Our journey to see the rice terraces of Yuanyang, which took an exhausting 17 hours to get to, officially began as our minivan rolled into the village of Duoyishu, which sits in the south of the Yunnan province near the border of Vietnam. Being nighttime when we arrived and in the middle of rural China, we opted to have an ayi (which literally means “auntie”) from Jacky’s Guesthouse meet us as we got out of the minivan. We were thankful to have her as our guide as we were led through a labyrinth of dimly-lit streets, dodging piles of water buffalo dung along the way, before arriving at the guesthouse, a destination we most likely would not have reached on our own and most definitely would not have reached with clean shoes without the help of the ayi. Upon entering the hostel we were met with a candle-lit common room and were told that the village had no electricity that night. The warm glow of the candles created an enchanting atmosphere and gave us a feeling of escape from modernity that we had wanted from this trip.
The dinner was a sampling of Yunnan cuisine, something we were excited for as our favorite restaurants in Shanghai feature food from the region. We were not disappointed as the ayis brought us dish after dish of heaping platters of delicious food that included vegetables, chicken and, of course, rice. We were convinced that one of the dishes served to us, which had a rubbery texture and meaty taste, was either a foreign meat we had never tried before like water buffalo or an organ. Out of curiosity (but mostly politeness) we picked away at the mysterious brown strips, though most of it was left uneaten as we returned the plate to the kitchen. After dinner, exhausted from our day, we retired to bed, anticipating the scenery that we would be seeing the next day.
For those who aren’t aware, China has a single time zone across the whole country, which would be like San Francisco and New York sharing the same time. This, however strange, worked to our advantage as what would normally have been a 5:00 in the morning, drag-ourselves-out-of-bed experience to see the sunrise, ended up being a pleasant 7:00 alarm. A point even more important as our first morning was obscured by fog and rain, rendering the terrace-filled horizon in front of us nearly invisible. After realizing that neither were going away any time soon, we ate our breakfast of instant taro oatmeal packets and headed out to explore the village, whose feeling of timelessness was furthered by the presence of the fog.
The pathways of the village, narrow and barely removed from being dirt roads, wound through the mushroom-topped buildings in no discernible pattern and were bordered by narrow and gushing canals of water making their way to the terraces. As for the village inhabitants, they seemed to consist mostly of farm animals. For every adult you would see, chickens, roosters, ducks, pigs, dogs and an occasional water buffalo would amble after, roaming freely through the streets. Amidst the animals were groups of children, most of them playing in the first floors of their homes which also served as the family barn. The game of choice for them was some form of marbles that used stones, which served doubly as ammunition to repel foreigners whose curiosity drew them in too close. One girl, wary of throwing rocks, resorted to spitting on us. Both sent a clear message to move on, which we did, shifting our focus to the terraces as they had become visible again.
All throughout our first day, like clockwork the fog would slowly creep up the mountainside, absorbing the village and the scenery around it before receding soon after, making the valley seem alive as the rhythmic rise and fall of the fog gave the illusion of the valley breathing. As it began to inhale once more, we made our way back to the hostel and were glad to find Jacky there as we had some pending questions, among them what to do if we were fortunate enough to have clear weather the next day. We discussed these as well as his long list of travel experiences (which included a 3-year UNESCO photography project that took him from Barcelona to Bangkok and everywhere in between) over some flaky rose-filled pastries and coffee around the resident wood-burning stove.
We also asked him about the mystery meat from the night before. We were surprised to find that it wasn’t meat at all, but a root (most similar to cassava) that Jacky and the ayis had painstakingly sought it out on the mountain several days prior to us arriving and dug it out of the ground with their own hands over the course of several hours. A feat they were extremely proud of as it was heavily documented in photographs. The more the story carried on, the lower we sunk in our seats out of shame for leaving it uneaten. For the rest of our meals, we practically licked every last grain of rice from the plate.
As our rose cake and coffee supply dwindled along with our conversation, due to more guests arriving, we were told of a secluded outlook to watch the sunrise, which we decided to map out on foot that evening before the little daylight we had left ran out. The route took us out of our village and to the outskirts of another, where, at the edge of a cliff, we were given a sweeping view of the valley, which was flooded with terraces out with mountains climbing out of them in the distance. If the weather was cooperative the next day, we knew the sunrise would be a memorable one.
Back at the guesthouse, we were welcomed with sweet potatoes roasted in the wood-burning oven that we had sat around earlier. About halfway into our first potato, a Taiwanese couple joined us and, through our broken Chinese and their unfailing patience, we somehow managed to carry out a conversation that lasted all the way through dinner. Afterwards, to the amusement of the ayis, we played a couple card games to soak in the heat of the stove a bit longer before retiring to our ice box of a room, anxiously awaiting the next day.
We set out in the dark with only a small flashlight to guide us down rain-slicked paths to the outlook for the sunrise. Periodically, out of the darkness, beams of light in the distance would slowly materialize into schoolchildren as they passed us on their way to school. Each was holding a metal pail filled with noodles, rural China’s version of breakfast on the go. Along the walk, to our dismay, the fog swallowed the valley whole which made us dubious about our prospects of seeing the sunrise. Nonetheless, we continued and, once off the beaten path, we trudged through patches of mud on a narrow trail before making it to the cliff we had mapped out the evening before. As we looked out, trees not even 10 yards in front of us, let alone the valley of terraces below, were barely visible due to the clinging darkness and shrouding fog that had, for us, become synonymous with the early mornings of the village.
