Photo Documentary: Autumn in the Gingko Biloba village of PingTian (坪田)

Autumn has fallen upon the little township of PingTian. The green leaves turn this little village into a fairytale scenery, with equally impressive citizens as main characters.

Just like a cake needs certain ingredients in order to be a tasteful cake, so travel requires specific components to be pleasant and memorable. I would like to start by saying that nice sunny weather is of great importance, but the cloudy and even rainy weather have proved me wrong, which made me reconsider my initial ‘recipe’.

First comes the surroundings, being a photographer, I value this village for its unique characteristics. Luckily, most remote villages (even in the densely populated coastal provinces of China) have a distinct local nature as people live from what the landscape has to offer. Houses are made out of soil and clay from that very place.

One of the first things i noticed were the orange’ish colored bricks used to construct the houses. A scenery is a key ingredient for traveling, its like the base of cake. The village, the yellow leaved tree (GinkGo tree), and the surrounding hills and forrest offered me plenty of idyllic photo opportunities.

The reason why I chose to visit this particular village at this time was because of the GinkGo Tree, or Ginkgo Biloba. A tree native to China with no known relative specie, family or even division (if you want to get biological about it). This tree is entirely on its own…. Except in brief period in the end of november and early december, when its leaves turn bright yellow, some nature fanatics flock out to witness this yearly celebration of the season. Aside from its peculiar leaves, its has some other unique characteristics, as this type of tree is able to grow over 2700 years old, and has been traced back some 270 million years, hence the term ‘living fossils’ accurately applies.

Although Ginkgo biloba and other species of the genus were once widespread throughout the world, their range shrank until by two million years ago, it was restricted to a small area of China.

My need for natural beauty has clearly been saturated, hence its time to start looking for my next ingredient, the local cuisine! My experience with towns further away from big cities, is that the food generaly gets better. Unfortunately ‘free market forces’ have even managed to influence China’s urban restaurants, as much meat comes from large animal factories, and most pork and beef is treated with chemicals to make it appear softer (still very tasty, but less authentic and possibly unhealthy).

Aside from the sea of yellow leaves in which this place was covered, poultry seemed to find its way across town as well. I think every household is at least in possession of some wild chickens of ducks. So it wasnt a rare sight to find several duck family looking for some food on the side of the road.

I dare to say that PingTian has at least three times as many chickens and ducks as cititens. (Unfortunately) This resulted in being woken by the neighbor’s rooster, to the occasional cock-fight in people’s garden or porch.

As you walk into the ‘restaurant’, the boss will lead you to the back so you can choose the duck you want to have for lunch.

After climbing the highest mountain in town, it was time to sit down and have lunch. A short peek around the street revealed a man selling ducks (per piece). A little bargaining later, we agreed to eat half the duck now, and take half an uncooked duck back home, we sat down while the chef was preparing the delicious duck for us, according to a Hakka recipe.

I thought this picture offers a clear overview of the life of a Chinese duck. First freedom, then captivity, then into the bucket to be plucked and lastly prepared in the kitchen. Food can’t get more pure than this right?

My shopping list for a great trip was going the right way. I was surrounded by beautiful, traditional houses, in a unique surrounding with almost unreal trees everywhere. The food was incredibly tasty and fresh, I even managed to take some duck home with me. What is the next ingredient on my list?

Indeed, people! I love taking pictures of people in their ‘natural habitat’. In a way (most ways), we are just like animals, and we are most ‘in shape’, at home. A while back now, I  concluded that generally, Han Chinese (as proud as they are) are sometimes less curious about foreigners, if not shy. This results in more difficult situations for me to take pictures of them, as opposed to most minorities in the the far western provinces (Tibetans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uyghurs, Mongols, or Hui).

After this trip, I would like to come back to this statement to correct myself. The villagers of PingTian were very eager to find contact with me, and not shy at all (although staying at a distance). In fact, most people here had never seen a white man before except on television. “Bingo” was the first thing on my mind, I didnt even need to look for ‘them’ as they were sincerely curious in this ‘ghost’ (GuiLo in Cantonese).

Despite being a village in the tropical province of Guangdong, PingTian is about 6 hours by bus up north, the weather is quite different compared to my home town, Guangzhou. Also, it is situated on a much higher altitude, which results in drastic different climate than the coastal areas. Throughout the day, I saw old people carrying logs of wood, branches and other material they could use to light their fireplaces.

People start to collect all the wood they can get their hands on in preparation for the cold (snowy) winter ahead.

The farmer taking his cattle down after a day grazing in the fields downhill. As PingTian is a relatively unimportant village in a remote area of Guangdong, it means that less government infrastructural expenditures come this way. As such, the entire village was built along the only paved road (the main street). This has caused the street view of the entire town to look like it does in the picture above.

