Life on the dragon's back

Carved into mountains over centuries, the rice terraces of Ping'an are a wonder of China, writes Diane Armstrong.

AFTER a hair-raising four-hour drive along a road that zigzagged around the edge of the mountains, we reached the end of our journey. Only an easy 20-minute walk up the stairs, our guide assured us, and we'd be in our hotel.

Night was falling and it was hard to see the uneven stairs hewn into the mountainside, which seemed to go on forever. We'd already been climbing for about 20 minutes when I looked up. At the top of the mountain, so high up that I had to tilt my head back to see them, were flickering coloured lights. Making a joke to lighten the atmosphere, I said: "I suppose that's our hotel up there."

It was.

As we trudged higher and higher, exhausted and fed up, I wondered how on earth the tour operator had ever found this godforsaken place and, more to the point, why?

But the following morning, when I looked out of the window of our chalet-like inn, I caught my breath. Now I knew why we'd come.

In the early-morning light, swathed in mist, mountains rose around us and every inch of them was sculpted into narrow ribbons of rice terraces that coiled, twisted and curled all the way around the slopes from the base to the summit, creating a mosaic of green and yellow as far as I could see.

We were in the remote mountain village of Ping'an, in a spectacular region of China known as the Dragon's Backbone Terraces. About four hours' drive from Guilin, this is an area where the magnificence of nature has been transformed into a work of art by ingenuity, resilience and back-breaking labour. The Zhuang people began carving the mountains into rice paddies more than 700 years ago using an ingenious system of irrigation and today these rice terraces are a wonder of China. Ping'an is the centre of this region.

Our hotel, the Countryside Inn, is on the only street in the village and as soon as I go outside I'm bowled over by what I see. This place is so picturesque and the people so different that wherever I look, there are scenes waiting to be photographed and recorded.

This area is inhabited by the minority Yao and Zhuang people, who continue their traditional rural lifestyle. Many of the Yao women still wear concertina-pleated black skirts, black leggings and scarlet-trimmed jackets and twist their thick, floor-length jet-black hair in the distinctive style of their tribe.

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Steep flights of stairs radiate crookedly in all directions and dirt paths thread across the valley, up the slopes and through the rice fields. Tall wooden houses on stilts teeter on the edge of the steep slopes, bundles of golden corn cobs hang from the eaves and crimson chillies are spread out on rooftops and terraces, drying in the sun. There's no traffic and apart from horses and donkeys, the only beasts of burden are the locals who haul enormous loads on their backs or carry lazy tourists up the mountain in bamboo sedan chairs.

As I turn each corner, I see tiny women carrying baskets of glistening, freshly cut tofu, stripping bamboo into string or bending under the weight of huge wicker baskets suspended from their shoulders.

Though their lives are hard, they look contented and greet us with friendly smiles as we pass.

Everything takes place outside. Across from our hotel, four elderly Zhuang women in towelling turbans sit on a bench all day, laughing and chatting as they wash and trim baskets full of shallots, herbs and spinach and tie them into neat bunches. I lose count of the times an elderly man leads his patient horse back and forth, delivering cases of beer, packs of bottled water and boxes of soft drinks to the village store, which stocks everything from nails, hammers and rubber hoses to Western-brand shampoo, soft drinks, potato crisps and blueberry tea.

From our window, just before breakfast, I see a farmer leading his pig along a dirt path and a moment later, I hear its terrified squealing. By the time I've had breakfast, chunks of fresh pork are lying on the butcher's street stall next door, with a dog waiting hopefully in front of it.

In a nearby courtyard, men and women squat on the ground preparing the local speciality, bamboo rice. After stuffing hollow bamboo tubes with a mixture of rice, mushrooms and chicken or pork, they grill them over fire in a charcoal burner to give the rice a delicious smoky flavour.

It's time for our hike across the rice fields. Our guide is Mrs Pan, a vivacious woman with a hearty laugh who is dressed in the traditional Yao costume, with her long black hair twisted several times around her head.

