Foreword: The last couple of post are going to be made from notes I made while traveling. I didn’t write the narrative as it occurred, so the events that are described are more or less as I remember over a year later which may not be as they actually happened. I hope to abridge these posts for my sake as well as your’s because you’ve surely found the amount of detail in my writing tedious, but it probably won’t happen. Without further ado…
The next morning we got on a bus back to Guilin to retrieve Grace’s visa and check on our stolen bikes. As we pulled back in to the Guilin city limits, traffic slowed. There was a small bus stopped with all its passengers standing outside. Pedestrians had gathered around as well to see a man sprawled in front of the bus, surely dead, and surely a daily occurrence across the country.
We return to the visa office and got Grace’s passport without any hassle. We then stopped by the hostel where we rented our bikes so briefly before they were stolen. They said that they weren’t recovered, but I could never be sure if that was true given the stake they had in the bikes not being recovered (or at least not letting us know that they had them back). Relatively unfazed, we hopped on another bus bound for the Longji Rice Terraces.
To get to the terraces, we had to change buses in Longsheng. The road to Longsheng wound along the steep slopes beside a river, and the ride was slightly stressful given the general driving standards. When we arrived in the city, I asked around for a bus to the terraces and Pingan, the village where we planned to stay that night. We found our bus, and women in traditional minority garb immediately approached us trying to get to stay at the hotel of their choosing. They kept pointing to themselves saying “Yao people” to advertise that they were in fact minorities. After declining there offers several times, the lady who attempted the most communication with handful of English words kept inching closer to Grace and invading her “personal space”. Exasperated, Grace said to her quickly, “You people are so rude. Leave us alone.” Confused by the onslaught of English, they looked at one and other, and the ring leader looked back to us with comprehension and said, “Yao people”.
The bus quickly filled up with people, giant sacks of rice, rebar, and everything else. I ended up standing for the first leg of the ride. People periodically hopped off and eventually we arrived at the village with a few remaining minorities. There was a small group of minority women waiting. They met us with greetings of, “Hello; money.” They offered pictures of lodging and motioned that they would carry our packs for us for a fee. These women certainly did not receive all the nutrients they needed with their strict diet of rice. They were all five feet tall at best, and our packs were already a bit too heavy for our toned American bodies. We walked away up a hill and negotiated a very low price for a room. It was low season. We were probably the only foreigners in town at the moment, and whatever we offered was better than the nothing that they would get otherwise.
The next morning we got to see the village in daylight. The buildings were made entirely of blond wood in a style of architecture totally unlike that of the concrete block buildings of most of China. The first story of these buildings were generally smaller than the second creating an overhang going to the door. Unlike concrete, the wood didn’t prove to be a good insulator; our previous night was freezing. I had been making a habit of getting colder in the south than I had ever been in Harbin. People were up and about, and there was a gathering around an unfinished building. Men were standing on top of the building throwing trinkets in a Mardi Gras of sorts. The women and children on the ground were dressed in traditional clothing for the occasion and gathered up the far flung prizes. There were many other unfinished buildings, presumably more lodging for the next high tourist season.
At sometime in the morning, we realized that we were not in Pingan but another smaller village, Dazhai. Since our guide had told us that Pingan was the larger and and more impressive village, we decided to hike there. We asked around for directions, and instead we received offers to carry our packs or walk with us as our guide. Eventually, we just set out by ourselves, and encountered some people working on a building outside the village that pointed us in the right direction. Again, these people were in traditional clothing, and considering the dearth of tourists, they were probably wearing the clothes for their own sake instead of trying to be a show.
The Lonely Planet told us our hike would be four or five hours. It took us eight with our heavy packs going up and down steep hills on dirt paths. It was exhausting, but there were plenty of great views. The sides of the large hills were covered in an elaborate pattern of rice terraces. Longji means dragon’s backbone, and it would be easy to picture these terraces as the scale armor sharply running down the back of the giant dragon of the hillside.
Finally we arrived exhausted in Pingan. Pingan was much larger as the result of being the center of tourism for the terraces. Most of the building were built in the same traditional style as hostels or bars for tourists. We decided that there was no point in staying another night here, so we decided to immediately take the bus back to Longsheng. From Longsheng, we could catch the bus to our next destination the next morning. We walked down through the village, past the hostels, bars, and souvenir vendors down to the bus stop only to find that the last bus into town had already left not long ago. It was time to sit down and rest.
As we were sitting at the bus stop, we noticed another bus. I went and talked to a women working on the bus about taking us back. She said that this bus already finished running, but they would take us half way to town and drop us off in another village for twice the price of a normal ticket. After haggling to no avail, we decided it would be best to stay in village that night. We assumed our position at the bus stop again to continue resting.
A group of Chinese tourists approached and one of them told us that the buses we no longer running. I told them thanks and that we knew. Then she ran back to her group, asked them a question, and ran back to us. She asked if we wanted to ride with them. After looking to Grace for approval, we decided to take the free ride. As we were walking to their car, the woman that was working on the bus took note of the tourists giving us a ride. She approached the driver of the car, and a long, heated argument ensued. The argument was too fast and aggressive for me to understand, but I assume that the woman felt that the tourists were taking money out of her pocket by providing her under the table service to us for free. Ultimately, it was the driver that backed down and told us that he could not give us a ride. We refused the bus ride once again and assumed our seats at the bus stop to continue resting.
About fifteen minutes later, another group of Chinese tourists walked by, and a woman in the group told us that there are no more buses. Emboldened by our first experience, I asked if we could get a ride to Longsheng with them. She asked her group and told us that they could. We threw our bags in the trunk of a mid-sized Kia and slid into the back set. Never has a mid-sized sedan with cloth seats seemed so luxurious. We sat in perfect comfort listening to a very interesting Chinese singer-songwriter on CD, and chatting with our gracious hosts. They were from Nanning on a weekend trip, and they were on their way to a thermal spa in the area. They dropped us at the bus station in Longsheng, and we quickly found a good hotel for the night.
You may be asking yourself, “Why did you take a ride from complete strangers? Don’t you think that is dangerous?” I think the context of hitchhiking in China is very different. In the US, any old ax murder owns a car. In China, you are in the top ten percent if you can afford a car; we were just kids with backpacks. They had very little to gain from us in the situation, and that to me is the ultimate factor to judge whether to trust someone or not in China. Furthermore, violent crime is extremely exceptional across China. There was certainly a risk, but we judged it to be a very low one.