On Friday of last week, the three of us hopped on a bus bound for Longsheng Rice Terraces, roughly two and a half hours north of Guilin. Translated into English, “Longsheng” means “Dragon’s Backbone,” which is a great description of the sharp ridges that have been cultivated into step after step of rice fields built right into the mountainsides. After leaving the city limits of Guilin, our bus wound through lush countryside and rumbled up twisting mountain roads. I should mention here that no matter the terrain, Chinese drivers always drive fast, and they always want to be first, so there was a lot of swerving and passing going on, even when the driver couldn’t see around the next bend in the road. If I had just arrived in China last week, I think I would have had a heart attack on that bus, but after a year and a half of life here, I just contented myself with clutching my armrest a bit tighter.
The bus dropped us off at a small village called Heping, and there we hired a man to drive us to the village of Dazhai as an entry point for hiking the rice terraces. I was transfixed by the scenery on that 40 minute drive, seeing steep mountains sloping down into narrow streams, and smelling wood smoke in the air. We drove through tiny villages with chickens fluttering across the roads and muddy dogs loping in-between wood houses built on the riverbank. When we pulled up to the gate of Dazhai, old women in traditional Yao (a minority group in China) clothing surrounded us with their baskets of wares, saying “hello! postcard? very nice. I give you cheap. okay? okay?!” We tried to scoot past them so that we could hike first and then see about buying souvenirs, and after a little while, they stopped following us and hung back to wait for the next busload of customers.
Despite thick fog that curled over the steep rice terraces and wooden houses of the village, the view was absolutely beautiful. Steep stone steps climbed through the fog, past rows and rows of rice fields and small clusters of houses. Wood fires kept the air smelling like smoke and something like cedar, and chickens made noise as we walked past the houses. It felt like we were absolutely separated from the rest of the world. Once we climbed higher, the steps were coated with a bit of snow and ice, and we brushed past stalks of grass coated in ice that fell and shattered next to us. The occasional mountain horse (pony?) was tethered here and there in the terraces, and we saw a few people walking between houses in the fog. Other than that, we didn’t run into anyone else on the trail.
We got a bit turned around and hiked to a village opposite from where we intended to hike, but it didn’t matter too much. After we figured out where we were and prepared to hike back down the mountain, a woman from a nearby house called to us and told us that she would prepare food for us. I think it’s fairly common for foreigners to buy a meal made by a villager, since there really aren’t any (or many) restaurants up there, so after some deliberation, we accepted. The lady invited us into her home, which had a huge loom set up in the long front room, which was lit only by windows cut into the wood. We stepped through another door into the kitchen, where a fire was burning on the floor by another window. An elderly woman and a younger woman sat by the fire; the old woman weaving a basket and the younger one sewing something else. Another, much younger woman came too and told us that the woman who invited us in was her mother, and I think that the old woman was her grandmother. They lifted a huge pot off the fire, which looked like it contained some sort of mash for their chickens or pigs, maybe, and set a clean pot over the coals. The woman started to boil some eggs for us, and set some yams in the coals to roast. The old lady smiled toothlessly at us and kept weaving her basket, and we started looking around at the kitchen in the half-light inside. I tried to hide my surprise at discovering a dead chicken behind me, and a rat that looked like it was being prepared for eating, and hoped that we wouldn’t be offered roasted rat for lunch.
Once the yams were ready, the old lady pulled them from the coals and tossed them over to us; the skins turned my fingers black but the inside was hot and delicious. The other women started bringing all sorts of home-made (we discovered this was probably not true) wares into the kitchen, piling them on the table. They had scarves, wall-hangings, blankets, pillow covers, and other items that they said were made at the loom in their house. We haggled a bit and bought some things that we found out were over-priced when we saw the same things for sale in Guilin, but I am happy nevertheless that we had the experience of eating a meal in their home, even if they did get us to buy more than a meal. After we had bought a few things, the lady making the meal brought a just-plucked chicken into the house, cut it up, and cooked it with a bit of oil, salt, and ginger. It tasted great, although in typical Chinese-style, all the bones were chopped up with the meat, so it took a bit of skill to eat it with chopsticks instead of my hands.
The youngest woman had told us that the price for the food was just whatever we decided to pay, and so we assumed that they made their money from what hand-made items they sold, rather than meals. Because of this, I was more willing to buy things from them. After we ate, however, the lady told us that our meal would be 200 yuan. Yikes. We argued a bit and got the price down to 160 yuan, and we felt not a little silly and disgruntled with the obvious gyp. But, we agreed afterwards that we were glad that we had the opportunity to eat in their home, even if we left with less money than we expected. And I can’t imagine that too many foreigners come through at this time in the year, so I hope that it helped them out a bit during the low season.
We hiked back down the trail to the village of Dazhai, and I panicked for a bit because the last bus back to Heping came later than we thought, and I worried that maybe we had missed the last one already. But it finally came, and it carted us back to Heping, where we caught the last bus to Guilin by the skin of our teeth. I was ready to collapse into bed after all that hiking, and haggling, and bus-riding, but I am so glad that we had the chance to hike a bit in the Longsheng Rice Terraces. Perhaps it would have been more breathtaking in the spring or fall, when the fog isn’t heavy and the rice is green or golden, but the ethereal quality of mist and fog over the terraces made for a great view.