When a jovial, inebriated, shirtless man boarded our bus with a meter-long pipe (think Cheech and Chong go to China), we figured we were slipping even further off China’s organized tourist trail.
Our destination: the rice terraces of Yuanyang in southern China’s Yunnan Province, where dazzling colors, luxuriant terraced rice fields, elaborately-dressed women, and sweaty, shirtless men awaited.
Life on Xinjie's Main Square
A lively atmosphere greeted us upon our evening arrival in Xinjie, the traditional capital of the Yuanyang region.
Life on the main square seemed universal – children played, old women huddled together to share the latest gossip, young couples made their rounds, and mothers snuggled with their babies as the sun set over the valley.
A Walk to the Rice Fields
Equipped with a hand-drawn map, we headed out of town on foot to witness life in the fields the following day. Water buffalo moved glacially in the mid-afternoon sun as their owners whistled commands. The terraces, some cultivated for over one thousand years by the Hani people, are an extension of the natural landscape and represent a balance between nature and human will.
From the reaction of locals, we concluded that tourists don’t often strike out on foot. Always lost, we repeated the following comic routine: butcher the name of our next village destination in high and low tones, receive confused looks and giggles from the locals, and hope that someone would eventually guide us to the turn-off for the next village. We took a few wrong turns, but somehow made our way.
On our return to Xinjie in the early evening, workers returning from the rice fields greeted us with smiles and motioned for us to follow them home and join them for something to eat and a place to sleep.
Excursion to the Ethnic Market
On our final day, we took the traditional route and hired a car to catch the sunrise over some rice terraces a bit further afield (Duoyishu and Bada). Though the rice terraces were beautiful, our human interaction was limited to some empty exchanges with desperate egg and souvenir vendors longing for the tourist flow of high season (in winter, when the terraces are flooded with water).
We were rewarded in the afternoon, however, by an outdoor ethnic market teeming with Hani, Yi and Dai market-goers. The market schedule in Yuanyang rotates between villages based on the Chinese calendar. Match the animals on the calendar with a market schedule to determine the village in which the market is scheduled that day. The day of our excursion belonged to the tiger, horse or dog, placing the market in the village Niujiazhai (“Ox Horn” village) according to a delightfully confusing map provided by our guest house.
Upon arrival at the market, we had flashbacks to the ethnic minority markets of northern Vietnam. Amidst the standard market trappings, vendors sold local moonshine from gas jugs and street-side dentists made quick work to fashion dentures and replace broken teeth. Men smoked stringy local tobacco through long, locally-carved wooden pipes, while young women haggled for yarns and threads for their embroidery endeavors.
Tofu and Sweaty Men
As we looked around for something to eat, a shirtless man waved us over to the food stall where he was having a snack.
He took a liking to Dan and asked us to join him for some grilled tofu. At one point, he curiously pulled Dan’s arm hair, offering a smile and a thumbs up. Unsatiated, he reached further for Dan’s chest hair – with the same curious tug. Apparently, some men in this part of the world are intrigued by body hair, something which many of them lack.
We stuffed ourselves on squares of grilled tofu dipped in spices and soy sauce while we entertained a charade-driven conversation. When it came time to leave, we said our goodbyes. The man wanted us to stay with him at his house, but we motioned to the van waiting to take us back.
Another genuine offer we unfortunately couldn't accept. We thanked him profusely and charaded, “Next time.”
Yuanyang Travel Information: Transport, Accommodation and How to Visit the Rice Fields
- When to Go: Most Chinese and western tourists visit as part of a tour group and go in winter or early spring when the fields are flooded. We were on our own and it was June; for us, it was just right.
- How to Get There: Take a bus from Kunming bus station at around 10:30 AM or 7:30 PM (sleeper bus). Takes 5-8 hours, depending upon the driver and how often he has to stop to repair the bus en route.
- Where to Stay: We stayed at Yuanyang Chenjia Fangshe guest house right next to the old bus station. Rooms are reasonably priced and there's a lovely terrace to eat breakfast overlooking the rice fields. You can compare prices of other accommodation in Yuanyang here.
- Where to Eat: We kept returning to Sichuan Canting Guan on the main square. A super friendly husband-and-wife team run the restaurant. There is a simple menu in English, but it's more fun to point to what you want in their fresh case. We stuffed ourselves on very tasty vegetarian and tofu dishes for just a few dollars.
- Day Hike: Window of Yuanyang shop near the market has a very knowledgeable English speaking volunteer. He can advise you on day hikes and draw you a map. Stock up on fair trade souvenirs or use the internet while you're at it.
- Arranging Driver: We arranged our driver at our hotel. The standard price is 200 RMB for a sunrise drive to the rice fields, return to Xinjie for lunch and then a sunset drive. We negotiated 200 RMB for the sunrise drive plus the journey to Niujiazhai market. Shared between six people, it was a good deal. We heard from another group of tourists that some drivers take people by “tourist villages” where an entrance fee is required and the driver presumably gets a commission. Just be clear up front that you don't want any tourist villages.
- Map of Yuanyang rice fields and ethnic markets: Download a PDF map of Yuanyang's rice fields and ethnic market location and schedule. The credit for these maps goes to Yuanyang Chenjia Fangshe guest house.
More Stories on Traveling Independently Through China
As for the rest of China, here's what we saw (forgive us for our use of the word authentic), what we ate (Chinese food in China is such a joy compared to some of the goop served at Chinese restaurants abroad) and the many people we met (China is more diverse than you might imagine) during our three month journey across this rapidly changing country.