Eighth wonder of the World
Yuanyang rice terraces - a carpet waved in Heaven
As one of Asia’s most iconic scenic locations, rice terraces can be found on calendars, postcards and posters everywhere. However, adventurous backpackers aside, few people take the time to venture into the mountains of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province to see these terraces that have been cultivated by local farmers for more than 1,000 years.
The terraces of Yuanyang county, a particularly successful collaboration between human beings and nature, are sometimes touted as the eighth wonder of the world. More than 900 small villages are scattered over the entire county. Of them, I decided to travel to Huangcaoling, a villages connected to the outside world by nothing more than a twisting mountain road.
Bumpy road, good food
I was told that there was no easy way to get to the village before I set off, but I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was. First I went to Jianshui, a history-rich city that boasts Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties architecture and the place from which buses set off into the mountains.
From there, I spent more than three hours on a crowded minibus. The road was well maintained near the city, however, as the bus got closer to the mountains it became unbearably bumpy. Even though it was October when I visited, it was still hot in Yunnan. The crowded and stuffy bus made me feel like I was going to suffocate as I sat on a DIY bench that had been added to the bus to pack on extra paying passengers. In contrast to my discomfort, the local people on the bus looked quite relaxed and seemed used to all the shaking around.
My arrival at the center of Yuanyang county was not the end of my trip, but only one-third of the whole journey. After switching buses and bumping around for another hour, I found myself in Xinjie township. Leaving anything approaching a modern road behind, from then on I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, climbing up and down seemingly endless
dirt roads. When we got over one peak, another would appear on the horizon. The driver drove at breakneck speed no matter how narrow or winding the road got. I was rocked around as I gripped the seat in front of me, and I could not keep the screams from leaking out of my mouth as we skimmed along the edge of the road and swung around sharp turns. Despite the driver’s clear confidence, I worried that I would end up a martyr to my wanderlust.
By then two-thirds of the journey was done. The last step was to take a private van with other villagers, and after another half an hour, I finally arrived in Huangcaoling after night fall.
In the early morning my exhausted body was woken by the smell of burning wood, birds singing and roosters crowing. Gun shots from people hunting animals echoed through the valley.
Opening the curtain, I realized all the hustle and stress was worth it – layers upon layers of stacked rice paddies could be seen through the purple mist that floated in the air.
Paddies filled with water reflected the rosy dawn that was spreading all over the sky. They formed a huge mirror, adding sky blue to the fields.
Smoke spiraled from the roofs of small village houses which, like my hostel, were perched at the edge of the terraces. It took only a few steps from my front door to get to the paddies where rice stems, water and mud mixed together.
The Hainan-born hostel owner had built the four-floor structure himself seven years ago.
He explained that from the very first time he came to the village, he had been fascinated by the splendid rice terraces and the rustic charm of rural life.
Unlike other hotels built by locals, the atmosphere at this one was very modern, serving coffee and Western-style breakfast. Even though there are many places to eat in the village, I mostly had dinner in the hotel, or more precisely, at their neighbor’s house.
The food was all homemade and sometimes I had to disturb their dinner to ask them to cook me some dishes if I came back late. Cured meat was one of my favorite local treats. Chewy and salty with a rich flavor, they would fry it with fresh vegetables picked directly from their garden.
Vision from yesteryear
The owner recommended that I take a day trip with a local guy who had a van.
This is a very popular activity for tourists who want to see many different landscapes in a short time, especially where public transport is not available.
The driver/tour guide first took me to a centuries-old village. It was a very small settlement with only three roads. Most of the houses were made of roughhewn stone and wood. Because of the damp, people kept their chickens and pigs on the ground floor of their homes and lived on the second floor.
Walking through the narrow alleyways, I could feel that time had marked itself on the mossy dark stones, and the wooden rails had been polished to the point they shone by hands sliding on them millions of times.
The houses’ windows were small and the rooms were very dark. The village was not connected to the electrical grid, so people still used kerosene lamps that hung from their doors.
It could have been a scene from hundreds of years ago: Bent and wrinkled elders dressed in traditional Hani clothing sat in front of their homes, warmed by the sunshine and occasionally cracked a kindly smile. If their health allowed, they were still working, either in the fields or in the yard. I saw a grandma that must have been 80 years old carrying a huge bundle of firewood on her very bent back. Her small body was almost buried among the branches so I could hardly see her from the back.
The peace was sometimes broken by sudden sound of laughing and shouting from the young kids running by. The children ranged from toddlers to teenagers, playing and chasing with no fear of
They said hello to me and when I said hello back, their innocent faces broke into giggles.
I didn’t spot many adults, a telltale sign that the modern world was encroaching on the village.
The driver told me most villagers of working age had gone to cities to look for better paying jobs.
I was absolutely amazed by their public toilet. Inside a small shed, one’s leavings drop through a hole into a fastflowing stream a few meters below. The breeze accompanying the river whisked away both the waste and the smell, taking the feces into the fields and fertilizing the village’s crops. This ecosystem showcases how clever humans can be to
make the best use of limited resources.
I can say that listening to the murmuring of the river and looking out over the terraces while doing my business was one of the best toilet experiences I’ve ever had.
Field of stars
After 9 o’clock in the evening, the whole mountain area had no electric lights and fell into total darkness. This gave me my first ever chance
to see the entire Milky Way shining across a navy sky carpeted with millions of stars. This spectacular view of the universe made me, a girl who had spent her whole life living in the city, break into tears.
The number of tourists heading to the area is increasing these days thanks to the recent completion of a highway to the county from Kunming, capital of
Yunnan Province. Many local residents have turned their homes into hotels and restaurants or started offering services to visitors.
However, if less people do traditional farm work, who will put in the hard work of maintaining the area’s thousands of paddies, which bring tourists in the first place?
The rice terraces in Yuanyang county, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province