It all started yesterday morning. Well, it really started back in June, when Mimi found a pair of cheap plane tickets from Xi'an to Guilin, which is a mid-sized city in Guangxi Province. Guangxi is basically in the center of southern China, and is widely known amongst Chinese to be one of the most beautiful parts of the whole country. So yesterday morning, we embarked on our voyage to the south of China. Mimi had been telling me for months about Guilin and its inspiring surroundings. It was a special place, she told me, and I was finally going to get to see it.
Fortunately, the flight went off without a hitch. By 2 pm, we had touched down at Guilin's small but functional airport. We took a bus to downtown Guilin and checked into the forgettable but sufficient Xiao Yang Lou International Youth Hostel. Our room smelled a little funky and was adjacent to a rather loud stairwell, but it didn't matter because we would only be there for one night. Our plan was to get up early the next morning and head out to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
When people say they are going to Guilin, what they really mean is that they are using Guilin as a jumping off point for the surrounding areas. It's not that Guilin is ugly. It's just that there are much more beautiful places only a few hours away. Still, some tourists stick around Guilin either because they don't know any better or don't want any better. They are happy to walk along the Li River and look at trinkets. But more adventurous travelers head south to Yangshuo, a smaller city about 2 hours south known for its mysterious, alien-like limestone mountains. Here is a picture (that I didn't take):
Before they head south, the most adventurous travelers might first head north. About four hours north of Guilin lies the positively amazing Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, which in Chinese are known as Long Ji. That's where we were headed in the morning.
We spent most of the previous night taking care of administrative stuff. Mimi had to get some visa stuff figured out for India, and it took us forever to find a place where we could print and scan stuff. We ended up convincing a concierge at a fancy hotel to scan the document for us, since internet cafes in China apparently don't have printers and scanners. We got a good night's sleep and got up early because we knew we had a pretty long day ahead of us.
The bus station was about ten minutes from our hostel. We walked over and Mimi skillfully located the correct bus. We picked up a few snacks and then boarded the bus, which was seriously awesome looking. From the outside, it looked like any other well-worn Chinese bus. But from the inside, it transformed into a vehicle fit for Ken Kesey and his Mary Pranksters. Perhaps I am exaggerating a little, but its interior wood-paneling, retro upholstery, and bizarre seating arrangement was just screaming: "Take me across the country to San Francisco! I'm ready!"
But no hippies were to be found. Instead, the bus slowly filled up with various Chinese travelers. We were definitely the only foreigners on the bus. According to our directions, we were supposed to take this bus for about two hours, get off in a small town called Heping, and look for another bus to Dazhai, an even smaller village that sits amongst the rice paddies inside the scenic area. After maybe half an hour of traffic in Guilin, we slowly emerged into the countryside of Guangxi. Before I knew it, we were climbing up a mountain. Everything around me was green. Huge valleys lay below me. Misty, foreboding fog hung over the mountains. I couldn't believe it. I was on a crazy bus, surrounded by locals, heading up to some rice paddies in the mountains. Less than a day before, I had been in hideous Xi'an. Things were looking pretty good.
This was the first bus that I had taken in China where I actually felt like I was somewhere truly foreign. Up until then, the buses we had taken had all been in and around major cities. The urban buses are more crowded and a little more hectic than American ones, but they aren't all that different from a bus that you might take back in New York. But this bus reminded me more of the buses we took in Egypt, where passengers are picked up and dropped off not at bus stops, but whenever someone yells, "Let me off!" or "Hey, I wanna get on this bus!" The driver’s inclination to pass cars around blind left turns while climbing a hill also reminded me of the reckless driving I had witnessed in Egypt. Apparently, 600 people die every day in China from driving-related accidents. I kept my fingers crossed.
In addition to the driver, this bus was manned by an organized, vocal woman who not only collected payment, but would periodically open the bus's door and yell out its destination to potential riders. That's how you find out where a bus is going in rural China.
I was having a blast. But before we knew it, over two hours had passed and we hadn't seen Heping, our supposed transfer point. Mimi thought we might have already driven through it, so she asked the lady what was up. She told us not to worry because she would tell us when to get off, and which bus to transfer to. Maybe twenty minutes later, our bus quickly pulled to the side of the road. The driver honked vigorously at a bus going in the other direction, which consequently pulled over on the other side of the road. That was our transfer point!
