Transfixed by Khushi Choudhary
Living in China has been quite the adventure. I am fascinated by every aspect of the culture, whether its taking part in the exuberant festivals or learning the complex language. Its four years now and going strong. I am able to make conversations with my friends in Mandarin, seen some amazing parts of the country. Here is an experience that has left an indelible impression on my mind.
Hope you enjoy it.
Day one; 8:52pm
surrounded by lush green trees that hide markets and eateries
The warm breath of the fire covers me like a blanket and I stand transfixed by the orange-red-yellow of the flames. As if standing in the midst of a watercolor painting, I see the contrast of small colorless droplets freckling the faces of the people preparing for the celebration.
A silvery soft-spoken voice breaks me out of my reverie, “The festival is the best part, no?”
I sink my trainers deep into the watery mud to turn to the elderly lady. I nod enthusiastically, after the intense journey, the serenity of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau is rewarding. The rhythmic bump bump of the copper drum and the pleasant whine of the Lusheng invites locals to come out of their hillside dwellings and dance, sing and be happy. The dark blue of the night envelops us and we all forget where we were in the morning. I forget the luggage lugging and the squabbles with my best friends - travel buddies. Instead, they invite me to join them on stage and dance a little, an indication that the rest of the trip is going to be just as intriguing (they usually do not invite anyone on stage).
And sure enough, it is.
We trek to a spot that is just below the ridge of the mountain, to find our very interestingly shaped house. The locals introduce it as the "tongue-mouth-shaped" single-story house and it’s charming. The house is surrounded by an abundance of bamboo and trees. Further over the horizon, there are several more houses organized in a horseshoe pattern. Surrounding the houses, is a small stream that meanders it’s way through the nearby forest. I rummage around in my pocket to find our keys and we spot a little figure trotting down the street. She waves, “Are you joining us for the celebration dinner tomorrow”?
An audible squeak of excitement can be heard from my roommate Jen, “That’d be great!” The lady introduces herself as Mrs. Wen and we wave to her as she walks back down the street. Rushing into the bedrooms like little kids, we claim our respective beds and Jen starts off in a flurry, rambling on about the facts she’s learnt from the small travel book we picked up on the duty free shop at the airport…
“I was thinking we could grab one of the necklaces or bracelets or earrings that they make here”, she sucks in a quick breath to continue in an even faster rush of words, “we won’t be able to find them outside the community.
“That’d be wonderfu-“
“Oh, also, we have to take part in the tour around the village with a guide, I was thinking tomorrow morning?”. Before I can even begin to formulate a reply, she’s sitting at the mahogany work table scribbling furiously on a small notepad.
“What about going to see the dragon boat regatta? It’s very popular at this time of year, definitely not a drag-on.”
She levels me with a mock glare of disappointment coupled with a smile at the bad joke and as there is no shortage of attractions to see, we finalize a schedule that could offer a cornucopia of joy.
Day two; 6:59pm
rush of water, bubbles and slashes at the sides of the canoe
The exquisitely carved dragon head is carried down to the river and it’s horns are painted with words of luck that wish prosperity to the people. The dragon’s piercing red eyes are a beacon of glory, they practically scream victory, staring determinedly ahead, chin held high, it says we’re unstoppable.
“There comes Zhen, he’s the one without the bamboo hat, in the centre” Ms.Wen comments animatedly.
“Who is he?”
“He’s the most esteemed member of our village, therefore, he leads the pomp and ceremony. He also carefully returns the head of the dragon with reverence as it is a sacred object.”
Anticipation is thick in the air, inhaled by the onlookers who are itching to snap a picture with their cameras. The local team with golden bamboo hats, blue trousers and purple jackets are the center of the spectacle.
Zhen holds up a hand to demand attention and the neatly dressed men and women accompany him by clanging boldly on their large drums. The chatter stops immediately and all eyes swerve to the teams lined up at the shore. Tension is palpable as the most awaited race begins.
My heartbeat follows the rapid rhythm that the drums are playing and the rhythmic swish of each member propels the boats further into water. There’s crack after crack as the oars pierce the water in sync with the directions shouted by the team leaders.
