Back to blog index

Last Night in the Mountains

I spend the last night in this magical place watching the sky gradually darken over the rice terraces and hills. The cicadas stop their singing and go to sleep, and soon the air is still and calm. Clouds begin to gather and a few drops of cool rain fall, just as a last shaft of sunlight  pierces through before setting. Night is falling slowly and silently.

Way below me, in Tiantouzhai village, a sudden burst of firecrackers splits the air, followed by another, and another. I strain to see in the enveloping dark but I can only make out a small knot of people moving from house to house, and setting off firecrackers at each doorway. I can hear singing, though, drifting up the hill, and later drums and reed pipes playing an energetic song. The firecrackers continue, now with bigger single noisy bangs. It must be a wedding, I think, as I go to sleep. Some sort of celebration.
The night is broken with the frequent crack-crack-cracks! of strings of bian pao crackers going off with more drumming and pipe-playing. The singing comes and goes, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. I imagine a huge village wedding, with everyone invited, and everyone enjoying a huge feast. I drift back to sleep.
Just before breakfast the noise begins again, but with less intensity. We are due to begin the long winding walk back down to the mountain’s base after breakfast, and I hope that the celebrations will not have lost all momentum before we get there. As I draw closer to Tiantouzhai I see the villagers, both men and women, all wearing a long white sash around their heads. 
This celebration is a funeral, not a wedding. My thoughts immediately fly to the old woman, our guide’s mother, and her frailty. We pass all the men sitting on the stone terrace in front of one of the larger houses, their faces tired, and red from too much tian jiu wine. We pass the spot where a pig has been slaughtered just an hour before, for the funeral feast. The blood is thick on the ground, and the freshly butchered pork sits on a wooden table inside the house. We pass the colourful banners that will guide the funeral procession, made from patterned bedsheets and coloured paper. Then finally we pass the domed wooden coffin, brightly painted in red, white and yellow and covered with paper offerings. I look carefully at the faces of the women keeping the dead one company, but I see neither our guide nor her sister amongst the group. I feel great relief.
The villagers stare at us dispassionately. This is no ordinary day, but it is part of the yearly cycle of life, growth, and death. As the rice passes from green, to gold, and then to brown, they have seen death many times and are not afraid. For now it is just important to celebrate the life that has passed and guide it on its way to the afterlife with as much noise and celebration as possible. 

Mountain Breakfast

I love a Chinese breakfast, and I rarely get to eat one thanks to the cereal-and-toast lovers I live with. Occasionally, when travelling, I luck out and we stay in someplace with no western food whatsoever. How very delicious. Millet congee with pickles, fried bread, and cong you bing, a kind of savoury fried pancake. This breakfast also came with sweet corn, grown on the terrace just below us, and a big pot of smoky dark Longji cha, the local tea.

They actually ate it too, initially out of desperation born of starvation, then out of surprise, then out of enjoyment. Fiona, 1. Cereal-and-toast lovers, nil. 

Zhongliu Village, Longji

The rice terraces of Longji are scattered all over with small villages. From Dazhai at the mountain’s base, through Tiantouzhai to Qiang Bei at the mountain’s top, and another twenty or so . For no other reason than it looked like the right distance for a walk between breakfast and dinner, we had decided to walk to Zhongliu Village, and had a lovely Yao woman from Tiantouzhai to guide us. 

The walk took three hours, along stone-paved mountain paths across rice terraces, over cold clear mountain streams, and through forest. Along the way we met the younger sister of our guide out working the family’s rice terrace, alongside her fifteen year old son who was finishing off a log bridge across one of the streams. They live in Zhongliu but their terrace is over an hours’ walk away from their home. The two sisters decided to walk the rest of the way together, chatting all the while in their Yao dialect. 

When we reached Zhongliu, it was now mid-afternoon and we were starving. We could smell cooking smoke as we walked down the hill towards the village, and imagined sitting down at a little mountain inn just like in Dazhai, tucking into some mountain food. Except that Dazhai receives hundreds of tourists each year, and Zongliu, practically none. As we turned the corner we realised that the sum total of Zhongliu is four houses. Population thirteen. Nowhere to eat!

