Rice is China. China is rice. The two are inseperable. Rice was first cultivated here 4 thousand years ago on the Yangtzee river, and the massive population of China is only sustainable because of rice.
Today the Creekmore’s are watching rice grow, and if that sounds boring, you need to get here because it’s stunningly beautiful. The Longsheng rice terraces near Dazhai may be the most beautiful place we have ever been.
Rice is not only China’s biggest crop, it’s the world biggest food crop (aside from corn which is mostly grown for animals.) Which is surprising because it’s a labor intensive food, and it demands a lot of water.
But those are the conditions that describe Asia – cheap labor and lots of rain, so rice is the obvious choice.
And it can be grown in almost any terrain, as long as the farmer has set up the irrigation and plumbing needed to fill the beds with water.
Sunrise on the paddys
I wanted to be up at 4 am today, because sunrise at the rice terraces is supposed to be spectacular. I check downstairs in the Jintian hotel, to see if anyone is awake. Usually there is an electric tea kettle I can use to make some instant coffee. (Starbucks Via is really pretty good for travel if you drink it black.) I don’t find it until later.
Trish and the girls weren’t sure they wanted to go with me, but Emma and Trish wake up and get ready eagerly. Lily prefers to stay back, she’s still pretty tired. I promise her we will be back in an hour.
The walk up hill is steep and we go slowly for Trish, who has been bothered by her bum knee. It’s just light enough to go without flashlights. Village dogs, one by one, join us for the trip up the rest of the mountin to view point one: ‘Music from Paradise’ The views are already stunning even in the dim dawn light.
Where the hell are we?
This was a difficult place to research for me because it goes by so many different names: Longsheng rice terraces, Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces, Longji rice terraces, Ping’an rice terraces or Jinkeng rice terraces. They all refer to this small region of Guangxi Province, in Longsheng county.
Even more difficult are the local towns. There are two ‘major’ towns Ping’an and Dazhai, but there are dozens of micro-villages (each only 10 buildings or so) that dot the mountainside, and each has it’s own name. The Jintian guest house we stay in is called Tiantouzhai or Tiantou.
All of this can make travel research difficult because it’s not spelled out anywhere. Good maps are scarce. I was encouraged to do this segment by Lonely planet which gives this an unusually high profile for such a small area. Rough guides gives it two ho-hum paragraphs.
Light on the contour map
I’m guessing the Lonely Planet author actually went here and realized what a stunning place this is. The rice terraces, began to be built in the 1200’s during the Mongol Yuan dynasty and continued terrace by terrace until the last dynasty of China, the Qing, in the 1800’s.
The area looks like a litteral topographical map of the rolling mountainside and every square inch has been converted into rice terrace, each connected by a dam and flow system of water.
June is the best time to see the terraces because you can still see the water, which reflects beautifully. Once the rice gets high enough, there are wonderful views, especially in fall when it turns a brilliant yellow, but nothing is as good as a clear day in June.
Emma and I pick up our discussion of Socialism and Capitalism from yesterday. She gets it pretty much – at least the parts about the challenges of central planning, how individual motivation is such a powerful economic force, and how markets still need rules. I’m really impressed.
I’m trying to do little classes on subjects relevant to this trip. I try to cover a topic a day. Chinese Dynasties, Communism, Buddhism, Chairman Mao, Silk Road, Great Wall, Confucius. She won’t get it all, of course, but it’ll be a good start.
And I encourage them to do language work too. Emma and Lily regularly impress locals with their ‘Ni-hao’ and ‘Shei-shey’ (hello and thank you). They surprised me by teaching each other Chinese numbers including the little hand signals that Chinese use.
Educating kids on the road
There are stories all over the web about families travelling with their kids for long periods of time – a year or more. We once had those dreams too, thinking that a trip around the world would be our goal after the first cancer.
For us, the 2-5 week family trip is superior. For one, we aren’t good teachers. Teaching is a profession and a discipline we don’t have training for – not just anyone can do it well. It takes real skills that neither of us have, mostly because we aren’t patient or persistent enough to follow through with the testing, repetition and review.
And I know I’ll offend a few of you out there, but in my experience parents don’t make good teachers. (especially ones looking like me, left) It’s a different role and I’m not even sure it’s healthy for the kids.
So even when our kids miss a little school for travel, we’ve skipped any rigorous teaching, although I make efforts like today to give some background and context. And of course book learning isn’t the point of travel. Language, customs, food and all the lessons of adventure and risk are the real education.
My kids are now so confident in new situations. Lily strikes up conversations with adults everywhere we go, charming the pants off them. She turned to an English woman in the Tokyo airport when somone walked by wearing parachute pants, and asked her casually ‘why would anyone wear such puffy pants’ as if to strike up a conversation. I thought the woman was going to pee her own pants laughing at our 8 year old.
