Over the next few days I’ll be in Guizhou, known for its karst landscapes, insanely spicy food, and comparative poverty. The computer is coming — but so are the kids, so blogging is likely to be erratic at best. It’s going to be a test of my Outside in addiction, and one that I’m already failing … digit tremors and threads of mild delirium are creeping in, and I haven’t left the house (or keyboard) yet.
ADDED: As Spandrell points out in the comments, ethnic complexity should have been added to the list of main Guizhou promotion points. There are a whole bunch of ‘minorities’ here, of whom the Miao are probably the best known, and exotic ‘tribal’ clothing (especially impractically-ornate head-dresses) are easy to spot even in the metropolis — more as attractions in shops and restaurants than on the street. The tribals are obviously little folk, giving the province a land-of-the-pixies feel. We’ve yet to see any foreigners here.
We’re still in Guiyang, the provincial capital, which might be the smallest Chinese city we’ve ever seen — just 1.2 million according to our (highly untrustworthy) guidebook. I pretty much always like Chinese cities, and this one — whilst definitely odd — is no exception. The architecture is only tenuously sane, consisting in large part of highly eclectic experiments in variants of hybrid Chinese modernism, or an oneiric re-visitation of global architectural history spliced with Chinese characteristics. Unconvincingly restored Ming complexes co-exist with space-ship roofed towers and grandiose domed edifices from an imagined 1920s. They’re doing something ambitious with the river, but it’s hard to quite tell what.
We spent the morning at Qianling Park, right at the edge of the city, and an amazing place to visit. Forested misty hills, covered in obscure Buddhist carvings, with the province’s largest temple at the top. Thousands of monkeys populate the park, and even though some of these now form a welfare-dependent semi-criminal underclass, they were still the best-behaved wild simians we’ve yet encountered — fearless, dignified, entertaining, and pacific. (There was no sign of the ‘heavy begging’ we’ve encountered among macaques elsewhere in China — let alone among the terrifying monkey gangs in India — and I’m putting that down to the Buddhist influence.)
ADDED: Anshun, the gateway into central Guizhou, is a scruffy town of roughly 400,000. Our hotel — The Triumphal (seriously) — was supposedly a 4-star, everything about it was vaguely dysfunctional, and the Chintz aesthetics were like needles in the eyeballs. (The room included its own Internet-connected computer, which meant that both the machine and the connection were scarcely endurable.)
Once out into the scenic areas (no easy task), the squalor and hassle was thoroughly redeemed. We were ‘doing’ geology rather than ethnography, so the main cultural stimulus was provided by Miao grannies selling cucumbers and boiled eggs to the tourists (all Chinese, as far as we could tell). The area around Huangguoshu — where a new city has been built on (tourist industry) spec. — is dominated by vast, rugged, karst tracts: canyons, caverns, sculpted mountain-pillars, and brutally-sliced cliffs, cross-cut by innumerable waterways and small lakes. It’s truly stunning.
A high point for us was passing behind the Huangguoshu Great Waterfall (Dapubu), climbing through a series of winding limestone caves that broke out intermittently into open ledges, in front of which the largest waterfall in Asia deluged downwards thunderously. We’d already explored the mind-melting Tianxing area earlier in the day [insert karst landscape superlatives here] and were bouncing against the outer limits of stimulation absorption.
Philosophical stimulation? One curiosity of special note (at Tianxing) had the English label ‘The Root of the Human Race’ — it was indeed a root, of some old, tough rock-clinging creeper, but it only really made sense in Chinese, because “Human Race” translated the character ‘ren’ (very roughly an inverted ‘V’), and what was being described was a rising cascade of converging connections. The ‘ren’ ideogram is sometimes explained as an image of convergence, so the Tianxing root was radicalizing [sic] a pre-existing conception, but one that blatantly contradicts the dominant image of human ancestry — whether Darwinian or Biblical — as a ‘tree’ diverging from a single root. It has the potential to be upsetting in all kinds of ways, so I’ve reserved this creeper a stretch of undistracted attention sometime soon …