04.12.2023

THE YUANYANG RICE TERRACES

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces are amazing formations formed on the slopes of the local mountains that were created by man more than 1,000 years ago. They are located in the southern part of China, near the border with Vietnam and Laos. Thanks to its far location from airports or major cities, some tourists visit the place. This gives visitors the opportunity to experience the local tranquility and immerse themselves in centuries-old culture.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

DESCRIPTION

The Yuanyang Terraces are undoubtedly the most beautiful and spectacular sights that you can see during your trip to China. They are located in the southern part of Yunnan province, in the Ailao mountain range. It is the largest complex of its kind in the world, with an area of about 113 square kilometers, and the sunrises and sunsets here are truly magical. The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 and stretches from 144 to over 2,000 meters above sea level. The zone consists of more than 3,000 terraces. The rice fields are located around the old town of Yuanyang, and were carved into the mountains by the Hani minority, who have lived in the area since about eight hundred years ago and are the most numerous of the local ethnic groups. The others are Yi, Dai, Miao, Yao, Zhuang and Han.

Thanks to the fact that the place is far from big cities and the interchange of many cultures, it is possible to preserve primeval practices and rituals in the area. One of the local festivals is the Long Street Banquet, also known as the Long Table Banquet (长街宴). It is a culinary tradition prevalent among the Hani, Miao, Dong and Yi peoples. Long Street Banquet is usually held during festivals or other occasions such as wedding ceremonies, birthday parties, or the birth of a child, during which hundreds of tables are set up with food by each household on the local streets. Locals are dressed in their iconic colorful clothes and still work in the fields, using Indian buffaloes instead of modern agricultural machinery to grow rice. Terraces were created on the slopes of the mountains, with gradients ranging from 15 to 75 degrees. The Hani people often begin planting rice seedlings in May, and harvest time is usually in September and October. From late November to April, the entire fields are irrigated with water from the forests that are above them.

Yuanyang rice terraces are very well designed for irrigation of the fields here. They were created so that each “plot” holds the appropriate amount/level of water. When there is too much, the water overflows into the lower plots/layers of the terraced fields. This keeps the water level the same all the time and this keeps the water level the same all the time such to harvest time. This system provides enough water for each terrace plot. In addition, the moderate climate of Mount Ailao provides appropriate rainfall for watering terraces. The region is characterized by different colors that depend on the season. In February, the fields full of water reflect the sky so that there is a mirror effect; in April, the terraces become green as the rice begins to grow; and in the last quarter of the year, they become yellowish-brown when the rice is ripe and ready to be cut.

Yuanyang’s rice fields include three main view places: the Bada, Laohuzui and Duoyishu rice terraces. The expansive terraces create a magical and magnificent landscape. The sky here is often covered with clouds, thus creating an additional majestic effect. In winter, there are sometimes very dense fogs where visibility drops even to 5 meters. The ticket price is 100 CNY (about 14 USD) per person and includes admission to the Yuanyang, Duoyishu, Bada, and Luohuzui rice terraces.

Duoyishu Scenic Area is surrounded by mountains on three sides and is located in the eastern part of Yuanyang County, about 57 kilometers from the county home and 28 kilometers from Xinjiezhen. Therethroug, the whole area resembles a bay. It is the most beautiful natural landscape of the Yuanyang terraces and is also the best place to photograph sunrises, as the morning highlights show the magnificent dynamic landscape. It is worth noting the changing colors of the water during the sunrise. Because the reflections and shadows are constantly changing, the effect is truly unique. On the slopes of the mountains are scattered numerous villages and houses that resemble the shape of mushrooms. The roof of the house is made of withered rice stalks. In total, Duoyishu has an area of 600–700 hectares (data depending on the source). The upper half of the terraced field is located on a slight slope that can be seen from a distance. In contrast, the lower half of the field is located in a deep valley.

Bada Scenic Area (or Bada Terraced Field) is located 45 km south of Yuanyang County and 17 km from Xinjiezhen. It has an area of about 950 hectares. From the foot to the top of the mountain, the number of terraced fields counts 3900 steps. Bada at sunset is truly amazing, and the constantly changing colors will make you feel like you are in a faerie.

The third area is Laohuzui, which is the most “intense” and stark in terms of terrain. The lowest part of the terraces is the most attractive, and their contour resembles a galloping horse. These terraces are located 20 kilometers from the old county town of Xinjie, and their area is about 850 hectares.

 

HISTORY OF THE PLACE

The ancestors of the Hani people arrived in the area between 500 and 300 BC. They probably came from the Tibetan Plateau, where conditions were not very favorable for living and farming. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), emperors gave them the title “Sculptors of the Magic Mountains.” Hani farmers began carving terraces in the mountains during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) and initially built ditches and canals to drain spring water from the mountains and forests. Since then, the terraces have been continually tended, and the knowledge of Yuanyang rice cultivation has been passed down from generation to generation. Some call them the “stairway to heaven.” Only until the 14th century did the technology of cultivating land on rugged mountain slopes in the form of terraces spread throughout China and Southeast Asia.

