Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

A 75-year-old Zhuang minority porter in the tiny hill village of Ping An.

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On the Dragon’s Backbone

With terraced rice paddies and unusual mountains, China’s Guangxi province is the stuff of legend

In Beijing’s train stations, the railroad picnic of choice is whole Peking duck in a sealed vacuum bag. And for a really good time, why not a couple of bottles of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon? Everything helped on the 29-hour, 2135-kilometre journey that took my wife Carol and I south to subtropical Guanxi Province. We were in a “soft bed” compartment and even then, the beds answered the question “how to recycle concrete.”

Sino-pop blared through the corridors. Chinese passengers slugged back thermoses of hot water. We consoled ourselves with duty-free Chivas. The evening was filled with the lurching and grinding, scraping and banging, grunting and rattling of the train and the piteous sounds of passengers waddling to Chinese and Western toilets to send human waste on to the interurban track.

The interminable journey took us through the provinces: Hebei, Henen and Hubei, where we crossed the mighty Yangtze River into South China. In Hunan, industrial grey gave way to a terrain of sumpthous greens. Then, with the resonance of a prison break, we entered the subtropical paradise of Guangxi, its southern borders Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin.

We saw farmers in broad-brimmed straw hats working rolling patchworks of green — rice, tea, lotus, mulberry — against a painted backdrop of misted mountains. Newly flooded paddies reflected like glass. Young rice appeared as sprouts of green fire. This was the China of my dreams.

My personal mission was to see the great Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces at Longsheng. If my sense of wonder sorely needed a kick-start, this should do it.

Guilin beauty

The next day, led by our guide, the radiant, near-omniscient Amelia Sun, we explored the boulevards and parks of Guilin. Traditionally regarded as a jumping-off point for a cruise among the rocky pinnacles of the Li River, Guilin is the most pleasant and civilized city I’ve seen in 30 years of China travel.

Our guide took us to lunch at a local chain restaurant with the odd name of McFound. But McFound is muchbetter than McFood as we North Americans know it. Donkey loomed large on the menu. We lunched on half a dozen dishes including a marvelous mélange of deep-fried shredded lamb with a warm salad of leeks, chilies and deep-fried bread seasoned with cumin. Twenty bucks feed four extravagantly.

We were even more impressed with the stylish local chain Chunji Roast Goose restaurant, Guilin’s answer to the trattoria. Its response to the frite is deep-fried white and purple potatoes. Its take on escargots is chopped river snails tossed with garlic chives. But the best was the room’s namesake, roast goose in the style of Peking duck, its skin crisp and crackling, its juicy flesh falling from the bone. It was the best goose I’d ever eaten, planets away from the blubbery birds I’m used to at home.

Local sights are no afterthought: Seven Star Park would rank as a five-star park in our country. Its landscaping is lush and verdant, its waterfalls elegant. Giant pandas have a park of their own in which to chomp bamboo and amuse tourists. Seniors huddled around stone tables and dealt cards with the intensity of Mississippi riverboat card sharks.

Another stop brought us to Reed Flute Cave, one of those fantastically floodlit cave complexes so commonly found in China’s karst landscapes. It reminded me of the sets for Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 1958 version.

Light and water works

Ten million tourists a year arrive for the Li River cruise that, on travel posters, outstrips even the Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors. More than 60 double-decker cruisers ply the river, dispensing rat-a-tat-tat tourist information and buffet food officially despised by 96 percent of foreign tourists. But the toilets were unusually clean and the scenery filled the eye — a 20-kilometre-long gauntlet of eerie karst needles softened by a foreground of fluffy bamboo forest. (A Chinese brochure waxes about “a blue silk ribbon” with “jade green hairpins”). Like all great landscapes, it left us feeling like insects, a healthy-enough lesson.

