China: A bridge far enough

By Ann Huston

Ann Huston travelled with her sons to the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge in China’s Guangxi province.

The wooden Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge is one of 100 nail-free bridges in the Chengyang area. Photo / Ann Huston
The wooden Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge is one of 100 nail-free bridges in the Chengyang area. Photo / Ann Huston

Like ancient rickety frogs, bamboo waterwheels croak as they splash and dip into the Linxi River. Powered by bark paddles in the Linxi flow, the wheels' bamboo tubes scoop liquid nourishment and deposit it into wooden troughs that feed pipes leading to ponds that drain into rice-fields along the river-bank.

But I hadn't dragged Nick,13, and Oscar,12, four hours north of Guilin city just to look at waterwheels. No, we'd travelled all that way on a concrete road in torrential rain to see what my sons bitterly described as "a dusty old bridge". "It's a miracle of wooden engineering," I assured them, feeling uncomfortably middle-aged. "Soak it up."

The Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge is one of more than 100 nail-free, covered bridges built by the Dong people in the Chengyang area. Yang Ming Zhong - "but you can call me Michael" - tells us the Dong are "95 per cent farmers and 5 per cent teachers".

"But every village turns out three or four very good carpenters," he adds.

And these carpenters built the bridges.

Michael is the owner of the Dong Village Hotel near the Chengyang Bridge, the most famous of the wooden covered bridges near the village of Ma'an. Not only is the bridge made of wood, the hotel is, too - our room has wooden walls, floor, ceiling and beds.

From our rough-sawn balcony overlooking the river, I can see seven waterwheels. In the other direction I see a yellow-bellied snake, slithering its way through a rice field. My sons see it too. And want to eat it. Finally, a good reason for coming all this way, they say.

The Wind and Rain Bridge was built over a 12-year period from local Chinese fir. Its dark wood feels old, smells old and looks old, but at 100 years old, it is relatively young by Chinese standards Michael tells me it is "the oldest, the longest and the nicest" of all the bridges nearby.

Its grey roof is made from kiln-dried clay tiles and, jutting up from the corridor roof, are five pagodas. The bridge was built for crossing the river and also to shelter stock and people from wind and rain. This roof has statues of birds and fish across its length. Other bridges have dragons woven into their roof lines for good luck and protection.

The bridge is well-visited by Chinese and foreign tourists. In the day it can be cluttered with tiny, bent-over, wrinkled trinket women, selling their handicrafts. But in the evening, empty and lit by flood-lights, it's at its best.

The Chengyang area is named after two of the first families to settle there: the Cheng and the Yang, who arrived 600 years ago. The Wu family arrived 100 years later, missing out on naming rights. The families are from China's Dong minority group. The Dong "ethnical people", according to a local map, are "pure, kind, wisdom and brave". The felinely named Yao and Miao people also live in this region, mainly in the mountains.

The bridge isn't the only attraction. People come to do one-to-eight-day hikes in the surrounding hills, staying with villagers in their homes. Also at our hotel are a couple of Dutch sisters in their 60s - one living in the Netherlands, one in Australia - who, each year, meet somewhere in the world. This year they chose Ma'an and were effusive about the walks they had completed. They were not so joyful about the snakes they had encountered.

The following morning, I sneak out to the Wind and Rain Bridge one last time. I pause at one end of the 78m-long giant wooden puzzle. My kids are right. It is a dusty old bridge. It is permanent and enduring, and is treasured by its people.

In the cool spring air, the only sound is a faint creaking as giant bamboo wheels spin and scoop, spilling watery life into the fields.

CHECKLIST

Where we stayed: The Dong Village Hotel, $30 a night for three people in a triple room.

How we got there: Return trip from Guilin in a private car with driver, $100. This includes the driver's accommodation and meals - two days and one night.

What to do: Visit the bridges, go hiking.

Ann Huston paid for her family's trip to the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge in China.

- Herald on Sunday

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