A welcome change

Beatiful scenery: The Shibadong Village in Hunan province has had its poverty cap removed. (Inset) Shi is all-smiles as she talks about how her livelihood has improved.

A visit by a group of strangers years ago changed the lives of China’s poverty stricken Miao minority tribe.

DEEP in the remote mountains of western Hunan province sits Shibadong village.

Not far from this remote place lies the famous Fenghuang Ancient Town, which receives about 20 million visitors yearly.

None of the tourists knew they were just 75km away from nirvana – with a cool breeze and spectacular scenery overseeing a lake within the mountain range.

And for 939 descendants of the Miao minority tribe, this is a place they call home.

The villagers were “cut off” from the outside world as there was no access road except a muddy path full of potholes.

This village lacks arable land, so the crops harvested could barely feed their families.

For generations, the villagers survived on corn and sweet potato cakes.

Only those who were sick and pregnant had a chance to eat rice.

Their living condition was so poor that no brides from other places would even want to marry the local men and stay in the village.

All this came to an end seven years ago when a group of strangers walked into the remote and impoverished Shibadong.

The village folks were clueless who the visitors were until the village head introduced a member of the entourage.

He was none other than the country’s then new president Xi Jinping.

Shi is all-smiles as she talks about how her livelihood has improved.Shi is all-smiles as she talks about how her livelihood has improved.

Following that visit and on seeing their poverty, Xi put forward the idea of poverty alleviation.

This year is China’s target year to eradicate poverty and The Star was invited to visit the village together with a group of diplomats and journalists from Asean nations.

It took our bus about one-and-a-half-hours to reach Shibadong from Fenghuang Ancient Town.

Despite travelling on winding mountainous roads, the journey was rather comfortable with tarred roads leading all the way to the doorstep of the village.

Shibadong means “Eighteen Holes’” is named after a nearby cave.

Once notorious for its poverty, it has now been transformed into a clean and beautiful countryside, nothing like the old pictures which I saw later.

On arrival, the villagers sang us a long welcome song to give as a warm welcome as they presented each of us a cup of rice wine – once a precious commodity, only served to very special guests back in their earlier days.

Walking up the stone steps and rugged terrain, we arrived at the home of Shi Pazhuan, 71.

It was a simple Miao house with a living room at the centre.

On the left side was a bedroom with a fire pit to keep the family warm and where Shi boiled water.

Some mouthwatering pork strips were roasted on the fire pit.

“This is how we (the Miao tribe) make smoke pork, ” said Shi’s daughter who declined to be named.

“We preserve the meat and save it for big occasions, ” she explained in her broken Mandarin.

Most of the villagers here do not go to school and can only converse in the Miao language although some do speak basic Mandarin.

Shi’s kitchen is where that group of strangers entered back in 2013.

“I was preparing dinner when they entered.

“Xi called me dajie (big sister) but I told him I did not know how to address him, ” she smiled while a worker from the local government helped translating her lines into Mandarin.

Today, basic amenities and home appliances are no longer luxury items in her home and she can even afford to make dozens of pork strips for the family at a time.

The villagers are tasks with various jobs including bee farming and running homestays or restaurants, with help from local officials.

Some of them have ventured into agriculture by renting a piece of flat land in a nearby village to plant kiwi trees.

The women set up a cooperative to promote handicrafts and souvenirs that carry unique Miao embroidery, snacks and Miao cuisine.

Today, Shibadong, which received 600,000 visitors last year, has had the caps of its poverty removed.

The average annual net income per capita of the locals have also increased from only 1,668 yuan (RM1,040) in 2013 to 14,668 yuan (RM9,135) last year.

Shibadong has become a role model for other poverty-stricken areas, demonstrating how local folk can improve their livelihoods without having to relocate themselves to other places.

Although their tranquil lives have been “disturbed” somewhat by outsiders, the villagers have pretty much welcomed the change.

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