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Photoessay: A Feast for the Eyes – The Incredible Spectacle of the Ten Miao Parade

As part of the Sister’s Meal Festival Celebrations, the Ten Miao Parade takes place in Taijiang, Guizhou. Miao groups from ten different village areas – women, men and children, all in their best festival dress – dance and march through the streets to the town square. It is simply the most rich, colourful, and spectacular display of ethnic dress I have ever witnessed.
Feast your eyes.

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“Beautiful Ladies! Join the Dance!” The Miao Sister’s Festival in Laotun Village

Laotun Village, population six hundred, sits quietly in a valley filled with rice paddies; unnoticed by the outside world for most of the year. Seasonal rhythms dictate the pace of life around rice-planting in spring and rice harvest in autumn. Not very much happens. 
Until April arrives.
With April comes the biggest celebration of the year for the Miao people of Guizhou Province – a courtship gathering known as the Sister’s Meal Festival. I’ve been once before, four years ago, and had a wonderful time. But to be honest, I understood very little of what I was seeing, a moving parade of colour and spectacle in a language for which I had no subtitles. 
This time, after eight visits to Guizhou’s Miao region, I felt I had a better grip on the complexities of the festival. It follows the lunar calendar, always occurring in Spring, and involves three days of festivities in multiple locations, including but not limited to: 
A parade of ten Miao groups 
Dragon dancing  
Singing competitions 
A fair
Bullfights, cockfights and dog fights 
Traditional dancing
An embroidery contest
The exchange of favours made from sticky rice and coloured eggs 
Did I mention feasting and drinking?
In essence though, the Sister’s Festival is a glorious celebration of women young and old, and the best place to see it in its most traditional form is in sleepy old Laotun Village. Women and girls from the village dress in their best festival attire and walk down to the village dancing circle along narrow paths between the houses and rice paddies.
Festival dress differs according to whether you are young and single, married, or elderly. This young Miao woman from Laotun village wears typical celebration dress covered in silver adornments and topped with an elaborate silver headdress in the shape of a peacock. The best silversmiths come from nearby Shidong township.
And yes, putting that headdress together is as difficult and uncomfortable as it looks, requiring two ‘dressers’ to assist.
A young woman’s festival jacket has sleeves and front panels heavily embroidered with important stories and motifs. This one depicts the story of a giant mythical bird that swooped down and saved the Miao people during a battle. The embroidery of a celebration jacket takes about one year.
The back of the jacket is overlaid with silver adornments – the small circular pieces represent cymbals, played during celebrations, and the larger pieces are covered with dragons.
The entire outfit weighs a tonne and means the women must move with small, ginger steps as they make their way along the village paths to the dancing circle.

Married women wear a much simpler outfit that is more heavily embroidered, with about two years’ worth of stitching in these outfits.
Even the very youngest girls dress up, but wear very lightweight ornaments.

Elderly women wear dark bronze jackets with panels embroidered in blue and purple, with a simple red striped head dress.
Down in the village circle the drum is beating, a huge beast of a thing made from a hollowed log stretched tight with buffalo hide.  It’s a strong dancing beat and someone is calling through a loudspeaker:
“Beautiful ladies! Come out of your houses! Come join the dance!”
And so they do, just a single circle at first, their silver ornaments and jewellery jingling musically as they dance only with their feet, round and back, round and back.

The drum keeps beating and the call continues, inviting more and more women into the dancing circle until eventually, it is a shimmering, pulsing circle of silver and colour.

The dance lasts for several hours, as one group of dancers leaves the circle and is replaced with another, and another, and another. Altogether several hundred women take their turn at dancing, surrounded by family, friends, and a few photographers – including me.
So…er…yes. About the photographers. Laotun is a wonderful experience at Sister’s Festival time, but also one of the last places to have really traditional village circle dancing, so it’s rather popular with photographers. For the most part, they stay well out of the action and line themselves up along the hill above the village for the best view. 
Check out those lenses!
Laotun Village – Details
Laotun is situated about two hours’ drive northeast of Kaili, in central Guizhou. 
It is close to Shidong township, so makes a nice change from the bustle of Shidong market.
The Sister’s Meal Festival is held over three days, once a year in April.
See for the most up-to-date information on festival and market dates. I travelled with Billy Zhang once again, who has made all of my trips to Guizhou fascinating and fun. His knowledge of Miao culture and history is unsurpassed.

The Miao Guzang Festival – A Marathon of Feasting, Firecrackers and Pigs 苗寨鼓藏节:一场八个阶段的马拉松

Our visit to Guizhou Province, an extraordinarily beautiful part of China with steep green hills, silvery mists and winding rivers, just so happened to coincide with a really big deal –  the Guzang Festival, an ancestor commemoration that occurs once every thirteen years for the local Miao people.

Not that we knew it was a big deal at first. We had good information from the always-helpful Billy Zhang at Gateway to Guizhou that there was a Miao New Year Festival taking place in Leishan over several days, or a week (these things always being rather fluid and flexible), but we figured if we arrived in the middle of those dates we were bound to see something good.

Trying to pin down just when and where the festival began, and in which of Leishan’s surrounding villages events would be taking place, and what the nature of those events might be was much more difficult. Even the official Chinese programme Billy emailed me was too obscure to be helpful.


The bullfight, fighting birds, bucket pig race held on November 26 to 29 at the Dan Town, West Town, Grande town, large Tangxiang, and Wang Feng, townships Miao Village folk folk activities.

But it did sound intriguing – a bucket pig race! Whatever could that be? 

Our plan was to just turn up and see what was happening. Well, not so much a plan as a loitering presence.

But then one of those lucky travelling things happened. On the way to Leishan we detoured to the pristine wilderness around Libo in southern Guizhou on the invitation of a young American blogger (Kaci and the World) living there, and spent our first night in Libo as guests of the generous hospitality and outstanding home cooking of her good friend and Chinese National Geographic photographer, Big Mountain. His real name.