Just as we were beginning to lose hope of seeing the sunrise, the fog began to recede, revealing the faint outlines of the terraces below. Shortly after, although the sun stayed behind the clouds, the valley slowly began to illuminate. As the light made first contact with each pool of water, the valley became an artist’s palette of dark blue and silver pastels with one transitioning to the next until the entire valley seemed to glow. At that point, the only detail separating the sky from the terraces were the black veins of clay running along each pool of water.
Our appreciation of the beauty playing out before us was interrupted by an intoxicated villager, reeking of cheap alcohol, who stumbled up to us and tried to charge us for watching the sunrise. A crumpled piece of paper pulled from his pocket with Chinese characters scribbled on it was clear justification for this. When we wouldn’t pay he began shouting at us until we begrudgingly left the spot and moved down another hundred yards or so where we were pleased to find the scenery was unchanged. The solitude of our newfound location dwindled however, so we decided to return to the guesthouse for breakfast before embarking on the long day ahead of us. Once back, we were faced with two choices, taro oatmeal in a glass cup or homemade noodle soup. Although we debated briefly, our choice was obvious and we ordered two bowls of tomato and egg soup, which were complimented surprisingly well by a cup of coffee.
Our day’s agenda consisted of trekking through the countryside along the edges of the terraced valley following a hand-drawn map Jacky had given us the night before. Our route started at a local market, which was an experience unto itself as all of the inhabitants of the surrounding villages descended onto one street to sell their goods, which included everything from fruits and vegetables to live ducks to freshly slaughtered pigs whose heads still sat perched on the tables where the rest of their body was being sold (it may be a while until we eat bacon again!). Perhaps the most interesting part of the market though were the people, dressed in their traditional clothes and carrying on with their traditional lives, with only minor traces of the modern world woven into them. It was not uncommon to see a woman walk by with a basket on her back filled with live chickens and large vegetables. Nor was it uncommon to see groups of men (who, it should be noted, do not like to have their picture taken) huddled around each other smoking tobacco out of aluminum bongs. For us, everything was so foreign, but for them it was simply life.
As the region was still fairly new to the tourist scene and well-marked roads quickly disappeared into overgrown dirt paths, we stuck closely to Jacky’s hand-drawn maps to guide us along the way. We soon found out that, however charming and personal the map was, it didn’t quite live up to our expectations of reliability, which was crucial given that we were in an area more accustomed to taking the water buffalo for a walk than interacting with tourists. After about an hour of walking and not seeing anything that resembled the checkpoints on the map, we realized that, in our excitement to begin the trek, we had confidently marched off in the complete opposite direction from where we should have gone. So, we backtracked our steps all the way to the market where, to our relief, we saw the first checkpoint, a large red sign literally pointing us in the right direction. We swallowed our pride and, after winding down a road for nearly half an hour, made it to our next checkpoint: a cliff overlooking an unobstructed view of some terraces.
We perched ourselves on one of the cliff rocks and looked down into the valley, following the seemingly endless levels of terraces climb up the side of the mountain where they eventually disappeared into the sunlight. Each pool of water took a different form from the next, fitting together like a puzzle to fill the landscape. The water that filled them also followed no particular pattern as the color they reflected was determined by how the light touched them. Some glistened in the direct rays of the sun, while others took on the appearance of a mirror, an opaque silver reflecting the sky above. As we drew our gaze inward to the more minute details, an occasional stable would dot the valley and we could even see a farmer and his water buffalo toiling away in the water, unaware that we were watching his everyday life in amazement. With an abundance of other details waiting to be discovered, we decided that there was as good of place as any to have our lunch, which humbly consisted of some oranges bought at the market and a pack of crackers.
After finishing, we put the terraced valley behind us and began wandering from small village to smaller village. Most of our energy along the way was used to decipher Jacky’s map, which was equal parts adventurous and frustrating as some of the checkpoints included things like “two trees” and “a large rock.” Luckily for us, a friendly local would point us in the right direction every few hundred yards or so and we soon arrived at the next major spot on our trek: the Bada terraces.
Although the terraces looked no different from the two we had seen before, it was still easy to lose ourselves in their intricate patterns. By now, the sun was beginning to set and the pools that it’s light hit stood out even more drastically than the rest, emitting a bright white glow. The waning sunlight nudged us along as we began making our way through the quickly diminishing remains of our journey. For the next hour we were taken down overgrown dirt paths clinging to the hillside where we would pass women collecting twigs for their nightly fire, over the terraces themselves, balancing on the narrow, slippery clay mounds that separated each pool, along mud strewn paths where it was difficult to discern between water buffalo dung and mud, and through the roads of a small village which eventually led up to the area’s main road, marking our last checkpoint on the map and, sadly, the end of our journey.
For us though, our long day hadn’t been long enough and, with an hour left until sunset, we hailed a minivan to take us back to the Bada terraces where we found a secluded spot and watched the light slowly recede from the valley. The day, and entire trip for that matter, had given us everything we wanted: a complete and peaceful seclusion from the world around us. The scarce person we would see along our walks seemed to be just as anxious to get away from us as we were from them. It was the perfect escape, making it all the more difficult to say goodbye as our minivan pulled away from the village the next morning.