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A little bit of traditional China
Guìlín (China), January 24th 2010

Before we started our journey in China, we hoped to experience some of the old and traditional China. We knew that it wouldn’t be easy, in this fast changing country. We visited already some places last weeks that are described by our travel guide as the places to visit to experience the China of the past. However, these places weren’t really satisfactory. A ‘traditional’ village where you have to pay a huge entrance fee, where admission is arranged by fingerprints, and where you have to share the place with huge crowds is in our opinion an amusement park and not a traditional village. But eventually, we were surprised by the little town of Wēiníng, in the far western part of the province of Guìzhōu.

Guìzhōu is the poorest province of China. With a Gross Domestic Product of US$ 1,265 per person per year, it is more than eight times poorer than the richest province in the country: Shanghai [US$ 10,444 in 2008]. The main reason to travel to this province is to visit the lake of Caohai, near the small town of Wēiníng at the border of the province Yunnan. This lake is one of the important places for wintering migratory birds, including the threatened Black-necked Crane. Initially we travelled to the province capital Guìyáng, and from there we took the bus for the seven hours journey to Wēiníng. The biggest part of this journey takes us over a well constructed road that crosses the hilly country thanks to nice bridges and several tunnels. Due to the elevated road, we have often a great view on small valleys with picturesque villages, surrounded by terraced agricultural fields where people and buffalos work hard to earn the hard needed Yuans. After we pass the city of Shuĭchéng, the road changes to a smaller mountain road. For the remaining seventy-five kilometres, the bus needs more than two hours. The landscape also changes. We have the feeling that we are driving over a hilly high plateau with a rocky ground. On some places, farmers tried to construct farmland, but the fact that the ground is rocky means that the land can’t be really productive.

A street scene is the town of Wēiníng

After a journey of seven hours, we finally arrive in the town of Wēiníng. We find a small hotel opposite the bus station. The ladies of the reception, who are sitting around a small stove to warm their hands, can’t hold back the giggling when we two westerners enter the reception area. There is a room available and after we inspected the room and filled in the necessary papers, the ladies want to make a picture of us as proof that two westerners visited their hotel. After putting the backpacks in the room, we hit the streets to see what the town has to offer. Within minutes we realise that not many foreigners visit the place. People stare to us, some even put a hand in front of their mouth of astonishment when they see us and little children seek protection between the legs of their father or mother when we pass. We arrived in the poorest part of the poorest province of China and it isn’t difficult to see that people live a hard life here. There are no nice buildings, no fancy cloths, and a new and shiny car is rare. People in this part of China really have no cents to rub together.

While strolling through the town, we realise that this is the way most of China most have been looked like decades ago. Once in a while we are passed by a horse and wagon, with families on it who live in the countryside around Wēiníng and who are on their way to the market to sell their freshly harvested crops. The main streets of Wēiníng are not only the arteries, but also have the function of being the market of the town. Everywhere are handcarts on where local entrepreneurs offer their goods; from oranges and fresh vegetables to socks and kebabs. The people that have no money for a handcart have put plastic or carton on the sidewalk on where they display their products. Some individuals offer a variety of products, but most people have only one product on sale. Again we are surprised to notice that people can earn enough for a living by selling just one product. Especially when you know that the value of the product is low and that there are sometimes dozens of other people in the street offering the same product.

On the way to the market
In the town we see people with different clothing styles. These people are from the different minority groups that live in the area around Wēiníng, and for them the town is the main place to buy and sell goods. We see beautiful old ladies in colourful traditional dresses, accompanied by weather beaten men with the oh so characteristic flax beards. We force our way through the hectic market street. This is what we hoped for to see; a little bit of traditional China. We see pig’s heads on sale that seem to have a satisfied impression, and women are negotiating about the price of a chunk of intestines of which we can not guess the origin.

When we wake up the next morning, we are happy to see that the sky is clear. This is hopefully the day that we are going to see the Cranes. That was after all the main reason to travel all the way to this remote corner of China. The Caohai Lake is located against the town and in thirty minutes you can walk to the area where the lake used to start. But not anymore; most of the lake is transferred into agricultural land. The Caohai Lake was and still is one of the most important fresh water lakes of South-western China, and for that reason also an important wintering place for migratory birds like Cranes, Storks and Spoonbills. The Caohai Lake has a turbulent recent history. Twice during the last fifty years, once during the period of the Great Leap Forward and once during the Cultural Revolution (both initiated by Mao), the lake was drained in favour of agricultural land for the poor inhabitants of this area. However, the experiments failed, and in 1980 the lake was partly refilled again. Some of the migratory birds came back, but because of the disastrous experiments and the climate change, only 5 square kilometres of the initial 45 square kilometres of the lake survived. We spend a full day at the shore of the lake and only with much determination we managed to see only a couple of Black-necked Cranes pairs. There was no sign of any Storks or Spoonbills. However, what we did see was a lot of agricultural and fishing activities on and around the lake, and young boys in little boats intentionally disturbing the birds. So, also here, it seems to be just a matter of time before the migratory birds are chased away by human interference.

For those who are interested in Cranes and hopefully their survival: www.savingcranes.org

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