Yuanyang terraces have been made by trial and error for more than a thousand years. Rainfall and moisture from the dense mountain fog are collected in forested areas high on the slopes. The spring water is then discharged to irrigate the terraces, and then the collected water evaporates, forms clouds, and gathers over the rice fields, from which it rains. The hydrological cycle then repeats itself continuously and moderately cyclically. This strategy provides lasting benefits not only in rice cultivation but also in other aspects. From lumber, vegetable, and fruit production to breeding ducks, fish (because the fields are also used as ponds except during the rice-growing season), and harvesting herbs used in traditional medicines. The terraces are basically a year-round pantry for Hani, and on their terrain are about 80 villages. Each of them has a person responsible for looking after your side and making sure the water is evenly distributed on the fields. Yuanyang fields are a great example of how man can live in symbiosis with nature without exposing it to destruction.

The terraces cannot be “mechanized” (no tractors or other machinery can be used) due to their shape and location. Often they are filled with water up to their knees, which is why the Hani people still use buffaloes and do the work manually. They use the same pickaxes, hoes, and other tools that were used hundreds of years ago.

For many centuries, the place was hidden from the rest of the world. The first mention of the local rice fields came in the 1890s, when Prince Henry of Orleans led a French expedition from Vietnam to Yunnan, searching for the source of the Irrawaddy River, which cuts Burma in half. “The local slopes two-thirds of the way up were covered with rice fields, rising into regular terraces, along which the water flowed in a series of cascades, glittering like glass in the sun,” Henry wrote.

American Harry Alverson Franck (one of the travel writers in the 1920s, 20th century) was another person who managed to get to Yunnan from Vietnam and described the rice terraces in his book “Roving Through Southern China” like this: “There are terraces everywhere, steeper than stairs, long but as narrow as they are high, and the surrounding mountains are reflected in the new rice fields.”

Unfortunately, then, starting in the 1930s, along with China’s long war with Japan and the subsequent civil war and revolution, as well as the closure of the newly communist country behind the so-called “bamboo curtain,” the mountainous region became inaccessible to foreigners. It was “reopened” in the 1980s. No one notes much attention to it until 2000, when new asphalt roads appeared and local authorities were determined to get the terraces on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This was finally achieved in 2013.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Ronald Tagra, source flickr.

 

WHERE ARE YUANYANG RICE TERRACES

The rice fields are located about 320 kilometers south of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Typically, tourists rent a private car or buy a bus ticket from Kunming to get there. Given that the trip by car is relatively long, as it takes about six hours, visitors often stop in Jianshui Old Town, which is about halfway to Yuanyang. The region is bordered by Jinping County to the east, Lvchun to the south, Honghe to the west, and Jianshui to the north, where the cities of Gejiu and Mengzi lie across the Honghe River. The rice terraces are located on the south side of the Red River (Red River)/Hong River (Hong River) bank (traditional Chinese: 紅河, simplified Chinese: 红河).

Source Google Maps.

 

BEST TIME TO VISIT

The most recommended time to visit the rice fields in Yuanyang is between January and April. This is when most of the rice terraces are already filled with water (this is done from November to April), and during this time, a so-called mirror effect is created, where clouds in the calm sheets of water are reflected on the surface. This creates amazing scenery for photography. In addition, from late February to late March, the area is decorated with an abundance of pink peach and cherry blossoms and white pear blossoms.

Yuanyang has a mild climate without much variation in temperature between seasons. Most of the precipitation falls between May and October. The temperature varies noticeably between day and night, so it is best to bring a warm jacket with you when you want to photograph the sunrise.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author David Stanley, source flickr.

 

OPENING HOURS AND ENTRANCE TICKETS

An entrance ticket costs 100 CNY (about 14 USD) for single entry to each place (specific rice terraces listed below) within one day;

A seven-day ticket costs 180 CNY (about 25 USD), unlimited entry to each place in a span of seven days.

Attention:

  1. The ticket includes the scenic areas of Duoyishu, Bada, Laohuzui and Qingkou Folk Village.
  2. Half-price ticket for children 1.2 to 1.4 m (3.9 to 4.6 ft) tall. Free for children under 1.2 m (3.9–4.6 ft).

Opening hours: Most facilities are open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. If possible, it’s a good idea to inquire at the ticket office or any of the local hotels about current opening hours.

Source Google Maps.

