Where was the promised sun? The forecast was for a warmish spring day but instead it was dull and very chilly. So with a coat and a shawl as a backup, a group of 8 climbed into a van to take us to the outskirts of Sanmenxia, a small village in the western section of the province of Henan, China, still hoping for some sunshine. After a start over smoothly paved highway, we were soon on bumpier terrain but the atmosphere of expectancy of this unique cave dwelling destination kept us from feeling both the cold and the uneven roads. Seeing caves that were still lived in, was an astonishing sight from where we first viewed them and looking more like little holes in a huge mountain side than housing.

We didn’t anticipate much more than seeing a very un- typical village.  This was far from the ordinary since it was an underground  town of caves where a few hundred people still maintain their residences, albeit, cleaned up, white washed, looking very spiffy with utilities such as running water and electricity.

With a history of about 4000 years, much has changed and much hasn’t.  The well in the center of the courtyard was once the source for drinking. Now it gathers rainwater.  Trees, like poplar and pear, still have their presence in this terrace. As with most caves, now and eons ago, it’s cool in the summer, hot in winter, sound proof and wind resistant.  And perhaps the best reason to continue living in these usual square, smallish quarters, is that it is certainly low cost dwelling as China now bull dozes old villages replacing them with expensive condos.

As with the past, the kang, a heated bed, occupies much of the space but has multi purposes, one for sleeping, another for entertaining and often used as a table.

However, when our van stopped, we were all amazed that our timing was so perfect.  Dogs were barking, cocks were strutting around the grounds. There were several men in colorful silk outfits, many carrying banners and flags.  Obviously, we were in the midst of a huge festival or celebration.  It was both. This was preparation for a wedding which would be an unexpected and pleasant add- on to our hectic, wonderful schedule, but a huge diversion from the historic relics and museums, all impressive, that we had seen over the past few days.

From above at ground level, we could look down and see the now painted caves where the facades had been replaced with a thin layer of plaster and painted in bright hues.  We were invited to enter this unique establishment via a long tunneled staircase and at the end was the community of cave dwellers who seemed like a welcoming committee. What an awesome sight as we were beckoned into the various households. There was much sweeping in the courtyard which was surrounded by the now gussied up caves. At one of the ‘houses’, a woman with a toothbrush was scrupulously cleaning the newish typical criss-cross wood covering the windows.  Every item inside and out was glistening. The site was perfection for the wedding ceremony which would take place in this courtyard.

A group of aging women were working on the intricate art of paper cutting with their small scissors as they produced, from the finest thin paper, designs so complex and fragile that I had to place mine, given to me by one of the cutters as a gift, between the pages of my note book. A quartet of men were strumming ancient Chinese instruments. Suddenly a man, age uncertain, who had been humming  broke into a dance. So light-footed was this man of dubious age, that he could have been a ballet student. There was a sense of gaiety in the air

Unexpectedly, there was hush among the crowd.  A league of brightly clad men headed the procession, then another team  in different colors and uniforms appeared.  And finally, the bride in a traditional red gown, her face covered with a diaphanous red cloth, came down with the groom, who too, was perfectly turned out in hues not seen in the Western world.

However, for me, there was a disconnect, since the groom was so effeminate looking. His skin smooth, not a stubble to be seen, eye brows perfectly shaped as were his buttercup rosy lips. Ah, but I thought I was being too dramatic.

As they marched down the stairwell into the courtyard there was a burst of applause and excitement especially when the wind blew the bride’s ‘veil’ from her truly lovely face displaying a Chinese-styled tiara. However, I still had a gnawing feeling about the groom.

Ritual done, there was the obvious and expected congratulations. And then laughter. We had all been taken in. This was, in fact, a fantasy wedding, put on for visitors. Guests, who like me, think of ourselves as sophisticated travelers  had paid for this entertainment either individually or added to the cost of the van or bus.  But the event was a depiction of how a grand fete should be and the hefty price tag now seemed worth this bizarre and humorous affair.

Was it worth it?  I still think that I should have gone along with my initial gut instinct. Yes, the groom was indeed, a female, an actress playing her role as the dutiful groom. What an Oscar winning  performance, what manifestations of emotions, the wonderful caves and generosity of the people of Sanmenxia. They had the last laugh. The hoax was on us.

email

About The Author