Guizhou province, China: A face in the crowd

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Silk and Bamboo Ensemble: Beautiful Woman Thinking of the Moon
Guizhou province, China: A face in the crowd

It is curious how a single photograph, snapped suddenly and with little thought of the result, can bring back a flood of memories. Among the 1024 photos I took in south west China in just eight days eight days – true, there was so much to see and too much to retain without the prompt of a picture – there are inevitably many which bring back a flood of recollections.

But a few stand out, one in particular because it is so ordinary and almost by accident captured such a human moment.

It was in Xijiang Miao Village near Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in south west China, where the people of this large ethnic minority go about their daily business almost oblivious to the tourists who walk their narrow streets and point cameras into their lives.

The Miao people take all of this with exceptional good cheer, I thought, and my guess was if we hadn't been there they would be doing exactly what they were, going about their lives in traditional costume, cooking and sewing, repairing buildings and bicycles, walking with their children or sitting in small groups laughing.

At small stalls on the street, women of the village husked fresh corn, tied up bright red chili pods for drying, offered deliciously oily deep-fried onion patties, brushed down the steps of their homes and sold embroidery.

Outside a temple a group of exotically dressed old women with glowingly cheerful faces – one a sprightly 82-year old – laughed and joked among themselves as they sewed brightly coloured shoes and seemed oblivious to the cameras clicking around them.

A day at the village is a fascinating digression away from the city, and the Chinese opera – a truncated version but no less colourful – was also a riot of energy, scary masks, high drama, shrill songs and swirling costumes of bright blue, deep red and vibrant yellow.

But my most memorable photo in the village was of none of those things.

At little bridges which crossed a narrow canal, groups of local women had gathered for a chat and perhaps to look at us with the same curiosity as we were looking at them.

Three older women with broad faces and laughing eyes joked and laughed, and further along three young women sat and talked quietly among themselves. Because of their beautiful costumes – the older women in white with black aprons and hats, the younger in shimmering blue dresses over their jeans with coal-black trim and aprons – people stopped and took photographs.

And so did I, but my attention was on a young girl at the back.

While the world was going about it business around her she was was lost in deep thought, somewhere off on her own and oblivious to us all.

When I look at that photo I to become lost in it. It brings back the sweet smell and smoke of the village, the warmth of the people and sometimes their indifference as they simply went about their lives.

I remember the sound of laughter and the staccato music at the opera, the high voices of the singers, the narrow lanes and stone walls, the man selling old comics (yes, I took photos of them too) and the slippery tang of the onion cake.

I am transported back to those small streets and lanes, to the stone wall where vivid red and faded green chillies hung, where a battered bicycle rested on a low wall and there were offerings of a pig's head, tofu, rice and oranges outside the old hall where the opera took place.

But amidst the collision of memories it is that moment of quiet and reflection on the young girl's face as she rested her chin on her hand and drifted away into a world of her own.

At no time among the Miao people did I feel an intruder, although maybe when I took this photograph I was.

The Miao village should be on anyone's itinerary if they are in Guizhou province. It is a quiet corner which seems to reach back to a more ancient time. I doubt I will ever get back there unfortunately, but I have a single photograph of a stolen moment which transports me there in an instant.

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