I wasn’t planning on dying today, but the odds of surviving aren’t looking great. Decidedly poor in fact. As a general rule, I don’t think about my own death much. My only wish is that I’ll be very old when it happens, but our driver today seems quite keen to change those plans. I’m not keen on the soundtrack to my imminent demise either.
“Please don’t let me die listening to Kenny G”, I ask K. But there’s nothing she can do about it either. We thought the driver would play the CD and change it, but he keeps repeating it. This guy is either deaf and unaware of his torture, or a complete masochist. We decide to eat the last of the chocolate biscuits while we can.
We’ve flown into Guilin from Beijing last night, and are leaving half our gear here while we make a sidetrip to Ping An, about three hours away. Ping An is home to the Longji Rice terraces – so we’re quite keen to make it. We thought Beijing driving was deadly, but they were clearly beginners. At first, driving in the Chinese hills may not appear to have a code, but the rules become clear quite quickly:
- There is no “wrong side of the road”.
- You can always go a little faster.
- You should only overtake another vehicle on the outside. Only overtake on the inside if you feel lucky.
- There should be no more than four vehicles across a two lane road.
- If you’re feeling tired, try overtaking on a blind corner. That always gets the adrenalin pumping.
- Driving closer to sheer drops will allow your passengers a better photo of the view. It’s not all about you.
- Rockfalls are frequent, but you can probably drive faster than rocks can fall. Go for it.
This is the furthest we’ve been from a major city, and also the furthest south we’ve been. The landscape here is very lush, almost like rain forest. It’s a complete change of surroundings, as well as a change in altitude, but unfortunately not a huge change in temperature.
With every narrowly avoided collision, we’re slowly becoming used to our driver’s death wish. It gets to the point where it’s all a bit dull if there isn’t a set of oncoming headlights staring at us.
After almost three winding hours, we’re dropped off at the entrance to Ping An, and we’re asked if we want to be carried by the locals in a sedan uphill to our hotel. It seems that the men carry the tourists, while the women in pink tea-cosy hats carry the suitcases. I’m sure the locals could do with the cash, but that just doesn’t feel right. Other visitors don’t seem to share our reservations, and practically leap on. They’re not looking too underfed, and something is going to give. I only hope it’s the sedan, not a local. It’s not much more than a gentle stroll up the path, passing over the Wind and Rain bridge, and we’re soon in Ping An.
Ping An is a 600 year old Zhuang village. With 18 million people, the Zhuang are the second largest ethnic group in China, after the Han. The village seems to be getting a facelift, and feels like a winter resort out of season getting ready for the next tourist incursion. There are many paths spread through the village in different directions, but with only one main street, it’s hard to get lost. After the sprawl of Beijing and Xi’an, it’s a welcome change of scale. We’re staying on the top floor of one of the traditional three-floor wooden buildings, with a view down the valley. It’s not a bad place for K to spend her birthday.
It’s an interesting arrangement for lunch. Following a quick visit to the “Exhibition Of Former Things”, we spend a few minutes wandering the street, checking menus and prices, and make our choice based on the delicious smell of the meal delivered from the kitchen opposite us. We place our order, and soon see some meals emerge. Unfortunately they head off downhill, and it’s soon clear that our kitchen is the source of meals for the entire street. Our wait is going to be a bit longer, as things move slowly in Ping An, including us, and that’s just fine. We enjoy our coconut juice, befriend a few cats, take in the view, and eventually enjoy the best sweet and sour pork you could hope for.
As much as we’re enjoying our food, we’re here to see the terraces. There are two main circuits – one translated as “The Moon and Seven Stars”, and the other as “Nine Dragons, Five Tigers”. We head first for the moon and stars, but unfortunately mist rolls in, and we don’t see much more than “a very big cloud”. Despite the lack of long-distance view, you can still see the terraces immediately below us, and it isn’t hard to appreciate the beauty of the setting. As we continue the moon and stars circuit, we notice the same items appearing on every stall – the same old coins, the same small Buddhas, the same little red books, the same fans, the same Mao statuettes. They don’t say “Made in China”; I think it’s a given.
Another strange phenomenon continues here – we’re the subject of many requests for photos. I have no idea why – maybe in China collecting foreigners’ faces in photo albums is the equivalent of collecting facebook friends or linkedin connections. But there are several shots of “Kiwis in the Mist” – hopefully it provides a better shot than “Just Mist”.
As we head off towards the dragons and tigers circuit, the mist starts to lift and we are soon enjoying a full vista. It doesn’t last, but the mist that rolls in again doesn’t last either. The pattern of cloud rolling through and quickly dispersing repeats for most of the rest of the day, so there is never a long wait for the next panorama. Along the walk, we encounter an old lady who is convinced I am fluent in Mandarin, possibly from all my smiling and nodding in agreement. I guess “bloody weather” is universal. We also find several graveyards in the terraces, a puddle full of tadpoles, some very brave workers on very flimsy looking scaffolding, and two horses in no mood to share the path. Conspicuously absent were any terraces remotely resembling a solitary dragon or tiger.
As it turns out, I was looking in the wrong direction. If I’d been looking out further, I would have spotted seven distant ranges that could easily be mistaken for a coven of dragons (there is no collective noun for a group of dragons but I like the sound of coven), and the five mountains in front were misidentified as tigers guarding the land. Easily done. Apparently anyone who sees them has guaranteed wealth and intelligence for life, which is actually disappointing, because lifelong wealth is something I’m quite keen on. Why didn’t our driver mention that, instead of inflicting torture by clarinet?