Over the border into China and to the magnificent Yuanyang rice terraces

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January 11th 2013
Published: January 16th 2013
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We had a long day as we left Vietnam and headed across the border into China where we were to spend a few days in the highlands amidst the rice terraces at Yuanyang. This area covers 2200 square kilometres and despite its astounding beauty, due to it's distant location, the region has not opened to mass tourism as yet. One crop of rice is grown a year and after the harvest in September the terraces are filled with water until planting in April. Most of the women in the region still wear their colourful traditional dress and the terraces were first cultivated over 1300 hundred years ago. It was an hour by minibus from Sapa to the border town of LaoCai where our driver dropped us off at immigration. No problem there and we were soon crossing 'no man's land' , a bridge over the Red River, to Chinese immigration in Hekou on the other side. We first saw this crossing in 2001 and have wanted to cross it ever since. Twelve years ago it looked totally different across the river, with lots of handcarts and bicycles. Today it is built up and very westernised. Chinese officials spent ages checking out the visa stamps on my passport - even sounding out the word 'Bolivia' which I thought amusing. - before waving me through. Jerry followed soon after and we set off to find the Bank of China as we needed Chinese yuan.
It felt great to be back in China - it holds great memories for us after living here for 12 months in 2005. With wallet full of pink 100 yuan notes (6.2 to the Aussie dollar) we caught a taxi to the bus station where we purchsed tickets to Xinjie (connection town to the terraces). Or at least we thought we had.... Three hours later, after passing through kilometres of banana, sugarcane and rubber plots, the bus dropped us on the street outside the bus station. We were accosted with taxi drivers telling us they would take us to the terraces for 300 yuan - nearly $70. Eventually we realised we were actually in the new town of Xinje called Nansha - 30 kilometres away from the old town. New and old towns are very common in China - they seem to build new towns at a more convenient location. We found a taxi to take us to the old town for 60 yuan - it actually took an hour to get there as the road was bend after bend. By the time we arrived in Xinje it was very foggy and bitterly cold. The taxi driver was very kind and went out of his way to take us to an office funded by world vision where we hoped to find info in English re transport options and tours. The office of Windows of Yuanyang was not in the spot mentioned in the guide book so we would never have found it without our unofficial guide. The town was very attractive and the locals were setting up stalls for the evening food market - it was by now four in the afternoon0 (we had left Sapa at 7am). The lady at the office was no help at all and eventually the lovely driver rang the guesthouse (Jacky's) that we had booked in Duoyishu, a tiny village 1860 meters above sea level, in the middle of the terraces. The owner arranged for a driver to collect us at the cost of 150 yuan. We would have been happy for our driver to take us but he still wanted 300 yuan for the trip. With a smile, a wave and a tip our driver left and we were soon collected by a dilapidated mini van. It took ages to leave town as the driver was constantly texting and making phone calls - we eventually found out via another phone call to English speaking Jacky he was trying to contact his sister to bring his evening meal to him so he could eat before he left! The trip was not enjoyable - by then it was dark and very, very foggy. Though we couldn't see anything we knew that we were driving in no visibility around bends on a road that had very deep drops into the valley below. It was 6.30 by the time we had travelled the 30 kilometres to the parking lot above the village. Following the driver from there we dragged our cases down steps and slippery stone footpaths to the welcome warmth ( well slightly warmer) of the guesthouse. Through the fog the village looked very traditional and pretty.I had prebooked the guest house months before as it was one of only a few places to stay actually on the terraces and it proved to be an excellent choice. I can highly recommend it. The room cost 160 yuan, very clean, friendly, though rock hard bed with electric blankets, but plenty of hot water. Wifi was unavailble whilst we were there though due to router problems. Evening meals were cooked by Jacky's mum at 30 yuan each as there are no other options for eating in the village. We hired a heater for 30 yuan a day - it must have been at least zero outside the first night. At breakfast next morning Jacky asked how we slept - we laughingly said that we needed to get used to hard Chinese beds again. After breakfast we found Jacky in our rooms remaking the bed with mattress padding. It was very kind, much appreciated but certainly not expected. We woke to no view as the heavy fog still shrouded everything. We were dismayed to learn that the fog had been as heavy for the previous fortnight and feared that we wouldn't actually get to see the panorama of terraces at all. We could see the first couple of levels of terraces - Jacky 's is right at the edge of them - but no more. We spent the morning exploring the vi.llage which was full of yellow houses with thatched roofs. The 'streets' were narrow stone paths and steps (lots of them) which were dangerously muddy and slippery. Our trekking poles were very handy! All the locals were gathered around charcoal stoves trying to keep warm - all the houses had smelly pig pens housing enormous black hairy pigs and lots of corn hanging drying around the walls. Not wanting to get lost in the fog on the terraces we headed back up to the main road for a long walk instead of down into the valley. Nearly all the women were wearing traditional dress, mostly tunic tops in various colours with matching trousers, though they were all covered in heavy down jackets that morning. We walked for a few hours - not seeing many people and being passed by very little traffic - before heading back to spend the afternoon in front of the heater. We had organised to hire a minibus for 400 yuan to take us an hour and half to a large market in the valley the next