With a return trip to Beijing for work, I flew out a couple of days early to visit the mountainous rice terrace area outside of Guilin with Adrian. This is the story of our journey.
Friday morning we were picked up by our driver in the city of Lingui (just outside Guilin) around 8:15am, first stop was a department store to get a memory card, some plastic bags to line our packs in case of rain and some water. We then started off for the LongShen terraces and the small village of PingAn. I felt like we were back in Yunnan, the roads were muddy in a state if construction with potholes and puddles. Once we came to a complete stop for 15 minutes behind a line of cars eventually when we started moving to find a truck smashed into a car was the cause of the backup. Finally on a decent paved road we made good time until we hit the winding road that started climbing up the mountains towards the terraced areas. We turned off the main road and purchased our entrance ticket (80 RMB per person) and then started up an even smaller, more narrow winding road until after 8 km and around 20 minutes we came to a gateway for the entrance to the village of PingAn.
We got our packs together and as we were getting ready a lady approached us and asked us if we wanted to eat at her home, which was about a 30 minute walk out of PingAn in the direction toward DaZhai, we agreed as we followed her down the narrow lanes of the village lined with the typical Chinese tourist fare : fruits, sweets, jewelry, baubles etc. Along the way I kept noticing people were cooking over fires with sections of roasting bamboo. The bamboo was around 2 -3 inches in high or 4-5 inches in diameter. The section of bamboo was around 15 inches with the nodule enclosure forming a natural seal on the top and bottom. These bamboo sections were laid over the fire until the were charred and blackened. I couldn’t figure out what they were cooking but we would soon find out. Along the way the lady pointed out a chicken and asked us if we wanted to eat chicken, we said sure and she pulled out her mobile and called ahead for what I guessed was the unlucky day for a soon to be dead chicken. We arrived at her “restaurant” an open covered pavilion with no one present. She proceeded to start a fire and took four bamboo sections and drilled a hole in one end with an electric drill and the other end had a corn cob stuffed in it. She put them over the fire and would occasionally dip them into a bucket of water the color of gray sewer schlop that we pretended not to notice. The husband came by with his long bloody fingernails (presumably from chicken slaughtering) helped me point out on the menu some Chinese characters for Winter Bamboo and Lao Meat, he said it was pork. We ordered those up and some tea. After 20 minutes she pulled the bamboo out of the fire and with a large knife cracked them on top splitting them open, she set them on the table and opened them so you had two long bamboo containers. One was filled with chopped up chicken, including the prominent pads of the chicken feet and the other was full of sticky rice with bits of corn and pork. I had no idea to expect this. The rice was decent but the chicken was your typical Chinese rural Chicken (should have learned my lesson after ordering chicken in Yunnan) – scrawny with barely any meat on its bones and what meat was there was spread across a myriad of chopped up bones. You couldn’t take a bite for fear of crunching into a bone and the sparse meat hardly made it worthwhile. In fact the chicken feet seemed to have the most “meat” own them, perhaps that is where the Chinese love for chicken feet came to be. The Winter bamboo was delicious and Lao’s Rou was a salty pork with dried bamboo, both quite tasty and we ate more of them than the chicken. Before we left we’d noticed many tourists passing by carrying umbrellas and we purchased a couple of large ones to carry in the event the fog and mist turned to rain.
After we finished our lunch we asked for directions to Da Zhai, the husband really wanted to guide us for a fee but I refused insisting we could walk on our own. He said he’d walk us through the village to show us the path and then after weaving up the hill to the path he offered again to guide us warning us of how many small paths there were up ahead with many intersections, confidently undeterred we politely refused again and set out. The path was paved with Guilin green marble and immediately started winding through the terraces. Being close to winter the terraces were full of stuble, burnt rice stalks and a bit if water here and there ; there were signs along the way pointing to 9 Dragon 5 Tiger terrace. We rounded a corner and suddenly the path changed to a muddy trail that led down to a dirt road. Unsure we headed up the road passing an empty building, a short while on another building where a woman was talking to someone, when I tried to get directions she told me everyone was sleeping so we carried on down the muddy road. From here we asked another woman which direction to DaZhai and she confirmed the roads direction. We came to another small shack further down the road and the also confirmed the direction. Carrying on we crossed an empty dam with no swimming signs and no water; afterwards the road become much rougher, muddier as if recently hewn through the steep forested hills. We climbed up and around and over several hills on a muddy rocky road strewn with recent logged trees in heavy fog and mist. Eventually after 15 minutes or so things felt wrong, we were in a country of a billion plus people, on a road to nowhere and we could hear absolute silence, no cars no people, nothing. I was able to get a signal on my phone and we were headed in the general direction of DaZhai (despite the twists and turns) so we carried on another five minutes until we came upon 3 branches, all of which seemed they could head in the right direction but on then other hand maybe not. So we turned around and started walking back; at least it was down hill. As we got close to the dam we came upon a lady crushing plastic bottles to recycle. I offered her money to walk with us to DaZhai telling her in my simple Chinese we didn’t want to walk the big ugly road to DaZhai, we wanted to walk on the small path. She pointed out to a small branching path from the road right behind us and said that would take us to DaZhai but it was way too far and she didn’t want to go, I asked her if this was for sure the path to DaZhai and she said absolutely. So off we went on a small path we’d missed earlier. Immediately the path seemed proper, rocks were laid in the mud and orange peels, occasional plastic bottle and footsteps confirmed we were on a utilized trail.
