Picture endless rolling hills, terraced and maintained by water buffalo, foot, and hand over hundreds of years, generation by generation, growing rice to feed bellies across China.
This is the mythical China I’d heard about, seen pictures of, and dreamed of visiting, but somehow never thought I’d actually see with my own eyes.
Until, that is, I saw the lesser-known but even-bigger-and-better rice terraces of Yuan Yang county in Yunnan province, China.
Yuan Yang covers an area of over 800 square miles, almost all of which is agricultural and populated by the Hani minority tribesmen. The rice fields yield just one crop per year, meaning they’re either green or filled with water, reflecting the beautiful sky and appearing particularly impressive during sunrise and sunset.
Mass tourism has yet to hit the area, making it less-visited than Sapa in Vietnam and all the better off for it.
The Hani people can still be seen walking along, working in, and caring for the terraces just as they have been for centuries.
Given the limited information available, I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. It seemed difficult to see the terraces without hiring a car and driver, which cost 300 RMB ($50).
Moreover, I had read that entrance to the main park via the visitor’s center costs 100 RMB ($16), none of which actually goes to the farmers who sculpt and maintain these terraces, so I figured I’d do my best to avoid throwing money away.
After doing a bit of research, I took a public bus for 20 RMB to Yi Shu village (依树村) intending to walk from there to Bada (坝达村), a distance of about 8 kilometers, where I’d catch a bus back to Xin Jie to figure out how to see the sunset from the best vantage point.
By visiting these terraces, which were absolutely brilliant, I avoided going through the visitor’s center and didn’t pay any fees to enjoy views like this:
The driver of the bus knew to drop me off at the beginning of the walking path once I told him I wanted to walk along the terraces (“zou lu” is how to say “walk”).
From there, I followed the terraces, getting lost but making sure I was going in the general direction of Bada, which is the direction I had come from, and running into villagers on the way:
The Wikitravel article I was going off of said to “follow the water” back to Bada. The water, however, was everywhere, running in streams and canals through the terraces, so it was quite unclear where I was meant to go. For this reason, I was glad to have left extra time for getting lost in the terraces, which was all part of the enjoyment.
I then rejoined the main road back to Bada, waved down a bus, and headed back to Xin Jie Zhen.
Upon returning to town I was able to find a group of Chinese tourists who had rented out one of the minivans and were bound for sunset viewing of some of the terraces known as Long Shu Ba (Dragon tree).
This is not the more commonly visited area for sunset viewing, which probably made it better and less crowded, and allowed me to bypass having to buy an entrance ticket once again.
I was sad to learn from the people I had shared a van with that the rice terraces are becoming drier and drier due to the government-mandated planting of trees in the area. While planting trees would normally sound like a downright great idea, they have been taking up the extra water needed for the rice paddies.
It makes me wonder if this area will slowly die and fade away, but it’s my hope that it does not, as these people have been here tending to this land for hundreds of years – it’s their way of life and it’s what they know.
That must mean it’s time to visit now, while they still exist.
*all photos were taken in mid-February, before the planting begins.
Do it yourself:
- If in Hekou (the border town between China and Vietnam), take a bus in the morning directly to Xin Jie Zhen (“Sheen jee-ay jen”). It is likely that the attendants at the bus depot will guess upon seeing you that you want to go to Yuan Yang or Kunming before you say anything. Say Yuan Yang and specify Xin Jie Zhen so that you can get a direct bus instead of having to switch at Nansha
- If in Kunming, check the ever-changing bus schedule for early AM and overnight options, and head out of the South Bus Station
- To do without a tour or guide, head to the main bus terminal, the one you were dropped off in when you initially arrived in Xin Jie Zhen, where there are plenty of small van busses. Take one bound for Yi Shu village for 20 RMB. They visit all of the rice terraces in the area, including those accessed via the main entrance (where you’ll have to buy a ticket)
- Great sunset viewing without having to pay a park fee is the Long Shu Ba rice terrace. Negotiate with a bus driver, and ideally a large group, to go there for sunset
- Daytime and overnight bus tickets to Kunming can be purchased at the bus station in Xin Jie Zhen for about 140 RMB