Thursday, October 16, 2008

Live Long and Prosper

OCTOBER 11, 2008
Live Long and Prosper
China's 'longevity villages' want tourists to come and breathe the air

Poyue, China

Just being here adds years to your life -- or at least that's what elderly natives, eager government officials and hopeful visitors in this remote place contend. Poyue and several other villages near the Vietnam border in China's Guangxi Autonomous Region comprise a "longevity cluster." They claim an inordinate number of centenarians, including one said to be 113 years old. The surrounding Bama county, with a population of 250,000, has 74 centenarians, or about one for every 3,400 people, according to Luo Ronghui, a local tourism official. That's a far higher incidence than in the U.S. or even in Japan, which has one of the longest average life expectancies in the world.

Experts on aging are skeptical about the existence of longevity clusters, but that hasn't blunted Bama's ambitions to become a center for health tourism. Visitors who aren't interested in the supposedly life-prolonging air or soil will still find much to admire in the region's scenic limestone karsts, mud and stone dwellings and breathtaking caverns that are a natural sculpture gallery.

Bama's plans include building upscale accommodations for foreign tourists who want a spa vacation without the costly treatments, massages and exercise regimens. The pitch: Visitors need only hang out -- breathe the air, drink the water, eat the food -- and they'll benefit. "The treasure of longevity in Bama belongs to people all over the world," says Mr. Luo, whose office is in Bama City, a half-hour drive from the longevity villages. His expansive vision for the area's future includes a visitors' complex somewhere nearby, with separate facilities for different nationalities so that everyone will feel at home, he says. Tourism, currently no more than a trickle, could be a huge growth industry for the region. "We can accommodate 10,000 tourists a day," Mr. Luo says.

Frank Lin, a 61-year-old garment maker from Taiwan, is currently spending three months at Poyue's clean but spartan Life Extension Hotel, where a room and three meals costs the equivalent of $10 a day ($150 for a month). He came here last year with a group on a whirlwind tour of mainland China and liked it so well that he returned for another month. After 30 years of smoking, Mr. Lin says he gave up cigarettes during that month without a second thought and hasn't had one since. "When people try to quit smoking in the city, they become irritable and think about cigarettes all the time," he says. "Here, I had no reaction. Bama is really blessed by God."

Several other regions around the world are renowned for the unusually long life expectancies of their residents. No group investigates and certifies longevity-cluster claims, however, and no two lists of them are the same. The Caucasus Mountains in Russia, the Japanese island of Okinawa and the mountain town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, are often mentioned. Dan Buettner, author of a book published by National Geographic earlier this year about diet and lifestyle in longevity clusters, even identifies a group of Seventh-day Adventists living in Loma Linda, Calif. Possible explanations range from eating yogurt (the Caucasus) to eating very little meat (Okinawa) to drinking water from melting glaciers (Vilcabamba).

Genetics is by far the most important factor, says Thomas Perls, associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University's School of Medicine and head of the New England Centenarian Study. The notion that something in the air, water or soil can prolong life is "nonsense," he says.

And longevity claims are only as credible as the birth records they're based on. Many places can't document the ages of the people in their purported cluster. "A lot of the literature is filled with testimonials and anecdotes, but never any scientific evidence," Prof. Perls says. Longevity clusters are "mostly a marketing ploy."

Don't tell anyone in Bama county, though. Water from the local river comes from springs and is considered so pure that it is drunk without treatment or filtration. I had three glasses of it during lunch at the Life Extension Hotel; it tasted fine and produced no gastric distress. Residents freely bat around terms that translate as "low alkalinity" and "magnetic fields" when describing the soil and water. Because local animals drink the local water and eat local plants, "their meat is different," says Mr. Lin, the Taiwanese visitor. "People eat fatty meat here, but they're all thin. You never hear of a cancer case."