Big Mountain is passionate about the many ethnic minorities in Guizhou, of which he is one, and has photographed all of them over many years. When we told him of our plans to visit the upcoming Miao New Year Festival he made enquiries and discovered it was, in fact, the very infrequent and incredibly important once-every-THIRTEEN-years Guzang Festival. Before we knew it our party of four without much idea of where we should go and what we should see had become a party of six with contacts and a plan

Big Mountain set about explaining the intricacies of the festival to us. Preparations begin three years ahead of time, involving a drum (gu) which needs to be buried (zang) and another drum needing to be woken up, the selection of an ox for sacrifice, and the use of ducks as vehicles to swim across the heavenly sea, returning with the woken spirits of the ancestors. 

It sounded terribly complicated and very, very interesting, but in the end came down to the essence of every good festival – a gathering of people, drinking, feasting, music and dancing, with a few uniquely Miao components thrown in, like the celestial ducks, some bullfighting, firecrackers and pig slaughter. It was going to be one hell of a party.

Here’s how the festival unfolded, from our perspective.

我们一开始并不知道这是一个大型活动,我们从乐于助人的比利张在Gateway to Guizhou所发文章中得知好消息,在近几天或者一周(这些事情总是不固定,比较灵活)在乐山将会有一个苗族新年节日举行,但我们要计算出是否我们可以在这些日子期间到达,我们必须看看这些有意思的事情。试着确定节日在什么时候、在哪里开始,在乐山周围的哪些村落举行,获得这些信息本身就可能更加困难。甚至是比利发给我们的正式中文节目单也太模糊以至于没帮上什么忙。


1. Pre-Festival Preparation: Ducks and Firecrackers 节日前的准备:鸭子和爆竹

One thing is certain when we arrive in Leishan – this Guzang celebration definitely involves ducks, lots of them, and unbelievable quantities of booze and firecrackers. This might be a potentially lethal combination, and doubtless will be, particularly for the ducks. 
Every single shop in Leishan has abandoned their usual wares in favour of floor-to-ceiling displays of firecrackers, ten-metre long dragons rolled into neat coils, or huge luridly coloured boxes – the kind where you light the taper at one corner and run away for ten minutes of full-throttle bedazzling. 
The liquor, mijiu or rice wine, is being sold on the footpath in plastic jerrycans, with the smallest size ten litres, and the average purchase twenty-five. At around 40% alcohol it’s clear, deadly stuff and is about as tasty as lighter fluid and just as flammable. 
Every motorbike coming out of town has two boxes of firecrackers on the back, counterbalanced with two jerry cans of strong liquor on either side, and a brace of ducks nestled at the driver’s feet. 


25 litres of liquor…check, smallish box of fireworks…check. Now to load the basket of ducks……..

2. Feast Number One 一号盛宴

We arrive in the tiny village of Paiweng on foot, leaving the van parked at a point where it can’t drive any further on the narrow dirt track. The first sign of something afoot is the distant echoing crack of firecrackers, and a cloud of smoke above the next valley. 
As we round the last corner we see the village sitting in the folds of steep hills, with rows of dark wooden houses on stilts staggered up the hillside. A barrage of fireworks goes off in front of the house immediately to our left, deafening us and lighting the narrow zigzagging pathway we’re taking to the family home of a friend of Big Mountain, high on the hillside. The paths are busy with guests arriving – Miao women in their traditional dress of a black velvet tunic embroidered with pink roses, hair in a high bun decorated with a single pink rose.
Arriving at the house, the start of the festivities is marked by the lighting of a long red snake of firecrackers right next to the woodpile outside the kitchen door. It seems unnecessarily risky but clearly it’s been safely done thirteen years before. Or…not. I guess thirteen years is long enough to rebuild a whole village razed to the ground by fire, and forgive whoever lit the firecracker that did it.
Inside the kitchen, the grandmother of the house greets us as she guts fish for the feast. She motions for us to move into the big open room at the centre of the house, a high-ceilinged space with stairs at one end leading to the upper floor for sleeping, and an open verandah at the other, pefect for watching the neighbour’s fireworks display as cinders rain down on the roof.
We’re warmly welcomed by the rest of the family as they prepare for the feast. The oldest daughter’s husband carries in precariously leaning stacks of porcelain rice bowls, painted with small blue and pink flowers, and lays them out on the floor in long rows. 
He reappears with twenty five litres of mijiu, and taking a tin teapot, decants from the drum and begins to pour a bowl of mijiu for each person, full to the brim. Out of politeness he includes both of our children, who, out of politeness and strong looks from us, decline.
The women and men come in from outside and take their seats as the food begins to arrive. The whole extended family is here – the grandmother, all of her daughters and their husbands and children, aunts and uncles, lined up on narrow wooden settles around the room’s perimeter. 
We eat – first, a steaming wok full of blood congee, a type of rice soup, rich and tasty. It seems impolite, as guests, to ask where the blood has come from. Balanced across the rim of the steaming wok a narrow wooden plank is laid, and on this rest three dishes, keeping warm – spicy duck, chopped into small pieces with a sharp cleaver, fried fish, and pickled sour bamboo shoots. 
The fish has grown in the nearby rice terraces through the summer along with the rice. Come harvest the water is drained out of the terraces and the fish can be easily caught. 
Another bowl of braised duck arrives, and suddenly the symbolic duck swimming across the celestial lake and bringing back the spirits of the ancestors is sitting in a bowl in front of me. I guess their role was not purely metaphorical after all.
No sooner have we started eating than the husband of the oldest daughter lifts his bowl of mijiu in a toast. We follow suit. 
‘He jiu!’ he commands, literally ‘Drink alcohol!’ It rhymes with Sergio when he says it.
We all take a sip of the burning liquor and resume eating.
A few minutes later one of the other daughter’s husbands raises his rice wine in a toast. ‘He jiu!’ he says. ‘He jiu!’ we all reply, and take another, bigger sip.
I reach for a piece of the sweet rice terrace fish, and just as I’m about to wrestle it free with my chopsticks I see another toast about to take place. 
‘He jiu!’ comes the call. 
‘He jiu!’ we all respond. 
This time though, the command is followed by ‘He gan!’ ‘Drink dry!’ and around me old men and young women alike down their rice wine, followed by that puckered face caused by skulling hard liquor. They tip their bowls sideways to prove they’re empty.
Everyone is rosy cheeked and happy. The teapot comes back out and refills our bowls, and another round of firecrackers go off. 
‘He jiu!’

