“Ladder Fields”: Where to see China’s rice terraces?

In southern China, where there are hills, there are rice terraces. These “ladder fields”, as they’re called in Chinese (梯田, tītián) snake across hillsides from Fujian to Yunnan, cut into thousands of slopes by generations of farmers.

While terraced paddy fields may be ubiquitous, all paddies were not created equal. There are just a handful of places where the deep creases of the landscape open up, and where – if you can squeeze your way through the throngs of photographers and their telephoto lenses – it’s possible to watch the early morning sun glittering across the fields or the sunset paint the tiered hills in flamboyant pinks and purples, and to enjoy one of China’s iconic landscapes for yourself.

The two most famous (and dramatic) areas of rice terraces are those around Longji in Guangxi and near Yuanyang in Yunnan. I’ve watched sunrise and sunset over both, with guests and without. Below are my tips for paddy-bound travellers, with photographs for the armchair explorers out there…

Happy travels! xx

The Dragon’s Backbone: Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi
Longji (龙脊 Lóngjí, literally meaning “Dragon’s Backbone”) in Guangxi was the first area of rice terraces to be developed for tourists in China. The most scenic area lies just outside Longsheng, a short drive away from Guilin’s fantastic karst scenery – safe to say, Longji attracts more than its fair share of the tourists that spill over from Guilin. Don’t let that put you off, because Longji is straightforward to get to, the scenery is beautiful year-around, there are wonderful hikes to nearby villages and if you get bored of looking at rice fields, you can simply find a Yao minority lady and ask her to comb her hair for you…

How to visit:
From Guilin, get a bus to Longsheng (around 2hrs). From Longsheng, it’s a nausea-inducing minibus ride to the Ping’an parking lot, which itself is a 30-minute walk from Ping’an Village. Food and accommodation are available in Ping’an (just watch out for the karaoke bars), and from the village it’s another short walk to the best paddy field viewpoints.

Reasons to visit:

  • Despite the numbers of visitors that descend on Longji in high season, the most beautiful areas areas are a short, sharp hike away from the nearest roads, which means that the area has retained at least some of its original rural atmosphere – it’s the best place to stay right amongst the terraces
  • Some enterprising soul sells coffee at the main viewpoint – an added incentive for that dawn wake-up
  • Have a mini-adventure and follow the winding path to Zhongliu Village (2-3hrs from Ping’an) or further afield to Dazhai (5hrs) for a real night in the countryside

Things to know:

  • The Yao and Zhuang people who live around Ping’an are admirably commercially minded – if a Yao lady combs out her floor-length hair for you, expect to pay something for the show, which is understandable when you consider that…
  • …the scenic area is owned by a Hong Kong-based company – only money you spend on food, accommodation, and virtuoso displays of hair-combing are retained by the people who actually built the terraces

Markets & Minorities: Yuanyang Rice Terraces in Yunnan
Yuanyang is a latecomer to the rice terrace tourism industry – tucked away high in the hills of southern Yunnan, it managed to escape notice until 2009. Since then the area has been making up for lost time, with fancy viewpoints now constructed at Duoyishu and Laohuzui, and hefty entrance fees charged for entry at both. However, those who do make it out here will find thousand-layer terraces waiting for them, along with plenty of Hani and Yi minority villages to explore in between sunrise and sunset…

How to visit:
Take a bus from Kunming to Xinjie, the closest town to the main scenic areas. Accommodation and food are available here, but in order to reach Duoyishu (the main sunrise viewpoint) or Laohuzui (perfect for sundown) you will need to arrange a taxi – each spot is a 30-45 minute drive away.

Reasons to visit:

  • The terraces here are steep, steep, steep – at Laohuzui (老虎嘴, Lǎohǔzuǐ – literally “Tiger’s Mouth”, grrrr) the bottom of the valley is almost a kilometre vertically below the viewpoint – not one for vertigo sufferers…
  • The Yuanyang area is home to regular markets which fill with members of China’s ‘hill tribes’ – Hani, Miao, Yi and Yao minorities – fun for photography, as well as shopping
  • Being further away from China’s main tourist destinations, Yuanyang has a few more rough edges than Longji and most visitors stick to the main viewpoints. If you can get beyond these, Yuanyang will be yours alone to enjoy…

Things to know:

  • As is the case in Longji, outsiders profit most from Yuanyang’s burgeoning tourism industry – revenues from your ticket purchases go to a Kunming-based company, which has somewhat insensitively built fences around Duoyishu to keep villagers from selling snacks and souvenirs to tourists…
  • …and once again, as a result, the local people are trying hard to benefit from the sudden influx of visitors. The three girls shown above followed me around their village chanting “We want money!” after I asked to take their photos.
  • The weather in Yuanyang is very unstable – on a hilltop high above the Red River, Xinjie frequently enjoys pea-soup fog, even in the ‘high season’ for rice terrace photography (December-February). Whenever you visit, take warm clothing, and prepare to stay for a few days if you really must have that photograph.
  • For more information on what to do in Yuanyang, contact Window of Yuanyang, a small company supported by World Vision that promotes sustainable tourism and arranges day trips to the area around Xinjie – 0873 562 3627

9 responses to ““Ladder Fields”: Where to see China’s rice terraces?

  1. Fabulous photos. I’m sure you treasure your memories. And sad, that outsiders are exploiting for tourism dollars, not enough for the locals. So proof: the minorities still aren’t treated well..

    • Thanks you for your comments Jean! And I agree – very sad to see the locals losing out, especially in this case where without the local people’s hard work building the terraces, there would be nothing to see in the first place…

    • Apologies for my slow reply! Early December ought to be a good time to visit – the main “season” for photographers (when there’s no rice growing in the paddy fields) is in January and February, so in December you ought to escape the crowds while still enjoying roughly the same conditions. Be warned though, winter is cold and damp in Yuanyang – take a jumper! 😉 Hope that helps…

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