Stunning. Jaw-dropping. Magnificent. Just throw any superlative in there and it would not be wrong in describing the beauty of the rice terraces at Yuanyang Yunnan. Yuanyang seen in a misty dawn in a sea of thick clouds, Yuanyang at dusk with its water-logged terraces dressed in mauves and pinks or Yuanyang with its tribal residents and their many dogs, chickens, water buffalo and geese. You’re in the midst of a landscape that is constantly changing with the clouds and the wind; and yet nothing has actually changed much in a millenia. Leave the tourist overlooks, ignore the kid dressed in tribal clothes, her palm outstretched for a ‘photo fee’ and walk deep into the rice terraces, sit on a bank of earth, and have your own personal communion with the magnificence that rises all around you.
Getting to Yuanyang means a six or seven hour drive from Kunming but these rice terraces are well worth the journey. Just don’t make the same mistake we did with a hit-and-run single night in the terraces. For all the effort it takes to get there, it is well worth spending at least two nights in the villages, exploring the terraces and meeting the people who live and work there.
Our day started at 8.30am when our driver, Mr Xie, picked us up from our hotel in Kunming. The ride south was fast and smooth, going primarily on highways. We stopped for toilet breaks and petrol; happy to note that all the rest-stop loos were clean. The landscape was arid and rocky for a long stretch out of Kunming until we stopped for lunch at the industrial town of Gejiu. The streets were dusty but the restaurant served good food – or maybe we were just hungry. Further down, close to the turn-off for Yuanyang, we stopped for a break at a fruit market. All kinds of tropical fruit were on sale but we only had eyes for the tiny sweet mandarin oranges which were going for RMB10 for a kilo. That’s also where I made my first Alipay transaction with great satisfaction.
At ground level, the weather was noticeably warmer than Kunming. The night before we were all in our jackets but this afternoon, so close to the Vietnamese border, it was actually hot and hazy. Passing banana plantations and rivers, the driver took a sharp turn left and upwards. The road was narrow and the turns were sharp. About half an hour winding up and up, the views widened up into blue distant hills and we caught a first glimpse of Yuanyang, perched high above. Xie explained that Yuanyang was not actually one village but a whole area with many hamlets scattered on the sides rim of the hills. Xinjiezhen was the name of the main township but the rice terraces stretch much further beyond the town.
He told us to look out for the women of the tribes. They were hardy and strong and used to a life of hard work. Whether in the farms or on the many construction sites along the way, we would see them, dressed in their traditional tribal wear; doing all the heavy lifting. They were also expected to care for their homes and their families. Tourism is yet another income stream but these women are really tough cookies – physically and mentally – to juggle physically demanding work and demands on the homefront.
We arrived in Yuanyang in the late afternoon. Our driver took us to the usual tourist overlooks but we enjoyed scampering down from the deck into the fields. There are paths that lead all the way down into the valley. When we first arrived, this was the sort of view that greeted us.
A bucolic end to a working day in the rice terraces: farmers were whistling to get their flocks of ducks and geese home, women burdened with firewood, also slowly made their way home, the occasional water buffalo lazily swishing its tail happy to be in the mud.
An all around, rising above and far below are the steps of hundreds of flooded rice terraces reflecting the sky. Winter is one of the best times to visit the Yuanyang terraces because this is the season when the terraces are flooded to prepare them for the next cycle of planting.
Sunset at the terraces is an event that few would miss. We went to the Bada overlook, which was frankly quite over-rated. The place was packed; swarmed by tourists who were already there very early to stake their claim. So unless you’re there at five or so, you really can’t get an elbow in to get a decent shot. The sun was also coyly just skirting over the hilltops, and barely cast any light on the waters. I can’t have been the only one disappointed at the outcomes. Xie, must have seen my disappointment and reassured us that morning would be better. The absence of clouds in the sky that evening would mean a nice sea of clouds in the morning, he said. On the way back, I caught at least this nice patch of colour:
It was dark by the time we arrived back at our hotel for the night. Accompanied by the barking of the village dogs, we made our way in darkness down the main path to the hotel, the very comfortable 12 Terraces Manor. Yes, it was pricier than other hotels in the area but well worth the comfort. Floor heating, hot water, comfy beds and good food made the 12 Terraces a cosy retreat.
After dinner, we took a stroll round the fringe of the village, peeking in on the houses along the way. Many were two to three storeys high and seemed newly built but were really just a bare concrete shell – literally unpainted, unplastered, with cement floors sometimes lit by fluorescent tubes. Sometimes a battered sofa took pride of place in what must be a living room. Residents walked around inside with their shoes on, dressed warmly in their down jackets, clearly there was no heating inside. I’m guessing that the new buildings were a sign of pride and progress and some growing affluence but this was still a long way from any modern comfort that we would usually expect.
The next day at daybreak, 5.30am, we left the hotel in the cold and hurtled around the hairpin turns to the other side of the hill to catch the sunrise. This the hamlet of Duoyishu, known for its views of the sunrise. It was dark when we arrived but slowly the sun eased out into an unforgettable sunrise. Xie’s prediction was spot-on. A huge sea of clouds snugly esconced in the valley lent the scene some drama and mystery:
At first, all you could see are the black lines stark against the clouds. The whole panorama was a study in monochrome with the dark hills turned into islands ringed by a shifting sea of clouds. Truly breathtaking. Then slowly the sun emerged and all around, you could hear the collective wow. The colours cannot be replicated by any pantone chart – a gorgeous palette of deep purples, mauve, rose, orange and yellow heralding the start to another bright, blue-sky winter day, the colours of the sky tinting the mirrored water surfaces. Definitely well worth waking up at 5am and braving the cold for these views:
We drove back to the hotel for breakfast and that was when we realised what Xie was talking about when he told us the night before that our hotel was renowned for its ‘sea of clouds’. This was the view from our hotel dining area:
This time, the terraces reflected the deep blue of the sky. And in the distance, like waves breaking on the shore, endless fluffy clouds. Xie went beyond his role of driver and insisted on taking us deep into the terraces, following the mud paths worn by farmers. We were glad we did because the closer we got to the clouds, the more beautiful the view and I was able to catch this shot – one of my favourites for the trip:
And this one (spot the water buffalo on their way to work):
The village was slowly coming alive in the morning with chickens clucking away, children playing in the yards and the lowing of farm animals – the morning revealed that these animals also shared the same homes, some in makeshift stables and coops. For our kids, so used to the urban landscape, it was a new and fascinating experience to share the thoroughfare with buffalo, chickens, dogs and the occasional pig.
Yuanyang terraces is well worth the journey from Kunming. I hear they are building an airport nearby which would cut travel time from Kunming, but would also mean that this place gets one step closer to the craziness of mass tourism. Go see it before that happens.
It would have been nice to have another day, take it easy, walk from one village to another and basically just chill. We took so many pictures that I found it difficult to choose just these to put into the blog. I’ll leave you with this one. It’s my favourite and maybe this will convince you to make the road trip out to Yuanyang.