3. Feast Number Two 二号盛宴

At some point the ‘He jiu!!’ begins to reach a crescendo, with shorter and shorter intervals between toasts. Then just as everyone’s warming up the whole room stands and moves towards the door. We’re full to bursting with food and a little drunk.

‘What’s happening now?’ I ask Big Mountain. ‘Is dinner over?’
‘That was just the first dinner!’ Big Mountain tells us. ‘Now we go to her sister’s house up the hill for the next dinner!’
The what??
We arrive to find another long wooden house, its big central room filled with people lined up on each side and braziers warming more dishes of food in the centre.
Out come the towers of rice bowls, and out comes the tin teapot, this time poured by the daughter of the house. 
We greet the new family we haven’t yet met with a toast.
‘He jiu!’
And reacquaint ourselves with the family members from the first feast.
‘He jiu!’
And then everyone toasts us, as guests.
‘He jiu!’
The food is similar, a warming soup (this time bloodless), crispy-skinned duck, and shredded fish with a sour sauce.

The toasts continue for several rounds. Everyone makes the same puckered face when they have to ‘He gan!’ and drink the bowl dry.
Funny stories are told. 

‘He jiu!’

Serious stories are told.

‘He jiu!’

And then someone spots my bowl is empty, a sure sign I need to be shown true Miao hospitality by having a daughter of the house clamp a bowl of rice wine to my lips and hold it there until I drink all of it.
After that, details get a little hazy. I take a series of really, really dreadful fireworks shots while next to me Big Mountain takes National Geographic quality images despite being just as intoxicated. The mark of a true professional.

Fireworks, possibly shot from a ‘lying in the grass’ position. Not going in Nat Geo anytime soon.

Before midnight we take our leave, our hosts pressing upon us that we absolutely must be back at 4am for the most important part of the celebrations – the sacrifice of a pig.
Looking around me at the ongoing toasts being made for our departure I can see there is unlikely to be anything but snoring happening at 4am. I ask the grandmother of the house what time we should really return. ‘Eight at the earliest. More like nine or ten’ she says, with a wink.


4. The Sacrifice 献祭
We return at eleven, fortified by a good nights’ sleep and strong coffee. Still, the ongoing firecrackers are a bit upsetting to the delicate equilibrium, as are the squeals of pigs meeting their end in every corner of the village. For some reason I had thought the village en masse might sacrifice a single pig, but apparently there is to be one pig for every family. Or in some cases, two.

While the butchering is happening, each one marked by fresh rounds of fireworks, I take the opportunity to wander around the village in daylight. It’s a beautiful place, full of life and colour.

But it’s hard to walk very far without coming across another pig. The task of killing, cleaning and butchering the pig falls to the men in the family, carried out on the path outside each home. 
I’m very proud of my two girls who take it all in their stride, proclaiming that ‘if you’re going to eat it, you have to be able to deal with it being killed’. How different from their squeamish attitudes before we came China, I think to myself.


5. Feast Number Three 三号盛宴

At midday we return to the house for what turns out to be the main feast, a meat and offal celebration of every part of the pig. Behind us haunches of meat hang from the wall, dripping small puddles of blood. 
The first course is laid out for everyone to taste – cold slices of cooked liver and marble-white pork fat with partially fermented sticky rice, sweet like apple cider. The pork fat has a clean sweet taste, and soft luscious texture I don’t expect to like as much as I do.
The room fills again with people, faces from the night before and an occasional new face. Out come the bowls and the tin teapot. I admire the fortitude of the Miao as they fill their bowls yet again with mijiu and the cry goes up once more to ‘He jiu!’, although with just a little less conviction today and noticeably smaller sips.
We huddle around the hot dishes as they arrive – a bowl of soup, flavoured with thick slices of pork and pieces of cooked blood, sliced fried intestines cooked in a rich and savoury sauce, chewy and incredibly tasty. My children eat them. And ask for more.
The room fills with steam, and more toasts, and some faces begin to sweat and look unwell with the onslaught of more rice liquor. But they soldier on, and at the appointed time we all rise and move on to….


6. Feast Number Four 四号盛宴

Unable to believe we were all going to tuck into our fourth feast in less than twenty four hours we head back up the hill to the sister’s house. The atmosphere this time is a little more subdued, with all the family elders sitting together at one end of the room.
I am asked to take their portrait, a succession of four polaroids, one for each of them. The look on their faces is delightful as they see the pictures develop and colour.

Before long though, everyone has rosy faces and and has fortified themselves for the important and health-giving feature of this final feast – fresh pig’s blood, uncooked and congealed like jelly. No matter how well prepared or how adventurous, fresh blood is one thing I cannot bring myself to try, but everyone else takes a small bowl.
This seems to signal the end of the feast, although in fact, the guests are simply leaving to start another round of visiting and feasting in the neighbouring villages. As a parting gift, each family is given a whole pig’s leg or two to take home, carried over the shoulder hanging from a pole.


7. Bullfighting 斗牛

Much of the visiting and feasting now over, the fourth day of the Guzang Festival  brings a bullfighting tournament in Leishan’s stadium, packed to capacity with spectators. 
I’m not sure what to expect. This is bull versus bull, with no human intervention unless a bull is fatally wounded. I’m expecting it to be bloody and confronting on many levels.
Intead, what we see is quite comical as two sedate and lazy water buffalo bulls are led into the arena through separate doors, ambling slowly. Suddenly they see one another and fly into an intense territorial rage, charging the other bull and locking horns. The first three battles end when the weaker of the two bulls unlocks horns and runs away, and the fourth after horns have been locked long enough to declare a draw. No blood is seen at any time. 

8. Recovery, with Singing, Dancing, and Possibly Pig Bucket Races 复活,唱歌,跳舞还有斗猪比赛

The last days of the festival are subdued by comparison. Firecrackers continue to go off sporadically and there are pigs’ legs aplenty being carted around over shouders or on the backs of motorbikes. 
The villagers of Paiweng try to entice us back on a promise of singing and dancing on the village basketball court – but we run out of time to return to see it.
It’s been an exhausting few days and I’m keen to eat nothing but vegetables for a while. 
So let’s see – I think I’ve covered everything – ducks, ancestors, firecrackers, rice liquor, bull fighting, pig sacrifices, feasting, and….oh wait! What about the pig bucket races? We never did get to see those.

