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China’s Aged and Sick Flock to a Hamlet Known for Longevity

BAMA COUNTY, China — His legs numb from a stroke, his head throbbing with pain, Wu Weiying came to the jagged green mountains of southern China in search of a cure.

Mr. Wu, 66, had been hearing about Bama County for years — it was the longevity capital of China, the brochures promised, where illnesses vanished and people lived long past 100. Mr. Wu, eager to regain his vitality so he could once again play mah-jongg, set out in September for Bama’s turquoise rivers.

In Bama, he adopted the local lifestyle, eating mushrooms said to possess divine powers, drinking water from a river that promised a long life and exercising in a cave known for its pristine air. But after seven months, his condition showed no signs of improvement, and he fell into depression.

“I’ve lost all hope,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears. “It’s impossible to cure my disease.”

Once a largely undisturbed hamlet hidden in the karst mountains of Guangxi Province, Bama has in recent years become a magnet for China’s sick and aged.

Visitors come seeking exotic medicines, bottles of “longevity water,” visits with centenarians and advice on living healthier lives. Many leave after a few days feeling hopeful and rejuvenated.

But for people battling grave illnesses over the long term, the experience can be agonizing. Many are drawn by promises of miracles, only to confront setbacks. Others fall victim to scams and doctors with fake credentials.

“This is my last hope,” said Li Ming, 57, a retired postal worker from Shanghai, who was told by doctors in December that liver cancer would kill her within a year. “If this doesn’t cure me, I’ll be forced to accept my death sentence.”

As the number of seniors rapidly increases in China, medical and longevity-themed tourism is blossoming. The Chinese government, hoping to tap into the rising popularity of elder care, has encouraged villages across the country to refashion themselves as longevity destinations.

In Bama, once an impoverished backwater, the local government has turned centenarians into celebrities, posting their portraits on billboards and building their homes into shrines. Developers are rapidly buying up land from villagers to build five-star hotels, resorts and luxury housing with names like “Secret Land,” marketing them as retirement investments for health-conscious families.

The Chinese news media has heavily promoted the village lore, and scientists are investigating why some residents there live exceptionally long lives. (A 2012 study suggested a genetic variation might partly account for the phenomenon.)

Each year, more than two million people visit the county, which has a population of 270,000 and a sprightly club of 82 centenarians. These days, tourists arrive by the busload, mainly from northeast China, the southern provinces and Hong Kong. They bring offerings to the centenarians, pestering them for photographs and asking for the secrets to a long life.

The influx of tourists has created a thriving market for dubious health products. There are endless varieties of “longevity water” — starting at about $600 for a ton — with ads promising an escape from illnesses like diabetes and osteoporosis. Street vendors hawk medicinal sprays said to contain secretions from snakes and scorpions, presenting them as cures for smelly feet, menstrual cramps and arthritis.

The surge in visitors has at times created tensions with residents, who say they are pleased by the economic benefits but worry that the tranquillity of the area has been ruined.

“It used to be quiet and pristine,” said Liu Sujia, a farmer. “Now it’s filled with litter and ill people.”

Li Hongkang, a doctor who practices traditional Chinese medicine in Bama, said he had seen a long list of patients in recent years, including an actor who portrayed Mao Zedong on television, Communist Party officials and a billionaire who brought three cars and two nurses for his ailing mother.

He said many visitors were willing to invest small fortunes in health treatments, convinced they could overcome their illnesses in Bama. Most people stay in Bama for a few days, though it is becoming increasingly popular to rent short-term residences.

“They live a lot better here,” Mr. Li said. “Even if they can’t be cured, it’s much more comfortable.”

Many visitors to Bama say their health has been transformed, noting that the area is virtually free of pollution, unlike many parts of China. They also point to a high concentration of negatively charged oxygen ions in the regional caves, which scientists say help purify the air.

Every morning, people file into Baimo, or Hundred Devils, Cave, a natural attraction in the county that is said to harbor special healing powers.

First come the cancer patients, whose bodies have been ravaged by the disease. Then the young men battling AIDS, the women cursing the heavens for robbing them of their hair and children as young as 13 with coal miners’ coughs.

By midday, they are all there, perched atop the cool rocks of the cave. They read spiritual texts, watch soap operas on their cellphones and ask each other whether they believe in the cave’s supposed healing powers.

Chen Rangzhi, a former manager of a trading company in Changsha, a southern city, described the area as “magical.” He learned he had lung cancer in 2013 but had stayed healthy, he said, through tai chi exercises inside the cave and a diet heavy in boiled pigeon and apples.

Inside the cave one recent day, Mr. Chen, 62, counseled a group of visitors, advising them to eat dates and drink a glass of hot water every morning. He said that many people wrongly believed that just by visiting Bama they could overcome their illnesses.

“This place is for nursing your health,” he said. “If the hospital tells you there’s no cure, then even if you come here, there’s still no cure.”

Outside the cave, in an area filled with butterflies and snakewood trees known as the oxygen bar because of the quality of its air, Sun Luyao, 21, watched over her grandmother, 72, who was suffering from lung cancer. Nearby, dozens of seniors threw their arms into the air, soaking in the light.

Ms. Sun, from the northeastern city of Harbin, said she worried the cave had been overrun by tourists and was beginning to lose its healing effects. “If too many people come, the good oxygen will be sucked out,” she said.

For those who do not improve, the experience of moving to Bama can be draining and disappointing.

Mr. Wu, a former supervisor at a plant that produced baijiu, a clear Chinese liquor, had a devastating stroke four years ago. He ambles down the streets of Bama with a wooden cane, feeling dizzy and struggling to understand people.

Every morning, Mr. Wu takes part in what are called life revival exercises. On the banks of the Panyang River, he throws his arms into the air, twists his waist and slaps his thighs, repeating lines of encouragement along the way (“Surprise yourself! Try harder!”).

But Mr. Wu still struggles to walk long distances, cook and hold a conversation. His wife has grown tired of living in an area with so many sick people, she said.

Mr. Wu said he had given up on Bama and would return to his hometown in the northwestern province of Gansu next month.

“As long as I can manage my own life and not bother other people, I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just want to be healthy.”