Haan, the driver, became another person taking those narrow, sharp, and curvy mountain roads. Even Cherry was complaining that she was getting sick. I was having horrific flashbacks of traveling on that dangerous mountain road, Route 13, in Laos between Vientiane and Luang Prabang several years ago! It seemed like we were passing cars within a hairsbreath of going over the edge, but I trusted Haan at this point and believed that he knew what he was doing. Either that or I was just too petrified to speak! After about an hour of this zigzagging, a huge tanker truck came around a curve taking it much too wide and fast. Had we been in that curve just seconds ahead, it would have hit us. The impact would have sent us to our glorious demise off the mountain! At that point, I had to ask Haan to take it a little slower, which surprisingly he did. Most Asians, especially the men, get very aggressive behind the wheel. I think they have to spend so much time being deferential to each other they can be anonymously crazy when driving!
At any rate, leaving the Red River behind, we managed to reach Yuanyang in about two hours, just as the sun began its slow decent behind the darkening hills. We went immediately to the Laohuzui Rice Terraces to get a sunset glimpse of the fields. It was a hazy, partly-cloudy late afternoon, but the water in the terraces did display patterns and some color changes as the sun set over the mountains to the west. We stayed as long as we could, but there were a number of Chinese tour groups, so we decided to leave and return the next day. It was quite a steep climb back to the top of the hill from the observation point. Not only was the pathway narrow, but it was clogged with people climbing up, down and every which-way to get an advantageous view of the expansive terrain below. The glimmering terraces were doing all they could to adorn themselves in their colorful best for the evening show. I was amazed by the ages of some of those visitors climbing the hillside with me. A number of them were well into their late seventies or early eighties, but managed the climb often calling back to straggling family and friends to hurry up! Of course, it would be here that my right knee would start to act up. I really didn’t much care, the amazing sight of those fields was worth every ache and pain!
The town of old Yuanyang was really incredible. It reminded me a lot of Sapa in Vietnam (geographically not far to the south), but nothing can match the clouds drifting through Sapa. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular as the fog lifted. Like a lot of towns, Old Yuanyang was built around a large plaza. The square was always alive with people coming and going in every vehicle imaginable— even a three-wheel electric car that is largely used as a taxi. The days we stayed there, I got up very early to perch in an elevated hidden spot on the square, camera in hand, watching all kinds of people going to the morning market down the street. Every morning a group of women assembled on the steps of the southern edge of the plaza waiting for day-work while they gossiped and embroidered to pass the time. As always, I was intrigued by the Hanni people, who live in the area, as they made their way to the market toting large baskets and woven plastic sacks to buy or sell everything from local foods to handicrafts, garbed in several variations of their traditional dress. The new, much larger and more modern city of Yuanyang was built about one hour further down the mountain. The old city was abandoned at one point as a severe drought dried up all the water sources. It still looked like it was making its “comeback,” but frankly, I think the bumps and scrapes of its past have given it a lot of character.
On my first evening there, I took off to do a quick tour of the market area. The activity was far from bustling as it is most active as a morning market, but there were still many shops open for business selling everything from home appliances, children’s toys to packaged goods. As one would suspect, the area was full of winding streets and twisting alleyways. There were many neon signs, which gave an odd hue to the town’s ancient ochre and cream-colored walls. The people were as friendly as they were curious. At the time I was there, I saw few Westerners. Not many ventured very far out of the hotel area as they were only staying overnight. I was elated to find a shop that sold my favorite brand of Chinese coconut candy. I bought the only two bags left. I loved the shop itself, stuffed to the rafters with every imaginable product like an American prairie general store in the 1870’s.
As this town is pretty remote, I was surprised to take out my iPad and find that not only could I get a good internet connection, but my Slingbox TV actually worked! I bought the Slingbox in the States primarily so I could watch the Olympics. You connect it to your cable box in the US and you can enjoy American TV as if you were viewing it at home! If someone called my phone in the US, the caller ID would be displayed! Now the odd thing about this is that China is so restrictive on Internet access, even my VPN didn’t work there! They don’t allow Facebook (or most other social media except their own WeChat). Google and other servers and apps are likewise banned. The picture and audio were fairly consistently clear and fine. Go figure! I hope the program continues to “fly under the radar” there. (Chinese officials, if you’re reading this, just ignore!)