 

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

Duoyishu Scenic Area is the best place to take sunrise photos. It is located 80 minutes drive from Yuanyang City. It is recommended to get to Duoyishu while it is still dark. When the sunlight appears on the horizon, the terraces have a soft yellowish-orange color. That’s when people from the villages wake up and come out to the ridgeline of the terraces, which gives you yet more occasion to make photos. Dark people figured in the background of golden water, in which the clouds are simultaneously reflected.

The Bada viewing area is the best place to take sunset photos. The terraces stretch from the base to the tops of the hills, resembling a stairway to heaven. This is the largest area where the rice fields are located. When the sun sets, the terraces constantly change colors: first they are pink, then purple, and then dark red.

Another recommended area where you can capture a beautiful sunset is Laohuzui. On the eastern side is a crescent-shaped terraced field. However, in the upper-left corner of the farthest point, the terraces are arranged so that they resemble a galloping horse.

Tips:

  1. It is best to spend at least two or three days in Yuanyang to have enough time for photography. Before sunrise or sunset, it’s a good idea to arrive about two hours early to get a good place to take pictures.
  2. Take a wide angle lens.
  3. The sky is often overcast here, so you can additionally capture interesting cloud formations or a “blur” effect when you set a longer exposure time. This gives photographers additional opportunities.
  4. It is worth remembering that, on average, 180–190 days a year, terraces, especially in the morning, are shrouded in fog. This effect can be used when taking pictures.
The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Hoang Giang Hai, source flickr.

RECOMMENDED TRAILS

A trip to the Yuanyang terraces usually starts with an exit from Kunming city. It’s a good idea to reserve 2–4 days to explore the rice fields. Considering the relatively long and difficult journey by car or bus along the mountain road to Yuanyang, the first night and day are good for recuperation after reaching this place. On the morning of the second day, you can go to Duoyishu for sunrise and then to Bada for sunset. Along the way, it’s worth stopping at some charming local villages.

Recommended trekking trails:

Route 1 – Trekking near the Blue Rice Terraces and Azheke village.

Distance: about 10 km

Time required: 4–5 hours

Route details: Duoyishu – Pugaolaozhai Folk Village – Aichun Rice Terraces – Azheke Minority Village.

Source Mapy.cz

 

Route 2 – Trekking with a chance to see the weekly market in Shengcun village.

Distance: about 17 km

Time required: 8–10 hours

Route Details: Shengcun Village (胜村) – Malizhai Village (麻栗寨) – Laoyingzui (老鹰嘴).

Source Google Maps.

 

NEARBY TOWNS

While visiting the terraces in Yuanyang County, by the way, it is worth stopping in one of the nearby towns:

Qingkou (青口) is 9 kilometers from Xinjiezhen City. The village is located on a hill, and you can see rice fields from practically anywhere. There are over 800 residents with Hani people. Qingkou is surrounded by dense forests where many species of birds live. Here visitors can look at mushroom-shaped houses, a water roller for grinding grain, or a watermill. In addition, on the terrain of the village, you can visit two springs with the names “White Dragon” and “Longevity”.

Shengcuncun (胜村) village is about 20 kilometers from Xinjiezhen city. Half of the road from Shengcuncun to Xinjiezhen is unpaved. There are several places of interest near the highway, such as the Blue Dragon Tea House and tea-planting hills. Shengcuncun village is a good place to see the Yuanyang terraces and is an interesting option to search for interesting frames for photos.

Habo Village (哈播) is located 90 kilometers from Xinjiezhen. It is a good place to take pictures of the sunrise, but not many photographers come there. As a result, you can have more freedom in this place when taking photos.

Countrified Fair: Yuanyang is an area mainly inhabited by representatives of national minorities, such as Hani, Yi, Dai and Miao. Therefore, in addition to terraces, photography lovers can photograph the folk customs of the local people here. A good place to visit may be the countrified fairs organized in large villages such as Shengcuncun, Niujiaozhaixiang, Majiexiang and Panzhihua.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

HOW TO GET TO YUANYANG

From Kunming to Jianshui

Between the Kunming Railway Station (昆明站) and Jianshui Railway Station (建水站). A trip by high-speed train takes about 2.5 hours. Whereas, a trip by car or bus will take about 3 hours.

You can find the real-time high-speed train schedule from Kunming to Jianshui here.

Jianshui to Xinjiezhen

The best way to get to Xinjiezhen from Jianshui is by car, as there is currently no train station or airport. The distance between Jianshui and the Yuanyang Rice Terraces is 124 kilometers, which takes about 2.5 hours to drive. Another option might be to take a bus from Jianshui Bus Station (建水汽车客运站) to Yuanyang (specifically to Xinjiezhen) between 07:15 and 18:40, and the trip takes about 3 hours. However, keep in mind that these coaches do not take tourists directly to the scenic terraces. The last stop is in Xinjie Town (Xinjiezhen), from where you need to get to the rice fields. From Xinjiezhen Town, take a local minibus to the Yuanyang terraces, which are 10–25 kilometers from the city (depending on where we want to get off).

