Karst mountains, rice paddies and women with incredibly long hair – a journey to Chinas rural South.
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When someone talks about China, negative emotions are nearly automatically created by the listener. He thinks about polluted rivers, about smog that seems to hide the sun forever – about people in endless, machine like cities who are making their living in grey, sad streets. But about a paradise on earth, a wonder of nature so beautiful that you can’t even believe it even if you see it with your own eyes, the listener is not thinking. A small travel report about Guangxi, a place that, whenever I think about it, I’m still not sure if it really exists.
The back of the 20 Yuan note shows a great landscape looked from a rafts perspective on the middle of a river. The river on which it floats winds itself through slim but tall hills that grow out of the ground and are mirrored fabulously in the water which makes them appear even taller. In the background, where the sun meets the water, you can see another raft. Besides the fact that the Chinese 20 Yuan note is the most beautiful note that I have ever seen, I couldn’t get this motive out of my mind, loved to pick one of these notes out of my pocket when paying, because I was happy just to look at it. The motive, I would soon find out, showed a section of the river Li in Guangxi province far in the south of China.
The loud, sustained hoot interrupts the incessantle and rhythmic interval of the rails on which the train cuts through the black night. Towards south, always south. The upper bed of the so-called softsleeper cabin which I share with other travelers is gently shaking back and forth when I, woken up by the hoot, pull the curtain to the side to look outside into a unknown surrounding, just to fall asleep again a second after. I’m rarely so happy like in those moments, when I just let myself flow no matter where, but far, far away from home.
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The journey from Shanghai to Guiling takes about 20 hours, which is the reason why most travellers fly instead of using the train. But I’ve choosen this way of travelling consciously. You can literally see the landscape changing little by little. Experience how it becomes more and more beautiful, how the green becomes richer with every mile you cover towards south. You get a feeling for vastness and the change of the climate and you can see how cities and people appear so much different than five hundred miles before. I feel like Jack Kerouac in „On the road“, like a man of the rails who is convinced that the real moments in life only happen when you don’t expect nothing, when you let yourself fall into nowhere and when you are open for anything there might be. My mobile, only with me in case of emergency, remains switched of for exactly that reason. When I arrive in Guilin in the midday sun, I am already a new person. The hustle and bustle of Shanghai, the noise and stress lies behind me, and everything seems to run in another frequency now.
The dragonbone rice terraces of Longji
My way leads me directly out of the city to my first destination, to the dragon bone rice terraces of Longji about a hundred kilometers in the north of Guilin. Two hours later after a bus ride along fields and first rice paddies I get out at Dàzhài, one of several little villages in this area. I put on my backpack and start going. The background noise coming from the chinese tourists that arrive at the same time soon disappear in the vastness of the landscape. With every step it becomes more quiet until I finally only hear the wind blow which gently strikes the grass under my feet. Above me in the trees cicada sing their songs with me as their only listener. The tiny village, consisting of some simple wooden huts, is picturesque.
A rippling stream, a windmill slightly turned around by the wind, singing chickens, some grunting pics and a horse walking around happily – this is pure country life! So pure, that you can get the impression that all this might eventually be fake, that the Chinese might muck around with us once again. That all this could be a setting and the fieldworkers there are just well paid actors leading to the visitor that the rural China still exists. But no, this here is real. The valley in which Dazahi is located is surrounded by uncountable rice paddies, rising up from here about a thousand meters,. It’s an impressive sight.
The backbone of the dragon
The rice terraces have their origin in the Yuan Dynastie in the 13th century and where the livelihood of the local population for more than 700 years. Usage and aesthetic form one self-contained ecosystem and are, at the same time, a prime example for chinese landscape architecture. The woods on the several hilltops serve as water reservoirs, from which the water runs down from one terrace into the other to feed the rice seedlings on its way.
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In spring, the seedlings are planted to be harvested in autumn. Still today, the paddies are plowed by water buffalo’s so it really seems that the centuries haven’t passed at all. Now in May, the surrounding shows itself from its best side. The view is clear and the paddies are full of water. The highest elevations somehow reminds people of the backbone of a dragon, which is the reason for its popular name. Until today country life is nearly untouched by tourism. Like in the hole by agriculture characterized and therefore poor province, also here you you can find minorities such as the Zhuang or the Yao. Women of the Zhuang, dressed in colorful clothes, never cut their hair. They just let them grow until they reach the ground and wear them like turbans on their heads.
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I carry my backpack towards Dàzhài and up the hill into another village that towers high above the valley. Farmers cross my way with their horses and oxes, and the small path’s are so narrow that I have to dodge to the steep embankment. They give me a smile for my favour. Im this manner I reach Tiántóuzhái, where I check in at JinTian Guest House for a few Renminbi and where Hannah, the english speaking owner, greets me warmly. From here you have an amazing view all over the valley and the uncountable, water-filled rice terraces that are all over the place. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. In front of this setting I enjoy the dinner hat Hannah serves me. Fresh Pumpkin from the fields, beans, eggs and the best Gong Bao Chicken – my favourite dish – that I ever had. There’s no supermarket here, what for? The following day I spend by hiking around. Chickens cross my way here and there, dogs laze in the sun and horses neigh in the fields. On the backbone of the dragon I wait for the sunset, before I start hiking back home where I fall into bed exhausted. I make one last glimpse out of the window where fog conqueres the valley and an army of frogs make themselves ready for their beginning orchestra, and then I close my eyes.
The next morning I get up early for a five hours hike to Ping’an, the tallest village in this area. My way leads me down and up the hills through the rice terraces and little villages.
I pass some traditional graves, see farmers doing their hard work and I just sit down in the grass for a nap or just to watch at this beautiful surrounding. Once a women crosses my way as old as the hills, with a huge bundle of wood on her back. She smiles, so do I. Even with no Chinese skills people point their finger in the right direction when saying Ping’an, where I arrive about noontime. The tallest village in this area is far more touristy than little Tiántóuzhái, but nonetheless picturesque. I head back to Tiántóuzhái by bus in the late evening, where I spent my last night.
On The Road
You should go when it’s most beautiful. Nevertheless I am sad to leave, but this is how life is when you’re on the road. And anyway, I have a destination, the 20 Yuan bill. After a quick stop in Guilin I head towards Yangshuo. Out of the dusty windows of the bus I look into this miraculous landscape and see thousands and thousands of karst mountains that grow out of the ground mystically. I don’t know anymore what I think on this trip. Maybe I just don’t think about anything, maybe I just let the gained impressions flow through me. But maybe I think about Jack Kerouac and the most beautiful words ever written down on a sheet, in my opinion anyway: „I was having a wonderful time and the whole world opened up before me because I had no dreams.“
To be continued…