[ 20:19 friday 23 november 2018 – langshi village, guanxi province, china ]
the night air is mild, humid, a faint perfume of moist soil. i stand at the base of a flight of stone steps, at the top of which is the house where alejandro and I are staying. in front of me stretches the wide expanse of the li river, sensed more than seen in the darkness. the water tickles and laps around the step on which i stand.
tonight’s full moon hovers below the horizon. its glow in the eastern sky revealing the mountains on the far side of the river like gigantic ghosts, rising from the water in sheer cliffs a thousand feet high. for fifty miles in every direction the landscape is dotted with narrow, pointed peaks, rising into the air like huge anthills. these are the so-called “karsts” for which this region of guanxi is famed.
behind me the village of langshi and its two hundred inhabitants are already sleeping. the village supports itself catching fish from the river and growing crops on the abundant flood plain. the strip of fertile land between the river and the mountains is divided into neat parcels of oranges, pomelo, banana, greens, sweet potato and ground nuts.
the house in which we’re staying was built in the qing dynasty, most likely the early eighteen hundreds, for one of the village’s wealthier families. the exterior walls are made from dressed stone, whereas most of the older houses are constructed from layers of rounded river stones bonded with mud. the roof of rounded grey tiles rests on timber beams, held up by four massive pine trunks.
at the centre of the house is a double height reception room that opens onto private rooms at two levels. at one end of the hall is an ornately carved wooden gallery. at the other end carved wooden screens fold open to reveal a sunken courtyard. the house forms part of a cluster of six houses in similar style linked by shared courtyards and alleyways. i have no evidence, but i would guess the complex grew out from this central house over time as the family expanded. the mesh of semi-public reception spaces, courtyards and private rooms would have supported a complex social hierarchy.
this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever stayed in. we have the entire place to ourselves. indeed alejandro and i are the only tourists in the village. other than our house there is nowhere for an outsider to stay. neither is there a restaurant, a cafe or a shop.
this my first visit to china. it is an overwhelming privilege to be granted this possibility to experience an agricultural community whilst it remains almost perfectly pristine and untouched by tourism. but the experience is also heartbreaking, as we are witnessing something that i fear will soon be gone. the government is vigorously developing tourism along this stretch of the river. the current generation of farmers is likely to be the last in a chain that stretches back five thousand years.
today is alejandro’s birthday. we got up before dawn, walked through the village and waited with the schoolchildren for the ferry to take us across the river. from there we arranged places on one of the outboard-powered rafts, traditionally made from bamboo boughs lashed together, but nowadays made from moulded plastic in the shape of bamboo.
as the sun rose we set off on the fifteen mile journey down the river to the market town of xingping. we spent several hours exploring the mediaeval streets and the sprawling hyper-active market, which seems to permeate the entirety of the new town. after that we hiked back through the farmland and forest bordering the river back to langshi, where we arrived shortly after dark.
yesterday we went for a shorter hike up the mountain behind the village, following the path used by goatherds. the steep slope is covered by tall trees, interspersed with outcrops of granite. with the sunlight filtering through the feathery branches of the trees it was like being in a fairyland.
when we reached the top we stopped and sat down to admire the view. as we sat there i asked alejandro if he would marry me, and presented the silver ring i’d brought from london. he said yes!
: c :