Day of the Long Walk

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September 18th 2019
Published: September 18th 2019
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Days 51 to 54 of 80

The 2nd x 2 days in the China countryside saw us all ditching our main luggage bags and packing a 2-night overnight bag each. This was because we would be carrying same, firstly on Sunday for a couple of hours before our first overnight and then for 6 hours before our 2nd.

The area we are in for Sunday /Monday is the Longji / Ping'an Zhaung Terraced Rice Fields scenic area. Covering an area of 70 sq km the rice terraces symbolise the atypical vision of Chinese rice terracing as seen in tourist brochures worldwide. The terraces were started in the late 1200s/early 1300s, completed by the mid 1600s, so they have been complete and in use from 370 to over 700 years.

There are supposedly 4 prime visiting times for those different photo opportunities. Winter, when the terraces are covered in snow. Spring, before planting, when the sunlight reflects off the water full-flooded plots, looking like mirrors and stacked silver belts. Summer, when the full grown, but not yet ripe, crop bathes the slopes in regular, wavy, green lines. And a short, 2 weeks or so, window when the crop is golden-yellow ripe before harvest. Frank thought we would be around on-time for this but the reality was that we think we were around 2 weeks too early.

Different sizes have different names. So "towers" are one acre, whilst "snails" can only take 3 lines of seedlings.

We dropped our bags off into luggage storage - actually shelving in the back of a shop. Having transferred to a supposedly smaller local transfer bus, which was actually a 30 seater jalopy with us and a part-party of 20 Chinese, after 20 minutes or so the Chinese left the bus and we continued, upwards, for nearly another hour. At which stage it was time to walk.

Sunday was to be a shorter, but possibly steeper, version of Monday's 'long walk'. It was mostly uphill and took us through various vistas of the rice growing. And beautiful it was too.

About an hour in Frank said that we were about half way. Around 20 minutes later, we stopped outside a wooden-built guesthouse, we thought for a breather. So imagine how pleased we all were to find that we had 'arrived' for the day.

Lunch - several delicious Chinese courses, beer - shower, relax. Bliss.

The couples amongst us rapidly realised that the front, balcony rooms, with a view across the valley and over the rice terraces, were unoccupied. We each bought a room upgrade for the equivalent of £10 (ie 4 beers, as some of our fellow travellers said! Choices, choices! ) and transferred 😊 Our time was our own for the afternoon. An opportunity to just relax and soak up the surroundings.

Monday's walk was to be across the rice terraces, along what is known as the Dragon's Backbone. All of us decided we would be able to cope, to a lesser or greater extent. Frank told us the quickest group had completed in around 3.5 hours - no chance of that for our group - the slowest nearly 8.

The route across was very tourist free. In fact it was pretty person free, except that we kept coming across Yao women who, by custom, only cut their hair once in their lives, at age 18 just before marriage. They are known as the 'long hair women', but they all wear it up, beneath something like a turban. But, any one of them will unwrap their hair, for a fee! We all declined the offer!

This walk, unlike the footpaths that criss-cross the terraces at our destination, is not on the mass tourist map. So it was delightful, though not easy in over 90°F and 85% humidity.

Some, between terracing, was under tree cover. Some was across actual terraces. Conditions flicked, in a couple of metres, between relatively pleasant with a cooling breeze to fan-oven hot or as if entering the Kew Garden palm house.

The air was thick with butterflies and dragonflies, but surprisingly little birdlife. Some of the upper terraces were not used and were overgrown with weed. Some are providing growing plots for wickedly hot red chillies, a basket full of which were being carried down to the village below by a man who must have been at least 70.

The many viewpoints come with very florid descriptions such as 'Thousand Layers to the Heaven' and 'Music from Paradise'.

At our, supposed mid-way, lunch break - 2 slices of white bread, a boiled egg, 2 satsumas, all of which we had carried on the rucksack for nearly 5 hours! - we rested our weary bodies whilst overlooking the main body of the rice paddies, before starting our final stretch. But Frank had done it again, and the 'final stretch' turned out to be just 30 minutes downhill into the village we could see from the lunch break viewpoint.

The 'long walk' had been 10 km, 550 m of climb, and a start point to finish descent from 1100 m to 850 m. We, the group, took 5.5 hours, including breaks!

Ping'an is the village at the heart of this rice terrace area which draws in visitors from across China for its iconic views. Ping'an as a village is home to around 190 families/900 people of the Zhaung minority, but it feels bigger than that. It has had an explosion of guesthouses built in recent years spread across the steep hillside.

Local women will carry luggage up or down in baskets slung on their backs for 50 Yuan a time - around £6.50. The design and placement of the village means everything needed in the village needs to be carried in from either the bottom or top entry. The best example of this was the electricity transformer, probably at least a tonne, slung between two oversized bamboo poles!

Tuesday, we dragged our still-weary bodies out of bed for an early breakfast then local transfer back to the 'park' entrance to pick up luggage and transfer to Yangshuo on a private bus, giving a further 3 hours or more of respite from walking and heat😊. The road down was somewhat zig-zaggy!

