Hiking to the clouds, Longji
Hair wrapped artfully in a turban of black cloth, her tough frame is softened by a lilac top and short frilly skirt. As she saunters in and out of the room, I watch the light momentarily catch on her earrings – they are two silver crescents, raw and slightly tarnished, sweeping around a hollow in the shape of the full moon. She is the matron of our guesthouse at the top of the hill, beside Viewpoint No. 3.
“Aren’t you going to have any wine?” she asks us. “We have some made from sticky rice.”
“Is it locally produced?”
The matron gives me a stern, lingering look. “Of course! We ferment it ourselves.”
She hands me a small teacup, filled with a clear, slightly yellow liquid dotted with tiny grains of rice. The matron watches intently as I slowly take a sip. It holds a powerful flavour, reminiscent of countless family dinners at Chinese New Year and steaming bowls of tongyuen – little balls of glutinous rice flour stuffed with sugar and sesame paste. The wine is silky-smooth and refreshingly cold, tickling my palate with the fragrant, floral sweetness of a light dessert. I nod approvingly, smile, and ask for two glasses.
“Huo diu.” She says, grinning. “It’s called huo diu.”
Our visit to the Longji Rice Terraces was only meant to be a day trip, but when we told the hostel staff in Xingping of our plans, they reacted in wide-eyed shock. “No, you must stay overnight!” Maya exclaimed. “On a day trip you can only see it for a few hours. Are you staying with us in Guilin?” When we said ‘yes’, she paused, casting a wistful sideways glance. “Although it’s not good for our hostel… we really recommend spending more time up there. Let us know and we’ll help you cancel your booking.” Soon enough she returned with a set of directions scribbled on a torn piece of paper, in English and immaculate Chinese characters.
Long before we arrived the villagers had been waiting for prospective customers to show up at the car park. Once out of the van we find ourselves mobbed – caught up in a blur of bright pink, black and glittering jewelry. My level-headed companion, Bama, seems more than a little overwhelmed by all the commotion. With a gentle grin a young woman in full costume hands me her business card.
“My surname is Pan. We have a guesthouse on the hilltop – it’s good for watching the sunrise.”
On closer inspection the card is well put-together, with a photo of an attractive three-tiered dwelling perched on the crest of a misty slope.
“How much is a room?” I ask her.
It’s an easy transaction. There is no need for bargaining, and from her side there is no attempt to demand a hidden surcharge, unlike the opportunists at the bus station in Guilin.
A carry-on seemed like a good idea at the start of the trip, but over the course of the next few days I realise the gravity of my mistake. And nowhere has it felt stronger than at the bottom of this trail to the Yao villages. After repeated attempts to insist that I would carry it up the mountain, I give in – albeit reluctantly – to the gentle advice of the residents. “No, this is what we do. We’re used to it!”
Much to my horror it is a grandmother who squeezes the suitcase into her rattan basket, covering it with a plastic sheet to protect her cargo from the rain. Ms. Pan proudly rests a hand on her shoulder. “This is my mother – she will guide you to the guesthouse.”
It’s a 40-minute hike from the entrance gate, up a twisting gravel road and past a series of weathered diaojiaolou. Previously we had spotted these “hanging houses” on the way in from Guilin, clinging to the terraced slopes, curling wisps of smoke rising amid the tumbling cascades of grey tile.
A second Yao porter, perhaps in her early forties, motions us to carry on, up the hill and into a thick patch of fog. We are accompanied by the sound of water rushing from the mountaintop, rising from the hand-dug channels lining the pathway. Beneath our shoes the thin slabs of shale glisten like obsidian in the drizzling rain.
“Ng ng!” Our Yao porter flares her nostrils, eyes almost piercing with a dash of mischief. This is the Yao way, she tells us, of saying hello.
With its wood-patterned windows, rough-cut columns and tiled roof, our guesthouse is just the sort of accommodation we’ve been looking for. It’s basic but cozy, equipped with the sanitation facilities you’d expect of a rural Chinese inn. The unassuming owner of this family-run guesthouse, Ms. Pan’s husband, is both the general manager and the only cook. He is the one who takes our order before disappearing into the kitchen doorway.
We wait in patience, intrigued by the noises emanating from the kitchen. Every now and again the chopping is punctuated by the sound of crackling flames, an orange glow reflected in the nearest window. At a large round table in the corner a band of merrymakers can barely contain themselves over cards and cans of beer; four other members are poised to begin a new game of mahjong.
I strain my ears to hear the comforting swish of mahjong tiles being “washed” on a vinyl tablecloth. But the game is interrupted by a sudden gasp as our fellow diners clamour for the front door, scrambling towards the concrete platform that abuts the guesthouse. At last light the mist has finally lifted from the valley, and the rice terraces emerge in a momentary period of clarity before fading back into the clouds.
In Yao the term for ‘thank you’ – “nuo vi” – seems to mirror the intonations of my grandparents’ Shanghainese. So does “zang ka di va”, which is the phrase used to express one’s hunger. This is our state for the next hour or so, until the table is weighed down with copious quantities of rice, thinly sliced squash and chunks of chicken on the bone – stir-fried with vinegar, ginger and soy sauce. We have a harder time prying the meat from the plate of sautéed frog, all unfamiliar fragments with small bones and crispy sheets of skin.
Halfway through dinner the entire guesthouse is plunged into darkness. Bama chuckles. “My friends – they can’t understand why I wouldn’t choose to go somewhere more comfortable.” We sit in blackened silence, listening to the rain drumming against the wooden walls and window panes. With a shout the corner table continues their jamboree by the light of their mobile phones.
The next morning we descend the stairs to a breakfast prepared by the manager and chef extraordinaire. He serves up two identical stainless steel bowls, filled with rice vermicelli and a generous portion of egg in a peppery tomato broth. With less than two hours until our departure, the fog blanket evaporates, exposing wave after wave of paddy fields carpeting the rugged landscape.
But the secluded timelessness of Longji – the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ – may run the risk of disappearing in a similar fashion. The previous day we had noticed the beginnings of what looked like spindly steel pylons for a brand new cable car system. It is our porter who confirms my suspicions on the way down, as we march past a steady trickle of arrivals in white caps and walking sticks. “It’ll be ready by National Day this coming October.” She stops, pointing out a pair of cables and a crew of workmen in the distance. “The next time you come you can take it straight to Dagu – you won’t need to walk any more.”