Climbing the Dragon's Backbone

Sometimes in your travels you have the chance to experience a place so incredible the memory will never leave you. The Dragon's Backbone (Longji) is such a place - these ancient rice terraces north of Guilin in the far reaches of Guangxi province are almost one thousand years old, built entirely by the hands of the local Zhuang and Yao people, and still worked in exactly the same manner today as then. 

Places like this are never easy to get to of course, and from Yangshuo it's about four hours' drive through smaller and smaller winding country roads, across several landslides, past a number of alarming traffic accidents, and through searing heat rising from the asphalt. When the road begins to climb higher, higher, and higher, I feel my anxiety increase, particularly after we pass a crane pulling a compressed version of our car from the bottom of a ravine.

But I can also feel the oppressive heat and humidity of Yangshuo dropping away and the air becomes 'liang kuai' - cool. We drive alongside a clear green mountain stream where children areswimming while their mother picks some wild green vegetables nearby. Even so, I am quite relieved to get out of the car at the entrance to Dazhai village.

Dazhai is home to the Yao minority, whose women have their hair cut once, on their first birthday, and never again. Their long black hair is wound into an intricate style around their heads and fastened behind a front knot with a heavy black bone comb. Over this is worn a tightly fitting black headcloth, embroidered in each corner with brightly coloured thread. The women wear heavy hand-made silver jewellery - the silver loops in their ears elongate their earlobes, and they carry simple silver bracelets on each wrist.

We walk up through the village guided by several of the local women, who have given us the bad news that our guest house is a further two hours' walk uphill all the way. For thirty yuan each, they negotiate to carry our bags in baskets strapped to their backs. I feel very guilty about this, until it is pointed out to me that this is how they make extra money when there is no work to be done on the rice terraces. We follow them along narrow stone paths past rice fields just sprouting, past their beautiful wooden houses built on stilts wedged into the hillside, past pigs, chickens and children playing. The women chat away as they walk, their wiry legs finding no struggle with the thousand metres climb.

We pass the first terraces, carved into the hillside like contour lines. Each terrace is fed by a mountain stream, diverted to feed the rice and keep its feet wet, and then the clear water runs down the subtlest of gradients into the next terrace. An ancient and efficient irrigation system, honed over centuries.


The scale of the terraces is hard to judge from photographs, but each terrace is about one and a half metres high. In the photo above, the small yellow-coloured dot in the lower right half of the picture is a local man working his terrace. The larger white dot below and to his left is a pile of equipment.

The vilage is now way below us and we climb closer to the low clouds. We pass through the next village, Tiantouzhai, and upwards again for another hour, past more beautiful wooden houses and along ever narrower stone paths set into steeper and steeper hills. We are truly up in the heavens now, and as we arrive on the terrace of our guest house after two gruelling hours the magnificence of this place becomes obvious, and I can see the dragon stretched out below us, coiling his way down the hill and around into the valley.

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