It seems that the screams of the spectators encourage the dragon to become agile as a fish to swim even faster. The pounding of the drums sound like roaring thunder. The boats are half way-
one, and the crowd erupts in celebration; the carefree children gather at the edge of the lake to hop with joy and families hug in content. Even louder than the drums, are the spectacular explosion of colors that fan out over the night sky.
Day two; 10:03pm
arguably the best part, (according to us, foodies), the feast should not, ever, be missed
“I am never leaving this table.” Jen adores the delicacies prepared by the locals and I fully concur with staying put in the company of the sour and spicy dishes. They greet us with genuine smiles and insist on serving us rice wine before the commencement of the long table feast. There is at least forty seated at this grand wooden dining table, a pleasant chatter accompanies the clinking of the cutlery.
We engage in conversation with the chefs while they carry the steamy pots to our table. These beautiful young women dressed up in blue bandanas and long skirts titter feverishly at the prospect of sharing their culinary skills.
A lady with fine black hair introduces herself as Lim, “The whitest is snow, the sweetest is candy and the most delicious is Sour Fish Soup. You have got to try the highlight of the Miao cuisine.” The soup consists of fresh carps raised from nearby rice fields that are boiled in a spicy chilli sauce, the aroma is frankly intoxicating. “It’s generally served in a hotpot which means it’s accompanied by tofu, noodles and more.”
A slightly younger lady brings along a large vessel carrying fragrant and vibrantly colored rice, “My name is Huan, this dish is called Five-Color Glutinous Rice. It’s made from the colors of petals and fruits and dyed onto creamy white rice. It’s quite healthy and appealing to look at.”
Lim interjects politely to say, “We usually eat it at weddings or Valentine’s Day but it can be enjoyed at any time. Men and women work at the mountain slopes to grow the dry rice. We also grow maize for animal feed and fruits such as oranges and papayas. ”
The last serving is a tray not filled with food but with intricate silver jewelry. “Miao communities like ours specialize in craftsmanship of silver. We believe that the auspicious patterns can ward evil forces away.” The jewels twinkle and beckon us closer, laid out on a royal blue cloth, they resemble stars that gleam. Whether it’s to remember the affable natives or to uncover the secrets of the culture, I’d recommend getting one of these as they truly let you celebrate the memories.
Day three; 1:05pm
a most interesting conversation with our tour guide in the rice fields
The sun shines bright, though lying down on the cool grass provides solace. The loudspeaker that the tour guide carries is blaring out a command to come back to the bus. We don’t want to, the comfort of grass, after an eventful hike around the village, is heaven.
Rows of tall dank trees act as the protector of this little patch of grass which then, further stretch to glacial blue-white mountains. Little pieces of white fluff are drifted around with the breeze and the yellow-orange hue that the sun gives off makes the beauty unworldly. Little children frolic down the path, carrying crops to their families and helping out in the daily harvest.
“When preparing for the festivals and feasts, all ages in the family are requested to help out.”
Mr. Wang pauses to scan his calculating eyes over the audience. He scrutinizes to see if he has everyone’s attention (which he does), the Miao people’s tales of folklore that he retells captivates us all.
“It is tradition. Much like the religion that is drilled into the mind of the people at a very young age. The Miao believe that a supernatural power in everything around them decides their fate.”
A little boy with raven curly hair pipes up from the back, “What does that entail? Does everything mean all living things?”
Mr. Wang answers, “They are animists, shamanists and ancestor worshipers. They have a number of different customs and superstitions for everything. For example, they believe Miao spirits, known as tlan, are thought to live in high concentrations in places like sacred groves, caves, stones, wells and bridges. Another one would be that the Shaman in the village are generally called upon on to cure illnesses by bringing back lost souls.”
“Several rituals are carried out at festivals where they don special clothes to recite rites and employ chants, prayers and songs that they have memorized. In these festivals, the people usually sacrifice animals to help sick relatives and assure that good tlan (spirits) watch over their children.”
Mr.Wang gathers us all to say our goodbyes as the tour has come to a close. People disperse and climb back into the bus but I look back forlornly.
These moments spent with the Miao people makes the trip worth it. They are simple people who take pride in their culture. They can only bring smiles to your face and make you forget your troubles in the busy lifestyle of the metropolis.