The Longji Terraces (龍脊) are a winding, and sometimes nauseating trip up and down the mountains of Longsheng County (龍勝), roughly a two-hour drive from the city of Guilin.
It was a smooth ride setting out from Guilin, watching the endless pomelo stands and orange trees that lined the highway. But as we climbed into Longsheng, the road narrowed, sometimes to only one lane tight enough to squeeze one vehicle through at a time. Not that that stopped our minivan driver or the tour buses from barrelling down opposite directions with no guard rails, and sheer drops over the mountain road.
After paying an entrance fee of 50 yuan ($8 CAD) per person, the minivan dropped us off in a parking lot for the hike into the Longji Terraces.
From 1271 to 1368, the Zhuang people carved the terraces into the rolling hills, maximizing whatever space they had to plant rice. Today, the terraces are still used by the Yao and Zhuang ethnic minorities who live there.
In late spring, the water-filled rows glisten like silver. Come summer, the rice seedlings change into strips of bright green and in the fall, they turn golden for harvest, wrapping Longji — which translates into dragon’s backbone — in brilliant ribbons.
We went in the dead of winter, when pockets of fog left us with very little visibility (making the drive even more fun). The mist mysteriously drifted away as we left the van and started up the pathways and through Ping’An village.
In one of those strange realities, local village women would periodically pass us, carrying tourists’ luggage in baskets on their backs, up rocky paths and stairs to guest houses at the top of the mountain. For this service, they charged about 20 yuan ($3.50 CAD).
But at 1916 metres above sea level — and even with the souvenir stands creeping into this site — it felt pure, crisp and clean in the cold mountain air, in the water pouring from split bamboo pipes, and in the smoke drifting from kitchen fires in the wooden houses.
For lunch and to rest our calves, we stopped at the Ping’An Guest House, a 21-room hotel and restaurant that offers Internet and Chinese dramas on the dining room TV.
The first thing on the table was a beautiful dish of hot sauce, made from locally grown chili peppers, and eaten in the winter to keep warm.
I never saw a menu; our local guide knew we wanted to sample a typical meal — what she called “farmer’s food” — so she did all the ordering for us. (We could have eaten at a villager’s home, but she had reservations about cleanliness, especially since we were already sick.)
The most delicious chicken soup I’ve ever had appeared in a steaming pot on the table. Freshly made from one of the chickens I saw clucking outside and simmered with just ginger and aromatics, it was a revelation.
The chicken was lean — but tasted like chicken. It was so unlike the overpumped chickens of North America that are all breast meat and little flavour.
I’m guessing this may not be new to those of you who grew up on farms perhaps, but hey, I’m a city girl, and this was a big deal!
A Longji specialty was next: sticky rice stuffed into bamboo and cooked over an open fire for about half an hour. They’re then cracked open to reveal a mouth-watering mix of diced sweet potatoes, carrots and cured bacon.
Sticky rice, like hot sauce, is believed to keep one warm through cold weather.
The guest house bought these from one of the outdoor grills along the pathway. They served us one bamboo sticky rice EACH, which was way too much food, and I doubt a “normal-sized” portion for one person in these parts.
Now, let me tell you about this bacon. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
The bacon here is hung over an open fire and smoked and left for more than a year. I’m not sure what they do to flavour it, if anything, but it is the best pork I’ve ever tasted: perfect amounts of fat, meat, and slightly crispy skin melding with salty and smoky and a hint of sweet.
I would start hauling tourists’ luggage in a basket on my back up mountains too if I could eat this every day. OK, I’d probably keel over of a heart attack sooner than later, but oh, the bacon. Exquisite, divine, delicious bacon.
It was simply stir-fried with some fresh bamboo slices — amazing — and carrots and we could not get enough of it.
I also couldn’t stop eating the fresh greens stir-fried with garlic. That’s it. Nothing fancy, but the taste of freshness was irresistible, especially when I knew it came from one of the leafy gardens we passed.
It will be interesting to see how much longer the villages will be able to keep their old ways and traditional lives. Along with the souvenir stalls and guest houses, there’s now lots of construction. (There are no vehicles; everything is carried up by human power and those strong village backs.)
A Chinese-American artist who fell in love with the area spent the last eight years building a stunning boutique hotel called the Li An Lodge which opened in 2008. It costs an average of 2,050 yuan a night ($360 CAD) for one night’s accommodation and three meals.
The average annual wage in rural China is $572 US.
It’s a difficult argument because tourism dollars have obviously given people here extra earnings and benefits (electricity, Internet, cellphone coverage) they couldn’t have imagined before.
I would say, hurry there before the Longji Terraces are completely developed. And try the bacon.
Did I mention the bacon?
Ping’An Guest House, Ping’An Village, Longsheng County, China, phone 86-773-7583198.