It’s not often you find yourself walking along a dragon’s spine. Curled protectively around the village of Ping’an in south western China, this particular beast is formed by row after serried row of rice terraces carved into the hills. The summits forming a spine along the ridge high above. Mist drifts across the water-logged paddy fields and stone paths, the breath of a sleeping giant.
We were winding our way along the sinuous curves of Longsheng’s terraced hillsides. From one summit you can look across the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers, hills that have been terraced from base to summit. From the other you see Seven Stars and Moon, constellations of flooded rice paddies reflecting the sky.
These terraces, hacked out of slopes thousands of feet high, are the typically industrious response to a centuries old issue of overcrowding. Instead of splitting the community or starving, the farmers cut long narrow terraces into nearby hills to make more space for their crops.
Paddy fields are hardly a unique answer to the issue of growing crops on vertiginous slopes. You can find them from the Andes to the Alps. What makes these stand out is the sheer scale. Where ever you look someone has taken a pick and shovel and carved part of the hillside out. Added together it’s like an abstract masterpiece writ large across the land.
We’d arrived after braving the local bus system from Guilin. Having muddled out the pictograms that made up the name Longsheng (the nearest big town) and Ping’an, we set off, ticket in hand. Enthusiastic and helpful locals bundled us from bus to bus, often in the middle of nowhere, eager to help us find our way.
Eventually, after slowly winding up a long narrow bumpy road, we were dumped in a lonely car park half way up a hill. The end of the road. A steady stream of tired looking tourists was coming towards us over an old wooden bridge.
We crossed the bridge and started up the steep path on the other side. Surely the village couldn’t be that high. Could it? We’d driven up an awful long way up already. And so up we trudged, breathing hard and feeling increasingly like Hilary tacking Everest.
Two women in headscarves and cotton trousers jogged alongside us, grinning and motioning for us to let them take our bags. They were about four foot eleven, sunbeaten and skinny. And they looked like a stiff breeze could send them flying. Appearances can be deceiving.
After fifteen minutes of puffing and panting, the path ran out. There was a stairway, a very big stairway, ahead of us. And pointing off to our right, a wee sign pointed the way to our hotel. Up a muddy rock strewn slope. We looked at our wheely bags with something like dispair.
With a sigh of defeat I turned to the women. With a knowing grin, they roped our cases to their baskets, and heaved them onto their slender shoulders. And without a backward glance they trotted off up the hillside. Small they may have been, but these women were as tough as teak and nimble as goats. It was all we could do to keep up. From behind it looked like our bags had sprouted legs and were making a bid for freedom.
When we got to our simple, but wonderfully Wi-Fi-ed up hostel, we made sure to order ourselves some of the local speciality, chicken roast over charcoal. It needed a few hours notice and wasn’t something I wanted to miss.
By the time we had cleaned up and settled in the fowl was well underway, sending rich chickeny aromas up into our room. Cooked slowly over embers, it was a sticky, crispy-sknned, juicy wonder. It tasted super-fresh and we had a sneaking suspicion that it may have been one of the fowl we’d stumbled over scratching contentedly in the front yard.
It came with sticky rice studded with meaty nuggets and cooked on the fire in a section of bamboo. The vegetables, as was the case throughout most of our visit, were green, stir fried in garlic and totally unknown to me.
The rest of the day we spent exploring the steep tangled alleys of Ping’an. It was like walking around an Escher picture, or the mad stairways of Labyrinth. Rows of stone steps disappeared off at all angles, twisting and turning in on themselves. You’d walk confidently down one set of stairs only to find yourself three levels above where you thought you were going.
Not that this is a bad thing. You find yourself wandering between steep wooden walls, making way for mules loaded with stone and wood or spry locals bounding along, baskets of rice or food on their backs.
Ping’an is a Zhuang minority village and the people still make their living partly by farming the rice terraces. Although I suspect that this, like much of the more gaudy traditional costume (10Y for a photo) is for the tourists benefit. And why not? They definitely get more money for it that way.
Once you are out of Ping’an, and hiking your way up to the viewpoint eyries that overlook the village, the tourists drop away, red faced and panting. The effort is worth making and from the very top of the hills you can look out over the wooden village perched amidst cascading terraces.
And once you get beyond the viewing platforms and on to the spine of the dragon, you can follow ancient stone pathways from one end of the terraces to the other. And you walk in splendid solitude as everyone else piles back down the stairs to their waiting buses.
Waterfalls tumble across your path to be channeled into the ingenious irrigation systems that flood the terraces, bamboo clack-clacks around you in the stiff breeze and great insects buzz, flutter and zoom around.
And through the vegetation the terraces fall away below you, the flanks of the mighty dragon. The flooded paddy fields capturing the sky above in their still watery surfaces. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to breath when you look out over all the back-breaking work that created the behemoth slumbering beneath your feet.