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JUne 18, 2004 -> TOURISTS OF YUAN yang

Yuan Yang was just a dot on the guidebook's map of Yunnan . The city and its environs weren't profiled. There was, ostensibly, nothing to see in this hilltop town just a few hundred kilometers north of Vietnam . After eight grueling hours on a mini-bus from Kunming , we hoped Lonely Planet's silence reflected ignorance of, rather than a denial of, Yuan Yang's charms. We had come to see the mountainside rice terraces near Yuan Yang. Nori had also read (in a Chinese geographic magazine) that this was one of the best places in China to see the ‘minorities' - the name given to the numerous 'tribes' or 'ethnic groups' who live, speak, and dress differently than the majority Han Chinese.

The town sat atop one of the highest ridges in a range of wooded mountains. On all sides, the land fell away in great sweeps. The views from the modern town square were marvelous - if you could ignore the billiards-playing minorities. Below were terraced fields of rice, corn and other crops. The air was cool and refreshing. It could have been beautiful, but Yuan Yang was remarkably ugly. Instead of a romantic, temperate retreat - like the hill stations of colonial India - it felt like a hilltop prison. The buildings were grey and filthy. Rubbish was everywhere. Unsavory smells wafted past as we climbed past shocked locals. We had seen some amazing rice terraces during the last few hours of our drive to the town, but Yuan Yang was not off to a good start.

We were the only tourists in town. The lack of support was disorienting. There were no other foreigners to talk to and glean information from. No one spoke English in Yuan Yang; there were no English signs. It was hard to even find a hotel. It may have been the first time on our trip where we were completely dependent on our language skills. It was daunting, but exciting. Nori's Chinese is quite good. My Chinese is not great, but it generates more acclaim because of my white face. Nori - the Chinese mind thinks - looks Asian, so she must speak Chinese, right?

The minorities did not disappoint us. Yuan Yang was full of them - mostly Hani, Yi, and Naxi, although Bai, Dai, Hui, Miao, and Yao people also frequent the city. They come to the town from distant villages to buy and sell goods. Each minority group had their own distinctive - and often very colorful - clothing. No one had put on their 'traditional' clothing for our benefit - this was the way they lived. We were as interesting to them as they were to us. Women selling vegetables whispered back and forth as we walked by. You didn't need to speak their language to know what was being said. "Is that her husband? But she looks Chinese?"

The next morning, mist smothered the city. There was no way to know what the weather would hold as we drove down a macadamized road towards Duo Yi Si, a massive area of terraces about 30 kilometers west of Yuan Yang. Our plan was to walk all the way back to Yuan Yang, stopping to see the rice terraces along the way. We were dropped off near a woman gathering stones from a gouged embankment. We might as well have descended from the moon by the look in her eyes. We waited for an hour, but the mist refused to clear.

The views improved as the day progressed, but it was 2 o'clock before the sun dispelled the last of the mist. We had had tantalizing glimpses of the terraces earlier in the day, but a new veil of mist always seemed to be making its way up the valley. We spent nearly an hour at a large concrete viewing platform - sure that an incredible sight was right below us - but had no luck with the mist. After almost 20 kilometers of walking, we saw concrete steps leading to a bare hillock - another viewing platform. We hurried ahead and turned onto the path. As we neared the platform, a view of awesome beauty opened up beneath us. A gigantic hillside had been carved into hundreds of terraces. Little rest huts poked up from the green paddies. A Hani village, its gumdrop-shaped thatch roofs evoking fairy tale hamlets, lay nestled among the terraces. Here was a view of incredible splendor, and we were completely alone.

It was the earth as topographical map. The contour lines were earthen berms that snaked across the hillside. From above, their paths seemed capricious, but they followed a strict logic. Berms kept at the same altitude kept water in the paddies, and the water kept the rice alive. Fed by mountain streams, an ingenious system of irrigation canals kept water flowing through each of the paddies. It was almost harvest time. From a distance, the delicate blades of the rice plant - each of which would produce only one grain - had coalesced into a rich green that spilled down the terraces like the bracketed carpet of a grand stairwell. Above the rice terraces were dark green tea bushes. Rice and tea: Asian food and drink, all on one hillside.

The human encounters were as interesting as the rice terraces were stunning. In the first village we walked through, an old toothless man came striding up to me, asking me if I was from Kunming, or maybe Beijing? We chatted (in mutually unintelligible languages) with two jolly Hani ladies as they embroidered their traditional clothing. We ate grilled tofu at a tiny roadside brazier, surrounded by curious kids. Nori tried on an entire Yi costume (and looked quite beautiful) as three Yi ladies looked on with pride and murmured their approval. I offered an ancient Yi shepherdess a piece of dried pineapple, which she gummed as she marveled at my hairy arms. Then she laughed and pointed to her water buffalo in what I can only say was an unfair comparison.

We had walked 20-23 kilometers and been out almost eight hours. During the whole journey, we saw no foreign tourists, and only four Chinese - who piled out of a Land Cruiser to see what we were looking at, quickly became bored, and sped off. Chinese tourism was definitely coming, however. Those concrete viewing platforms had been constructed for a purpose. A new large, bright yellow hotel had been built, but its many rooms and voluminous banquet hall were empty for now. It was not hard to see what would happen - crappy little hotels were already under construction in some the villages that we walked through. Soon, there would be loud restaurants and minority dance shows. For one of the first times on our trip, we felt acutely the Catch-22 of informing (or not) other travelers about an amazing experience in a place ‘not in the Lonely Planet.'