A bullet train to nowhere

China’s fervent development threatens traditional tribal life in the country’s deep south. Catch a glimpse of China’s disappearing past in the eight ancient Dong villages of Chengyang.

We were driving down a dusty, uneven road that wound its way through a lush valley in an isolated corner of China’s Guangxi Province. The taxi bounced from pothole to pothole, its suspension undergoing a robust test. To the left and right, chickens wandered amid fields tended by hunched-over farmers. Then, from around a corner appeared an incongruous sight: wedged at the end of the gravel road was a gleaming new train station.

It had no proper entrance, no car park, no lighting and certainly no landscaping. Yet Sanjiang South station was in operation, with state-of-the-art bullet trains gliding up near-silently to the platform before zooming off and reaching speeds of up to 350kmh.

The scene encapsulated the contradictions of modern China, the station and trains representing the height of sophistication while sealed roads and other basic infrastructure were still to follow. This is a nation in a serious rush, intent on swift modernisation yet seemingly unconcerned with the thoroughness of this process. Mandarin has no tenses to indicate past or future. In contemporary China, it appears that now is all that matters.

On one hand, Sanjiang South station was a welcome sight. It had been open just one day when I arrived, and the new rail service would save me from retracing the uncomfortable five-hour bus trip I had endured to get here from the tourist hub of Guilin city, about 150km to the southeast. On the other, I knew the easier access would greatly threaten the purity of Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, a rural section of China’s deep south, where the Dong people have lived for more than 1,000 years. This tribe, with its colourful garb, stilted homes and elaborately designed wooden bridges, are scattered throughout Guangxi Province. But nowhere is their fascinatingly simple and traditional lifestyle better showcased than in the ancient hamlets of Chengyang, where eight villages skirt the winding Linxi River amid verdant farmland.

Thus far, Chengyang has avoided the tourist influx that comes as China’s cities sprawl further, swallowing up timeworn neighbourhoods and villages. The long, bumpy bus trip discourages most of the millions of domestic and international travellers who arrive in Guilin each year, lured by its stunning karst-spiked countryside. Instead they swarm to the closer, hillside villages of Yangshuo and Longsheng, heavily advertised by Guilin tour agencies, where the daily activities of the Dong, Zhuang, Miao and Yao tribes have an often stage-managed like quality. The villages’ proximity to Guilin has been both a gift and a burden: visitor spending has boosted their economies, but the local culture has been degraded and continues to erode.

Unfortunately, Chengyang may now follow a similar path. The new train station means it is now only 90 minutes from Guilin, and already, frenzied restaurant and accommodation construction is underway in the first of its eight villages, Ma’An. Within 18 months, Chengyang could be both renowned and congested. But its other seven villages have yet to be altered, meaning right now there is a rare window for travellers to experience Dong culture before the villages change forever.

In the petite hamlets of Ma’An, Pingzhai, Pingtanzhai, Yanzhai, Dongzhai, Dazhai, Jichangzhai and Pingpuzhai, daily life follows gentle rhythms – no one is in a hurry. As the sun rises, roosters sound their presence, fireplaces are lit, rusty kettles whistle and traditional garb is collected from drying spots on the windowsills of stilted wooden homes. Children gather in the sun to practice traditional song and dance. The Dong women tend to domestic chores – rinsing clothes in the river, sewing gloves for their children or plucking chickens bound for the dinner plate. Other locals wander into the nearby fields to undertake farming duties. The villages are fed by the wheat, rice and sweet potatoes they grow, while money is earned through the soybeans, tea and cotton they cultivate to sell in Sanjiang city, about 25km to the south.

Each house is of deep significance to its owners. In Dong tradition, when a child is born, several fir trees are planted. When the child turns 18, they get married and are gifted the now-mature trees, and the wood is used to construct the home in which they will raise their own children.

Several generations of Dong families sometimes reside together in these large, two-storey houses, in small villages of 20 to 40 homes. The tiny size of these hamlets fosters a close-knit social environment, and the strong sense of community is palpable in the village squares.

While inspecting a wonderfully intricate wooden pavilion in Yanzhai village, a group of old men gestured for me to join them. They seemed to be asking me where I was from – the obvious question to pose to a Caucasian visitor in a far-flung Chinese town. I tried, forlornly, to answer. “Australia?” I got blank stares. “Kangaroos?” The same reaction.

Then I realised that a product of modernity, the very thing threatening the cultural heritage of these Dong men, could help bridge the conversational chasm. I unfurled my iPad and soon the men were enraptured as they passed it around, sharing photos of my home city of Perth, of Australia’s native wildlife, and of my family and house.

Each man appeared to be elated by the rare interaction. It was a poignant moment that was broken only when one of them stood, wiggled his hips and pointed towards the village of Pingzhai. I had forgotten that, at 10 am each day, a group of villagers performed traditional song and dance in Pingzhai’s square.

When I arrived, a troupe of young men and women, decked out in vibrant cotton-and-silk outfits, were entertaining a crowd of about a dozen Chinese travellers. One male dancer was so shocked to see a Western tourist that, in his distraction, he missed several steps, giggled in embarrassment and had to wait to re-synchronise with the others.

Booming drums set the rhythm while wind instruments added texture. The talented dancers, singers and instrumentalists operated in harmony throughout. It was a nearly flawless display.

After their 45 minute showcase, the performers contentedly posed for photos with doting tourists. Their confident demeanour hinted at a fierce pride, both in their performance and in Dong culture. An ethnic group of less than three million people in a country of almost 1.4 billion, the Dong were mostly peasants, until autonomous regions like this one were set up in southern China in the mid-20th Century.

Following this, the Dong people began to prosper; they were diligent farmers and had gained acclaim for the elaborate wooden bridges that span each of the village’s fertile rivers. The most famous Dong bridge, the magnificent Chengyang Wind and Rain bridge, is almost 80m long and 11m high, adorned by delicate carvings.

Built in 1912, the bridge is made entirely of wood, apart from a foundation of stone pillars, and is cleverly dovetailed together without using nails or rivets. Its five tower-like pavilions, with multi-layered roofs and generous eaves, offer shelter to villagers on stormy days.

Locals still gather on the bridge to socialise or have meetings. But mainly, it hosts a handful of polite Dong vendors who sit in its long corridor next to piles of handmade keepsakes and silk scarves, patiently waiting for tourists to cross. Soon, their wait will be over. Chengyang will become yet another traveller-soaked Chinese region, less and less authentic by the day. For now, though, it remains a beguiling place, offering visitors an ever-rarer glimpse into an ancient tribal society.

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