Colourful Guizhou – Joyful Festivities and People

Needlework is an important part of daily life in Kaili (凱里). Everywhere we went, we saw women sewing.

After spending time in a small rural village Huanggang (黃崗), we went to a small city called Kaili (凱里). It has a population of only about six hundred and fifty thousand people. My first impression of the city was that it has many slopes and the roads are bumpy. I booked a two-bedroom apartment but upon arrival, the landlady informed me that the person who stayed the night before wanted to extend and asked if I would consider renting a bigger apartment.

The woman was working on an old pleated skirt – at the Miaoxiu Market where new and old embroidery and costumes of various tribes are sold (苗繡里淘集市)

The landlady has a few apartments and I chose a three-bedroom flat which is more spacious and has a much better view overlooking terraced fields for the same price of a two-bedroom. Life is full of unexpected changes and going with the flow does have its perks.

Every morning we woke up in the midst of mist and gradually the village in front of our flat re-emerged as the mist faded away.
Daisy loved sunbathing in the balcony and enjoyed the lovely view.

China’s property market went bust in 2021 and many big property developers such as Evergrande and Country Garden went into serious financial difficulties. There were unfinished property projects all over China. Our rented apartment is built by Evergrande and our block is in fact the last block that is completed before the developer went into trouble.

There are many tasty snacks in Kaili but they tend to be a bit too spicy for our delicate pallete. When we ordered, we always specifically asked not to add chilli. This snack resembles a crunchy rice cracker sandwich (烤鍋巴) filled with potato shreds, picked vegetables and chopped spring onion and parsley.

There were blocks of concrete and exposed rusty metal beams not far from our block and building materials scattered all over the ground outside the rear entrance. We were lucky that our apartment is on 15/F and the ugly lumps of concrete were just beneath our line of vision. Our van was parked at the rear entrance which was still a dirt path. We had to drive 200 metres of bumpy dirt trail before rejoining proper concrete road.    

We tried the “sour soup beef hotpot” (酸湯牛肉火鍋) , a specialty of Guizhou. I could smell the fragrant aroma of the soup base the second I stepped into the restaurant. Instead of cooking the meat piece by piece (the Cantonese way), the waitress told us to put all the meat in one go – miraculously due to the vinegar in the soup, the meat stayed tender despite being cooked for a long time.

We rented numerous apartments over the past three years of travel and I must say our landlady in Kaili is the most helpful and friendliest we have encountered. She and her husband came to change bedsheets the day we moved into the flat. She is very bubbly and talkative. She mentioned that we could buy fresh vegetables in front of our estate as many old ladies from nearby villages bring their produce to sell in the morning. She told us to not to hesitate asking her if there’s anything we needed as we are friends. I thought that she was just being amiable but oh my she really meant it.

This is the Zhongbo Street (中博步行街) where one can find all kinds of local cuisine and street food. It is surrounded by semi open walkways of restaurants and manicure parlours. It gets very busy at night.

On the third day around lunch time, she showed up at our door out of the blue. Apparently, she texted me that morning to ask if we were able to find the spot where the old ladies sold vegetables. As I didn’t check my phone all morning, I missed her message. She decided to come over during her lunch break to make sure we were ok.

The locals love rice and bean noodles which come in different width and shapes. Of course we needed to try some.
Our landlady suggested us to see the sunset at the top of Xianglu Hill (香爐山). It looks like an incense holder which is what its name means.
A steep climb to the hill.
It’s a popular spot for both the locals and tourists to see Kaili city and enjoy the sunset. We saw many young people and couples taking photos.

She also gave us lots of tips of where to visit around Kaili. But given our slow pace, we spent lots of time walking around in the city the first few days just to get a feel of it and check out the various coffee shops. We went to the weekly market and it was like going to an exotic fair with so many stalls – people from nearby villages selling all kinds of vegetables, livestock and local food. We also stumbled into a street dedicated to selling all the dress-making materials, headpieces and silver jewelry.

The clothes of Guizhou’s various ethnic minorities are known for their  vibrant colours and exquisite needlework. We walked into a street dedicated to selling all kinds of fabric, threads and ornaments for cloth-making.
The women made great effort to look their best. Notice the impressive hairstyling of this woman. It’s actually ready made and available in this market.
The costumes of the Miao tribe (苗族) are different depending on where they are from. These red headpieces are worn by married Miao women and can be covered with patterned fabrics.
There are many small workshops like this one making delicate silver jewelry.
Bee larva is a delicacy in this part of China.

