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Shattered Mirror of the Sky

Fractured image of the sky

Yuanyang, in Yunnan province, south west China, is one of those few places that surpass your wildest expectations. I had come firstly dazzled by some pictures, taken by a friend, to see if these scenes were real. We later went to a photo exhibition in the Yunnan Provincial Museum, showing scenes from all over the region. It seemed like every fifth picture was of the rice terraces of Yuanyang – even though I don’t think it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet China.

The rice terraces are irregular shaped pools like watery steps running down each enormous hillside in this region. Close up, the individual terraces look like stagnant brown luxury apartments for mosquitos, but from a distance, their beauty is otherworldly. When the sky is overcast, they look like the green earth has melted and then fractured into hundreds of cracked shards. When the sky is clear, the pools turn white, reflecting the heavens, as though a enraged goddess had hurled an offending mirror to shatter on the Yunnan countryside.

Plus, Yuanyang is at a nice level of tourism development – built up enough that there is dormitory accomodation, public transportation and restaurants, unspoilt enough that I have my sightseeing largely to myself, and the Yi and Hani peoples coming to market look at me in amazement. It is a wonderfully cheap wonder, if one is willing to be flexible with time and use the local people’s minibuses, rather than the mocking eyed taxi drivers.

Someone must like rice

So for around three or four pounds a day total expenditure, I wander among stunningly verdant mountain scenery, take what I hope will be stunning photos of the terraces, and peruse Yuanyang and surrounding villages amidst the brightly dressed cultures of this borderland with SE Asia. I go walking out of town one afternoon, within twenty minutes I am utterly alone on my dried mud path, the valley preening itself for my eyes to my right, maybe only every several minutes passing one person hammering at the soil or carrying a vast weight on her back. Perhaps it is just a city-born thing, but the intensity of being so physically alone is quite scaring to me. I come to a grove of tall trees just off from the path, the yellow ground around them strangely bereft of the usual lush grasses, the air is silent – and although I want to explore, something grips me and I turn back to walk on the dirt road man’s hand has made.

One night I go to a restaurant (which I had spent some of the afternoon writing in), only to find the boss and staff are already eating their post work meal. The boss, a twenty nine year old, bids me sit with them, tells me to choose any meat I like from the selection table and the cook will prepare me a meal, for free! It quickly becomes a very Chinese evening. I am cooked up (and then have spooned into my bowl) far more than I can eat and offered more or less unlimited foul Chinese “baijiu” and cigarettes. Plus, because the boss is honouring me in this way, everyone around the table treats me deferentially, such as clinking glasses always with their’s lower than mine. I refuse the cigarettes, several times, refuse the glasses of baijiu as my stomach is acting up, but feel I can’t refuse a beer, especially as I make a perhaps error of giving him some matches I happen to have in my pocket when his lighter doesn’t work. He lights up, gives me back the matches, then offers me another cigarette, with a look in his eyes that I says have to accept something now, as otherwise I am embarrassing his hospitality by refusing his gifts while giving him something of mine. I continuously offer him food from the circular table’s array of plates before I take anything, then offer to his father in law, then to the cook, then to all the other people – this courtesy seems to be received well. I tell everyone at the table I am feeling unwell, so cannot eat and drink as much as they are. This is interpreted as politeness, however, and they start advising me that if I eat up, drink up and smoke a lot, I will feel much better. One dish has strange, fantastically soft chunks of meat. I wonder if this is pig intestines, but when I mime the question, they smile and start pointing at their foreheads: I am eating brain for the first time. Once the surprise has passed, I don’t feel uncomfortable eating it, although, given the rather grey flavour, I can’t see what got H.Lecter so excited.

Restaranteur and family

Finally, it becomes clear I’m simply not going to eat anymore (the worst thing you can do if full at a Chinese meal is finish your bowl, because someone will immediately fill it up again). The boss signals my trial by gullet is over, gives me his restaurant’s card and walks me back to my hotel.

The only testing thing about Yuanyang is getting transportation around the area. The scenic highlights of the rice terraces are 15-20k from the town, the taxis feel too expensive, leaving the only option the anarchic local minibuses, which I am growing to love. There is something delightfully “travellery” about Yuanyang’s minibuses, the way it seems utterly unpredictable when and where they leave or return from, the way the driver with loud urgency shepherds me to a seat even though it’s quite obvious we aren’t going anywhere for a while (until he’s accumulated a full load of about seven passengers), the way the minibus stops for people to run in and out of buildings, or stops halfway for the driver to go off and buy a huge selection of multicoloured puffy popcorn tasting sweets, which he then affixes to the roof rack, offering one bag around to his passengers, perhaps as a recompense for the delay, the way the minibus seems to be perpetually almost murdering a loitering dog or a duck casually crossing the road. They make me smile and go, “Yeah, I must be a traveller if I’m using these things to get around, boo-sucks to you big coach escorted French tour group”! That isn’t to say I have mastered the essentially incomprensible patterns of these vehicles.

Yunnan village

One evening, at the really very beautiful spot, Lao Hu Zui, I sit as the last of the sun is rubbed out by a titanic dark cloud. Across the valley, I am able to watch the rain and darkness pull itself at a crawl towards me, the landscape falling to what seems an implacable evil. The nightmare grey finally upon me, I retreat to one of the houses (wooden walls, concrete floor) that exist to sell tourists refreshments, to realise all the men are indicating there are no more minibuses back to Yuanyang tonight. As time wears on, the storm unabating and no vehicles are responding to my waving arm, the prospect of sleeping on some families’ harsh floor starts to appear more and more likely. A blue truck finally stops, the men are trying to get him to take me back, he is highly reluctant, they are suggesting it will cost me big money – then suddenly a minibus draws up, as if obeying the daily schedule to a tee, I jump in and am charged the usual price as if nothing is amiss. Shaking my head in bemusement, we weave back through a world turned to mist, mist split only by haunting white reflecting rice terrace pools by the road side.

Contact Daniel at: dani[email protected]
Daniel’s travels continue at No Place As Home,

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