From Eden to Hell's Gate
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We start to drive down bumpy dirt roads. There are no streetlights and the air is full of diesel fumes and acrid smoke from wood and coal fires. The car's headlights reflect of a thick cloud of dust and smoke.This is a surprise to us because Xiaoyou had told us that Guiyang was famous for its clean air and people actually wanted to move here for the quality of life
All they have told us is that we're heading for something special. No one explains where we're going or what we're doing in this black Hell hole. But through the gloom we spot bright red Chinese characters emblazoned in neon lights. As we get closer we can see the outline of a three-storey A-frame structure made of wood sitting high on a hill.
Even though it's late at night, we're being treated to a second wedding feast in a traditional Miao village.The Miao are one of 56 ethnic minority groups in China and are the largest ethnic group in the Guiyang area. They are quite independent minded and once rebelled against Communist rule in the '50s.In front of the large A-frame is a huge circle for dancing and singing. We are led to a
low concrete ledge around the circle where people are sitting.
High-pitched reed flutes and women's voices descend the hill from the A-frame and men in black, playing eight-foot high bamboo poles enter the circle. Men and women dressed in traditional bright red and black Miao costumes perform a number of dances, swaying to rhythmic, almost hypnotic music.
The women are short, but very beautiful and their voices are high pitched, but smooth and enchanting, almost siren like.The MC is wearing a long dress covered in silver and gold brocade with a huge headdress adorned with golden ox horns
Earlier we were all given hard-boiled eggs, dyed purple, on woollen strings. This is a good luck symbol and we are supposed to eat them by a river to honour the river god worshipped by the Miao. When the MC finished her birthday song, everyone around the circle started to clap and men came over to Carolann to place the purple eggs around her neck.
After the performance, we move to an adjoining row of wood cabins and sit around a large circular
table where we're served spicy meats and potatoes. At one point two women in traditional robes enter singing. They're carrying black ox horns filled with the dreaded "Bai joe", that rice liquor that we had avoided until now. It turns out that it wasn't served at the wedding in Shenzhen because the colour white is the symbol of death. But just the smell of this foul liquor makes me think of death.
We had experienced this on our last visit to China and knew to avoid it. We had even practised saying "No thank you, we don't drink" with our Chinese tutor in order to forestall this very thing. But as guests of honour we are forced to tilt our heads back while the women sing and pour the burning liquor down our throats. We each have to drink from both horns then everyone else gets a turn
After dinner, we head into the city proper through a series of dark mountain passes with houses built into the sides. Guiyang sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains that are rife with coal mines that made the city rich. The coal is burned throughout the city to cook and heat the homes and the pollution is, of course, trapped by the ring of mountains. It's hard to breathe.
It's very late when we arrive at our hotel, which is hidden behind an old office building where Xiaoyou's father used to work for the local power company. It is dark and dirty. The little park where Xiaoyou used to play as a kid is now overshadowed by apartment buildings, but is a tiny speck of green in a dark oasis.
The next morning we seek relief from the grime and pollution and go for a hike in a park on a nearby mountain. The park is quite pleasant and the air is cleaner up here. But the drive there is scarier than anything we experienced in South America. There are eight lanes of cars -- four each
way -- and no lane markings, no traffic lights and no order. Cars, trucks, buses and bikes all squeeze together turning the four lanes into six and the game of chicken takes on a new meaning, as whoever honks first, and pushes into the tiny gaps between the trucks, wins. Except for the occasional squished car we see.
Because there are very few traffic lights anywhere, even for left-hand turns, cars turn by darting in front of the oncoming four lanes of traffic and forcing them to slow down
inexpensive in China since the cost is mainly made up of parts and labour, both of which are cheap here. I'm sitting in the front passenger's seat and the first to be sacrificed if the oncoming cars
decide not to stop. I suddenly realize that China's huge population also makes life cheap.
Another time, Xiaoyou's sister picks us up at the hotel to go to her apartment, which is just around the corner on foot, but 10 minutes away by car because of the one way streets and turn restrictions. She demonstrates the "art" of driving in Guiyang by entering the four-lane road without looking left. She seems to take for granted that oncoming traffic will slow down for her and, in fact, that is what happens. Then she drives very slowly, weaving through the cars seemingly oblivious to the other vehicles.
It seems there's a kind of hidden "socialist" co-operation going on here that I can't comprehend, but everyone appears to be driving without looking at the other cars. They just find their way through the maze by squeezing into tiny gaps until someone backs off. I've never seen anything like it in all my many years of travel. Amazingly we arrive safely, but after dinner wisely decide to walk back to our hotel on the darkened streets.
Lush, green Shenzhen is a vague memory now. It was obviously a chimera, a mirage designed to
lull the unsuspecting tourist into a false sense of China. Guiyang makes us realize that this is going to be a tough tour.