The second day ended up being the most physically demanding of the five-day trip. I ingested a barely edible cold breakfast at the hotel. Nothing, not even the Chinese food, seemed to have much taste. Loved this town and the hotel, but the hotel food was a disaster. I had much better food, and a lot more fun, ordering in the small restaurants around the plaza, especially at Xiao Cheng Restaurant where my off-line Chinese dictionary app got a real workout! But the good-natured ladies who worked there seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Always ended up with something good, Chinese spinach and pork, soup with tofu and vegetables, all great.
We started the day with a short drive to the Hanni village of Qingkou. We walked down the country road to the village past people farming and tending to the small herds of hairy water buffalos that lumbered by, occasionally veering closer to us to get a better look, or smell! At one point, we had a laugh as a Chinese tourist decided to take my picture without my being aware of it, so I raised my camera and we ended up taking each other’s photo! He couldn’t stop laughing. Good way to start the day! We walked on to the village, but as usual there weren’t many people around as many of the adults were out working the fields. The Hanni traditionally build their houses and structures with rounded thatched roofs. There was a small museum in the village, so we took a little tour. It was decorated with photos of traditional Hanni activities, farming equipment and a huge center diorama of a Hanni feast. So interesting to see everyday objects that can be found all over Southeast Asia as well.
Next stop was the Bada rice fields. We walked through the village and met four kids playing on homemade gym equipment. They were very cute, and I gave the oldest girl 10 yuan for ice cream, which they did buy as we passed them later on enjoying it sitting on a stoop. They were so happy. Imagine, you can make four children that happy for a dollar and a half! As we continued, I saw that our goal and destination was the terraced fields— from the bottom to the top! I gulped, but pressed on. “How often am I going to do this?” was my mantra with each challenge! It was fantastic. Being right down in the fields you see how it all works. The colors, at sunset especially, are caused by the variation in types of soil, vegetation, and depth of the water in each of the pools. The water in the terraces is also used to raise fish and ducks. I also saw some of the farmers engaged in back-breaking tasks working the fields. It’s no wonder aches and pains begin at an early age and their bodies become deformed and stooped long before they should. At about the half-way point in the climb, I turned around to be surprised by the view. I was so busy looking at the minutia, I forgot the big picture! Suddenly, I heard gurgling water trickling down along the side of the “stairway” of the terrace path. I called up to Cherry and told her I was stopping to meditate on the view and the sounds. I was so glad the water called me to take note of all that was really around us. I sat there in meditation for about twenty minutes. I found myself captivated while gazing upon a hundred small patches of submerged land listening to the plaintive cry of birds and the water babbling down to feed the fields. I allowed some of the careless water to splash my pants and arm. I closed my eyes and the coolness of the water and the sounds around me blended to one and I lost all sense of time and place. I wished I could have spent three hours there, but I could sense that Cherry was trying to keep us to some sort of schedule! However, being able to just stop and do this was the reason I decided to take this private tour to begin with.
Lunch followed, with morning glories fried with mild peppers, a sautéed bamboo dish, tofu soup, and more of the wonderful bacon with mixed vegetables. Then we were off to the Bada observation point. Seeing where we had been on the climb up and even more of that huge area of fields was just incredible.
In the village of Duoyishi we got a chance to watch some Hanni women practicing a native dance. Some were more skilled than others, but they seemed to be having a lot of fun doing it. We stopped to consider whether or not to stay and see if the sunset effect on the fields would be worth the wait. We spent an hour chatting and looking at albums of old pictures of the town over a pot of local tea in a small shop tucked out of the way on the trail to the observation point. As the evening fell, we decided that the view would not be worth the wait, especially as more and more people arrived to see what was promising to be a less than stellar sunset. Nevertheless, it was such a wonderful way to end this day.
The next morning, I said my farewells to this wonderful town. I had a hasty breakfast and set out for the morning food market. At the entrance, there was an area devoted to small every-day products. Beyond, my nose was drawn to the aroma of numerous spices being sold in small dishes, bins and pails. It was interesting walking through the area heaped high with piles of fruit, vegetables and all kinds of meat. For those wanting something a little fresher, there were cages of live chickens and ducks. It’s funny, having been raised on a chicken farm myself, that universal smell takes you right back and gave me a comforting, connected sense to my surroundings. My right knee was still in a bad way from all the activity from the past two days, but I wouldn’t have stopped for anything. Besides, we would be driving to the next destination of Jianshui, and the knee would have the chance to take a good rest at long last! But before all that, I had one more stop to make.