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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dragon's Backbone: Longsheng Shang-ri La

On the mountainous road in from Yangshuo

The Longsheng Dragons Backbone region of hilly rice paddies and pristine villages is the most paradisiacal of all the frontier travel tribal areas we have visited. We went there because the rice terraces of Ping'an were mentioned in Lonely Planet, but when we booked a return bus journey for a three day stay, the bus proved to take us to a smaller more remote settlement in the furthest northern part of the region, called Desai (Dazhai) village.

Longji (Dragon's Backbone) Terraced Rice Fields received their name because the rice terraces resemble a dragon's scales, while the summit of the mountain range looks like the backbone of the dragon. Construction of the terraces began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and continued through the Ming (1368-1644) until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when construction was completed. The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces are the culmination of both the profound wisdom and strenuous labor of the Zhuang people. Today most people are Zhuang with smaller populations of Yao people. The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces cover an area of 66 square kilometers (about 16308 acres) and span an altitude between 300 meters (about 984 feet) and 880 meters with other forms of cultivation extending to 1100 meters (about 3608 feet).

Entering the lower valley and Giant Tiger Hill

Images climbing up the valley towards Desai

This was a real piece of good fortune, because Desai was at the time less developed and a smaller community with extremely friendly and resourceful Hong Yao inhabitants, and a paradise-like environment with huge natural assets and superb landscapes extending across and beyond the Jinkeng rice terraces, maintained largely through their extreme hard work and ingenuity at maintaining a quality of lifestyle in which arduous rice terracing combined with forest silviculture above and then animal husbandry in the very high pastures above the forest, to provide a relatively autonomous lifestyle.

The Hong Yao women of Desai come out to greet us

On arrival, we were greeted by a veritable posse of Hong Yao women from the village, all dressed in their finest traditional embroidered garments, who were there to escort us and carry our baggage up the steep trail for a small fee and to make sure we made it onto one of the hotels in the village run by their ilk and kin or small business associates.

What was really striking was the combination of openness and constructive engagement with visitors combined with a strong sense of tradition, which may come to wear off gradually with the trials of massive numbers of Chinese as well as foreign tourists. Some more more recent reports say there have been protests against tour operators making excessive profits, including refusing to flood the paddies. Nevertheless, the region, despite living on a subsistence economy, showed obvious signs of wealth clearly visible in the number of spanking new traditional wooden houses recently constructed in all but the very remotest settlements.

However it is also obvious that this area is rapidly becoming a showcase of Chinese eco-culture and that part of their success has come from astute government investment, which is also prone to have far reaching effects, not all desirable. Nevertheless at the point in time we visited, it had produced an intriguing mix of village technology with electricity and clean water supplies, often looking a little funky and unusual like technology out of a game of Myst. A clear example of overkill was a government plan to install metre-wide walking promenades through the entire region in the place of the beautiful inlaid stone paths and steps that accompanied all but the more far-flung tracks through the hills.

The centre of Desai rising up the hillsides from a flat valley basin

We were rapidly escorted up the hillside on the other side of the village to a newly built hotel cum farmhouse which had great views overlooking the valley.

The view down from our little hotel

Christine looking out our bedroom window

The other side of the hotel by the kitchen

Our quaint matchwood bedroom

The women all out selling their textiles

As soon as we could settle in, we were again surrounded by the women who proceeded to try to sell us their textile wares. Fortunately or unfortunately, we had rushed to the bus with only a limited amount of Yuan and had to ration our expenditure very carefully to keep enough left over for meals, as there was no ATM closer than Yangshuo several hours away.

Woman carrying fodder collected for animals

The paths across the region are punctuated by 'wind and rain' bridges, little covered bridges where the people can stop and shelter if the weather is inclement.

The wind and rain bridge between the hotel and contour above the rice paddies

The Hong Yao and related tribal people have very long straight hair almost like horses hair and grow it into turban like headpieces, sometimes adding previous tresses they have cut earlier. Traditionally, hey never let their hair down for a stranger but only for their husbands when the headpiece is changed to show they are married women, but these two young women we delightfully happy to demonstrate letting their hair down for me down at the stream by the wind and rain bridge despite telling them I had little money and could only give them a max of 10 Yuan for showing me the path.

Letting down the tresses

Holding the extra tresses

Scenes on the contour above the village through the Jinkeng rice terraces

The contoured rice terraces are absolutely ingenious. We have seen extensive terracing in the hills of Nepal earlier in this series, but these terraces are par-excellance the best we have ever seen. They are not only built on very steep seemingly impossible hillsides, but they are also ingeniously reticulated with bamboo aqueducts that pipe small streams into the paddies in such a manner that each can spill down little stone sluices which prevent erosion into the next.

