn muddy road, loaded down with kindling sticks.

Nick found our accomodation for the night by following the rip-scrape sound of a woodsaw around to a low-ceiling’d workshop. The small man inside did a double-take, then dusted off his hands and showed us where we might stay upstairs.
“You two married?” He asked, eyeing Owen.
“That’s my bride!” Nick said smiling.
“You can’t stay in the same room.”
Nick thought he’d been misunderstood. “No, we ARE married,” he said.
“I understand. Separate rooms.”
“Our Miao custom. Husband and wife don’t sleep in the same room. If guests want to stay here, they have to do the same.”
The price per room was $3. “Fine. As long as the baby doesn’t have to sleep in a separate room, too.”
The old man didn’t laugh. “The baby can sleep with one of you.”

After getting established upstairs (dropping backpacks, and a cold diaper change for Owen in the unheated room), Nick went down and tried to break the ice a bit, asking about road conditions on various routes through these parts. The two of them talked while the man tried to get the stove going. Most of his kindling was damp, and the charcoal wasn’t lighting. While switching kindling and adding and subtracting charcoal, the man seemed happy to tell Nick about the area and to help with our trip planning. Most of his knowledge came from one trip he’d made down to Congjiang a few years back, however. At 50+, or maybe 40+ years old, he’d hardly ever been more than 30 miles outside his village. He set a pot of water on the stove, and it sat there, hardly warmed.

A short while later the man’s wife came in, tsk-tsk’ing that the fire wasn’t ready and there was dinner to be made. She wore her hair in the customary style for the Miao women in these parts, in this century: a tight high bun with a bright-pink, plastic fake flower stuck into it. I wondered if her ancestors would have seen this modern adaptation as a nice new touch. She had brought dry kindling, which she used effectively to get the charcoal lit. Stinging smoke billowed from the unsealed joints of the chimney pipe, forcing the rest of us out of the room while she got the water boiling and dinner prepared.

We re-entered once the smoke had dissipated through an opened window, all of us and our rice bowls gathered around the stove. We ate, or rather feasted, on stir-fried lettuce, boiled lettuce and pork fat, and rice, our knees and elbows against the stove. Our hosts ate with us, dipping the lettuce in spicy pepper sauce and making sure Owen ate much more than his fill of pork fat.

Morning came, cold and snowed-upon. The unmistakable shrill squeal of a pig slaughter broke the dawn, and its cries provoked Owen into a happy, curious frenzy: he danced around the creaky, cold wooden room, yelling, “Piggy! See it!” Later, Nick took him outside to play in the snow. They returned for breakfast; our conversation over eggs (and more of that lettuce) went like so:
“Owen, did you see the pig?”
“Yeah! Cut it! Knife! Poop!”
“He saw the blood coming out when the guy started butchering it, and thought it was poop.”

After that, we bid farewell to our kind hosts, hiked out the two kilometers to the road, and hopped in a waiting mianbao che (“bread-loaf”-shaped common minivan) bound for the next town farther up the road.












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Filed under Foreign-er Travel, South of the Clouds

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