In the remote, thickly forested mountains of southeastern Yunnan Province hides the secret valley of Bamei.
Until recently, the only link between it and the outside world had been a waterway through a deep and labyrinth Karst cavern and the only mode of transport between the two had been by boat.
No one knows who found the isolated valley hidden behind the water cave and when people started to settle there.
At present, there are more than 100 families of the Zhuang minority living in the valley and continuing a secluded and peaceful life which has seen little change for hundreds of years.
Bamei is located in Guangnan County, Wenshan Zhuang Prefecture of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
To get there, you first have to ride on a bus for 500 kilometres from Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, to the county seat of Guangnan.
Then you take a four-wheel drive jeep to help you make your way upstream of the A-ke River on a dirty and dumpy road. The clear A-ke River streams through numerous beautiful limestone pinnacles and valleys surrounded by them. Bamei is one of these valleys.
After a 50-kilometre drive from the county seat, the car will cross the boundary between Yunnan and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is true that people have to bypass Guangxi to reach the valley within Yunnan.
Soon the car will arrive at a small village named Fali, which is within the jurisdiction of Guangxi.
Getting out of the car, you have to walk along the river until it disappears in the darkness of a huge limestone cave. It is the entrance of Bamei.
Aboard a small wooden boat piloted by a boatman living in Bamei, you can continue your upstream journey into the valley.
Soon the boat will enter the pitch darkness of the cave. The only light will be from the boatman's flashlight.
But sunshine coming through crevices on top of the cavern might suddenly dazzle you. Then you will see stalactites and stalagmites in beautiful shapes, and swallows skimming over water.
After about 20 minutes' ride, one can finally arrive at Bamei and soon becomes aware of the meaning of its name.
It means "Beautiful Flatland.''
The valley is actually a stretch of flat land covering an area of about 3 square kilometers, with an average altitude of 700 meters above sea level. Densely-forested mountains create beautiful backdrops for the valley from any angle.
A dirt lane will lead you to a village shaded by lush banyan trees. That is Bamei Village.
For hundreds of years, the waterway had been the only way connecting Bamei with the outside world and has turned it into a really safe valley.
The mountains surrounding the valley are all sheer limestone pinnacles and usually several hundreds of meters higher than the plain. Dense sub-tropical forests cover the mountains, in which various beasts of prey wander. And numerous mystical karst caverns dot on the mountains.
As a result, it has been almost impossible for people to reach the valley by land.
It is said that several groups of bandits living in nearby areas tried to occupy the valley hearing of its abundance and safety.
Instead of the labyrinthine waterway, they decided to enter Bamei by land. But they were all obstructed by the varied topography and failed.
The villagers living in Bamei have began to plant sugar canes to develop the local economy for the past several years. But they soon realized the sugar canes are too heavy for the small boats to transport to the outside world.
Finally the locals built a dirt road out of the mountains, which is only available for use by tractors. But it is often destroyed by floods in the rainy season.
So the waterway has remained the major way that the locals can really rely on.
Living in Bamei
There are 119 families living in Bamei Village. They are all from the Zhuang minority.
It is said that ancestors of the Bamei people who have the surnames of Huang and Li were Han Chinese.
About two or three hundred years ago, they left their hometown in today's Guangdong and Hunan provinces to escape from war chaos, and found this haven of peace by chance.
They settled down in the valley and intermarried with the dozens of original Zhuang families. They followed the locals' customs and gradually become the Zhuang people after several generations.
The Bamei people have had a lifestyle of almost complete self-sufficiency.
With enough salt, they could make no exchange with the outside world.
In just one crop, the paddy fields in the valley can yield rice enough for the villagers' needs for a whole year, even though they are just irrigated by a dozens of old waterwheels.
Some families plant cotton, which can be spun into yarn and woven into cloth and made traditional clothes by the women.
Rice wine is all home-made. Bean curd is ground by stone mills, usually for immediate consumption, and tastes very fresh and delicious.
They also plant rape in the fields and Camellias on the slopes, which yield oil for their daily use. Camellia oil is extraordinarily nutritious.
They use stone mortars to grind taro, which is good fodder for pigs. Besides, they also raise chickens and ducks, and fish in the A-ke River for meat.
There is still a "room for the elders'' standing in the village. It is a place where the elders of the village host the traditional regional rituals and hold public meetings.
Night is especially long at Bamei without electricity.
After dinner, men usually gather together to chat and drink. Women weave cloth under the dim oil lamps.
No family closes the door of their house at night. Because they really trust each other and believe that "our contacts with each other is like touching our right hand with the left hand -- it is impossible to make any mistake.''
These days the fast changing world outside has been effecting changes in the secluded world too.
Most of the traditional wooden stilt houses in the Bamei Village have been replaced by brick houses with black tiled roofs.
Some young villagers have left the valley to work in cities of South China.
Not all of them can get used to the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
The 29-year-old Zhou Zhiliang is the father of a boy and a girl. He once went to Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong Province.
After working there for three months, he returned to Bamei for he could not stand the clamor and chaos of the city.
He said that he could only live in the harmony and peace of Bamei.
(China Daily May 10, 2003)