But what did you do in those Chinese villages? my city friends ask me. Didn’t you get bored with hiking about in the wilderness, and crave some society, some culture, some fun?
A lot of the time I was writing my book, and craved solitude and long hikes. But a lot of the time, I was going to parties.
The Bai, the Miao and the Dong, the Tibetans and Lissu – they do love a good party. Like followers of traditional calendars everywhere, they find endless occasion: sowing and harvest; full moon and flood; birth, marriage, death of people and of gods; house-warming and tomb-sweeping; arrivals and departures, beginnings and ends. And they are always happy to share the occasion with random visitors. If it involves said visitor making a total fool of herself, so much the better…
In the Bai region of Yunnan it’s the grandmothers who keep the world going, the calendar pages turning, the parties full of food, dancing, pageantry, laughter. They do love to laugh. To dress up the tombs and temples and houses (not themselves; it’s the old men who dress up in cardboard crowns) with bright flags and flowers and paper people and paper money. To dance around, tinkling cymbals and tapping drums. To feed, and ply with baijiu (rice wine) the five thousand.
Every month there’s a festival in one of the many temples scattering Shaxi valley, and it’s a fabulous and hilarious privilege to be invited to join in, to eat and eat, to sit on a tiny bench watching the performance, to be dragged up to dance with a huge bunch of paper flowers or a china bowl containing a lit candle – balanced on my head.
The locals are all so delighted, dashing about the temple, bowing to the gods, reciting prayers, gossiping and openly laughing when it all goes a bit pear-shaped… I’ve no idea of the religious significance of any of it, or why they made me dance with a bowl on my head. I suspect there was no significance, they were just making it up as they went along, propitiating the gods just in case, and having a lot of fun.
Rambling between villages in Guizhou province, we stumbled over a Miao house-warming party and were invited in for food and drink – drink – drink. Old men already so drunk they couldn’t stand up; aunties and grandmothers, those ones who keep the word turning, busy making everyone else drunk with their endless bowls of wine dipped from clay jars, which have to be drained to the bottom not once but twice; younger sisters looking after the babies. The family’s four sons were all there, even the one who was working in Fujian province, in the city, and who wandered off with his girlfriend to walk moodily hand in hand through the paddy fields; two modern children, not charmed by rural excess; a bit bored now they knew what else life had to offer.
Later there will be dancing; there will be bull-fighting, they promise, filling up our wine bowls yet again. I am kidnapped; carried off to the upper village and presented like a hunting trophy to various households, to a succession of shyly, sweetly smiling small girls trying out their few words of English and showing me their battered school books; more food; more wine; up to the village hall where the bronze drum is hauled out of storage and hefted down to the square and the former communist party leader begins to bong and blong, the giggling small girls and a few chuckling grannies begin to dance and laugh when I get the steps wrong, round and round we go or maybe it’s the world that’s going round and round, the strings of drying yellow maize and red chillies, the dark wooden houses jumbled along steep cobbled pathways and the pink pigs peeking out from their sties, the gigantic stairs of the rice terraces stepping up the mountain, peopled with hay stacks like shaggy giants wearing topknots of pine branches –
and now I’m in another little dark house, sitting on a miniature stool by the embers with another lot of people I’ve never seen before all chomping and slurping, staring at me with shiny eyes, solemn staring babies peeking over their parent’s shoulders, and I feel like a pink pig, like a giant puppet pig in a tiny puppet show, in a Miao Punch-and-Judy, and I really don’t want any more baijiu thankyouverymuch – and I tiptoe away when no one is looking and stagger back to the lower village, where I find my Chinese companion has been tucked up in bed by our hosts to sleep off the alcohol and I’m on my own where no one speaks English and everything’s broken…