We meandered through the terraces once again, following the main path at junctures. We saw no one in the mist and fog but carried on. A while later we came to a small stream that cascaded over a small waterfall, an arched bridge crossed the stream and several wooden houses were built on either side next to fields with a few chickens scratching around. A small boy was playing outside one house and I asked him which way to to DaZhai. A Yao woman with her hair wrapped around her head came out, she was in her mid 30s, she was joined by a older woman whose piled up hair was even larger. They informed us the path between the two villages was in the wrong direction and we had to go up and around the hill. At this point I was done risking navigating the paths ahead and I asked her if she’d guide us, she said yes; we agreed upon a price (which meant I’d started too high, but I didn’t really care) and she went off to change her shoes. The elderly woman said “long hair” in English and asked me if I wanted to take a picture. I asked how much, we haggled from 50 to 20 and agreed on 30. She perched herself on a terrace and proceeded to unwind her hair. I was disappointed to see that while her hair was well past her waist there was another long thick plait of hair that was cut and wrapped in a pony tail. Later I learned that when they are 18 they cut their hair and keep wrapping it in the rest of their hair. After unwinding and combing out her own hair that was all combed forward over the front of her face, she proceed to wind her own hair and the detached pony tail back into her thick turban of hair. I took some video and we followed the younger woman up the path. She climbed effortlessly while we followed a bit more slowly behind her.
We made our way though the terraces until we came to another small village, navigating which path through the winding houses would have been difficult with out our guide. We stopped at a small shed that was the last grocery store to buy water at before heading on to DaZhai. We waited for the guides friend to close up shop as she’d be joining us. Four young teenage boys hung outside the shop smoking cigarettes, with long pierced ears, bleached bangs all of them wearing slippers. The cool fashion of each genation seems a bit odd to those elder. Off we set out of the village on a path between two hills that went consistently and relentlessly up. We came to a juncture where our guide said she was going left to her home, her friend would guide us on and she’d catch up to us. We carried on upwards following her younger friend who wore a pink jacket, platform tennis shoes and talked the entire time on her cell phone. Near the top we stopped at a pavilion to wait for our guide, while waiting i opened my GPS app and got enough signal to load the terrain maps, I could see a path we were following. We only waited 5 minutes before our guide came walking up out of the mist. Off we went down now through terraced fields, at times the path actually followed the contour of the terrace for a ways until dropping down and around. Eventually we climbed up another small hill and came to a juncture where we ran into a man coming up. At this point I could see the path wandered down and around to DaZhai around .8 miles as the crow flew. I pulled up the name of our hotel and the man said it was up and to the left while DaZhai was down and to the right. It was around 4:45 pm and it would be getting dark soon so it seemed a good time to call our hotel. Mrs Wu talked to our guide and did confirm the man was correct we needed to go up and to the right. We climbed the hill and walked a very short distance around seeing another village. Mrs Wu had come out to meet us and instead of another 20 minutes walking we were here. We paid our guide and followed Mrs Wu several hundred yards to he hotel which was new, only two months old and tonight we’d be their only guests. We walked into the large hall all made of wood and walked up to the third floor to our rooms. Double beds with the typical Chinese bathroom : tiled floor, toilet, sink and shower head spouting randomly off the wall with a myriad of cheap green pvc pipes on the bare walls. The windows were open, and it was freezing, we could see our breath, she pointed out the heater and said we could turn them on later. We took off our packs put jackets and went back downstairs to sit and enjoy a cup of hot tea. The large doorway was wide open and we sat in the wet cold watching the steam curl off our breath and drank cups of hot green flower tea.
