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To Shidong Market, To Buy a Fat Pig

A trip to Guizhou should be timed, if at all possible, with a visit to the Miao village market in Shidong. It occurs every six days, a rather eccentric cycle stubbornly independent of the constraints of a conventional seven day week, but perhaps there’s a good reason behind it.
Maybe six days’ worth of eggs is the most one person can carry by themselves? Or six days’ worth of meat? Or perhaps every six days is about how often you can bear running into everyone you know from the surrounding villages.
On the other five days of the six-day cycle Shidong is a sleepy village. It’s thinking about becoming a small town, but hasn’t quite decided yet whether it’s worth it, and the general consensus – given the slow walking pace of the locals and the general air of torpor – seems to be ‘probably not’.

The main street runs parallel to the jade coloured Qingshui River, with two tiny noodle shops and a few places selling farm supplies. The central basketball court is covered with drying rice from the rice harvest, being raked slowly and meditatively by an elderly woman with a wooden paddle.

But on market day Shidong explodes into activity. Early in the morning the basketball court is cleared of rice and becomes a makeshift poultry market and slaughtering centre. The stallholders erect tents, umbrellas and tables lining both the main street and the large flat area beside the river, and people pour in from near and far – on foot, by bus, by motorbike and by boat.

The market is utterly local, and reflects the everyday needs of life in Guizhou’s Miao villages.

In no particular order, you can buy embroidery silks, fighting birds, a piglet, ten yards of cloth, indigo dye, buffalo hide, a short-handed sickle for harvesting rice, a fish net, a silver head dress, or a red coil of firecrackers.

It’s a wonderful place with a lively atmosphere and a beautiful location. I think it’s actually one of the most interesting markets in China, right up there with the Friday market in Yousuo, Yunnan and the Sunday Animal Markets in Kashgar and Hotan.

 Right near the entrance are the indigo sellers. Almost every Miao woman dyes her own cloth for clothing for her family, and although some still make their own indigo paste from fermented indigo leaves, it’s much easier to buy the paste from the market.

 Fish come from the clear waters of the river, or more often from the rice paddies where growing them keeps insects down, and catching them is easier. A popular Miao dish is made with fried dried fish. Makeshift pens hold ducks, another popular food and particularly important for festivals – ducks help bring the ancestors’ spirits home for the feast.  

Women sell soap nuts – the seed pods of a local tree – which can be used to make a stiffening and glossing agent for embroidery threads.

The man on the left is selling pieces of dried buffalo hide, used to make a gelatin dip for indigo dyed fabric to stiffen it and give it sheen. The roots on the right are from a mountain tree, and can be pulped to make a red-brown fabric dye.

If you would prefer someone else to dye fabric for you, the market offers a dyeing service – buy your fabric (usually cream homespun cotton) and leave it with these dye vendors who will dye, dry and deliver your fabric in just a few hours while you shop.

The Miao people’s famed silver jewellery is also for sale, bought by the gram, and there are small snack stalls selling local foods like rice tofu (mi doufu 米豆腐), cubes of cold rice starch dressed with seventeen secret sauces and peanuts. A perfect snack for a hot day in the sun.
You can also find various services at the market – the shoe, leather and umbrella repair man, and the street dentist. The foot treadle operating his drill is out of sight. Truly amazing, truly terrifying.

Boat parking, for those who arrive by water. Many villagers living on the other side of the river can now come to market on foot thanks to the new footbridge.

Bird lovers congregate in a hidden part of the market – the courtyard of an abandoned house just off the main street. The birds are fighters as well as pets, and many hours can be whiled away discussing the merits of a particular bird.
And lastly my favourite stall – the firecrackers. Long coils of noisy red crackers, and boxes of bigger fireworks. Right near the eggs seems like a risky place to keep them, but what do I know?
Do you have a favourite market in China? Let me know below – I’m always on the lookout for a new one!

Shidong Market – Details

Shidong 施洞 is approximately 2 hours’ drive north-east of Kaili, in central Guizhou. The best way to get to Shidong is by private car, but you can also travel by small local bus.
Kaili, confusingly also known as Qiandongnan on many maps, is a great base from which to explore a number of Miao villages, and is about two and a half hours’ drive from Guizhou’s capital city, Guiyang. Guiyang is the nearest airport. There is also a hard seat local train running regularly between Guiyang and Kaili.
The market occurs every six days, with 2013 dates available here and runs from early in the morning until 3pm.

Guizhou: The Most Overlooked Destination in China (But You Need To Go Now)

Guizhou Province is easily one of China’s undiscovered gems.
As beautiful and as ethnically diverse as Yunnan Province, as uncrowded as Inner Mongolia, and as gifted with natural beauty as Sichuan and Qinghai combined, it’s a wonder Guizhou isn’t over-run with its own popularity.
And yet…hardly anyone ever goes there. 
Lying in the central south of China between Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi, Guizhou’s terrain is mountainous and heavily forested, the valleys filled with meandering rivers and clusters of wooden stilt houses. 
The limestone karst peaks are younger, geologically speaking, and less eroded than those in Guilin and Yangshuo, which means that to get from one place to another is enormously challenging as you ascend and descend successions of hairpin winding roads. Straight lines between destinations? There are very, very few of those.
Which might account for the few visitors willing to overcome the necessary obstacles to get there.

