Growing up, we have an impression of great, monolithic cultures like Egypt or China often boiled down to icons like the Pyramids or the Great Wall. Once we are through customs and immigration, though, the variety of natural and cultural experiences is quickly thrust upon us. China is rightly proud of the diversity within its borders. From a distance, what many people describe as “Chinese Culture” is just the most exported of China’s 56 different ethnic groups. Those whom reside in arid desert, snow-capped mountains, humid jungles and dense cities.
Grab an overnight train from Hong Kong to the South Eastern quadrant of China to Guilin. Full of beautiful scenery and ethnic groups that have no claim on fortune cookies or General Tsao chicken. Jump on a mini-bus from here to Yangshuo – a smaller, resort city. Please note, the mini bus journey is a semi harrowing experience: you may find yourself on a plastic stool inside a minivan. But worth it, as you witness gorgeous karst pillars line the Li river where farmers have planted thousands of rice patties.
From Yangshuo, one can take an even ‘minier’ bus for an even more harrowing journey to the Longsheng rice terraces. You’ll notice the mountains growing around you as you make your way from the bottom of the valley. The drive up is often single lane with a mountain wall on one side and a long cliff edge way down on the other. In an hour or so, you’ll unload, throw on your pack and prepare for a hike to one of the many villages in the valley. If hiking is not for you, you can hire two men to carry you on a dais. Yes, really.
Rice grows in still water, which means flat land is needed for a successful crop. In a valley, this is a scarcity. Clever people here (and other places on the planet) terraced the valley walls, creating a step-like pattern down the mountain. Build a ‘lip’ on the step, irrigate, plant and then you have rice – Asia’s most important cereal.
Ping An is a village at the top of the terraces, the highest village in the valley. The population of this village are the Zhang people, unique even from the next village over of Yao. While the inns here can be booked online and have western mod cons, you can still expect to be staying only two floors away from the families’ livestock. You can meet your dinner and if that sounds off-putting, this village may not be for you, as it’s excitingly raw in many ways.
The food is unlike the cities that are just 100km away. Very simple dishes of 2 or 3 ingredients with none of the complex sauces popular in western-Chinese restaurants. Eggs and spinach, rice cooked in bamboo, grilled chicken all never tasted better then at the top of this valley.
Zhang culture is best seen in the oldest women of the village. Many have gone their whole lives without cutting their hair, instead bundling it in colourful turbans. The bright colours like those on top of their heads are often sewn into the bags, shawls and wall hangings. These are of course on offer to visitors. Chinese Mandarin is the official language, but a local dialect is still in heavy use. The directional signs will even use a Romanized Chinese called Pin Yin, as the more complicated characters have not completely penetrated the valley.
From Hong Kong to Guilin. Guillin to Yangshuo. Yangshuo to Longsheng rice terraces.
Empty pools with nothing but water are replaced by a verdant valley in spring. Be ready for a culmination of golden explosion when the rice is ready to harvest. Rain and clouds will come and go through the valley, adding another moving texture to the incredible views in Longsheng.
What you need to know:
Be sure to pay for a room with a view, and spend hours looking down the valley.