Except that this is a small mountain village, not Shanghai, and the Yao people are extremely hospitable. Our guide’s sister took us into her home and made us a late lunch of freshly laid eggs stir-fried with wild greens, home smoked bacon (cut from a blackened hunk of flesh hanging above the fireplace) with beans, and a wild water vegetable with garlic. All washed down with Longji smoked tea first, then tianjiu, a kind of fermented rice wine served warm in bowls.

Our guide’s sister
Tamped earth lower floor with a chicken basket
The kitchen wall
A neighbour dropped in with her twin grandchildren when she heard we were there. This means the house now holds 60% of the village population. Despite her traditional appearance, the embroidered pouch at her waist is for her mobile phone.

Wild greens stir-fried over the flames
A shared lunch, with thanks.

Yao Women, Longji

I meet a lovely Yao woman whilst out walking. Chinese is also her second language, so we understand each other surprisingly well – she speaks Yaohua, the Yao dialect in her everyday life. She and her relatives live in the twenty house village below our guesthouse, Tiantouzhai. 
The villages in the rice terraces seem populated largely by these wonderful and beautiful long-tressed women and their young children, and I wonder where all the men have gone. She tells me her husband is in faraway Guangdong province, working to support their twenty-three year old daughter  in her college studies.  Between she and her elderly mother they manage to bring in between one and two hundred yuan each year, from rice growing and the occasional work guiding tourists like us between the rice terrace villages, whose paths can be confusing. That’s somewhere around $17 to $34 in a year. They survive by growing everything they need themselves – rice, corn, pigs, and chickens.
I ask if she will guide us to a village a few hours’ walk away – Zhongliu – and she readily agrees. She’s not busy, she tells me. Her suggested price is sixty yuan, and I agree – she will take us there and back. 
But first we visit her home so she can tidy up out of her workclothes, and check on her eighty year old mother.

Her home is typical for these hills – a large, rectangular three-storey house built from mountain pine, with carved wooden latticed windows and heavy cross beams, and a roof tiled in the dark grey curved terracotta tiles used all over China. It was built by her grandfather. The ground level is for livestock, here just one pig. We climb the heavy wooden stairs to the first floor. The house is old, as old as her mother, and seems silent and dark. No husband, no children, and no grandchildren to bring it alive. The central area is for living, with sleeping quarters at one end, and the kitchen at the other. The wooden floors are worn with age, and light filters in through the lattice carved with birds and flowers to a corner of the room where her mother sits on a short wooden stool.
The old lady has a beautiful face, worn by years and cares, but holding a gentleness and grace. Her ears hang long with her heavy silver hoops, and she has a silver bracelet on each wrist. Her hair is grey now, but she still wears it in the traditional style with a knot at the front, and covered by a black headcloth embroidered in each corner. She shows me another headscarf she has embroidered – the stitches are so tiny I cannot imagine how she could see them,  and each minutely cross-stitched corner square is about 15mm across. The fastenings on her simple black shirt are in the same colours. 

Around her waist she wears a bright pink handwoven sash with tasselled ends, tied at the back with the tassels hanging down. Her daughter wears the more usual finely accordian-pleated black skirt with small embroideries, but her mother feels the chill mountain air at night, and prefers simple black trousers for comfort. 
Her daughter checks a last time that her mother has all she needs before we set out for our walk. Her mother smiles and grasps my hand strongly as I say good-bye. We set out on the path, and ahead of me the daughter’s skirt and colourful sash swish from side to side up the mountain path.

