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Serene beauty of landlocked Xiangxi
( 2003-09-22 08:41) (China Daily)

My trip to Xiangxi (western Hunan Province in Central China) was planned in haste. Like most city-dwellers, I had been expecting to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and take a trip to a small town where I could take a totally relaxing break, enjoy the beautiful scenery, fresh air, and above all, paint from natural scenes.

I had planned a trip to East China's Zhejiang Province, but I was worried about the effects of booming tourism there.

Later I happened to find out about Dehang, a small town in Xiangxi which is home to the Miao people and is famed for its natural beauty and intact folk culture. I eventually made up my mind, packed my bags and headed for Dehang.

After making a long journey by train, my 22-year-old son and I took a bus to our destination. Lush green scenery welcomed us at every turn; Jiulong Brook flowed down in the valley; Miao villages were enveloped in the depths of the forest.

Our bus finally stopped at a small village and we found ourselves standing in front of a newly built diaojiaolou, the characteristic architecture of the Miao people.

The first floor was a gift shop and two young women wearing traditional Miao costumes welcomed us with wide smiles. They were obviously from the local travel service, which we had hardly expected.

The village was still dominated by a calm ambience, with chickens and ducks wandering around looking for food.

After settling down, we picked up our painting paraphernalia and started our exploration in the village.

The village was built on the banks of Jiulong Brook. The streets were paved with slate. Most of the diaojiaolou, scattered on the mountain slope, were worn by the passing ages, featuring different colours - either golden or dark brown.

Many young people in the village dressed like the Hans while the elderly still wore the traditional Miao costumes.

We passed through the diaojiaolou and ventured into the centre of the village which appeared to have been barely touched by modern life.

Lunch break

There was a stone bridge over the brook. Near the bridge was a small restaurant run by a local Miao woman. Since it was at noon, we crossed the bridge and stepped into the restaurant.

It was simply decorated but unexpectedly cosy: wooden floor, wooden tables and bamboo chairs. The owner brought us tea and some melon seeds soon after we sat down on the second floor of the restaurant.

Since there was no menu in the restaurant, customers could go to the kitchen and check what kind of vegetables, meat or fish were available. Then the owner would cook the dishes according to customers' requirements. We accepted the owner's recommendation that we try the authentic local food.

The scorching midday sun was cooled down by the constant breeze from the valley. I opened my drawing notebook and took out a pencil. My heart was filled with a calmness which I never experienced before.

A group of children were having fun down in the brook. A giant rock in the river became their diving platform. Their sunburned bodies stirred the clear water and added a lively touch to the picturesque river.

August in Dehang was as hot as in Beijing. Generally, October was the peak tourist season, but there were few travellers in the village at the time.

"Look at the little thing," my son said to me. I raised my eyes and saw a naked boy with his arms tightly holding a puppy. The dog was struggling to stand on two of its paws.

I took out the camera and tried to take a candid photo. But I had hardly got ready when the boy and the dog left.

Soon the dishes were ready, with a typical Hunan flavour - hot and sour, and the rice served in a small wooden bucket was especially tasty.

Undeniable influences

Western Hunan is a landlocked mountainous area and poor transportation greatly hindered the local development. Yet local people have high aspirations for the future.

During our stay in the village, we found every family was busy making a living by weaving cloth, making baskets or running a restaurant.

Local men usually engaged in hard work all year round and most of them were in great shape. Luckily, they were willing to be our model as long as our painting would not bother their work.

But it is harder to deal with the elderly.

"Can we take a photo of you?"

Generally he/she would answer: "Two yuan (24 US cents)."

"How about drawing a sketch?"

"Five yuan (60 US cents)."

Though I would pay what they asked, I felt ill at ease. Something which I once cherished most and attracted me to this remote village had been lost in the breeze from the commercialized world.

I was also sorry to see that many treasures of the Miao culture had been neglected by local people. The gift shops in the village sold souvenirs which could be found in any scenic spot of the country. While the unique handiwork such as the hand-woven elaborate cloth was only stored in the attic by the local elderly and never appeared in the gift shop.

My son and I painted in the scorching sun and had a sense of urgency, not only because our trip was pressed for time, but also because we felt modern civilization had increasing influence on this Miao village.

Women in the village were hospitable and sincere. They lent us their new diaojiaolou where we could paint. When we finally finished our work and gave the hostess a China Daily T-shirt to show our gratitude, she beamed radiantly with joy.

Exploring the mountain

After staying in Dehang for three days, we had drawn sketches of most houses and people in the village. I said to my son jokingly: "I'm too embarrassed to stay here any more."

Then we decided to wander around and slowly savour the sights of the mountain. We strolled along the winding path on the river bank and eventually had the countryside pretty much to ourselves.

The walk was so relaxing that I could not help but crying out: "Hey..." just like the Miao people singing a folk song. Unexpectedly, we heard "crow, crow, crow" from the other side of river. It was a rooster. My son and I looked at each other and then burst into laughter.

There were some booths selling tea and fruit on the way. Most of the sellers were elderly people.

I asked one of them to be my model. He agreed, but insisted I must buy his pears in return.

The old man was a good model. He sat there quietly until I completed my painting. Thus I managed to draw sketches of a few other dealers. But my son was worn out from carrying a large bag of fruit I had bought along the way.

We stopped to take a rest at a tea booth where I completed my last sketch. "That would be the end of our trip!" I told myself.

I went down to the brook and soaked my feet in the clear and cool water. There were many crabs on the rock. I lay down on the river bank, stretching my tired limbs and savouring the last moments of our trip.

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