Riding the Dragon

“Heeeeh-loooooow!”  – as the little Yao women say.

We were told the rice terraces in Longji, China would be brown and ugly but worth a short trip. True, the fields weren’t boasting a blanket of brilliant green, nor were they sparkling with a wintry blanket of ice and snow, but they were breathtaking even in the off-season.

The rice patties were built over several hundred years spanning the Yuan and Qing dynasties. Carved gracefully into the hillside, the tightly-calculated terraced landscape resembles the scales of a dragon. You can stand on the summit and see across the ridge for miles – hence the name, The Dragon’s Backbone.

The journey there was beautiful as well. Nick and I kept commenting how much the landscape reminded us of the cloud and rain forests of Honduras and Peru. Waterfalls, river beds, and a sea of ferns, trees, and other various botanicals graced the landscape. It was a peaceful, unexpected treat that was unlike anything else we had experienced in China. As a bonus, we had to hike for 45 minutes to reach our hotel so we were completely void of motorized vehicles. One of the 60-something-year-old Yao ladies at the bus stop offered to carry our heavy packs up the mountain for us. Knowing that she really wanted was a small tip we conceded to letting her carry our little packs up the mountain in her handmade basket. The Yao and Zhuang ethnic minorities there are incredibly strong folks, and equally as pleasant.

The late autumn/early winter season casts a blanket of rolling mist across the terraces. The air is damp and chilled and every lung full of it is refreshingly clean. One moment Nick and I were surrounded by thick white fog with 6 meters* visibility and within minutes a gentle gust of wind would blow through the valley long enough to uncover the age-old scenery. Although the terraces had recently been harvested the fog gave the place a mysterious aire that we might not have otherwise experienced.

The villages in Longji are focused on tourism but manage to retain their ancient charm. The hotels are larger versions of the traditional mountain homes – boxy, wooden structures with a local dog sleeping outside the front door. The first floor serves as the common room for eating and socializing and up the creaky stairs lie the bedrooms. It’s been our experience that the beds in China are often nothing more than wooden boards with a blanket strewn over the top. Maybe, amidst their new financial freedoms, the people of China will soon learn of the comforts of real mattresses. Maybe.

Hannah, our hotel owner, has lived in Longji her entire life and runs the family business with her father. She cooked several tantalizing Chinese dishes for us including eggplant with garlic, spicy duck, and sweet-and-sour pork. Whenever Nick and I rate our top meals thus far, Hannah’s cooking always makes the cut. One morning, she prepared the most delicious french toast with orange marmalade that either of us has ever eaten. Interestingly, we’ve encountered some award-winning pancake and french toast preparations here in Asia. Everyone has a slightly different take but as a whole they’re consistently delicious.

With the weather so cold and dreary, Hannah would leave some coals burning in a little portable fire pit in the common room. Nick and I sat next to it to warm our feet and boil water for tea while reading a book. Oftentimes, one of the little old Yao ladies would come in and sit next to us and sew or craft. In between the needlework they would pull out a basket of souvenirs and try to get us to barter with them. We always declined but they would giggle sweetly and try again. Eventually, we caved in and bought a tiny hand-embroidered bag that fit our camera perfectly. Persistence paid off.

The Yao women are known for their exceptionally long hair. They twist it up into a perfect ball and tuck the rest into a traditional headpiece. The jet-black ball sits at the very top of their forehead and shines so brilliantly that it looks fake. Pantene should look into their shampoo recipe.

The whole area is marbled with miles of beautiful stepping-stone pathways used by people, dogs, mules, cows, and chickens alike. We hiked for hours through the rice patties and local buildings. In typical Chinese form, the area is undergoing constant construction in order to meet the demands of the very spend-happy Chinese tourists. New hotels are in the process of being built on the terrace peaks which means the mules and laborers make several grueling trips up and down the mountains each day carrying tons of brick, mortar, and other various supplies. This meant two things for us – 1) further confirmation that China is racing to meet the needs of a bustling tourism market and 2) that we needed to mind our every step in order to avoid the steaming piles of shit. Regardless of the construction (and the shit), this place didn’t feel like the China that we had previously encountered. It was an escape from gaudy shopping malls, thick air pollution, and horn-happy vehicles. It was surreal.

For the most part, Nick and I were on our own in beautiful Longji. The town winds down with the sun, which happens to be before 6PM this time of year, and we were the only two people staying in a quiet hotel with a 60+ person capacity. Our last night, however, Nick made a friend. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, a mouse fell from the beam above our bed and landed its furry little body right on Nick’s face. Oh China, we knew you were in there somewhere.

* Oh yeah Baby, we’re all up in the metric system!