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Published: February 14th 2007
A loud city clock chimed early in the Longsheng air, awaking me fifteen minutes before my scheduled 7 am alarm. A quick look around happily revealed nothing much had changed during the night. Yes, still in an exceedingly basic hotel room, devoid of any sense of homeliness. And yes, the city outside still looks gray and as plain as this room. But who cares, I wasn't here for the thrilling cityscape. Nope, I came to Longsheng with one purpose - to see the famous Dragon's Backbone terraced rice fields. What I found quite surprisingly, was a colorful pair of eating utensils.
With sunlight still waiting to fill the streets with life, I decided to make my way from the Longsheng Big Hotel to really nowhere in particular. I needed to get to the bus station, but as my bus driver last night had decided to simply drop me off on a random bridge, I really had no idea where that was. First though, an elevator ride back up to the room. It was pouring rain outside, and a jacket was in order. The gray sky overhead melted perfectly into the drap city skyline as I made my way back out
to the lifeless streets.
As I stood on a corner pondering my next move, a small woman calls from down the road. "Rice field?" Why yes, yes I would like some rice field. As I've discovered throughout most of the country, transportation options often simply reveal themselves to you if you look lost enough. Good plan, and we begin walking down the suddenly clamoring street. Turns out that bridge of a bus stop was indeed just that, a bus stop. Longsheng is a town of roughly 120,000 people, sizable to most of us, but a simple blip on the map by Chinese standards. A bridge will do just fine.
We load up in a small 15-seater train wreck of a bus, just enough life in its tires to make the easy and short 20 km trip ahead. Not quite. Oh the bus held up fine of course, but by no means was it a simple trip to the countryside.
Our first snag was in the small town of Heping. A truck was unloading in the middle of what appeared to be the only road through town. After a good five-minute honking rage, our driver simply decided it
wasn't worth the hassle and we would simply camp out for a while. Off the bus. A good chance to grab breakfast I thought, and the ticket seller on our trip pointed me to a small corner of the street. We entered the hole-in-a-wall noodle shop together, but I was left to fend for myself from then on. As the local dialect has been killing me everywhere I go, I simply point to some noodles in a bin and the cook fires 'em up. I enjoy my small feast at a dingy table with a stool meant for a 2-year old, accompanied by not a few locals staring and chatting while slurping down noodle bowl after noodle bowl.
The truck moved and we loaded back up. Much to my surprise the driver turns back down the way we came from, not down the blocked road. Turns out he was just hungry and looking for a place to stop, it was never our road. Whatever, I was hungry too.
Now we hit the hard part. To set the scene, for the next half an hour, the only song playing through my head was the Top Gun favorite, "Highway to
the Danger Zone," as that was exactly what it was. A rocky, chaotic piece of road straddling a rather precipitous cliff, the early rains had coated the path ahead in mud. Rain also meant something a bit more extreme - landslides. More than a couple minor slides coated the soaking road with fresh rocks, a decent boulder mixed here and there. As I stared up at the rock face we so tightly hugged, all I could picture was an errant crag the size of a house making a pancake out of our already dying minibus. I planned what I would do in such an event, grabbing the woman in front of me and diving towards the front.
No such action (or luck, as I was looking for a good story). We made one final pickup of stray passengers. An older woman joined us, dressed in a vibrant pink woolen coat and black knee-high skirt, with a traditional wrap of some sort wrapping her head. Large metal earrings had stretched her ear lobes through the ages, now bouncing neatly on her shoulders. I sat wondering which of the several Chinese minority groups I had heard about she belonged to. Little
did I know, I would find out in a big way very, very soon.
We pulled up to the entry gate of near the Jinkeng area of the rice fields. Stepping down, I felt relief in surviving the death-defying journey, yet a bit let down in not experiencing what kind of action that road could have done. Probably better that I didn't I'm sure. While the rice fields were not immediately visible, I looked around to take in the valley around me. These mountains were huge! Much bigger than what I ever expected. In the far distance, shrouded by a hazy fog, a line of mountain peaks could be seen, their vertical rise easily surpassing that of Taos Mountain. Probably.
I went through the gate, ready for an entire day of exploration. Quite oppositely, I found a small woman on the other side, no taller than my waist and dressed in the same flaming-pink garb as my bus mate.
"Hello!" she yelped. That was all I needed to hear. She was a tour guide, someone I had come to loathe while strolling the infested streets of Yangshuo. This one though, she wore a smile, and of course,
a pink coat that just screamed fun. After ten minutes or so of saying I didn't want a guide, and her responding that she doesn't need money but there are too many diverting paths, I began to follow her up the hill. I knew I was in for something, some type of money trick for sure, but as is the case every time I set out around here, I thought wrong.
Speaking rather fluent Standard Mandarin, I came to learn she was of the Yao minority. Their traditional attire was all hand-sewn, detailed designs of pink brought forward by a matte black background. Coming around a corner, my new friend let out another yelp.