Seven Dragons and Five Tigers French Fries, Longji

This post is dedicated to my good friend Dr S, who has spent a fair bit of her spare time all over the world in search of the perfect french fries, or hot chips as they’re known in Australia. I’m happy to tell you, Dr S, that I’ve found them! 
But the caveat – you’ll need to take a 10 hour flight, then a 22 hour train ride, then spend 4 hours in a bombed-out minibus hurtling around narrow mountain roads, and then, a heart-stopping 2 hours’ uphill walk. Then you may eat the world’s best as you gaze out over the Longji Seven Dragons and Five Tigers rice terraces, as a cooling breeze flows gently past.
Why are they the best? I’ve analyzed this carefully. They taste wonderfully familiar yet with flavours quite uniquely other-wordly, that I suspect cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
Firstly the potatoes – grown on the mountainside and fed with clear mountain spring water, they have more bite when cooked than regular potatoes. The oil used is pretty normal cooking oil, but has deep fried garlic, finely chopped, added to it. Secondly the genius extra of chopped smoked chillies, taken from above the kitchen fireplace. The guesthouse’s famous dish is an entire chicken cooked inside a piece of bamboo, and as this smokes away in the coals below the chillies it must impart a very special flavour. Lastly, the whole lot is tossed in a wok with fried spring onions, salt, and more fried garlic.
I tried them again the following day, and I’m afraid to report that this had been a once-off, never-to-be-repeated culinary experience. They came out looking like any old french fries. Obviously, in French Fry Heaven, the Dragons and Tigers constellation only aligns once every dynasty. Sorry, Dr S. 

Climbing the Dragon’s Backbone

Sometimes in your travels you have the chance to experience a place so incredible the memory will never leave you. The Dragon’s Backbone (Longji) is such a place – these ancient rice terraces north of Guilin in the far reaches of Guangxi province are almost one thousand years old, built entirely by the hands of the local Zhuang and Yao people, and still worked in exactly the same manner today as then. 

Places like this are never easy to get to of course, and from Yangshuo it’s about four hours’ drive through smaller and smaller winding country roads, across several landslides, past a number of alarming traffic accidents, and through searing heat rising from the asphalt. When the road begins to climb higher, higher, and higher, I feel my anxiety increase, particularly after we pass a crane pulling a compressed version of our car from the bottom of a ravine.

But I can also feel the oppressive heat and humidity of Yangshuo dropping away and the air becomes ‘liang kuai’ – cool. We drive alongside a clear green mountain stream where children areswimming while their mother picks some wild green vegetables nearby. Even so, I am quite relieved to get out of the car at the entrance to Dazhai village.

Dazhai is home to the Yao minority, whose women have their hair cut once, on their first birthday, and never again. Their long black hair is wound into an intricate style around their heads and fastened behind a front knot with a heavy black bone comb. Over this is worn a tightly fitting black headcloth, embroidered in each corner with brightly coloured thread. The women wear heavy hand-made silver jewellery – the silver loops in their ears elongate their earlobes, and they carry simple silver bracelets on each wrist.

We walk up through the village guided by several of the local women, who have given us the bad news that our guest house is a further two hours’ walk uphill all the way. For thirty yuan each, they negotiate to carry our bags in baskets strapped to their backs. I feel very guilty about this, until it is pointed out to me that this is how they make extra money when there is no work to be done on the rice terraces. We follow them along narrow stone paths past rice fields just sprouting, past their beautiful wooden houses built on stilts wedged into the hillside, past pigs, chickens and children playing. The women chat away as they walk, their wiry legs finding no struggle with the thousand metres climb.
We pass the first terraces, carved into the hillside like contour lines. Each terrace is fed by a mountain stream, diverted to feed the rice and keep its feet wet, and then the clear water runs down the subtlest of gradients into the next terrace. An ancient and efficient irrigation system, honed over centuries.

The scale of the terraces is hard to judge from photographs, but each terrace is about one and a half metres high. In the photo above, the small yellow-coloured dot in the lower right half of the picture is a local man working his terrace. The larger white dot below and to his left is a pile of equipment.

The vilage is now way below us and we climb closer to the low clouds. We pass through the next village, Tiantouzhai, and upwards again for another hour, past more beautiful wooden houses and along ever narrower stone paths set into steeper and steeper hills. We are truly up in the heavens now, and as we arrive on the terrace of our guest house after two gruelling hours the magnificence of this place becomes obvious, and I can see the dragon stretched out below us, coiling his way down the hill and around into the valley.

Yangshuo Cooking School

For me, cooking is almost as much fun as eating, and after trying the local specialty here in Yangshuo, Pijiu Yu, I wanted to learn how to make it. The Yangshuo Cooking School offers  a hands-on class making five dishes in their open air countryside classroom just outside of Yangshuo. 