day and Jacky had found another 5 people to share it by the time we went to bed that evening, thus cutting our hire fee down considerably. We woke next morning to no fog, though cloudy skies. Everybody at the guest house was very excited and we all clustered on the wide balcony for our first real view down into the terraces. At this time of the year they are full of water and glow with colour at sunset and sunrise. The sun wasn't bright enough for a lot of colour to be reflected but they were stunning none the less. And the view back to the village was also gorgeous. On a high we all headed up to the parking lot for what was to be a truly wonderful day. We had some great views of the terraces during the trip but we eventually drove away from that region into a much hotter and more tropical landscape. Minus all our layers we arrived at the enormous markets where we spent a fascinating few hours wandering around. The traditional clothes were beautiful and we saw all of the six different minority groups represented there. We were the only tourists there - they had obviously seen tourists before but were not suffering tourist overload and made us very welcome - smiling happily for photos and quite happy for us all to just stand and observe. Everything was on sale - household items, traditional and cheap western clothes, vegetables and livestock. Please check out the photos below. There were some fascinating characters there - one man wearing a paper hat and earphones, listening to he radio hanging around his neck, whilst he smoked one of the large tobacco pipes that all the men smoke in Yunnan. Another lady proudly showed off her beautifully dressed little girl and was thrilled when we took photos of her. Some of the elderly people had amazing faces. We wandered the butcher area to get our fill of pork - all parts of the pig are sold, including the head (sold by weight). Loved the man feet up on his table with his meat, happily smoking the pork with his tobacco smoke. As elsewhere in the world girls like pretty things and call the stalls selling traditional braids, skirts and trim were surrounded with giggling teenagers. The handbags of choice were baskets worn on the back, some woven from straw but mostly now from colourful plastic strips. One group of women were wearing fascinating black headpieces like squared off cones trimmed with bright pink wool and heavy rope like braid spiralled around their heads as a base. These women's simple black tunics were trimmed from the neckline to below the waist with long strands of bright pink wool And all had long silver earrings. Another group wore two apron like triangular pieces of fabric trimmed with strips of braid from their waist at the back - a bit like flat tails. Some of the headpieces were made of long braided pieces of fabric folded and bunched on the head and many also wore checked woollen headscarves. The men were all sitting around the tobacco stalls smoking through the large pipes, mostly made of bamboo but today also metal. There were many different types of tobacco being sold - all of it was very fine and in the ochre colours. We watched the hairdressers, the dentists pull teeth, the incense sellers (to counteract the toilet smells maybe) , the women dry frying small squares of tofu which are eaten as an accompaniment to noodle soups or just dipped into a assortment of spicy sauces and the antics of the pigs as they were all led away reluctantly, on gold rope, squealing to eventually be dinner. The market was surrounded by hills and the sky was blue. It was very hot....Back on the mini bus we asked the driver to take us somewhere for lunch. Half an hour later we stopped in a dirty little town and were directed into a small street side restaurant. It thankfully had all the food on display in refrigerators so we pointed at what we wanted and ten minutes later the dishes started arriving. What a feast we had - incredibly tasty and all cooked in a big wok over an open fire on the footpath out the front. Pork cooked in ginger, minced beef made from dried meat hanging out theft front and lots of plates of crisp veges. Accompanied by beer and tea for the princely sum of $4 each. After lunch we drove to one of the principle viewing points for the terraces - or at least the roadside point nearest to the big viewing platform that you have to pay 100 yuan each use. A great view - we could see deep into the valley and literally hundreds of terraces filled with water sparkling in the sunshine. Truly memorable. To finish the day off he then took us to another viewing point (road nearby another 100 yuan viewpoint) to see the sunset. This point was about half an hours drive on the other side of our village - the road wound past kilometers of terraces. Unfortunately we didn't see a lot of colour though as the sunset wasn't briliant but we were all more than happy with what we had seen. None of us expected to see anything after the previous day. We were dropped back on the road above the village and we walked 'home' through the semi darkness. Just as well we were dropped on the road as that day the car park had been taken over by bricks and a massive pile of straw. Another thatched house was to be built in the village obviously. We had to clamber over the piles to reach the steps down to the village. We went early to bed that night having decided to spend another day in the village next day. However we woke again to heavy fog and after Jacky told us that heavy rain was forecast for the next few days we decided to leave. After hugs from Jacky's mum - she was a sweet old lady - we left with another couple on the mini bus to Xinje (25 yuan each), then a shared taxi to Nansha (15 yuan each) and onwards to our next stop by bus (44 yuan each) to the pretty historical town of Jianshui.

Additional photos below
Photos: 39, Displayed: 30


16th January 2013

Great choice of guest house - the view was amazing. Love to you both. Ros.
16th January 2013

Beautiful photography
Your photographs are beautiful and so colourful. Your blog is so enjoyable to read; we feel we're almost there except for our 40 degree temps! Take care. Love Jo & Ross
19th January 2013

Lacking tourism
Sounds like your border crossing went well and you are among the roads less traveled. You've done an excellent job photographing the terraces. Love the photo of the little girl drinking her bottle. Looking forward to your next installment.

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