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.
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.