Like in Yangshuo we got up early to take pictures of sunrise, the timing and the scenery were too fabulous to miss this opportunity. However, once again, as in Yangshuo, the weather let us down and the early morning sun couldn’t pierce through the mountain fog. We waited at the top of a crescent terrace for the sunrise at 6:15am, and then for the sun to rise over the edge of the mountain at gone 7am; with the tripod setup we observed the farmers start their day. Either in boots or barefoot, they took their sharp knives and hacked away at the grass that grew between the lines of rice, stopping occasionally for a smoke. They collected the grass in bales, which would presumably feed their livestock.
When the sun did eventually appear the light was best from the top of the valley, we climbed back up towards Ping’an and copied some other early risers by going into a rice terrace which was now a burning bright yellow. Of course rice paddies are drenched in water and the plants sit in a good foot of wet mud, that’s ok as long as you stick to the slippery path besides them. Well, as I said, that path is very slippery and Sam’s sandals have almost no grip, so as we squidged around the bend her foot gave way and half of her leg slid deep into the mud, splashing her and me in a delightful coating of mud. We traipsed back through the hotel, muddy, just as the cleaner had finished mopping up the reception floor.
After breakfast (toast, yoghurt, pancake), the four of us (Sam and I, Mieke and Roger) met our guide for the day, her chosen western name was Linda, but her Chinese name is too lovely not to mention — Yúnli which means “beautiful cloud”. She’d lived in Nanning and learnt and used English there, but had returned to her hometown to give English language tours; she was keen to guide us and to learn from us and we all enjoyed her company.
From our hotel we trekked up the west side of Ping’an to see the “Seven stars around the moon”, a set of rice terraces that culminate in small dots at the top of a hill (the stars), with one of these peaks being much larger and stony than the others (the moon). There are two viewpoints, one halfway up and one from the top, and between them entrepreneurs sell their fresh passion fruits and postcards, or an opportunity to dress up and have your photo taken. At 9am the light was unexpectedly perfect, lighting the yellow rice beautifully and casting shadows into the valley. As Yúnli explained the stages of growing rice to the others I snapped as many photos of the terraces as I could. By the second viewpoint the light had changed.
Our progress was slow as at every twist and turn we stopped to take more pictures of the astonishing landscape, or we stumbled on interesting wildlife, such as a luminescent green scarab. We met local Zhuang women on route, they cut their hair only twice in their lifetime and wear it differently based on their social status (married, single, with child) — they also sell bangles and postcards.
From the stars and moon we hiked around to another terrace, named “Nine dragons and five tigers”, where there are nine ridges that look like dragons, alongside five mounds that supposedly look like tigers. Whatever you call it, the rice terraces were once again a brilliant yellow and an incredible site to behold. From our viewpoint we were also dazzled by hundreds of large butterflies and dragonflies.
Our hike would then take us to the remotest village, Zhuang, where there are no restaurants or guesthouses, only villagers and their homes. The trail from the rice terrace to here is different, passing through a valley and up and over the hills, its a narrow stone path that is at times arduous and without shade and takes about 2 hours oneway. We passed by a reservoir and its squabbling black duck residents, along an unfinished road two years in the making, through an ancient cemetery with ornate tombstones, and through small fields where the grass whipped at our bare legs. There were more butterflies and dragonflies, and we tried (often in vain) to photograph them, I caught sight of a hummingbird hawk-moth, and we all stopped to watch a golden yellow caterpillar with a hipster-like black mohican (except our guide, she has a fear of caterpillars). Sam marvelled at strawberry-like fruit that grows alongside the path, and we stopped to try some on the way back.
The path itself was surprisingly busy (not uncomfortably), Yúnli hadn’t ever seen it this busy, “Usually only foreigners walk along here, the Chinese don’t like to walk”. And at the entrance of Zhong Liu we queued to climb the steep pebbled path up to the village where we’d rest and eat lunch. At a small farmers house we sat outside on the tiniest of chairs, as if taken from a primary school, and enjoyed a fabulous lunch cooked by our intrepid guide. Fried potatoes and garlic, freshly picked pumpkin boiled with salt and sugar, greens, smoked dried pork, tomatoes and egg, and of course a couple of beers. All the ingredients were grown here, anything brought in costs a premium. The house doubles as a local convenience store and sells to the villagers mosquito repellants, tea, and tobacco.
We returned by the same route, quieter and cooler this time, and were followed half the way by a stray but friendly dog. Once again there were butterflies and caterpillars to gawk at, and Sam found a peculiar leaf-like insect we later learned was a water scorpion. A man strolled past us, 10ft long bamboo trunks hoisted over his shoulder. Nearly back we forked left and took a lower path around the terraces and into town. Corn was tied up and hung out to dry from wooden rafters, fed to the pigs — villagers don’t eat the corn; concrete slabs were bright red with thousands of red chillies spread out to dry in the sun. We were back by 5pm, my pedometer reading 27,000 steps.
Our last evening in Ping’an, we explored the parts we hadn’t seen, finding vacant karaoke bars, tourist shops selling stones that looked like meats (pork, bacon, sausages — uncanny, but why?), quiet guesthouses, a small cafe and somewhere for Sam to buy the peacock scarf she so dearly wanted. Ping’an was quiet, the landslide was clearly costing everyone a fortune, none of the expected tour groups could get here. At the hotel we agreed timings for our pickup and transfer to get to Guilin airport, and had dinner; Gongbao chicken and fried aubergines with pork. Outside there was a clear sky, and Roger was pointing out the star constellations to other guests using his powerful Chinese-bought green laser. Roger and Mieke would be joining us on our travels to Hong Kong.
The hike into town was arduous and long, uphill and sweaty. We’d expected something similar on our return, and a similar price to pay to get our bags out. But on Friday morning the landslide was finally cleared and we could return via a shorter route, which was also cheaper. We had more time in the hotel than expected, and we watched as the sun came up on a beautiful new morning; the lighting would be perfect just as we’d board the minibus. After breakfast our four bag carriers hoisted up the luggage and we set off down the mountain, a mere 15 minutes later we were at the car park. This time we were prepared for a long hike, and I’d hoped for some spectacular views as we exited, but this route was mostly town and small shops, the rice terraces high above us and out of sight.
It was the same crazy driver we had before who took us down the mountain. At the site of the landslide we gasped at its enormity, the temporary road just a slither through huge mounds of red dirt. The minibus slalom’d around slower traffic and we passed a naked man walking on the road side; it took about two hours to reach Guilin airport, where we’d continue to Guangzhou and then Hong Kong.