Looking forward to seeing you all for Guzang 2025 then.

Chasing Naadam Part 2: Perseverence Triumphs!

Above: What a Mongolian horse herdsman should look like, according to me. 
Below: Actual Mongolian horse herdsman, and his wife, whose advice I trusted despite him not fitting my romantic notion of a horse herdsman.
In his sparkling blue flat cap and trendy t-shirt-jacket-satchel combination, I have to admit he didn’t really look like a horse herdsman, but he assured me that’s exactly what he was – a mumaren 牧马人. He and his wife had struck up a conversation with me at a truck stop where he was refueling his motorbike. (Yes, this is the sad and modern truth – horse herdsmen in Inner Mongolia use motorbikes.)

I asked him if horse herding was good work.

‘Oh, it’s not work‘, he said, giving me the impression horse herding was an excellent occupation indeed. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked, waving at the campervan.

I told him we were travelling to Hohhot. Well, actually to Gegentala, to see the Naadam. You see, I still held out hope that after our recent near-miss we could break campervan land speed records and get there in time.

‘Gegentala?’ he said. ‘Why go all the way there when there is an even bigger and better Naadam just up the road? It starts tomorrow!’

I felt a little glimmer of excited hope as I pulled out my map, now grubby from the dozens of fingers that had traced lines across it in truck stops just like this one. I showed him where we currently were.

He moved his finger along a thin brown line to a point west of a small dot marked Abag.

‘Right there!’ he said. ‘Maybe….two hundred kilometres, at most.’

Now I’d suffered through a lot of blind leads before, and I wasn’t going to take what he said at face value – I was fully prepared to cross-examine him to pick up the fatal flaws in his claim. This was important – if we sidetracked to Abag and there was no Naadam, then that was it, curtains, our chances of getting to Gegentala in time exactly zero. It was a big risk to consider.

‘It’s a great Naadam with a very local flavor….’ he said, just as I began to work out what my cross examination questions should be, maybe something along the lines of and what colour is your favourite horse?

‘…..and there are never any tourists there’ he said, somehow innately knowing that the bane of any tourist’s life is a bunch of other tourists. Well, he might as well have said they were handing out free thousand dollar bills. I decided we should go immediately. No further questions, your Honour.

We headed to Abag, 200km by road, a mere trifle on the motorways of Europe, but equivalent to six or eight hours of hard slog on Inner Mongolia’s back roads. Already nearly dark, we stopped overnight in Xilinhot, a brightly neon-lit city-in-miniature with the fastest growing GDP in the China, thanks to rare earth mining nearby. Who would have known all those riches were sitting underground?

After the crushing disappointment of missing Naadam by several days in Haila’er and again in Zhanglengqi, I was determined we would catch every single second of this Naadam, so I woke everyone early and got them into the Naadam spirit with a hearty breakfast, and a few songs, and we hit the road. 

Within a few short minutes it had begun to rain, the sort of serious rain that causes cancellation of things. But I knew these Mongolians were a hardy bunch, stalwarts who could withstand subzero temperatures for months in wintertime. Rain, to them, was nothing.

By now the wind was picking up too, as we stopped just outside Abag for fuel. It was raining so hard torrents of water gushed across the driveway of the fuel station. I asked the fuel station attendant, like everyone I met, about the Naadam. 

‘Yes, of course there’s a Naadam!’ he said. ‘But all this rain! Why not relax in town, have lunch, and go out there when the rain stops this afternoon? It will be much more convenient for you!’

That was when I noticed a long procession of cars coming back the other way, headlights on, hazard lights flashing (as the Chinese do in dreadful weather), nose to tail for as far as the eye could see. 

One lone car pulled into the service station and I asked her if she’d come from the Naadam.

‘Oh yes – too wet!’ she says. Within ten minutes hundreds of cars have passed us back into town. Hundreds. Hundreds. All abandoning the Naadam because of the rain.

I just need to see it though. Just see a Naadam, even in the pouring rain. Even if it’s cancelled. We continue westwards, by now unable to see anything but the road in front and the endless swish of the windscreen wipers. There is a lot of thunder and lightning.

But then there it is. A magical city of tents on the horizon, blue, yellow, red, a long promenade of flags, a row of yurts, and a police blockade.

A police blockade??

‘The weather is too bad!’ the police tell me. ‘Maybe come back this afternoon?’ as they turn us around and send us back to Abag.

I’m not going to print what I said next, because it wasn’t polite. NOOOOOO!!!!! 



Abag Naadam, as close as we were permitted to get.

A Few Hours Later…

Nothing like a hearty Mongolian meal to restore your sense of hopefulness, not to mention that strengthening Mongolian beer. By now, the weather has lifted a little, and the restaurant is beginning to empty. It’s time to seize our chance and get back to the Naadam. I’ve waited. I’ve hoped. I’ve worn the patience of my family thinner and thinner. This had better be good!

And it is. We step out of the campervan and straight into a crowd of wrestlers heading for a match in the main arena, splendid and also slightly ridiculous in traditional wrestling dress. Like a scene from Camelot, the arena is magnificent as the sun pushes through the heavy dark clouds, illuminating the flagged pavilions and the stadium.

I’m going to stop talking now and just let you enjoy the atmosphere, a riot of colour and spectacle, worth every single frustration of the last two weeks spent chasing this damn thing all over the countryside.


Wow. Those pantaloons are really something! Naadams traditionally include three ‘manly sports’, the other two being archery and horse racing. I would love to have seen both of these events, but I could never quite pin anyone down as to whether the archery had already occurred, or was likely to occur  on subsequent days, or had been cancelled due to bad weather. The same went for the horse racing, a single long-distance race which finished at the arena.

Sideshow Alley

Even more entertaining than the sports, sideshow alley at Naadam is both familiar and at the same time bizarrely novel. Hoopla games, the simplest yet trickiest of carnival games, are given a unique Inner Mongolian twist with all the prizes (live rabbits, grotesque plastic jade vases, or cash) laid on old carpets on the dirt.

