3Sixty

3Sixty

Stairway To The Sky

With carved rice terraces that climb heavenwards, the natural splendour of the Yunnan plateau in southern China is matched only by the unique cultural heritage of over 55 ethnic tribes who have made this rugged and often unforgiving landscape their home.

Words: Carol West   Photography: Robert Muir

The rice terraces of Yuanyang in Yunnan rise up like a stairway to the sky, shrouded in morning mist.

Walking through Yuanyang marketplace, the imagery is as vivid as stepping into the pages of a well-thumbed book of folk tales. Black-clad Hani women stride purposely by wearing imposing headdresses. Stooped, elderly women shuffle past with brush mats on their backs as protection from heavy baskets that are their life’s burden. Gossiping Yi housewives waddle in front, two triangular embroidered cushions dangling from their waists. In this mountain village perched on China’s Yunnan Plateau, you are what you wear and for the lavishly costumed Yao, Miao, Hani, Yi and Dai Chinese minority groups parading resplendently around me, this is merely part of daily life.

     An eerie mountain haze fuses with a pastiche of cooking and eating, as women, squatting over small grills lined with tofu squares, fan the embers. Vapour rises from aluminum steamers filled with meat buns and people hunch over piping hot bowls of noodles. Adding to the early morning cacophony, ubiquitous bicycles and honking motorbikes skate around trucks overflowing with cassava as they squeeze through narrow laneways. To the locals, it’s business as usual but to the visitor, it’s a head-swivelling breakfast-and-show!

Traditional homes in Qingkou village.

Carving the Earth

As mists quiver like a bride’s veil, mysterious Yuanyang appears to drift in a white sky, yet the town and surrounding villages are home to 20,000 who farm the plateau’s ancient terraced rice fields. For more than a millennium, the Hani people have walked close to nature, living in harmony with forest and farming. Tumbling down 12,666 hectares of mountainous terrain from 2,000 metres above sea level, the rice paddies remind me of glistening tiers of wet-lip pools. Stretching like a stairway to the sky, they have become a major attraction for visitors to China’s rural Yunnan province.

     Light rain begins to fall as we pull off the road and watch a khaki-clad farmer urge his buffalo to haul his plough through the soggy terrace. He’s standing thigh high in water and the muddy walls of the terrace look perilously close to collapse but for 1,200 years, this has been the agrarian way of life for the Hani farmers of southern Yunnan. Harnessing nature over millennia to serve their needs, the terraces stand as a potent distillation of the industriousness, dedication and wisdom of the Hani. Starting from the bottom of the mountain, trenches were dug close to water resources; ridges were formed by mixing clay with small stones and then, beaten with sticks to prevent leakages or collapse. As a small nod to progress and to offset landslides that are inevitable when annual rainfall can reach 2,000 millimetres, the main terraces are now reinforced with a woven wall of bamboo.

A lifetime of toil in the terrace farms is etched on the faces of these men.

Home in the Sky

A lifetime of farming these magnificent floating fields is etched on the faces of the men and women at Qingkou Village (Tiger’s Mouth Village), located 35 kilometres south of Yuanyang.  With homes built of dry stone walls, their unique, mushroom-shaped roofs clad in rice straw, are as warmly welcoming as the 800 villagers whose lives remain untrammeled by exposure to the outside world. Qingkou Village provides a snapshot of a tidy place where fresh spring water gushes from faucets at the communal laundry, sheaves of soybeans hang outside homes to dry and kindling is neatly stacked for the cooking fire. Surrounded by tens of thousands of terraced fields that tumble vertiginously into the valley below, the Hani are applying to UNESCO for World Heritage listing for their Hong He Hani terraced fields. 

     Culturally-rich Yunnan province is home to many of China’s 55 ethnic groups who are happy to celebrate their diversity with visitors. Frequent migrations have scattered more than two million Hani throughout Southeast Asia including Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand. In China, the 1.25 million Hani are one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups and prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, had their own unique political system. Evolving over 1,500 years during the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties, these nomadic hunter-gatherers forged strong emotional links to their unique terraced field culture.

A local woman cooking in the early hours of the morning in one of Yuanyang’s market laneways.

Elaborately Ethnic

I sit with a trio of ancient men who are relaxing in a rotunda overlooking the village square with barely a set of teeth between them. Between puffs of cigarette smoke they tell of a secret; a ‘men only’ ceremony held each year in the forest above the village where they worship the Dragon Tree. Looking out across the terraces where farmers hidden by shoulder-high rice dissolve into the landscape, life does appear to be a harmonious blend of forest, water, irrigation and folklore.

     Suddenly there’s a frisson of activity in the Qingkou Hani Cultural Village square and a troupe of young women gather for a performance. Clad in fitted tunics and black pants, their long black hair in flying ponytails, they kick up their red velvet-shod heels deftly, while using Chinese rice bowls like castanets and palm fronds as graceful fans. The air is tinged with smoke drifting in on a late afternoon breeze and a crowd of curious onlookers gather on the steps to watch the impromptu performance, while stealing glances at the strange visitors from beyond their field of dreams.

The rich heritage of the Hani people is well preserved in their outfits and traditions, as seen in the image of this mother and baby.

 Returning to Terra Firma

As dusk gathers, women with baskets of wood drive their buffalo home. I pause at a scattering of village stalls to buy some of the hand-made bags, tops, jewellery, scarves and souvenirs that will serve as mementos of a special time and place.

     On leaving the village, my bus stops at a little wooden slab hut that serves as a water station. It’s a steep descent down the valley and the driver sprays water on the tyres to prevent slippage. The setting sun glimmers through the mist, polishing the terraced fields until they gleam like mercury. As majestic gorges plunge below, the bus gradually descends into a sub-tropical zone where exuberant sprays of ferns, bamboo and banana palms underpin a verdant landscape. Winding leisurely around the hillside, the road dissects canyons that run to the valley floor where the Red River runs its course.

Glancing upwards, rolling mists draw a veil across the sky and I know that Yuanyang is once again cast adrift to float amongst its ancient, aquatic pools.  

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