Hakka Woman in their winter outfits. The cold air, in combination with the high humidity, makes it feel like its close to freezing point. Old people start wearing hats, and babies are covered in thick blankets.

Alhtough China’s one-child policy is still in power (current rumours say this law will be ceased in 2015), this law only holds for Han Chinese in urban areas (based on your HuKou, place of birth ceritficate). So minorities, as well as people who have HuKou’s from villages and towns have the right to have more children. As the men are often out to work all day, or even leave to cities to come back in the weekends, its up to the women and grandmoms to take care of the little toddlers.

Hakka Boy (Han Chinese) sitting in front of his home. This town doesnt know any street lights, so generally, as soon as it gets dark, your family is all you have. There are no facilities for children around, other than the street, so kids play with anything they can find, from frogs to pieces of wood.

In a village like this, everyone is a part-time farmer, just like the shop owner in the picture. When you consider the fact that we (Westerners) throw most of the things away when slaughterin a chicken, we would be surprised to pay for all of those things. Here in China however, almost every part of an animal is used in different dishes, so this chicken get sold by their total weight. Eventhough I was just here to purchase some peanuts, tea was offered (and poured) to me before I could even pay, how welcoming!

Another measure for checking the quality of a destination, are the children. Do they live happily, or in poverty, do they play around or simply gaze until the day is over. Pingtian, although not rich (I think the average income of a family would be around $200-$300 per month) the kids learn how to play with eachother. My girlfriend explained how China used to look much more like this when she was young. Today, smaller townships (within bigger cities) have made way for skyscrapers and many traditions have gone with it. Nevertheless, this has undoubtably also happened in Europe throughout the 20th century.

The local playground

The Boy and his Bird.

One things that strikes me, in comparison to the kids in Guangzhou city (the city currently counts around 16 million citizens), is that kids ‘own’ the street. Cars stop and wait for kids, in turn, kids play together, no matter the income difference of their parents. This is greatly different in GuangZhou where kids barely play in the street (mostly with their cell phones), and where cars and adults seem to dominate the roads.

Two brothers waiting for their dad to come home. Kids see toys in everything…. even a potatoe!

The next day, I woke up early to check out another town nearby, with more GinkGo trees. Most houses seemed deserted, but every now and then, an old man or woman popped out of an old dark brown door with some fruits or other food in her hand to sell on the morning market. The market is a lively place, where all generations gather to keep their family members company in the morning cold.

This gentleman led us through his part of the village, as he was on his way to his home.

The houses have been left behind, as newer (concrete) buildings started to appear on the paved road in the middle of the village. It is not hard to imagine how life would have looked like 50 years ago. Houses are build close along side eachother, so in the summer the shade offers some fresh air.

Narrow alleys form a maze in the old town of PingTian

Another lunch, with another interesting fellow. The brick pattern behind him could be found throughout the village. My best theory suspects its simply done for the appearance, as generally no other layer is applied on either side of the wall. In other words, every living room looks exactly the same from the inside.

The traditional houses are about a 10 minute walk from the ‘newer’ village with the paved road. I think the dried up wood in front of the houses is a good sign to see if the house is still use or not.

As the day progressed, some other tourist started to appear. This could be a bad sign, as I am not a big fan of large crowds (of tourists). It generally numbs the local people to give a smile, and too often I find myself waiting for people who just walk into my scene (after settign up my tri-pod). Fortunately, the tourists (all Chinese of course although possibly some Hong Kongese) mostly care about the GinkGo Biloba.

The GinkGo Biloba doesnt jsut offer a spectacular sight in autumn, it is also believed to cure many deseases and illneses. The medicinal powers are said to come from the seeds that this tree produces. At the bottom of this post you can see the final product.

A tourist ‘blocking’ my view. “If you dont want to wait and stay out of my shot, then please dont move so I can take a picture of you in it” :)

Hakka Girls playing around in the leaf rich forest, as the leaves fall down on their heads. For a couple of days in a year, every girl becomes a model for all the tourist knee down to take pictures of them.

The flocks of chickens around the old town caused for some individuals to behave a little too cocky at times.

It was time to head back home. PingTian has spoiled me with all that it could possibly offer. With beautiful people, interesting sights, delicious food and a unique character due to all its yellow leafed trees. I hope, in spite of China’s continious growth, places like this will stay untouched for many more years to come. As this place has all the ingredients of a great photo trip indeed.

On my way back to the village, I ran into the mushroom salesman, who besides offering a smile also had ‘magical’ pitch black mushrooms. Again, this was also used for medicinal purposes. Something Chinese people value greatly (especially in GuangDong province), where any kind of food serves a purpose. I think this is a great perspective to see the human body, and it actually makes a lot of sense as well.

The medicinal seeds of the GinkGo tree. In a nutshell, this trip had everything I could hope for, except for the weather. Anyway, not all cakes should be made of chocolate either right?

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