Our departure from Yangshuo was the first time in China that we were easily able to find the right bus, but our driver delayed everyone by half an hour by claiming that he was waiting for two other foreigners. After some prolonged discussions and plenty of yelling, it turned out he was waiting for us! Little did he know we had been calmly sitting in the vehicle the entire time.
The adventure continued four hours later, when we arrived at the Longji Rice Terraces and were told that the bus wouldn’t be stopping in our desired destination, Ping An. We ended up staying aboard as we wove through a steep gorge braced on either side by wooded cliffs and bisected by a clear blue stream. At the last stop in Daozhai we had no choice but to load up our luggage and begin a 40 minute uphill march to a guesthouse. The stone path alternated between a steep staircase and a gradual incline, forcing us to use immense energy as we each hauled about 20 kilos of gear.
Instantly I could feel the humidity permeate my skin, causing sweat to bead on my neck and my feet to slip on the wet stones. We reached salvation in the form of the Dragon’s Den hostel, which offered a cozy common room and an incredible view of the rice terraces for which this area is renowned. The green, brown, and yellow fields were carved with craftsmanship into the sloping hillsides hundreds of years ago by the Miao minority people, taming the wild undergrowth into their desired output.
Our exploration formally began the following day in the form of a long walk around the major viewpoints of the region. Each stop was given a splendid Chinese name which had been translated to English, so we thus began by getting lost on the way to “Thousand Layers to the Heaven.” By retracing our steps over and over and attempting to orient ourselves on the map, we finally stumbled straight across the trail which led to the lookout. Amongst old ladies tending the fields and quaint villages full of traditional wooden houses, I was shocked to suddenly find myself on the 5th layer of a 7 story viewing platform, the first of many signs that the Chinese government is investing heavily into turning these rice terraces into a major tourist attraction.
For the time being though, we had the gigantic structure all to ourselves, yielding spectacular views of every one of those thousand layers which stretched far down into the valley in a wide beautiful view.
We retraced our steps once again, this time connecting with an ancient stone path that connected the towns of Ping An and Daozhai long before the tourist road existed. Within just a few minutes we left behind guesthouses, construction trucks, and all other signs of the encroaching tourism industry, quickly traveling back in time. The thin trail wound through the dense forest; for the next 3 hours the only other humans we encountered were farmers seeking out a subsistence lifestyle from the soil.
A man chopped bamboo in a clearing, a second loaded up a donkey with wooden planks, and a third greeted us with an almost toothless grin, leaving me feeling far removed from the infrastructure that has accompanied every other place we’ve been in China.
Sure enough, nature also flourished. We skirted alongside plateaus of rice in various states of flooding, each one turning to match the curvature of the hills. Gradually we gained elevation and some of the terraces were reclaimed by dense jungle undergrowth and young pine trees. Then the trail began winding along the upper reaches of human cultivation: to our left a lonely couple tilled their land with a tremendous amount of physical effort while to our right the wild of a thick forest abounded.
Here the trees were taller and an incredible variety of flora grew without restraint. Ferns, bamboo shoots and flowers all crossed my gaze, occupying every possible inch of earth and presenting many different shades of green. Soon we had ascended to the highest point of the trail, which quickly became my favorite place in China. Not a single sound of humanity was audible; instead, an entire ecosystem flourished.
Salamanders wiggled into the bushes at the first sights of us, worms squirmed across the pathway, birds fluttered amongst bountiful branches, butterflies surrounded us in the air, bees pollinated bright yellow flowers, and the steady hum of insects accompanied my every move. Finally, we had found a place where nature still reigned free! Tremendously content to be deep in the wilds, I lingered at every step, happy to let Stefje and Manon march ahead and find myself in solitude.
There was just a single village that we had to cross along the path, but here signs of the rapid development were downright scary. We could trace the progress of a road’s construction straight through former rice terraces, glimpse huge guesthouses going up on either side, and visibly see rapid signs of soil erosion, betraying that this quiet little place would soon be accessible to tour busses.
Beyond the village, the hike continued by alternating between dense tropical jungle and tamed fields, each one offering different interpretations of beauty. With tired legs and a steaming body, I even welcomed the light drizzle that his us on one of the last uphill slogs.
The downhill to Ping An began by crossing through a cemetery. Stone graves has been visible in the hillside the whole day, but here we were offered an excellent views of flooded fields, hills dotted with graves and flowers, and a series of bridges and pagodas connecting the islands. Each grave had silver ornamentation and most had some form of offering, whether it be a bottle of rum or a bowl of rice.
Further along we came to Pulong lake, which contained a storehouse of the clear water which makes this region so fertile as an agricultural producer. Men fished at the banks of the still water, which reflected the trees that stretched up the hillside behind us.
