Yangshuo, that weird and wonderful backpackers’ enclave, was beginning to hang heavy on us after a few days, so we got out. Far to the north of Yangshuo, over 4 hours by bus, are 66 square kilometres of amazing rice terraces in an area populated by the Zhuang and Yao minority groups, who have unique clothes and customs and language.
We were picked up at 7.30am by the tour guide (it was going to take a full day rather than four hours to get there on our own steam so we capitulated and booked a tour). The bus was almost full of westerners – Australians, English and Dutch it seemed – and we were on our way fairly quickly. North past Guilin and into the mountains we went, leaving the weird karst hills of the lowlands behind.
The trip there was slow and arduous as we were driving up into very high mountains and the road was less than ideal in places. For the first three hours or so we were on decent highway but we were still going really slowly due to the steep gradient. Then we turned at a hairpin bend, and the guide told us it would take one and a half hours to travel the final 17km as the road was so tough. She wasn’t wrong.
We followed a river valley, the road clinging to the valley walls sometimes hundreds of feet above the almost-dry river bed. Narrow wooden houses on spindly stilts lined the roads on the valley side, shored up sometimes by a few huge struts. On the other side of the road – unhelpfully – huge amounts of timber was piled up, reducing the width of the road in places by a third. But it was still a half-decent road with a tarmac coating.
Then at a river crossing, the tarmac road continued left across the bridge and our bus continued straight along onto what I had thought was a building site. This was the state of the road for the rest of the journey – dirt track would be a generous term. In England we would not attempt this road without a state-of-the-art 4×4 genuine off-road vehicle.
The timber was still piled up and this time there was nothing between us and the river valley but fresh air. No barrier, no struts, no bollards, nothing. Landslides, we had read, were frequent in these parts, and the roadway was cluttered with enormous boulders, some of which had clearly only recently smashed down from above. Above us workers continued to cut timber in the heavy forest. At one point Orlando flinched visibly – later he told me that some workers above us had lost control of an enormous bamboo trunk and it was coming towards us end-first. They rescued it at the very last moment before it snooker-cued us off the road and into the valley below.
The steep hills were beginning to show signs of terracing, although much of the land was covered with dense forest. Around the towns small amounts of land were terraced and as we continued, greater and greater areas in the hills had been cut into to make arable land.
Over an hour along this dirt-track, and many numb rear-ends later, we arrived at a ticket office and a car park in the middle of nowhere. A gaggle of local Yao women were waiting for us to sell their handicrafts. These women looked very different from the Han people who make up more than 92% of the Chinese population. Over 2 million Yao people of various sub-groups live in the southern and south-western provinces of China.
The women were mostly dressed in their traditional clothes of highly-coloured embroidered blue and bright pink and yellow and black fabric: plain (some western) tops were worn under collarless hip-length jackets which wrapped over in front like a kimono, belted at the waist with a long embroidered fabric belt which wrapped twice around the waist before tying at the back. Skirts were knee-length and again embroidered, many narrowly pleated, and most wore a knee-length black apron in the front. Jewellery was ornate silver-plate including heavy hoops in the ears which had elongated many of the women’s earlobes (apparently long hair and long lobes equal a long life). Some women wore cloth wrapping around their calves like knee-length socks, black with a white tie at the top. All wore standard army-issue green plimsolls on the feet. But most striking was their heads.
The Yao women are famous for their incredibly long hair, which they wear wrapped in ponytails around their head and covered with a kerchief-like black cap. Most women’s hair will get close to reaching the ground when unwrapped. Along with their own hair, young women will also have one or two long tails of hair which belonged to their mother, grandmother or great-grandmother. They add this to their own hair to make the ponytail mane even longer. They wrap it a couple of times around their hair like a crown and tie it in a loop at the front.
We were attacked by these friendly but enthusiastic women even before we had disembarked. They chose their prey as we got off, attaching themselves to us – literally – by linking hands and arms with us and starting the most aggressive sales pitch we have encountered so far in China. However, they were really good-natured (many cheeky!) women who were clearly having a laugh as well as trying to do business. They hawked their jewellery, embroidered bags and aprons and blankets, and the inevitable postcards, as we walked along a stony path towards the village that was to be our overnight stay.
Nestled in the middle of surgically-cut terraced hills was the small picturesque village of Dazai, and its beautiful wooden stilt houses. A wooden school for the children was in the middle with a basketball court in the centre. One or two houses also had small shops. We walked across the central open space and started to climb steep stone steps into the dense houses above.
All the time, these wiry women, young and old, tried to get us to allow them to carry our backpacks for us, in the sturdy wicker baskets they carried on their backs. We kept going doggedly, almost missing the beautiful houses and increasingly amazing views around us as we tried not to lose our step.
Twenty or so perspiring minutes later we were at the uppermost reaches of the village, and stopped finally at the Countryside Cafe, the very highest building in this part of the village. We stopped to admire the spectacular view laid out beneath us and the chiselled terraces stretching as far as the eye could see. These terraces are called the Dragon’s Backbone terraces, and it is said that the small hills look like snails and the larger ones like waterfalls. It is autumn here (despite the high temperatures) so no rice was growing and most of the terraces were dry, but the sheer scale of the area is enough to make you stare.
We had lunch surrounded by the seller women and then headed off into the hills guided by a handful of the local women to find one of the best viewpoints. We climbed and climbed up these steep stone steps, thankful that we had left our baggage in our room for the night back at the cafe. In the autumn sunshine we sweated and panted our way up and up, past another village where older women were sitting on their balconies in these big wooden houses weaving fabric on foot-powered old looms.
Up and up still, and the views got more and more panoramic and amazing. Everywhere we looked, hill after hill into the distance, was carved out into razor-sharp terraces. Not an inch of land was wasted. We stopped at a make-shift halting point at which – surprise surprise – women were waiting to sell us their wares along with cold drinks. My camera was hardly switched off at all as I clicked away at every new view.
On and on for about an hour, and we finally came to “viewpoint number 3” where still more women, handicrafts and cold drinks awaited. Some of the women offered to take down their famous long hair for a photo, for 5 or 10 yuan, but I declined – it seemed nothing short of prostitution to me (the picture above I took from Google till I can upload more of my own).
We sat and found our breath and marvelled at the panoramic views all around us before setting off on a different, mercifully downhill, path back to Dazai with yet more lovely views.
Those of us who were staying the night parted company from the others on the valley floor as we returned to the village, and returned to the cafe where were sat sipping Sunkist Orange (all those delicious e-numbers!) and eating supper in the yard overlooking the village and valley below, while the sun slowly set and the lights winked on in each homestead in the hills around us.
We slept soundly in our wooden room on stilts (despite no insulation or floor covering so every whisper and footfall was transmitted throughout the house) and woke again to breakfast outdoors before a gentle wander along another pathway and across a small “wind and rain bridge” (think Bridges of Madison County) to the next village of Tiantou.
It was so peaceful strolling by ourselves along these stone pathways through terraces that were cut into the hills more than 700 years ago. We were hundreds of miles – and years – away from the circus of Yangshuo, and it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. As we walked, local people went about their business, tending the fields or carrying goods up and down from the villages in woven baskets carried on bamboo yokes across their shoulders.
In Tiantou itself one or two small guesthouses had covered sedan chairs outside, the kind which two people would carry up and down the pathways with lazy westerners or prosperous Chinese businessmen in, which they must use in the high season to entice the more weary travellers beyond our village of Dazai and up to their businesses.
A wonderful couple of days, and certainly a trip highlight as I said. Back to the “big smoke” of Guilin and on to Shanghai in a day or so for us, on the final few days of this odyssey.