Trekking and hiking are key activities for this breathtaking landscape in Southern China.
Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, explored a region in Southern China and has returned with details of what daily life is like in this scenic, simple part of the world.
I have been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of picturesque scenery in my life all over the world, but few places can compare with the breathtaking Longsheng rice terraces north of Guilin. What sets Longsheng apart is that it is both a manmade and a natural wonder, and therefore doubly incredible. The local farmers carved rice terraces into the gorgeous mountains 500 years ago in order to cultivate the hilly land—and although this was not their goal by any means, they happen to be absolutely breathtaking. Each terrace is quite narrow so they still require hand labor or oxen to plant and pick the rice. Plows and equipment are still unthinkable.
Hiking is paramount in Longsheng in order to see the most interesting places, because there is no shortage of tourists (99 percent are mainland Chinese, so I still stick out like a sore thumb with blonde hair). My favorite inn is called Li An Lodge in Ping An Village; it’s a charming 16-room lodge where every room is different. The views are astonishing from the rooms. All the staff is wonderful and very sweet. No roads go there, so the only way to reach it is by walking for 40 minutes straight uphill. Sedan chairs are also available for those who can’t walk, but it is weird to see people carried uphill as if they were emperors in the 1600s. My own bags were carried by two extremely fit local ladies who appeared to be in their late 60s or early 70s. I felt guilty until it was explained to me that if they didn’t carry my bags they would have no work and no money since there is no such thing as Social Security, so if you don’t have your kids sending you money you are out of luck. I gave them big tips and they smiled.
I love trekking and I hiked around eight hours each day to very remote villages. Every time I rounded a corner there was another gasp as I drank in the beauty of the scenery. Please note that it is not necessary to hike as much as I did, and an hour or two a day is sufficient for many people including children.
Picture: Catherine Heald explores the rice terraces local farmers carved into the mountains 500 years ago.
The village architecture is all traditional wooden houses so they look as they have for hundreds of years. The people were extremely friendly and happy to meet travelers. My favorite village was a Zao minority tribal village where the women have amazingly long hair that they only cut once in their lives when they are married. The older ladies wear their traditional tribal dress and have hair that sweeps the floor that they wind into massive buns on their heads. They were so sweet and they unwound their buns for me to show me their 5-6 foot long straight black tresses. They drank their moonshine rice wine and sang and danced with me, and we had so much fun. The only sad thing is that the young girls wear jeans and cut their hair, so they are losing their traditional culture.
I understand that everyone in the world wants prosperity and iPhones, but I can’t help bemoaning the loss of cultural traditions and rituals as people become increasingly westernized. Homogenization is inevitable, and it has already occurred in most of the world, including some more developed parts of Asia. In the next decade or two I predict that the world will be a much more boring place in terms of culture and travel. I am glad I started Remote Lands when I did because there is still so much that is incredible to see, but by the time our children and grandchildren visit these places, it will be all McDonald’s and Starbucks and so much less interesting.
As incredible as the rice terraces of Longsheng are, three hours’ drive south is the equally unique but totally natural karst topography of Guilin. No visit to Longsheng would be complete without also seeing Guilin and nearby Yangshuo, and since Guilin airport is the gateway to Longsheng, this is very easy to do. I recommend two nights each in Longsheng and Guilin/Yangshuo. The Shangri-La Hotel in Guilin is a must-see.