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Bama County in Southern Guangzi. Photo: Shutterstock

Chinese centenarians help transform one village into tourist attraction

Secret of long life explored in Longevity Village

The secret to long life is an enduring mystery, but a village in China boasting an unusual concentration of centenarians of any place in the world, claims to offer some clues.

The village, once known as Bapan, in Bama County in southern Guangzi, near the border with Vietnam, renamed itself "Longevity Village," to salute its aged population. Residents say mineral-rich waters, a lush environment, and a low-fat diet, are among the reasons so many of them live beyond 100 years old. Their longevity is at odds with the region itself, which for many years was among China's poorest places. The great age of many residents compares with an average life expectancy in China of 74.2 years, according to World Health Organization statistics.

Bama River
Bama River

The Bama landscape offers spectacular mountains, caverns, and soaring crags, bamboo groves, and robust trees, but little in the way of industry besides sustenance farming. Its young population mostly fled to China's more vibrant cities, leaving behind many old people.

And not just old, but really old: more than 70 people in the village have lived past the age of 100, about five times China's overall rate of centenarians per capita.

That abundance of old and venerable residents prompted commerce-savvy officials in Bama to rebrand their town and make it a hot stop for China's increasing middle class, who are intent on getting to better know their vast country.

Many of Longevity Village's elderly residents earn their living by displaying their age, which means sitting in their living rooms while groups of visitors are led in by a flag-bearing tour guides. Visitors press red envelopes with money into the elders' hands, and then pose for pictures.

Scientists Skeptical, But Tourists Flock Anyway

Bama River centenarians
Bama River centenarians

Gerontologists tend to be skeptical about claims of old-age clusters. For one, birth records are often non-existent, so claims for age are often difficult to verify. What's more, scientists tend to put little stock in explanations that old people themselves often give for their long lives, such as the occasional cigarette. In Longevity Village, credit is often apportioned to a diet heavy on yogurt, food that is steamed, not cooked in oil, and a reputed high concentration of "negative ions" in the atmosphere.

Instead, scientists say that triple-digit life spans are almost certainly the result of robust genetics, but in ways they don't yet fully understand. However, many visitors to Longevity Village aren't waiting for a science to come up with an explanation. They're buying bottles of water labeled "Long Life" from the four-star Longevity Hotel, along with coiled snakes preserved in alcohol, a staple of the Chinese apothecary.

A competitor, the Life Extension Hotel, offers a gift shop, as well as Spartan-but-clean rooms costing $10 a day. Visitors tend to be from China, as little English is spoken in the area. They arrive in droves: More than 640,000 of them during just the first five months of 2013 alone.

An estimated 20,000 visitors, full-fledged "health tourists," stay in the region for many months, hoping that just soaking in the atmosphere will add years to their lives. Some of them practice rituals that would be dubbed "New Age" in the West, perching on rocks with their hands pressing down, a "geomagnetic therapy" they maintain helps with everything from heart problems to varicose veins.

Wisdom in Old Age

There are reasons to visit Longevity Village even absent a special interest in gerontology. It has a mild, invigorating climate, distinctive topography known as karst that's formed as water dissolves rock, and local dwellings - mud and stone structures - that are exceedingly picturesque. In addition, an expansive network of caves and caverns offers opportunities for spelunking for the more adventurous.

For the most elderly residents, they have already lived through their own adventures with great changes brought by war, famine, revolution and now peace. While the Village's new-found popularity may change some aspects of a region famed for its isolation and quiet, and a lifestyle known for its hardwork and restraint, wisdom from its elders should help inform how everyone lives.

Longevity Village's centurians may no longer work in the fields every day, but they stay active, enjoy their extended families, eat simply, and embrace the new. Even as visitors to the region focus on the great age of the elders, some of those elders may be focusing on what the next hundred years will bring.

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