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Sunday, 17 February, 2002, 17:55 GMT
China's secrets of long life
Deep amid the karst limestone mountains of south-west China lie a small group of valleys said to hold the secret to longevity, where people still work in the fields at 100 years old and regularly live to 110.
Theories abound about the secret of their long lives. Some say it is the unique climate, others their unusual diet. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes ventured in to the mountains to find out if the secrets are true.
The valley of Longlaodun could have been lifted straight from a classical Chinese scroll painting.
A crystal clear stream rushes beneath an ancient stone bridge. On the far side a tiny village nestles under soaring limestone cliffs, the peaks high above cloaked in swirling mist.
It looks like someone's version of paradise, and maybe it is, because the people of Longlaodun live extraordinarily long lives.
Huang Caixun is a case in point. A sprightly 100 year old - all of about 4 ft 6 in tall (1.37m) - she giggles like a little girl as she welcomes me outside her rickety wooden house.
The house is set high off the ground on large stone blocks. Steep wooden stairs lead up to the front door - not the easiest thing for a 100 year old to negotiate - but she seems not to notice as she hops back up them and disappears through the large wooden doorway.
Coffins at 60
The old lady's eyes sparkle with mischief as she ushers me inside and bids me to sit down on a long wooden chest.
It is, she tells me, the tradition among the people here to make their own coffins when they reach 60. Old Mrs Huang's coffin is already 40 years old, and it's looking a bit the worse for wear.
"Maybe I'll need to make a new one soon," she says. "Sometimes people have to make two or even three before they actually get to use one."
I want to ask her about the secret of her great age, what she eats, and drinks, what she has seen in her amazingly long life, but there's no time... My translator, who it just so happens is also a local government official, insists it's time to move on.
Hard of hearing
He drags me across the fields to the home of Wang Ma Fengcai, perched above a cascade of glistening rice terraces. There is no path to her house, just the maze of narrow earth banks that divide the terraces from one another. I walk carefully, trying not to slip into the gooey, water-logged fields.
She is the oldest person in the village, and a little hard of hearing.
My translator shouts in her ear from point blank range. "She says she is very happy to see you," he tells me. It's not what her face is saying.
Another question is barked at her.
"She wants to thank you for coming so far, and she wants to thank the Communist Party for taking such good care of her".
I begin to feel sorry for the old lady, forced to sit in her chair and trot out meaningless slogans to the gawping foreigner. I beat a hasty retreat.
Dangers of tourism
As we walk along the riverbank my translator regales me with the plans the local government has for the village.
"Tourism is the key," he tells me. A new road is being pushed through the mountains, he says, new hotels are planned. I have a sudden vision of tourists in loud shirts piling off buses, video cameras at the ready, and of the old ladies propped up on their doorsteps ready for their pictures to be taken. A shudder goes down my spine.
"Develop and be damned" seems to be the mantra of modern China. I had seen it in so many other places - beauty and charm ruined by crass development.
Shortly we come to the house of Huang Boxin, who at 102 is still working his fields. As if to make a point he refuses to sit down. On the wall behind him a cheap poster of Chairman Mao beams benevolently.
"What's the secret of your great age?" I ask him. "Hard work and a simple life," he shoots back.
Others have their own theories, that it is the cool mountain air, the clear water, the rice wine, even that it is down to a type of cannabis seed that many locals like to chew.
But to me, old Mr Huang seems closer to the truth. Tucked away in their secluded valley life here is tough, but simple. Every one of the villagers must work in the fields. Their diet is simple - mostly corn and vegetables - and meat is a luxury.
But perhaps most important of all there is real peace here, even now the outside world hardly intrudes. There appears little yearning for its wealth or its trappings.
How long will that last once the road and the tourists arrive?
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