But the other thing is we want them to have a local community of friends, and you can’t get that on the road. I’m sure a kid who traveled extensively without a community school might be precocious, but I wonder how socially adapted they are?
There are several named viewpoints on the Dazhai rice terraces like ‘Music from Paradise’ (this one), ‘Seven Stars chase the moon’ and ‘Thousand layers to the Heaven’. A bunch of Chinese tourists are up here already, including a half dozen Photographers with big SLRs and tripods.
Unfortuately the mist hasn’t lifted but we can still see everything clearly and it’s quite an experience. I snap photos every few feet because it’s just so damn gorgeous. I want to try to capture the experience, believing that enough photos will replace the experience. Of course they won’t, and they are only a weak substitute. But I shoot anyway.
The terraces are like abstract art. They draw your attention. Even 11 year old emma is content to stare at them endlessly.
And they seem alive to the eyes, constantly shifting as you move a few feet to the left or right. The eyes move in closely to see small parts and then back out to view the whole thing. I take more photos with my pathetic little phone camera (not so bad actually, these photos are all from our phone.)
I’m happy. This is what I travel for.
An easy morning
She rushes into my arms. She seemed so confident when we left her an hour ago, wanting to watch a movie and sleep more instead of hiking at dawn. But she had a change of heart I guess and felt lonely.
Lily doesn’t suffer alone. She woke up the hotel owner, Hannah, and tried to use Trish’s phone to call people at home- all in the space of 60 minutes. Hannah, sweetly, reminded her we were just up the hill. Trish’s phone doesn’t have international service, so Lily couldn’t connect with anyone. She just waited it out.
The food is good, not amazing, but freshly prepared. I had a peanut and chicken dish that was great. And the eggs for breakfast are prefect – Chinese know how to do eggs.
It begins to precipitate a fine, mountainous rain and the terraces are completely blocked from view. This area reminds me of the pacific northwest, very wet. Ferns and bamboo are interspersed with pines and other evergreens.
But it clears a little and Lily is eager to take a hike with us this time, so we head to viewpoint #2 and #3, which are short hikes from the hotel.
The Yao tribes
Upon return, we finish up some work (there is solid internet up here, go figure.) and begin to pack up. I would love to stay here another day but I barely fit this into the schedule as it is. We have a flight tonight at 8:20 to Xi’an.
It’s just as well, I guess. A group of Chinese tourists pile into Jintian breaking our thin illusion that the hotel was just for us. We order lunch quickly because the kitchen is about to be swamped. Emma and Lily go outside where a few of the Yao women have set up shop for woven items and a little bit of jewlery.
The Yao tribes have a long history of coexistence with the Han and Zhuang, which are the two largest ethnic groups in China. The Yao can be traced back 2,000 years and they have always been rice farmers, although hunting was big too.
Yao men and women traditionally wear bright colors and head-scarfs. I don’t know if it’s a local custom, or for all Yao, but the women here have an unusual custom of using cut locks of hair to make big wreaths of hair that they wear on their head.
For a few bucks you can ask them to demonstrate, and we do that. The ladies unwrap and re-wrap their long hair in the customary way. Apparently, from the time they are 16, they let their hair grow long and cut it every few years to use in this ‘headdress’.
The walk back down
Alltogether too quickly, it’s time to leave the rice terraces. I think I could spend a week here, just walking during the day and literally watching the rice grow. It’s just that beautiful. Please come here if you visit China.
We saw some pretty amazing waterfalls on the ride up, and some white water raft outfits. There is probably more that can be done here, and it’s relatively unspoilt by cheesy tourist facilities that pop up everywhere else.
The Yao ladies are our porters also, and they put our bags on their back for the 2 mile walk down the mountain. We get to enjoy the view that darkness kept from us last night, and a little sun comes out giving us some of the best images.
On to Xi’an
And with a 3 hour drive back to Guilin airport, and a few hours on an airplane we make a dramatic shift from rural China to the ancient capital, start of the silk road, and modern sprawling metropolis: Xi’an.
Ironically, perhaps, despite being in a huge city of over 8 million people, there is less English spoken here than we have become used to. Our taxi driver has trouble finding our hotel and the reception at the hotel takes a long time to deal with.
I have to pull out the phrasebook and they call friends who speak english just to do a few simple forms, one of which includes the ‘temporary resident form’ that reminds me of my old soviet days where you had to register at every city. Trish hadn’t ever experienced this and is surprised.
It’s only been 30 hours since we left Yangshuo yesterday but it feels like a week ago. The hotel we are in tonight, Hotel Ci’en, is clean and nice. I get my first real hot shower in a week and enjoy the soft mattress.