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Going with the Grain

The famed rice terraces of Guangxi are a cereal killer attraction at any time of year – but be sure to stay overnight to get the real flavour of the ancient villages

By Michael Jones Updated Dec.1

A panorama of Golden Buddha Peak over the Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region

Homes of the Red Yao community, near Ping’an, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region

Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations. Many choose to stay in the metropolis of Guilin, or the backpacker’s haven of Yangshuo, both of which offer plentiful access to modern hotel amenities and international cuisine. Then, from the comfort of their large hotels, tourists can join any number of coach parties taking day trips to the Ping’an and Longji Rice Terraces. Consequently, come 9am, the rice terraces are awash with crowds and the streets are jammed with traffic. Then, come 5pm, as swiftly as the hoards arrive, they disappear. 

For the local population, and the very few visitors who remain in the rice terraces after hours, the evenings are magical. Without the crowds, an air of tranquillity washes over the hills. The noise of traffic horns and crying children is replaced by the melody of a gentle breeze blowing through the rice paddies. Even the wildlife and farm animals seem attuned to this rhythm, for as the crowds disperse the medieval cobblestone alleyways fill with street cats, and colorful birds take to the sky.  

It is completely understandable that hundreds of thousands of people come to visit these rice terraces every year, because they are breathtakingly beautiful. What those visitors miss, however, is the pure essence of the experience. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to spend a full week in a small homestay in Ping’an Village. Considering the affordable nature of the hotel, I was exceptionally surprised by the high quality of the rooms and bathrooms. Even the internet was fast. The food in the hotel restaurant was high quality, although fellow vegetarians or vegans may wish to bring certain supplies to supplement what is locally available. Among the bestknown local specialties are wind-dried cobble fish, bamboo tube rice, smoked pork and sausages, and rice wine. 

Proud Heritage 
Nevertheless, despite its small size, and ancient wooden architecture, Ping’an offers a surprisingly broad range of amenities. Local shops supplied all the standard cornerstore produce, while bars provided karaoke opportunities and Western food such as pizza. All this felt rather odd, considering the wooden buildings resembled medieval architecture, and the cobbled streets were populated by as many loose chickens as people. But then, that is the charm of Ping’an. It is a village that is proud of its culture and heritage, proud of its ancient wooden architecture, but at the same time welcoming to curious outsiders, and keen to offer them creature comforts as a base to explore the famous rice terraces. ���

The name Ping’an and Longji Rice Terraces actually refers to numerous small villages and rice terrace areas spread across several valleys. The terraces trace their origins back more than 650 years, having been built from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) onwards, and were essentially completed in their present form during the early Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911). The dominant culture of the region is that of the Zhuang, whose people are in the majority. However, the five small villages around the Jinkeng Red Yao Terraces are, as the name suggests, populated predominantly by the Red Yao people. The area is between 300-1,100 meters above sea level, with the highest points affording some of the most spectacular views. Naturally, walking in such an environment requires a certain amount of uphill effort, with a maximum gradient of 50 degrees, however, many paths are built along the crest of hills and mountains, meaning that once you ascend (often a staircase), you are free to wander along mountain ridges at relative ease, taking in the supreme majesty of the vista.  

The prime viewing destinations for tourists are divided into two groups. The first is around Dazhai Village, and the Red Yao community, and consists of three primary viewpoints: the West Hill Music viewpoint, the Large-Scale Thousand-Layers Terraces viewpoint and the Golden Buddha Peak viewpoint. Simply hiking between these viewpoints takes a few hours, so could occupy a full day. The second area is based around the larger village of Ping’an, and includes the Seven Stars around the Moon viewpoint and the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers viewpoint. The Ping’an area is the busiest of the two, as Ping’an offers the most amenities. Nevertheless, do not be fooled, while the region may be bustling during the height of the tourist day, Ping’an is a quaint and delicate village out of hours, and provides all the peace and serenity that anyone could need. 

Time Warp 
Interestingly, my favorite walk within the entire area was not to any of the famous viewpoints, but rather to Longji Zhuang Ancient Village. The walk from Ping’an Village is clearly signposted and the path is relatively well maintained, yet is much quieter than the other signed walks, even during the peak times. The journey guides one through the rice terraces themselves, and across interesting streams, bridges and even a shrine. Of all the people I passed on the journey, at least half appeared to be farmers busy at work, rather than city tourists taking photographs. Once the walk gets closer to Longji Zhuang Ancient Village, you start to encounter fascinating ancient wooden houses and other buildings, before arriving in the completely unspoiled village itself. Were it not for the occasional small bilingual tourist information sign you could easily believe you had fallen into a time warp and arrived in rural China of the 1800s.  

Another advantage of visiting these rice terraces is that they are stunning at almost every time of year. For example, you could time your trip to coincide with the Longji Rapeseed Flower Festival, which takes place from March to April. Alternatively, you could enjoy the Longji Spring Ploughing Ceremony from May to June. Fundamentally the terraces change with the seasons and the harvests, but each stage of the process offers something different. May and June see the terraces flooded, creating a mirror to heaven, followed by July and August when the terraces are luminescent with their brilliant green. Meanwhile, in September and October you can see the magnificent golden slopes as the rice matures. Even winter holds something special, for the snow-covered terraces offer a brilliance bordering on the fantastical. However, if you have the flexibility to visit at any time then perhaps consider the most important day on the local calendar of the Red Yao people, the sixth day of the sixth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is known as the Red Clothes Festival, and is used by the Red Yao to remember their ancestors. As well as song and dance performances in the villages, the terraces are brought to life at night with magnificent flaming torches.