This is a big call, but I’m going to say it – if you only see one other place in China besides the Great Wall, it should be here, the Yuanyang region of Yunnan. (My husband, reading over my shoulder as I type this, is harrumphing and disagreeing – “What about the Terracotta Warriors? The Lost Library of Dunhuang? All of Shanghai??)
He has a point – for a place that is five hours out of your way from either Kunming or the Xishuangbanna region, you need a solid commitment to go. But we wandered into the area with absolutely no plans to do more than a day trip and left five days later. It hooks you like that.
I’m going to give you five good reasons you should consider going to all that bother.
1. The Rice Terraces 梯田
An incredible feat of agricultural engineering over 1300 years old, Yuanyang’s rice terraces are just simply spectacular. If you thought the Great Wall was an impressive man-made structure imagine these terraces, folded in and out of deep mountain valleys, in some places more than three thousand layered terraces extend upwards from the valley floor like mirrored steps leading to the sky.
In winter and early spring before the rice sprouts and turns the terraces a vivid green, the water reflects the sky, clouds and stars in an ever-changing array of pale colours.
The terraces are reached via the small town of Xinjie, from which they can be viewed at various sites along a loop road. The viewing platforms afford great views without disrupting the terraces themselves or the work of the farmers.
2. Rice 米
Not just an attraction for tourists, Yuanyang is one giant living, breathing rice farm, worked by the thousands of local villagers for whom rice is their livelihood. Rice gets planted, tended, watered, the seedlings transplanted, watered more, and finally harvested in a long cycle from early spring through to late autumn.
Given that rice has been a staple food in China for several thousand years, and China is the world’s greatest producer and greatest consumer of rice it’s fascinating to see first hand just how it’s grown, using the same centuries-old methods.
The rice terraces will appear quite different depending on the time of year you visit – busy with farmers planting seedlings in spring, green and lush in summer, golden brown in autumn and busy again with autumn harvesting, in late autumn through winter and early spring the terraces are still ponds of reflected water.
3. The Hani People 哈尼族
One of China’s many ethnic minorities, in Yuanyang the Hani constitute just over 50% of the population and are originally of Tibetan origin.
Smiling, open, friendly and relaxed, the Hani (and local Yi people, who constitute the second largest ethnic group in the area) are one of the best reasons to visit Yuanyang, seeing life is it is for these traditional farmers. Tourism is gradually increasing but still plays a distant second fiddle to the area’s main business – rice cultivation.
The men have mostly taken to wearing western-style clothing outside of festival occasions, but the Hani women and children of both sexes still wear traditional clothing – a heavily embroidered tunic fastened with large silver buttons made from old coins, and trousers with bands of embroidery below the knee. The women wear head dresses of various kinds depending on their area of origin (see below).
4. A Hani Long Table Feast 哈尼长街宴
Now I don’t want to get your hopes up but if you happen to be visiting Yuanyang in October, November or December you may be lucky enough to ctach one of the dozens of Long Table Feasts during those months. Each village holds their own at different times.
On our way to the area we stopped in Honghe, where every local we met invited us to attend the nearby annual Long Table Feast in the village of Jiayinxiang, an hour away – awfully kind of them seeing as it wasn’t actually their feast they were celebrating, a little like inviting complete strangers to your next door neighbour’s wedding without asking them first.
We went anyway, because it sounded like the sort of wedding party you could, as complete strangers, crash without offending anyone, and we were right.
The entrance to the village was decked with bunting and the pathways laid with fir branches, so your feet stirred up a lovely pine scent as you walked. Later in the evening it would become clear what a very good idea this was.
While we were still trying to work out exactly where the feast was taking place a procession began – locals dressed in festival best, dancing, tapping sticks, banging drums, waving branches of ripened rice, and singing. We were caught up in the procession of hundreds of revellers that followed them and were carried off down the street.
Rounding a corner we suddenly saw just exactly how long the Long Table Feast was. On either side of the crowd-filled street were long rows of low wicker tables, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty end on end, and every one groaning with Hani festive foods – small crisp-fried fish, poached chicken, roast duck, boiled peanuts, rounds of corn, and lichen salads in small bowls.
Everyone – bar very small children – was drinking white bowls of rice wine. Lots of them. The toasts started with a shout at one end of the street and spread in a Mexican wave to the other end as each table stood in rapid succession to toast the table next to them. The food had barely been touched and almost everyone was already red-cheeked and rolling drunk, telling funny stories, singing songs and toasting again and again as Mexican waves rolled up and down the street.
It looked like terrific fun but the only problem for us was that every single seat was taken and non-local Chinese visitors to the feast all seemed to possess a pre-purchased ticket. Dang. We knew there’d be a catch and someone would figure out we weren’t invited.
We stopped two young Hani women to ask if in fact there were any remaining tickets to be had, and they promptly, in typical hospitable Hani fashion, took us back to their house and fed us there. Imagine calling your mother to say you were bringing a family of four to Christmas dinner, and you’d be there in five minutes? Christmas fireworks indeed.
But not in Hani households, where low tables were set up in the open ground floor room of their house, clustered with bowls of roast pork, pickled greens, wild herbs, roasted walnuts, fried fish, spicy duck and a fiery, intense dipping suace of fermented tofu and pickled chilies.
The toasting continued unabated, we all had a rollicking good time and eventually over the course of the evening met all the relations and neighbours and friends of relations, whose job seemed to be to go from house to house, eating a little and drinking a lot.
Needless to say we slept that night in the campervan, parked outside the village.
5. Did I mention the rice terraces? 元阳梯田
There’s just no denying they are extraordinarily beautiful no matter what time of day. In the early morning clouds creep up from the valleys below and at night, the perfect stillness of the water reflects the silvery moon and the tiny diamonds of the stars, sprinkled across the sky and sprinkled again across the land in their reflections. It’s magical.
Yuanyang Hani Rice Terraces元阳梯田
Near Xinjie township, Yunnan Province
Admission RMB 100 adults, children under 1.3m free of charge
Admission ticket covers all the rice terrace areas and is valid for the length of your stay
Accommodation is available in Xinjie (where you will need take a bus or hire a minivan from the main bus station to drive to, and then around the terraces) and also at small guesthouses in Shengcun and Pugaolao villages. In Pugaolao (see below), you are right at the top of the Duoyishu Terraces, one of the largest terraced areas, which means you can view subnrise and sunset from the comfort of your guesthouse balcony.