Then there are pyramids of tin cans filled with cement, to be knocked over with a basketball, or rows of stuffed toys to be knocked off with bags stuffed with beans. Everything has a makeshift, rundown air but the lack of polish isn’t affecting anyone’s enjoyment.

The Circus
What would sideshow alley be without an amateur circus? The brightly coloured tent is manned by a spruiker with that patter familiar to every carnival goer, the lips pressed close to the microphone, the words running into one another. I can’t really know what he’s saying most of the time because he’s speaking Mongolian, a wonderfully musical language so different from everyday Chinese, but
what I think he’s saying is this:
‘Come-in-come-in, come one’n’all, here’s the best, the greatest, the biggest circus show on earth you, yes you, friend, come in and join the crowd we’ve got dazzling dangerous highwire acts and extraordinary and daring juggling, live animals and….you! YES YOU! Foreign friend! Where are you from, from America, from France, from…’
At this point the monologue is interrupted by the arrival of a long haired goat who has wandered out from inside the tent to see what’s going on.
The spruiker stops briefly to glance sideways at the goat and yell something to his offsider then continues on, looking about with slight disorientation until he spots us again in the crowd.

‘Oh! Even foreign friends want to see our circus, come in! Come in! Everyone welcome in the great and grand cirrr-cus!!’

We go in. Concentric circular rows of broken and chipped plastic bucket seats line the rickety stands. We take our place next to a man in a cowboy hat, and an old guy with no teeth, both smoking heavily.

The acts have the small audience transfixed. There’s a man with a whip, cracking the top off a beer bottle, another man balancing on a bamboo pole balancing on another man’s shoulder, a dog who can do maths, and a lady unicyclist who can juggle four plastic rings with a tower of china bowls on her head. These are the best kind of circuses, where it’s not so hard to imagine that you too could perform like this if you just had the time and the balance.

Restaurant Alley

After the wrestling was over I took a wander up and down the rows of gers, or yurts, in an area to the side of the main arena given over to eating. Low and sturdy, swathed in heavy felt or canvas and wound round with rope, you enter through a low brightly painted door into the dim interior. The choice of food is sadly, unexciting – lamb skewers or noodles – but you do get to sit in a yurt while you eat.

If beer drinking is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of recently victorious wrestlers happy to share a celebratory drink with you.

Five things I know about Naadam in Inner Mongolia:

I can now share with you the very little wisdom I have about Naadam. It’s not much, and it’s certainly not impressive, but here it is in case you ever decide to chase a Naadam for yourself. If you ever get the chance and your time is measured in weeks rather than days, go, go, go.

1. The starting date of Naadam, to add variety, changes every year according to the phase of the moon. It’s also likely to change depending on the distance you are situated from it and the number of farmers you speak to.
2. Naadam goes for three, five or seven days, except when it lasts for longer.
3. The first two days are always the best, and so is the last day if you are able to discover when exactly that might be.
4. The schedule of events may change according to weather, whim, or horse availability. Rain delays everything. Few people other than the competitors and judges seem to know what happens when.
5. If a horse herdsman gives you a red hot tip, go with your gut feeling. It’ll be right.

Five Naadams in Inner Mongolia:
(2012 dates, likely to change in subsequent years) 
Haila’er July 17-20
Zhenglanqi July 18-22
Gegentala Grasslands July 25-31 (these dates appear to be relatively fixed)
Abag Grassland July 24-28
Xilinhot August 5-12
There are many more Naadams I heard rumours of, but these five were the most consistently mentioned by locals.

Chasing Naadam Part 1: Catch a Naadam by the Tail

As ephemeral as a puff of smoke and as thrilling as a bullfight, Naadam, the legendary sports festival of the Mongolian people, is a riotous carnival of wrestling, horse racing, archery and sunshine. If you can find the damn thing, that is. 

I started dreaming about Naadam months ago, when it seemed our journey north could be re-routed to coincide with the biggest Mongolian festival of the year, a festival I knew little about except that it involved horses and bare chested men. Sounds fun, right? 

In my mind, Naadam became my whole reason for traveling to Inner Mongolia, because there’s nothing I like more than a rowdy and colourful festival (should you need convincing about this, may I remind you of previous travels to the Lantern Festival, the Ice Festival, the Sisters’ Meal Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Tomb Sweeping FestivalSpring Festival and a random Tajik festival all the way out in Tashkorgan. China arranges a rowdy and colourful festival approximately once every three days, year round).

But our epic, frustrating and often fruitless journey chasing Naadam was so huge I’ve had to divide it into two thrilling instalments, the first today and the next on Monday, so be sure to catch both!

In trying to pin down a Naadam we were fairly certain there was one in the Gegentala grasslands, north of Hohhot, which reliable sources said runs from July 25th until July 31st each year. In retrospect, we should have driven directly from Shanghai to Gegentala and camped right on Gegentala’s doorstep for two or three weeks straight, to be certain of catching Naadam the minute it opened.  
Our inconvenient problem was we had entered Inner Mongolia at the farthest possible point from Gegentala, because we’d also heard there was a Naadam in a town called Haila’er in the far north around mid-July and it sounded a lot more fun, with fewer tourists, so I figured we’d be able to get up close and personal with those bare-chested wrestlers rather than having to watch them from behind an enormous crowd. We could catch that Naadam first, then hot-tail it 1600km to Gegentala in a week to see it all over again. That was, of course, until we encountered the actual roads of Inner Mongolia, (where a speed of 30km an hour is optimistic going) and our plans all came unstuck.
So we headed towards Haila’er, chasing one seemingly white hot lead after another, only to be told the Haila’er Naadam was cancelled. Or that it started two weeks before and was already over. Or that it started in three weeks’ time. We chased our tail, round and round in circles.
We scoured the internet, made phone calls, sent emails, searched guide books and asked everyone we met from goatherds to shepherds to horse herders, but one tip after another led to a dead end and solid advice was completely overturned by the next person you spoke to. Finally, in complete and utter frustration, we took a side trip to A’ershan for a day to regroup and replan. Haila’er was still a whole day of driving away, on bad roads.
In A’ershan I managed to track down the name of a big hotel in Haila’er and called their desk.
“Hello, I don’t speak Chinese very well, but do you have a Naadam in Haila’er this week?” (fingers crossed, toes crossed)
“Yes! We do!” (sweet, sweet relief) “It started two days ago, and today is the closing ceremony!” (crushing, crushing disappointment).
We began to think we were cursed.
We turned tail and drove westwards across Inner Mongolia like demons, pursuing the start of that Gegentala Naadam like our lives depended on it. And of course, that’s when it happened – we came across a Naadam we didn’t even know about completely by accident.

