High up in the hills of Lóngshèng in Guăngxī Province of China, among mists and clouds sits a small village of Ping’An. At an altitude of about 1,000m (over 3,000ft) it is safely nestled in between steep slopes. Actually, calling it a village might be going too far – it’s a hamlet composed of large family houses with few inhabitants. Most of the people living here belong to the Zhuàng minority. The Zhuàng people, or 壮族, constitute only 1 of 56 recognised national minorities of China, but at the same time are the largest minority of the country.
I set off early in the morning from the city of Guìlín (桂林), the capital of Guăngxī Province. It’s warm yet cloudy day in the middle of June. As the air is quite muggy it’s really easy to break sweat. I take a slightly worse-for-wear rickety long-distance coach to Lóngshèng county up north. The distance is just under 90kms and it takes me about 2 hours to reach my destination. Once in Lóngshèng town I look for a minivan with which to continue to towards my destination. Sadly, with my basic Mandarin skills I manage to learn that a van has just left in that direction and I might need to wait even an hour or more until a sufficient number of people gathers up to fill the next van. There doesn’t seem to be any timetable here – in rural areas vans servicing local destinations depart on demand, i.e. once there’s large enough a number of paying passengers. Because Lóngshèng town hasn’t really got much to offer, I resolve not to wait. With my barely conversational Mandarin – which keeps bringing appreciative smiles to many Chinese faces – I ask around for alternative means of transport. Finally, one of the drivers on a break points my in the right direction and I catch a van that goes more less where I want. And so, after another half hour’s ride through the Chinese countryside and a few villages, where people pack baskets and chickens into the van, I end up at the foot of the hills it is my plan to reach. However, there’s a little problem I’m facing now: I am supposed to have ended up my journey near the summit! Anxious not to lose any precious time I begin a brisk walk uphill, all the while trying to ignore the humidity. After a quarter of an hour, however, my luck turns around and I spot a teenager on a scooter driving down the road I’m climbing. I mange to intercept him and after driving a hard bargain – as you do in China – I get him to take my up the winding road to the entrance of the village of Ping’An, my final destination.
As we near the top, mists begin appearing around – it’s the clouds with which the summit is shrouded. After a relatively short drive we reach Ping’An and I pay my driver who quickly makes his exit. Everything’s very quiet here and it seems you could hear a pin drop. At the entrance to the village there are hardly any people, just a few bored but friendly local Zhuàng villagers manning a little parade of arts and crafts souvenir stalls.
There are all sorts of fabrics, pots, wooden sculptures and trinkets on sale here. Some less some more attractive, but mostly pleasing to the eye. As I am in the middle of backpacking across the country and really try to travel light, I have just a short browse and am again on my way. In general, I try to steer clear of souvenir shops, for fear I eventually succumb and embark on a shopping spree. Although my main backpack, which is waiting for me back in Guìlín, has still lots of room inside, what I really don’t need is to have to lug a bag that’s 8 months pregnant with souvenirs around the whole country.
Although the stalls mark Ping’An’s official entrance, the actual settlement is some 5-10 minutes climb away. I know that it is only the beginning of the real hike that awaits me, so I decide on a little rest before I start my ascent. I set off again and after a short while I turn a corner behind which Ping’An looms into view. The picture is simply stunning: I’m facing beautiful big wooden family houses perched on steep slopes that were transformed into rice terraces centuries ago. At times it seems that some of the houses sit precariously one on top of the other. I can also see various small winding paths leading uphill onto the famous Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.
I walk on and enter the village proper. There are a few people around, mostly women doing the laundry, who greet my with smiles. I slowly wend my way in between buildings, paying attention to all their architectural details. It’s only my 2nd week in China and I’m still not used to the way houses are built here. Everything’s new, every-thing’s different! The houses are large, all made of timber, each 3 or 4 floors high with windows running along the whole width and length of the buildings. Some have nice balconies too. A few are adorned with traditional red Chinese lanterns.
The village is quite small so I leave it soon, following paths that lead upwards. Whenever a path splits I choose one that seems to lead in the right direction – towards the highest hill. Even though there’s no sun, the heat and humidity of the season slows down my ascent.
As I climb the views around me become more and more amazing. I can see passing clouds between me and hills around me, rice terraces are everywhere and nestled in between them at my feet is Ping’An. Backpacking and independent travelling are really worth it if the views you get at the end of the day are such as these!
The rice terraces of Lóngshèng have two peaks that can serve as fantastic viewpoints. The first once is called Nine Dragons and Five Tigers while the second Seven Stars with Moon. Truly poetic Chinese names! Anyhow, I have no time to waste so I continue my sweaty hike.
Once I reach the Seven Stars with Moon viewpoint I take a rest before heading for Nine Dragons and Five Tigers. The surrounding panorama is just magnificent. The clouds and mists add mystery to the landscape.
I reach Nine Dragons and Five Tigers relatively quickly. The path from the other viewpoint led, luckily, across a fairly level ground. It gave me some well-deserved rest from all the tiresome climbing.
I stay for a while at the top enjoying the scenery around me – a just reward for my efforts. And there is a lot to enjoy indeed. Ping’An village just below looks absolutely stunning when set against the background of the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces. I feel as if was transported to some fairy tale land!
But why actually the terraces are called the Dragon’s Backbone? Well, apparently because the clusters of the terraces resemble the scales of a dragon’s hide, while the summit resembles a long and twisting spine of a dragon. The Chinese imagination is truly remarkable!
A time passes by and I decide to descend to the village from where I am to start my journey back to Guìlín city. On the way down I bump into a couple of Zhuàng women. They are carrying some eggs and other groceries as well as baskets with some textiles for sale they claim to have made themselves (although I have my doubts about that). Both women sport traditionally long hair tied around their heads in big bundles. They wear skirts and pink blouses – this is all part of the traditional costume of Zhuàng women. This encounter nicely rounded off my trip to Lóngshèng.
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