Now Silent Drum Towers

Written by Apr 5, 2006 06:04
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Our bus was empty apart from us as we bounced over the final few kilometres into Zhaoxing. We’d stopped to offer the villagers returning home a ride but many could not afford the few yuan the driver asked. Instead they chose to walk or stand in the cheaper local transport option - a trailer behind a tractor. The village finally came into view - two story houses under dark tilled roofs all neatly lined up along the small river – three white trimmed drum towers conspicuous above the roofline. The drum towers of Zhaoxing set in apart as perhaps the largest of the Dong Minority’s villages.

Each of the five drum towers – the drums having long since gone – represented one family clan. Over the years these clans have grown in numbers to form the larger community now know as Zhaoxing. The towers served two useful functions –as a clan meeting place and housing the drum used to warn the members of any impending danger. The drum towers, like other village buildings are made of timber and constructed without the use of nails. They have no central supports pillars, benches line the perimeter, and interesting artworks decorate the eaves.

Being ‘off the beaten track’ means there are no hotels in Zhaoxing, only a handful of clean, comfortable and cheap guesthouses, a few small restaurants, a couple of quaint, quiet bars and lots of old women selling handcrafts and embroidery, both old and new. We stayed at the new Potato Service Hotel perhaps borrowing the idea for its name from the Postal Service Hotel. Its easy to find on the corner of the main road and the track from Laojiang. It was a beautiful new three story wooden building with a communal bathroom on each floor, plenty of room for drying clothes and a small restaurant on the ground floor. Our room and landing overlooked the rice paddies on the river bank and from a window in the attic we had a great view of the rooves and towers in the village.

While Zhaoxing is considered a large Dong community it is still small and compact with one main street running the length of the village parallel to the river. Smaller walking streets branch off at intervals and wind and rain bridges give sheltered access to the opposite side of the river. There are few tourists and those you’ll encounter are more likely to be foreigners than Chinese. We shared the village with a small group of French tourist who explored the smaller surrounding villages by day returning in the evenings to one of the guesthouses. We spent our first evening interpreting the Chinglish menu at our guesthouse and trying not to order things like ‘face powder’ or ‘strange tasting chicken’ both very nice dishes in actual fact.

The proprietor who also operates a small gift shop in the main street opposite the first drum tower was very accommodating, especially with the water which was generally only available for limited times during the morning and evening on the upper floors. If we wanted to wash we could go down to the back door outside the kitchen where there was no shortage of water pressure. We helped him out a little with some correct translation of his new menu. The Athens Olympics were underway while we were travelling and it was good to be able to catch some of the action.

Our goal while not quite the Olympic marathon was to walk to Jitang village a few kilometres away. It was over caste that morning and we had a few light showers as we trekked up the valley on the gravel road. Heavy recent rains had washed out some of the rice terrace banks and a few sections of the road in deep hairpin bends. While the gradient of the road was not too steep the paths that the farmers used to get around were often much steeper. Two men wearing simple plastic sandals carried a huge stone slab between them. It was slung in wire suspended on a shoulder pole as they ascended the wet slippery and very steep path beside the road. They added this one to a growing pile, smiled cheerfully at us and disappeared down the slope again to bring up yet another slab to repair the road or the terrace bank.

Occasionally we got a glimpse of the village perched on the top of the mountain. Jitang is a small village with two drum towers and several new homes have recently been built. While some concrete is being used for the basement level and retaining walls these are still very traditional in style. As we approached the village gate we fell in behind a farmer with two baskets on a shoulder pole overflowing with green feed for his pigs. Dodging muddy potholes, we walked through the gate past several three story homes to the first of the drum towers where we sat down to rest in the shade. We chatted with the store keeper next door until some children and young mums came over with their toddlers in their open split pants.

We wandered around the village to the other drum tower and sat briefly eating mandarins. We were surprised by the number of small shops around what seemed to be a small village of about 600 people. On the way out of the village we noticed some of the artwork on the first drum tower. It was adorned with a fox and a kangaroo, flowers and fruit and other larger panels telling ancient stories. A few young children followed us out of the village but each time we attempted to photograph them they would run back and hide. On the way back to town we passed the three French travellers we met a few days ago in Leishan who had arrived that morning. This would not be the last we saw of each other and we shared dinner and drinks together that evening.

I was very interested in the recycled embroidery and went in search of a few nice pieces to use to decorate my apartment. I returned to the shop I had discovered at the far end of town near the last drum tower that seemed to have a good variety of both new and old and also sold the plain hand made blue dyed fabrics that all their clothes were made from. When I was finished I returned by way of the narrow path along the river where I stumbled on a women sitting at her door with black nails and fingertips. In her hands was a piece of the traditional dyed cloth which she was attempting to pleat into the fine narrow pleats that create their beautiful skirts. With so many fine pleats, these finely crafted skirts flair into a stunning full circle when the girls are dancing.

Walking past the drum tower that evening we were drawn by a large rowdy crowd of men sitting around playing cards and drinking baijiu, a locally made spirit which they invited us to try. As it was getting late we took our leave and headed back to the guesthouse only to find ourselves locked out. A few calls from the street roused the manager to come down and open up for us. Next morning we took our last meal with them before packing and waiting for the daily bus to Liping, expected around ten thirty. It would stop outside our door so we sat in the shade chatting to everyone who came by. Our French friends joined us around ten and small group of villagers began to gather on the opposite side of the street. The bus finally arrived at half past twelve and we scrambled for the few seat available of yet another mountain rattler.

The bus left town on the only road – all gravel - following the river over the pass into the next valley. Flooding here had caused serious damage to the road and the rice terraces in the river bed. Power poles where down and lines where still hanging low across the water with debris hung up in tress and the wires. We were on our way to Sanjiang across the border in Guangxi and back on the beautiful Duliu River and another major centre in a Dong minority region. We would soon be standing beneath one of the largest Drum Towers in the region.

 More Guizhou Travel Reviews
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