Catch a Naadam by the Tail

On our way back from the ruins of Xanadu the police diverted us off the main road at a town called Zhenglanqi, late in the afternoon. We thought it was yet another set of roadworks until I saw a group of brightly coloured tents and flags through a stand of trees. Could it be? Surely not.
Yes! It was! A Naadam! Our elation was palpable. 
Everyone was converging on a huge grassy field on the town’s outskirts. Every road was packed with parked cars, and people streamed from every direction. There was a great buzz of excitement in the crowd and we just followed on its wave, anticipating a long night ahead of games, food and who knows? Maybe even singing and fireworks. 
In the gold light of late afternoon an entire tent city revealed itself, red, yellow and blue, with flags flying. Alongside the tents were rows of yurts or gers, traditional Mongolian circular tents clothed all in heavy white felt roped round and round, and entered through a single low painted door. 
There was a sideshow alley with a haunted house (full of Mongolian ghosts), a chair-o-plane and a merry-go-round, all as familiar to me as any carnival in the west. Children ate fairy floss and held spinning foil windmills while their fathers tried to win giant tuffed toys for their mothers by throwing darts at a board.

We followed the crowd and moved to the main arena, an open field facing a huge pavilion crowned with flags. In the setting sun there were eight men deep around the edge, some standing on stools or on horseback for a better view, all intent on what was occurring in the arena’s centre.

We stood politely behind, craning our necks, seeing nothing. Shouts erupted from the crowd and the excitement ramped up a notch, but we still couldn’t see a thing and fidgeted and hopped from foot to foot and craned our necks more, until my youngest daughter was hoisted onto my husband’s shoulders to act as sentinel and report back.

“It’s the wrestling!” she yelled down to me.

I’d read all about Mongolian wrestling by now, the bizarre costumes, the lengthy bouts, the force and determination required to win. I was desperate to see some action so I grabbed my camera and squeezed between the legs of half a dozen surprised onlookers until I was three men back from the front. Using the zoom lens I could just make out the two-man battle taking place – the wrestlers wore embroidered pantaloons and studded leather vests that covered their backs but left the chest bare. Three judges watched closely on as the wrestlers, locked in a hold, tried desperately to topple their opponents to the ground, forcing a win.

Then the arena erupted with shouts and yells and applause and before I knew it everyone around me was running into the centre. I had no idea what had just happened. The man beside me, seeing my confusion, said “That’s it! it’s all over!”

“The wrestling?” I asked

“The Naadam! This was the final wrestling bout, and when it’s over, the Naadam ends.”

All around me people now streamed back in the opposite direction, away from the field, the arena, and the victor. Naadam was over.

I watched the loser leave the arena, his studded leather vest folded neatly under his arm. I knew how he felt, to come so close and still lose out. To strive for something, catch it by the tail until you are certain of it, then feel it slip from your grasp.
A little part of me had a quiet cry, because I had become convinced that this was as close to a Naadam as we would ever get, probably in our whole lives. There would probably never be another chance to come so far, and the detour to Xanadu and now to the tail end of a Naadam had probably cost us our best chance of making it to Gegentala in time. Naadam was over. 
To be continued…

The Harbin Ice Festival: Ten Kinds of Spectacular

It’s just one jaw-dropping spectacle after another when you walk through the gates of the Harbin Ice Festival’s showpiece ‘Ice and Snow World’, where everything you see elicits an involuntary ‘wow!’ 
Harbin builds excitement about its annual Ice Festival from the moment you arrive in the city. Every corner, every roundabout, and every public space is graced with an ice sculpture – small archways contain ice Venus de Milos, ice pavilions large enough to walk through sit alongside rows of giant carved ice vases, and parks are lined with ice colonnades. Even the pavements are fenced in a zig-zag patterned ice barrier. It’s over the top.
Which makes it hard to imagine that Ice and Snow World might not be something of a let-down, a tacky overblown, overpriced folly. From our hotel room on the first night I can see what appears to be a sprawling multicoloured neon ice city on the opposite side of the frozen Song Hua River. It looks massive, the size of a whole city block, and the coloured neon lights flash and change colours continuously. I can make out something that looks like the Kremlin with a flashing pink onion dome.
But the Ice Festival is what we’re here for and night-time seems the best time to go with all those neon lights, but first we have to figure out how we can spend several hours outdoors without freezing. To death.
Harbin is seriously cold – daily maximum temperatures during winter are minus sixteen to minus twenty degrees, with overnight temperatures dropping to minus thirty or more. The ideal place to build a whole city out of ice and light it up with crazily-coloured lights.
But for an Australian from sub-tropical Brisbane, this sounds dangerous. My family asks me what the treatment for frostbite is, and I’m forced to admit to them that in my medical exams I kind of skipped over the chapter on frostbite on the grounds I was never likely to encounter it, and instead studied practical and useful wilderness medicine like snakebite, sharkbite and heat stroke. And venomous spiders like funnelwebs and redbacks, because we have a lot of those in Australia.
Spiders would be hard pressed to live in Harbin. 
Just to make sure we have no chance of getting frostbite, or chillblains, or hypothermia, each of us is wearing enough clothes to outfit a small village – thermals, ski trousers, down jackets, glove liners, ski gloves, undersocks, snow socks, balaclavas, beanies and snow boots. For extra warmth, we’ve also bought eight packets of adhesive heat-packs in every size. My husband, who has large feet and couldn’t buy any snowboots, has discovered his thick-soled shoes are useless in this cold so ingeniously he’s using the heat patches keep his feet warm but looks like a bizarre nicotine addict with stick-on patches on the top and bottom of each socked foot. 
When we do finally make it to the festival, in the sparkling company of travel blogger Sally of unbrave girl (She’s famous! Just been nominated for a Bloggie!) who happens to be in Harbin too (and is wearing four fewer layers than us because she’s from Buffalo, and therefore tough), we realise this Ice Festival business is going to get expensive. Really expensive.
Money falls out of your pockets at every turn, starting with the extraordinary 300 yuan entrance fee, and doesn’t stop until you’re back at your hotel and have paid the taxi driver his 70 yuan/hour fee for waiting for you so you don’t freeze to death walking home. Want to cuddle a baby snow fox? That’ll be an extra twenty. Ride on snow yak? Thirty. Recline in a horse-drawn carriage with sleighbells? A hundred. Never mind, this is an Ice Festival, and building a whole city from blocks of ice hauled up from the Song Hau River by 12,000 workers isn’t cheap. Even in China. So just empty your pockets and enjoy it I say!

