When looking at a map and following the creases of expanding and ever-changing borders; running your fingertips down cascading valleys and scaling vertical mountain range inclines to finally rest your finger on China; you see it is truly massive. Stretching from Hong Kong (let’s avoid the ownership debate) along the dusty tracks of the ancient Silk Road, through deserts and mountains of Western China across to Tibet (another one we won’t touch on) the size is hard to comprehend, especially when thinking in terms of public transport.
So when planning a trip to China where do you begin? A multitude of guide books will trace your steps for you (I haven’t bought a guide book in over 10 years after weaving my own path through South America); I find it is better to forge my own route through conversations with locals, discussions with travellers and sometimes the mistakes we make end up with have beautiful consequences.
Why do I travel?
Travel isn’t about following the same path as others, staying in the same places, drinking in the same establishments and certainly not about having the same conversations. No, you should be leaving your own footprints in the dirt regardless if impressions from previous travellers exist or not.
Having lived in China for a year I am not an expert, but I know what I like and there is a place in the south which is one of my favourite locations on this planet. It clears my brain of unnecessary thoughts with the exception of appreciation, awakens my senses and makes me sweat a great deal. It feels like stepping back to the communist era when Chairman Mao ruled with fear and hard labour, when farming was the main profession of the working class. The result being endless seas of cascading rice terraces which weave around the mountain like a beautiful green veil.
Guangxi Province, China
Although you are approximately 3 hours from Guilin, a large city in a beautiful surrounding you could be on another planet, or at the very least another country. That is the wonderful thing about China; due to its monumental size and sprawling land mass the scenery is varied. Many visitors make the schoolboy error of having a city based itinerary.
There are a number of ways to reach the starting point of Longsheng in Guangxi Province – otherwise known as The Dragons Backbone. I would usually take the bus from Yangshuo which took 2.5 hours through farm land, then city and finally skirting narrow roads which followed the contours of winding mountains beside the river to the town of Longsheng. Changing buses brought me up the hill to the base of the village at which point views of wooden houses explode in an upward direction all around. The humidity is inescapable and each step with a backpack feels like a lead weight on the way to Lijiang Guesthouse. I always stayed at this guesthouse and despite the fact it is the furthest up, the views are phenomenal and owners equally as friendly.
The guesthouse is made of wood and is luxuriously basic. Footsteps upstairs echo throughout, muffled only by the colourful hand-woven rugs draped across floors yet it has an infectious and calming warmth which welcomes visitors in. What views would you expect paradise to offer you after stepping into heaven? Try 270 degree views of layered rice terraces, bleeding down and around the mountains as far as the eye can see. They rest semi-submerged under a layer of water with brilliantly green shoots bursting towards the heavens. As the setting sun relaxes its northerly vantage point, the orange, yellow and red rays reflect off the water and it appears as though the mountains are bursting with fire. I expect this is penance for the finest magician who decides to repay the hardworking folk of rural China for a bountiful harvest?
They sell drinks; actually they sell many drinks but two spring to mind. The first is called Bijou (rice wine) and is to be avoided like the plague unless you have a sick fetish for deliciously concocted hangovers. The second is a drink named Mijou (potato wine) which is quite amazing and penetrates your body with a hypnotic numbing sensation – sample little and often for maximum enjoyment.
You can climb to the top of the mountain for the most spectacular views. When I say the views are amazing, it feels as though I am under-selling them. It’s hard to truly convey something which paints the portrait of perfection in my mind. The colours appear like electricity and the vistas so magnificent that I wonder if it is in fact the best 3D painting ever created. I love this place – the people live with such a humble and simple outlook, never wanting for possessions and carry out their back-breaking work with smiles draped across their faces. I always sleep well in Longsheng and from a man with such terrible sleeping patterns that says something.
China comprises of 55 ethnic minorities and in this area you will find the Yao, Zhuang, and Miao people. They saunter in full costume; irrespective of the fascination tourists have with them. The Yao women wear bright pink embroidered clothing with weighted silver earrings. They are famous for their extremely long hair wrapped in a bundle on top of their heads and for this reason they are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. The Zhuang women wear white shirts, black pants, and brightly coloured cloth on their heads.
Setting off from Longsheng the walk usually took me about 7-8 hours with ample photo breaks, water or lunch stops and enough time to make a hat out of ferns. The humidity of China is endless and it wouldn’t take long before I was dripping wet; the ‘fern-hat’ at least helped to cool keep my head cool. Along the way, farmers dusted the dirt trails with bags suspended from bamboo hangers, pleased to meet a laowai (foreigner) who knew enough Mandarin to greet and begin a conversation which in all honesty could never make it past basic introductions. Mandarin of course is not their native dialect but most will understand enough however, Mandarin acted as the catalyst for a brief interaction and that after all, is sometimes enough.
From Longsheng through rural China lies a snaking path to a village called Dazhai, hidden within an endless blanket of rice-terraced hills. You cannot get there by road but you can get close by approaching from the other side and walking up the hill for approximately 1 hour depending on where you decide to stay. Dazhai isn’t fancy; there are no hotels with the exception of guest houses, you eat as the locals – withering to an almost meat free diet in the winter when the ground is forgotten beneath layers of snow. It is the type of place where your alarm clock is replaced by a rooster which forces your eyes open an hour too early each morning without fail…and it is also a little slice of heaven. The guest houses are basic with curtains that let the light stream in, and a cheap price that doesn’t quite seem justified with views so magnificent. Whenever I think of returning to China it is the place which appears first on my list.
The entire walk serves up a bountiful feast of layered rice terraces, farmers sheltering from the sun under umbrellas, and views which will fill your memory card. Even as I read my blog back, it seems impossible to convey the magnitude of beautiful vistas, the colourful panorama of the hills, smiling faces and stifling humidity. All I can suggest is that this spectacular place graces your travel itinerary in China.
All travellers are motivated by some driving force, with most sharing a common thread – The pursuit of places, too beautiful to put into words. Ladies and gentlemen, Southern China’s rice terraces are one of those rare gems.