Orient Odyssey to China

To celebrate their 10th anniversary as a company, Orient Odyssey (1385 Gulf Rd., Ste. 203, Point Roberts, WA 98281; 800/637-5778, www.orientodyssey.com) offered a 10-day trip for September ’06 that I could not resist. It was to Guizhou Province in southeastern China, and the price was $1,430 from Vancouver, B.C. (In 2007, Orient Odyssey offers this trip as a 12-day itinerary for $1,990 from Los Angeles or New York.)

Guizhou is a place of beautiful scenery and 48 ethnic minorities, many of whom still maintain their original lifestyles, dress and unique cultural traditions. Now an airport plus accelerated road construction make the region more accessible.

The hotels were fine, the food was excellent and a lot was seen in 10 days.

We flew from Vancouver into Shanghai and spent the night, flying out the next morning to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province. The promised VIP treatment was evident as soon as we landed, with Miao (Hmong) women in ceremonial dress lined up to welcome us.

Guiyang itself is fairly modern, with tall highrises, some exciting architecture and a lot of building in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Tourism is emphasized throughout the country, and many signs alongside the highways are already written in both English and Chinese.

In Guiyang, which means “precious sun,” we visited the Jiaxiu Pavilion, a teahouse built in the late 16th century that is still functioning and is connected to the other side of the river by the Floating Jade Bridge.

We drove through terraced rice paddies, undulating fields and a series of lovely karst mountains — in pyramidal shapes and covered in green — to Langde village, home to the Miao people. We were greeted by a long receiving line of women dressed in their ceremonial best. Firecrackers blazed and elders played their lusheng (bamboo pipes). It was awesome.

The lavish ceremony put on by the villagers included “Road-Blocking Wine,” with village girls staging as many as 13 roadblocks en route to the main village gate. At each roadblock they sang and persuaded guests to drink their homemade rice wine, which, though light in taste, is reputed to have strong aftereffects. And so we did, drinking from the many cups forced to our lips as we made our way up the small hillside on stepping stones that required good balance to avoid falling into the green-covered pond alongside.

Their ornate, colorful costumes included magnificent silver headdresses, some with stylized horns and some as crowns with fringes, and heavy, large necklaces. Silver ornamentation was also included on their backs — truly beautiful.

The village was very primitive, with cobblestoned streets and dark homes from which inhabitants watched the action. As we made our way to the Bronze Drum Square, the villagers entertained us, a team of five lusheng pipers playing while dancing in ritualized styles. A marvelous whistler was featured who made incredible sounds using only a leaf and his hands. I’ve never heard anything so lovely.

We checked into the Grand Dragon Hotel, and after dinner I promptly fell asleep, in spite of the HARD so-called mattress provided, which was only a thin layer of batting on a hard board.

The next morning, we headed out on our bus to the Qingman and Boqi Miao villages, most famous for their distinctive style of dance and singing. In a papermaking village we watched the laborious process of making paper by hand.

At one point I was stopped by four young girls, each of whom looked at me most intently. I couldn’t figure out why at first but then thought it was my eyeglasses. I took them off, and the girls timidly came up to me and felt my face and the depressions on my nose from the nose pads and looked through the lenses. I gathered they had perhaps never seen glasses before. It reminded me so of my first visit to China in 1981 just after the country opened to foreigners. We were a real curiosity then, as we still are now in some parts of the country.

Tianlong Tunpu was established during the Ming Dynasty by an army sent by the imperial court to suppress local rebels. We walked the cobblestoned alleys, crossed charming bridges over canals, poked our heads into local homes and enjoyed an opera performance on an outdoor stage, the masked dancers playing out a story to songs and the beat of drums.

We wound up the main part of our tour the next day with a visit to magnificent Huangguoshu Falls. An easy walk down to the midpoint brought us behind the water curtain and through a long cave, where we could experience the falling water and spray holes — a bit wet, but so what? Returning to the plateau via two steep escalators, we arrived at a marvelous ancient bonsai garden. The small sizes of these plants, often over 100 years old, was astounding.

We returned to Shanghai, where I enjoyed a delicious lunch at the restaurant Kathleen’s 5 (325 Nanjing Xi Lu; phone 6327 2221 — set lunch menus, RMB120-140 [$16-$18]), near the museum, and dinner at M On The Bund (7/F No. 5 The Bund at Guangdong Lu; phone 86-21 6350-9988 — appetizer, main course and dessert, CNY464 [$60]), with a fabulous view of the lights of Shanghai.

And then the trip was over, leaving me with good memories and refreshed in body and spirit.


Keizer, OR