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Enchanting Libo unlocks door to the past
By Xin Zhiming (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-12-10 06:59

Before I came to Libo, I could hardly imagine how trees can grow on stones.

The small county, tucked away in the mountains 300 kilometres southeast of Guiyang, capital of Southwest China's Guizhou Province, has remained largely obscure until the laurels of one of "the most beautiful places of China" falls on it.

Among its attractions is its Maolan Karst virgin forest reserve that Mother Nature has created on stones, and underground limestone caves from tens of thousands of years ago.

The award, on the basis of an expert panel, used mobile phone and online voting organized by a major domestic travel magazine this summer. It prompted a horde of reporters to take a trip to uncover the beauty of the virgin land. I was among them.

The trip turned out to be worthwhile more for the natural beauty and exotic local minority culture and customs than for the bizarre forest.

After a morning flight of more than two hours, we arrived at the Longdongbao Airport of Guiyang. Then we took another four-and-a half hours in a minibus to get into the mountains to see the mysterious county.

The tarmacked snaky road in the mountains, which was built only in recent years to usher in travellers from outside, was unexpectedly smooth. As the bus barrelled down the road, the green dome-shaped mountains moved past slowly before our eyes, giving a sort of liveliness to the otherwise long, boring ride.

Arriving at a hotel in Libo, we found this small county seat had many hotels available, a sign of its good preparedness for the influx of travellers. Our guide, Luo Jun, a woman in her early 20s, told us there are almost 100 hotels, which can almost be booked full by tourists during the peak season in the summer.

Seen from the buildings and surroundings, the place is nothing exotic. Actually, it seemed to be just like other modern but lacklustre Chinese towns. That night, I lay down on the bed, pondering what has attracted travellers to this remote and obscure place.

The next morning, we were led to one of the major local attractions, Xiaoqikong, or Seven Small Holes, a natural park 28 kilometres away from the county seat. Three kilometres away is the sister Daqikong, or Seven Big Holes. They are combined to become the pearl of the county.

Xiaoqikong is named after a 40-metre-long stone bridge, which was built in 1835 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with seven arches in it. The other wider but shorter stone bridge was originally built in 1847 and rebuilt 30 years later, giving the name to Daqikong.

Local tradition has it that long ago, there was a young man from the Yao ethnic group who could work magic with his finger on his right hand that could soften the stone. Since a large pond was in the way of the villagers and prevented them from farming on the other side, the young man and seven fairy-like ladies decided to build a bridge.

To ease their work, the man, with his magic finger, pointed at the stones to make them soft and the ladies completed the work effortlessly. Then the stones hardened again, enabling the bridge to survive numerous floods since then.

It is certainly not the legendary magic force, but the high construction skills of local craftsmen that has made the bridge so tough.

Different from ordinary rivers or lakes, the water in the pool was dark green. As mountains and trees were reflected in the water, a picture was created that displayed a tranquil scene like in a traditional Chinese painting. In shallower parts, the hue became pale and you can spot stones decorating the pond like emeralds. The whole pond seemed more like a picturesque dream than reality.

The pool was the destination of a small river, whose water was also green, a colour that appears more in artistic photographs or paintings than in reality. We went upstream. Breathing the fresh mountain air that is unimaginable in smoggy cities, we felt relaxed and comfortable, although we were uphill.

We soon encountered the most dramatic scene of the trip: the Laya Waterfall. As we were approaching it, we can already feel the cool breeze and moisture in the air and hear water roaring. The water came down from the top of the hill on one side of the road and became a number of cascades precipitating along the rugged slopes. As we walked past, water drops hit our face although the fall is metres away.

Local people told us autumn was not the best season for the fall since rain has decreased. Even during the rainy seasons, it is not as magnificent as the famous Huangguoshu Waterfall in the same province. But in such a place featuring quietness and the hush of the nature, it remains a grandeur.

After about half an hour of walking, we were led into the jungle to have a look at the famous "forest on the water." It is a 300-metre river valley decorated with a slim and short arbour and thicket, through which a creek goes.

As the water flows, it has washed away sand and dust in the valley, leaving behind polished round stones in the water. What is amazing is the tenacity of the slim trees and bushes that live not on soil or sand, but on stones. Their bare roots grab the stones scattered in the water like the arms of an octopus.

