We are on the lookout for good internet connection, a visa for Vietnam, a shower and possibly cold beer. Our choice, a lively hostel in downtown Kunming is wise. It has everything we need, including a dramatic view. This is the face of future, in glass and steel. Modern China on steroids.
But to be fair, you wouldn’t know this Kunming existed unless you looked up. At the foot of the mega-glitz, the people of the “City of Eternal Spring” go quietly about their daily routines. The bakeries open first, enveloping the block with the smell of fresh bread. As shopkeepers pull their railings, countryside vendors start piling seasonal fruit and veggies along the side of the street leading up to the market. Then kids and young students come streaming and cluster around the ones who have a newer model of iPhone or perhaps access to 4G. It’s no big deal. China is embracing technology and along with that some change must happen.
A couple of days and many, many delicious bubble teas later (oh, Hong Kong, how we miss thee!), our passports are stamped and our bodies are rested. We are looking forward to some time on the bike. After a prolonged dinner in an eatery, dusk finds us searching for campsites. In Yunnan they are quite rare, as every square meter of level land is either built on or cultivated. A bike affords fewer mistakes than a motorbike does. A cyclist can’t be too fussy, knowing that a view could require a lot of energy to be spent.
It takes less than a day to meet an entirely new cyclist specimen who couldn’t disagree more with all of the above. ‘Hey, guys!’ A woman, muscular legs, nondescript waterproof jacket, holding an older model of Ortlieb handle bar bag jumps in front of my bike. ‘I am a cyclist, too’ she says, pointing to the bag. Wow, we haven’t’ seen another overlander since… I don’t know, 2 and a half months ago? Marika is Dutch and is cycling across China to Australia. She’s come here for the same reason as us, to see the rice terraces of Yuanyang, a World Heritage site and one of the most photographed sights in China. She tells us that it’s indeed complicated to see the best places by bike, as there is no good map of the muddy fields scattered across a large area. ‘I’ve already hired a car for tomorrow’ she says, ‘care to join?’ We set it up during dinner. Our driver is supposed to pick us up in the wee hours of the morning, but the thick fog Yuanyang almost prevents us from finding each other.
As the fog melts under a timid sun, an enchanted world is revealed.
Two more Chinese tourists are joining the party. One of the girls studies English at university, and she translates everything that the driver explains:
‘The tiered Honghe rice terraces were carved into the mountains by the Hani minority, who have lived in the region for more than 1,300 years.’
The terraces are actually an ingenious (and so beautiful) system for bringing irrigation water down from the tops of the Ailao Mountains.
Yuanyang tells the story of a holistic symbiosis between humans and nature, about embracing adversity without any need to resolve it. The Hani people are still tending to the fields more or less like their ancestors did millennia earlier, collecting buffalo dang from manure ponds and mixing it with irrigation water to fertilise the soil. They appear oblivious of the extraordinary beauty they create.
The cooler alpine climate only allows for a single rice harvest a year, instead of three like in the lowlands. According to serious photographers Yuanyang should be visited in the winter, when the paddies are flooded with water. It looks like we’re not too early in the season.
At the time of the harvest kids must help with the chores, but now they can play hide and seek from the hillsides to the villages. Sunset turns Yuanyang terraces into glittering ponds that reflect the sky endlessly across the mountains where sacred forests act as water reservoirs.
The rice terraces ripple seductively, reminding me of Sahara’s dunes. But compared to the stark, almost philosophical beauty of the desert, this is a fertile world, enabled by a sustainable hydrologic cycle. The fog and low clouds trapped in the foliage condense into an intricate network of channels dug out by the Hani. Water then flows from weir to weir, making its way back towards the Red River and feeding the rice terraces.
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