Cradled by the high karst mountains, Bamei has every condition to be a hidden shangri-la. 有良田美池桑竹之属... 24°19'1.3"N, 105°2'15.9"E
James Hilton’s Shangri-la isn’t the first literary imagination of a hidden, idyllic utopia. In his well-known prose the Land of Peach Blossoms, the 5th-century Chinese pastoral poet and essayist Tao Yuanming had depicted a fisherman who accidentally stumbled upon a hide-away paradise.
Young women of ethnic Zhuang, whose costumes are characterised by the towels on their heads. 村中闻有此人，咸来问讯... 24°18'49.2"N, 105°2'15.8"E
According to Tao, the fisherman drifted along a stream with his boat without remembering the distance. As he was attracted by a bright meadow at the shore and a peach tree forest nearby, he abandoned the boat to set off an exploration with intrigue. He indeed found a small cave at the end of the forest. The dimmed light guided him through the narrow tunnel. Once he exited the tunnel, his breath was taken by the picture in front of him - homes stood handsomely amid the mulberry trees and bamboo groves. A short distance away, fertile farmland and fish ponds completed the perfect backdrop for this picturesque village.
The locals were equally surprised by the stranger in alien attire. Nevertheless, the fisherman found himself surrounded by food and wine, as well as villagers who were eager to tell their history. Century ago, their ancestors discovered this secret place while fleeing the war. Once they settled down in the land they blazed, they no longer had any attachment to the outside world. They lived in peace, and passed the same lifestyle from one generation to the next.
Most historians and literary critiques suggest that the Land of Peach Blossoms was merely a fictional creation of Tao, who longed for an escape from the corrupted imperial court. However, it was entirely possible that Tao’s story was inspired by a true story at the time. In particular, the karst geological feature in southwest China offers a perfect environment for the existence of such isolated demographic pockets.
In the quest of a modern land of peach blossoms, I bypassed hastily the bustling and noisy Chinese metropolitans at the high of the Olympic frenzy, and arrived in Guangnan. An uncharacteristic town tucked away at the southeastern corner of Yunnan Province, Guangnan is not blessed with super-highways like many of its peers with more strategic significance. A handful of farm vehicles and manpowered rickshaws roamed the 8-lane boulevard. Excessive hotels awaited few customers. Perhaps equally few people realise that this sleepy town is the springboard to Bamei, a place that turns literature into reality.
Although nowhere in China is out of the reach of the government, Bamei still resembles in many ways the poet’s fascination. The vertical karst mountains encircled the plain like citadel wall, leaving an underground river as the sole practical access into the enclosure.
At the entrance of the underground river, a squeaking watermill irrigates the nearby farmland eternally. 山有小口，仿佛若有光... 24°19'12.6"N, 105°2'5.1"E
The emerald river flowed quietly at the mouth of the cave. A watermill was eternally irrigating the nearby farmland day and night, squeaking as if narrating a tale. I stepped onto the boat, which was narrow but solid. My boatman was slim but skilful and confident. My orientation was lost as soon as the boat merged into the time tunnel. Bats echoed above, breeze chilled nostrils. Spotlight projected from the cave-top windows provided sporadic guidance, but soon the boat rejoined the darkness. In the world of darkness, time had dilated, until I saw the first sign of light at the end of the tunnel. I was thankful to be once again embraced by trees, mountains and the sky.
Bamei village, cradled peacefully by the mighty mountains, has indeed everything our poet had envisioned. Further afield, buffaloes ploughed hectares of fertile farmlands. Nearby, fish roved in fresh water sweet as honey. It was already noon time. Threads of smoke rose from the chimneys. Children who finished school plunged into the river, washing away the heat and chasing down the fleeing fish.
a natural bathing ground for the villagers. From the boat landing, I followed a narrow path to a century-old banyan tree at the village centre. The tree canopy was a roof for the village’s social life, under which women could gossip, children could play and men could discuss village affairs. I was somewhat amused by the melodic accent in their conversations, which appeared to be akin to Vietnamese language. The 2,000 plus Bamei natives belong to ethnic Zhuang, the most popular minority group in China with a population of 18 million spread over the southern provinces.
A portrait of the late Chairman Mao, whose death was unknown to the village for two years due to the geographical isolation of Bamei. 问今是何世，乃不知有汉，无论魏晋... 24°18'49.8"N, 105°2'16.3"E
To appreciate Bamei does not necessarily map everything to Tao’s essay. Bamei people did not wear ancient attires, although Bamei women were still in love with their Zhuang costumes as colourful as rainbows, completed with an unequivocal towel wrapped on their heads. It wasn’t that long ago Bamei people still spun their own threads, made their own textile and, not until 2003, Bamei was still out of reach of electric power. According to my guide, the village was unaware of the death of supreme leader Mao in 1976 until two years after. Such unimaginable story exemplifies the isolation of the village to the rest of the country.
Perhaps the modern era of Bamei started from the day when a forerunning villager brought home a small diesel generator and a TV set. Since then on, Bamei’s cultural life had taken a giant leap forward. Today, satellite dishes sprang over the rooftops, cell phone signals have penetrated the forbidden mountains. In the evening, my host family entertained their guests with DVD movies. Their stereo speakers, I noticed, were as high as my chest.
My host, a 28-year-old father of two, had earned a decent income with his hosting business. His home had several guestrooms and more than ten beds. Flushing toilet was nearly functional. Other families weren’t falling behind. In a normal day, Bamei welcomes about a hundred visitors per day, mostly day-trippers from the nearby Guangnan township. During the national holidays however, more than a thousand tourists from all over the country pour into the village, threatening its tranquillity, stressing its ecological limit, as well as testing its immunity from modern-day commercialism.
Tourism alone has clearly transformed Bamei from a subsistence agricultural economy to a more open and diverse one. This naturally raises the concern whether the very soul of this centuries-old utopia would finally be swallowed by the modern-day civilisation.
But I remain confident, at least for now. During the day of our visit, my partner fell and suffered a substantial injury on the scalp. There was no clinic, let alone hospital. Just as the villagers scrambled to stop the severe bleeding, the village’s quasi-doctor arrived. Under dozens of nervous eyes, he carefully treated the wound with all he had - a pair of rustic tailor scissors, a patch of cotton bandage, and some penicillin powder. When he finished the last touch, I saw a sense of pride and honour from him, and a sense of relief from the bystanders. Materials can change living condition instantly, but it can not corrupt the heart and culture of Bamei.