Searching for a Shaman; Miao villages in western Hunan

As we curved into the valley onto the G209, halfway down western Hunan almost on the border of Guizhou, the sun was beginning to set and the mist was turning into rain. About 80 km ago we entered the Miao  part of Hunan, an ethnic minority spread across southwestern China (and a broader term that includes other ethnic groups and Hmong peoples). Brick and concrete buildings huddled by the road were steadily replaced by wood houses built into the mountainside and black from years of layers of sap being painted onto their exterior; we pass by a local school where the concrete for a basketball court has been laid directly into a curve in the riverbed. As the rain gets heavy and pale blues began deepen with the setting of the sun, the sky overhead is suddenly cut in half by an incredible steel structure cresting across the gorge. This is the Aizhai bridge,  almost 4000 ft long and 1000 ft off in the air, towering over a village lit by red neon hotel signs. 

Staring up at the switchbacks that crawl straight up mountain under the bridge, we decide to press on toward Zhi Er, a village recommended to us by a good friend who had hiked in there last year and liked it much more than the already tourist-saturated “ethnic museum” that Dehang, a village in the next valley over, had become. We soared upward, closer and closer to the belly of the ever-present bridge. Cutting off deep into the mountains, we slung our way past two smaller villages denoted only by dots of porch lights, and finally found ourselves in the main village square of Zhi Er. We had arrived with only a name and an unanswered text message from our soon to be host who our friend in Changsha assured we would be able to find easily in the 200 household village. As we turned off the bikes, unsure if we were in the right place, we checked the name we were given, mumbling it out loud as we tried to think of where to start. As if pulled together by the mountains, a girl’s voice directly behind us chimes out in the dark, “are you looking for me?”


Longcui takes us back through the alleys of the village and we push our bikes into the courtyard in front of her house which she’s recently converted into a restaurant – the first in the village. We sip on homemade rice wine and are taken over to where we’ll stay the night, her in-laws half-finished house that is soon going to be a two room guesthouse. We sit around an indoor fire pit where water is being boiled while we watch a tv station from western China where a local imam is talking about religious harmony; something that feels impossibly far away from here.

The next day the whole village is wrapped in a thick fog. Mist hovers horizontal as we walk through the stone walkways in the shrouded early morning sun. Old ladies in traditional Miao clothes laugh and smile as we scoot on our bikes past the corner store where they’ve gathered to talk. Over breakfast, Longcui’s husband, Qifu, who spent ten years working in temporary jobs across twenty cities China – including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, begins to talk to us about the history of Hunan and the villages around. Originally the camps of local bandits in the mountains, the villages in this area are mostly Miao and each is most comprised of people with the same surname, in this case Shi. These villages are mysterious places, he tells us, recounting back to his childhood where they used to go search for old bullet casings in caves tucked into the forest. A lot of people here have a xinyang, a term he uses to refer generally to “beliefs.” Curious, we inquire more: do you? what kind of things are you talking about? He relates a story to us about his grandfather-in-law’s funeral where his mother-in-law invited a local a shaman and a medium to bless over the ceremony. Unbeknownst to anyone else, his mother-in-law had stuffed money in the inner pocket of the deceased; when the medium went to “talk” to the deceased, the spirit asked the medium to thank them for the money. (Later in our ride through the same province, others in a local diner recounted different tales: shamans that could nail a paper human cutout to a door and bend the arms to make them strong enough to hold jugs of water.) Intrigued, we asked Longcui if she would take us to find the shaman.

As we twist through the back alleys of the village, we weave in and out of empty houses of relatives who are out working in the fields where they grow tobacco, chilies, and rice. The shaman isn’t home, Longcui is told by a mute man passing by. Walking back downhill past a small herd of cows, she asks us if we want to go with Qifu out to the canyon on the edge of the village.


We drive out through the fog onto a gravel road, off the bikes and through the thick forest that in fall is full of wild cherries. Following Qifu up onto the rocks, the fog drops off and opens into walls of sub tropical tress clinging to white cliffs splattered with stains like black ink. Qifu points over to where Dehang is, saying that the village there was settled by people from his village who went down into the valley. Dwarfed by the valley we gaze out into a distance that warps in depth on a grey backdrop


Before leaving, we take pictures for Longcui of her in her classical Miao dress per her request – to put up in the restaurant.


We say goodbye and wave back to an old man sitting sideways on a cinderblock wall outside the house where we stayed.


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Comments: 3
  • #1

    Barry McGinnis (Tim's Dad) (Friday, 19 June 2015 16:41)

    I am enjoying your journey blog. Keep the posts and beautiful pictures coming.

  • #2

    Laurie (Tuesday, 23 June 2015)

    Super! Experiences of a lifetime! Wonderful, memorable pictures. The information about the people and places is fascinating. Please continue! So glad to be a part of your journey. Thank you!

  • #3

    Gretchen (Thursday, 25 June 2015 04:49)

    Incredible photos, Nate. Fascinating descriptions. Remember the Miao woman we saw in the bus station in Hangzhou?