The decision to go to Guizhou province in February was both a colorful blessing and a soggy, clammy curse. During and, more commonly, after the Chinese New Year, festival season unfurls in Guizhou, bringing people together for celebrations marked by dancing, music, bullfighting, horse racing and a carnival atmosphere. It's just that that particular time of year also happens to be characterized by extremely damp weather, with temperatures grasping at highs in the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit.
But is it worth it? Well, do you like lively markets? How 'bout textiles? And festivals where you're about as likely to see another Westerner as you are to see a 60-foot-tall, purple-and-green-striped housecat? Well then, if you do, I have to say yes. Oh yes.
We timed our visit just right to go to the Lusheng Festival in Zhouxi, which is reputed to be the largest festival held during Chinese New Year, sometimes drawing up to 30,000 people. Presumably they hit those figures in warmer years because it was, mmm, a little sparse.
It's worth noting that traveling in Guizhou is made significantly easier by having: a) a driver; b) an interpreter and c) a guide. Of those, we had a driver. We were connected with him through Billy Zhang, local guide, coordinator extraordinaire, walking local textile encyclopedia (Hire him. Immediately. Thank me later.) and literally the only person we met in Guizhou who spoke English. We lucked out—our driver was kind, friendly and vigilant, despite us not being able to say anything intelligible to each other. He dropped us off and we wandered out into the crowds, where Miao women in traditional hairstyles and clothing rubbed shoulders with Han Chinese tourists wielding cameras with lenses that could ostensibly give you a good look at the surface of Jupiter.
The lusheng is a Miao instrument, sometimes described as a flute, made up of multiple bamboo pipes, all fitted into a larger tube into which the player blows—they can be as tall as nearly 9 feet. Its sound is singular, droning and maybe something of an acquired taste. The instrument is a cultural touchstone for the Miao and the festival is the continuation of generations of tradition. Watching the men dance and play as the young women circle them in a dance of their own, it's hard not to develop a soft spot for the instrument.
Festivals like this one have long served as a way for young men and women to meet, pitch a little woo, maybe get serious and start putting the wheels in motion for marriage. That's why clothes and jewelry are so important in the context of the festivals—they send a message. Boys aren't just looking for a snappy dresser here. The silver a woman wears—and how much of it she's wearing—and the quality and workmanship of her garments spell out her family's wealth and status in visual terms. Miao clothing, hairstyles and jewelry are mindbogglingly diverse, differing from village to village and clan to clan.
The methods and materials used to make the clothes are (not surprisingly) evolving and the time consuming work of dyeing, weaving, embroidering, felting and so on is less common these days. Nevertheless, even when created using machine-made materials, the costumes are dramatic and beautiful. The aprons and sleeves of the costumes worn by women from Zhouxi (above) incorporate the silk and silk felt work for which the village is renowned.
The silversmithing skills of the Miao are on display in the huge necklaces the young women wear, but maybe even more so in their headdresses, which are delicately crafted to bounce and shimmer with even the most minute movement. The little birds in the hair of these women flapped their tails as they moved through the dance.
Like any good festival, there was plenty of food on hand in Zhouxi. Seeing as we were freezing our asses off in the rain-sleet mix that was falling, these little mashed potato fritters, speckled with green onion and served dusted with chili powder, appealed to us powerfully. They were the perfect comfort food: hot, creamy, savory and rib-sticking, and the chili-sesame sprinkle on top packed the punch of Guizhou's not-effing-around affection for spiciness. The people making them were total sweethearts, going so far as to place a brazier filled with hot coals at our feet. Another customer stopped in and requested a photo with us, and after we agreed, the mom-and-son team asked for one too.
After we stuffed ourselves full of spicy taters, we walked back out into the plaza, where our guide picked us out of the crowd, pulled out his cell phone and showed us a photo of what was up next.
To be continued . . .