What's the best thing about having a travel blog? That you get to speak about your favourite places in the world as much as you want. After I start boring my family, I usually decide to put everything down on a paper (yup, I actually write all my post in hand first!)...and press publish. It's amazing. Writing about your favourite place gets you back there and makes you remember every little detail of it hoping that your post will inspire more people to pack their bags and go.
I spent a year in China teaching English. I can't say we travelled a lot (at least not in China) but we've seen quite a few places such as Guilin Karst area, Shanghai. Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macao or Hong Kong, all amazing and interesting. That's why it came to me as a surprise when I found my favourite place right at the end, just before leaving China.
As you might have guessed, the place is called Longji Rice Terraces and is located in Guangxi province, China. It also goes by the English name Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. Longsheng is the name of the county where this scenic area is.
What I love about this place
It is authentic. Yes, people around here sell souvenirs and yes, they sometimes ask for ¥ when you take a picture of them. However, it is rather them trying to live with tourists than them living for tourists. Local women still wear traditional clothes and carry a basket on their back no matter if it's in front of tourists or they just need to bring something from another village. They use donkeys and horses to carry bags of supplies to more remote villages. Even though you are the tourist here (=rich), you get offered local specialities not for money but because people here are generous. That doesn't mean it is completely hassle-free but you feel that people are interested in you not just because they see a walking wallet in you.
Coming here, you experience rural China as it is but also keep some comfort. I heard rumours about much more forgotten places where ethnic minority people live in villages lost in mountains and where some of them never saw a foreigner. Well, you first need pretty good information where to find such places and probably need to speak decent Chinese too. Although such a trip is one of my travel goals, I don't have guts to do something like that any time soon. For me, Longji Rice Terraces has a perfect balance between comfortable and authentic.
Although I usually prefer wild landscapes without much of human intervention, this place is just a place of beauty. Little wooden villages perched on the hills trying to take as little place from rice paddies as possible, tiny pavements running between villages and fields, Yao women in colourful clothes always with a smile on their face, flooded fields reflecting the sun.
Guys. Do you really want to live your whole life without seeing THIS?
How to get there
Guilin - Longji Rice Terraces
The easiest way to get here is through the city of Guilin. You can either fly to Guilin or take a high-speed train from Guangzhou. It only takes about 2.5 hours and it is really comfortable. There are slow trains too. They are much cheaper but also much slower... A journey from Guangzhou takes about 11 hours.
The best place to book your tickets is Ctrip although you might struggle with your foreign debit card. Give credit card a try but as all Chinese websites, Ctrip is a bit funny about Western technologies. If you are in China already, you can book tickets in a ticket office. This is what Chinese often do so there are a lot of them around. Also, be careful if you are planning your trip around any Chinese holiday. Especially trains from Guangzhou are sold out weeks in advance.
It is two more hours to get to Longji Rice Terraces from Guilin. You can take a public bus from Guilin Qintan Station to Longsheng and then change to a bus going to Dazhai or Ping’an. It should cost something around 50RMB.
If you booked your hostel already though, they might be able to arrange direct bus from Guilin for you. This usually costs 50RMB one way. The bus will drop you off at the main gate of the scenic area (either Ping’an or Dazhai). We got our bus arranged by our hotel and one of the owners even picked us up at the main gate to walk us to the hotel!
Once you get to the scenic are, it's pretty easy: you just walk everywhere. The pavements connecting villages are really narrow and the few roads going to the villages aren’t used for public transport. Most of the pavements go up and down the hills so usually you should be reasonably fit to even get to your hotel! In my opinion, this just makes the place so much better and adventurous!
If you can’t walk because of health or whatever other reason, don't give up. There is a cable car starting at the main gate in Dazhai which takes you all the way up to the Viewpoint No. 3 for 60RMB one way, 110RMB return. Here you will have an amazing view around with minimum walking (no hills involved).
If you don’t have a problem walking but you took a massive suitcase, you can hire a carrier who will help you. I saw little foreign kids being carried in the baskets as well :).
If you are travelling China by car, you will get to the main gates with car parks in Dazhai and Ping’an but then, you need to walk like everyone else.
