“We need to leave.” I spoke with urgency as I looked over at my travel companion. She didn’t seem to be worried about the vibe, but I was. We had just made our way to the end of a short, dirt trail in the mountains of Guizhou Province, and turning a corner unannounced, we found a surprise.
We were face to face with forty or fifty men clustered in concentric circles on a mountainous outcropping. The location was intentionally isolated, and the men were concentrating on a bird fight. There were no women present, and the men were comfortable in their space, until we turned that corner. Then it was quiet. All eyes looked up at us.
“Lee, I don’t think we should be here,” I said to our guide again as I turned and started walking briskly back down the path, making a beeline to our car. Bird fighting and even bird song competitions are common rural Chinese sports, but I was suddenly uncomfortable both in my role as a tourist, and in my female skin. I knew 100 pairs of eyes were wondering what the hell we were doing there.
My friend was behind me and she took some time to look at the caged song birds that lined the path back to the road. I envied her nonchalance. She was less concerned than I, but agreed this was not an event where women would be welcomed. “No need to worry,” Lee said back at the car, “China is very safe.”
He was right. China is one of the safest countries I’ve visited. In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, we never worry about our 16-year-old daughter walking at night or taking the metro alone. But here in the mountains, we were intruders. This was a gathering of men; a day to celebrate the absence of the women in their lives, and the nearest villages were some distance away. No one in my family really knew where I was.
Three days earlier, in the spring of 2015, my friend and I had arrived at the Guiyang Longdongbaio Airport, and since then we had traveled through meandering, terraced mountain hamlets. The local villages of Guizhou’s minority regions, the Quiandongnan Miao & Dong region and the Quiannan Bueyi & Miao region, had offered up stupendous views, hospitable people, home stays, and delicious home-cooked meals. Shortly after the bird incident, Lee pointed out that the mountain road we had just traversed was a mere two-years old. The only access to these villages prior to the road was via a week-long backpacking trip, one he had completed with some intrepid Australians five or six years earlier. The Chinese government built the roads to make life better for villages, Lee explained, but they also allowed new access for outsiders as well.
Two years later, Guizhou, China’s poorest province, is still largely overlooked by western tourists. It can be difficult to travel in the region without a guide since nearly forty percent of its residents belong to China’s minority groups, and many don’t speak Mandarin. The Sister’s Meal Festival, a Miao celebration we attended, is one of the region’s advertised tourist destinations, and the villages that participate have been forever altered by the wealth tourism has rendered. But many other Maio and Dong villages remain remote and virtually untouched by the modern world, and accommodations for foreigners are still limited, even in Guizhou’s urban areas. Without a Miao guide, access to these areas would be nearly impossible. Some towns and small cities in Guizhou do not have any hotels permitted to host foreign visitors.
A trip through this province will require you to consider your status as an invader, a western voyeur of indigenous people. But it is also an area of China rich in natural and cultural beauty, and its rising status as an adventure destination is apparent in new, prominently placed advertising on CNN International (Visit Guizhou!).
Right away Lee was excited to show us the region he called home. Back on our first evening, after a spectacular highway drive from the airport with distant mountains beckoning, we had finally turned onto a gravel road. Then the rain set in, hand-in-hand with the dark of night. For the next hour, as rain pounded our windshield, we could barely see the road. Mud and water pooled in the divots on the dirt road, which itself narrowed to single passage and surprised us with hairpin turns. We joked in the backseat that we were going to be washed away by a mudslide, but I think we both knew it was a real possibility.
We were silent for much of that drive, glancing at one another when a truck passed by too quickly, the road became unbearably narrow, or the edge dropped off and the river rose too close for comfort. As the hillsides closed in and the road became increasingly muddy and impassable, I fought back obsessive and paralyzing thoughts about being swept away by a collapsing hillside. My daughters would never know what happened to me!
When we finally arrived at our overnight destination, our relief was palpable. The next day back in the car we retraced our drive in the sunshine only to be diverted in multiple places due to mudslides and washed-out roads! In true Chinese fashion, backhoes were already rebuilding sections of road we had crossed the previous evening. We looked at one another with raised eyebrows. We didn’t speak, but I knew we were both thinking the same thing. . .
Safely back at the car on that mountainside road, I was feeling the same sense of relief as I’d felt escaping the mudslides. Lee, a Miao tribe member who grew up in this part of Guizhou, was just trying to show us one of the cultural practices of his home. “You are very safe in China,” he said again, driving home his point that I need not be so cautious. I felt a bit silly in the comfort of the car. Bird fighting competitions are a common practice throughout China, and billboards advertising them adorned many village roadsides. But as we pulled away, Lee made a sudden concession: “I understand nervous. Many men. I did not think.” Yup.