Rice terraces are one of the archetypal Chinese landscapes, so of course we wanted to visit. We spent two days and one night exploring the Longji Rice Terraces in Longsheng county, a few hours outside of Guilin; our itinerary was Dazhai-Tiantouzhai-Ping'an. Like every single adventure in China (i.e., every day), it was not without its minor mishaps, but it definitely left an impression.
The two days we spent in the rice terraces were the only ones in the whole trip where we had a guide. I was in charge of organizing this leg of the itinerary, and I figured we simply didn't have enough time to visit the Longji area by public transport, and also that by this point in the trip (more than 2/3 of the way through) we'd be longing for things that were easy, and based on my time in Taiwan I suspected that long bus trips would not fall into this category. So we got picked up in a mini bus from our guesthouse in Yangshuo by guide Gary Huang and drove together to Dazhai, the start of our rice terraces journey.
Right away, we encountered the first complication. The only way to get to our planned destination for the evening, Tiantouzhai, was by foot. Normally, this would not have presented a problem: we had known some hiking was planned, and we were a hearty troupe! However, Simon had caught a cold after freezing his bum off at the Shaolin Temple, and hiking wasn't what he most wanted to be doing at this particular moment in time. Under other circumstances, he would have just taken a taxi and met us at the hotel. If I had read my Lonely Planet more carefully I would've known that it wasn't possible to take motorized transport to Tiantouzhai. But we had planned this trip without sick-person contingencies regardless, so in the end Simon just sucked it up and hiked with the rest of us.
Although there were no golf carts or taxis on offer, the minute we stepped out of the van at our jumping off point we were swarmed by women in traditional dress, aggressively offering to carry our luggage for us. We only had day packs with us, so we declined. But even if we'd had heavy luggage with us, I doubt that anyone in our group of chivalrous Germans (plus me, the American) would have felt good about handing it off to a tiny woman with a woven basket on her back, despite the fact that the women clearly wanted to make money this way. On our way down from Tiantouzhai the next day, we did see a young Chinese couple walking up the trail accompanied by a woman carrying their roller suitcase on her back. It looked ridiculous, but I get that it's practical!
From our guide we learned that the hilly terrain is actually not particularly good for rice farming -- the slopes and the terracing mean that most of the work has to be done by people or animals rather than by machine. The communities that settled in this area weren't seeking out literal greener pastures; they were minority groups who were persecuted and driven out of the surrounding countryside -- they retreated to the mountains because they were out of the way and people wouldn't bother them. Our guide also explained to us that Dazhai and Tiantouzhai, where we were the first day and night, were "beautiful like a farmer's wife" -- as in, they possessed a simple, homely beauty. Ping'an, which we visited on the second day, was "beautiful like a whore" (or was it "beautiful like a woman from the city" and I'm overdramatizing??), all dressed up and made up for the tourists. The make-up, in this case, was water -- we were too early in the season to see the rice fields flooded in Dazhai and Tiantouzhai, but in Ping'an they flood the fields earlier to please the crowds. I have to say I'm happy I saw both. Ping'an definitely felt more commercial (like, due to the long row of souvenir vendors you pass on the walk up to the terraces), but seeing the rice terraces all reflect-y from the water does have a certain flair.
But back to day one. We started hiking, and it was fun! We were on the same footpaths the locals use to get around, which were narrow and often cobbled with flat, wide stones. After a few hours of hiking, dilly-dallying, and taking pictures, we arrived at our hotel for the night around dusk. We sat on the porch, had a drink, and watched the pretty landscape get dark, and all was serene and beautiful.
Our hotel was part of a cluster of hotels that all looked the same -- pretty, three-story wooden structures. Dinner was inside the hotel on the ground floor, which was a big open room with dining tables. Incidentally, we were the only guests, so we had the place to ourselves. (It seemed like the whole area had a serious overabundance of hotel rooms given the number of other tourists we saw -- very few -- but maybe that's just because it was the low season.) The culinary offerings included home-cured bacon (which we had eaten at lunch as well; tasty but seriously smoky) and soups filled with some sort of leafy green vegetable that we had seen drying everywhere in the villages. The food was okay, but wasn't up to the standards of deliciousness we had pretty much everywhere else on our trip. In true German fashion, we ended the meal with a digestif: Reinhold ordered a round of homemade liquor (i.e., moonshine) made from sweet potatoes. It was pretty good, and tasted, well, strong. What we didn't try was the homemade snake wine on display. None of us were feeling quite that adventurous.
The night did not go particularly well. The beds were rock hard (which doesn't bother me much, but the others complained). Far more dramatic was the complete lack of insulation in the walls, exterior or interior. So basically, it was cold (but we'd gotten used to this by now) and you could hear every single thing going on. This was made even more dramatic by the fact that Hannes spent the night puking his guts out. Literally. Loudly. The hotel owners commented on it in the morning, and were concerned. I think it's fair to say that nobody slept very well. The working theory is that Hannes had just eaten too much of the bacon -- we had all eaten it and none of the rest of us got sick, but he had definitely eaten way more. Something just pushed his stomach over the edge, and it was game over.
The next morning Hannes alternated between laying in bed miserably and making trips to the toilet. The rest of us sat on the front porch, wrote postcards, and took short walks. Reinhold, true to form, went over and talked with a local farmer, extra curious about their farming techniques having grown up in a farming family and community. Though feeling badly for Hannes, none of us were upset about this rest in the program. Our guide, on the other hand, seemed to be feeling a little stressed -- getting a late start meant that we would have to miss out on some of the program points that had been promised to us, and I think he was worried we would think we weren't getting our money's worth. Around noon we did have to drag Hannes out of the bed to come with us, because of course he wasn't getting down the mountain without walking on his own two feet. I supplied him with some medicine from my always well-stocked travel pharmacy, and he managed to join us for the hike down.
We took a different path down than we had come up, and then took a tourist bus together to Ping'an. Hannes and Simon chose to sit out the last bit of hiking and missed all the reflect-y glory of the flooded rice fields, but I think they were okay with it all. We then traveled by van back to Guilin, where we had a plane to Shanghai to catch the next morning. Our arrival in Guilin was a joyful one -- the hotel we had booked turned out to be amazing, the nicest place we stayed during our entire trip. It felt like a spa, the rooms were spacious, and the majority of us winded up staying in and ordering room service. It really made us wish we were staying in Guilin for longer!
A few logistical notes if you ever visit. You can read online and in guidebooks that it's possible to hike from village to village, but if you choose to do this on your own it seems almost certain that you will get lost and/or not end up where you intended. This is not to deter you, just to set expectations. We were in Longqi at the end of March and the evenings were quite chilly; but since the area is at about 3000 ft in elevation, I would pack warm clothes even if you are visiting in summer. And lastly, our hike down from Tiantouzhai was a bit rainy, making the cobblestoned walkways quite slippery. Sensible shoes are recommended, and in the rain some walking/hiking sticks would've been handy.