Hiking the dragon’s backbone

The Longji (or Dragon's Backbone) rice terraces.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction you get from finally setting your bags down in a room after a long hike to find your hotel. For most of our trip in China this has involved taxis and buses and looking at poorly marked maps and unmarked streets.

But at the Longji rice terraces north of Guilin, finding our hotel meant hiking up small stone steps for almost an hour before throwing our knapsacks on the floor and looking out at layer upon layer of golden rice fields surrounded by mist soaked mountains.

We had long wanted to visit these rice fields during our trip to China although we weren’t quite sure how. My friend Lonely Planet left me with the impression that they were close to Guilin, but on further inspection I learned it was close to a three hour drive.

Many tour agencies and hotels offer excursions to the rice fields, but most of these same-day trips seemed expensive and rushed. So we decided to do it ourselves.

There are a couple ways this can be done barring hiring a taxi. You can take a bus to Longsheng and transfer to Dazhai or (and this seems to be kept low key) you can take the daily 8:30 a.m. bus to Dazhai from the Guilin railway station. Always get someone to write your location down in Chinese so you can confirm with the driver.

We paid 50Y each and hopped aboard the minibus for a bumpy scenic journey. We then stopped at some sort of Chinese tourist location and a woman got on our bus asking for money. We didn’t know about this part and weren’t sure what was happening.

The guy in front of me turned around and said in perfect English, “It’s the entrance fee for the park, 80 kuai.”

Oh. Thank you.

It turns out he worked at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and was taking his parents on a holiday. Dad was wearing a bright red Canada hat with a matching red and white t-shirt. Looked pretty proud.

The next part of the drive was really windy, with the driver honking the horn at each curve, as is the custom of driving in Asia. Finally, we stop and get out. We’re surrounded by several old ladies with worn faces and baskets on ther backs asking to carry our stuff. They’re wearing brightly coloured clothes with patterns in red, black, purple, and gold. On their heads was what almost looked like a turban.

Our Chinese friend tells us they are from a minority in China in which the woman rarely cut their hair. One of the ladies, he said, hadn’t cut her hair in more than 30 years.

They look to be the same height as my great grandmother was at around 4’10. I think of this and decide to carry my own bags. After all, it can’t be too far.

We walk about 10 minutes to the first town of Dazhai. We walk through the town and hike upwards until we find a hotel listed in our guidebook. We wait and it appears empty.

One of the porter ladies returns saying something we don’t understand. We follow and meet up with our Chinese friend who tells us there’s a room available in the next town. Sounds good.

By the time we reach our hotel, we’re covered in sweat from the long uphill hike, but looking out at the rice fields make it all worth it.

Our hotel is called the Tianti Hotel in the small village of Tiantouzhai. It’s an old wooden building with creaky floors, but fits with the overall ambiance of the setting. A sign hangs outside the hotel that reads: “Welcome to our home. We don’t speak English but we will host you with our warmest hospitality.”

The only sounds are daily life of the villagers mixed with birds and wildlife. There’s no traffic or incessant honking as the town is only accessible by foot or horse. A delightful escape from the city.

From our hotel we could easily hike to several viewpoints overlooking the rice fields. Although we were hoping for a bright sunny day, the mist and the clouds made the scene look almost dreamlike.

The Longji rice terraces. The village of Tiantouzhai can be seen.

It also turned out to be a great place for local eating. We had rice and sweet rice wine from the fields out our window, fresh onions our waiter went to pick after we ordered, and earlier in the day we saw a horse carrying two live pigs up the steep path.

The next day we woke up early and hiked back down the hill for a 9 a.m. bus to Yangshuo (signs in the village said 65Y, but the driver asked 85Y due to the approaching holiday). I hired a porter to carry my bag for 30Y as my neck was sore from earlier in our travels.

Unfortunately, our time in China was growing short. However, we could have easily stayed for another day of hiking and eating delicious rice from fields that seemed to climb to the heavens.

Chengdu to Guilin, people and places

The flight from Chengdu to Guilin is fairly similar to any other flight I’ve been on except for a couple things. Just before takeoff, literally just before takeoff, I guy gets up to take pictures of his friends. The girl beside me pulls out a cob of corn as a snack. The flight attendants hand out beef jerkey for a mid-flight meal.

The flight is only 1.5 hours long and we grab a shuttle to Guilin. It drops us off at where we believe is the train station, but we’re not sure exactly and we can’t see any street names so to the map is no help.

We walk for a bit past people siitting eatting street food on plastic chairs and there it is: Wada Hostel. Check in to our dormroom, put my stuff into a locker with a painted Chinese flag.

We go to the bar for a drink. There’s only a few people in the bar: a really drunk Norwegian girl, a couple Aussies (one who apparently finds out his partner is pregnant that night on the phone), and a 60+ year old Canadian who grew up in Winnipeg, but lived in Kitchener. Only two months ago, his wife of 40+ years died. He sold everything and has decided to travel.

I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

*     *     *

Guilin is nice, but it’s still a busy city, not quite what I was expecting. We get up early and find a noodle shop for breakfast (two delicious spicy beef noodle for 10Y). So good.

We decide to rent bikes from the hostel. Most have flat tires. We grab two and set out. My pedal is loose and my handlebars turn and wobbles. I return my bike and get another in similar condition. We abandon the bike ride and take a bus downtown.

We eat candied fruit on a stick and walk past the sellers to the river. We sit and watch two fishermen on bamboo boats as large black birds (cormorants I believe) sit beside them waiting patiently.

A fisherman with his birds on a bamboo boat in Guilin, China.

We walk across the bridge and escape the heat in the Seven Stars park. Pretty gardens, trees and bamboo decorate the pleasent paths. We hike the stairs to the top of two karst hills, large mountains that jut out from the landscape, giving us a nice panorama of the city and its surrounding hills.

Many signs say to avoid the wild monkeys, we don’t see any, but I kind of wish we did – from a distance.

*     *     *

Catch the bus back and hang out at the hostel. We chat with two American backpackers who are from Minneapolis. They give some good advice for travelling through Southeast Asiia.

“How long are you travelling?” I ask.
“Three years.”
“Wow, that’s a long time. So you must be working or something?”
“Oh god no. We’re just travelling.”

Oh. I leave it there as I envision wealthy parents somewhere in the distance or just many boring nights before hitting the road.

But they’ve clearly seen the world, although I don’t know if could travel that long. Beyond missing family and friends, I would miss politics and engaging with the world back home, rather than just touring.

You can visit their page at www.livingif.com . Some parts verge on being a little cheesy (but I’m not one to cast the first stone on this charge), yet there are some interesting articles. They wrote their blogs together rather than the hyper-competitive dueling blogs we created.

Maybe I’m just envious of the three-year thing, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely made me think.