By Denisa Dutmentova (Slovakia)
Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, a region located in western Hunan province offers vast opportunities for travellers who seek tranquillity and tradition. Being a home to more than 30 ethnic groups, Xiangxi is abundant in traditional towns where you may find many well-preserved ancient buildings and dwellings. Tujia and Miao ethnic minorities are the most numerous minorities of the area and maintain their own customs and language still today. Exploration of the Xiangxi region requires longer time since the terrain is mountainous with the Wuling Mountains stretching from the northwest to the southeast of Hunan province. Many 'treasures' are located in remote places, however, this only adds to the excitement and pleasure once the destination is reached. During our expedition tour, we spent long hours on coach transporting us between tourist attractions, but I always enjoyed spectacular views of picturesque hamlets built in rugged wild mountainous terrain, rivers meandering through the valleys and intricately terraced fields.
Our adventure began on the rainy morning of November 1, when we gathered at the Hunan University and headed for Luxi County（泸溪）. It was continually raining on our journey to the west and we were worried whether the rain would accompany us throughout our whole trip. It stopped raining only shortly before our arrival to the first stop, which filled us with elated emotions. We arrived at the place in the afternoon and local authorities welcomed us warmly by the Statue of “Xinnv Princess”. Our team afterwards took a cruise down the Yuanjiang River in Yuanjiang Scenic Area（沅江风景区）. It was an excellent experience to observe limestone karst landscapes from the cruise board on one bank of the river and water buffaloes grazing on green pastures on the other bank of the river. After the cruise, we visited Panhu Temple and saw Pushi Ancient Town at the dusk. We had brief glances of the house of the former wood businessman. It was a pity that we didn't come to this commercial town little earlier. Undoubtedly we could have enjoyed more of this renowned commercial town.
Full of optimism, on the second day we ventured on our trip to Chadong (茶峒) that has a unique location, lying at the junction of Hunan, Guizhou provinces and Chongqing municipality. Perhaps it is this remarkable feature that makes this place so mystical. Chadong inspired famous writer Shen Congwen to such an extent that one of his novels called Biancheng, which means 'border town' is set in this place. Soon after we came to the town, we enjoyed the drumming show performed by a group of local women, some of which were dressed in beautiful traditional Miao costumes. We were offered to try the drum beating. It was fun to notice how some of us immediately agreed and were enthusiastically trying to compete genuine skills of Miao drummers.
Later on, we walked along the Qingshui River. There were many wooden rowing boats floating on the river in peaceful tranquillity. We took a wooden boat to cross the Qingshui River and had a traditional lunch where we tasted county’s specialty – preserved eggs – a dish that has a specific flavour and is believed to have healing effects. But this was not the only amazing culinary experience on offer for us this trip! After our lunch, we had a meeting with the representatives of The Chadong Border Town Tourism Development Company. It was a nice event to exchange ideas on the development of tourism in the area and learn more about the history, traditions and tourist attractions.
When the meeting was over, we continued our exploration of the town by simply walking along the river bank with sights of many people sitting by the river and taking pleasure in playing majiang or simply watching the passers-by and rowing boats. I especially enjoyed observing an old lady cutting pomelo for our cameramen. Although I could notice the traces of toil experienced through life on her face, big smile that manifested on her face when she was skillfully cutting the fruit said it all – she embraces love and happiness no matter what age she is or her circumstances are. Another gorgeous moment by the riverside was when I spotted two whimsical boys playing with water and pouring it over their heads. What I found very special about the entire Xiangxi region is that local people carry the things in a bamboo basket that can load up to 50kg. It is not rare to see people carrying small children on their backs in those baskets.
Another amazing day followed with a tour to Tianwen Platform (Heaven-asking rooftop天问台). Legend has it that the poet of the Chu State, named Quyuan, used to come here and while facing mountains and valleys, he raised multiple questions to the heaven to release his enduring indignation. Encompassed with gorgeous bizarre peaks and deep valleys, this splendid masterpiece of landscape is simply perfect, alluring you to sit and perceive the radiating harmony.
Our hearts were filled with indescribable joy on the way to our next target – Aizhai Bridge(矮寨大桥). This colossal construction features the world’s longest and highest tunnel-to-tunnel suspension bridge that stretches 1175, 9 metres between a tunnel in Chadong and another in Jishou with the height of 350 metres. It has been constructed to reduce tailbacks that form on zigzag mountain roads. It's tempting to say that this aesthetically pleasing bridge is a man-made marvel, cutting the travel time between the two cities from four hours to approximately one hour. Inspired by the captivating look of the iconic landmark of Aizhai village and adjacent forested ridges, limestone landscapes and terraced rice fields, we spent dozens of minutes on the viewing platform shooting the fabulous scenery.
