After months it finally arrives, in a timid Chinese September in Guangzhou, a few vacation days for the Mid-Autumn celebration, the perfect occasion to exchange the famous (and very heavy) yuebing and for a few days’ escape from the city and the daily grind.
What nice place can we go to? After an online search of forums and various sites we decide to visit the thousand year old village Yao of Nangang, located in the northwest of Guangdong, close to Guangxi. The route is not very complicated: a bus from Guangzhou to Liannan (连南) and from there a shuttle or taxi to the village.
We leave around lunchtime without planning anything aside from which bus station to leave from and which is the first to leave. We didn’t have much time to prepare for our brief trip but basically that’s OK, an adventure begins with a light heart and shoulders.
We get to the station only 4 minutes before the first bus leaves (14:15), quickly buy our tickets (Guangzhou – Liannan 100 Yuan) and are surprised when we are asked for our identification documents at the ticket counter.
Ever since we’ve been in China this is the first time we’ve been asked for our passport when traveling by bus. Even during the Chinese New Year, buying tickets for the nighttime bus to the border of Vietnam, we were never asked for any documentation.
It seems that this new request is tied to a new policy enacted by the Chinese Ministry of Transportation, in effect since May of 2016, where even when buying bus tickets for a domestic route it is now required to present a document of identity .
At any rate, fortunately we both had our documents with us.
Despite being further held up by passport control we manage to get on to the first bus that passes.
Synthetic leather seats, trash buckets and, flapping above our heads the famous Chinese red plastic bags (used indiscriminately for refuse of every sort such as vegetables, garments, meat from the market, etc). After a few minutes of waiting the motors start… ready, set, go!
Finally we escape from the city, away from the cars, the crowds, the routine, towards the country, nature, silence. As the scenery changes outside my window I feel lighter, the shades of the luxurious and evergreen Cantonese landscape shine under a peaceful sun at the end of September. The sky is blue and covered by a light haze. I forget every thought and worry and allow myself to be rocked by the landscape (and the swaying of the bus).
At about the two hour mark you begin to glimpse mountains like those of Guilin or Yangshuo, the trip is still long so I take advantage of the time to learn about our destination with my extremely slow cell phone.
The village Yao of Liannan is situated 800 meters above sea level and its origins go back to the Song era. It seems that it reached the apex of its development in the Ming and Qing eras (1368-1911) reaching over 7000 inhabitants and 700 homes. This is the largest and oldest ethnic Yao village in China. At present there remains only about a hundred inhabitants in the village – many young ones have gone down to the valley or moved directly to the cities.
At 17:28 our bus stops at a service station where we change and get onto another bus parked next to it, which will bring us to our arrival station: Liannan.
Liannan is almost completely closed for the holidays aside from a few hotels near the station. We can stop and stay in the valley but we decide to look for a place directly in the village so as not to betray our proverbial love for taking risks.
Since it seems that at the time of our arrival shuttle buses aren’t running for the village of Nangang, we stop a taxi that brings us to our destination for 80 Yuan (negotiated down from 120 Yuan). From the window I observe the mountains of Liannan rising straight up, dark and impassible in the twilight, while my thoughts are interrupted – ever more insistently – by hunger.
After about a half hour ride, we get to the square at the foot of the village. We right away barrel into one of the open restaurants around the square, a sort of Spartan and peaceful rural tourism where you’re served a wonderful dinner of local greens and meats accompanied by the inevitable toasts with baijiu offered by our cheerful table neighbors who are from the area.
You can breathe in a great party atmosphere: men at the table drink and laugh, kids gravitate to the big tent with their skewers and red cheeks, while the women cook and keep an eye on the little ones. An ageless grandmother wanders around slowly with her flowered shirt and a placid white helmet while we all slowly fade into a cloud of barbecue.
I think this might be one of the most genuine, beautiful and relaxing dinners that I’ve had after quite some time in China.
After dinner we ask for information from the laoban (head) of the little restaurant, who directs us to some sort of homestay at the top of the village, with rooms for rent for 100 Yuan a night. Led by the laoban, we climb the stone stairs and arrive at our destination. In the little stone house they have arranged, on the second floor, very exclusive rooms with walls of plywood as dividers and a Turkish bathroom without pretenses; despite everything it would be foolish to complain, because in the end we have everything we need and the basics for our primary needs.
The next morning we get up at the rooster’s crow (literally) and we head out and say hello to the village on a lightly cloudy day.
Nangang is perched at the top of the mountain, you get there by a main stairway and a few small stone paths that connect the various houses. At the top of the village there’s a temple dedicated to Pangu (a primordial divinity, creator of all things as well as the mythological first living being on earth) with many of the older ones of the place trying to sell you at all costs some incense to burn in his honor.
Along the main ways of the village, locals dressed with typical costumes sell handicrafts and local foods, some showcase dances, singing or play traditional instruments. I have to say that in general it often seemed a little forced and catered to tourists’ expectations – even the souvenirs didn’t seem particularly original. Besides this new development, the village gives the impression of having maintained its original appearance, without the excessive fine-tuning that sadly distinguishes many tourist sites of continental China (a prime example is Beijing’s Forbidden City).
Climbing the main stairs, to our surprise we encounter a small cafè, in which a true laowai can have an American coffee or taste a small glass of heimijiu, a fortified wine with an alcohol content of about 8 degrees that is quite pleasant.
Chatting with the owner of the mini cafè is his local friend, and we discover that the right price for a room in the village (during ordinary periods, not holidays) is about 60 Yuan and that yearly rent in one of the homes in the village is the ridiculous sum of 3000 Yuan. We have to admit that at this point we gave it some thought and took the friend’s contact information.
After the break and the usual conversations about the price of homes, we continue our tour on the village’s paths, peaceful and clearly increasingly neglected by progress and any sign of modernity. The landscape that surrounds Nangang is very beautiful despite the haze.
We go down from the center of the village and take a tour of the terraced fields nearby, the day slowly clears and we enjoy the last few moments of rural peace, having in fact decided to leave in the late afternoon to avoid getting in too late to Guangzhou.
Spending these last moments admiring the panorama and taking photos, we ask the owner of the restaurant where we ate the day before if he knew someone who could take us to the valley, and again for 80 Yuan, the laoban’s friend offers us a ride. This time however we have him leave us at an intersection where several buses seem to pass for Guangzhou. Arriving at the intersection, we don’t see any sign of a bus, but we are still fortunate because by sheer chance we find ourselves a small van heading right for Guangzhou, who lets us aboard for the modified sum of 100 Yuan a person. There are seven of us in the van, including the driver.
We leave to the rhythm of carnival music while one of the noisiest passengers dispenses burps and cigarettes with great nonchalance.
We realize that we weren’t particularly fortunate with the weather: as the contraption hurtles ahead and we get farther away, the sky gradually clears and the mountains look ever more beautiful and defined, all as if telling us not to go, or inviting us to come back…and so it will be, I don’t know how long I can stay in the city before taking another escape. See you soon, very soon!