With each step as we follow her up the steep stairs leading out of the village, the vista of rice terraces all around becomes more breathtaking. The early-morning mist has lifted and the fields are a patchwork quilt of emerald, lime, citrus, gold and ochre. I keep thinking the view can't get any more spectacular but, as we climb, it does.

High on one of the ridges among the rice fields we come to Mrs Pan's wooden farmhouse. In the kitchen, she cooks eggplant, potatoes and pork in a blackened pot over an open fire on the ground.

I'm thrilled by the simplicity of this timeless scene until a phone rings and she takes her mobile from her pocket then proceeds to chat with her daughter. She is already a grandmother because she married very young but, because she was below the legal age, she had to pay a fine to the local council.

After the hike, my husband Michael and I wander around the village. After spending several weeks in China's mega-cities, impressed by their technological development, dazzling modern architecture and rampant consumerism, it's refreshing to visit a remote rural community that has retained its traditional character and lifestyle.

But tourism has found its way here: as we wander around, I hear Italian, French, German and Dutch being spoken and the bamboo scaffolding on building sites indicates new guesthouses are springing up.

The stairs leading up to the lookouts resemble a bazaar. Colourful stalls are heaped with irresistible merchandise and souvenirs: finely pleated skirts, embroidered tablecloths, pottery ornaments, lacquer chopsticks and bowls and leather wallets. The goods are ridiculously cheap and after some good-natured bargaining, we pay about half or one-third of the asking price. It's a pleasure to browse because the hawkers are pleasant and don't hassle us to buy.

At one stall, a cute three-year-old girl calls out "Hello!" and tries to engage us in conversation as she holds up a tablecloth to tempt us.

There are small cafes and restaurants perched on the edge of the mountain and, whenever we stop for a drink and gaze at the view, I'm enveloped by a sense of peace that makes me as though feel I've stepped into another world. In this enclave it's easy to forget that this is a country where the leaders suppress dissent and human rights.

The people in Ping'an are delightfully friendly and don't seem to mind us taking their photos, walking on to their terraces to look at the view, wandering into their courtyards or stepping on to the rice paddies to watch them planting. Michael is so enraptured by what he sees that he doesn't stop taking photographs and we're both taken aback when a young Chinese girl asks shyly if she can take a photo of us.

At the Green Garden Coffee House, the chatty owner tells us he has recently returned to this village, where his grandparents have spent all their lives.

"I like relaxing life here," he says. As we sip our coffee, mesmerised by the view and the serene atmosphere, I know exactly how he feels in this Shangri-la.

The writer travelled to China courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Beijing via Singapore. Air China and China Southern Airlines have daily flights from Beijing to Guilin.

You can reach the Dragon's Backbone Terraces by car from Guilin or by local bus from Longsheng.

Staying there

The Countryside Inn has simple but comfortable rooms with bathrooms and its pleasant restaurant offers tasty Western as well as Chinese meals. The staff are obliging and internet access is free for guests — if you can figure out how to use a Chinese computer.

Touring there

Peregrine Adventures' 21-day Passage through China tour starts in Beijing, ends in Hong Kong and includes two nights in Ping'an. The tour costs $3580 a person, twin share, land only. It includes all accommodation, arrival transfer, transport, three overnight train trips and one internal flight; all breakfasts and some meals; a Peregrine tour leader and local guides. There are regular departures April-October. 1300 854 500, peregrineadventures.com.

When to go

Early summer is best as heavy mists in spring and autumn can obscure the view of the rice terraces; otherwise, late spring-late autumn.

Walking and hiking

Walks around Ping'an are suitable for people of all fitness levels. And if you can't climb stairs, you can hire a sedan chair to the summit. An easy one-hour circuit takes you to Viewpoints 1 and 2, which are clearly marked. More ambitious walkers can take the day hike down to Heping.

Luggage

It's best to leave suitcases in Guilin and bring only overnight bags to Ping'an. But if you bring heavy bags, as soon as you get out of the car at the foot of the mountain you'll be besieged by eager porters clamouring to carry them in their huge wicker baskets for 20 yuan (about $3).

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