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Making Long Walk to a Better Life

Liao Xingfa still remembers the first bus that came to his village more than 25 years ago, when he was 12.

"I asked myself then how such a thing with four wheels could move so fast?" he recalled.

Today, Liao, 38, no longer marvels at such things. He is working hard to realize his dream of walking out of his mountain village and seeing the modern metropolitan world.

"Another dream of mine is that my only son can go to college to receive higher education," Liao added.

The dream started 10 years ago when his Ping'an Village became a designated tourist destination. A mountainous hamlet of Zhuang ethnic group, Ping'an is located in Longsheng County, 108 kilometers away from Guilin, the famous tourist attraction in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Liao started a food-and-lodging business and built a two-story wooden building in the local Zhuang style halfway up the mountain.

Supported by wooden stakes over the ground, the two-storey building looks different from other houses scattered in the hilly village.

On the lintel of the door facing west hangs a horizontal board inscribed with three Chinese characters in stylish calligraphy: "Yunlong Ju," meaning "dragon's home in the clouds."

In the spacious lobby, the center pieces consist of three round tables surrounded by some 30 bamboo chairs.

Over the past three years Liao has entertained numerous travelers from home and abroad in his family inn.

The first floor of the building serves as a canteen and can accommodate about 40 diners at one time. The second floor is comprised of three guest rooms with a total of six single beds.

"Most travelers just have a dinner in my inn while only a handful desire to spend a night here," Liao said.

While Liao serves as cook, his mother and younger sister help prepare the materials, greet travelers and serve the meal.

"Travelers like to taste local specialties such as brake leaves, freshwater fish and crab, bacon and sour pods, which are also my best dishes," Liao said.

He has been able to replace the old furniture and outfit his home with new electric appliances such as a TV set, a refrigerator and a gas-powered stove.

"No words can describe the changes that have taken place in our life if you look back 10 years ago," Liao said.

A decade ago villagers made a living by planting rice on the terraced fields over the slope winding from the base of the mountain up to the top.

However, because of the harsh natural conditions, the yield from the terraced fields remained so low that per capita annual income of the villagers had been less than 400 yuan (US$48.2) for many years. They could hardly make ends meet and had to live on the relief fund or grain provided by the local government.

"When food and clothing became the first need, schooling was only an illusion," Liao said.

Things began to change slowly in 1992, when the village was opened up for tourists. The terraced fields, rising 880 meters in elevation, divide the mountain into layers of water glittering in the sun in spring, green rice shoots in summer, golden rice in autumn, and silvery frost in winter.

It became a tourist attraction and a must when tourists arrive in Guilin, a hot tourist destination.

Statistics from Guilin Tourist Bureau show that in 2001 alone, Longsheng County with its beautiful terraces drew more than 86,000 tourists and backpackers. Local tourism income that year amounted to 2.15 million yuan (US$260,000) and per capita tourism income 2,730 yuan (US$330).

As the number of tourists increases, the number of family inns has also grown. Today in Ping'an, there are 40 family inns. Meanwhile, Liao Xingfa and his fellow villagers have seen their family income grow.

"We have a lot of business opportunities," Liao said. "Travelers from cities like to experience our farmers' life and taste local food that is free of pollution after they see the beauty of our terraced fields."

According to Liao, his family inn netted around 20,000 yuan (US$2,420) last year, a record since he started the business three years ago.

"I hope to save enough to pay tuitions for my only son, " Liao said.

Last year, Liao sent his 11-year-old son to a school in Longsheng County seat, where he believes his son will get a better education than he would have in the village school. However, he has to pay extra school fees.

Meanwhile, his wife also lives in the town to look after their son. Luckily, he has his mother and sisters to help manage the family inn.

"I really hope my son can enter college and live a successful life that I, myself, can't dream of," Liao said.

Not a panacea

With the flourishing of the local tourism, villagers in Ping'an have been able to shake off extreme poverty.

However, not all problems have been solved. Basic nine-year compulsory education for all still remains a challenge. Statistics from the local educational department show that, in Longsheng County, more than 500 early teens drop out of primary schools every year, and 70 per cent of them are girls.

"Girls get employed as tour guides or peddle artificial souvenirs to travelers along the road," said Liao Longju, a Ping'an villager. "Boys will learn to carry the bamboo chairs."

In Ping'an village, some 80 residents - men and women alike - also provide such services as carrying tourists to the top of the terraced fields in bamboo sedan chairs. Most of them are between 30 and 40 years old.

According to Liao Longju, 40, he usually charges a traveler 50 yuan (US$6) for one-way carriage from the mountain foot to the top, and if the traveler promises to take round-trip carriage, he will give a discount, charging 80 yuan (US$9.6) in total.

"We don't have a fixed charge and travelers always bargain with us," Liao Longju said.

Liao Jing, 20, son of Liao Longju, dropped out of junior middle school when he was 14 and took over his father's trade as a carrier.

"I had hoped my son could live a better life than me by studying hard, but he let me down," said Liao Longju.

"I hated to see my son carrying the chair at first, because the job was not matching his age and figure," the father added.

"Though my wife and I tried to persuade him to go back to school, he refused. He made his own choice, even though we could afford his schooling.

"If he is willing to continue his education, I'm ready to devote all my efforts," the father said.

Liao Longju said he could earn, at best, about 100 yuan (US$12) in one day and the annual income of his family totaled about 10,000 yuan (US$1,200).

But Liao admitted it was not so easy to do the job sometimes.

"Some tourists are reluctant to sit on the chairs we carry and they say they don't feel comfortable watching us making the difficult treks climbing the mountain while carrying a person."

While Liao Longju is trying to think of ways to encourage his son to return to school, the local county government has also worked to reduce school dropouts, according to a local education official.

Since 1995, many of the dropout girls have benefited from the Spring Bud Plan. The plan was initiated by China Children and Teenager's Fund in 1989 to aid dropout girls in poverty-stricken areas to return to school.

A total of 50 graduates of Spring Bud Class in Longsheng Middle School were admitted by Chinese universities last year.

(China Daily December 12, 2003)

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