There it was. Rice fields. Everywhere. Stacked one upon the other in dizzying fashion. While the winter months had cast the terraces in a rather murky golden brown, the stunning sight was all the same as the fields stretched far beyond the thick haze ahead. I admit I'm poor at judging heights, but one hill must have easily stretched upward 2,500 feet, layered perfectly all the way. We continued on our muddy path and in to a small village at the base.
This was her town, I realized as we made a stop at her house. I would be returning later (she knew, I did not), so it was a brief stop just to drop off her woven basket backpack. Back to the hills as we headed up a small trail made of rock steps. The little Yao woman moved at break-neck speed, with me panting in the back.
In and out of small hill valleys, moving steadily to the top, the views were quickly becoming larger and grander. While the brown color overlaying the entire painting in front made the view a bit hard to decipher, the obvious immensity of this place could not be missed. Rice terrace after rice terrace sculpted every nook of the hills ahead. From the top, a breathtaking view truly made me wonder where I was. No, not heaven, but there just wasn't much out there to judge yourself by. Only rice fields, millions and millions of rice fields stretching far up to the real heavens.
While we rested a bit, another Yao woman along with two Chinese tourists made their way towards us. Her first thing she said:
"Hair. Long. Picture?"
No, my hair is pretty short, nothing too exciting and definitely not worth a picture. A quick look at a postcard she was holding revealed her true intentions. Yao women do not cut their hair, at least often, and that traditional head wrap was hiding a vast amount of black strands. For a small fee, I could see her hair in all its glory. Of course I paid.
Atop the Dragon's Backbone, with a million rice fields as their backdrop, the two women untied their wraps, revealing long, flowing hair stretching to their waists. A short modelling session ensued as the women flew their gleaming black strands through the hair, aided by a slight winter breeze. A bit awkward, but priceless.
We made our way down now. I slipped every few steps in the mud and soaking rocks and I struggled to keep up. The woman was holding a bright yellow Kodak bag at her side, making for a surreal picture when mixed with her traditional Yao attire. For the next ten minutes, I would race up next to her, trying to capture my own surreal Kodak Moment while looking away every time she turned around. Snapping pictures, taking in the scenery, and racing on a wet rock path definitely makes for a bit of danger as I nearly ended up on my face several times. "Xiaoxin!" Careful!, she yelped as usual.
We made it safely down and back to her house below. The town is a rather interesting mix of old and new. While many of the buildings are in obvious disrepair, beaten down through time and lack of maintenance, several new, large wooden structures grace the landscape. Her house is one such building, made from a sturdy-looking blonde wood and ready to stand the test of time. Inside, a large open room, a wood and cement bag pile to the left, TV and DVD player in the corner on the right. Again, an odd mix that is hard to explain. It wasn't that this seemingly average farming family was struggling to survive, but they were not living in the lap of luxury by any means.
I soon discovered my reason for returning - time to eat. No menu to choose from of course, I was taken on a tour of my choices. A kitchen full of rice and vegetables seemed nothing out of the ordinary, and I motioned toward my choices. My next stop though left me wanting to eat vegetarian for the day. Pig upon pig hung from the rafters above, a dark, damp room of death. Or delicious meat. While I have absolutely no problem with the pork around here, in fact I eat more meat than a Viking while in China, the pig head staring back at me pushed me back toward the vegetable room. I'd stick with egg fried rice and greens today.
A small table set up in the middle of the room large, open room was to be mine. I sat there quietly, staring out the open doorway, several locals passing by and waving to the foreigner. Friendly, I thought, as a truly honest smile was flashed my way.
I waited in solitude for twenty minutes or so as my veggies were fired up. A large bowl of chao fan (fried rice) was put on the table, complete with full-size metal spoon, an absolute rarity. I munched until my greenery arrived, this time though, chopsticks would be necessary.
"You kuaizi ma?" Chopsticks? She scuddled off back into the kitchen. After five minutes or so, she returns with a wide grin across her face.
"We are Hong Yao people," she noted gracefully in broken English while pointing to the pink and black sweater. Hong meaning red in Chinese, I understood the connection. From behind her back, she whipped out something absolutely astonishing.
"Hong Yao People. Hong Kuaizi!"
Red chopsticks. More of a pink, but I'll give it to her. Truly a thing of beauty, she gently placed the heavenly utensils in my hands. I enjoyed my rice and vegetables with a joy I did not know was possible from such a simple change in eating hardware. It's almost as if she new it was Valentine's Day...
My time at the Dragon's Backbone had come to an end, not with a lonely trip back to the bus stop, but rather in grand Yao fashion, red chopsticks and all. The woman wrapped a small turquoise head wrap I bought from her around my head, and I made my way on to the bus. Back to Longsheng, and sadly, back to normal wood-color chopsticks, even plastic ones...
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