Gwailo in Guizhou

from: room 210, Foreign Guesthouse. Zhaoxing, Guizhou

Gwailo - (Cantonese) a foreigner; literally meaning 'ghost person' and interpreted as 'foreign devil.'

Today is Halloween and even though I lack a costume, I am seen as a ghost. This part of China is much less visited than anywhere we have been previously been and we therefore attract more stares than if we were dressed as witches or goblins.

The reasons many people don't bother with this part of China are many, summed up in the Chinese proverb about this province, "Without three li of flat country, three days of fine weather or three cents to rub together." Guizhou is one of China's poorest provinces with 8 of it 36 million inhabitants are below the national poverty level. 30% of its villages are inaccessible by road and between 60% and 70% of its people are illiterate. Guizhou is extremely mountainous - the train coming into Kaili was in tunnels and on bridges more than it was on regular track. The construction cost must have been astronomical. Mainly rural, it has few famous temples,palaces or natural wonders to shuttle buses to and from. Pollution levels are high and the weather is often poor, English is rarely spoken or understood and transportation is spotty and rough. We have loved every bumpy, muddy totally foreign minute of it.

The first bus never seemed to leave road construction behind and took the better paet of a day to go from Kaili to Rongjiang. It passed through the first of what would be continuos glimpses that were of a rural China we had begun to think no longer existed. Misty rice terraces dotted with little haystacks. Buffalo and straw hatted laborers moving through the fields. Villages of traditional bark roofed wooden houses clinging to steep valley slopes. Meandering rivers holding tiny flat-bottomed boats and bordered with Banyan trees. Vegetation ranging from banana plants to scrubby pine trees. On the roof of our bus is a giant bamboo cage filled with ducks and chickens that erupts into riotous squawking and quacking whenever we stop as the cramped birds start loudly fighting for the space they need to put their feathers back in place. The young ones have it easier, riding stylishly in a cardboard box on the floor. A man climbs aboard with the hacked off leg of some hairy hoofed animal, tail still attached, and cooly deposits it in the overhead compartment next to his chilies. A gleeful caravan of flies follows them in. The man across the aisle from me sees I'm taking a picture of the appendage and is unselfconsciously curious. I oblige him with a picture that he seems very pleased with.

The next morning we leave early to board another bus to our first planned destination - the October 30th market in Tingdong. Here we find more images that are like steps back in time. Dressed in market day finest the Dong Women are curious about Julie but seem wary of me. They keep eyes filled with a mixture fear and anger upon me as I pass and make strange sucking-tsk-tsk sounds as if to ward off the foreign devil. They wear their finest shiny purple shirts and leggings and are weighed down proudly by heavy silver jewelry. Many are barefoot, have hands dyed black from making the Indigo for their clothes and wear painful looking earings that clamp up the earlobe. Their much admired long hair is oiled and wrapped around the head and held with combs and pins in a way that reflects the long cloths wrapped about the men's heads. The children too are unused to strangers. No shouts of 'hello!' and gales of laughter at our replies. I came across three playing beneath a tree by the river and when they noticed me they ducked into some tall grass to hide and watch me. I thought they were playing hide and seek, but it became apparent that they were scared of me. The nearby buffalo market was like some medieval car dealership. Perhaps 150 peasants milling around by the river kicking the tires of the bellowing snorting product line. There was not a woman in sight for it seems that this kind of ultra-hard bargaining is men's work.

As I write this, I am sitting in the creaking upstairs guestroom of one of those traditional wooden houses. The incense burned to ward of mosquitos mixes with the sounds of the ancient Dong music lessons taking place in the room beneath us and the rain falling gently on the roof above.

I no longer just look like some type of Gwalio 'ghost person' but am beginning to feel like one too. The last few days have been a dream filled with images and faces that were more emotive and affecting than almost anything I have seen in China, yet I drifted through it all detached like a ghost - in this world but not part of it. There are almost no tourists, white or Asian, to break the spell of unreality and no modern buildings or billboards or tennis shoe shops to remind you that this is the 21st century. The faint strains of the BBC World Service on the short-wave radio only makes the real world, the modern world, my western world of anthrax and B-52s and Microsoft antitrust cases seem further away and more ridiculous.

~ Nigel



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