We ordered supper as we watched the English CCTV channel about banking regulations in WenZhou. Our dishes came out a while later : sweet and sour pork, stir fried pumpkin, fried rice and some stir fried greens, no chicken and much better than lunch, though maybe not as “interesting”. After a full belly we walked back up stairs with our heater remotes and fiddled with them until we got them to turn on as nice warm air finally poured out of them and heated up the room. I laid out my clothes, showered and settled into the bed under the thick blanket to write this blog and watch a few shows on my iPad, by 8:45 pm I was asleep. The standard Chinese hard bed was tough on my hips (should have blown up and slept on my pad) and a 3:30 am bathroom break ensured I would be awake plenty early to work on the blog and watch a few more shows.
The next morning Mrs. Wu fixed us a Western breakfast which included Lao Meat (which I came to learn is the Chinese name for dried salted pork or as she called it “bacon”), french toast and scrambled or fried eggs. The “bacon” was the same super salty pork with a lot of fat, stir fried with some carrots and veggies. The french toast was slight sweet and delicious and the eggs were your usual soaked in oil. After breakfast we set off down the trail for a 50 minute walk down to the village of DaZhai. We followed the large path through the terraced rice fields, things were pretty much the same as the day before : foggy and misty. We were joined in our walk by a dog who kept running back and forth up and down the rocky steps. Eventually we came to the town of DaZhai, crossed the river, through the gate and down the road to the main entrance where we found our driver waiting for us. My phone at this point was dead (I’d left my charger cord in the luggage in the car) and so we used Adrian’s phone to text Kolok that we were departing. The driver said we’d be meeting him in LongSheng.
After a 30 minute drive we arrived in the county seat LongSheng and waited for Kolok who was off buying treats. We greeted Kolok as he ambled across the bridge, and we all piled into the car and set out for the village of BaiShi. Along the way Kolok told us the story of where were going. Kolok is in his mid thirties, he has long hair and is a strict vegetarian. He speaks great English and works as a Chinese teacher at the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) in Guilin. He is also a musician who has been playing in bands in the YangShuo band scene for the past 12 years or so. His first band’s name was Math Equation and now he has two bands, one which he described as Punk Folk (because they don’t have a drummer) and the other as standard Rock Band. He is your quintessential hippy who waxes as poetic about waterfalls as the “Whoa Double Rainbow” dude on Youtube does; meaning that Kolok is very much unlike most Chinese people. 10 years ago his band and others were playing the bar circuit in YangShuo and the earnings of his band and others in one music festival was pretty meager, around a 1000 RMB. By the time they would have split that money between all the members the individual amounts would have been very small, so they decided to donate the money to a local cause. Somehow they came to know of a Grandfather whose first son and wife had died and he had a 9 year old son who was in some need. At that time the government didn’t cover the cost of education for orphans and so Kolok and his fellow bandmates decided to sponsor this young man by paying for his schooling. Through the course of this Kolok paid a visit to the small village of BaiShi (White Rock) deep in the mountains outside LongSheng and developed a close relationship over the course of 10 years, usually visiting the family twice a year and always for a couple of days during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
The village was a 40 minute drive up a narrow mountain road and then an hour hike on a very rough road and trail back into a small valley where there were terraced rice fields and around 10 families spread out on the hills. When Kolok first began visiting them, the only way in was to walk; goods were carried in and out via horse. The village gets its name for the white quartz that is found in the mountain tops. A mineral company wanted access to the rock and so the village agreed if they would build a road they could mine one of the small mountains. Since that time the road (dirt) has deteriorated somewhat, however it has brought some increased prosperity to the village. Allowing them easier means to export their bamboo and timber that grows on the mountain sides; consequently the villagers have been able to all buy a motorcycle to make the 4 mile journey more quickly. The 9 year old son has since grown to a young man and is working in a factory in GuangDong somewhere. We were on our way to spend a night with the grandfather and his family.
In a small village before we turned off the main road we stopped for a quick lunch of Mifen (rice noodle soup) and bought some local Mandarin oranges and bananas. We drove up the road past several rock slides, and then up a narrow winding mountain road until we pulled off at the entrance to the dirt road to the village. We loaded up our packs and set off on the road. After a short distance, Kolok led us up the original trail to the village, which was more direct though steeper. The trail was fairly over grown in places as foot traffic has decreased and we hiked over the hills until the first terraces came into view. We passed above a waterfall that Kolok told us we could hike to see later that afternoon. We walked down through groves of large bamboo (8-10 inches in diameter) to the valley full of terraced rice fields which were dotted by small huts with large wooden houses set on the hill sides. The small huts were where traditionally the families had housed a cow which they kept enclosed but well fed. These cows manure was then collected and spread as fertilizer across the fields. Last year they finally sold off all the cows to another village as it was now cheaper and more economical from the perspective of time and labor to buy artificial fertilizer vs. the natural kind. We walked along the terraces past large stacks of cut bamboo until we climbed up to the home of Grandpa Liu who warmly greeted us at the door to his large wooden home. His wife came out and with her was Grandpa Liu’s 3rd son, his wife, their new 6 month old son and his 9 year old daughter. Kolok congratulated them on their new son (born in the auspicious year of the Dragon) and gave them a HongBao (red envelope) with a gift of money.