Local people are more romantic to compare the trees and the stones to lovers that are not willing to separate. Indeed, the gurgling water, gentle trees, peaceful atmosphere, and sometimes chirping birds, are combined to present an ideal place for lovers. "I would come here again with my boyfriend," said a girl, smiling.

For Daqikong natural park, the scene is more open and the view of the sky seems more broad. Like Xiaoqikong, it has a verdant river, which is wider than its sister's. Similarly, the water is clear but unusually green, making us wonder how Mother Nature could have been so creative to paint the river with that pigment.

The road along the river is narrow and snaky. The guide said that if it were summer, we would have been able to paddle a boat along the river upstream. We regretted we had to miss that adventure this time.

But we were soon able to shake off the regret as we saw a spectacular stone arch far ahead in front of us. Pointing at the stone gate, the guide told us it is called the Chinese Arc de Triomphe. As we came near it, we found it's just like a natural replica of the French monument, only it was in a colossal mountain slab carved hollow through the centre.

The river flows through the "gate." As it goes on, we were told it will reach a mysterious, 7.5-kilometre-long cave, inside which it's chilly and windy. According to local legend, it is haunted by evil spirits.

No one has ever met any evil spirits, of course. Within the cave, there is a 20-metre-high waterfall, and beyond the end of the cave is a serene lake in the open air, a paradise-like place surrounded by mountains and trees and untouched by humans. As the final end of the road leading into the cave was under construction, we were unable to experience the daunting world of evil spirits, nor did we have a chance to explore further into the legendary paradise.

Natural scenes are not the only local assets. The county, where 90 per cent of its population are minorities, is rich in cultural heritage.

Shui, Yao and Bouyei are the main ethnic groups in Libo. For Shui people, they have a unique asset in which they take pride Shui Shu, which is an ancient language passed on for generations.

Among the country's 55 minority groups, only 17 have their own languages. Shui people are among them. Shui Shu characters are pictographic and similar in form to those ancient characters of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) carved on tortoise shells and animal bones. What is different is that Shui Shu is written on paper.

During a visit to a local museum in Libo, we were lucky to see some of the samples of the precious ancient language. Some of the characters are easy to understand since they resemble the natural images, such as the sun and flowing water. But most of them are beyond my reach.

Yao Binglie, head of the local record office, said the encyclopedic Shui Shu writings are about divination, local geography, ethics, religion, culture, aesthetics and laws of the ethnic group. Some words are incantations and jargons.

Now the language is still used among Shui people and there are special Shui Shu masters within the ethnic group who are experts of the old language. Local governments have started to organize linguists and experts to decode the mystery imbedded in the Shui Shu writings.

Now, about 1,400 Shui Shu characters have been deciphered. Some of them offer valuable archaeological clues. The word "sika," or spotted deer, for example, is mentioned in the language. Experts infer that it may be the evidence that ancestors of Shui people come from the North, where the spotted deer comes from.

Hospitable Yao people

Yao is another major ethnic group of the Libo region. Living in remote and closed mountainous regions, the Yao people basically live a self-supporting life. The output of farming is low and many of them are poor.

Poor people often prove hospitable. As we got off the bus and stepped uphill to visit a Yao village at the mountainside, many Yao girls and women came up and offered us self-made rice wine in bamboo goblets, smiling.

This was their traditional way of welcoming guests. No one should enter the village if the offer was refused. The wine tasted weak, but was palatable, giving off a faint scent.

As we stepped up, there was a large open lot, where a dozen of Yao men, dressed in local homespun coarse clothes, stood in a line, each holding a shotgun pointing at the sky. As a leader gave the order, they fired the gun simultaneously. After a short pause and recharge, they held up the gun again, and another bang! Several shots were fired. Our guide told us this is the highest-profile welcoming ceremony, just like a salute for State guests.

Most Yao people live in humble wooden houses. Small animal bones are often hung over the gate to drive away evil spirits and protect the family. In a house, I saw all furniture and other facilities were primeval. I tried to chat with two Yao people from the family, but they didn't understand Mandarin and I couldn't understand them.

There are signs of modern life, such as schools and sporadic electric household appliances, but the Yao people largely maintain the living style of their ancestors. Time brings little change.

At the end of our three-day trip, we regretted to find out that the famous Maolan Karst virgin forest is a State-level natural reserve and off limits to ordinary visitors. I failed to see the magic forest on stones, but the trip was nevertheless worthwhile thanks to the colourful and unique human landscape.

(China Daily 12/10/2005 page9)

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