ANSHUN, China With no shock absorbers and only dim headlights to guide us, we careen down narrow streets at dusk. Everywhere is the greasy gray of a southwestern China twilight, but we are hurtling toward promises of color vibrant blues and yellows and oranges and greens.
We have come to find batik cotton, and Guizhou deep in China's interior and one of its least-developed provinces is home to the country's mother lode.
While tourists often default to Shanghai's more easily accessible gleaming skyscrapers and Beijing's build-it-now fervor, the charms of this swath of rural China are formidable if you're open to a bumpy ride and a liberal dose of dog-meat restaurants dotting the landscape.
From the provincial capital, Guiyang, with wild monkeys scurrying around its mountainous city park and street after bustling side street of fragrant night markets, to the heart-thumpingly circuitous roads that lead to China's biggest waterfall, a foray to Guizhou offers an absurdly cheap glimpse into the countryside where 800 million Chinese still live. And it's barely a three-hour plane ride from Beijing.
My wife and I had become rabid chasers of cool fabrics to make shirts and dresses so loud that some of our friends were reluctant to stand near us. We had gathered dyed-cotton fabric from every trip we took West Africa, Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, the Wal-Mart in Lafayette, La.
So when we moved to China in 2001 and learned about Guizhou's reputation for wax-dyed "mianbu," or cotton bolts, we knew we had to see for ourselves what was available beyond the lovely, but limited, examples of Guizhou batik on sale in Beijing.
Anshun, we were told, was the heart of it all. So we flew to Guiyang, boarded a bumpety bus for the four-hour ride to Anshun a trip that cost all of $8 and arrived at the main bus station with only the name of a nearby guesthouse to guide us.
Immediately, we realized we were in the right place. The hostel was yards from the depot and just opposite the town's batik row.
Anshun is ringed by the hazy mountains immortalized in the indigenous batiks lumps that rise from nowhere into a Dr. Seuss landscape. But modernity is encroaching: Of three mountains just outside town, one has a traditional stupa (a Buddhist shrine) on its peak; the other two sport satellite dishes.
One morning we ambled past the greasy spoons of dog-meat row and into the bus station, where we waded into the frantic sea of departing buses and boarded a rickety minibus ($1.50 for both of us) for a bone-bruising 90-minute ride to Huangguoshu, the waterfall that is the centerpiece of Guizhou's tourist trade.
The 400-foot-high Huangguoshu lived up to its billing: You can feel the mist on your face from nearly a mile away as you wind down a mountain to the base of the falls. The Chinese crowds were in tour groups with matching hats, each led by a young woman with a flag tasked with preventing them from scattering too far afield.
I'll never understand what young Chinese women are thinking when they dress for these things: "Let's see. I'm going to be descending stone steps along a mountainside to a plateau of wet rocks. I think I'll wear my miniskirt and high heels!"
Moist with cataract mist, we flagged down a weathered minibus for the ride back to Anshun. Three elderly men boarded, two in straw tourist hats and one in an old-style blue Mao jacket. He identified himself as Mr. Fang and offered us cigarettes. They were delighted at the white-faced pair in their midst.
When we pulled out, the vehicle was sagging with humanity, and young women crowded the aisle. We passed through a village crawling with cops, and the driver madly motioned for the women to duck. They squatted and curled into little balls.
Mr. Fang explained: Overcrowded buses can be fined, so when a peace officer is spotted, the driver barks, passengers in the aisle duck and giggle, and everybody pretends nothing is going on.
Back in Anshun, we turned our attention back to our highest priority fabric-hunting.
Each stall we entered had scores of hangings, dresses and shirts, most far more elaborate than anything in Beijing. Ancient faces, lithe women, lush landscapes all were rendered in the most intricate, distinctive ways. We bought a dozen hangings, for ourselves and for gifts.
But that was nowhere near enough. We wanted bolts for clothing.
"You should come out to our factory," one female proprietor said in Mandarin thick with a Guizhou accent. "Come back at 6 when I close."
We went for some noodles and returned as she was yanking down her steel grate. We all piled into a cab that felt as if it was crafted from Reynolds Wrap, and off we went over Anshun's macadam moonscape, swerving now and then to avoid piles of rubble and small creatures and almost bouncing off a rickety land bridge.
Finally, down a narrow alley, the cab disgorged us at 46 Beishan St., a low-slung building of no particular attractiveness. In we went, past a German shepherd that looked as if it wanted to exact vengeance for all the dogs that had been eaten in Anshun that day. In the semi-darkness, a small man was painting the facial features of young maidens onto a hanging.
It emerged that he was married to the woman from the factory; they ran it together. They led us up two flights of stairs, past a bubbling vat where the batik is dyed, past a balcony draped with colorful fabrics, past a child sleeping on a heap of dyed cotton, and into a large room.
There, 20 young and middle-aged women, each one at her own table, stood hunched over long bolts of astonishingly vibrant fabric. They were using pens, brushes and other implements to paint wax onto the cotton in intricate, traditional patterns. Their faces betrayed their ethnicity: members of the Miao minority, the batik experts.
Among their work I recognized some designs I already had upon shirts cartoonish fish, cave-painting men. Most were wonderfully original and being painted upon fabric in deep maroons and saturated yellows and greens.
"This, more than anything else, is what Anshun is," said the owner, who by this time had told us her name was Miss An the same Chinese surname that I use.
We walked among them, inhaling the molten wax and the superheated cotton. And we realized something extraordinary: Each was drawing the complicated designs from memory.
"I want five meters of this," I said, pointing to one woman's table. "And five of this. And five of this. And this."
After the sixth order, she waved over a clerk to keep track.
Finally, we had ordered about 40 yards at about $2 a yard. She tallied it up: about $75 total for enough material of each type to make me a shirt and Melissa a full dress. Or a bedspread. Or curtains. Or placemats. Or whatever.
Downstairs, her husband served us wonderfully bitter green tea and told us about the Miao, who have close ties to some northern Thai tribes. The women upstairs had learned the techniques starting at age 5 from their mothers, who learned it from their mothers before them, going back centuries to the Tang Dynasty, when it's said the tradition began in this area.
"These patterns are in their heads," he said. "It's part of who they are."
As we dragged garbage bags full of fabric back to our tinfoil taxi, it occurred to me that we were really claiming talismans of the culture we were moving through silent stories that resonate far more than an everyday tourist trinket.
When I put on an Australian shirt, the art emblazoned upon it tells of Australian and aboriginal culture. My shirts from the Ivory Coast are the same way, as are the ones from Pakistan. Each shouts its history in colors and patterns.
Now this new tradition new to us, at least had given us the chance to hear another story about another culture and take something of it home and incorporate it into our lives. We add to each other in microscopic ways, sometimes just by putting on a piece of clothing and going out into the world.
For more information: Visit www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/guizhou/ or the Chinese government promotional site at www.investgz.gov.cn/english/Ethnic.htm, or call the China National Tourist Office at (212) 760-8218.