We haul our heavy backpacks out of the car, legs cramped and bellies slightly queasy from the long, winding drive into the mountainous landscape of rural Guangxi Province. Our time in China drawing to a close at a hectic and, at times, stressful pace, we decide to spend a long weekend exploring the iconic Long Ji rice terraces in Long Sheng. Iconic because when I think of rural China, I inevitably picture these layered fields, stacking one on top of the other. Here, we feel the tide of Chinese migration from the now sparsely populated rural farms to urban jungle, empty buildings and abandoned construction projects standing watch over the bumpy roads.
As we exit the car park, local women, most age 70-100, kindly offer to carry our luggage up the steep path into Ping’An village. They carry large wicker baskets, strapped to their backs with colorful shoulder straps. Since our hotel is just a short walk away, we decline their offers but marvel as they lift entire rolling suitcases onto their backs and set off at a rapid pace.
Our hotel is a vision of pine. Pine walls, pine floors, pine relief carvings set into panels, pine banisters leading up to our room, a pine balcony opening up to a view of the valley below, the bottom hidden in mist, the mountainside covered in a dark green pine forest, and the peaks obscured with clouds.
Hefting our belongings onto the pinewood bed, we breathe in the glorious scent of the forest inside and out wafting through the open balcony door. In contrast to the heavy heat of the city, the air outside is cool, clear, and, beyond the ever-present pine, fragrant with the smell of growing things and dirt and rivers running over smooth stones and into terraced fields.
Already refreshed, we head downstairs to a lunch of bamboo rice, chicken, lettuce cooked with chili, and fried potatoes. The rice and chicken come in charcoal black lengths of bamboo, the edges crisped against the hot wood. We marvel at all the local dishes we have come to love and laugh at ourselves for requesting that the chicken be made the local way, chopped roughly, bones and all. It’s tougher than the average Chinese (or, for that matter, American) chicken, its muscles hardened by being as free range as it gets, wandering among the steeply inclined rice terraces and along rough farm paths. We have a feeling it was walking around the day before if not that morning.
Bellies full, we set off on a hike to see more of the terraces and find them even more striking than we had imagined. Our hike takes us up through the heart of them as well as in and out of lush forest, the thick trees shading our heads from the hot sun. A plethora of noisy creatures greet us at every step, the cicadas buzzing aggressively out of sight, chickens clucking indignantly as we step around them, dragonflies flitting past, Amaury jumping as one whizzes by his ear.
Chinese tourists line the viewpoints, cameras perched at the ready on tripods lugged up the mountain to capture the perfectly shareable shot. That said, the hiking paths are relatively empty, and we seem to be the only guests at our hotel. We are thankful to be there on a regular, non-Chinese-holiday weekend, avoiding the crowds.
Among the terraces, we notice the tiny intricate details of their development, water gushing down various contraptions including plastic tubing, bags, and bottles as well as more traditional bamboo rods. Some of the levels are already filled with water, rice shoots poking up into the sunlight. Some are churned up dirt, others filled with different crops such as cabbage, corn, and root vegetables. It seems that nothing is wasted here. Higher up, the terraces create a glorious tapestry of green, brown, and liquid light from the sun glancing off the pools. The reflections comprise a new color beyond the normal spectrum of visible light that shifts and changes from each different angle.
Walking back through the village, we stop at small shops to buy trinkets and gifts for friends and family we’ll see soon. A man crouches over used nails, banging them back into shape. Local women offer to unwrap their famously long, shiny, black hair for a tourist picture. Small children wave from the arms of their grandmothers. No one seems all that surprised to see two foreigners walking through their small village, because tourism has brought many different people here.
How strange to think that in less than a month we will be in Long Island a world apart from this place. Yet, we find Jarabacoa, Amaury’s hometown, in the slow pace of life, the verdant green landscapes wrapping around rushing rivers, and the hanging, wet humidity. Passing by the farms, I smell the damp, earthy smell of English woods. The chicken coops remind me of the old coops my Grampy used to have at the bottom of the garden over twenty years ago. I see glimmers of California in the rolling hills. I’m always finding that foreign places are strangely familiar.
Later, as Amaury naps at the hotel, I head out to do some shopping. At a sprawling shop of various handicrafts, I chat with a warm and friendly couple as I buy things I don’t really need but want anyway. After passing my recent Chinese test, it feels good to run the Chinese words off my tongue knowing I’ve earned the ability to strike up conversation. The woman drops into some English a few times and then shares that the local people speak at least three languages, the local dialect, Guilinhua, and Mandarin. “Ah,” I joke, “Then you speak FOUR languages, since you also speak English. “Hǎo lìhài (amazing)!” We laugh and they give me a great deal on a scarf I had been eyeing for my mother-in-law.
Sadness at leaving and joy at arriving grow stronger as the time of our departure draws closer. As I walk back to the hotel, smiling at the conversation with the shop owners, I picture my friends holding the little trinkets I bought and think that, along with the objects themselves, I am gifting a little piece of the complex joy I have experienced living in China.
We pass out asleep after a dinner of more bamboo rice and chicken and awaken the next morning to the sound of thunder and pouring rain. It is the best kind of rain, falling straight down at a persistent but manageable rate that a good pair of wellies (rainboots) and a decent umbrella can handle with ease. Sitting outside under an awning, we enjoy watching a steady mist roll up out of the valley as we eat a breakfast of local pancakes (a mix between a crepe and an omelet), fruit, and coffee. Then, we pull on our boots and head off into the storm that is slowly abating.
Our goal is to reach another village via a walking path through more rice terraces and woods. Following somewhat confusing signs we finally make it onto a farmland path made of flat stones that make the watery ground easier to navigate. We hit some small terraces, and I awkwardly stop to take a picture of one particularly beautiful one, its pool of water perfectly reflecting the light gray sky.
As we climb up above the pool, we see beyond it to a vision of rolling terraces and are stunned into stopping to take it in. The rain mingles with the sound of water filling the fields and rushing along a deep trough next to our feet. A thick mist wraps itself around the looping fields, revealing parts of the view and then moving on to open up new vistas.
Growing green things push themselves up and out of the earth, plants growing upon more plants. It seems as if even the soft ground and hard stone path are alive and holding themselves in balance with the water pattering, flowing, rushing, surrounding the scene.
The overwhelming color is green, next the gray of the sky and pools, followed by deep orange of the ground underfoot. Every hue of each color is represented from deep dull forest green to bright neon breaking through in thinly curling vines. Watching my feet to avoid slipping, I catch sight of a snake slinking from the undergrowth and across the path, poised for a second, and then gone after allowing us a brief moment to stare.
Several miles later, we finally reach the next village, Long Ji Gu Zhuang (Old Long Ji), which seems much less touched by tourists. We can barely see it through the now thick fog that has descended but can make out more buildings as we walk. Nothing appears to be open, but also nothing is closed. The buildings and locals working there are neither waiting for us nor unwelcoming. We climb up a steep set of steps to a promising looking hotel, completely empty of guests. “Ni hao? Ni hao?” Our voices echo into the deserted space but are immediately greeted by a cheerful lady. “Are you open for lunch?” We ask in Mandarin. Her voice is thick with an unknown accent, but she quickly confirms that of course she can make something for us, what would we like?
Not knowing what is available, we ask to see a menu, and she quickly produces a small laminated sheet all in Chinese. Through a combination of our limited reading ability, descriptions of dishes to our host, and some use of our phone’s dictionary (apparently aardvark was on the menu, but we’ll never know for sure, since we decide to avoid that one), we order some local chicken, bamboo rice, and potatoes. Having already had those, we feel reasonably confident. Our friendly host quickly disappears into a kitchen and after much whacking of a cleaver and some additional pauses to ask more questions about how we’d like it cooked, she reappears with a steaming plate of chicken fried in ginger and lightly salted. The bamboo rice and garlic potatoes make a perfect accompaniment. Anthony Bourdain would be so proud.
Stuffed and growing sleepy, we thank our host profusely and rouse ourselves for the hike back. The rain has finally tapered off and the thick, winding mist has dissipated, revealing that the village is perched above a dramatic view of farmland and terraces set high above the valley.
It is almost always the case that the way back feels quicker than the way there and we get back to Ping’An Village in plenty of time to catch our car back to Guilin. The return to an urban setting is slightly jarring, but we feel refreshed after some much-needed time in nature. Work, volunteer events, choir, social gatherings, packing, organizing, and filling every spare minute with Chinese study has all taken a toll on me recently. Though all rewarding, my various activities have filled my mind with cluttered thoughts and disparate tasks vying for attention, leaving little room for introspection, letter writing, and silence. And, even in our last month here, living in this complicated, beautiful, infuriating, deeply worthwhile place continues to throw new challenges at us, testing our resilience on each new day, showing us that we have deep wells of strength to use and prepare us for our future adventures.
There is truly nothing better to cleanse the soul and clear the mind than a trip into the natural world, to fill the senses with the smell of pine, the sight of tiny growing things against vast vistas, the sound of wildlife and falling rain, the taste of freshly grown food, the feel of my husband’s hand in mine as we walk forward together through the forest.