Luoyang

Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.

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Kate waiting in line for fried dough sticks to go along with our soup

Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.  From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.  

Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.

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Enjoying a hot bowl of noodles before seeing the Longmen Grottoes

After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.

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The first statue we saw with dead vines still clinging to the mountain beside it

As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.

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All of the caves hanging from the mountainside made the site feel like an art gallery
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The oldest cave at the site, dating back to the mid-400s

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Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.  Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one. 

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Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.  In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.

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As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.

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There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.

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Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.  In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day. 

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The view of the grottoes from across the river 
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There were caves to explore across the river as well, but none could compare to those we had already seen
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One last picture before leaving the site to head back to our hostel

To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.  He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.  

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The building our hostel was in…we were on the top floor on the side with the open window

If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain. 

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Waiting in line to get our tickets into the temple
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Following the crowds into the temple grounds

As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.

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The temple itself was actually quite beautiful if you could ignore the crowds
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A worshipper lighting incense
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Doorways leading into one of the temple’s buildings

Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.

Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings. 

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Enjoying our last street breakfast before going to see the peonies

After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.  

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Just one of the many patches of peony bushes lying throughout the park

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Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal. 

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Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.

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Wuyuan

“Mei you hua,” the fruit vendor shouted in a bemused tone as we hiked past her stall perched on the hillside. We were making our way through the mountainous countryside of Wuyuan in hopes of seeing the region’s valleys flooded by the seasonal rapeseed flower and were just told that there weren’t any. The bright yellow sea of flowers that had enticed our imaginations for weeks leading up to the trip would instead be a sea of familiar green. After a cramped 8-hour bus ride to get to Wuyuan and the headaches that came with navigating an entire county using a map the size of our palms, we were considerably disappointed. Over the course of the next few days in the area though, we would find that the yellow bloom of the rapeseed wasn’t the only cause to explore the southern Chinese county, merely just another draw among the long list of beautiful scenes it had to offer.

Our starting point for the trip was Xiaolu Hostel, a sleepy three-story building tucked away down a dusty alleyway in the county’s capital city. After arriving at the hostel, travel weary and ready for sleep, we were informed that the beds we were so looking forward to crawling into weren’t available. It turned out that the hostel had forgotten about our booking, citing that we had made it too far in advance, and given our beds to some less proactive individuals. After telling us this, the woman working the front desk began nervously rifling through the pages of the book in front of her in search of a solution. The one she eventually came to was that Kate would stay in the hostel’s family room whose two other inhabitants were under the impression that the private room they booked would actually stay private…enter Kate. And Ryan would be relegated to the storage room, where they would put together a makeshift bed for him to sleep on. At least there would be no snoring!

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Ryan’s bed in the storage room

After a surprisingly solid night’s sleep we were ready to start exploring the county’s ancient villages and famed countryside. To get around the county you basically have three routes to choose from: the pragmatically named North Route, West Route, and East Route. The latter, which wound through several villages before ending in a hill-encompassed valley filled with terraced fields of rapeseed flowers, seemed the most enticing to us so we hailed a taxi and made our way to the first stop along it: the village of Small Likeng.

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Artists painting the rapeseed blooms just outside of Small Likeng

There’s something eternally alluring about ancient Chinese villages. No matter how many we visit, they always seem to capture our imaginations despite the fact that most of them are relatively the same. They are usually built around a stream, sometimes several, which meander through the village before emptying out into the surrounding countryside. Across the streams stretch bridges and alongside them run the village’s paths, which are bookended by whitewashed buildings whose namesake color has been slowly overtaken by the creeping, black march of mildew across their walls. Ornate wooden carvings hang from the building’s uppermost floors, and cavernous rooms fill their interiors, both tellers of the village’s past glories. The present state of the wood however, worn and faded, tell of the current lack of it. And while many of these villages have the air of a repurposed tourist attraction, there are still pockets within them that give you a glimpse into what life there was like when their purpose was being lived in rather than visited. Down alleyways not meant to be looked down, through doors mistakenly left open, if you look in the right places, a picture of life in the village still exists and is essential to the appreciation of it.

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The main street through the village
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Bridges stretching from the street on one side of the stream  to the residences sitting on the other
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Peering into a home long overtaken by the elements
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One of the few residences still in use that we were able to peek inside of

Another trait all of the village’s that we’ve been to share, quite obviously, is their title of “village,” which means that no matter how interesting they may be, their capacity for exploration is limited. So, after exploring all the corners of Small Likeng, those both hidden and in plain sight, we soon found ourselves nearing it’s outer limits. As we drew closer to the end of the path we were walking along, there seemed to be a perfect balance between the dissipation of foot traffic on it and the buildup of dust in the storefronts alongside it, a testament to their limited visitors and even more limited sales. Fully aware of this situation, we kept our eyes fixated on the scenery straight ahead for we knew that any glance, however brief, at a given item would undoubtedly elicit a desperate “hello” from the shop owner in an attempt to startle us into eye contact and, as a result, lure us into their shop for a look.

