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Revitalise in Bama

The Bama Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is no easy find. The bus departs provincial capital Nanning and follows an expressway through the pastoral lands of the South, veering past banana plantations, rice fields, grubby roadside garages and pig farms until it finds the hills. Here the Han Chinese lowlands submit to the highlands of Zhuang and Yao peoples, isolated villages clinging to the crooked karst landscape that dominates and defines so much of southwest China.

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After a five-hour slog, Bama Town is a sufficiently unremarkable place as to not warrant too much hanging about. With few attractions beyond the lofty peaks that flank its perimeter most board a mini-bus following the road along the Panyang River. Departing town you’re soon lead into a verdant valley that could easily lay claim to be “the land that time forgot”. Indeed, the road only connected with Bama in 2007 before which the area was only accessible via mountain footpaths. And what seclusion from the outside world has cultivated is simply remarkable – a village of people who commonly live past a hundred years old.

Pingan or Longevity Village is home to five of the oldest people on earth, including six centenarians. Flanking the river, the village was traditionally home to Zhuang minority subsistence farmers but is now attracting droves from the smoggy north lured by Bama’s organic produce, crystalline streams, and uncorrupted mountain air. Traditional homes have been converted into guesthouses, restaurants, and stalls hawking grown-in-Bama mountain fungi, garden-fresh fruit, and other such medicinal cures.

Due to a deep-seated belief in holistic medicine Poyue Township further upstream has been turned into cure-all central, a veritable home for the dying (as well as a fair few hypochondriacs). Entrepreneurs are busy selling everything from timeshare homes to Bama bottled water while the Yao people descend the mountains to sell fruit and veg that according to the Chinese concept of shuitu (literarily water-earth) the land has imbued the food with healing mountain magic.  

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If you’re not in the market for some medicinal meals, Bama is still very much worthy of a visit due to the pristine surrounds, remarkable topography, and well-preserved ethnic cultures – in Dongshan village, for example, you’ll find some well preserved traditional Yao buildings whereas in Lan Ding Village there’s a Yao textiles museum.

Organic farmer, tai-chi master and all-around cool character Stephen Cramb, who runs the sole foreign hotel in the area, The Bama Farmhouse Retreat, believes those with a sense of adventure will get a taste of southwest China fading from view in Bama. “It’s a beautiful, scenic location, fairly remote and untouched, ideal for hikers, bird watchers, and photographers. The landscape has been carved into caves, peaks and potholes there are all sorts of interesting sites scattered about including an abandoned stone village, waterfalls, and pools.”

Baimo Cave

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The cave’s name means “One Hundred Ghosts” and Baimo is indeed a haunting cavern of subterranean streams, strange stalagmites, and surreal stalactites. But it is actually an ancient mountain path used by the Yao people as a path to get crops from the hills to the lower lying markets. That hasn’t stopped local authorities establishing a tollgate for outsiders, many of whom buy season passes and spend time in the caves, apparently absorbing the healing properties of stones. As with most Chinese tourist caves, several notable rocks have been awarded symbolic names including Peacock in his Pride Worshiping Avalostesvara.

Ming River

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The Panyang River may be Bama’s principle waterway but it’s the River Ming that draws the most gasps. Best viewed from viewing platform high up in the hills the river snakes through a picture-postcard valley of paddy fields tended by gentle water buffalo. There’s a spattering of mottled farmhouse before a backcloth of learning limestone peaks. But what is so captivating to the credulous Chinese is that the river course appears as the character for life, hence the name “Min” which inevitably adds some credibility to the life-giving powers of Bama.     

Notable Geography

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As Bama belongs to the south China karst – a remarkable world of mountains, caves, and potholes created over thousands of years as rain has softly dissolved the limestone rock – it, therefore, stands to reason that there are several geological wonders to gawk at. These are best viewed from a motorbike as they are scattered throughout the countryside. But of note check out Sanmenhai, where a turquoise underground river passes through caves, Yin and Yang Mountain, so called because the twin hills appear to represent male and female genitalia and Fairy Bridge, a naturally formed stone overpass.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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