Just two minutes past this calm scene of natural beauty, we spotted tour busses and selfie sticks, signaling the end of our quiet traversal between villages. We joined the throngs at the viewing platform for the “Dragon’s Backbone.” The rice terraces here were absolutely gorgeous in the way that they spun back and forth alongside the contours of the hill, twisting just like the spine of a dragon and spilling deep into the valley below.
The fields were flooded, adding an extra dimension of beauty every time a few rays of sunlight glanced across the landscape. The view was expansive, stretching across the horizon to take in a towering forested mountain in the background, the wide stretch of terraces in front of us, and the booming build up of Ping An.
We skirted along the top of the town instead of dropping straight in, ending up at another viewpoint, “The Seven Stars and The Moon.” Although this view is less famous, it nevertheless provided a gorgeous spread of the land and was infinitely more enjoyable because we were no longer surrounded by other people.
By the time we began our descent into town it was mid-afternoon and we had been walking for a solid 5 hours, so we were all badly in need of a good meal. We got our wish in the form of an outdoor restaurant overlooking the fields, the town, and the imposing mountains in the background. From here we could also observe the town of Ping An. Without roads, every little walking pathway was overrun by some form of construction and a major source of income for local women is hauling suitcases up to hotels.
When our meal was over we were mentally finished with the day, but our feet were still far from home. First we had to navigate two local busses, then we had to retrace our steps 40 minutes uphill from the bus station to the guesthouse. No longer slogged down by big bags, accompanied by glorious afternoon sunshine, and buoyed by the promise of cold beer upon arrival, there was plenty of pep in my step.
It required an extensive amount of research, 2 busses, 1 taxi, and plenty of confusion, but 6 hours after departing from Daozhai we reached the tiny village of Basha. Perched on a hillside just 8 kilometers from a wide and modern city, Basha is one of China’s best preserved traditional villages. When in the city we passed by extensively long strips of brand new apartment buildings and shops selling everything from cell phones to tractors, but upon ascending into the hills all evidence of technological advancement instantly dissolved.
Our lodging options consisted of just a few simple guesthouses encircling the main square, so we quickly scouted out the possibilities and picked one. A mostly clear sky made us seek out a balcony to watch the sky turn a deep orange while a women fed her chickens beneath our feet and mosquitos attacked us in droves.
The wooden houses in Basha were desperately plain, each one consisting of a ground floor that serves as a storage facility and a top floor for eating, living and sleeping.
The locals consider themselves the last gunner tribe in China, a living relic of hunters that sustained themselves by shooting an abundant bird population. We caught glimpses of the past the next morning at their daily “cultural exhibition.” The event was highly choreographed, mostly cheesy, and completely in Chinese, but we nevertheless enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of being once again the only Westerners in sight.
Even before the formalities began, the absurdity of the entire exercise entranced me. Old men dressed in traditional somber clothes marched into the arena with guns over their shoulders alongside domestic tourists sporting bright gore-tex jackets hauling oversize zoom lenses. Perhaps there is no place in China where you can more easily contrast the incredible span of lifestyles that this country encompasses!
The juxtaposition between the two groups spawned hundreds of selfies, thousands of photos, and even the rarely seen selfie within a selfie. Although the young women of Basha were dressed in vibrant hand-stitched clothing that bursted in color from head to toe, many were also obsessed with taking selfies, at least when they weren't busy gossiping amongst themselves.
The performance began with a traditional dance. While the men formed an inner circle and began producing an impressive diversity of sounds from carved bamboo instruments, the women twirled in an outer ring and entranced the crowd with swirling tassels.
After a fake marriage ceremony and a haircut performed with a sharp sickle, the big guns came out, quite literally.
The men bade us welcome into their town by firing off their guns. Even though the bullets were blanks, they still shot a scare into most of the crowd.
Once the performance was over we quickly jettisoned away from the others. In just two minutes we found ourselves smack in the middle of the traditional lifestyle. Children were at school and adults tending the farmland, so only old ladies and small toddlers crossed our path, every single one curious as to our presence. The younger boys stand out from other Chinese due to their top bun ponytails, which made me think of them as young little warriors.
While chickens and ducks roamed freely, massive pigs squealed in delight while sucking up food, and a bevy of insects surrounded our sweaty faces, the most enchanting sight was a litter of puppies. Not more than a month old and ranging in color from light gray to pitch black, they licked our fingers and nipped at each other’s necks with reckless abandon.
In the distance rice fields alternated between flooded and dry, green and brown. In front of us, glutinous rice hung from drying racks, a testament to the bountiful nature of the land here. Thoroughly impressed by the independence of the locals, especially just a 20 minute drive from supermarkets stocked with Coca Cola and Oreos, we marveled at their ingenuity and work ethic. Eventually we retreated to our hostel and moved on to the next destination, but not before imprinting the memories of these quieter destinations deeply into our brains.