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After a bumpy, often nerve-wracking bus ride from Guilin through the twist and turns of Guangxi’s countryside roads, we arrive at Dazhai Village just after noon. The women of the local Yao minority, sturdy looking baskets on their backs, crowd around the vehicle immediately, making sure that nobody gets out of the bus without passing through them first. They wear heavy silver earrings and have their famous waist-length hair wrapped around their head in an intricate turban of dark locks covered by a simple piece of deep black fabric. If the woman is single, all the hair is covered, if she is married, she leaves a big bun visible on the top of her head.
The dresses are historical, with long years of tradition attached to them, consisting of a knee-length pleated skirt and a top made like a quilt, patched together and rimmed by different fabrics, most of them some shade of pink and black. Some combine the outfit with leggings, a sash tied around the waist, colourful shoes or other accessories thrown in here and there, others wear their garb plain and simple. The expressions of the Yao women are cheerful as they crowd around the bus, asking travellers if they need anything transported up the mountain. Prices are cheap, but I decide to pass on the offer, as I only brought along a daypack with my camera and a change of clothes. I marvel at how nice the ladies are, offering their services with out being annoyingly pushy and I’m glad that I’m not in Southeast Asia any more, where I’d have been plagued by annoying hellos and pleases all the way up the mountain.
I set off in peace though, and only once in a while a passing Yao woman points at the woven basket on her back while nodding at my backpack. Every time, they soon move on with a smile after I have declined, while I continue panting and sweating, each step pressing the straps of the backpack deeper into my shoulders and making me consider a porter after all.
It is a wet afternoon. Mist hangs heavy in the air and mingles with the sweat on my skin. I can barely see the path ahead and the famed rice terraces are hidden behind a wall of white. Dazhai Village at the bottom of the valley, as well as all the other settlements further up, seem like they got plucked out of a time long gone and transported right into modern China. Far away from pollution, noise, traffic and crowds, time stands still here. The large wooden buildings crowd together on the hills, stacked on top and next to each other as if they want to be as close as possible with no room in between. The paths leading through the villages are narrow and twisted, made of slippery slabs of stone, rickety stairs and dirt paths. Yao women feed ducks in courtyards and shaggy dogs sleep peacefully, guarding the doorways with eyes lazily blinking open at passing footsteps. In the distance, a cable car makes its way up the rice terraces. Although it is running, nobody seems to use it and somehow it feels wrong that it is there at all, the only thing reminding me that I didn’t actually time travel into the Ming Dynasty over 500 years ago.
My goal is Tiantou Village, about halfway up the mountain and a 40 minute walk from Dazhai Village. A couple guesthouses and hostels offer accommodation for the night, and since I’ve heard that a visit to the Longji Rice Terraces wouldn’t be complete without seeing a sunrise, I decided to book a couple nights at the Dragon’s Den Hostel. Now I’m glad to have the extra time, as the mist clings as strong as ever to the mountains and doesn’t show any signs of clearing up soon.
The next day dawns just as misty, but since the alarm clock and excited voices outside have already dragged me out of the comfortable bed onto the cold, wooden floor, I decide to grab the camera anyway and make my way to a viewpoint another 30 minutes uphill. I hope, that by the time I’d get there, the rising temperatures would, with some luck, make the mists lift long enough for me to get a couple of shots in. Just as I set out, I feel the Dumplings from last night grumble in my stomach and I suppress the urge to vomit. I had always had trouble with getting up early, often feeling nauseous and all the exercise certainly does not help.
At the viewpoint, I cling to my tripod, staring into the mists. And just as I’m about to give up, head home to drop back into bed and and call this day a failure, something in the air changes. It is still fairly dark, mist lingering moist and heavy around me, but I feel a breeze. A slight movement of air indicates that something is happening. The mists are rising up and out of the valley, leaving a layer of white below and above. I am in the middle of it, with finally, the Dragon’s Backbone with it’s many scales of overlapping and interchanging rice terraces glittering like scales in the early morning light. All around me, the rice terraces, hundreds upon hundreds of them, cover the hills in intricate patterns of sweeps, swirls, circles and waves. It is like looking at a real life painting, with greens so deep they seem unnatural, the jumble of wooden houses in the distance and the mists threatening to close in again. Then they do and the world becomes white again. I’m happy though, to have caught that glimpse of otherworldly beauty, as I stumble back towards Tiantou for a rendevouz with the toilet.