Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces (龙脊梯田)
Six hundred years ago, farmers in this corner of southwest China needed to grow more rice. So they did what any self-respecting agriculturist would do: carve enormous terraces into the mountains, up to 1,000 meters high. The already-beautiful mountains now bear the razor-straight marks of human ingenuity, creating spectacular vistas every where you look. The best time to visit is supposed to be in May and June, when the terraces are flooded and the rice is transplanted. I went in September 2009, when the rice plants were just beginning to turn golden, ahead of the October harvest season.
Visiting the Terraces
There are two main entry points for the terraces: the Yao village of Dazhai (大寨) and the Zhuang village of Ping’an (平安). (The Yao and Zhuang are two of the many ethnic minority groups living in Guangxi.) Before you enter either village, you will need to purchase a 50-RMB ticket. This buys you entrance to the entire terrace area, including both villages and those in between.
We began our visit in Dazhai, the less-crowded of the two villages. There is a fair amount of tourist development even in Dazhai, so we headed out of the village as soon as we had lunch. Upon stepping off the bus, we were surrounded by women offering to guide us to their hotel or restaurant and to carry our bags. But there’s really no need for a guide — the paths are well-marked and you will have a large selection of inns to choose from once you decide where to stop for the night. An extensive network of stone paths and steps leads from Dazhai to the smaller village of Tiantouzhai (田头寨), and from there to Ping’an. From Dazhai, it is about a 1 1/2-hour hike to the highest viewpoint, called 西山韶乐.
After spending the night near Tiantouzhai, we continued on to Ping’an the next day (2 1/2 hours). Insofar as it is possible, the path from Tiantouzhai to Ping’an is the “road less traveled” in the terraces. We encountered almost no hawkers or tour guides for this part of the hike. We did cross paths with a few large groups of Western tourists, but were alone for most of the morning. Most of the hiking “up” happens between Dazhai and Tiantouzhai, and the path to Ping’an is relatively flat and easy. In the last 45 minutes, the scenery goes a bit downhill as you walk along a road rather than on a path through the terraces themselves.
Ping’an is a bit of a tourist mess, and we were glad we encountered it at the end of our stay rather than as the setting-off point. We grabbed a few souvenirs, ate some lunch, and then high-tailed it out of town.
Food and Accommodation
The rice terraces are not exactly undiscovered by tourists, and the entrepreneurial residents of Dazhai, Tiantouzhai and Ping’an know they’ve got a good thing going. Room rates are still reasonable, but the price of food is, in China terms, astronomical. All three villages have a selection of wood-paneled inns serving nearly-identical menus. No matter where we were, a simple vegetarian meal for three (three dishes plus rice) cost about 50 RMB. Expect to pay significantly more if you eat a lot of meat — the meat dishes cost two to three times as much as the vegetable and tofu dishes.
Wanjing Lou (万景楼)
We began our search for a place to stay near the #1 viewing platform near Tiantouzhai, called 西山韶乐. From the viewing area, the delightful Wanjing Lou is the second inn as you go down the mountain toward the village. From Dazhai, it is about a one to one-and-a-half hour hike up into the terraces.
This inn has remarkably nice facilities — clean rooms, bedding and bathrooms; hot showers; televisions; and Internet access — especially when you consider that supplies must be carried up from Dazhai. The restaurant was also quite good, particularly the breakfast baozi (steamed pork dumplings). From the front porch, you have an amazing view eastward over the terraces. They even have a web site.
A triple room (三人间, san ren jian) with a shared bathroom cost 80 RMB per night. If you know in advance when you will be arriving in the terraces, it might be advisable to make a reservation. Even on a random weekend in September, the inn was nearly full. [September 2009]
To reach the terraces, you will need to pass through the town of Longsheng (龙胜). Buses leave frequently from Guilin’s main bus station for Longsheng (1 1/2 hours, 27 RMB). From Longsheng, we took a bus to Dazhai (2 hours, 8 RMB). Those buses leave from the Longsheng bus station, but you purchase your ticket on board. The bus makes plenty of stops, for everything from fruit to roasted pig legs. Don’t worry, you’ll make to Dazhai eventually! On the way back, buses leave Ping’an for Longsheng six times per day (1 hour, 8 RMB). In the afternoon, the bus times are 1, 3 and 5 p.m.