Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Yingyoulian Guesthouse

Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Sunday, April 10, 2011

I have wanted to go to Yunnan. China's far south-western province, ever since seeing it on Michael Palin's Himalaya series some years ago. Yunnan is renowned for its extraordinary diversity of landscapes from tropical jungles in the south where it borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, up to the snowy mountains in the north where it borders Tibet. It also contains over half of China's ethnic minority groups.

The first thing we noticed on arrival at Kunming, the region's capital, was how modern and new much of the city is. As we often read about in the media, China is experiencing an economic boom and this is obvious in Kunming, where the outskirts look like a building site as rows of new apartments and skyscrapers are being built. The other thing we quickly realised was that virtually no one speaks a word of English. One of the first things we did was buy a Chinese phrasebook so that we can point to certain words. We have also tried saying the words but the pronounciation is so difficult that the result is usually a look of incomprehension!

The guesthouse we had picked from the Lonely Planet was full so we walked down the road a bit and found ourselves at the Hanting Hotel, which looked like it was going to be way over our budget. We were pleased to discover that it was actually very reasonable and came with all mod-cons. For our first Chinese meal we followed the recommendation of the hotel manager and found ourselves in a rather grand looking establishment filled with large round tables, each seating around 10 people tucking into sumptious feasts. The menu of course was in Chinese but luckily there were pictures that we could point to. We chose some braised aubergine, another veggie dish containing different unidentifiable vegetables and a squid dish. All were delicious although the braised aubergine contained minced pork and some strange looking thing that was either a fungus or some kind of internal organ!

We spent the next day wandering around the attractive city centre, visiting Yuantong Temple, a thousand year old Buddhist site, before exploring the area around Green Lake Park, where lots of local people had gathered to play traditional Chinese instruments and dance. We weren't sure if this was a regular occurence or whether there was some kind of festival going on.

The next morning we caught a bus south to Yuanyang rice terraces, a seven hour journey which took us through a largely agricultural landscape, a patchwork of small, neat vegetable plots. An hour from the end of the journey, we started climbing up into the mountains. Before long we were driving through the clouds and visibility was down to a few metres. We arrived in Xinjie, a traditional old mountain village, in the late afternoon. We were still completely in the clouds and the roads were wet and muddy. We had a strong sense of deja vu as the town reminded us of Sapa in north Vietnam, which is actually not far from here. Sapa is also famous for its picturesque rice terraces but during our stay there we couldn't actually see anything because we were in the clouds the whole time.

When we got off the bus, a girl from a local guesthouse was looking for new guests. We followed her up the road to her guesthouse and were pleased to discover that this simple but clean place only cost 4 a night! She spoke good English and works as a guide so we agreed to join her for a tour of the rice terraces the next day.

We got up at 5am and went out into the dark street to find Belinda (the guide) and minibus driver waiting for us. We were also joined by a lovely Irish girl called Yvonne who is also travelling for a year, and an adventurous French lady called Delphine who is travelling for 18 months having just spent the last few months cycling around South-East Asia. We drove through the dark for about 45 minutes arriving at a view point just as it was getting light. There was a lot of cloud around but it was also windy and soon enough the cloud started to blow away revealing an astonishing landscape of endless rice terraces below us. Covering 12,500 hectares, these are probably the world's most dramatic rice terraces and are particularly eye-catching at this time of year as they are flooded with water.

Later in the morning, we stopped at a little village where the market was in full swing. Local Hani and Yi women in tradtitional dress were busy buying and selling all manner of leafy vegetables, mushrooms, steamed buns, tofu, chickens and pigs. Unlike Sapa, where the tourists outnumber the locals who are busy giving it the hard sell, here we were the only tourists and were greeted with curious, shy smiles or were simply ignored. After the constant staring in India, this comes as a welcome relief.

After the market, we went for a walk through the rice terraces, which were now in full sunlight as the cloud had completely disappeared, and then through a small Hani village where water buffaloes and pigs wandered through the little streets and we saw a woman weaving clothes on an ancient looking loom. Then it was back to Xinjie for lunch and an afternoon nap before we piled back into the minibus for an early evening drive with more awesome views of the rice terraces as the sun went down.
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