It’ll be raining again today, what a shame! It never rains in Longsheng around this time of year, says Ling. We rarely trust the weather forecast. But if a local guide says it’s going to rain, it will be raining. Always!
Luckily, as we approach Longsheng, the rainfall turns into a drizzle. Curves after curves after curves, our driver suddenly makes a full stop. A tree ripped off from its roots is lying in front of us. It doesn’t completely block our road, but the driver leaves the car to inspect the damage as if he had caused it and needed to repair the wreckage.
The engine is still running. Black smoke keeps puffing out of the tailpipe. Then two scooters halt next to us. The men talk, gesticulate, and after a couple of minutes our driver eventually returns to his seat. I’m not a fervent member of Greenpeace, but I’m relieved that he’s finally going to stop idling the car’s engine. However, instead of shutting it off, he takes the wheel. We maneuver around the fallen tree, crushed branches and bushes, and continue our way up to the Longji rice terraces.
A couple of kilometers further, we stop at a large ticket office. Are we heading into a tourist trap? Seeing the expression on our face, Ling quickly explains that this is just an entrance to the Lonji terrace area. We’ll be hiking through the “Dragon’s Backbone Mountain” for 5 hours from here, and stop in several small villages.
Before setting off, Ling takes a sip of her Buddha tea that she carries around every day. “Normally, you can see the green terraces from this spot. But not today…” The three of us face the abyss, peering into the void: fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. But then, like a miracle, small patches of green appear. For exactly two minutes, the sky clears up, and unveils a spectacular vista of what we are hoping to see throughout the whole trip.
The foggy clouds (or cloudy fogs?) come back as quickly as they have disappeared. We set out on the trail. The first part of the hike is on a paved and well-maintained path. I find it almost boring. But then the trail becomes steep and narrow, and the rocks we step on become increasingly slippery. The sun is nowhere to be seen, the temperature is not high, but the air moist. I feel sweaty under my light jacket, but know that I’ll be cold if I take it off. Occasionally we pause for a minute, mostly when a path is either flooded or just ends in the rice fields, and Ling needs to improvise another route.
Whenever we cross an unstable bridge made of logs, I walk fast. Very fast. And do not dare to look down nor up. But these are not the scariest moments for me. My heart pounds out of my chest whenever I get to see the depth of the steep terraces we are trekking through. I imagine falling off the trail and rolling down from terrace to terrace. Of course, that is a stupid thought. The rice terraces are soaked and muddy. I wouldn’t fall quite far down. But still, I’m almost glad that the surrounding view is covered with a fog bank during most of the time. Who knows, perhaps one day I will stop being afraid of heights…
On our way, we come across several ethnic minorities. We barely hear them from afar, and suddenly they walk past you, carrying fruits or vegetables in a woven basket on their back. The Yao women are recognizable by their very long hair that they never cut, whereas the Zhuang ladies usually wear embroidered towels as headwear.
Our guide, Ling, is also from one of the local ethnic minorities. She doesn’t wear any distinctive garment or item, but whenever she talks about her “people”, she uses the term “nationality”.
In Europe, people tend to call all Asiatic people “ Asians”, or sometimes even “Chinese people” without making any distinction whatsoever. Since I was born and raised in Europe, I’m used to this. Of course, I don’t appreciate being labeled, especially since I often forget that I’m “Asian” or “Asiatic” in my everyday life, until someone reminds me of it (oh yes, I forgot that I’m “different”! Wait, because I’m gay or because I’m not white…?!) And of course, I do – at least – distinguish the various Asian people from the different countries. However, even I must admit that I frequently used the term “Chinese people” to refer to all those Asian people living in China, or speaking a Chinese dialect.
Before meeting Ling, I never questioned the amount of dissimilarities that still exist among the “global Chinese nationality” after the Cultural Revolution. Hearing Ling explain the cultural differences between the various regional ethnic groups (or nationalities), I suddenly realize that what most people call “China” has never been a unity. And I also figure why the elder generations of my family so insistently claim to be “Teochew people” and not just “Chinese people”, even though they never lived in that region of China (nor in other parts of China for that matter). Thanks to Ling I finally acknowledge the importance of embracing a regional “nationality” inside of China. It’s not just a difference of dialects, but also of food, lifestyles, apparel, knowledge, beliefs, rituals, arts and manners.
We come across the first “difference” between the various Chinese cultures, as we lunch in the Ancient Zhuang village. We order sticky rice, stuffed in a bamboo stick and cooked over fire. If my mother were here, she would say: that’s what people “from the mountains” eat… I guess, she wouldn’t be completely wrong, since in Guilin – about 100km away – we ate noodles, the city’s local food. Really, who says that all Chinese people eat rice?
The items and settings displayed at the tiny museum in the village reflect even more differences between the diverse local minorities and what people commonly call “Chinese culture”. In the houses of the Zhuang ethnic groups, there’s usually a central hearth, which is actually a metal tripod, and around which all the family members gather for everyday meals. They sit on low wooden stools, on which I couldn’t stay put for more than half an hour. Above the hearth, meat is often suspended on a woven large basket, which will be dried and smoked over weeks and months.
As we enter Ping’An village, a couple of Guangxi horses, loaded with goods, pass by. They trot tiringly through narrow rocky paths, among high wooden and bamboo houses. A dog appears behind an unfinished house made of concrete. He barks uneasy at us intruders. Long bamboo sticks rest here and there on the façades. At their foot lie plastic cups and rusted metal poles. A few steps away, someone is working metal. The sawing sounds are punctuated by a rooster’s crows and a Chinese mountain song blaring out of a radio.
The fog gets thicker, and Ling stops in her tracks. Wait, where is the Liqing Hotel again? We have chosen one she’s not quite familiar with. We mount a couple of paved stairs, duck into a cramped lane, cross several wooden planks, and finally arrive at the inn. The reception hall is dark. Ling exchanges a few words with the innkeeper who welcomes us in Chinese. I try to apprehend without success.
The hotel seems deserted, although Ping’An is known to be more touristy than other small villages in Longsheng. Young backpackers in their 20s prefer hostels, whereas travelers over 40s stay in 5 star retreats. Apparently, couples in their 30s like us are supposed to have kids and spend their vacations in all-inclusive resorts somewhere in the Canary Islands…
Before flying to Guilin, I imagined us sitting on the balcony of our hotel room in a tranquil tiny village, marveling at natural sceneries over sun-kissed rice terraces. As soon as we settle in our perfect room, we hear a group of Chinese tourists talking loudly in Mandarin downstairs. Not so deserted after all. They climb the creaking wooden stairway, burp and slam doors. We get out on the balcony, wrapped in a wooden blanket, and gaze at the fog bank. A thick wall of nothingness. The following morning, we finally get to treasure a glimpse of the Longji rice terraces. Right before it starts raining again…