After living in China for a year I headed to Guizhou province in Southwest China. It’s not often visited by tourists or expats, but it caught my interest because it has the largest amount of ethnic minorities in China and is known for producing different crafts in each village. So I set myself a challenge; to head to Guizhou and make something using local techniques with local craftspeople.
I flew into the capital of the province, Guiyang, before getting an unusually slow Chinese train to Kaili, where I based myself to travel to the nearby Miao villages of Matang, Xijiang, Langde and Zhouxi. I know it is possible to stay overnight in Xijiang, also known as ‘the village of a thousand households’, as well as arranging homestays in Langde. However I chose to stay in Kaili as I really liked how lively it was, especially at night, when the main street becomes packed with street food, game stalls and families slowly wandering around in the hot evenings. If busy, dusty towns are not your thing then head to one of the many surrounding villages to stay with a local Miao or Dong family (getting around). It is good to note that if you’re travelling with a member of the opposite sex and are not married you won’t be allowed to stay in the same room.
It is definitely worthwhile spending some time at the market on Sundays in Kaili where you can see women from nearby Miao and Dong villages coming to sell their wares. It’s a chance to see their forehead tattoos, stretched ears and elaborate, decorative hairstyles. A warning about the market, It is common to eat dog in Southwest China, so do expect to see dog meat being sold at the market next to the chicken and beef.
I speak a little Chinese and was on a budget so aimed to get public transport to the different villages (getting around). If you’re a bit adventurous and can speak some Chinese or have a reliable translation app then I strongly recommend this, you get to see and attempt to chat to people from the area and you feel a sense of achievement once you get to your destination (as it’s not always easy). When trying to get from Kaili to Zhouxi I was completely confused about where to get the bus from and was close to tears when 2 middle aged Chinese ladies grabbed me under the arms and plonked me on the right bus, for which I was extremely grateful.
Back to my challenge of making something using local techniques; I am happy to say I managed to arrange some batik dying with a Gejia woman in Matang village. The Gejia people officially belong to the Miao ethnicity, but in Guizhou province they have their own status. Matang is solely inhabited by Gejia, who are recognisable by their blue and bright orange traditional dress adorned with the wax batik patterns that I had a go at making.
I also spent an afternoon in a Miao house in Xijiang attempting to do some embroidery, between being gawked at or photographed. As word quickly got out that a strange foreigner was turning her hand to a traditional Miao craft. Sadly when I compared my work to those 2 ladies it fell short by a far way, but I spent 3 relaxing and rewarding days working next to them as well as seeing how integral craft is to the everyday lives of the Miao people in Guizhou.
There are 3 bus stations in Kaili, with Kaili bus station on North Wenhua Road being the most useful as this is where most buses depart for the surrounding villages. It is open between 8.00 am and 5.30pm and you can call on 855-8223098, or I would suggest visiting the day before you travel to find out exact times for the buses to where you want to go. There is a CITs (China International Travel) office at 53 East Yingpan Road (phone number – 855-8222506, email – email@example.com) but the few times I tried to go there I found it empty. To be honest once I had a list of the villages I wanted to go to, I was able to get the information I needed from either the staff at my guesthouse or at the bus station.
Tours and homestays
A Miao woman living in Kaili called Louisa (firstname.lastname@example.org) can help you arrange these in the area. She is fluent in English and knows the area well, but it is more expensive than arranging it all yourself.