One evening, when we were having dinner at a restaurant near our flat, our landlady called us. We invited her to join us. She told us that a father and daughter from Beijing were staying at one of her flats.  They planned to visit a village to see the festive parade and the landlady wanted to hook us up so that we could go together. 

So the next morning, we met with Zhijia (之嘉) and her father downstairs and the four of us set off to a village called Huangping (黃平). Zhijia is a PhD student and she’s doing research for her dissertation on one of the Miao tribe’s traditional garbs. She acquainted a young guy from Huangping via Xiaohongshu (equivalent of Pinterest and Instragram combined) who is knowledgeable about the traditional costumes and fabrics of various ethnic minorities in Guizhou. He invited Zhijia to see the Lusheng (reed wind pipe) festival (蘆笙節) of his hometown. It was a three-day harvest celebration initiated with ancestral worship. Nearby villagers would gather together in their traditional costumes to take part in parade and performances.

Zhijia’s friends (two young men standing next to her) dressed up in their traditional costume to take part in the parade.
Looking beautiful with the intense colours of the costume and the exquisite silver jewelry.
We met this energetic man on the street. He performed a beautiful dance for us.

Due to the pandemic, these annual festivities were suspended and only resumed for the first time in 2023. Thanks to our landlady’s hook up with Zhijia as our guide , we were able to witness it first hand. We arrived at Huangping about 10am. People were getting the carnival and food stalls ready. We met up with Zhijiang’s young friend Liangliang (亮亮) and his friend. Then we went to Liangliang’s uncle’s home for lunch. In the city, we never invite strangers to a meal at home. But people here are very hospitable and friendly.

We had chicken hotpot with Zhijia’s friend’s family.

After lunch, we walked to the town square and saw groups of women from different villages at the square getting ready for the parade. The town square was transformed into a sea of vivid colours with each group of women wearing beautiful dresses of striking embroidered patterns, silver jewelries and eye-catching headdresses.

The ornaments and headdress were simply breathtaking!

The parade was led by a group of men playing the Lusheng, reed windpipes. They looked very smart in the traditional dark costumes and impressive headwear.  The sound of Lusheng was monophonic and soothing.  Everyone looked their best at the festive occasion.

Lusheng (reed windpipe) is a traditional musical instrument in Guizhou. The ones in this photo is the longer version which has a deeper sound.
Zhijia interacted with various tribe people to understand more about their clothes.

We followed the parade and gradually moved to the amphitheatre to see the variety show. People from the nearby villages were invited to sing and dance. We watched briefly and decided to go back. Liangliang persuaded us to stay for dinner but we politely declined as we were worried about the road condition after dark as roads in Guizhou are not for the fainthearted. You could tell that he’s disheartened that we could not join dinner which shows how generous and hospitable the locals are.

Many of the tribal dresses have tiny silver bells which make a lovely harmonized jangling in the parade and dance.

The next two weeks, we joined Zhijia and her father to see a number of festive activities in the nearby Miao villages. We also went to a village market where the locals buy fabrics and materials to make their beautiful clothes. Zhijia told us about the different styles and the sewing details like how they sew the silver threads into the patterns.

Miao women taking part in the traditional drum dance (銅鼓舞) in a small village called Qingman (青曼)
The drum dance is a slow circular dance to the beating of the copper drum-shaped gong in the centre.
The calm beating of the copper gong was very soothing and gave an almost zen like feel to the dance
The patterns of these ribbons symbolize various animals like butterflies, frogs and other meanings.
Embroidery patterns are hand drawn.
Silver threads are handsewn into the Dong cloth.
I am not sure which tribe these old women belong to but their costumes are made of striking cross-stitch patterns which is very different from other tribes.
This impressive Miao man attracted many people wanting to take photos with him.
It’s great to see people of all ages took part in the festivities. The children looked really smart.

