The journey south from Yanshuo is an adventure in itself. Late in the afternoon, we reach Jinxiu, a small town at the foot of the Dayao Mountain in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.
Yanshuo is famous for its distinctive karst rock formations and the gently sweeping River Li, one of the most popular images in Chinese paintings.
Our young driver appears to have had little or no experience of hairpin bends, yet he hums along cheerfull to the songs on the radio as he hurtles around each turn. Quite a rollercoaster ride for us.
Jinxiu. A sense of isolation, grey, dark green, rather morbid, the place reminds me of how I felt when I first read The Magic Mountain. Sanatorium.
The climate is far more agreeable than in Shanghai, the air so clear as light rain falls.
We choose a hotel with the promising name of “Health Apartment”.
I peer down from the balcony onto a excavated grave.
Opposite, a fantastic mountain landscape reveals its nuanced features as the day progresses. Veiled in mist early in the morning, shards of sunlight break through the clouds later on. This is the Buddha Light they speak of in China. As evening draws near, the mountains look as if they have been painted by my artist friend Gao Ping. Hues of greys and black blend into each other.
We are here to look for healers practising Yao medicine and hope to find them in the mountains. Yao doctors are renowned for their prowess with herbal remedies. Every house has a wooden tub for herbal baths.
Postnatal problems are apparently unknown here. Every new mother bathes in a special mixture of herbs for three days in a row and is then perfectly fine to return to work in the fields or ready to climb the slopes to pick tea and herbs. This is common practice, a medical phenomenon, one might say tradition, which has endured through the ages.
All of the Yao people we meet appear to be their own doctors. Knowledge of herbs and their uses is virtually ubiquitous, handed down from one generation to another.
We do find actual doctors, but not in the mountains. The villages in the mountains are gradually becoming deserted and the doctors have to relocate to the towns.
Those we find are more like witches or wizards. We observe healing ceremonies where they use secret codes. There are also spirit ceremonies, always accompanied by specific herbs.
Having searched for days, here we are sitting in a wooden tub, filled with dark herbal water. We have finally found a Yao herbalist via a roundabout route and now we are in her treatment room. All of the herbs she uses have been picked by the womenfolk in the mountains. Women patently work harder than the men, as well as looking after their families and serving their husbands.
As if time stood still.
A large portrait of Mao hangs in almost every living room, the Yao evidently hold the former Chairman in especially high regard. The traditional subservient role of the woman is thankfully receding in other parts of China.
Back to the bath, which is rapidly becoming our favourite evening pastime. You feel reborn and, as we keep telling each other, we look reborn as well. A miracle bath.
This particular bath detoxifies us, the Chinese herbs smell so good, even better than normal, purer and more intense. It must be the mountains, the meadows. Hints of Chinese mushrooms and shrubs, the rocks, the unknown. I love standing in traditional Chinese apothecaries and breathing in the aromas, but here in this strangely bare room, they are all so much better. Posters hang on the yellow painted walls, on one side depicting acupuncture points and meridians of a woman, on the other those of a man. A monkey head has been stuck over the woman's vagina.
This brings the Monkey King back to mind… he seems to be following us, ever since we set out on our journey to the secrets and ancient wisdom of China's healers.
Looking for the Monkey King becomes a parallel pursuit for me. I take his photograph wherever I find him, little statues, pictures, on wallpaper. As the TCM practitioner from Guangzhou tells us, the Monkey King is extremely fast, he can somersault 21,675 kilometres in one go, she says. And he sends out signals, so if you see him often, this is a sign.
The project sets something in motion which is hard to put into words.
We bathe in the tub and drink tea, brewed from the same herbs as the ones in the bath. The herbalist pokes her head around the door from time to time to check we are alright. We are taking far longer than usual, we realize … compared to the Chinese health tourists who come to this town to get well or to slow down the ageing process. The entire region is known as a longevity zone. Many live to be over a hundred years old here, we meet some of them too. The Chinese government promotes the region with marketing support, yet fewer and fewer people come each year. Another consequence of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign, so we are told.
Clean air, healthy water, herbs. Pharmaceutical companies for Chinese medicine have set up here, also using herbs from the mountains. Some of them can only be found here.
The immortality herb is one of them, believed to boost production of SOD superoxide dismutase in the body.
Over a period of days, our tuk tuk driver has become our friend as well as our tour guide and translator of the local dialect into Mandarin. We are collecting so many stories and experiences, yet we have still to find a Yao doctor who touches our hearts. We decide to continue our journey, heading up north to the Yao villages of the rice terraces.
But can we really hope to find what we are looking for here in this region, where so many tourists roam? Nevertheless, we feel compelled to go, following our instinct.
We have heard about a village with just one or two guesthouses. The owner of the second one tells us on the telephone that a distant relative of hers is a doctor. He lives in the mountains, some way beyond the village. Due to the heavy rainfall we are experiencing, it is unreachable by car at the moment. Still, we are excited. At last.
The closer we get to our destination, the more excited we feel.
Every kilometre takes us further away from everything we know. Away from everything. It feels as if we are travelling back in time.