To begin with we take a tour through Yangshuo’s wet market with our teacher Jennifer (above). The market is enormous and sells fresh fish and vegetables in one hall, and meat and spices in the other. The vegetables are piled in abundant fresh heaps – and there are many things I’ve never seen in Shanghai – pumpkin flowers, baby taro, tender pink-tipped baby ginger, water vines, and wild greens. The spices are incredible too – sacks of cassia bark, giant star anise, cloves, buddha’s fruit and sichuan pepper. We buy what we need for the morning’s class, including a huge flapping catfish, and make our way back to the school.

The kitchen is in the courtyard of an old village house, and looks out over a thriving vegetable garden with fruit trees, and across rice fields to the mountains. The kitchen sink is a heavy rough-hewn stone tub in the courtyard with a softly dripping tap. We have a refreshing cup of local tea on the open-air terrace before setting to work.

Our workstations are already neatly set up with all the ingredients we’ll need for the first dish – stuffed pumpkin flowers. We gently stuff the flowers with a pork mixture, the fold over the petals one by one and hold the whole lot together with a piece of edible pumpkin stalk. We set these aside to be steamed and move on to the next three dishes – eggplant Yangshuo style with garlic and chilli-blackbean paste, chicken with nuts and vegetables, and stir-fried wild greens with garlic. Jennifer is a good teacher and all the dishes are simple to prepare under her direction. We eat as we go, taking each dish out on to the terrace to enjoy.

It’s then finally time for the dish I’ve been waiting for…pijiu yu – fish in beer. The ingredients are shown below – a piece of fresh fish with skin on, tomatoes, sliced red and green peppers, sliced pickled chillies, ginger, garlic, spring onions, and of course beer. Jennifer tells us that Guinness is no good for this dish – it really needs a light ale. 

The fish is first fried skin down until the skin begins to brown, then the ginger and garlic are added, and as their aroma develops, we follow with the tomatoes, peppers, chillies and the beer. When the beer has reduced and all that remains is a rich sauce it’s time to put the spring onions in and serve. Dead easy, delicious. 

If you ever have the chance to visit Yangshuo, you can find more information about the lovely Yangshuo Cooking School here.

Rafting the Yulong River

The gorgeous Yulong River meanders pretty slowly down to its meeting with the LI River – perfect for taking a bamboo raft and opting out for two hours while a bamboo-poled boatman guides the raft along.

The raft station is not far from our digs at The Giggling Tree. As soon as our bicycles turn into the gate we are gently besieged by aged local women selling a very odd assortment of items. Firstly, there are woven floral head-dresses made that morning from fresh flowers. You can wear these as you raft, if the fancy takes you, and for some reason they are most popular amongst young men –  I suspect it’s a kind of dare-double dare-you thing, they certainly look completely ridiculous and all their mates laugh at them. But they wear them anyway, so perhaps the old ladies tell them it’s a sign of virility. 

The second odd item is a plastic walking stick. Why you’re going to need a walking stick while sitting on a raft is a mystery to me, until someone dips one in the river, then squirts me head to toe with river water. It’s a giant siphon with a plunger inside- having never really grown up, Chinese tourists pay a fortune to act like kids again.

Our chifu (boatmaster) chooses us, rather than the other way around, and off we go. Our bamboo raft has two reclining chairs, two worn-out orange life-vests, and a large, rainbow
sun umbrella, with our bikes balanced on the back. The boatman picks up an easy rhythm – the bamboo pole plunges deep into the water, strikes bottom and he pushes us off, then gently pulls the pole free and repeats the same manoeuvre on the other side. The first few minutes pass quietly by with just the sound of the water lapping the sides of the raft.