Harbin Ice and Snow World

Runs annually from Jan 5 for approximately one month, open 7 days and nights
Adults 300 yuan
Children 160 yuan
Ice slides and all shows and hourly performances free
Eating bing tang hu lu 10 yuan
Holding a baby snow fox 20 yuan
Sitting on a snow yak 30 yuan
Riding in a neon-lit pumpkin coach 50-100 yuan
Taxi from downtown Harbin approx 15 yuan. Ice and Snow World is in a fairly isolated spot and you may have difficulty finding a taxi back. Your driver will wait for you for a negotiated fee, around 70 yuan/hour.

A Zongzi Recipe for Dragon Boat Festival

Happy Dragon Boat Festival! Did you know it was the Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 节) today? Here in China we’re having a long weekend thanks to the exploits of long-dead poet and statesman Qu Yuan. After spending years in exile accused of treason, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river, leaving behind beautiful poetry and devastated loyal supporters. Each year on the anniversary of his death, his supporters would throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and to stop fish from eating his body. Zòngzi 粽子 or sticky rice parcels, represent these rice offerings and are filled with a sweet filling (red bean, jujube, favoured in northern China) or savoury filling (pork, mushroom, preferred in southern China) and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

I learned how to make zongzi yesterday, under the watchful eye of Chef Gao at the Chinese Cooking Workshop. They’ve just upgraded from their old opium den on Weihai Lu and moved into a lovely light-filled kitchen on Dongping Lu, not far from my house. Never mind that they don’t usually offer classes in making zongzi, Chef Gao knows how to make everything so I just called them up, rounded up a few friends, and we all spent the afternoon making zongzi. Lovely!
Zongzi – Sticky Rice and Pork Parcels
  • 20 large dried bamboo leaves
  • 400g fatty pork, cubed
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup dark soy sauce (dark soy is for colour, and unsalted – do not substitute normal or light soy)
  • 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 250g uncooked sticky rice


  • In a bowl mix together 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, ginger and spring onions
  • Add pork pieces and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours, minimum 2 hours
  • Add remaining 1/4 cup dark soy sauce to sticky rice and mix well until grains are well coated
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, immerse bamboo leaves and boil for three minutes until leaves become soft. Drain.
  • Take a bamboo leaf and hold it with the spine facing up
  • Fold the leaf as shown, approximately one third of the way along its length
  • Fold again, this time lengthways as shown, open out the base of the folds to form a cup
  • Fill with 1-2 spoonfuls of coated sticky rice, a piece of marinated pork, then another 1-2 spoonfuls of rice
  • Holding the filled portion in the cup of your hand, fold the long part of the leaf over the top
  • Tuck in both sides of the parcel, then pinch the overhanging leaf together and fold sideways as shown
  • Holding parcel firmly, wrap tightly with string and knot to fasten
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add zongzi so they are fully submerged
  • Simmer for two hours (water will darken due to dark soy sauce), then drain
  • While still hot snip string wth scissors and unwrap
  • Enjoy!
  • (can be frozen, uncooked, for up to one month)

Shanghai’s best location for learning to cook Chinese food:
Chinese Cooking Workshop
2 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu

The Miao Sisters Meal Festival: Beauty and Ornamentation

I’m sitting in a very third rate hotel rooin Kaili, Guizhou province, looking at the hole in  my bathroom ceiling and the cigarette burns in the carpet, wondering if the wires poking through the hole in the ceiling will present any problem to the adjacent leaking shower head. It’s 6.30 am, and a low cloud is hanging over the town, obscuring everything over six storeys and drizzling on everything below that. There’s a gap in the wall where the window should have joined the wall but didn’t, and it feels like the grey cloud outside is creeping through the triangular space into the room and into my bones. 

Since I left Yunnan on an overnight train from Kunming to Kaili five days ago, I have passed through some mysterious geographic portal into a place where the sun is too tired to shine, to break through the dense cloud and the constant mist. Kaili is ugly. Half-finished red brick buildings loom over broken and cracked sidewalks, and pot-holed roads full of puddles of brown water. Everything, including every person from the knees down, is covered by a layer of mud, and I notice the predominant street business is shoe-shining – rows of women on low stools shake bottles of dirty water over mud covered loafers and wipe the mud off with a mud covered cloth. The muddy children of the shoe-shiners play on nearby pavements. Everyone looks suspicious and cautious.

In many ways this entire trip is culminating here. I’ve come to Kaili to see the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, the biggest annual celebration of the Miao people who live in and around Kaili and its surrounding villages, but looking outside it’s hard to reconjure the images of fabulous silver decorative costumes I first saw a year ago in my photography teacher’s apartment as a dirty bus trundles past, splashing more mud across the pavement. 

We set off soon after six thirty, and as we leave Kaili behind the cloud lifts just enough to uncover a unique landscape of green steep sided hills and narrow river valleys. The hills are covered in rows of sloped terraces, planted with rapeseed, potatoes, cabbages, and occasionally rice, each terrace a bare ten metres wide. It must be near impossible to eke a living from such steep land, with the constant threat of landslides from above and floods from the rivers below. As we drive along smaller and smaller roads, villages appear along the riverside – clusters of timber houses on poles, perched on the steep riverbanks and in staggered rows up the hillside. Early morning wisps of smoke can be seen, and people are already out at work preparing the rice beds for spring planting.

