This is a portrait I took of an old lady at a traditional village market. She belongs to the Bai ethnic group, one of the many minority ethnicities in China, where Han Chinese is the majority.
This weekly market has been held for the last thousand years, in a remote and untouched village called Shaxi (沙溪), in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China. Every Friday, the usually peaceful and empty streets spring to life. Villagers dress in their traditional garbs and straw hats, carrying wares or fresh produce in rattan baskets hoisted on their backs, or laying them out on the cobblestones for sale. It is a boisterous and colourful affair, with everything ranging from vegetables to handicrafts or clothes put up for sale.
Many of these villagers, especially the older generation, do not know how to speak Mandarin or pu tong hua, which is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. They speak their own ethnic dialects, but are very friendly and try their best to understand and communicate with the few foreigners that visit their village.
Few travellers have unearthed this gem, which has not been commercialised by mass tourism yet. But that too is uncertain, as developmental works are bound to enter the little village soon, improving infrastructure and connectivity to the outside world.
As of two years ago when I visited Shaxi, the only way to access the village is via a rickety and narrow mountain path that left me in cold sweat as our car swerved precariously near the edge of the steep and winding slope.
When we finally arrived, we were brought to a home stay run by a friendly and enthusiastic girl named Xixi. Every morning, we were awakened by the sounds of cows mooing loudly. We showered and brushed our teeth with fresh and icy cold water that flowed out of a bronze tap, all the way up from the mountains.
Our bed was a thin mattress placed on a bed frame that looked like wooden planks, with no heating in the room although it was winter.
In the morning, we ate a home cooked breakfast, with eggs from the chickens in the farm, and fresh milk squeezed daily from the cows we heard. It tasted strangely raw, although not in a bad way, except that we were too used to processed milk that came in cartons at the supermarket.
There is a supermarket in the village too, but villagers take pride in harvesting everything they need from the farms and their crops.
Even their alcohol is homemade, and I remember the plum wine we were introduced to that came in unlabelled plastic bottles with red caps that reminded me of herbal tea we drank at home. The plum wine was sweet and refreshing, and fresher than anything I have tasted before. I still miss it today sometimes.
As night fell and the local shops drew their shutters, we had BBQ by the roadside where makeshift stalls were set up every evening. There were so many different kinds of meat that I couldn’t recognise, but my favourite was actually the enoki mushrooms. Grilled till golden brown and slightly charred on the charcoal grill, its taste was fragrant and succulent (coming from someone who doesn’t like mushrooms).
There’s something magical about eating barbecued food fresh off the charcoals. With gas and electricity nowadays in modern cities where we stay, it is rare or almost impossible to find food cooked on charcoal.
On the way back to our farm home as we navigated the maze of narrow alleys, we looked up and saw the most amazing sight in our lives. The sky was a milky way of stars. It was not just scattered with sprinkles of stars, but flowed like a river of glitter. Maybe there’s a reason why our galaxy was named the Milky Way.
In a place with minimal electricity and streetlights, the true beauty of our cosmos revealed itself.
Read more about Shaxi here.