Yuanyang Rice terraces [part two], YUNNAN
After four hours of walking up the winding roads of the Yuanyang mountains, it was midday, and, from our overly optimistic hostel owner's advice, we should have arrived in Laohuzui by now. A particularly non-helpful, not-to-scale, all-Chinese map suggested we were only halfway there, so we kept shuffling along the dry, gravelly road, taking shortcuts through the forest whenever we could. As we approached a curvy clifftop, a small-ish town came into vision; a cluster of buildings perched just above a deep drop of incredible green rice terraces. We waved ni hao at some kids playing on a roof, our friendly gesture freaking them completely out before they burst into a fit of giggles. Walking on, the groups of kidlets grew more frequent, and eventually we arrived at the epicentre: the local school.
One of our friends we’d met in Lijiang, Alice, had told us, “if you want to find good food in China, find a school.” Well, we had hit the jackpot. A young girl cheekily licking an ice-cream cone stood at the entrance of a school snack shop staring us down like a primary-school bouncer to an exclusive club only hungry food nerds like us would want to enter. The room was filled with every Chinese treat imaginable: chewy taffies in a fruit-bowl of flavours, soft milk candies, mochi balls, sesame snaps and plenty of sausages, chips and little spongy cakes. Among all these snacks were about 20 kids all feverishly excited about our visit, and a local woman, cooking fried potatoes and local baba bread, amused at the whole situation. We ordered a bowl of her potatoes (generously tossed through a spicy coating of chilli, green onion and cumin) and bought two little ice-cream cones from the fridge in the corner. In hindsight, as we walked off with our goodies, this was not nearly enough. The bowl and cones very kid-sized and all gone in mere seconds. But it was enough to give us a boost of energy for the final leg to Laohuzui.
The road was now descending, and endless flights of steep stairs stood between us and our destination. The sun was hot now, and we were kicking ourselves for not buying a drink at the school snack shop. But we trudged on, and by three o'clock we finally made it to the next town. We weren't sure where we were, but there was a string of restaurants here – and we needed food ASAP. I poked my head in the door of the first restaurant we came across, a local Hani woman was stationed in the kitchen, wok in hand.
There was only one table occupied in the restaurant, and I recognised them, it was the group of Chinese tourists we'd met at breakfast! I yelled hello, excited to see some familiar faces (familiar from this morning, anyway) and they eagerly ushered us in to join them for lunch. There were six people in total, from all over China – Shanghai, Harbin, Xinjiang and Jiangsu were all represented. The group were part of a travel meet-up club on We Chat, China's most popular social networking app, and all strangers just a few days ago. Ann and Evelyn, both from Shanghai, spoke the best English and told us that, yes, we had made it Laohuzui (woo!) and to sit down and fill up our plates. There was a steaming pot of soup, chicken feet bobbing in the broth between large chunks of radish and sprinklings of green onion. Ann pointed to a cluster of clucking hens tied up out of the front of the restaurant and told us they had chosen this chicken just minutes ago. This was as fresh as it gets. We helped ourselves to stir-fried egg and tomato, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), tofu, greens and a big pot of red rice, Yuanyang's very own rice from the terraces we had just crossed. Spinning the lazy Susan, pouring each other cups of tea and gorging on this traditional feast while getting to know our new friends was exactly what we needed after our long, lonely walk.
Our new friends paid for everything, saying they were lucky to have met us again. Satisfied and in food comatose, our friends told us they were off in search of a hotel to stay the night before the sun set, so we said we'd catch them later and kept walking to find the viewing point. It wasn't hard to miss, vendors selling traditional Hani embroidery, local handicraft, fruit and, of course, tofu crowded the entrance.
The platform was breathtaking, several flights of wooden steps leading to three levels of viewing points. Some hardcore photographers were already positioned at their preferred spot with their tripods ready for when the sun began to set in a couple of hours. We ordered a cup of coffee from a cafe with definitely the best view in China, and spent a few vicious UNO games waiting for dusk. By six o'clock the platform was buzzing with tourists, there were professional khaki-clad photographers, amateurs, tourists with their selfie sticks and even a film crew from Beijing preparing their drone to launch.
Our friends arrived and the sun began to set. The mountain edges, all layered with the small rice terraces built more than 1000 years ago by the Hani people, soon became a rainbow of colours. The green terraces sparkled with glowing pink hues – reflections of the sunset on the rice terraces’ water-filled pockets. Some even had shades of blue and purple, a result of a special algae growing in the water. Tourists around us were moaning about the clouds hindering a truly spectacular sunset, but in our minds, the eight-hour journey for this stunning 20-minute scene was all worth it. As far as we were concerned, the tiger’s mouth had put on a good show.
But the sky grew darker, and our friends became increasingly concerned about how we were going to get home (everyone we met in China always seemed to be worried about us). Turning around and walking back was out of the question, and our friends were told that the buses were infrequent and might not even come at all. While it stressed us out a little at the thought of not having a way back home, it stressed our new friends out even more and they burst into action to find us a ride. The whole group began asking everyone on the platform if anyone was heading to Duoyishu, the town of our hotel. There was one older couple who said they were, and thought they may have some spare seats in their van. But as we made our way up the stairs back to the road, bad news awaited us – the van was full. We looked around, feeling slightly helpless as everyone around us were madly talking to each other to find us a way back home. The crowds were thickening as everyone began to go to their cars at the same time, and we only had a short window to catch a ride before everyone left. Suddenly an older woman came running over, clutching my arm. She had been up and down the street asking every car leaving if they were heading to Duoyishu and she had found someone! We were dragged out to meet the man, a photographer who had come on his own had two spare seats in the back of his car. The crowds heaving and our ride leaving any second we said a pathetic rushed goodbye to our new friends, and jumped inside. A very silent, winding and almost vom-worthy drive back home couldn’t spoil such an incredible day. It summed up everything China represented for us: crazy journeys, the kindest people, delicious food and bloody beautiful scenery.
Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
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