stories about strangers

lost in the clouds // yuanyang [part one]

Hiking through the mountains of theYuanyang rice terraces, guided by some lovely locals.

lost in the clouds


If you know me, you’ll know I’m definitely no hiker. Thanks to a bung knee and an aversion to prolonged, forced fitness, I rarely attempt long treks through the wilderness, and even the five-minute walk up the steep bit of Foveaux Street in Sydney leaves me panting, sweaty and embarrassingly breathless. Despite this, when Leigh and I arrived in central Yunnan's Yuanyang rice terraces we thought we'd give a 20 kilometre hike a go, our brains seemingly left back in Jianshui.

We were heading to the Laohuzui (tiger's mouth) rice terraces, the multi-coloured jagged mountainside resembling the mouth of a tiger if you squinted hard enough. It was supposedly the spot for a snap of the sunset, where you could see the sun dip perfectly between the mountains. Our hostel owner had told us that you could take a ‘shortcut’ over the mountain from our hostel, and it would only take about 4 hours in total. Probs doable, we thought, delusional on a two-month travelling high.


We started early, just after sunrise and a hot bowl of rice noodles. We'd met some new friends at breakfast, a group of Chinese tourists who were heading to Laohuzui, too, but by car. They laughed at us when we said we were walking, an early warning sign that perhaps this wasn't for us, but we were too stingy to pay for a car ourselves, so set out on foot as planned.

Half an hour in and we'd eaten all of our snacks, drunk most of our hot flask of tea, and had barely ascended the mountain; the road full of hair-pin bends that almost backtracked on each other. Turning yet another stupid corner, we began to hear some bells clanging and local chatter. Out from the forest next to the road popped three buffalo herdswomen in traditional Hani dress, guiding their docile gang of water buffaloes up the mountain.


Some English/Chinese/Hani dialect/miming conversations ensued as we tried to tell them we were headed to Laohuzui, pointing at the road ahead. They nodded to the forest on the other side of the road, motioning for us to follow them. Lost in translation and not wanting to go the wrong way, we decided to keep following the road, so said thank you and kept going. Of course as we turned the next tight corner we saw the ladies had beaten us, using the shortcut through the forest to avoid the backtracking road. They laughed at us as we approached, and motioned again for us to follow them through the next patch of forest. We got it this time. The buffaloes dawdled up the rocky incline, and the women followed behind them, slapping their butts with wooden sticks if one strayed off the make-shift path.


We were climbing higher and higher into the mist, the road no longer in sight. The path was steep and we were struggling, hearts burning from months of stuffed bao and glutinous rice cake over-consumption. The women, at least double our age, were easily charging ahead, longtime pros at this challenging route.


We eventually came to a fork in the path and the most confident herdswoman began giving me some very complex directions in her Hani dialect, my blank face not deterring her instructions. She pointed for us to follow one path, while the other women directed their buffaloes up the other. I had preemptive separation anxiety just thinking about leaving them, but we said our goodbyes and began walking our new misty pathway alone.


As the clouds cleared slightly, we could see some power lines in the distance, a faraway and very relieving signal of the road again. Leigh was a fan of a shortcut, while I preferred to stick to a path, knowing that the path would eventually lead somewhere. But Leigh insisted we jump through a rocky creek to get quick access to the road. As we got nearer the creek we realised there was no going down there, it was wet, muddy and impossible to traverse. We spotted a man cutting bamboo on a cliff above us, yelled hello and pointed in the vague direction we thought we should be going. He nodded, and without saying a word beckoned us to follow him in another direction. So here we were, following a strange man with a machete in hand, engulfed in cloud and fog with not a clue where we were. Our mums would not have been cool with this.


Eventually we came to a little camp set up, where the man dropped his bag and pointed to his elbow and then to the road. We guessed this meant to follow the elbow-shaped road (?). We could barely see our feet in front of us, and we had no choice but to sure enough, after turning a bend, we saw it. The road! He was not a murderer, we were not lost in the mountains, our Facebook profile pictures were not going to be plastered all over and our mums could rest easy. We were back on the road, but our tummies were growling and the journey ahead was going to be a long one.


(part two coming next week)


Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
All words and images are under copyright © 2019