They welcomed us to the back of the home that over looked the valley, where we took off our packs and they invited us inside their main room at the center of the home. The room was 20 feet square, in one corner a waist high station that had a concrete and tiled sink aside of this was a round fire pit recessed into the cement floor. Small stools were around the fire which was small and fed from long branches and pieces of sliced bamboo. Atop the fire was a small circular iron tripod upon which sat a wok, next to the wok was a large covered pot which held steaming water. A small low movable cupboard next to the fire pit held a some foodstuffs when cooking. They welcomed us to sit by the fire on tiny stools and warm and dry ourselves from the wet hike in. They prepared for us a Guilin speciality : YouCha which literally translates to oil tea. First a small amount of oil is poured in the wok, approximately a 1/4 cup. Usually they would use pork fat but in honor of Kolok’s vegetarianism they used vegetable oil. To this is added a wet set of tea leaves, tea which has been hand picked by the villagers from the upper mountain slopes. After stir frying for a few minutes, water is added and then a pinch of salt. Meanwhile on the small cupboard a set of bowls are prepared, they are filled with roasted peanuts and puffed rice (just like rice crispies). The oil tea is then poured over the dried snacks and you drink the tea and eat the dried rice and peanuts. Kolok on the walk in had told us that as a measure of politeness in response to their hospitality we should drink at least three cups. I quite enjoy the oil tea, the broth is almost slightly soup like and the crunchy peanuts and rice are woody and delicious.
Afterwards the Grandpa, the second son, and the daughter accompanied Adrian, Kolok and myself as we took a walk down through the terraces to where we were across from the waterfall. The fog and mist blew in and out revealing and obscuring the waterfall from view. Aw we walked back the the main valley the Grandfather explained how every 5 years the villagers gathered and rotated “ownership” or assignment of the fields. The fields we know stood in belonged to his 3rd son who lived across the valley. When the Grandfather arrived in the valley over 50 years ago the fields had been abandoned by the Yao minority who had moved to a different location. We dropped the Grandfather off at his home and we walked across the valley to visit the 2nd son. The welcomed us into their home to sit around the fire, we begged off oil tea being full from our previous consumption. They went into their back room where they brought out a large round flat woven basket full of asian pears. They gave us each one and we peeled and ate them while we sat around the fire. Afterwards they showed us their home, which seemed to the common layout of all the homes in the village, and at least from the exterior the greater LongSheng county. Outside the home was a fish pond, where they raised carp to eat. The back room had a large rectangular concrete box that was around four feet deep and full of water. A large dipper made from the large base of bamboo floated on top, this water was spring fed from the mountains. Kolok told me that this spring was particularly special, every winter there were times when the mountains would be covered in snow and at times the waterfall and the springs would freeze over. Usually this only last a couple of days, however several years ago the cold persisted for two weeks. Every villager’s spring froze except for this one in the 3rd sons, the villagers all trekked to their home to carry water. They even brought over the fish from their local fish ponds to keep them alive in the spring which didn’t freeze. Around the side of the home they showed us a fairly large area that had dozens of logs stood on end, each around 5 feet tall. This was a sort of mushroom garden, from these they picked a large sack of fresh mushrooms which they gave us to take back for dinner.
