Among the Miao people of Guizhou, there is a festival that only takes place once every thirteen years. The Guzang festival is a two-plus week celebration honoring Li Rong, the ancient leader of the Miao people.
The first day of the Guzang festival is a fairly laid back affair along the lines of an opening ceremony. It is followed by the local shaman circling a mountain with a male duck on the second day and the slaughtering of many pigs and a massive feast on the third day.
We were lucky enough to be in Kaili on the first day of the festival, and we decided to head to Beigao Village, where the local shaman is a friend of our Guizhou guide Billy Li.
Before arriving in Beigao we had to pick up some party favors, which included three large rolls of firecrackers to be set off in announcement of our arrival. We also purchased a male duck, which we would give the shaman.
Once we had prepared everything, we hit a trailhead about one hour’s drive outside of Kaili and started hiking toward Beigao.
During the three-hour hike we followed a clear stream uphill for the first couple of hours, using stepping stones to cross it several times.
The last leg of the hike was a steep ascent consisting primarily of narrow switchbacks. As we gained altitude, the vistas became increasingly spectacular. A village at the top of a mountain across the valley became visible, and Billy told us that every morning children from Beigao would descend their mountain and walk up the other mountain to go to school.
After a few stops to enjoy the stunning scenery we eventually made it to the entrance of Beigao Village. Billy lit a roll of firecrackers to announce our arrival. The nearly two-minute series of explosions created plenty of noise and smoke and also drew a large crowd of children who were curious to see who we were.
The village shaman, Mr. Li, came down to greet us. He thanked us for the duck and led us up into the village, where young Miao women were waiting for us with small bowls of rice wine, the traditional Miao greeting for guests.
After a quick three bowls of rice wine, we were buzzing in the warm sun. We were welcomed by the rest of the villagers at the village basketball court, where we were treated to traditional singing and dancing – and another round of rice wine.
The village’s women were all dressed in traditional Miao costume, with silver adornments a major feature. On the side of the court, young local boys waited for the festivities to move elsewhere so they could get back to playing basketball.
We were invited into the home of Mr. Li the shaman, where we sat around a long table and chatted with the young women who had given us rice wine. We discovered that despite Beigao’s remoteness, several of the girls no longer lived in the village – they had moved to coastal cities to make money, much of which they sent home.
During a delicious home-cooked meal of stir-fried pork and cabbage and spicy and sour fish soup, the shaman encouraged us to drink more rice wine, which we drank in increasingly small sips. The young women burst into song once more, captivating all of us with their beautiful voices.
After the meal, one of the women who had cooked for us exonerated us to stay an extra couple of days for the upcoming feast. Unfortunately, we were not going to be able to catch the height of the Guzang festivities this time around.
It was time for us to make our way back to Kaili via a bus that was waiting for us outside the village. Nearly the entire village walked with us to our ride. We were given hearty handshakes by the men and – you guessed it – rice wine by the women.
Driving away from Beigao we were once again struck by the friendliness and generosity of the rural people of Guizhou – and the potency of their rice wine.
The next morning we discovered one of the members of our group had left his hat at the shaman’s home. We wouldn’t have time to go back and get it this time, but we now had the perfect excuse to hike back to the village next time we were in Guizhou.