An eerie mountain haze fuses with a pastiche of cooking and eating as women, squatting over small grills patterned with tofu squares, fan the embers. Vapour rises from aluminium steamers filled with pork buns and people hunch over piping hot bowls of noodles. Adding to the early morning cacophony, ubiquitous bicycles and honking motorbikes skate around trucks overflowing with cassava as they squeeze through narrow laneways. To the locals, it’s business as usual but to the visitor, it’s a head-swivelling breakfast-and-show!
Mysterious Yuanyang on China’s Yunnan Plateau appears to float in isolation in a white sky yet the town and surrounding villages are home to 20,000 who farm its ancient terraced rice fields.
Tumbling down 12,666 hectares of mountainous terrain from 2,000m above sea level, the rice paddies have been farmed for more than a millennium and resemble glistening tiers of wet-lip pools. Stretching like a stairway to heaven, they have become a major attraction for visitors to China’s rural Yunnan province.
Back in the marketplace, black-clad Hani women stride purposely by wearing imposing headdresses. Stooped elderly women shuffle past, brush mats on their backs as protection from heavy baskets that are their life’s burden. Gossiping Yi housewives waddle by, two triangular embroidered cushions dangling from their waists.
In this mountain village you are what you wear and for the lavishly costumed Yao, Miao, Hani, Yi and Dai Chinese minority groups parading resplendently around me, this is part of daily life.
A lifetime of farming these magnificent floating fields is etched on the faces of the men and women at Qingkou Village, (Tiger’s Mouth Village) located 35km south of Yuanyang. Homes built of dry stone walls, their unique, mushroom-shaped roofs clad in rice straw, are as warmly welcoming as the 800 villagers whose lives remain untrammeled by exposure to the outside world. Qingkou Village provides a snapshot of a tidy place where fresh spring water gushes from faucets at the communal laundry, sheaves of soybeans hang outside homes to dry and kindling is neatly stacked for the cooking fire.
We sit with a trio of ancient men with barely a set of teeth between them who are relaxing in a rotunda overlooking the village square. Between puffs of cigarette smoke they tell of a secret men’s ceremony held each year in the forest above the village where they worship the Dragon Tree. Looking out across the lush terraces where farmers hidden by shoulder-high rice dissolve into the landscape, life appears to be a harmonious blend of forest, water and folklore.
Suddenly there’s a frisson of activity in the Qingkou Hani Cultural Village square and a troupe of young women gather for an impromptu performance. Clad in slender fitted tunics and black pants, their long black hair scraped back into flying ponytails, they kick up their red velvet-shod heels deftly using Chinese rice bowls like castanets and palm fronds as graceful fans.
The air is tinged with smoke drifting in on a late afternoon breeze and a crowd of curious onlookers gather on the steps to watch the unexpected performance and the strange visitors from beyond their field of dreams.
Culturally-rich Yunnan province is home to many of China’s 55 ethnic groups who are happy to shyly celebrate their culture with visitors. Frequent migrations have scattered more than 2 million Hani throughout South East Asia including Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand. In China, 1.25 million Hani are one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups and prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, they had their own political system. Evolving over 1500 years during the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties, these nomadic hunter-gatherers forged strong emotional links to their unique terraced field culture.
On leaving the village, the remnants of the day’s sun polishes the terraced rice fields until they gleam like mercury. As majestic gorges plunge below, we descend into a sub-tropical zone where exuberant sprays of ferns, stands of bamboo and luscious banana palms underpin a verdant landscape. Winding leisurely around the hillside, the road dissects canyons that run to the valley floor where the Red River shimmers like a satin sash.
Glancing upwards, rolling mists draw a veil across the sky. Yuanyang is once again cast adrift to float amongst its ancient pools.
For more visit China National Tourist Office at www.cnto.org
Australian based Helen Wong’s Tours are leaders in China tourism. View tour options on www.helenwongstours.com
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