What I love about Guizhou just as much as its jade rivers, green mountains and beautiful people is the serendipity of the place. Surprising things seem to happen in Guizhou constantly, and if you travel through it for an hour, or better still, a day, you’ll be certain to happen across something extraordinary just by chance.
When travelling I try to stay open to the possibility of a random encounter, even if it means changing my schedule, or missing something else.
I live by one travel rule: When the travel gods throw a crumb in your path, you need to pick it up and follow the trail. Don’t step over the crumb. Don’t ignore it.
These serendipitous experiences have formed some of my richest travel memories, like the time we met Chinese National Geographic photographer Big Mountain (his real name) and accompanied him to a Miao village ancestor’s feast; or the time we visited cave-dwelling paper-makers, and the time I was invited to an impromptu house-warming feast for four hundred people.
So on my visit to Guizhou last month we drove past a group of men huddled by the banks of a green, green river, on our way to Shidong Market.
“I think they’re maybe building a dragon boat there…” said Billy, our guide. “Want to have a look?”
So we stopped, and reversed a few hundred metres. There was indeed a plain wooden boat in the water, its yellow timber very freshly-hewn from a single tree trunk. But it was unadorned, not at all like the richly-painted dragon boats I had seen in other parts of China.
There were perhaps fifty men standing around, seemingly waiting for something to happen, having the kind of conversations men are inclined to have when standing around together.
“Boat’s looking good.”
Someone had a small round drum covered with buffalo hide, and he began to beat it with a slow, steady beat. The men all turned around to see what was happening.
“Look! It’s the dragon’s head!” Billy said.
And there were six men struggling to carry the biggest, heaviest most colourful dragon head you ever saw.
Suddenly, all fifty men sprang into action to lift and position the dragon’s head over the bow of the boat, pinning it into place at a point of exact balance.
Serendipity, of course, doesn’t always work out in the traveller’s favour. Two days later we passed the same spot in the river to find we had missed the Dragon Boat by a matter of minutes, mostly because we were delayed by stopping to help a local family get their van out of a bog. For them it was serendipitous, for us, not so much.
But we did get to see the magnificently decorated boat being awarded the winner’s banner with all the local women dressed in festival finery.