Panoramas of the paddy fields

Even the highest levels on a hillside are reticulated by tiny high aqueducts.

Panorama of the valley with Desai lower left

Panorama with insets showing the arduous labour of hand ploughing the paddies

High aqueducts leading to the top paddy of a hill

'Myst'-like electricity supplies and water pipes

The paddies form a natural ecosystem with small fish and very few or no mosquitoes

After my journey around the contour next morning I decided to walk up the hill path heading north-west past the hotel to the high country above. Christine came part way but turned back when it began to shower.

Views down into the valley as I climb the hill track

The path wound steeply up the valley into light glades of trees, passing the odd Chinese tomb stone along the way.

It passed through a bamboo plantation and some wilderness stretches, before breaking out again on to more remote higher rice terraces in the clouds.

The terrain was becoming a mixture of high paddies and forest grown for domestic and farming uses.

High terraces in the clouds again with their own reticulating aqueducts

Diverse wilderness flowers as we climb leading to wild gentians in the high pasture

Even higher pastures surrounded by pine forest

Eventually the path wound past the last rice terrace and entered a wilderness are and up through extensive pine forest.

Looking back down through the wilderness and Pine forest

The above the wilderness area one could begin to see open high pasture.

Panorama of the high pasture, with Desai far below in the clouds

Telephoto down to the rice terraces far below

There was even a path with a little 'wind and rain' gate at the summit leading down to the villages on the other side of the range, but I decided to walk on along the open grassland on the ridge.

In the distance here and there you could see and hear cattle with bells, but after walking for a good period of time along the summits, the cloud set in and there was no obvious route back down separated by vast wilderness areas from the rice paddies and little water reservoir far below.

I realized I had become lost and tried to text Christine on our China mobile cell phone to no avail. In fact my daughter received a text that I was lost on the mountain top in New Zealand, but couldn't reply because of some sort of blackout against inward communication to China from the outside world.

Wilderness, cattle and finally an isolated goat herd's cottage

Eventually I manged to pick my way down through the undergrowth and came upon a tiny bit of a path that wound steeply down into an isolated valley where I stumbled on the cottage of a goat herd, and from there descended agin into the terraces fat to the south of where I had left them.

This necessitated a long tortuous walk in the gathering dusk along delicate contour tracks made of inlaid stones that wound along the little dikes that separate each of the descending terraces.

Top-left, stone spillway to prevent erosion of the paddy wall from the spillway.
Clearing a terrace, chest markings and a remote house on my journeys where I took a cup of tea.

Heavy loads carried by hand or in panniers

Eventually the contour path returned via a village facing our hotel just above central Desi to the south.

Newly constructed traditional buildings prominently including hotels for Chinese tourists

Here there were again a whole string of newly constructed traditional matchwood houses, built firstly with a scaffold of vertical poles and interlocking horizontal beams into which creaky floors and matchwood wall panels are inserted, finished with stylish inlaid windows and doors.

This woman left us the card for her little hotel (below) in the adjoining village
asking us to advertise it. Here she stands proudly in front of her village.

The next day I decided to try to walk to Ping'an, to which the village women raised their eyebrows and said I would be lucky to make it, because it was very far and would take a good day's walk just to get there. They were right and in fact I only made it to the high pass on the track by the afternoon, and faced with a long downhill walk I would have to recoup with an arduous climb back, I returned more respectful of the huge scale of the terraces.

A stone map of the walking paths to show eco-tourists where they can go

Before we left we took another journey high up the range to the East where there were other villages and walking trails to further settlements higher up the eastern valley.

Wind and rain bridge as you head east from Desai up the valley

The path up this hillside and its terraces winds particularly steeply. At times the dikes fell away at a really precipitous angle.

Vies looking down the very steep hillsides to the east of Desai

Wildlife on the walk was rich with dragon flies butterflies and amphibians

The path eventually reached a contour passing through two more remote villages and heading out far west.

So we eventually found a way to wind back down to the familiarity of Desai by another route.

The Hong Lao women seemed to have a prominent and liberated place in the village society acting as autonomous small businesswomen. Here they are spending a part of the afternoon studiously doing embroidery, but at another time as I wandered through Desai they invited me in one of their houses, and one woman closer to my age, who was in blue welcoming us when we arrived decided to take a shine to me and they all gleefully tried to make me go up into the double bedroom teasing me to make love with her, presumably in the presence of all of them. This made me feel a little shifty walking around the village in front of the menfolk, although it was merely lighthearted fun.

The Hong Lao women doing embroidery in the day
when there are no other more urgent matters at hand

We managed to save just enough money at the end to bargain for the Hong Lao top shown above with its maker and below with a sash and skirt bobs we bought later in Yangshuo.

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