Despite Guilin having its world renowned karst formation and spectacular scenes of the Li River, further away, a manmade marvel called the Longji terraces that has survived for thousands of years stand testament to man’s ingenuity in taming his environment.
Words: R. Rajendra Images: Adam Lee & Guilin Longji Tourism
A gaggle of men and women greeted us at the foot of Ping’an village, offering to carry our luggage up the hill in little baskets secured to their backs. Faces heavily wrinkled, skin gnarled, and some hunched quite heavily, they surrounded my travel party and enquired politely if we needed help. Not only would they carry bags, if anyone of us weren’t particularly up for the final hike up to the village in the sky, they could easily bring a sedan chair and carry the slob in concern up the steep, winding footpath that goes up to an elevation of 1,100 metres.
I was aghast at this modern-day subjugation and insisted on carrying my relatively light bag, but a fellow traveller advised me to give in. “They need to earn a living, you know. You are not helping by refusing to use their services. The harvest season is months away and there isn’t much to do. This helps them earn some money to survive.”
Reluctantly, I handed over my bag to be placed into the wicker basket only to be reproached in a language I couldn’t make head or tail of. The elderly woman was rattling away, complaining to her compatriot, pointing repeatedly at the ‘offending’ bag. Washed over in guilt for having caused the poor woman so much trouble, I quickly beseeched my fellow traveller to remove the bag. He replied with a hearty laugh. “She’s not upset! She is wondering why your bag is so light! She is not used to such a light burden!”
THE DRAGON’S BACK
The Longji rice terraces are located some 80 kilometres north of Guilin. Longji in Mandarin means ‘the dragon’s spine’ and is an apt description of the rice terraces. From the lower elevations, the terraces resemble a mythical dragon covered in metallic scales (gold during harvest season and silver during the cold months), swirling their way up to the top of the ridge that looks like the mythical creature’s backbone. The karst mountains of Guilin are quite spellbinding, to say the least, but the five hour long trip along the Li River left me exhausted, having marvelled at each and every sky-reaching karst formation. My enthusiastic guide kept urging me to use my imagination to see the castles, swords, horses, lions, tigers, elephants and a whole menagerie of animals that locals insist are plastered on the karst walls or make up the outline of the hills.
The Longji rice terraces, mercifully, were less touristic and had only a few grandiose formations such as the Qi Xing Ban Yue (七星伴月) or Seven Stars Surrounding the Moon, and the Jiu Long Wu Hu (九龙 五虎) or Nine Dragons and Five Tigers near Ping’an village. Although more poetic than actually looking like dragons drinking water or stars guarding a moon, the beauty of the place lies in the ribbon-like terraces that have been in existence for a few thousand years. The Guilin karst formation is nature’s masterpiece but what you see in Longji is 100 percent manmade.
The Zhuang people who live here are believed to have migrated from low lying areas thousands of years ago, fleeing wars and famine. Having settled in this remote and often hostile environment, the Zhuangs started carving the terraces into the mountainsides some time during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and continued doing so till the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to plant rice and later, millet, sweet potato, chillies, corn and vegetables.
The terraces start from an altitude of 300 metres above sea level and soar up to an impressive height of 1,100 metres, vanishing into thick fog during early mornings and late evenings. Some 66 square kilometres of land is estimated to be cultivated in this manner where, by harnessing the power of gravity, the narrow strips of terraces have been irrigated efficiently and continuously since the locals first arrived. The carved, multi-tiered terraces create a swirling topography that merge beautifully with the thick clouds, as if they are colossal staircases that lead directly to the skies, bridging the gap between earth and heaven.
The hamlet of Ping‘an is one of the main villages that lead directly to the Longji rice terraces and is often referred to as the Ping’an terrace while another often visited area is the Jin Keng terrace that comprises the Da Zhai village. Both villages offer stunning views of the terraces and the mountainous landscape covered in verdant green, and are accessible by foot – though you need to be pretty fi t to walk higher and higher up the mountains.
The walk up the hills to reach Ping’an is an experience in itself. Having crossed the threshold arch to the village, I took a deep breath and walked up the small pathway that snaked up the hills, going around homes, guesthouses and little shops that provided simple items for locals and tourists. With the increase in elevation, my breathing grew heavier as I valiantly tried to keep up with the old lady who carried my bag. She turned around a few times and encouraged me to walk faster. I swear I saw a snide smile as she turned away, probably mumbling how these tourists slow down her pace.
The pathway meandered around the village that is a pretty sight with homes built in the traditional Chinese architectural style, bar one or two terribly out-of-place modern hotels marring the landscape. A swift stream accompanied me up the hill, draining excess water from the hilltop while elegant bamboo groves peppered the stone slab path. It was really a lovely walk despite my heart racing a thousand miles an hour due to exertion and thin air. But it was getting late and rain was beginning to come down gently, forcing me to resist stopping every five steps to drink in the view of homes and their smoking chimneys. Then suddenly, a loud snort and heavy footsteps behind me threw me off my reverie.