Where to stay
Longji Rice Terraces is a scenic area of mountains, rice terraces and little villages squeezed in between. Every village in the area is slightly different, has different levels of services, tourism etc. Some of them are right at the bottom and you can get there by car or bus. If you feel more adventurous, try more remote villages further up the hills. The views are so worth the walk!
Pick the right village
Dazhai (大寨) is one of the bigger villages, there are plenty of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops but it doesn't feel too touristy. The atmosphere is great with a school right in the middle of the village and local women working around in the fields. Buses from Guilin stop about 10 minute easy walk away from the village and there is a cable car going up to one of the viewpoints as well. The only disadvantage is that you won't get much of a view from your hotel as Dazhai is right on the bottom of the hills.
Tiantou (田头) is slightly smaller than Dazhai and higher up in the hills. It means it takes about 20-30 minutes to climb up there from the car park in Dazhai but you'll be rewarded with amazing views from several points in the village, for example Viewpoint No. 2 (more on that bellow). There are plenty of restaurants and hotels but the village doesn't feel crowded.
There are many more hotels higher up above Tiantou along the path leading to Viewpoint No. 1. We booked one of those and it was a perfect spot to be close enough to Tiantou but also to the Viewpoint No. 1 which is one of the best spots to watch a sunrise. No need to mention that views from our room were unreal too.
Ping'an (平安) is in a different part of the scenic area. When you are coming by bus from Guilin, don't get off in Dazhai but continue all the way to Ping'an. I would say it is the busiest village with full tourist infrastructure and loads of souvenir shops. Just like in Dazhai, you don't need to walk much to get to your hotel from the car park.
If you decide to stay in Ping'an, don't worry you'd be cut off from Dazhai and Tiantou. You can either take a local bus starting from the main gate in Ping'an or do a great four hour hike from Dazhai to Ping'an. The local bus is an unbelievable experience. It's small, crowded with people, you sit on the floor, bags of rice or dead chickens.
Dazhai, Tiantou and Ping'an are the most favourite villages but there are many more, usually quite hard to get to, perched on the hills away from the main touristy paths. These are for example Damaojie (between the Viewpoint No. 3 and Dazhai) or Zhong Liu (half way on Dazhai to Ping'an trail). I am not sure if there are any hotels (at least I can't remember seeing any and there aren't any on booking websites on the internet) but if you have an adventurous spirit, I would try to hike up to these villages and ask around for homestay. Honestly, I don't know if this will work out but I found the villagers really entrepreneurial and they might be able to arrange something for you off-the-beaten track.
Pick the right hotel/hostel
From my own experience, I recommend Terrace View Hotel between Tiantou village and Viewpoint No. 1. It is a proper hike from the Dazhai car park, about 40-60 minutes depending on how fit you are, but it is so worth it! You are right in the middle of the rice paddies with incredible views, just about 15 minute walk to the Station 1. The interior is simple but the rooms are clean and cosy, at 88RMB for a double with a view.
The hotel is managed by Sarah and her husband. Sarah speaks excellent English and is really helpful with whatever you might need. They can also book transport for you from Guilin to Dazhai. The communication is very smooth (and trust me, that is not usual in China) and we even got walked from the car park right to the hotel by Sarah's husband.
During the hike to Ping'an, we stopped at Longji International Youth Hostel for lunch. The reception looked lovely and the food was delicious! There is also Dazhai JinKeng International Youth Hostel in Tiantou. The views from there are really pretty and seemed quite popular with foreign travellers.
No matter where you stay though, remember you are in the countryside. The are frequent power cuts and only a few hotels have their own generators. We weren't able to charge our electronics for the first two days. The locals are used to it though so everything works as usual except hot showers. We ate our dinners at a candle and used a little portable lantern to walk to our room. Super exciting!
When to go
Longji Rice Terraces have four seasons a year at the same times as Europe. You can visit the place any time but it will be always different.
Spring is the most attractive for photographers as the paddies are flooded with water and they glisten in the sun.
In summer, the paddies turn bright green. Although it is in the south of China, high altitude makes the summer heat much more bearable.
The rice turns yellow and brown during harvest in autumn.