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Looking down one of the village streets

Just before reaching the edge of town, our unflinching gaze was broken as we peeked over to an antique shop that had caught the interest of our peripheral vision. The shop was owned by a kindly old woman who seemed very proud of the different trinkets she had on display, which were barely visible beneath the thick layer of dust sitting on top of them. As we looked around, one particular item caught our eye: a tiny vase yellowed by time with a traditional Chinese painting covering its body. We had never seen anything like it before and enthusiastically told the shop owner that we’d like to purchase it. As we handed over our money, questions about the vase’s past coursed through our minds. Was it a family heirloom handed down from generation to generation? Was it found buried in a field while a farmer was digging a well? Was it painted during the village’s heyday by one of the many artists that called its streets home? We couldn’t be for sure, but one thing we did know: it was special.

As we began making our way out of the village though, in a cruel blow to the contentedness we had with our purchase, we passed shop after shop selling the exact vase we had just bought. With each one we convinced ourselves that that must be the only other one in existence in a desperate attempt to maintain the mystery that our vase had held just moments before. By the fifth shop though, our mysterious antique vase had completed its sad and all too quick descent into a common souvenir. Still clinging to some hope of its uniqueness, we told ourselves that the vases are only from that particular village and are really hoping we don’t see it anywhere in Shanghai.

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On our way out of the village

After leaving Small Likeng we decided to make our next and last stop of the day be the village of Jiangling. It was there that we expected to see the scenery depicted in all of the faded tourist posters hung throughout the county: white-washed villages floating in a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers that climbed up the surrounding mountains on the stair-like terraces carved out of their slopes. It wasn’t until our unfortunate meeting with the fruit vendor that we began to expect anything else. Suddenly, we stopped focusing on the yellow flowers that had already bloomed and instead began focusing on those that hadn’t with the latter outweighing the former dramatically. We anxiously climbed up the terraces and, as we reached the top of one of the hills, our pessimism became justified as we stared out over the overwhelmingly green landscape. Don’t get us wrong, it was still beautiful, but when we came expecting this:

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And instead were met with this:

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We couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, especially after reaching the painful conclusion that probably within a week of our departure from Wuyuan, the flowers would be in full bloom. Not wanting to dwell too much on what could have been though, we enjoyed the scenery for what it was: patternless patches of fields that fit together like puzzle pieces as they rolled off into the distance, outposts of civilization in the form of tiny, clustered villages laying scattered across them and a humble spread of mountains sitting formidably overtop. It was an almost perfect springtime scene and we sat taking it in for nearly an hour before finally calling it a day and catching a bus back to our hostel.

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A couple of villages sitting among the few fields of rapeseed that were in bloom
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Plenty of other flowers had bloomed though, like these cherry blossoms
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Walking through a field of rapeseed on one of the terraces
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Rapeseed blossoms enjoying the bright sunshine of the day

After spending most of our first day either in a village or on the road, we decided to begin our second day with a dose of nature by going to the northernmost point of the North Route to explore Wolong Valley, home of one of the region’s best hiking opportunities as well as China’s tallest waterfall.

As our bus came to a stop in front of the entrance to the valley, we spilled out of it’s claustrophobic interior and almost immediately found ourselves on the main hiking path, which our legs, eager to stretch out, began carrying us down. The path, as we would find out rather quickly, was perfect: not too steep so as to exhaust us to the point of not being able to appreciate our surroundings, but also not too flat so as to rob us of a feeling of accomplishment once we reached its end. The entire way through the valley it stayed fastened to the river that ran alongside it, which always seemed to be in a state of motion. In some places it trickled and in others it roared as it ran over rocks and boulders of every shape and size, wearing them down to an uncanny smoothness.

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One of the many waterfalls along our hike in the valley
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Going through a narrow walkway
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Crossing a wooden plank bridge…it was more exciting avoiding the plywood and walking on the actual planks

Entranced by the river, we continued following it until the hills and trees that had hovered over us for so long came to an abrupt end and the path opened up to a view of the 2,935 foot-tall waterfall and the vast valley that accommodated it. Everything there seemed exaggerated when compared with the scenery that had surrounded us just moments before. Hills became mountains. Small patches of sky poking through the canopy of trees became a bright blue expanse. And the river, whose rumblings had seemed impressive all throughout our hike up, now paled in comparison to the towering waterfall before us, which stretched so far up the mountainside that at times it seemed to disappear as it fell, only becoming visible again as it crashed into the rocks below.

