Eighth won­der of the World

Yuanyang rice ter­races - a car­pet waved in Heaven

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL - By Zhang Ya­jing

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

strangers.

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

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