-by Ernie Diaz
Poorest province in China nothing. As though lack of factory towns should cause Guizhou to feel shame. There’s some ruckus in Guizhou’s capital, Guiyang, aimed at economic transformation, or at least a little respect from the East. But even rich, well-preserved provinces like Zhejiang can’t hope to rival Guizhou in raw, natural beauty.
A warm seductress, Guizhou is renowned for her voluptuous hills and dancing tribe members. Both abound in Anshun, located in the southwest of a southwestern province. But along with mountains and minorities, Anshun also offers the reverse: aquatic marvels, and a tiny segment of China’s majority people far removed from mainstream life.
But to start with the water, a natural first choice after some hard traveling. It’s another forty five kilometer rattle out to Huangguoshu Waterfall, the price for laying claim to have seen “the largest waterfall in Asia”. It could well be the closest thing to the Amazon in Asia, to boot, the splash from seventy four meters of falling river misting all around it to a vital jungle sheen that wants only a Yanomamo headhunter poking about for the illusion to be complete. You can take in its roaring presence from the top, side, or directly underneath, peeping from the Water-Curtain cave, running your fingers along a force of nature.
And that’s good for about an hour’s entertainment, unless you’re an animist of particularly vigorous faith. But if you follow the river on down, there are more falls, diminishing in height by distance traveled more or less geometrically. Before long, a healthy intellect will begin to ponder floating rather than stumbling along the banks. For that kind of good time, you head back to Anshun 20 kilometers or so, to Dragon Palace Cave.
This boat trip is no serene open-air drift, ala Yangshuo. Nor is it some white-water bumpathon. Rather, it is a voyage into the heart of Guizhou, sub-earth, along the longest strip of underground river in China, five kilometers’ worth. The place will never get close to the PR it deserves until it changes some of the highlight stops along the way: Rape Lake, Leech Pass, and the Whirlpool by way of relief. Then again, it is traditional to encounter horrors before reaching the royal gates, in this case the Dragon Palace, folk-tale home of the Dragon King.
Karst is a hell of a stone. Besides opium, no substance has stirred Chinese imaginations more deeply. The Dragon Palace sets the bar for what phantasmagoric effects water, limestone, and a few million years can achieve. The Bed Chamber, the Receiving Cave, the Dragon-Gate waterfall, the names spring from Journey to the West lore, but the caves in their eroded, stately intricacy could well pass for the architectural genius of a dragon with a few eons on his hands, and a few million fairy subcontractors. Even the extra-loud guy in the boat, the one with the sunflower seeds, will hush before their majesty.
Now what if you have only a piddling human lifetime to make something substantial out of rock? The only reason to bother is for defense, the raison d’ etre for Tianlong Tunpu, an age-old fortress town on the outskirts of Anshun. Even twenty years after its fall, the Yuan Dynasty still had some restive remnants stirring about in Yunnan. The Hongwu Emperor sent a force three-hundred thousand strong to quell resistance. Easy to imagine the dismay of the troops who learned that, rather than return to their Nanjing-area homes, they would be stationed in this strategic neck of Guizhou indefinitely.
More than six centuries on, those soldiers’ descendants carry on day-to-day like eastern analogues of Appalachian hillbillies, folk who disappear into the mountains and see no good reason to come down, much less change their ways. The Tunpu live a Ming-era lifestyle with Colonial Williamsburg-authenticity, only by choice, not for pay. The women go about in double-breasted blue embroidered dresses, sporting Phoenix headdresses which require more skill to arrange than any Hollywood hairdo.
Farming the few patches of fertile soil, weaving, crafting and trading, the Tunpu still make their way largely untouched by any modern contrivances. Only the structures remind visitors of the Tunpu’s martial origins. High walls of stone everywhere, divided by twisting alleys, and far more shooting holes than windows to let in light and air. Seen from below as it climbs up its karst perch, Tianlong Tunpu resembles nothing so much as the hilltop fortress towns of southern Italy and Spain, the ones where strangers were likely to have burning oil poured on them at the gate.
However, hospitality is genetic for the Han, and a footsore tourist may still be invited in to an inevitably orderly Tunpu home for a cup of tea. The interiors are where signs of the villagers’ lower Yangtze origins still linger, in the entryway carvings and well-appointed inner courtyards.
With no Mongol-battling in the offing, it wasn’t too long before the Tunpu had to find something to do in their spare time besides await attack. They claim that their Dixi operabegan as a way to propitiate the gods before war, as good a pretext as any to paint themselves up and strut around yelling songs of heroism and heartbreak. Dixi opera predates Peking opera, and may be a gritty precursor, requiring no stage, nor childhood bicycle accident to hit the right notes.
The communal dinner parties still feature staples of military Ming rations, cured meat and pickles, preserved tofu and the like. Learn to love that or a steaming heap of pigs’ feet, and moutai, for at table with Tunpu you will be commanded, not requested, to eat and drink, more, again, more, again. Such can you count on the Chinese for, should you find them in an ancient stone village or on the moon.