Each village has their own style of patterns and headwear. The colours and specific patterns they wear also differ depending on age. Children and young adult women wear sharp colours and more elaborate stitchwork while the elderlies wear simpler style and more subtle darker colours. The elderlies often wear wrapped around headscarves instead of elaborate headdress. Each pattern tells a story or legend. It was fascinating to see how the history and heritage are vibrantly captured in their clothes. The women are all excellent at needlework and everywhere we went, we could see them sewing.

Each pattern tells a folklore or has specific meaning.
This old woman has embroidered countless exquisite embroidery over the years and been invited abroad numerous times to showcase her works. She explained to Zhijia the legend behind these patterns – these legends are the foundation of their faith and heritage.
We noticed that whenever we asked the tribal people to take a photo together, they would take time to dress up. The woman quickly put on a short jacket and long pinafore skirt before we took this photo. They felt it’s an honour and wanted to look their best. We were so lucky to have met Zhijia and her father and learned a lot from them.

Unlike the Han Chinese who use the lunar calender, Miao people use the calendar of the sun. Each Miao village celebrates Guzang Festival (鼓藏節) every thirteen years to pay respect to their ancestors and bless the village safe and good harvest. There are various accounts of how this festival originated. According to one version, the ancestors were neglected over time and their spirits visited their descendents’ home. The descendents fell ill for a long time and the local priest discovered that the ancestors were unhappy. So the descendents made offering and that’s how it all started and evolved into a major event which involves buffalo fights, cow/pig killing and offering to the ancestors and consecutive celebrative activities.

We joined this spectacular dance where many young women (those with magnificent horn-shaped headdress and fuchsia feathers) took part as part of the Taohuadai (桃花戴) – a traditional courtship ceremony where young men court the girls they like by playing windpipe non-stop. Their friends or relatives would help out by accompanying them and play together. The girl would give the man the symbolic love token to reciprocate the affection.
The dance started with only twenty or so people and gradually grew into hundreds as more and more people joined.

Apparently, our landlady had never attended the Guzang festival and she invited us to join the pig killing lunch together at a nearby Miao village called Taoyao (陶堯村). The family had to pay respect to the ancestors by offering wine in silence. We were told that during the offering, we should not utter a sound and if we did not want to drink, we should turn down by gesturing without saying a word.

The locals love chillies. Notice the special design of the hotpot where the chilli source is strategically placed over the boiling food to keep it warm.

The meal was set on a long table and we sat among the family and relatives. A few hotpots of offals were served with vegetables and rice. The legs and meat were given to the relatives to take home after the meal.

We were not the only ones gatecrashing lunch. The man sitting next to our landlady’s friend is from Shenzhen who visited the village during his business trip. The meal was set on a long table (長桌飯)
Guizhou is famous for their hard liquor. We drank the home fermented maize wine which was poured from a 3-litre plastic gasoline bottle. So you can imagine what hardcore drinkers the locals are.

After lunch, we took a stroll in the village. We were repeatedly invited by the locals to join them to eat. They were so eager to share their lives. They were very musical and loved to sing. It was so joyful and definitely a whole new experience for us city people who are way more reserved and keep to ourselves.

Impressive display of pork legs to be given to the relatives to take home.
This is how the locals bring the fresh meat home!
The locals were so friendly and passionate. The man suddenly started singing while we were chatting.

Our experience in Kaili had been one of its kind.  It was almost unreal to be surrounded by all the vibrant traditions and rituals of the Miao and Dong people as if I had stepped back in time and transported into another world. But most of all, it’s the kindness of the people we met and the friendship that blossomed which made our time here most captivating and memorable. We certainly would not have stayed in Kaili for six weeks if we didn’t meet our landlady. She made us feel so welcome – she even came to se us when we came down with a flue and offered to buy food for us.

Very refreshing local dessert we tasted.
Daisy fell in love with the tiny heater. She was always hovering around it. When it was not turn on, she would sit next to it – hinting “you forgot to turn the shiny hot thing, mom!)

As it was getting colder, we felt it’s time to get back on the road and headed to somewhere warmer to spend the winter – Guizhou’s winter is known to be tough due to its high humidity and chilliness. So we headed westward to our next destination Anshun (安順).

Always eat where the locals eat. The locals come to this restaurant to play mahjong and then have dinner. It had become one of our favourite restaurants during our time in Kaili. Notice how the rice was served in a rice cooker? We normally eat very little rice but the rice here is so delicious that we could almost finish the rice haha!

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