By Damien McElroy in Bama, southern China HIGH in the hills of a remote part of southern China, the villagers claim to have discovered the secret of long life: rice wine, drunk more or less all day long; snake wine; and a soup made from the oily seeds of the cannabis plant. Bama county is so cut off by the hills that surround it that the motor car has yet to penetrate. It has a population of just over 300,000, yet it has 73 centenarians, one of the highest ratios in the world. Scores more nonagenarians display the carefree air of people who know their time is not yet up, while octogenarians toil under the Chinese burden of deferring to their elders. Villages such as Bapin are a six-hour drive from Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Zhuang region, followed by a two-hour hike along a rocky path. They are - for now, at least - remote from the cares of the modern world. The local government, though, is keen to capitalise on Bama's growing reputation for longevity and tranquillity. To the dismay of residents, it has drawn up plans for a China Longevity Tour, aimed at attracting tourists to the region from across the nation. In the town of Fenghuang, Ye Kaiyuan, the son-in-law of Xiao Jin, a 99-year-old Bapin resident, hates the thought of his area becoming a tourist attraction. "There are too many tourists and government officials visiting here already," he says. "People like granny have become like something in the zoo - stared at, shouted at and poked at." Ms Xiao, a veteran of the communist revolutionaries' Long March, is a model of geriatric rude health. Her life has proved almost as epic as that of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, whom she remembers as a comrade-in-arms. "I fought with him in 1927 in the battle of Baisi as part of the Eighth Route Army," she recalls. Today, sloshing rice wine from her glazed bowl, which is filled at 8am and continually replenished until she retires at nightfall, Ms Xiao demands that visitors match her glass for glass. "I drink this wine every day - at least two glasses," she says with a wink. "It keeps me as healthy and well as you young people." Another staple of the local diet is houmayou - soup that is made with oils from hemp seeds and is traditionally eaten twice a day. The oldest villager in Bapin - at a sprightly 104 - is Xiao Yuanying. She is very proud that she still has three teeth with which to chew. She swears by drinks such as rice and snake wine - bottled with real snakes preserved in the alcohol - that keep her going. "I've never been to a doctor, you know," says the elder Ms Xiao. "I worked in the rice paddies until I was 91. Now I leave that to my son and daughter." Most of the centenarians in Bama county remain active. Some help on the farm or assist with household chores. A few hardy men hunt or dabble in archery. Those with their wits about them play mahjong and chess and enjoy calligraphy and singing. Wei Puming, 102, is renowned as a hunter, while Huang Jiaxiang, 103, weaves bamboo that sells well in the local market. Three centenarian sisters, Lu Dihua, Lu Dimei and Lu Dixiao, are said to be models of self-reliance - refusing relatives' pleas for them to slow down in their twilight years. Bama sits at an altitude of 4,500 feet, and the still, clear air and clean water of the Paiyang river also help to prolong life, says Professor Xiao Zhenyu, a senior fellow at the Old Age Science Research Centre in Beijing. "Villagers lead harmonious lives," he says. "Sometimes there are four or five generations under one roof, and disputes are rare among neighbours. They normally labour until old age, and even centenarians can be seen working in the hills. Locals also take an unusually serene view of death - taking it in their stride." Ultimately, however, he believes that it is the unusual - to Western eyes - diet that puts Bama county at the top of China's longevity league.