After leaving my family at the Guilin airport, we journeyed on via private van to the village of Ping An, traveling through a petite valley reminiscent of Napa, and then winding up through the mountains. (Future travelers to Ping An should pack Dramamine, plastic bags, and a can of ginger ale if you can find it.) We had a potty break at a lovely village on a river and got our first glimpse of the Zhuang and Yao minority people. Another twenty minutes up a road, built in 1996, and we were at a parking lot. Pill told us to gather a few things out of the van to spend the night in the village. It was a thirty minute hike up the hill, he explained. Alternatively, we could hire the Zhuang people to carry our luggage up the hill in large baskets for 20 RMB ($3.5 USD). We could tell he thought that was too much to spend, that the Zhuang were ripping off the tourists. “What a waste!” the tickertape of his brain read out on his forehead.
It is just at such times that I wish I had learned to pack light. Already in my suitcase were jars of stupendously delicious chili paste from Yangshuo. The one extra tote bag I brought I’d given to Mr. Understanding to take home to Shanghai, filled with a pair of his dirty jeans and a sublime antique lidded jar I’d purchased. He later left the bag in the airport in Shanghai – my guess is that the jar will find its way to Dong Tai Lu and I can buy it back, sort of like buying back your bumper at the car part black market in Mexico City (unique bumper stickers helped identify personal property). So, in a nutshell, I was stuck. There was no unloading and decanting for me, or Swiss Miss and Ai Lin either, for that matter. My ugly, misshapen luggage was loaded on the back of a sixty year old lady and up we went. If that doesn’t make a person feel bad about not packing light, nothing will.
If I lived in Ping An I think I would lose 50 pounds in the first year, maybe more. This is just one of the many things to recommend the quaint, rustic village. The buildings are wooden boxes stacked on each other like dim sum boxes, built into the mountainside on stilts. A mythical wolf was lurking somewhere nearby, getting ready to blow those houses down. We huffed and puffed our way up to the guest house, nearly at the tippy top of the village, anxious for beer and lunch, anxious to see the accommodations. We were elated to find that our room with 3 twin beds and an outstanding view of the rice terraces had a western potty. Never mind that it leaked and we had to use the potty in a vacant room next door.
When we were finished with lunch, Pill accompanied us to Lookout Point #1, fifteen minutes up the hill. The sun was shining and we enjoyed the view of the Dragonback rice terraces, a series of rice paddies built onto a series of undulating hills like layers of a wedding cake. A pair of Yao women sat on a hill in the distance, their fuchsia colored jackets and glossy black hair gleaming from far away. Pill tried to dissuade us from going to Lookout Point #2 (“only the Dutch hike over there”, “the trail is really narrow and dangerous”) but Princess Ai Lin was determined. We might not out Dutch the Dutch but at least we could match them. I personally had my reservations, especially when he said the trail was narrow and dangerous.
“Let’s just go a little bit,” Princess Ai Lin encouraged.
“We’ll go by ourselves,” she informed Pill, dismissing him with a wave.
So we did, following her lead. Our first stop took us right to the Yao women, a pair of sisters aged 41 & 40. In exchange for a purchase, they would show us their elaborate hairstyles which sat on their heads like the Beijing Olympic Stadium the Bird’s Nest. The Pentecostal women have nothing on these women. And so we shopped on the mountain side, purchasing belts, hair scarves and wraps in exchange for a show.
Note to travelers to Ping An: make sure you bring a video camera. I did not and this might be one of my life-long regrets. First, the Yao women undid their hair, which is comprised of 3 pony tails. The first one was cut off at age 18. The second one is attached to their head. The third is comprised of all the hair that fell out while combing, hair recycling as it were. After it is all undone, they wrap it all back up in a crazy pompadour, secured only by their own hair and their one wooden comb. One of the sisters gently tucked in the other’s hair that she had failed to properly wrap tightly in a way that only a sister can do. Silver earrings dragged on their earlobes and one sister had string tied through the hole and over the top of her ear to help bear the weight. Pill later told me that they wash their hair three times a week with the leftover water used to rinse rice. These women were beautiful. I still have a thousand questions for them. Why hot pink, for example? Where did they get the dye from? What do you do in the in between ponytail phases?
The trail to Lookout Point #2 wound laterally around the hills. Down below and up above, farmers were harvesting vegetables, carrying their day’s work down to the village on baskets and poles. Self-sufficient, self-sustained, self-motivated. Were they immune to the beauty around them? This is what books talk about a people being “at one” with the land. As the sun began its descent in the sky, we made it to Lookout Point #2 and then started the trek down the hill to the village. Cement tombs built into the hills melted into the landscape, merged with the vegetable gardens. I thanked God for letting us reject the tour guide’s advice, for Ai Lin’s insistence that we go. The Dutch, it turns out, were on the right path. It was one of the most interesting and beautiful hours of my whole life.
Tuckered out, we returned to our guest house/tinder box. I noted that there were fire extinguishers on each stair landing but that the concept of an emergency exit does not exist here. One smoker in bed and POOF! the whole village would be aflame. Pill told me the next day that there are no earthquakes in the region, which made me feel a little better, but that fires were a real concern, which did not.
I am going to end this portion of the post. (There is more to come, in the lovely town of Guilin). I do feel however, that I earned a Lifetime Traveler’s Stripe in the village of Ping An. Many thanks to Princess Ai Lin for inviting me and to Swiss Miss for lending me her track pants to sleep in. They were excellent traveling companions, just the best.