Another believer is Huang Malun, who says she is 107. She and a dozen family members span five generations and all live in the same tiny house in Poyue. A wrinkled, sweet-tempered woman who walks with the aid of a cane, Ms. Huang recalls traveling with revolutionary Red Army soldiers decades ago; she helped their cause by making their clothes. "We lived on wild vegetables," she says. "All the hardships were very tough." How does she explain her long life? "Organic food and the good air," she says. "I ate all naturally grown food. Now they use chemicals, and of course it's going to hurt."

In Bama City, the four-star Longevity Hotel sells everything from Long Life bottled water to snakes coiled in a jar of alcohol (a staple of Chinese medicine). The hotel travel agency found a car and driver to take me, my translator and a guide to the villages for $30 a day. But we could find no one in the county who spoke even a few words of English. In the tourist center of Guilin, a one-day drive or a one-hour flight from Bama City, travel agencies have guides for hire that will set you back about $100 a day or more, plus expenses.

The road from Bama City to Poyue looks out at dramatic tree-lined rock outcroppings, the sort that inspired China's famous brushstroke paintings. Some locals say a supposedly high concentration of negative ions in the atmosphere -- remember the fad for home ion generators? -- inspires a feeling of exhilaration and explains residents' longevity tendencies. That may be -- but the scenery is so exhilarating that it's hard to believe that negatively charged particles could make much difference.

The longevity villages, with their stone or mud-brick houses and tile roofs, make for some scenic walking. Lunch at the Life Extension Hotel was delicious, although it's hard to tell if it was life-prolonging. The big bonus, though, was the Hundred Demon Cave, a network of caverns with immense rock hangings, like a vast sculpture gallery. The local government has built 2.5 miles of illuminated concrete walkways, with railings on steep portions, making for what is surely one of the world's most tourist-friendly caves -- despite the almost complete lack of tourists. Our guide said she sees a foreign visitor about once every two weeks.

The cave is popular among locals, however; they gather each morning to talk and play mah-jongg. They come because the cave's negative ion reading is supposedly off the charts. It was there that I met 84-year-old Guan Rongcang, a retired teacher who moved to Poyue four years ago. He is a walking commercial for Poyue's negative ions, bicycling twice a week into Bama City to shop -- a 36-mile round-trip. "I'm famous in this area for my bike rides," he says. "Everyone knows me."

Write to Stan Sesser at
Trip Planner

Getting there: Bama City, near the longevity villages, is an eight-hour bus ride from Guilin, the big tourist spot in Guangxi Autonomous Region, or a four-hour ride from Nanning, the region's capital. Air-conditioned intercity buses are comfortable, and the roads are excellent. There is a daily flight from Guilin to Tianyang Airport, about a 90-minute taxi ride outside Bama City. Fly to Guilin or Nanning from major cities in China and some cities in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok.

Where to Stay: One option is to stay in Bama City, and hire a car and driver for the half-hour drive to the longevity villages. Stay at the Longevity (Shouxiang) Hotel, a comfortable four-star facility with an excellent restaurant (488 Zhonglu Shouxiang, Tel.: 86-778-622-1818; about $40 a night). The other option is to stay in the village called Poyue. The 25-room Life Extension Hotel is clean but basic; it offers private bathrooms and good food (Tel.: 86-778-614-0311, $10 a day for a room and three meals). Neither hotel had English-speaking staff when I visited, so book through a travel agent who speaks Chinese. If you decide to stay in Nanning on the way to Bama county, try the five-star Yongjiang Hotel (1 Linjiang Rd., Tel.: 86-771-218-0888, around $65 a night). Around the corner, the colorful Zhongshan Road food vendors are reason enough to spend a night.

Fountains of Youth?

Here are four more places reputed to have large centenarian populations:

The Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia The inhabitants are often said to live to an old age because their diet is rich in yogurt.
Okinawa The Japanese island of Okinawa, where the local diet includes little meat, claims an extraordinary number of centenarians.
Vilcabamba, Ecuador This mountain town's residents thrive, legend has it, because they drink water from melted glaciers.
Loma Linda, California A recent book has identified a longevity cluster among a community of Seventh-day Adventists here.

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