From Kunming, there are two options to get to Xinjiezhen:

By bus

Buses run from Kunming’s southern bus station to Xinjiezhen city. Buses depart at approximately 10:20 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 7 p.m., and 8 p.m. The trip takes 6 to 7 hours and costs 130 to 150 CNY (about $20 USD) per person. Communication in English is not possible because the bus drivers are mostly residents who do not speak English.

By private vehicle

A tour of the Yuanyang rice terraces usually includes a visit to other popular destinations, such as Stone Forest for its intricate karst landscapes and the ancient city of Jianshui for its unique folk houses. In addition, there are no buses running between the villages. Therefore, once you arrive, you can rent a car to get to the main entrance and travel between the rice fields. The cost is about 300 CNY (about 40 USD) per day. It is worth bearing in mind that the road to Yuanyang is steep and winding. You can rent a car here.

Remember that you must have a Chinese driver’s license to drive in China!
Source Google Maps.
Source Google Maps.

 

ACCOMMODATIONS

Although Yuanyang is a rural area, its popularity among visitors has meant that there are a couple of good-quality boutique hotels in the area. On the other hand, if someone prefers more “luxurious” conditions, then can always choose a hotel in Xinjie Town, where there are many stores and restaurants.

Recommended hotels in Xinjie Town and around:

Yuanyang Yunti Hotel (3-star hotel)

Yuanyang Rose Winery Holiday Hotel (4-star hotel)

Recommended hotels in rural areas closer to the terraces:

Yuanyang Yuanshe Azheke Hotel (4-star local house)

The Twelve Manor – Terraces Lodge (3-star suite).

Oness Resort Yuanyang Terrace (4-star suite)

Cloudreams Yuanyang Hotel and Resorts – 4-star hotel with a bar and restaurant. Very close to the main road and other stores nearby. Located close to the terraces.

Other recommended resorts are Jacky’s Guest House and Flower Residence.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

 

ATTRACTIONS NEAR THE RICE TERRACES

If you plan a longer stay in this part of China and the Yuanyang fields, it is also worth visiting such places as:

Jianshui city is inhabited by the Hani people, who live in distinctive mushroom-like houses and still dress in folk costumes.

Mengzi County is well known of 100-year-old railroad tracks, stations, French-style houses, and Yunnan rice noodles.

The so-called Stone Forest is the only place in the world where tower karst formations occur in the subtropical zone. The stone formations look like animals, mushrooms, trees, and other plants. Some of them also form natural bridges and arches. The rock blocks reach heights of up to 50 meters.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

 

TIPS AND USEFUL INFORMATION

Most of the scenic spots on the terraces are 8–10 km apart, and you can travel between villages by minivan for 5–15 CNY (about 1–2.5 USD). The minivans are operated by locals who speak very little English and sometimes even Mandarin. Also, it’s a good idea to have a photo on your phone saved/downloaded from the Internet to show the driver the place we want to visit. You can find tour with English-speaking guides here.

It is a good idea to have travel-sickness pills with you in case you feel unwell during a long drive on mountain roads.

It’s worth sticking to the main road in order that doesn’t get lost, as there are numerous country roads in the rice fields.

Yuanyang is located on the Tropic of Cancer, so the climate is moderate. However, it is cooler in the morning and evening, and the sun shines strongly at noon, provided the sky is cloudless. It’s worth remembering about sun protection in the form of a hat, cap, or sunscreen. Short-sleeved shirts and shorts can be worn all year, but it is advisable to take a jacket or sweatshirt with you.

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces, China
Author inkelv1122, source flickr.

 

TIDBITS

The Laohuzui Rice Terraces were formerly the main place for tourists to come to the fields in Yuanyang. However, most of the area was destroyed by the downpour in 2018, which carried mud and rocks to the local land.

When going not only to Yuanyang but to China in general, it’s worth checking the calendar on the Internet before you go to see which days fall on holidays or other celebrations. Then we will know which holiday we can participate in by flying to China.

 

SUMMARY

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces are undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to see in China, or at least in its southern part. Thanks to the fact that the whole area of the rice fields is a few hundred kilometers away from the big metropolises, you can feel a bit like the past here. The lack of communication in the towns here and the wild terrain around them make coming here a good way to take a break from the city rush and fuss. Each season here offers different landscapes and experiences, which photographers are sure to appreciate. In addition, there have been indigenous people living here for hundreds of years who still dress in folk costumes and celebrate their traditions and culture. Coming here, we are sure to experience some beautiful moments that we will be able to share with our family or friends when we return home.

Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

Author Peter Chou Kee Liu source flickr.

Author inkelv1122, source flickr.

Author inkelv1122, source flickr.

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