Up ahead I see a a lady sitting on her raft in the middle of the river, fishing I think. As we near, I realise she’s fishing for business. Her cries of ‘Pijiu! Shui! Kele!’ turn to ‘Helloooo! Helloooooo! Beeeeeeeer you want? Watuh! Kellllluh!’ as she waves a bottle of Pepsi at us from her tub of drinks. There is a drink seller stationed every twenty metres along this stretch, about fifty in all. The peacefulness evaporates. 
Not far from where the drink sellers end, I see what looks like several rafts lashed together with a tent over the top. It’s a floating barbecue fish restaurant, with a tiny chargrill barbecue and miniature chairs. He calls out to us as we pass – ‘ Hello! barbecue fish? beer? kelluh? Hello!’ I politely decline but there are another twenty to float past. This could be a really long boat ride. 

Then something different appears, although at first glance it looks like a barbecue fish raft, only slightly bigger, and with a larger tent. We get closer, and I see someone is perched on the edge of the raft taking our photograph as we tilt down a small weir. Our chifu motions for us to stop, and we clamber off our raft and into the floating tent. Inside? A 160gb pentium processed computer, a photo printer and a laminator, all powered by a floating generator. Churning out photo after photo of floating tourists just like us for 20 yuan a piece. If there is anyone out there who thinks China is some sort of third world backwater, get real. Not long after this our neighbouring boatmen takes a call on his iPhone.

It is eventually very peaceful again, once we’ve passed the Yulong River High Street and settled into a stretch with nothing but other boats, and the glorious sunshine, blue sky, and mountains. 

Yangshuo Beer Fish – Pijiu Yu

The food in Yangshuo doesn’t disappoint. The local specialty, pijiu yu or beer fish, is a tasty concoction made with local river fish, usually catfish. The clean waters around here make for very fine fish which are fried first with ginger and garlic, then a good slosh of the local LiQuan beer is added, along with tomatoes, red and green peppers, spring onions and in this case, tofu. It’s lip-smackingly good, particularly if taken with a glass of afore-mentioned LiQuan.

The restaurant where this was served sits right on the banks of the YuLong River, a smaller, impossibly picturesque tributary of the Li River. The ‘dining room’ is a series of open air pavillions perched over the water, and the ‘kitchen’ nothing more than a shack with a few gas bottles attached to a giant wok. The fish are kept fresh and alive by the continuous stream of river water from the water wheel, handy for washing the vegetables too.

The kitchen with its water wheel

The tasty little catfish
The view from our dining room

We ate the fish with another local specialty, a soup made from pumpkin flowers and stalks with a light and subtle flavour. When lunch was over we stripped down to our swimming togs and jumped through the ‘window’ and straight into the river for a swim. What a genius idea to combine the two things I most love – eating and swimming! Open air dining reaches a whole new level.

Yangshuo and the Li River

Yangshuo is a small town by Chinese standards – practically a village, with only 300,000 people. It sits by the bank of the magnificent blue green Li River and is surrounded on all sides by those incredible limestone peaks. They have great names, as all Chinese peaks do – Dragon’s Head Mountain, Nine Horse Painted Hill, and Young Scholar Mountain. 

At the town’s heart are the twin peaks of Man Hill and Lady Hill (the fancy names apparently do have a limit)and not far from here is pedestrian-only Xi Jie (West Street), lined with shops selling antiques, souvenirs, and clothing and artifacts from the minority Miao and Dong tribespeople. Although the remaining ethnic minorities live in villages some way from Yangshuo, their culture is strongly felt here. Each embroidered piece of clothing tells a history about the wearer’s family, their past, and their hopes for the future. I would love to find some small beautiful piece while I’m here, but I’m hoping to buy from the villagers themselves, rather than line the pockets of a wealthy Yangshuo tourist shop owner.

We head further down Xi Jie to the Li River’s bank to try and catch a breath of breeze. Make no mistake – southern China bakes like an oven all summer and July is the hottest of all. It’s 40 degrees and close to 100% humidity. Normal activities, like, say, breathing, generate a layer of sweat that only increases with any activity above simply standing still. Now I know how those buns inside the steamer basket feel. 

Down by the river the clear water looks cool and inviting, and on the water’s edge is a local character – the cormorant fisherman – who will pose for a photo for 2 yuan. Every now and then he dips one cormorant or the other into the river to cool it down, and I wonder to myself if I were to hang on tightly to one end of his bamboo pole, whether I too could have a dip without finding myself swept away by the current and into the South China Sea…….