I spend the last night in this magical place watching the sky gradually darken over the rice terraces and hills. The cicadas stop their singing and go to sleep, and soon the air is still and calm. Clouds begin to gather and a few drops of cool rain fall, just as a last shaft of sunlight pierces through before setting. Night is falling slowly and silently.
Way below me, in Tiantouzhai village, a sudden burst of firecrackers splits the air, followed by another, and another. I strain to see in the enveloping dark but I can only make out a small knot of people moving from house to house, and setting off firecrackers at each doorway. I can hear singing, though, drifting up the hill, and later drums and reed pipes playing an energetic song. The firecrackers continue, now with bigger single noisy bangs. It must be a wedding, I think, as I go to sleep. Some sort of celebration.
The night is broken with the frequent crack-crack-cracks! of strings of bian pao crackers going off with more drumming and pipe-playing. The singing comes and goes, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. I imagine a huge village wedding, with everyone invited, and everyone enjoying a huge feast. I drift back to sleep.
Just before breakfast the noise begins again, but with less intensity. We are due to begin the long winding walk back down to the mountain’s base after breakfast, and I hope that the celebrations will not have lost all momentum before we get there. As I draw closer to Tiantouzhai I see the villagers, both men and women, all wearing a long white sash around their heads.
This celebration is a funeral, not a wedding. My thoughts immediately fly to the old woman, our guide’s mother, and her frailty. We pass all the men sitting on the stone terrace in front of one of the larger houses, their faces tired, and red from too much tian jiu wine. We pass the spot where a pig has been slaughtered just an hour before, for the funeral feast. The blood is thick on the ground, and the freshly butchered pork sits on a wooden table inside the house. We pass the colourful banners that will guide the funeral procession, made from patterned bedsheets and coloured paper. Then finally we pass the domed wooden coffin, brightly painted in red, white and yellow and covered with paper offerings. I look carefully at the faces of the women keeping the dead one company, but I see neither our guide nor her sister amongst the group. I feel great relief.
The villagers stare at us dispassionately. This is no ordinary day, but it is part of the yearly cycle of life, growth, and death. As the rice passes from green, to gold, and then to brown, they have seen death many times and are not afraid. For now it is just important to celebrate the life that has passed and guide it on its way to the afterlife with as much noise and celebration as possible.