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Enterprising peasant women take long march in their stride

In a country as vast as China, mobility takes on an epic scale. "I'm just off to sell some things," Wenrong said to her two children a couple of weeks ago. Then she, her younger sister and two aunts jumped on a long-distance bus to Kunming city railway station. From there, it was just a 2,000-mile trip to Peking.

Wenrong and about seven other women appeared in the lane at the back of my compound 10 days ago. They were difficult to miss. As members of the Sanli minority, they wore shirts and tunics lined with brocade and sequin-decorated pill-box hats. Foreigners walking down the road had to run the gauntlet of their hard-sell tactics as they chased customers, waving their embroidered clothes, cushion-covers and bags.

Like most Sanli, Wenrong and her friends' home villages are in Lunan county, Yunnan province, in the south-west corner of China, north of Indo-China. The train from Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, took the women three days on hard seats. For most of the group it was their first trip to Peking, but they seemed unfazed by the experience. "We come to have fun," said Wenrong. It was like a two-week working holiday.

They planned to head home this week; business had been good, but "it is too hot in Peking and we don't like the food". They pointed to ankles ringed by mosquito bites: "We don't have them at home," they laughed.

The women had taken in Peking's sights, including two trips to Chairman Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. "We felt very sad," said Wenrong. They had also bought "lots of" Mao badges and souvenirs to sell back home.

"We worship Chairman Mao," she added. Another day, the team went to the Great Wall. "It was OK, what we expected. Very, very long."

Migrant workers are a common sight in Peking. At the last estimate they numbered 3.3 million compared with the city's official population of 9 million. They come to find jobs in Peking, and stay for months or years. The Lunan county group came from remote villages, where the idea of popping out to the market has been taken to extremes. It is a freedom that would have been unthinkable in the old days, when one needed permission to travel.

At home, tobacco is the main crop. " We can make some money from the tobacco business, but need to make some extra money," said Wenrong. In one household, several women sew handicrafts, and then the families send one or two people out with the goods to sell in China's big cities.

For members of this group, the Peking trip was the longest journey of their lifetimes. But they had friends from the same villages who had been to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hainan island.

Peking, the consensus went, was "OK" - plenty of foreigners and not dangerous. They had had fun. A bed in a shared room at a small hotel cost the equivalent of pounds 1. Was it safe for a group of women? "Compared to home, it is much safer in Peking. It is very orderly in Peking," they agreed. Any trouble from the police? "The policemen sometimes intervene. But they do not fine us because we are minority people." Any problems? "We get cheated by cab drivers," complained Wenrong's sister. "Everything is more expensive than at home."

Most of their customers are foreign tourists or ex-pats. The Japanese have been good customers: "They like our handicrafts". The women had heard this lane was a good selling-spot because of the nearby "Silk Alley" market, much-frequented by foreigners.

The train tickets had cost them about pounds 14 each, but they were adamant the journey had been worthwhile. As well as Mao memorabilia, they were going home laden with clothes for their children. "We're going back because we miss our children," said one of the women. Would any of them like to live in Peking? "No. Our home is better."