Not far from Yangshuo (on the other side of Guilin) can be found the the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (龙胜梯田, Longsheng Titian), an area where the occupants of several ethnic minority villages have carved the hillsides into spectacular centuries-old rice terraces. As with Yangshuo, I wouldn’t really recommend the area specifically as a hiking destination, but I can highly recommend it as a general travel destination and would suggest that the best thing to do while you’re there is go hiking!
The Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces aren’t quite as dramatic as the famous Batad terraces in the Philippines, but they are very pretty indeed. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, just a short walk along the trails around the villages will bring you to various viewpoints from where you can see the stepped contours of the terraces undulating along the ridges and dropping down into the valleys below – indeed, looking somewhat like a dragon’s backbone (if you picture the serpentine Asian dragon rather than the Smaug-like European dragon, anyway)
I stayed in Ping An (平安) village, a lovely Zhuang village clinging to the hillside with its buildings stacked on top of each other, the narrow alleyways and staircases ferreting between them. From there I hiked along the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces to the nearby Yao village of Da Zhai (大寨); this only takes a few hours, but it takes you through some wonderful scenery and you’ll see the local Zhuang and Yao people going about their daily business in the fields. I did this hike in November, at which time the climate was very pleasant, not too hot and not too cold. I think if you’re there in midwinter it could be a different proposition, and in summer it’ll be very hot so in either case you’ll need the right clothing. I carried my snacks and water with me, though several of the villagers I passed called out to offer me lunch – presumably for a price, though I didn’t enquire as to how much.
There are other hiking trails in the area which you could also explore, and I understand that there’s now also a cable car in Dazhai. Not sure how I feel about that really; on the one hand it makes access to Longsheng easier for those who aren’t fit to hike it, but on the other hand it’s an ugly scar on a beautiful landscape. I also wonder how much of the profit from the cable car finds its way to the locals – chances are, not a lot. When entering the Longsheng area, you must pass through a ticket office on the road and pay an entrance fee of 80 yuan (at time of writing in 2016), and the local villages – the villages that you have gone there to visit – apparently see little of this money, which instead goes into the pockets of Han Chinese agents and officials. A pretty stinking state of affairs if you ask me, and so it’s probably a nice idea to pay a local to guide you on your hike, or to accept the offer of an old lady to carry your bag from the bus stop to the village for a small fee (even though it’s only a short walk), and not to haggle too low a price for your accommodation (it was low season when I was there and I think I could have driven the price down much lower than I did). You will also be approached by Yao women with incredibly long hair (they never cut it)… they will unravel it from their headpieces and show it off to you, and then try to charge you money to photograph them. I’m normally quite irritable with this sort of thing, but in this case the villagers aren’t getting the full direct benefit they should be from the steep entrance fees being charged to the tourists coming to see their home, and so are driven to find other ways to profit from the large tourist industry that mainly exists in the area because of them.
How to get to the Longsheng Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces
The area is easily reached by bus from Guilin (桂林) or Yangshuo (陽朔), both of which are on the new high speed Guangzhou – Guiyang rail line; the Guilin bus situation has changed since I did it, but for up to date access information (as of 2016) see here (from Guilin) and here (from Yangshuo). Also be sure to take enough cash with you and don’t make the mistake I did of assuming I’d be able to use my card or exchange money somewhere – it did look as though I was going to have to leave my bags at the hotel while I made an ATM run back to Guilin or wherever the nearest bank was, but I was spared the hassle by exchanging some US dollars with a friendly German bloke (who also surreptitiously paid for my breakfast in a random act of kindness) so it worked out okay in the end!
Aside from the rotten deal with the entrance fees, I really loved visiting and hiking around these little villages in the Longsheng hills; a worthwhile side trip from Yangshuo.
For more hiking ideas in China, click below:
Huashan (near Xi’an)
Fragrant Hills (Beijing)
And don’t forget to sign up for a VPN service (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?) before you arrive in China:
Have you been to Longsheng? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below!