Two hours later we arrive in Shidong, the village central to the festival. This is all Miao country hereabouts, and for the next three days there will be music, dancing, and a gathering of people from all the surrounding villages – at least, that’s what we think will happen, because it’s been difficult to get reliable information about exactly where and when the festival takes place. Shidong looks worryingly deserted, but sitting over a bowl of noodles with pickles for breakfast at a tiny street stall, I can hear a jingling, like small bells, coming up the road and a group of women come into view, wearing silver decorated turbans and heavy silver necklaces over their everyday clothes. 

They’ve just arrived on a bus from their village, and they look sort of half-dressed, like a bride wearing a veil with jeans and sneakers, and I secretly feel a little disappointed that they haven’t worn their full costumes for the day.These are modern times after all, and the pictures I’d seen were probably of a select few women in full costume for the benefit of photographers.

But as I watch, the women gather in a group near our noodle stall and one by one, pull dark red intricately embroidered jackets from bags, covered with strips of intense blue and white decoration, and unwrap indigo pleated skirts tied at the waist with woven brocade ties. Out of other bags come heavy silver jewellery, broad silver neckpieces, wide silver bracelets, and silver barrel earpieces like giant bobbins. They stretch the huge holes in their earlobes to place the barrels snugly, and suddenly the group of women is transformed into a stunning and exotic spectacle.

A young girl wears a beaten silver head-dress, intricately beautiful and covered with birds, flowers and dragons. Different hands, her mother’s, her grandmother’s and her aunt’s, help dress her and place the heavy silver neckpieces. She stands patiently, waiting for the dressing to be complete.

The Sisters’ Meal Festival is a festival of courtship in which everyone in the village is involved. There is singing, dancing, water-buffalo fighting, and at the conclusion of the festivities, a young woman may present her suitor with a parcel of coloured sticky rice, containing a symbol of her feelings for him. 

“A pair of red chopsticks  means she has accepted his hand in marriage; one chopstick, his love may not be returned; a garlic or red chili, the boy must look elsewhere; pine needles indicate that the boy should present silks and colourful threads and that she will wait for him.”

(From “Guizhou” by Gina Corrigan. The Guidebook Company Ltd, Hong Kong, 1995)
We follow the pull of the slowly gathering crowds of women over the hill, along the river, and into the next small village, because this seems to be where everyone is heading. An enormous field has been cleared and covered with gravel, just this month we are told, and small groups of people are beginning to appear from the opposite direction, and to prepare their dress. The field is quite empty at this early hour, although the balloon seller may be an optimistic indicator of the crowds to come. 

Chinese lunchtime (11am) is approaching, and a young woman who has befriended us leads us to her house for lunch. The Miao are renowned for their hospitality and their love of a good drink (rice whisky, mijiu, being the local brew) and within five minutes we are seated in her house drinking firewater and eating a delicious meal, while all the members of her family get ready. The meal is the best type of homecooking, and I’ll write about it in the next post because it deserves its own story. It feels like we’ve gatecrashed a wedding, as we watch hair being done, belts being tied, and collars and cuffs being straightened, and the neighbours, whose houses all lead into the same courtyard, drop in to have a look at us exotic foreign creatures with our cameras and our strange shoes, and our complete and utter lack of ornamentation.
As we finish lunch and walk out of the walled courtyard and back into the field, an overwhelming transformation has taken place in just two short hours. Where there was wide empty ground, there are now five or six thousand people in costume, standing in village groups and waiting for the music to begin. I’ve never seen anything like it: an explosion of colour and silver.

All around me is a sea of shining decoration, punctuated by the strong colours of red, black and blue embroideries. Each village has quite strikingly different celebration dress – these are Shidong Miao women, recognisable by their tall silver headdresses and their black and red coats.

The older Shidong women and the men wear coats made from heavy cotton polished to a stiff bronze sheen with ox blood, which also helps waterproof the fabric. Although they wear less silver ornamentation, their dress, with its bright blue embroidery, is truly beautiful.

For the next four hours I just wander and take it all in. There is an opening ceremony of sorts, a lot of drums, and quite a lot of dancing, and although we don’t see any obvious exchanges of rice parcels we do see young couples pairing up to talk and laugh. Everyone seems to be having a fabulous time, and stalls have set up selling drinks and fairy floss to the crowds. 

The afternoon draws on, and for the first time in Guizhou I see the sun, and a patch of blue sky, and it seems like an auspicious way to end the day. The crowd has begun to disperse, and partly undress, at least all the heavier and more uncomfortable parts of their costumes, and they are walking slowly home. 

I’m surprised into laughter when I see a young woman in full silver regalia speaking on her mobile phone, the yellow sleeve of her sports top peeking out from underneath her weighty coat and I’m pulled suddenly, joltingly, into the present. Perhaps she’ll choose a suitor today or tomorrow by a symbol in a parcel of sticky rice, or perhaps she’ll just send him a text message, like everyone else in the world.

Tomb Sweeping Festival 清明节

Tomb Sweeping Festival is quite a catchy little name for a public holiday, don’t you think? A whole lot more interesting than Easter Monday, which it happens to co-incide with this year. In Chinese it’s called Qingming Jie 清明节. Qingming means ‘clear and bright’ , but how exactly this translates to ‘tomb sweeping’ is best left to someone who knows a bit more about the Chinese language than me. 

Qingming is a chance for people to pay respects to their ancestors, and celebrate the arrival of spring. Like many Chinese festivals though, the original meaning has become entangled with two thousand years worth of stories and traditions. As a result, the list of things one does/should do/remembers doing as a child; is long and varied.

1. Visit the tomb of ancestors and sweep tomb, burn incense. Optional: burn paper money, let off firecrackers
2. Fly kites
3. Swing on a swing
4. Walk on green grass
5. Plant willow twigs in the ground
6. Eat grass flavoured dumplings. This last one is Very Optional.

Happy Easter! Wanna Buy a Rabbit?

Happy Easter to everyone. It was a long way, but the Easter Bunny made it all the way to Shanghai. He was thoughtful enough to bring Darrell Lea Easter eggs too…….
Some of his friends weren’t so lucky though – Spring is a popular time in Shanghai to buy a small furry pet in a really small cage for your child.  It’s common to see a little emperor, or empress, with a balloon sculpture on a stick in one hand, and swinging a rabbit in the other. 
The man is trying to convince this little girl that 3 kuai (50cents) is his best price for a bunny. She’s trying to beat him down.