Startled, I quickly turned around to see a very annoyed looking horse and its owner glowering at me for blocking their way. With four packs of cement weighing around 15 kgs each strapped onto its back, the horse was carrying building material up the mountain and that’s practically how the whole village was built – using brute strength and animals of burden. I quickly moved aside to let them pass and saw that the horse was struggling under the weight, each step becoming more laborious and its raspy breath heavier.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE SKIES
Our lodging for the night was a wooden, four-storey guesthouse (Longji Ping An Hotel 0773 7583198) that overlooked the village and the distant hills. There are many such lodgings in Ping’an that come with all the necessary creature comforts.
The wooden structure had an almost Swiss-like appeal to it and was the perfect spot to rest weary legs after the climb. The balconies opened up to a vista that was deceptively tranquil but teeming with life and activity. I spotted women in one house spreading husked corn to dry on their veranda. In the distance, a couple of tourists were looking at the intricate embroidery a local lass was working on while yet another horse was trudging up the hillside with a ceramic toilet bowl strapped onto its back! And yes… a physically-able couple on sedan chairs being carried up the hill by two ancient looking men. I had to turn away from the ‘horror’. “They need to earn a living, they need to earn a living”, I repeated under my breath.
THE FINAL ASCENT
As my travel party was spending only one night in Ping’an, we quickly freshened up and rushed out for the final ascent to view the terraces before darkness enveloped us. A meandering pathway that crisscrossed small restaurants and quaint guesthouses, which occupied prime locations for the best views, took me further up.
Along the way, I came across the same horse, now strutting gently down the steps, without the burden on its back. I continued along a clearly-marked path with stone maps that gave visitors a general idea of the place and the important landmarks. The final ascent was relatively easy with gradients that were less steep. Soon, I reached one of the highest spots of the Dragon’s Back. Ribbon after ribbon of terraced fields greeted me in shades of green, brown and gold, indicating the impending harvest season. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to imagine the vista as leaping tigers or hidden dragons. It was simply a stunning testament to man’s ingenuity to survive in a less than welcoming environment.
The undulating mountains played a gentle game of hide and seek with the clouds moving in and blocking the view ever so often, while the last rays of the sun streaked the landscape with shards of golden beams. During the winter months, snow may fall and turn the terraces into gleaming sheets of silver while harvest season sees the valley turn gold. Perhaps mythical dragons do come out to play in this magical land, I pondered as I slowly made my way back to the hotel.
I trained my eyes on a solitary farmer plucking tender sweet potato shoots destined for dinner for her family. She caught me aiming my camera at her and waved back with a big smile. It reminded me of the same wrinkled face I had seen earlier on the porter lady at the foot of the hills, aging but full of tales and memories, with the demeanour of a person who has toiled the land with her bare hands, much like her ancestors who had carved this staircase to heaven.
THE LONG HAIRED PEOPLE
As you head up the hilly road to view the terraced fields, do make a stop at the Huanglo Yao Village that is located on the banks of the Jinsha River. The Yao community is said to have originated during the Qin dynasty and speak a unique language although they do speak Mandarin as well. The women in the village are renowned for their long, silky black hair that is coiled up in elegant coiffures and knotted into place on top of their heads. The women achieve such lustrous tresses by washing the hair with fermented water used to soak rice; every week or so, they gather at the river to wash their extremely long hair. A symbol of beauty, the community has even choreographed dances that celebrate their long hair.
Marital status of a woman is also revealed in the way she wears her hair. Local traditions dictate that a Yao woman cut her hair only once in her lifetime when she is 16 years old. She will then wear her hair in three bunches: First is the naturally growing piece, the second is the piece she cut upon reaching 16, and the third is the bunch made up of falling strands that she collects daily. The distinct and colourful clothing and status of Yao women in society indicate a strong matrilineal way of life. At the village, apart from seeing their dances, storytelling and craft work, visitors will also be treated to a mock wedding where the Yao women squeeze the groom’s bottom publically in jest to see if he is a worthy man for the bride!
GETTING TO LONGJI
Longji Terrace is about a two-hour drive from Guilin city and passes through twisting and turning mountain roads. You will first arrive at Longshen town and from there proceed to the main ticket counter to go up the mountains to the terraces and other attractions along the way. There is an entrance fee of RMB80 per person to enter this area via a very large ticketing complex. As language may be a problem (if you don’t speak Mandarin), arrange for transportation with a reputable tour operator in Guilin or the hotel that you will be staying at in Ping’an or Da Zhai. Make sure you stay at least two nights at Longji to fully appreciate the beauty of the place. Contact Mr Peter 蒋锟 0086-13707838488 / 18507831800 or email email@example.com for English speaking tour guide to Longji and other areas in Guilin. www.txljw.com
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