There are some travel experiences that seem to stick out more than others. Moments you run over and over in your mind, knowing you can never repeat that experience in reality again. Even a return visit wouldn’t be the same.
I knew it as we climbed the mountains, manoeuvring around rice terraces and through tiny villages made of completely wooden buildings on stilts, puzzled together in such a way they needed no nails at all. I knew this experience could never happen again, but that it would feature highly in my mental movie of travel experiences.
Think of China and you most likely imagine tightly packed high-rise cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Any thought of countryside might come from images of the Great Wall of China, but of course, there’s another element to the massive country that is China. A rural one, made of acres of rice fields, mountains and valleys, dotted with tiny villages and minority groups living out their lives far from the existence of modern civilisation.
We arrived at the Longji Rice Terraces, otherwise known as the backbone of the dragon, by bus from Yangshuo, in the typical way we’d become used to with at least 10 more people squeezed into our bus than there should have been. Stepping out into the mountain air was a relief, but we weren’t there yet. Stretching ahead of us was a dirt and stone path that led to the village of Ping’an. We could have paid elderly women who looked older than my grandmother to carry our luggage up to the village for us, but I would have felt far too guilty, even if that is their job. Instead, we shouldered our bags and began the first of many ascents through the rice terraces.
Ping’an is nestled in the mountains amongst rice terraces whose construction began in the 1200s. Of the villages in the area, it’s probably the most touristy since it’s accessible for day tours from Guilin and Yangshuo, 2.5 and 3.5 hours away located on the Li River. The area is home to more than one minority group, including the Yao people, whose women often have extremely long black hair that never changes colour. They claim the waters of the rice terraces help their hair to stay black and healthy naturally, and after seeing the hair of the endearing women, I’d buy it by the bottle if I could.
Staying overnight in Ping’an or another village of the Longji Rice terraces enough at dusk the crowds leave you behind. You can be truly immersed in your surroundings, wandering up and down the narrow streets overshadowed by the wooden buildings, built without nails. Venturing down paths with unknown destinations to marvel at the rice terraces, with a strategically built irrigation system that allows water to naturally flow from the mountains down through the rice terraces.
My most unforgettable travel experience came on our second day in Ping’an. We enlisted the help of our hotel to find us a guide who could take us further afield than we had wandered ourselves, who knew the way along the maze of dirt paths that stretched out in all directions from the village. I don’t remember her name now, but she was a tiny older woman of the Zhuang minority whose pink headdress just about reached my shoulder. She wore light-coloured loose-fitting pants and a collarless embroidered jacket and bobbed effortlessly along the paths carrying a grey umbrella to shield her from the alternating sun and occasional spots of rain.
We followed her lead for four hours, up steep paths and down gentle slopes, passing through several villages. She was the most mobile and fit person who must have been in their 80s that I have ever seen. We didn’t speak a common language and barely common words, but somehow she communicated stories of the landscape, the villages and the people. There’s much to be said for sign and body language. At the end of our trek, we stopped for lunch, and her dexterity with chopsticks is something I could only aspire to and never be capable of, even if I ate with chopsticks every day for the rest of my life.
It was a simple walk in the mountains, but it was more than that in my mind. It was like witnessing a moment of history frozen in time, and a circumstance that certainly won’t be possible for much longer. The young people of the villages in the Longji Rice Terraces don’t want to stay in the mountains like their elders have. They’re not hiding, and their exposure to technology means they know what’s out there and they want to be a part of it. Many are seeking an education in the cities, and they’re not coming back. It’s a sad circumstance but one that’s repeating itself the world over.
It makes me even more grateful for the experience. I won’t soon forget that walk.
We came for two nights as part of a tour from Yangshuo, another amazing area in China. There are day tours but we arranged with a company to drop us there and allow us to return on a tour two days later. You can also get here from Guilin on tours. There are always local bus options also.
At different times of year the rice terraces look completely different. I went at the beginning of August when the terraces were in full greenery with little rice kernels starting to form on the plants. At other times of the year they can be completely yellowed ready for harvest, or empty and full of water as they grow plants for the next season.
There are so many amazing places to see around China, and this is just one tiny tiny part. Check out these photos of China for some inspiration.
There are options to pre-book on booking.com, or at the very least to check out what’s on offer. It shows the Longsheng area though, not just Ping’an. We booked when we arrived, which gave us a chance to see where we wanted to stay. If you know it’s busy season it may be worth making a provisional booking.
Walking around Longji
There’s some information to be found about walking around the villages of the area, but the easiest thing to do is enlist the help of a guide. We paid our hotel but also heavily tipped our guide before we arrived back since she would not receive much of the initial amount we paid. Having said that, it wasn’t expensive to begin with.
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