It is hard to imagine anywhere in the People's Republic untouched by civil engineers, the levelers of history. But truly nowhere else in China has life remained perfectly intact - culturally and naturally - as on the Dragon's Backbone in the rural villages of Longsheng county is southwest China.
While Guangxi Autonomous Region's one-two punch of geological wonders are provincial sites that should not be missed - Guilin for the red hat-wearing Chinese tour groups and Yangshuo for Western backpackers - Longji Titian is an ideal place for those who cherish rural tranquility and solitude.
Indeed, to get to the Dragon's Backbone one must ascend dizzying heights (the highest in southern China), and enter a mystical fog that removes everything travelers know about modern China, placing you in a time when people were one with the good earth.
No white tile buildings in sight, the pastoral villages, namely Dazai and Ping'an, are constructed entirely of two and three story wood cabins hugging the vertical mountainside, with spring water coursing through the town's canals. It is here travelers will find accommodations at the simple family-run inns that make up the two settlements.
While one may consider Dazai and Ping'an, located respectively at the northern and southern ends of the peak, as lodging paradises, they are but mere entrances to the wonders ahead. Most visitors are content with the designated "viewpoints" around the towns' terraced fields, but for the nimble hiker, continue on into the lush hillside. Follow a narrow path of mud and stone through a misty forest of venerable trees, dewy ferns and, yes, bubbling brooks.
The rice terraces, with sloping grades reaching 50 degrees, have been sculpted by generations of farmers beginning in the Yuan dynasty to shape the hillsides into grand agricultural pyramids not unlike those found in Guatemala or Mexico. The slopes are infinite in scope and, at an altitude of 1,100 meters, seem to have no bottom or peak. It is simply breathtaking.
The hillsides that have been left uncultivated are threaded with trickling water, channeled from nearby springs to saturate the plots below, and are dotted with tombs of generations upon generations of agrarians, like those you'll see still working on the terraces.
Among them are the dark-skinned Zhaung, Bai and Yao minorities who, not unlike the Mayan Indians of Guatemala, are identifiable by the resplendence of their hand-woven traditional attire. While their men trudge through the muddy terraces sowing rice, the small women roam the paths like little florescent pink armies selling crafts and textiles kept in wicker baskets strapped on their backs. Their pierced earlobes hang with hoops of silver, and their hair, grown long since birth, is kept swathed on their heads. For a small sum though, they will happily undo their knot to show their hair cascading to the soil.
About 10 kilometers between Ping'an and Dazai is Zhongliu, a rustic village of arched stone bridges, dilapidated stables and stilted cottages symmetrically enclosed by terraces, crags and waterfalls. Hikers are approached by cheerful natives who do not hesitate to stop their plowing and ask "Chifan ma?" Their persistence to dine in their homes notwithstanding, what could be more refreshing after an exhausting morning navigating the mountain terrain than a spread of scented sticky rice baked in bamboo over an open fire, greens, salted meat and Longji tea or watery rice wine?
The undulating path continues on, with each bend revealing agricultural grandeurs and vistas of incomparable beauty. Late in the day, when the golden light of dusk illuminates the ribbon-like terraces, travelers encounter Longji's rush hour traffic; farmers descending into the outlying villages with bushels of reeds and firewood slung over their shoulders, alongside the occasional oxen grazing in the path. That's life on the misty mountaintop, where time has stood still for the past 700 hundred years.
Text & Photos by Tom Carter