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Full Circle

Day 70: Guiyang

Michael Palin - Full CircleA few years ago we would not have been allowed to travel in this area at all, much less visit minority villages, as we are to do today.

Since the 'opening up' began things have started to change. Our hotel, a thirty-one-storey joint-venture project between China and Singapore, is one of the results. It's lavish in concept but dreadful in detail. The exterior wall is covered in thin bands of tiny white tiles, all hand applied, like the interior of a public lavatory. The rooms look as though they have had teams of kick-boxers staying in them. The walls are scuffed and smeared and the wallpaper is already peeling. 'Guest is God' says the brochure, which sounds reassuring until you realize that China is officially atheist.

A happier consequence of the 'opening up' is the presence of Priscilla Wan as our guide. Her Chinese name is Sheng Wan. She holds a degree in English from the University of Beijing. Favourite book, Wuthering Heights. Priscilla comes with a half-dozen other minders - advisers from the Minorities Ministry and apparently indispensable members of the Foreign Relations Department. It is a stuffy, crowded little bus that sets out for the villages in the mountains east of Guiyang where the Miao people live. There are five million of them in the country. A sizeable minority anywhere else, but in China only 0.2 per cent of the total population.

After an hour or two the narrow, metalled road becomes a track which twists and turns in a series of hairpins, around which every fragment of land is tilled. The combination of drifting wet mist, green grass and stone walls reminds me more of Wales or the west of Ireland. When the weather is as wet and cold as it is today the peasants' labour loses its picturesque appeal and the reality of wading, bare-legged and knee-deep in cold mud to plant rice stalks, as rain runs off hats and down backs, is there to see in hard-set, deeply-lined faces. We end up at 5000 feet.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 70
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Guiyang
  • Book page no: 100

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