In winter, terraces are covered by snow and turn white.
What to do in Longji rice terraces
The landscape is a number one reason why to come to this area and you enjoy it the best while hiking. As the same paths are used by the tourists and locals, they are usually in a good condition. There are loads of great views but go to the viewpoints for the best ones. These are viewing platforms at hill tops with funny names like West Hill Music or Nine Dragons and Five Tigers. The locals usually only describe them with numbers when speaking to foreigners. The best hikes take you around the best scenic spots.
Dazhai to Viewpoint No. 1 (West Hill Music - 西山韶乐) hike
Start walking from Dazhai in the direction to Tiantou but once there, continue further up the hill. It is a popular road with both locals and fellow hikers so it shouldn't be hard to get on the right path. After you walk out of Tiantou, continue up the hill along the hotels (you will pass the Terrace View Hotel as well). There are several smaller platforms on the way but the Viewpoint No. 1 also has a little shelter. The views are fantastic any time but you will best enjoy them during sunrise.
If you are reasonably fit, the walk should take about 1-1.5h one way. Be prepared that this is actual mountains so you will mainly walk up the hill. People are really helpful so if you ask, they will put you in the right direction. Even the older ones usually speak a few words of English. If you are really worried about getting lost, ask for a guide in your hotel.
You don't need to pack a snack as there are many hotels and restaurants where you can get a lunch or a pint. Definitely try a local speciality, bamboo sticky rice.
Once at the viewpoint, you can return the same way. If you want a longer walk, continue up the hill to the hotel you can see from the station. Although I haven't done this by myself, the staff from this hotel say you can walk all the way to the Viewpoint No. 3 (Golden Buddha Peak). The path is not supposed to be in a good shape though so a local guide is recommended. It can be arranged by the hotel. Once you get to Viewpoint No. 3, it's only about 30 more minutes to get back to Dazhai or take a cable car.
Viewpoint No. 3 (Golden Buddha Peak - 金佛顶) hike
No matter where you want to start, you need to get to the public toilets on the path between Dazhai and Tiantou. Across the pavement from the toilets, there is a little path going up the hill. Continue walking along this path, passing an abandoned cemetery. You'll walk through a bamboo forest and across a few streams. When you get to Damaojie village turn left and continue up the hill until you get to the viewing platform.
This is the terminus of the cable car so one-day tour groups from Guilin gather here more than anywhere else. There are also many souvenir shops, restaurants and even some hotels. Take a cable car on the way back or walk the same way you came. You can take a shortcut when you get to the little crossing in Damaojie. Turn left instead of right to get to Dazhai faster.
Thanks to the cable car, this is one of the busiest stations but it is a lovely quiet walk. It takes a bit over an hour to get there from Dazhai.
Dazhai to Ping'an hike
This a very thorough and long hike and you get to see the two rice terrace areas - the one around Dazhai and Tiantou and one around Ping'an. The beginning and end of the walk are the most beautiful but also the most challenging. On the way, you will walk through a tiny village of Zhong Liu and also see both ethnic minorities living in the area - Yao and Zhuang people.
Starting in Dazhai, go to Tiantou but instead of continuing towards the Viewpoint No. 1, turn left. This is definitely the trickiest part so if not sure where to turn exactly, ask villagers for directions to Ping'an. The path is in a good shape and visible all way through. The last part before you get to Ping'an is a tarmac road.
Obviously, you can walk back as well but as one way takes about 4 hours, you might want to take a bus. It leaves from the front gate of the scenic area in Ping'an at 1, 3 and 5pm. Tell the driver you are going to Dazhai and he will drop you off in Er Long village. Here, you will wait for a bus going to Longsheng which will drop you off at the main gate in Dazhai. It was like this the time I visited Longji Rice Terraces so before you leave, I would check the bus services with your hotel staff.
Just like for all the other hikes, a local guide can be hired. There are also a couple of shops with snacks and water in Zhong Liu, half way between Dazhai and Ping'an. I didn't see any water dispensers in any of the villages but you can definitely ask for some boiled water or tea so I would bring my water bottle with me anyway.
Longji Rice Terraces are like ancient Chinese heaven on Earth. When will YOU come?