Next, the adventure continued with the bus ride around a narrow, winding road to Dehang Miao village（德夯苗寨）. This tiny peculiar Miao village is a remote mountain village hidden in an ultimately idyllic place. Dehang is surrounded by enchanting cliffs and pillars which resemble tower guards guarding this wonderland. The local folks are very friendly. They welcomed us in the traditional way with dragon dance and drum show and we had to sing back to the line of beautiful Miao girls guarding the gate to the village in order to gain the entry. After exchanging the songs, we were majestically welcomed to the village and offered unique rice wine. Style of traditional Miao costumes is charming. The girls wore elaborately embroidered costumes embellished with silver jewellery. Many local women wear traditional clothing today.
The tour to Dehang provided us with an exclusive chance to experience various sorts of craftsmanship – weaving cloth, wax painting, tofu making or beating the dough with the hammer. I had a great deal of fun while trying to beat the dough! When it was ready, local lady worked the dough and served us glutinous rice cakes. Their taste was interesting indeed. But the fun wasn't over yet. Before we started the dinner, villagers had smeared our faces with ash to bring us harmony and luck. We couldn’t wipe it away until we left Dehang village, otherwise the magic would have lost its effect. Apart from many delicious dishes, we were served smoked bacon that is a typical dish of regional cuisine. As we could see during our walk, the atmosphere of repose that is typical of this village apparently attracts many artists to portray the peculiar architecture and marvellous towering limestone pillars and pinnacles. No wonder, this hamlet is one of the most peaceful places I've seen in my life.
In the late afternoon, we visited Qianzhou ancient town （乾州古城）with picturesque old-stone paved streets and grey brick traditional houses. In the past, Qianzhou was the capital of Miao Territory and worked as an important port linking the inland areas, while nowadays, the town serves as a window for the world to learn about the regional cultures, local folk customs and crafts of the western Hunan province. It was great to watch several skilled craftsmen including stone-cutters, weavers or Chinese papercutting craftsmen at work. The highlight of the evening was the moment when I was mesmerized by stunning performance that showcased a variety of unique traditions including primitive culture dance, the weeping marriage custom, etc.
Our tour expedition would have been incomplete if we hadn't experienced some adventure combined with mountain climbing. The sun rose again and turned into marvellous sunny morning on the following day and we set off to see Zuolong Gorge （坐龙峡） that is about 6,500m long and has been formed owing to wind erosion and crust changes during 3 million years. Our path wound through an enchanting precipitous narrow gorge, embellished with amazing rock formations, tumbling waterfalls, brooks and magnificent turquoise lake. The trail, consisting of stairs, ladders, chains, small benches and overhanging bridges, was incredibly adventurous.
Almost reluctant to leave this miraculous getaway, we continued on our tour to Red Stone Carbonate Forest Geopark（红石林）. It is the only red carbonate forest found in China which boasts countless shapes of rocks, valleys, mountain ranges, canyons, caves, green pastures, lakes, pools and waterfall springs. I was utterly overwhelmed by the multitude of striking limestone formations with colours ranging from anthracite black to red, changing its colour in response to weather conditions. Besides the Shilin Stone Forest (石林，Yunnan province), topping the list of South China Karst Formations, Red Stone Forest is a definite must-see once you have a keen interest in karst formations like me.
Every journey has its beginning full of secrets waiting to be discovered, however, every journey has an end too so that we can reflect on what we learn through it until we start new exploration. Our expedition tour finalised November 5, with the visit of Furong Town（芙蓉镇）. The town gained its reputation thanks to the film Hibiscus Town. This ancient town, which occupies the banks of the Youshui River, is more than 2000 years old. The town is architectural representative of Tujia unique dwellings. The most impressive part of the town is Wangcun waterfall that is around 60 metres high and 70 metres wide. Tujia Diaojiaolou (stilted house), which is built on the slope next to the Wangcun waterfall, and Chieftain Bridge also deserve a closer look.
I would like to express my earnest gratitude to the Hunan Tourism Bureau and the Hunan Official Web Portal（www.enghunan.gov.cn） for providing me with a unique opportunity to take part in this great project “Laowai Dai Ni You Hunan”(老外带你游湖南). I appreciated the zeal, guidance and assistance of our guides and all others involved in the organization of the Xiangxi expedition tour. Experience gained through the trip gave me a new perspective on life and immense appreciation for China's intangible cultural heritage.
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
― Jawaharlal Nehru