Yuanyang Rice Terraces


I am desperately waiting for the bus ride to end. I am not driven by the desire to see the famed Yuanyang rice terraces; I just want to get out of the bus and finally vomit. I am still halfway unconscious from the flu. Every time the bus tightens up yet another mountainous U-turn, my stomach climbs out of my mouth to say hi; a dry heave ends in a biley burp. I’ve never thought that nausea could be so difficult to handle. Is this how pregnant women used to feel before the age of anti-nausea medication?

Yvonne’s bottle with fifty magic anti-nausea pills is so close, and yet they could be on the other end of the world for all that matters. The pills lie a meter below, in the baggage compartment and the bus ain’t gonna stop. In fact, it rushes around yet another blind turn, overcoming a black passenger Lexus, and honking warningly.

An eternity and three hours later, the torture by nausea ends. We pull into Xinjiezhen bus terminal. It is a dusty square in front of a gray one story building that has became decrepit while still being new. Yvonne jumps out of the bus, finds a van with dark windows, talks to the driver and throws me into the car as I stare vacantly into my stomach’s swirly depths.

Somewhere during the transfer, I swallow a magic pill. Over the next forty minutes, the van carries us up and down an even narrower and more winding road. The driver chats and flirts with every girl in the car, including Yvonne, and pulls over at every scenic spot. He wants us to enjoy the ride and the view. Unfortunately, the fog has the consistency of milk and I can barely see our car when I step out of it. I don’t care; I am just happy to stand outside and inhale the clammy cold air that’s clinging to us like a wet down blanket. Just as the pill finally puts my stomach to sleep, our trip comes to an end. The driver pulls up in front of a staircase and smiles pointing down it. He isn’t going to drive the minivan down a few dozen stairs and a one lane wheelbarrow street. Welcome to Duoyishu, supposedly an even less developed and more authentic mountain village than Xinjiezhen, a true bumblefuck.

I spend all night drinking tea, sweating and shaking under three blankets. The next morning, the evil virus finally loses the fight. Wet and still weak, I crawl from out of the blankets and feel reborn.

The weather cooperates – the sun burns a hole or two through the ever present fog. The balcony view is worth shivering for a few minutes.


The guesthouse owner, Jackie, serves us a breakfast; his mom runs the kitchen. He is the first local Chinese person we’ve met so far who speaks good English. In fact, his English is not any worse than mine. Jackie is a local boy made good. Like the other Hani, a local minority Chinese group, he is barely five foot tall, unlikely to weigh more than one hundred pounds, with a head that looks slightly too big on his shoulders. Unlike the other locals, he went to France for three months to work as a photographer’s assistant. A short trip to France turned into a four year jaunt through Europe, Middle East and South America.

Jackie opened the guesthouse just a couple years ago and both wikitravel and tripadvisor have already discovered him as the only English speaking local point; that’s why we’ve picked Jackie’s Inn to begin with.

Jackie quickly draws a map of places to go and things to see. We glance at it and start laughing – it looks like a climbing topo.

“Yes, I climbed in France, but there is no good rock climbing here,” Jackie sighs.

“Make sure you skip the official sightseeing points, unless you want to pay a one hundred RMB entrance fee,” he adds, “you didn’t pay it when you drove in, right?”

“Thank you for your advice again,” Yvonne grins, “we picked the right minivan. It had tinted windows and the driver pretended that the car was empty as he drove through the checkpoint.”
The locals don’t seem to care much about the government and its money.

We walk out with Jackie’s employee; Shin has decided to join us. She joined Jackie as a volunteer for her winter break; he is paying for her room and board. Shin wanted to see the rice terraces. She is also a village kid; she grew up picking rice and feeding pigs. Then, she went to a college a thousand miles away to study special education. She is shorter than Yvonne and skinny like a rail; she is used to eating two meals a day and the city life hasn’t softened her up yet.

Unsurprisingly, construction is proceeding here at a typical Chinese feverish pace. On our way up, towards the road, we pass a couple dozen buildings. Nine of them are in the different stages of construction. Men and women alike are laying bricks, pouring concrete, hammering, cutting and drilling. The workers can be anywhere from twenty to sixty year old; it’s hard to read their dark leathery faces.

A lot of locals have figured out already that attending tourists beats growing rice. Hotels, stores, and new houses are growing everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Unlike other ancient Chinese towns and villages we have visited, there is not much of art and architecture tradition here. Over generations, the local denizens have directed all their creative energy into constructing tens of thousands of terraced rice paddies covering a few hundred square miles of mountain slopes. The original houses look exactly like poor mountain village hemlocks should look. The new constructs haphazardly incorporate every element from Western and Chinese architecture the owners have discovered when surfing images on the internet. A random sprinkling of traditional mushroom shaped thatched roofs adorns the buildings.

A winding road takes us past another village. When Yvonne sees pigs, she squeals in delight. The pigs don’t bother squealing back; they have better things to do.


There are no restaurants in this area yet, but a local gentleman sells roasted ducklings at three dollars a bird. A mix of chilies and salt comes for free.


The trail takes us away from the village and along the mountain slopes. The girls chat happily; the muzzle keeps my mouth shut as I keep my distance from Yvonne. Occasionally, she translates Shin’s stories for me. Belonging to a rural minority in China offers advantages and drawbacks alike. Unlike Han Chinese, the minority families are allowed two children and there is an affirmative action policy of some sorts. Still, the rural life is poor and hard; the kids and their families push hard towards getting a higher education. All Shin’s high school classmates, i.e. ten people, are in college. They are not coming back to the rice fields. I will be the last person to judge them.


