Dong. Old wood, green rice
In and around Zhaoxing 肇兴, where the Dong (Kam) people live.
Guizhou Province of China is known for its ethnic diversity. One of the many ethnic groups that inhabit it are the Dòng 侗. They live mostly in the southeastern corner of Guizhou, where it borders Guangxi and Hunan. If you are not familiar with the geography of China, look at the map I prepared for this article.
Kam (or Gaeml) is how they call themselves, while “Dòng” (Dòngzú 侗族) is the Chinese exonym. At 3 million, their populace is small – but still comparable to that of Jamaica or Lithuania for example. Their language belongs to the Kra–Dai family – a group realted to the neighboring Sino-Tibetan languages through historical contact, yet of separate heredity.
The Dong live in the mountains: in villages and in tiny towns. I arrived to the largest of them, Zhaoxing 肇兴. It has been turned into a tourist attraction and the entrance to the settlement is paid. It feels authentic nevertheless. Busy but charming, hundreds of wooden buildings line its network of narrow alleys. Between and above rise drum towers built in the characteristic Dong national style. You will see them on several of my pictures – there are as many as five drum towers in Zhaoxing.
Another feature essential to Dong architecture is the covered bridge. The most famous and impressive “wind and rain bridges” 风雨桥, as they are called, are scattered further south, in the Guangxi province’s municipalities of Liuzhou and Guilin. Yet, they are found also on this side of the provincial border. Zhaoxing has several of them too.
Life centers beside the quiet stream along which the town is built. Children wash their heads and play with water, women prepare the indigo dye, men manufacture lúshēng 芦笙 (traditional musical instrument).
It was my first day in Guizhou so I chose to eat the province’s most famous dish – fish in sour soup 酸汤鱼. It is associated with both Miao and Dong minorities, and it originated here, in southeastern Guizhou.
Local products worth being caught by your eye include rice, tea and spirits. You will find bags of Liping Fragrant Tea (黎平香茶 or 香绿茶), a green tea, but black and white teas are also produced here. (*Lípíng is the name of the county in which Zhaoxing is located, 黎平县). A shop selling Mian Wang Liquor 勉王酒 had vessels, costumes, masks and artworks on display, feeling like a small museum.
The local variety, or family of varieties, of rice has quite a fame: the fragrant glutinous rice or “Kam Sweet Rice”, 香禾糯.
In Zhaoxing, among the foods made from rice are cíbā 糍粑, traditional cakes of soft / rubbery / sticky texture. Obviously, I haven’t failed to try it (sorry, no photos).
On the two pics above you see women cleaning rhizomes of Houttuynia cordata, fishwort. It is known as zhé’ěrgēn 折耳根, literaly “fold ears root,” or yúxīngcǎo 鱼腥草, meaning “fishy-smelling grass,” and these names give you an insight on both its appearance and… reputation. Its fragrance and taste puts off both foreigners and the Chinese. Eaten almost exclusively in Guizhou and some neighboring areas including Sichuan, it is added to salads, soups and stir-fries. I might be a total omnivore and a bizarre taste explorer, but this one is a befuddling challenge. Not strong, not unpleasant, not… it’s just indescribable.
RICE WITH A VIEW
Zhaoxing is delightful but touristified. Fortunately for more adventurous visitors – beyond it lie green hills notched with terraced fields and dotted with tranquil villages. Equipped with a tent, I left the town to spend the night in the mountains. Next day I was ready to explore the countryside.
The settlements in the area are connected with roads but it is much more interesting to reach them by small footpaths used by farmers.
I saw several villages – some passed or crossed and some visible on opposite hillsides. All had old wooden architecture, including at least one drum tower each, but it was always surrounded with newly build grey concrete buildings: a regretful, if intriguing, hodgepodge.
My goal was to get to the village of Tang’an 堂安村. It is free from that “urban” sprawl. Time seems to have frozen here. Photographic opportunities abound: stilt houses, old ladies relaxing in shade, meat sizzling on a barbecue overlooking rice paddies.
A pleasant surpirse awaited me in the village – an openair wooden platform with boards with infographics and exquisite photo prints. Called Tang’an Dong Eco Museum 堂安侗族生态博物馆, it is a Sino-Norwegian initiative – which explains the chic minimalistic design. It is a part of a larger network of “eco villages”, so you might stumble upon it somewhere else in China.
The culture, the language and life of the Dong bear similarities with the Miao. This ethnic group will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned.