Journey to a hinterland in China that’s rich in culture, and where time-honoured traditions are still upheld.
ROWS of perfectly landscaped terraces, still green with paddy shoots in early September, beckon from the open window of our room at Ping’An Village in Guangxi Province, China. It was barely dawn, but the villagers were already up and about, heading off to work in the terraces. Outside some houses, children played with corn kernels left out to dry.
At an altitude of 1,200m, Ping’An (which means “peace” in Mandarin) is at the peak of Longji, home to the most famous rice terraces in China. Longji means Dragon Spine, which is rather apt a name, as we discovered on a long trek to the summit. From there, the terraces looked pretty much like a dragon’s scales while the mountain range resembled its backbone, snaking into the distance.
To behold this glorious view, our motley group of media members travelled by road for over two hours from Guilin city to the mountain base in Longsheng County, followed by a 45-minute bus ride up a road so steep and winding, it could put our own Genting Highlands to shame. The final leg of the journey was a tiring one, involving an hour’s hike up to the hotel in the heart of the village.
The hike was made easier, thanks to porters for hire, who carried our luggage in woven baskets strapped to their backs from the village base to the hotel, for 30 yuan (RM16) per basket per trip. We were completely in awe of them, as despite the fact that most were very senior, they reached the peak way ahead of us!
Perhaps the secret to their fitness is in their diet. Rice is not the only staple; cobs of corn dangle from the rooftops and kernels are spread out to dry in front of most houses. Soups and stews are also common up here, along with the homemade wine essential to keep warm in this chilly weather.
A potent drink with about 50% alcoholic content, the locals’ homemade rice wine leaves a burning sensation in the throat. Most prefer the sweet, less alcoholic osmanthus wine, made from the osmanthus flower that Guilin is named after.
Also, do not miss out on sampling stir-fried silkworms.
Repulsive as that may sound, the worms taste so good, they could be an alternative to popcorn!
Rice terraces are not the only thing Longji is famous for, as visitors here can also observe first-hand the traditions and customs of minority cultures, in particular the Zhuang and Yao peoples. Most of the villagers in Longji are from the Zhuang tribe, while there is a village at the mountain base occupied by the Yao people.
Many would envy the Yao women’s long, black and lustrous hair. The Yao woman has a haircut only once, at age 16, and that hair is made into a “wig” which she continues to use for the rest of her life. It is noteworthy that she only uses natural products, not shampoo, for her weekly hair wash. Unmarried women are distinguishable by a small inverted triangle cloth on the forehead, protruding from the neatly kept hair.
During our visit, one woman offered visitors bowls of rice puffs and chopsticks. Men were advised to pick only one chopstick, as those who picked up a pair would be indicating their interest in a girl, leading to a match-making process by the older women. It was rather hilarious to watch a re-enactment of the process, where the “bridegrooms” were relentlessly teased.
Going around the village, it is immediately apparent that only the womenfolk work in the terraces. It turns out that the Yao tribe is a matriarchal society, whereby the women are the breadwinners. The men often manage the household, run the family business or shops, or spend time in the forests, playing cards in between gathering wood.
The Zhuang minority, who mostly live in Ping’An, also have a similar practice. Their colourful costumes are accentuated with silver accessories, strikingly similar to the outfits worn by the Bidayuhs and Nyonyas of Malaysia. For a mere 10 yuan (RM5.30), we could rent a costume for photographs on a spot overlooking the rice terraces.
Ping’An offered us a glimpse of natural beauty up in the mountains, but for an experience of Guilin’s natural beauty on flat ground, we took a 90-minute drive from the city out south to the famed Shangri-La theme park, near Yangshuo County. Not to be confused with the famous chain of hotels, this Shangri-La theme park is also called Shi Wai Tao Yuan by the locals, literally translated as the land of peach blossoms.
We later learned that it was the English writer James Hilton who first used the term Shangri-La to describe paradise on Earth in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. It is unlikely that he ever visited this place, but it is an apt term for it.
Even at the entrance, I already felt as if I had been transported into ancient China, amidst the beautiful ethnic buildings and natural surroundings. A boat cruise on Swallow Lake took us past the buildings, which were venues for performances by minority groups of north Guangxi, such as the Miao, Dong and Zhang.
Astonishingly, the lake was crystal clear, enabling us to look right through to the bottom. We came across a group of children having a splashing time in the water. Visitors in boats are often easy targets for the giggling children, so be sure to protect your valuables.
Later, we moved through the buildings on foot, and came across a curious sight. A number of men crowded around the entrance to one building, looking expectantly at a girl perched on the balcony. Out of the blue, she tossed something in their direction, causing the men to scramble for it. We entered the building to find many silk balls in red, yellow and green, with 12 connected petals bearing images of flowers, plants or birds.
What transpired earlier was a re-enactment of Pao Xiuqiu, a Zhuang tradition to attract the attention of the opposite sex. If a girl was seeking a life partner, she would toss the xiuqiu (ball) towards a group of men, and the one who caught it would marry her.
A woman might also make a xiuqiu and hand it to a man to say she had given her heart to him. If a man wished to reciprocate, he would tie a present on the ball and pass it back to her.
A xiuqiu has intricate embroidery, since it is believed that the finer the work, the more beautiful and intelligent the woman is. Today, Pao Xiuqiu is played in festivals, marking the blooming season or harvest time. One common game is for two teams, usually boys against girls, to toss the silk balls at one another. If the ball drops, the losing side must sing or dance as a forfeit.
Most of the minority groups at Shangri-La belong to the farming community, as evidenced by the pristine paddy fields and mandarin groves we saw during the drive here. However, there is another local trade this place is famous for: cloth-weaving and textile art.
Clothes, materials, bags and neckties made by the people here are highly sought after throughout China. A local girl showed us a product of two weeks’ labour – a blue necktie embroidered with floral motifs. One such necktie does not come cheap, as it sets a buyer back by at least 300 yuan (RM163).
The tribeswomen also showed their skills in what is deemed their most important handiwork – the wedding dress. That task begins from the time they first pick up a needle, and continues until their wedding day. Every dress is unique and usually not for sale. We were told that one woman sold her wedding dress, which she had worked on for 14 years, to an American couple for US$1,000 (RM3,282).
We did not see any wedding dresses on display during our visit, but if the ordinary clothes on sale were anything to go by, any bride would be extremely privileged to wear a wedding dress made by these women. As for me, I was content to walk away with a xiuqiu, a bag (worth 50 yuan/RM26.80), and a cherished memory of the evening sun shining over this paradise on Earth.
> The writer’s four-day trip was sponsored by AirAsia, which flies four times a week from Kuala Lumpur to Guilin. For details, visit www.airasia.com.