We disembarked at Yangshuo, the river’s tourist hub. Its West Road is one of those carnival atmospheres in which foreign visitors, merchants, short-order cooks, bartenders and pickpockets collide under neon moons. One might dine on beer fish — Li River catfish braised in beer — or a wood-fired pizza, purchase a Red Army hat or a minority tribal headdress or disappear into a bar or disco to make instant friends.

But the energies of West Road flushed from the brain when we took in the region’s class attraction, a breathtaking entertainment conjured up by Zhang Yimou, director of such breakthrough films as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, and mastermind of the spectacles that opened and closed the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Yangshuo’s Impressions, Liu Sangjie beguiles 600,000 domestic and foreign visitors a year. His stage is the Li River itself, at a juncture contained by a dozen karst mountains — all floodlit, of course. The plot is a Zhuang minority love story involving a local girl and a fishermen, but it’s quickly forgotten in Yimou’s eye-popping effects and the virtuoso performance of a cast of 600 dancers and singers. Figures rise out of the river, a flotilla of bamboo boats materializes out of artificial fog and the heroine prances on a slice of moon. China meets Vegas, only bigger, and it’s a knockout.

Enter the Dragon

Finally, with huge anticipation, we departed for Longsheng and the Dragon’s Backbone. It’s essential to understand the importance of the Zhuang. With 16 million members, they are China’s largest minority. The indigenous people of the region, Guanxi Province — properly the Zhuang Guangxi Autonomous Region — was created for them.

It was the Zhuang who forged the rice terraces into the mountainside 800 years ago — eight centuries of back-breaking toil. They remain the custodians of the Dragon’s Backbone.

Their achievement calls up the venerable admonition about the preciousness of rice: “Don’t waste a single grain of rice because the farmer will have paid more than there are drops of sweat for it. Waste rice and you will become a water buffalo in your next life.”

The largest rice terraces in China, the Dragon’s Backbone blankets 66 square kilometres at altitudes from 300 to 1100 metres. The terraces swirl around Longji Mountain (the highest peak in South China) from base to summit, a phenomenon of stupendous beauty from spring, when the flooded paddies shimmer like a thousand mirrors, to autumn, when the mature rice, ready for harvest, turns to necklaces of gold.

A thousand steps — at any rate, what feels like a thousand steps — lead up to the alpine village of Ping An, one of the principal points for viewing the rice terraces. I could barely wheeze my way up and I wasn’t even carrying my suitcase. With the agility of a 22-year-old Olympic athlete, a 75-year-old Zhuang lady lugged the bag up in a back basket.

Stacked on a hillside, Ping An is a vertical settlement whose narrow alleys lend it a certain medieval feel. With more than 400,000 visitors a year, it booms with hotels and restaurants. The former are small and rustic, tidy and comfortable, with Western toilets and decent restaurants serving Chinese and Western fare, everything from lamb to schnitzel and apple pie. Home-made snake wine is a big hit with domestic tourists.

Lost view

We had booked our hotel for two nights. I was excited about the prospect of photographing the terraces in every possible light. Just minutes from the village, they could be seen undulating in wide, graceful arcs. The laziest postcard shot couldn’t avoid the visual grandeur.

But I was to be taught all too forcefully the meaning of American social writer Eric Hoffer’s words when he wrote, “Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy — the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.”

Ascending the trail, vistas crowded my eye. But the surrounding mountains had disappeared into a soupy haze. Instead of blue skies and puffy cumulus clouds, the flooded paddies reflected only the colour of dirty sheets in a cheap motel. The light of the Dragon’s Backbone had been stolen.

“It began a week ago,” I was told. “A wave of pollution rolled down from the Yangtze. It won’t lift.” Of course: 10,000 chemical factories, five major steel manufacturing centres and seven oil refineries line the great river. Their effluent, wafting north, can prompt the Great Wall to disappear like a magician’s rabbit. Here, in the deep south, it squats on the Dragons’s Backbone.

But, I told myself desperately, the journeyer should always leave a place unsatisfied, lusting for more, for something missed. Such a thought, at least, has hope in it. The irony: what I was missing is what brought me here in the first place.

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