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Looking up at China’s tallest waterfall, which couldn’t all fit into one frame
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A close-up of the waterfall
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Plunging over a cliff
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Getting a closer look

We wandered around the valley as much as it would allow before before finding a good spot to rest and stare out at the waterfall. As we did this, we found it to be ironic that, as we watched the water in it’s most turbulent state, we were at our calmest, taking in the scenery for as long as our agenda would allow before deciding to leave our peaceful perch to go back down through the valley and enter a turbulent stretch ourselves as we headed to the village of Huangling where we would finally experience the force that is a Chinese tourist attraction during a holiday weekend.

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A nice place to rest and take in the falls
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A couple of the many great Chinglish signs hung throughout the park
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Well, if the pavilion says so

For two and a half years we have craftily avoided traveling in China during a holiday whether it be getting out of the country entirely or simply hunkering down in our apartment in Shanghai. To give you an idea of what traveling in China is like, if just .0001 percent of the population decides to go to a certain place on any given weekend, you’re still looking at 137,000 people. Typically, Chinese tourists will wait to travel during one of the country’s six major public holidays throughout the year, undoubtedly bumping that incremental percentage up a few points and turning already crowded tourist spots into a nightmarish mob of people all jostling for sight lines and pictures. Not only had we soberly decided to pursue this situation by traveling during Tomb Sweeping Festival, one of the major holidays, we had also chosen to go to one of the most popular springtime destinations in China being the rapeseed blooms of Wuyuan. Understandably, we were very nervous as to what awaited us on the trip.

To our surprise though, for the first day and a half the crowds we encountered were no different than our other trips in China: big but bearable. It wasn’t until Huangling, our last stop during our time in Wuyuan, that we saw the ugly face of Chinese holiday crowds. As we got off the the bus, we found the outside of it to be more cramped than the inside had been. To keep our sanity, we immediately disregarded the crowd as a collection of individuals and instead viewed it as a single entity, forcefully pushing through it until we reached the tourist office where we got our tickets and joined the line for the cable cars that would carry us up to the mountaintop village.

The line, long enough to warrant snack and water vendors sitting intermittently alongside it, was a source of entertainment for the workers guiding those waiting in it to the cable car station. With smiles of amazement, they snapped pictures of the line, shaking their head in disbelief as they reexamined the images on their phone so as to make sure that what they were seeing was real. Despite its near endless nature though, the line moved along rather quickly (so much so that we didn’t have time to stop and get a snack from one of those vendors) and we found ourselves on a cable car heading up the mountain far sooner than we ever had imagined we would be.

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Rapeseed terraces filling the valley among other, more timely blooms
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One of the village buildings sitting against the late afternoon sky
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Peering through a couple of windows

Once back on solid ground, we made our way to Huangling which we found to be about as close to its original purpose as a hipster shopping scene set in an old factory district. Wanting to escape the crowds and find a bit more authentic place to take everything in, we got off the beaten path and began wandering through the back lanes of the village, which were eerie in their emptiness. Eventually we came upon a former residence open to the public, and climbed up its wooden stairways and out onto a patio overlooking everything.

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Looking out at the drying peppers and vegetables that make Huangling famous
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A couple of empty drying rods

The village, which plunged downward into the valley that it sat atop, seemed to mirror the rapeseed terraces sitting across from it as both rose up their respective mountain’s slopes in stair-like fashion. Stretching out from the houses, like a rack from a giant outdoor oven, were wooden rods of various widths and lengths on top of which sat the drying peppers and vegetables we were so eager to see. The village’s otherwise monochrome display of whitewashed buildings was made vibrant by the bright reds of the peppers.

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Looking down at the village
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A colorful spread of vegetables
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A village roof against a backdrop of terraces

As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, the baskets were pulled back into the houses and with little time left, we decided to explore the surrounding countryside as much as we could before catching the last cable car down the mountain. After making it out of the village, the crowds began to thin out the further along we walked and we found a nice spot to sit and take in the scenery. With the sun now entirely behind the mountains, we stared out at the terraces, taunted by the few patches of yellow scattered throughout them. We closed our eyes and pictured what the valley might have looked like if the other flowers had decided to join them in their blooming. When we opened our eyes, it wasn’t what we had expected but still beautiful all the same.

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In front of the terraces
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Waiting for the sun to set before heading back to the cable car station