We went to a number of villages during our stay in Guizhou, but one of the more interesting was Shiqiao, where the speciality is paper-making.
We'd actually stopped first at a cave site some distance away. "This is a good place in the summer," Mr. Ou, our driver, told us. "It stays cool in here."
There were various ramshackle structures made of wood, some holding cloudy water and grayish white fibrous tangles whose composition and potential function I could only guess at. Mr. Ou did his best to explain, but at first I wasn't getting it.
After a while I finally figured out that "shu pi" was not, like, leather something something, but tree bark, and that they were making paper.
After the cave, we made our way to Shiqiao Village. Many of the families here are engaged in paper-making, and each family makes its own. Here are a few photos of the process:
We stopped in at one of the larger operations. I found out later that this is a paper-making cooperative, created to preserve traditional Miao methods, an effort that has made this household the wealthiest in Shiqiao.
They had a storefront of sorts, shelves with stacks of handmade notebooks and sketchbooks and larger sheets of drawing paper, a graying PC and a ledger book on a small desk. Famous artists come here from the big cities to buy their paper, Mr. Ou told us.
"You can try it!" the proprietor, Mr. Wang, urged us, holding out an ink brush. He had sheets of paper laid out on a long table, where other visitors had scrawled their names and countries of origin.
"I have terrible handwriting," I warned. Which is true (I'm left-handed, for one). But I also used to do a lot of art back in elementary and junior high. It was about my best subject.
So, I wrote my name, and for some reason, using the ink brush, I was able to do it neatly, in a sort of grandiose way.
Mr. Wang loved this. So did our female host (I am assuming Mrs. Wang, but I don't actually know for certain). "Draw something!" they urged me.
Well, okay. I drew a cat.
Our hosts seemed to think that this was pretty amazing. I was just glad that I'd managed to draw a recognizable feline.
We went upstairs for lunch. Not a formal restaurant, but an area where guests and tourists could be served. I know that Guizhou is incredibly poor in terms of per capita income, and I'm sure that we didn't see anything close to the real poverty that must exist there. But I have to wonder, a little, because some things about the lifestyle here are pretty amazing. The wooden houses, for example. Basic, yes. But airy, pleasant and in their own way, beautiful.
I was heartened to see that in all the villages we visited, new houses were still constructed in this traditional architectural style—hardly any incursion of white tile disease.
Would I want to be a peasant farmer, working terraced rice paddies in my bare feet, behind a water buffalo? Not so much. And I don't want to overly romanticize a way of living that requires a lot of very hard work and doesn't have a lot of the "mod cons," the connectivity and stimulation, that I myself would not want to do without.
But the incredibly gorgeous landscape, the clean, fresh air, the festivals and celebrations...surely these are worth something on the scale of a good life. When I consider the environmental devastation in so much of China, I wonder if in the long run, the inhabitants of Guizhou will finally benefit from their poor, stunning homeland...
This paper-making household is a regular stop on the slowly developing tourist circuit. There was a group of French people who came in after us for lunch (the French, we were told, are the most numerous Western travelers in Guizhou), about ten of them, with a guide.
(Mr. Ou, our driver, and Mrs. Wang (?), papermaker and one of our hosts)
After a round of homemade wine (yum!) and a few bites of lunch (simple but delicious, one of the best meals I had), the proprietor came upstairs, beaming, carrying a mounted square of blank, handmade paper. "After lunch, you can write your name and draw the cat again?" he asked. "And we can put it on the wall!"
I agreed, a little embarrassed, and told myself I'd better go easy on the rice wine.
Submitted for your approval...my goofy cat:
In return for my efforts, Mr. Wang gave me one of their notebooks. I'm looking at it now, at the beautiful, soft paper made by hand. I'm thinking, maybe I should buy myself an ink-brush, and learn how to draw something other than a cat...