We walked back across the valley to Grandpa Liu’s home, along the way we passed a section of the hillside where there were two foot sections of logs that were arranged in a large pile, they were in various stages of charred condition, some of them partially covered in dirt. Kolok explained that this was how the villagers made charcoal, they would set a fire under the log and then cover them with dirt to smolder which would produce charcoal. Back at the Liu’s we sat outside around a small round censor that was filled with this same burning charcoal and dried to our socks and shoes while we sat on couches. The 9 year old grand-daughter sat between Adrian on the couch while he pulled out his iPad and we showed the girl how to play Angry Birds and let her draw on the Paper application. Despite never having seen an iPad she handily figured out the game and made her way easily around the drawing app. Soon we were invited into the main room for our evening meal. The main floor opposite the fire pit, had a floor of wooden planks, this acted as a cellar where they stored potatoes. They had gathered a set of sweet potatoes from the cellar, peeled them and were stir frying them over the fire. They added these to bowls for oil tea along with the puffed rice and charred peanuts. From above the fire hung long soot blackened strips that were 3-4 inches thick and around 18-24 inches long. These were strips of salted pork that they cut and prepared each year when they slaughtered their pigs, usually around Spring Festival. The fire naturally smoked the meat, though in its current state it didn’t really look edible. To prepare this for dinner they washed it clean in water, sliced it and the stir fried. They prepared a bowl for dinner because I’d said that I’d like to try it. Kolok mentioned that people in the city of Guilin loved this dish but that to the villagers it was common. I noticed they didn’t really eat any, I only managed to eat 6 or 7 pieces. You had to pick carefully because there was at least 95% fat and a thin ribbon of meat, the darker the bits the more meat there was. The fat was translucent almost, the meat was chewy and salty. Finally we had a big bowl of the fresh mushrooms that the 2nd son had given us earlier.
After dinner we sat around the fire for a bit, spreading our shoes and socks to dry. The TV blared showing a Chinese serial that depicted the Chinese during WW2 fighting the Japanese invaders. Kolok helped me translate while I talked with Grandpa Liu about the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 Dà YuèJìn) when everyone stopped farming to produce iron and steel. Grandpa said that times were really really hard but that things were a bit better in the village of Baishi because they could gather wild mushrooms and roots from the mountains. Even here in this remote valley there were a few people that died. Pondering this sobering thought it was time for sleep and they led us upstairs to show us our room. The second floor of the house had many rooms, most which were storage but one which was a bedroom with three wooden beds. The “mattress” was two inches of padding covering wooden slats; I was grateful I brought my pad. The blankets where doubled up and there was around 6 inches of covers, I was quite warm the whole night, though Adrian complained of being cold. The next morning things were quite chilly and we gathered around the fire to warm ourselves as they fed us more oil tea. Afterwards we put dry shoes and packed our bags. We gathered outside the home in the entryway, I set up my tripod and we took a few group photos before we shouldered our packs and walked back to the road.
We said goodbye to the Grandmother and 3rd Son’s wife and Grandpa Liu and 3rd Son accompanied us up the hill and down the road where they also said goodbyes, but offering us to return any time and making Kolok promise to return over Spring Festival. We walked down the logging road, this time sticking directly to the road, which while longer than the overland route we took would be flatter and at least more dry. As we walked back the skies started to clear and patches of blue peeked through the clouds. Inevitably our conversations turned to the food we looked forward to eating as most return hikes seem to do. And the trail grew long as you slog along anticipating the end of the trail and the end of your journey.
Back at the road we found the driver hadn’t gotten our text messages about heading out early and we’d have to wait 30 minutes for him to arrive. Adrian was feeling pretty rotten by this point and he lay down on the road while we waited. I wandered through the bamboo taking a few photos of the forest. Back in the car we raced down the small winding road to the main road back to LongSheng. We stopped at a hot springs for a soak and rejuvenation. We bought a ticket and then entered the basement to change and shower. After this you walk outside, where being wet and the wind blowing you were quite chilled. We hurried up the steps to find a large pool. Adrian and I jumped in only to find it was full of cold air temperature water. Freezing we jumped out, crossed the road and ran up the stairs looking for the actual hot springs. We had to go up around 200 yards before we finally came to the hot pool, by this time we were shivering. The pool was quite hot, around 105 degrees, so hot that you had to ease your body in the water, inch by inch. Once in the water you couldn’t really move around but you had to sit perfectly still as any movement stirred up the water and was almost too hot to bear. We dipped in and out of the water off and on for 30 minutes before walking back down to change.
Back in the car we drove into LongSheng where we stopped at a Mifen (Rice Noodle) shop where we each had a large bowl of noodles for $.60 cents a piece. Then back in the car for the long two hour drive back into Guilin. Unfortunately our driver was driving me crazy. Some drivers have what iI find to be an incredibly annoying driving technique, I call them the spurts and surge driver. Rather than long continuos acceleration or maintaining an even speed, they will push off and on the gas. Over and over , vroom on the gas, then let off, then vroom on the gas, every 1-2 seconds. I wanted to scream at him to pull over and let me drive. Somehow I managed to not focus on this and we eventually arrived back in Guilin. That evening I met Robbie Fried, Kolok and a colleague at a local vegetarian restaurant where we enjoyed a nice dinner. A quite end to a great weekend of adventure before a long week of work in Beijing. I hope someday to return to Baishi and visit the warm wonderful people of China again.