I know I’m on the right bus when a woman gets on carrying a huge, scintillating silver crown. She thinks I’m hilarious (everyone in China thinks I’m hilarious) and when she offers to put the crown on my head the whole bus laughs uproariously.
At the next village, people stuff carrier bags full of blue satin and pig’s trotters through the bus windows, along with what looks like an enormous silver crescent moon.
Jiao Gao is the final stop; a cluster of balconied dark wooden houses tucked into a narrow valley and climbing up the hillsides. There is bunting hung everywhere (the same coloured flags that are used to rope off road works and building sites), and people putting up small marquees, even a deflated mini bouncy castle. In the school yard a basketball tournament is in progress.
I hang around and wait for the festival to begin. Nothing much happens. Small children shout Hello! and find me hilarious. On the covered bridge, people are lining up to get injections of something or other (insulin? Morphine?).
The basketball tournament finishes, the day draws on, nothing much happens, and I wait, because in China, good things come to those who wait.
Sure enough, just as it’s getting dark a big group of students from the nearby town appears and adopts me the way teachers and students have been rescuing and adopting me everywhere in Guizhou (Do I have the words ‘completely helpless’ tattooed on my forehead?).
They’re so kind! Rowdy and cheerful and utterly delighted with me, and with themselves for finding me. Thanks to them I get to the festival over the next two days, I stay with a local family who dress me up in satin and silver like a vastly oversized doll (“You’re so tall!” everyone tells me in Guizhou – I’m 5’ 4”, for the record) to the delight and hilarity of all… and me, I feel like the wondering child in some Victorian fairytale I read when I was little, transported (with cultural inaccuracy) to the land of the nodding mandarins.
On all the open balconies, mums and aunties and grannies are smoothing out blue satin kimonos, shaking out skirts of swinging embroidered plaques. Arguing with happy intensity about what should be sewn where as they stitch on bells and silver ornaments, using their soft, flat black buns of hair as impromtu pincushions. They have spent days, months, years embroidering the kimono sleeves with coiled green dragons to bring their daughters luck and happiness at festivals like this, and on their wedding day.
Their daughters are putting on makeup; thick white foundation, bright blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick. Many of them have come back to the village from towns and cities for this festival.
Miss Luo is studying English in nearby Kaili. Her parents are farmers, they never had a chance to leave the village and study; they’re proud of their daughter who will surely have a better, easier life than they had. Miss Luo doesn’t know how to do the intricate embroidery that adorns her own festival outfit; I never had time to learn, she says, I was always studying. When I’m older, I’d like to learn. She never wore her hair in the flower-adorned bun that’s traditional for the Miao women here, even before she left for town. To me, it seems a pretty, fancy hairstyle I’d have adored as a romantic kid. But we wanted to be different, she explains.
I wonder if she’ll ever have time to make a wedding outfit for her own daughter. I wonder, by the time her daughter is old enough to do so, whether anyone will stick roses and twine black wool into their flat buns of hair anymore.
The tops of the hills are hidden in cloud, and grey water buffalo loom from grey trailing mist over the paddy fields. By the village square, vendors are winding perfect spheres of pink and blue candyfloss from shallow pans powered ingeniously by bicycle. The bouncy castle is up and bouncing until it springs a leak and rapidly deflates. A man appears out of nowhere leading, of all things, a Bactrian camel. It looks as surprised to be here as the children are to see it; perhaps it is wondering how it ended up in damp misty Guizhou, perhaps it’s pining for the dry deserts of home.
Round and round the square walk the young women and girls in their beautiful clothes, three steps left, three steps right to the breathy, fluttery hoot of the lusheng pipes. There are old men holding hands, wearing satin waistcoats and long chang shans, who keep getting out of step and wandering off. There’s a trail of smaller and smaller children at the back, scampering to keep up, while attentive mums swoop in to straighten a sleeve there, tug a skirt here. There are rowdy young men charging through the crowd, selecting victims to drink rice wine from horn cups.
But through it all the girls keep step. Their expressions are serious and remote, as though their thoughts are miles away, but probably their thoughts are right there, inside their heads, concentrating on balancing the great weight of silver flowers and phoenixes and crescent buffalo horns they carry. Today they are carrying their village traditions, today they are Miao girls.