Yangshuo is a region famed for its karst landscape. That is, the countryside is full of limestone pillars, columns, towers, humps, dome-like pinnacles,.... left behind as the more soluable surrounding rock has been dissolved away. With names such as Expectant Husband, Mitten Mountain, Mighty Lion Riding a Carp, stretching to the horizon as far as the eyes can see. There are very few areas like this in the world.

On arrival Frank took us to a Home Cooking restaurant. No menu, we just have what the chef delivers. And it was delicious. 10 dishes between us - a decided advantage of group travel - mini meat stuffed omelettes, stuffed mild green chilli peppers, duck and peanuts, dumplings meat and veggie, sautéed tomato leaves/stalks, bamboo shoot and garlic, and others.

Frank has offered the group 3 alternative trips for us each to pick and mix from. This is typical of the Explore 'cheaper' trips - this is called 'On a Shoestring' - in that you can choose how many 'extra' trips to pay for. We have taken a pass on Wednesday's full day outing of cycle/bamboo-raft/cycle/lunch/cycle/climb up Moon Hill/cycle, but did do Tuesday's trip.

This was to the, for China, famous look out point at Xianggong. This climb, nearly 500 steps up one of the karst pillars, overlooks the scene depicted on the Chinese 20 Yuan note. At sunrise it is said to be heaving, but when we were there, mid-afternoon there were only a handful of others there.

The view is spectacular. No other description does it justice. Below was the Li Jiang River, full of motorised 'bamboo' rafts and large, but empty, pleasure boats. We say 'bamboo' because these rafts, on the main river, are made from plastic downpipe tubing made to look like bamboo. The rafts on the tributary - the Yulong River - those rafts ARE made of bamboo and are hand punted. This is the rafting included in Wednesday's trip, the one we are not doing.

We finally dragged ourselves away from that view as Frank had a further viewpoint for us from which we watched the sun descend behind a line of the karst hills.

In the evening we went to West Street, the local 'happening' street, pretty dead when we had been there in the afternoon but totally buzzing in the evening. It is called 'West Street' because, supposedly, it is the most densely populated street with foreigners in China. (! do we belive this?)

Full of the 'usual' range of bars, eateries and retail opportunities, but with some interesting variants.

Eg - rather than portrait sketchers we saw a couple of stalls where they were doing miniature wax models of people.

- there are, according to Lonely Planet, many bars including pole dancing bars. We passed a couple with totally unenthusiastic ladies shuffling in the windows (a bit Amsterdam like), with more people outside taking photos than being enticed inside. We aren't that sad for photo opps. But, as we passed the entrance to one, Paul - would be him wouldn't it - spotted a lady cavorting around a hanging ring, and wondered whether this would be called 'ring-pole dancing'?

- One shop had tanks full of swimming terrapins decorated top and bottom. We assumed, at first, that these were motorised toys. However, when we picked one up we discovered that they were alive!

Wednesday we had a leisurely day around town, alternating between outside, by the river, in the heat, to finding air-conditioned refuges.

As a first stop though we had a walk through the local indoor market next to the hotel. This was quite an eyeopener. Now we have done some markets in our time. Not much has fazed us much when doing so. We have seen stuff we can't recognise, everywhere. Stuff we recognise but wouldn't touch. So today, for example, there were mesh bags of toads, plastic tubs of swimming water snakes, snails, turtles.... see photos.

But ... the two eviscerated dogs hanging at a meat stall off to one side were a step, and a photo, too far. It moved Pip to tears.

They apparently do cormorant fishing here. That is, fishing for fish with cormorants whose necks are restricted to stop them swallowing the fish. However, Frank tells us that Explore forbid him from organising trips for this - previous Explore trippers complainted about animal cruelty - and that it's not worth it nowadays anyway as they only catch tiddlers that they can still swallow.

As we walked along the Li bank, however, we did see a cormorant fisherman chugging past on a plastic-bamboo raft. We then saw him later as he was coming ashore with 2 cormorants balanced on a bamboo pole slung over one shoulder, and a 'photo - 30 Yuan' sign hanging from the other. He then set himself up on the riverside walkway.

We took the evening show option too. Called 'Impression Sanjie Liu' this takes place in / on a lagoon of the Li River in what is said to be the world's largest natural stage. The water filled lagoon is, probably, 300 x 300 metres but with 3 km or more of in/out water channels and is in front of a 2000 seater arena. The backdrop is several of the karst pinnacles, lit up for dramatic effect. The show's director, Zhang Yimou was director for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And it shows.

There are hundreds of performers in several sets pieces using the water as the stage. Dozens of floating boatmen, bright lit led costumes, elaborate waterborne choreography. It was, mostly, wonderful, just a couple of slow underwhelming sections. And ... boy do the Chinese love to talk, loudly, during a performance.

However, Zhang Yimou has a similar show on the lake at Hangzhou, our 2nd stop after Shanghai. The temptation is great to find tickets for that too, though it will be Golden Week - all of China is on holiday at the same time - and they may be in short supply.

Tomorrow, Thursday, we transfer by bus 3 hours to Guilin, then a 17 hour overnight sleeper to Shanghai. Here's hoping for a cough and smelly feet free trip this time.

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