Note: To make things easier for travelers headed to this fascinating region I have used the simplified locally used names of towns and villages. For example; the town of Xinjiezhen is sometimes referred to as Old Yuanyang, but locals, bus and taxi drivers, know it as Xinjie.
Well over 1000 years ago the Hani and Yi peoples of Southwestern China began clearing dense forests and carving plots of farmland from the steep hills and rugged mountains of what is now known as Yunnan Province. Using only simple handmade tools and beasts of burden such as the strong and gentle water buffalo, the hard working people of this region have toiled for centuries creating and maintaining their fields. Rice is the world’s most important food crop and China is its largest producer and consumer. Rice farming requires vast amounts of land and water. To successfully grow rice in the Ailao Mountains at 1600 meters above sea level, the Hani and Yi people crafted a seemingly endless number of rice terraces. Cascading down the steep faces of the mountains like giant steps, the local people built an incredibly complex and effective irrigation system to move water from the heavily forested mountaintops down to the terraced fields. In addition to growing rice, plots of land are dedicated to growing other staple food crops such as soya, corn, and cabbage. Livestock including buffalo, chicken, cows, ducks, and pigs are raised here as well; essentially integrated into the vast system of terraces.
In this part of the world, only one rice crop is produced per year. Planting coincides with the start of the rainy season which begins around May and is harvested in September. Around November, after the rice is harvested, the farmers flood the terraces with water to keep the soil moist and prevent collapse. Much of this water evaporates, forming clouds which drift up the valleys and above the mountains returning the water to earth as rain. Over the course of 1300 years, the Hani and Yi people have created a unique and self-sustaining ecosystem.
The Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces
In 2013 over 1000 square kilometers of Yuanyang County was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officially known as the “Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces”, the site includes 82 villages many of which have old traditional houses built of earth and brick. These “mushroom houses” are three-storied structures with thatched roofs. Easily identified by a UNESCO place card, livestock live on the ground floor; the villagers on the second with the third floor dedicated to the storage of rice and corn. Three of the principle areas of rice terraces and Hani / Yi villages are known as Bada, Laohuzui and Duoyishu.
Located 23 km (50 min.) from the town of Xinjie, the enormous swath of steep rice terraces found here is well known as the best place to view and photograph sunrise. There is a large viewing platform situated on the main road which towers above the many villages nestled among the terraces. Lying between high mountains, the terraces take on a dreamlike quality as the sun rises and clouds ascend up the valley filling in the gap between the cliff to the west and the mountains to the east. When the conditions are just right, the sun’s rays reflect off of the clouds and water filled terraces often producing spectacular colors. Duoyishu is one of the more popular travelers’ destinations and a number of hotels and hostels can be found here.
Pugao Lao Village
Just to the south of the Duoyishu viewing platform is the village of Pugao Lao. This tiny Hani village is situated approximately 500 meters downhill from the main road which connects Duoyishu to Xinjie. Surrounded by lush farmers' fields, the village sits atop of the Duoyishu terraces and its “town square” makes a perfect place to view and photograph the terraces. There are a handful of hostels situated in and just above the village.
Bada is a deep valley blanketed with rice terraces and surrounded by high mountains. A number of villages and viewing platforms are perched on the mountainside. On the main road one can easily find the “Bada Scenic Area” which provides access to multiple viewing platforms and the villages. This area is better photographed late in the afternoon as the sun descends and is hidden from view by the mountains.
Also known as the “Tiger’s Mouth” this area of very steep terraces and villages is considered to be the best area to view and photograph sunset. Two viewing platforms can be found here, the highest one giving visitors a panoramic view over the valley, while the lower position allows photographers the opportunity to get tighter shots of the terraces.
It should be noted that there is an admission fee charged to use the scenic viewpoints in the area. A two-days pass, which allows unlimited access to all of the platforms, costs 100 CNY (RMB) or just under $15 USD.
Trekking in the Hani Rice Terraces of Yuanyang County China
Trekking between the various villages scattered among the rice terraces and lush farmers' fields is the most popular activity with visitors to this quiet and peaceful area. Most of the villages and towns are interconnected by a system of well-paved roads and paths. The roads are relatively easy to walk on, even uphill, as the grade is fairly low. A guide really isn’t necessary, which is good, as it can be difficult to arrange English speaking guides. A good map or mapping software on a smartphone is extremely useful.
Travelers who wish to explore Yuanyang with a guide should consider contacting a local Hani woman named Belinda. Belinda speaks fluent English and owns a small hotel in Xinjie and a hostel in Duoyishu. She is an excellent trekking and tour guide and a pleasure to be around. She also has a good mini-van which is suitable for families and small groups. Belinda can be reached by phone at (+ 86) 159 8737 4367.
Smartphone Mapping Apps in China
I have to admit that I am addicted to Google Maps and use the app constantly. Google Maps does work in China, however to use all the available features you must use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Even with a VPN, Google Maps lacks a bit of detail and is a bit inaccurate in rural China.
A better choice in mapping software, often recommended by Chinese residents, is MAPS.ME. Also known as "Maps With Me", MAPS.ME features global coverage utilizing the GPS system with maps down loaded on your device. The App is fully functional even when offline. Most importantly; the China maps on MAPS.ME provide far more detail than Google Maps.
Travel to the Hani Rice Terraces of Yuanyang China
As there is no airport or railway station in Yuanyang County it is only accessible by private vehicle or bus. Bus travel in China is reasonably inexpensive, safe and comfortable. Busses play an important role in rural China transporting not only passengers but cargo. Operating very much like Fed Ex or UPS, local residents routinely call bus companies to pick up and deliver boxes small packages. Even some of the smallest towns have at least one modern and efficient bus station. The Hani Rice Terrraces can be reached by bus from a number of popular traveler’s destinations including Hekou (5 hrs), Jianshui (4 hrs), Jinghong (8 hrs) and Kunming (7 hrs).
However, before reaching the terraces you will first have to stop in either the towns of Xinjie or Nansha and then take a mini-bus or shared taxi to your final destination.
Nansha is a small town located 310 kilometers south of Kunming which serves as a local bus transportation hub. If you are traveling from Hekou or some other parts of southern Yunnan Province you very well may pass through or stop here. Although Nansha is labeled “Yuanyang” on Google Maps and referred to as “New Yuanyang” in guide books it is a solid two hour drive from the famous rice terraces.
This small town located 25 kilometers from Duoyishu is the last bus transportation hub before reaching the terraces. If you are traveling from Kunming or Hekou this will be your destination and gateway to the Yuanyang Terraces. The town has numerous hotels, guesthouses and restaurants and can be used as a base to explore the area. Countless mini-buses and taxis travel the roads between Xinjie and the small towns and villages scattered among the principle areas of terraces.
Several times a week the town hosts a lively local market that attracts many minority people from the surrounding villages. The stalls closest to the town center cater mostly to the ladies, particularly the Hani and Yi. This area provides visitors an excellent opportunity to view and purchase typical ethnic clothing and accessories.
Situated 20 km, or 40 minutes from Xinjie town, Shengcun is the largest town between Bada and Duoyishu. This normally sleepy little town comes to life a few times a week when it hosts a lively and colorful market. Although most of the participants are Hani and Yi other ethnic groups are likely to attend this busy market.
Both of these markets are scheduled based on the Chinese zodiac calendar. For example; Xinjie market is held on rat, dragon and monkey days whereas Shengcun market is held on rabbit, sheep and pig days. Fortunately, for those of us who are not intimately familiar with the Chinese zodiac calendar, the Yunnan Explorer website has a great calendar and interactive map listing all the markets and festivals held in Yunnan Province.