A small community of ethnic Miao in Guizhou province continues to live largely like it did 4,000 years ago, with animistic beliefs and guns. Erik Nilsson reports
A man in black points his musket skyward and pulls the trigger. The blast crackles as it echoes throughout the mountains. The smoke ribbons untwisting from the barrel mix with wisps from the rifleman's pipe. Beneath a white head wrap crowned by a coiled bun, his face spreads into a grin.
"Welcome!" he says, hoisting the muzzleloader into the air.
This is a traditional reception to Basha (pronounced "biasha" in the local dialect) village in Guizhou province's Congjiang county. The area is inhabited by ethnic Miao, the country's only civilians permitted to own firearms. Most men go about their days with a musket slung over some part of their bodies.
The weapons aren't just for ensuring that guests' visits start with a bang but, rather, hail back to a tradition of hunting and warfare.
Even the young boys, some of whom aren't as tall as the adults' guns, tote smaller muzzleloaders, weapons easier for the little marksmen to use.
"It's important to be good at shooting, so the children start learning very young," a guide explains, as a small boy wanders past, resting a miniature musket on his shoulder.
Both grownups and children also sheath stubby swords in boot-shaped reed baskets strapped to their backs, which clack against gourds packed with gunpowder when they walk.
The 2,200 residents of Basha belong to the "black Miao" population, so named for their sable-colored clothing. Many branches of the ethnic group dwell in small settlements throughout the province. But Basha remains one of the best places to observe its culture, partly because substantial commercialization has yet to re-contrive village life.
Visitors are greeted by lusheng (bamboo flute) players, who line the dirt path through the woods leading into the settlement.
Along this road stands a log pavilion warehousing the stump of the enormous camphor tree that was carved into Chairman Mao Zedong's coffin. Rubbing its gnarled roots is supposed to bring good luck.
But trees and funerals are very much connected to the beliefs of the Miao, animistic forest dwellers who worship tree spirits and equate human life cycles with those of trees. New parents plant a sapling from which their children's coffin will be carved. Hoe blades are placed on the bodies to weigh down the buoyant souls, otherwise prone to floating away.
Another young tree is transplanted atop the burial site - the only marker whatsoever.
There are no designated graveyards in Basha. The deceased are interred in scattered places and blend into the timberland, making it impossible for outsiders to know where bodies have been laid to rest.
It's similar to the nature altars, unmarked swaths of brush and rock that should never be touched but aren't obviously distinguished from the rest of the landscape.
Only men can handle funerary arrangements and mourning lasts one day.
While it's rare for outsiders to view such ceremonies, customs related to special occasions, such as weddings and festivals, are exhibited at the village's Cultural Showroom of the Miaos.
The large traditional building - Basha's wooden structures are constructed using notches rather than nails - is located near the Grandmother Stone, a sacred rock gouged with grooves from generations of women grinding silver hairpins.
It is also the starting point for musical processions during festivals. Miao from other nearby hamlets make pilgrimages to the boulder before setting out to parade through the greenwoods.
The village's fringe is covered with granaries, located outside the residential center because of the fire risk that comes with living in wooden abodes. Storehouse doors are unlocked. Tribal law dictates a stiff fine for thieves - 60 kg of meat, 60 kg of rice and 60 kg of rice liquor.
"That's a lot of wealth for us," an elderly man explains. "So we never have any problems with stealing."
Just past the silos, severed ropes dangle from ancient trees' outstretched limbs. During the Qiuqian Festival, several swings are slung from the trees' hulking branches.
These are occupied by single girls, hoping to swing into the heart of Mr Right. If a hopeful suitor also hops on the swing and the young woman is less than dazzled, she dismounts, leaving him to take a hint. On the fourth day, the elders chop the ropes to tell the puppy lovers it's time to get back to work.
Visitors might be invited to participate in heritage-celebration ceremonies, in which Basha's surefooted residents hike backward up a hillside, while facing eastward. They revere the direction from which the sun rises every morning and from which they came about 4,000 years ago as war refugees from today's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The ritual ends with participants staking smoldering incense sticks among a gigantic tree's knobby roots.
The tree rises from the edge of a clearing where Basha residents stage traditional dances, wedding ceremonies and rites of passage that often involve amusing forms of crowd participation.
One that doesn't - to the relief of most guests - is the Miao haircut, a close shave requiring a sharp sickle and steady hand. Men only trim the hair on the top of their heads - believed to be a link to ancestors - on the day their parents decide they've reached adulthood.
The practice has continued, despite increasing contact with the outside. Until recently, Basha's Miao population remained essentially insulated from the world beyond its borders.
Now, travelers hoping to delve deeper into villagers' daily lives can arrange homestays for about 50 yuan ($7.3) per night.
But it would take a long time for an outsider to develop an insider's understanding of Miao society.
And Basha's mountains offer an exceptional platform for observing the culture of this ethnic group, which modernity has yet to completely transform.