Follow by Email

Monday, April 7, 2014

Guilin and Yangshuo: Day 3

I'm not one for organized tours, especially in this part of the world, but sometimes a tour is the best, if not the only, way to go somewhere and see something. Take the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces (lóngjĭ tītián) 龙脊梯田, located 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Guìlín 桂林. They're a spectacular sight well worth making the effort to get out there to see, but doing so as a day trip relying on public transportation isn't easy, involving a 90-minute bus ride to a road junction, then taking a minibus up to the rice terraces, all the while having to take careful note of timetables while dealing with language issues. Had I been traveling solo, I probably would've gone the independent route, but in company with my wife and daughter, it was much easier to take advantage of the tour offered by the Riverside Hostel - transport to and from the rice terraces, lunch, an English-speaking guide, two hours of free time for exploration and, best of all, no shopping stops. And so it was that in conjunction with a couple from Bĕijīng 北京 (thus ensuring that our guide's commentary would be in both English and Mandarin) and a pair of Italian-speaking women from Switzerland, our group eventually made its way to a community of Yao, one of the 54 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in the People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国:

China may be a multi-ethnic state, but the Han 汉族 make up 93% of the population, and are clearly running the show. And speaking of shows, the first thing we did after pulling into the village was to go into a theater and watch a performance of Yao women singing folk songs. Han Chinese tour groups love to see their ethnic minority compatriots wearing their colorful native costumes while singing and dancing and their colorful native songs and dances, but as this BBC article points out, it presents a distorted image of these minority groups while serving government propaganda purposes. Entertaining tourists is one thing, but having a say in how your communities are governed while trying to preserve your culture in the face of a Han Chinese onslaught of migrants and visitors is another - just ask the Tibetans and Uighurs. One can only imagine what the Yao think. On the one hand, they have to play up to ethnic stereotypes on a daily basis (even Pamela sincerely believes that the surrounding rice fields are dotted with young Yao women wearing their black-and-red outfits singing traditional songs while they do manual labor). On the other hand, there is clearly an economic incentive to doing just that, as the number of new homes under construction or old ones being renovated in the local community showed (the other way for the Yao to make money is to constantly harass tourists to buy handicrafts, trinkets, photo books and whatever else they think visitors would want as souvenirs):

Meanwhile,  the finale of the show involved the women showing off their extremely long hair, which is normally wrapped around their heads in turbans:

The stele proclaims the village has the longest hair in the world:

Lunch was actually pretty good, with one of the highlights being zhútŏng fàn (rice cooked inside bamboo sticks) 竹筒饭, but it was with some sense of relief on my part when we finally got back in the minivan and headed uphill toward the rice terraces:

Píng'ān 平安 is the name of a settlement that serves as one of the gateways to the rice terraces. Populated by members of the Zhuang minority group (along with some Yao), the 600-year-old village now caters almost exclusively to the tourist trade, with every traditional wooden building seemingly occupied by a guesthouse, cafe, restaurant, souvenir shop or some combination thereof (and, yes, palanquins were available for those who didn't want to walk up the 500 meters/1640 feet of stone steps to the terraces):

The terraced paddy fields are a stunning sight and are an amazing feat of agricultural engineering. Some of them are up to 1000 meters (3280 feet) above sea level, and have been carved out of the steep-sided hills for centuries, looking like lines on a contour map:

The lookout we climbed to is known as "Seven Stars" 七星:

One popular activity was to rent native dress for photo ops:

This Yao souvenir vendor was giving a demonstration of how she styled her long hair to a group of Western visitors:

We also picked up some items, doing our part to support the local economy. Soon after the picture of me holding the photo book was taken, my daughter bumped into one of her classmates from back in Shànghăi 上海, proving that China, with its 9.6 million square kilometers (3.7 million square miles) and 1.35 billion people, really is just a small country:

The best way to enjoy the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces would be to spend a night in one of the villages such as Ping'an. Not only would you be able to take in the view sans the day-trippers (such as ourselves), but I'm sure the starry nights would be fantastic (if the skies cooperated), plus there appear to be ample hiking opportunities. But even if you can only spare a one-day out-and-back trip, the rice fields are well worth seeing.

Back in Guilin, we found ourselves in a less-touristy night market than the area where we'd had dinner the previous two nights, and sat down to a meal that included another regional specialty, beer fish 啤酒鱼:

For our last evening in town, we took a pleasant stroll around Róng Lake 榕湖, highlighted by the illuminated South Gate 南门, the sole surviving remnant of a city wall that was built during the Sòng dynasty  宋朝 (960-1279):

Next up: cruising the river


  1. i'm really enjoying this series, Jim. great photos and commentary!

    1. Thanks! Except for a work-related visit to Beijing last year, this was our first real trip outside of Shanghai. I'm hoping to do some more like this before our time here is up.