Minority culture and splendiferous landscapes tempt increasing numbers of tourists to spend time vacationing in rural Guangxi, says Erik Nilsson
The colossal Longji Rice Terraces create a stairway to heaven in rural Guilin. Guangxi's Zhuang ethnic minority, who have long dwelled in this undulating topography, whittled these alpines from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), carving them into titanic echelons of paddies that taper stepwise.
While some claim that faith can move mountains, the Longji terraces prove that industriousness can at least move nearly all of their topsoil.
The pleated landscape's name comes from the fact that the hilltops appear to trace a dragon's spine, while the terraces resemble the firedrake's scales.
The precipices swoop from an elevation of 380m to 880m at an average incline of 30 degrees. The steepest declivities tilt at about 50 degrees.
Nearly every square centimeter of the 66-sq-km area has been manicured into tiers, so a local saying goes: "Where there is soil, there is terrace."
The terraces are a patchwork of small paddies, each about 1 mu (0.07 hectare) in size. Many of the troughs are unbroken, creating helixes of irrigation chutes that uncoil from the mountains' apexes to their bases, enabling uninterrupted downhill water flow. When waterlogged, the shimmering paddies resemble stacks of massive mirrors.
These twisting troughs burn with shades of green after the spring planting and with amber hues before autumn harvest, when the versants shed their pelts of rice plants.
Visitors to the area can still see ethnic Zhuang villagers communally cultivating the terraces. With woven baskets lashed to their backs, they tramp up and down the chopped gradients as if they had pistons for legs.
The surrounding area, about two hours' drive outside of Guilin, is scattered with more than a dozen ethnic minority settlements, mostly pockets of the Zhuang population.
These fields have provided collective subsistence for the local communities for centuries, but today they are doing so in a new way: In addition to offering harvests of rice, they also reap growing stores of tourism cash.
It's a new manifestation of the symbiotic relationship the native people have with the land. While the local villagers reshaped the mountains, the mountains now lure tourists who are in turn reshaping the local villages.
The Zhuang village of Ping'an, for example, is now rife with guesthouses, souvenir stands and restaurants.
Visitors lodge in structures constructed according to the ethnic group's traditional architecture. The buildings' higher levels are larger than the lower floors, jutting out counter-stepwise to create an effect like the inversion of the hills' terracing.
In olden times, the first floor was for livestock, the second was for the family and the third, villagers jest, "was for the rats". Today, the first floor is usually for storage, the second is still for family, and the third is for accommodating tourists.
Some of the nearby settlements, such as the 460-year-old Huanglou village, have only recently opened up to the outside.
In 2002, the first paved road pierced this insulated Yao minority village and began injecting tourists - and flows of their money. Since then, Huanglou's average annual incomes have soared from about 500 yuan ($73) to a few thousand.
Most earn money through peddling handicrafts - especially embroideries and silver jewelry - and by staging dance performances and mock wedding ceremonies.
Demonstrations of marital customs usually involve randomly selected audience participation.
Grooms who are called to the stage mash rice into dough with wooden implements, gulp down several goblets of local liquor and serenade their "brides" with love ballads.
All the while, they are getting goosed by half a dozen women, as a robust pinch on the buttocks is supposed to be a display of friendship in Yao culture. And the inhabitants of Huanglou are very, very friendly.
The show ends with the new husbands giving their brides piggyback rides around the room, then charging full-throttle past two women blocking the exit with linked arms, Red Rover-style.
Before such tourist performances were part of village life, there was an exodus of youth who left to seek work in cities, jeopardizing the future of local traditions.
One such custom is keeping long hair, a practice for which the Yao are known. The ethnic group's hair grows to about twice the length of that of the average person from any other ethnicity. Let down, it cascades past their backs to sweep their calves.
The Guinness World Record for the longest hair goes to a Yao woman from Guangxi. Xie Qiuping's mane stretched 5.6 m when it was measured for the designation in May 2004.
But only 60 longhaired women remain in Huanglou. While most are elderly, none of them have a single gray strand on their heads. That's because the Yao shampoo comes with a special infusion made from rice water that protects their sleek sable sheen.
The ethnic group traditionally believes that a person's hair is his spirit's abode. Women get only one trim in their lifetimes, a right of passage into adulthood in their late teens. After their hair has re-grown, the disembodied mane is twisted into her coif as an extension.
A Yao woman's hairstyle also bespeaks her social status. There are distinctive dos for maidens, married mothers, childless brides and grandmothers.
Unwed women wrap their heads, because piety holds their grooms should be the first to cast eyes on their uncovered hair.
A Yao husband moves in with his wife's family. Another tidemark of the culture's matriarchal currents is that males, including visitors, can never say no to women. That's not to say they can't refuse, they just shouldn't do so verbally.
More than half of Huanglou's 400 residents turn out to greet guests. They line up in two rows flanking a wobbly rope-and-plank bridge, creating a butt-pinching gauntlet. The assembly also offers visitors goblets of local rice wine and croons welcome anthems in their native tongue.
Soon after comes "rice tea" - a salty brine swimming with puffed rice that tastes more like a savory soup than a freshly brewed cuppa.
After sucking down the broth, visitors who hope to someday return to the village should place a single chopstick on the cup's brim. Leaving three indicates that they never plan to leave.
And perhaps it could take an outsider that much time to comprehensively understand the local dynamics.
Shaped by history, minority culture and grandiose feats of labor, the Longji Rice Terraces create manifold platforms for visitors to understand rural Guangxi.