Every time we walk by yet another domesticated life form, Yvonne goes all over it, squealing, crooning and taking pictures. Shin looks a bit confused. To her, it’s just work and food. The best comes when we see a mother pig with suckling piglets.


The pig looks like a mini size boar ready to defend her progeny against real and imaginary enemies. I wearily walk around her. Shin walks by and casually kicks the pig in the snout. The pig grunts unhappily and submissively moves aside. Shin looks at me,

“See, they are nice, no need to worry.”

We walk to the top of a cliff looming over the mountain valley, one of Jackie’s recommended observation points. Yuanyang rice terraces sprawl below and to the sides of us like thousands of calm gray ponds. A few photographers armed with full set of professional gear are already there, waiting for the sun to fight its way through the clouds. Yvonne joins them; her Canon SLR looks pathetic next to their professional two foot long lenses mounted on heavy tripods.

Meanwhile I eat my duckling lunch. Only yesterday, it was squawking and running around and now it’s killed and roasted for my pleasure; I don’t mind. The salt and chili peppers cut through the grease and spice up the fresh meat, as I carefully pick every shred off the baby bones.
The sun refuses to fully cooperate and disappointed Yvonne has to satisfy herself with inferior quality shots.


I look down, at the thousands of rice paddy layers descending the Ailao mountains. For more than a thousand years, fifty generations of the Hani peasants manually hoed, leveled and tilled the mountain sides, with an occasional help from their scrawny undersized water buffalos. They built elaborate canals to deliver water from the tops of the mountains and distribute it fairly and efficiently for up to three thousand levels of rice fields going all the way down the valley. They grew red rice for themselves and red algae for their pigs. They raised chicken and ducks. They worked the fields all their lives till they died on mud floors of their earthenware huts. In the process, they pulled off an impossible feat. Inadvertently, they used a bunch of mud puddles to shape a mountain landscape improving what nature had intended.

Sure, a rice paddy can excite a duck looking for a worm or a peasant thinking about his harvest. But why would it attract the best nature photographers in the world? In fact, when the tourists started coming in, the locals were sincerely confused. It’s a paddy, thought the peasants; why would one stare in a slack jawed ecstasy at water, rice and mud? And, I would add, use cameras that cost more than the area’s GDP to take pictures of dirt?


Why does a few dozen meters distance turn a grass reinforced mud pile into a green and brown border separating quiet ponds of different colors and shapes?

“How have mud and dirty water become a symbol of transcendental beauty,” I ask Yvonne.

Yvonne’s head with a camera attached to it turns like a tank’s gun turret searching for a target.

“The scale adds visual power,” Yvonne replies absent mindedly.

“This landscape will look dramatically under different light conditions. Dense fog with uniform light gives the landscape the brown color,” Yvonne mumbles as she stares unhappily at the camera’s digital screen.

The shooting should be the best at sunrise or sunset. The world is multi-colored then, with vibrant oranges, pinks and purples. If it’s slightly windy and the clouds are moving, the color’s transition happens quickly; the water acts like a mirror, constantly changing colors. Water pools have different depth and it influences color diffusion and reflection. That’s what makes it so beautiful and magical. There are cloud reflections in each pond. Red algae in some ponds add extra texture.

“Look at the curving lines of rice paddies. They follow the slope curvature but they also constantly vary in size and shape. The variation adds richness and depth to the landscape,” Yvonne concludes her little lecture.

I look down at the mud pools; I just think they are magical.

The sun finally comes out to please Yvonne and the water glows in reflected light.


My little darling is getting more and more excited with every minute, whipping herself into a photographic frenzy. She is adjusting shutter speed, F-stop, exposure and other, undoubtedly, very important photographical things. She is moving, trying to find better shooting angles and positions. The camera is furiously clicking in Yvonne’s strong stubby fingers.

I am just sitting on a rock, enjoying the view and chewing on a dry grass blade.

The sun goes behind a cloud again and Yvonne exhales, drops her shoulders and swings the camera around her back. The trail leads us further along the mountain slopes, into the rice paddies. A water buffalo looks sad and tired.

Up close, the rice paddies look like many lives of hard of work. In another generation or two, half the locals will be probably off to the easier city life. Another half will be running tourist establishments. How much time will it take before the famed rice terraces of Yuanyang slowly crumble to landslides and erosion? The mountains will take back its due and the slopes will come back to their original state.

The trail leads us uphill, towards the paved road and designated observation points. The picnic set of table and chairs pulls me out of melancholia.


We walk along the road discussing with Shin how she could make her dream come true; she wants to visit Canada or Italy for a year.

Children in bright traditional dresses pose for tourists along the road. They don’t exactly hassle the tourists, but they don’t mind getting paid either.


The clouds finally gave way and Yvonne spends the evening on the hotel roof, sketching the mud puddles in the light of the setting sun. I come back from a short evening run down the fields and sneak behind her. Iphone panorama option allows me to take a strangely appropriate fairytale picture of the rooftop view.


The sun rolls behind the mountain taking all warmth away. Yvonne’s fingers are frozen solid and, with a practiced ease, she runs them under my down jacket, fleece and shirt, towards my armpits. I grind my teeth.

“It’s your purpose,” Yvonne purrs as she waits for the watercolor to dry.


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