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March 7, 2011

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Snake wine elixir of life

THE Bama longevity cluster near the remote Vietnam border is famous for its centenarians, pure air, magnetic field and snake wine. Pan Zheng explores.

Throughout the history, people have sought the secret of eternal life, or at least a long and healthy one. The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) was obsessed with discovering the secret of immortality, he ordered scholars to produce the elixir of life and sent men off to the Bohai Sea to find out the secret. No one returned for fear of execution. The emperor died when he was 49.

But had he sought a simpler answer to longevity, he might have looked south to what is now Bama County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region near the border with Vietnam.

Though it is economically backward and medical facilities are almost non-existent, it has one of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world.

In longevity terms, it's generally ranked fourth after Okinawa in Japan, the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, Hunza in Pakistan and the Vilcabamba area in Ecuador.

The low (420-meter) mountainous area is isolated from the rest of the world - but longevity hotels are popping up at an alarming rate to take advantage of what's known as a longevity cluster of villages.

Bama County has an estimated 250,000 people, including 81 centenarians, at last count - that's 32.4 among every 100,000 people, 4.62 times as many as the standard of the World Health Organization (7/100,000)

How to do

The short answer: pure air (lots of negative ions), pure alkaline water, a magnetic field (good for circulation and other things) and strictly organic agriculture.

They mostly eat rice and vegetables (local wild herbs and corn porridge) and sometimes cook in hemp oil; the oil is also used to make a soup. There's little meat and they don't eat too much. No one is fat. There's no "super food," but many swear by yellow wine and snake wine.

They work the land until they are very old and exercise is a way of life. They enjoy themselves in a low-stress environment and maintain a good mood. They often walk to a nearby cave in the karst area where the negative ion content of the air is very high.

Bama County has a Longevity Museum and a Longevity Wall that has been standing for years, covered with pictures of living centenarians. The wall is updated as some die and some reach 100.

Early in 1953 when the New China carried out its first national census, Bama was already recognized for its high rate of centenarians. By late 1959, there were 23 centenarians and more than 200 who were older than 90; at that time the population of Bama was only 150,000.

In 1991, the World Longevity Research Team organized by Morishita Keiichi, president of Japan International Natural Medical Association, visited Bama and announced it the fifth-ranking longevity town. An amazing achievement given the economic poverty of the area and lack of medical facilities.

Tiny village

Bapan Village has 500 villagers, including eight centenarians. It's small, about the size of two or three soccer fields, and its houses are planted along the mountainside. Most villagers are surnamed Huang, and they seldom leave their village.

They tend the crops and animals and take a walk after dinner as regular exercise. Huang Buxin lives on the side of the mountain and walks up and down every day on his own - he's 112 years old.

He fought in the Chinese civil war and was honored for his bravery. After 1949, he was invited to be a government official, but he declined, saying he chose to be a farmer.

"Live your own life and don't think too much," Huang says. It's his key to long life.

That's not only Huang's approach - everyone in the Bapan leads a simple, easygoing life. There are not too many quarrels.

Huang Magan, 106, and Huang Maxue, 103, are old friends today. Huang Magan was the wife of Huang Bugan and Huang Maxue was his concubine and they lived under one roof for 70 years.

The husband has died, but the two women continue to look after each other like sisters. It's been a long time since they competed for their husband's love.

Green living

Bapan Village lies between the tropics and subtropics, with an average temperature of 20 degrees Celsius, warm in the daytime, cool at night. Surrounded by mountains, rivers and forests, it's far from urban population centers.

Every day, people get up with the sunrise and go to sleep after the sunsets, in tune with nature.

Like the Bapan villagers, all the Bama people never consider manual labor a burden - it's their life. And they work as long as they can. When they're too weak to work, they tend the family plot, weave or do chores.

Besides the clean environment and clean living of residents, recent research by universities in Guangxi shows that the geography and geology contribute to longevity.

They found the county located in a strong magnetic field, which is said to improve blood circulation, boost immunity and improve sleep. It's also linked to ionized water, which is considered extremely beneficial.

The rivers and ground table water are pure and are rich in beneficial trace elements. They are used in agriculture, in which no pesticides are used.

Health tourists

As Bama County becomes better known, the number of visitors has increased rapidly and some stay for several months; they are known as "migrant visitors."

Li Shangzhi, 68, and his wife are from Heilongjiang Province, and have lived in Bama for several weeks, hoping that their high blood pressure will be relieved.

"I plan to stay for three months," says Li. "I don't know if our illness can be cured, but it's definitely healthy to live in the mountains and breathe some fresh air."

Visitors from Japan and South Korea also visit in groups, and hotels and spas have sprung up.

"We don't really expect to live longer after living here a few months," says a migrant visitor. "We just want to relax our body and mind in this quiet place.

"We will still go back to the city, but it's definitely worth while here since we feel happy."


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