The rice terraces of Yuanyang

The alarm rang several hours before we would have liked, but having only one day to see the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains, we somehow managed to haul ourselves out of bed. It was dark outside and we converged with the trickle of Chinese tourists on our way to the viewing platform for the Duoyishu scenic area. As we were walking we were hailed by shadowy figures trying to sell us things that we couldn’t quite identify in the blackness.

We paid 100 RMB (about £10) for the privilege of looking at the scenery for a day and filed onto the wooden tiered platform where there was already quite a crowd developing. China’s best amateur photographers were out in force, occupying the prime positions with tripods poised at the ready and making last minute adjustments to settings on cameras with zooms so long they needed counterbalancing.

We spotted two young men we had met on the bus, French and Belgian, and joined them on the second tier. Shortly after, the sun began its glorious ascent. With the first hint of light, cameras clicked and whirred in anticipation. The sun was definitely out there somewhere as we were able to see a little more than before. After a couple of minutes, it became patently obvious that no one would be taking prize winning sunrise photos that morning: the thick white mist that had settled in the valley overnight was illuminated for all to see. The cameras, which had hitherto been pointing hopefully towards the shrouded terraces, sheepishly swung their zooms away, and as if wanting to prove their worth (and who needs another stupid sunrise anyway?), turned their attentions to the little row of four westerners on the platform behind them. We smiled our sunniest smiles and exchanged a little rally of shots with them before filing back out onto the road.

Undeterred, we decided to follow a dirt track that led past a small village and down towards the terraces. The sun began to burn off some of the mist and we got tantalising glimpses of the waterlogged paddies winking in the sunlight. Once below the cloud level, the views got even better and we crept along the edge of the terraces, admiring their snaking formation, and the way the water gleamed like scales of a silvery dragon, as cottony wisps drifted past.

The Hani hill tribe colonised the Yuanyang area around 2500 years ago. In order to eke out a living in this mountainous region, they modified the landscape around them, sculpting the hillsides to create narrow strips of land that curved around the contours of the slopes like haphazard steps. These flat areas could then hold the water needed for growing rice. It was hundreds of years before other civilisations started to use the same technique, which highlights the ingenuity of the Hani people. They still grow rice here to this day, but in spite of the fame of their terraces, the villagers are poor and life here is hard. I hope that a substantial portion of the ticket price for viewing the terraces goes back to the local community.

A smiling Hani woman came towards us, and we paid her for a photograph. Their everyday costume is quite plain; a dark navy smock and trousers and a blue headscarf. She had definitely done this before; she knew how to strike a regal pose! Having exhausted all the photographic opportunities, and feeling hunger gnawing at our bellies, we climbed back up towards the village. Luke stopped to draw some buildings and a gaggle of little children gathered around to peer over his shoulder. After a few minutes an older man came down the path driving a cow. On seeing us, he pointed upwards out of the village, so we took this as our cue to leave. It must be annoying having your village infiltrated by tourists with their fancy cameras when you are trying to go about your daily business.

Back at the hostel, we had a lovely surprise: our wedding photos were ready! Viva La Wedding (my sister Joanna and her husband Guille’s company) had done us proud, and we spent a happy hour browsing through them, reliving the fun of the day, pleased to see the faces of family and friends we are missing so much and marvelling at the stupid faces I can pull!

We joined the family of the hostel owner for a tasty lunch. He spoke excellent English and we were all the more impressed to learn that he was entirely self-taught. In the afternoon, we borrowed bikes from the hostel and cycled along the winding and hilly road to another scenic area, the Bada terraces, which was supposed to be an excellent place to visit for the sunset. People stared as we pedalled past, perhaps because I had my rainbow coloured striped sarong wrapped around my head to protect me from the sun and looked like I was a member of a tribe of my very own. There were lots of women carrying huge loads of firewood, gravel and sand on their backs; sometimes packed into big baskets and sometimes bundled into sacks. Many had the strap across their foreheads. It looked like back breaking work. There was a lot of construction of new buildings going on, and the women seemed to be doing much of the manual labour. Most women were wearing the plain navy clothes, but there were others in colourful beautifully embroidered garments and jingly coin-like headdresses.

Once at Bada, we chained up our bikes and set off for a walk. We headed down a narrow road and Luke stopped to draw whilst I practised my Chinese bamboo flute. A black piglet was snuffling for bugs in the soil at the side of the road, and when I started to play, she came trotting excitedly towards us, snorting and grunting with every step. For a moment, I thought I was some sort of Pied Piper for pigs, but without a sideways glance she ran straight past, so I guess my playing wasn’t that good after all! We continued on down into a village. The road narrowed and became very steep and the houses that were perched higgledy-piggledy on the sharp incline looked like they might skitter down the slope at any moment. A damp mist wreathed the buildings, making the paving stones slippery underfoot. More women with blue headscarves tramped past under heavy burdens, a party of panicked chicks scurried after their mother, two cockerels marched up and down crowing at intervals to announce their presence and a huge black pig slumbered against a wall. Every now and then a couple of cows would wander past. People here were evidently very poor, and I felt a little uncomfortable intruding on their private life, turning their daily grind into a tourist attraction. I also noticed there was a lot of rubbish littering the side of the road; they probably do not have the infrastructure to deal with waste. It is a pity that the scenic sites that attract so many visitors should be kept so pristine whilst the villagers who tend that land live in squalor.

We traipsed back up the road and positioned ourselves on the viewing platform, waiting for the sunset. It did not look promising, as the valley here was also bathed in white mist, but hope springs eternal and we decided to wait in case there was a miraculous gust of wind. The sun occasionally peeped out, but was eventually swallowed by cloud before it touched the horizon, and the vistas of gleaming terraces were nowhere to be seen. The hostel owner had very kindly offered to collect us and the bikes after the sunset, which was extremely fortunate, as the fog hung heavy over the road and there is no way we would have been able to cycle back in those conditions. Visibility was approaching zero and he had to drive with his head stuck out of the window, peering through the haze to follow the curve of the road. It was a bit scary, as we had seen the steep drops on our cycle trip, but I reassured myself with the thought that he must have to do this all the time.

After dinner, we turned in early, feeling exhausted. We had to find our way to the China-Vietnam border crossing the following day so we needed to recharge our batteries! It had been somewhat of a mission to get to Yuanyang, and we were a little disappointed that the weather had not been in our favour, but at the same time, the sunrise/sunset experiences had been rather amusing!


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