The local people are ethnically diverse and overwhelming welcoming – mostly Miao (shown above), but also Dong, Yao, Yi, and Bouyei, Sui and Tujia. The region’s relative poverty and difficulty of access has meant that traditional lifestyles are still practiced in most parts of Guizhou, preserving culture and traditions that might have otherwise been lost with progress. 
Change is coming though – in the last few years tunnels have been burrowed through mountains to allow highways to pass. New roads and a high speed train line are underway as we speak, connecting villages that were previously preserved largely because of their inaccessibility.
You need to go to Guizhou now, while it still has all its charms, and before everyone else realizes what they’re missing out on.
I spent last week in central Guizhou, my fourth trip to the province and part of a project that will see me spending a lot of time in China’s remoter parts over the next year, meeting with traditional craftspeople and artisans who weave, dye, embroider and print fabric, and silversmiths who beat out beautiful things from raw metal. 
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be part of this project – a series of public art works featuring indigenous Chinese textiles and crafts.
Like many of you, I adore anything made by hand with care and love, whether that be a beautiful meal or a piece of embroidered cloth, and the story behind it. 
A lifetime of curiosity and interest in the act of simply making something by hand, in a way that is true to tradition, has led me to this point.
My apologies that things have been a little quiet on this blog – travel is wonderful for the soul, but poses challenges to the blogger, especially in remote areas of China where the internet is patchy.
Over the next two weeks I look forward to bringing you posts about the villages of Guizhou: Shidong and Qingmai, and the large town of Kaili. 
First post tomorrow!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in Guizhou you might enjoy these previous posts:

Photo Essay: The Post and Telecommunications New Village of 1953, Shanghai

In an act of pure curiosity, sometimes I picked a random subway line in Shanghai’s tangled and massive subway system and rode it until, at a random moment, I got off. 
I got off to explore, to take pictures, to find new street foods, or new neighbourhoods. These trips, mini-adventures accomplished in just one morning or afternoon, kept my wanderlust at bay on days when I was feeling restless and always taught me something new about Shanghai, and more often than not, about myself.
I never knew exactly where I was going or at what precise moment to get off the subway – most often the urge to alight was triggered by a large sweaty man next to me invading too much of my personal space, a pang of hunger, or a stretch of boredom. Occasionally, on less brave days, I felt the anxiety of being too far from familiar territory as the train hurtled further and further away from the parts of Shanghai I knew, and I got off out of fear, but that didn’t happen often. Shanghai is a safe city, one of the safest in the world, even for a lone wandering woman.
The uniformity of the underground stations rarely held a clue as to what might be found above ground, so with my camera, my appetite, and an active curiosity, I would set out to see what the streets held.
One day I took Line 10, the mauve line, northwards. I planned to head out towards the end of the line but as I rumbled past Laoximen (Old West Gate), then North Sichuan Road, my eye was caught by an upcoming stop: Youdian Xincun – Post and Telecommunications New Village.  The name intrigued me, and I got off.
As I rose up out of the subway I was met by a broad seam of ramshackle and tumble-down old houses, dark and dirty, compressed together tightly and surrounded on all sides by the rising towers of new apartments and offices, like a seam of coal running through a meadow. Between the houses were dark alleys just two shoulders wide, and overhead lines of washing connected one building with another. It was gritty and grim. 
As I stood there with my camera, in two minds about whether to go back into the safety of the subway or just plunge right in, a tiny woman with bowed legs approached me.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, openly curious and pointing to my camera.
“I like taking photos on the streets” I said.
“Aren’t you afraid?” she asked, waving her hand to indicate the alleys behind her. “You’re all alone.”
“No, of course not” I lied. But I kept my wits about me as I wandered.
The village, an island of old houses that have somehow escaped demolition in the face of Shanghai’s relentless progress, sits alongside a wide canal. In the early 1950s China expanded and modernised its telecommunications network on a massive scale, and suddenly there were thousands of new workers needing a place to live. The village is all that remains of the large housing estate built by Shanghai Post and Telecommunications in 1953 to house them, a vestige of a time when you lived with the people you worked with, and had little choice about it.
Now there’s only a tiny community remaining, but the ‘village’ acts as a village should – there is a sense of community visible even to an outsider, a thriving fresh food street market in the midst of the warren of lane ways, and a vibrant street life with elderly people out walking, pigeon fanciers preparing their birds for their daily flight, and food being prepared on the street. I remember it as being a lively and enjoyable afternoon as I wandered and explored without coming to any harm.
And yet…when I look at these photos now they seem filled with a sense of loneliness and loss. Or is that just how I see it today? What do you think?