We quickly hopped on the other bus and headed back in the direction we had just come from. We concluded that the lady figured if she dropped us off in Heping, we would never know which bus to take. So instead she waited until the bus was in sight and then ordered the switch. The second bus was smaller and considerably more crowded. It didn't matter though because no more than ten minutes later, this bus pulled over and a new lady told us to switch to a third bus. Mimi asked a few questions in Chinese, and confirmed that the third transfer was legit. Confused yet?
The third bus was even more crowded than the second bus. Mimi was able to get a seat, but I had to stand for maybe half an hour before a seat opened up. This bus was filled with locals who lived in the region near the rice paddies. They dressed and looked quite different from the people scurrying around Shanghai and Beijing in fashionable clothing and business suits. In fact, one gentleman in the back row was sporting what appeared to be a fresh, gaping wound across his chest. It was unclear where the gash had come from, but he made sure that everyone had a clear view. He had unbuttoned his shirt, in part to give his wound some fresh air, but it seemed more likely that he wanted to show off his wound to his buddies. I tried to play it cool and blend. Yeah right!
After boarding the third bus we had quickly switched roads onto a much narrower, remote path that hugged a small creek. One by one, the locals hopped off the bus at various points. Early on, a young man had approached us to tell us about his family’s hotel in Dazhai, the village we were headed to. He even showed us pictures of the place. But we had already made a reservation at a place that I had picked out, and I wanted to stick to the plan. He was persistent though, and by the time we arrived at the parking lot at the entrance to the scenic area, he was one of the only people left on the bus with us.
I knew immediately that this guy wasn’t going to give up without a fight, and sure enough, he began trailing us as we we began our trek into the village. He asked Mimi a question here and there, about where we were staying and how much we were charged for the room. He warned us that our hotel was over an hour hike up into the mountains, and it would be better if we stayed at his place. A classic trick, I thought to myself. These guys will tell you anything.
So Mimi called our hotel to inquire. Sure enough, the lady told Mimi over the phone that it would take about an hour to hike up to the lodge. Maybe this guy wasn’t so bad after all. He led us to his family’s hotel and suggested we eat lunch there before we continued on. This sounded like a good idea, and the food was actually quite delicious. The highlight was a bizarre tasting sauteed green that reminded us of mint. He told us that all of the vegetables were locally grown and that the tofu was home-made in a neighboring village. Plus, all three dishes we ordered had huge chunks of garlic in them. Dee-licious.
The village of Dazhai was really something special. Its inhabitants are of the Yao minority, who although look Chinese, have different customs and culture than the dominant Han Chinese. For example, the woman all wear more traditional clothing and grow their hair down to their knees, which is then wrapped up in a complex bun that sits atop their foreheads. They also are incredibly skilled in the ancient art of pressuring tourists into buying souvenirs they don’t really need. Three old ladies even went so far as to sit down at our table and hawk their wares while we ate lunch.
Despite the encroaching tourist vibe (which we were obviously contributing to), Dazhai was beautiful. It sits at the bottom of a valley that was giving me some serious Lord of the Rings vibes. The wood cabins, the lush green surroundings, and the hovering fog were simply amazing! Plus, a wild rooster was hanging out with us while we ate lunch. It reminded me of the chicken I had purchased in Pingyao. He’s either on a ship en route to America, or stuck in a customs warehouse somewhere in China. I hope it’s the former.
We paid for our lunch, said goodbye to our friend, and began our trek up the hill. The stone pathway, which was a bit slippery from the rain, wound its way along the actual rice terraces, which lined the sides of the entire valley. As we climbed, it would rain for five minutes, then stop, and then rain again. After half an hour, this occasional rain had thoroughly soaked us. It didn’t matter though, because the higher we climbed, the more exquisite became the views. You’re probably thinking, its just rice, whats the big deal? But these rice paddy terraces were gorgeous. They were just beginning to turn yellow, a pre-cursor to the October harvest. And the way they curved around the edges of the valley created hypnotic patterns. This was definitely the coolest thing I had seen in China so far. Here is a picture (which I also didn't take):
At about five PM, we finally arrived at Quan Jin Lou, or as they call it in English, the Panorama Hotel. The lodge literally sat at the top of the mountain. We couldn’t go much higher even if we wanted to. To our surprise, we were the only non-Chinese tourists who were staying there. We enjoyed the view a bit more before the sun went down, and settled into our room. It has been a long, but wonderful day. We are going to bed early though, because tomorrow we will get up early and conquer a five-hour hike through the terraces to Ping’an, another village a few valleys over.