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By Andrew Renton
For Travel Writers' Tales

Proud images of a country on a lightening race to modernize, spurred me into action. Is there still rural life in China or am I too late?

My Vancouver friend writes Chinese guidebooks. "Great idea but how do you plan to get around?" he asks cynically over a double decaf latte. "Eastern Guizhou is a fascinating area of traditional villages and minority groups, but without a guide you're hooped!"

I soon discover that the best course of action is to look helpless. No problems there! With few exceptions Chinese people are extremely kind, good natured and proud to assist. Throw yourself at their mercy and they will rarely leave you in the lurch.

My quest requires some patience and more tenacity than I had expected. The first destination, Lingyun, is a failure. Despite being touted as a great base to visit rural villages, I am greeted like a three-headed Martian looking to lunch on small children.

I revert to the guidebook, and, with a renewed sense of determination, return to the bus station.

The lone employee begins calmly enough. She makes a couple of phone calls. She switches from talking to writing. When I continue to shrug, she presses her pen until it pierces the paper, then defiantly hands me the note. Even an idiot "guilo" should understand this!

She is already planning her escape, peering at the clock and reaching for her coat, when a voice from a passer-by asks, "Can I help?" Phew! Now armed with a ticket, and relieved smiles all around, I head to the waiting bus-destination Kaili. Things are looking up.

Kaili promises English speaking help and, on my map, is just over the hill apiece. The journey takes two full days! I am led through six bus changes by kindly conductresses and spend the night somewhere (?) in a small hotel of a patient official's choosing.

Mr Wu is in his tiny CITS (China International Travel Service) office when I arrive. He speaks perfect English. "But, but, Lingyun is just over the mountains," he splutters in amazement, upon hearing my story. "Where did you go?"

"Haven't a clue," I reply. "Pretty countryside though!"

"You should stay at the Ying Pan Po Hotel across the courtyard."

"At 330 Yuan ($50) its too expensive."

"Just a moment," he says, grabbing the phone.

"Would you pay 180 Yuan?" he asks, covering the receiver.

"Eat on the street. Hawker food is delicious. Kaili is famous for potato pancakes and sweet peanut soup. The woman on the corner makes the best breakfast dumplings. Be there early, she always sells out"

"Tomorrow there are markets in the Miao villages of Chong 'An and Longchang. You won't want to miss the festival at Zhouxi on Wednesday," he adds, busily writing the Chinese/English names on the back of his business card. "Any problems, call me OK."

Wow the Holy Grail at last! I spend a week travelling by bus through magical countryside to traditional markets. My favourite is Shidong. Here, noisy vendors line the river flogging day old chicks; irate pigs bought by weight; songbirds in intricate rattan cages, as well as sacks of rice, live fish, squawking ducks and 100 year old eggs.

Ferrymen do a roaring trade poling customers to and fro across the river.

The trip home is slow. Maybe a thousand women are rebuilding the highway one rock at a time.

A child is about to throw up. The duck takes a dump on my left foot. A piglet, stored in the aisle, is breaking free of its bamboo bonds. Duties of a rural bus conductress in Eastern Guizhou require heroic patience and an even temperament, Especially on market days!

The conductress, with an apologetic grin, cleans my left foot. Our driver tosses a couple of Yuan to an old man who washes the side of the bus. Throwing up is normal on roads that resemble a roller coaster! The duck is restricted to the stairwell.

Yes, rural China is alive and well.

Guizhou province is one of the last untouched areas of China. It is home to dozens of minority groups, each with it's own traditional clothing, architecture and skills dating back hundreds of years. Markets and colourful festivals are real and a photographers dream.

Domestic tourism is changing the face of rural China at an alarming rate. Five star hotels, discos, and kitschy souvenir stands are springing up beside paddy fields.

The time to visit is now!

If You Go:

Where: Fly into Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province. Take a coach to Kaili and head for the CITS office. The helpful staff can get deals on hotels and flights.
Mr Wu Email:

When: May is warm and sunny. Jan/Feb is spring festival time when the weather is cold and wet but with 100 + festivals you will not be disappointed!

Eating:: Street food is delicious and varied in Kaili. Bring your own tea and coffee. Oddly both are hard to come by.

Costs: Once there, everything is ridiculously cheap!

Photos: by Andrew Renton

1. Ploughing
2. Ducks for Sale
3. Lunch at Shidong Market
4. Ferryman, Shidong
5. Geija Woman, Shidong Market

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