The Joys of Roaming Afar- Part I

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Written by Randeep Singh

Guilin, Guangxi Province, China – April 14, 2015

There’s a saying in China: “the mountains and waters of Guilin are the finest under heaven.”

The space under heaven is vast and Guilin is a sight.

I boarded a raft at the Zhujiang pier around ten o’clock with a family of three from France. As our motor-raft buzzed down the Li River in a swarm of rafts, I exchanged smiles and words in French with the couple as their son hoisted the flag of their native Brittany to the raft’s bow all the while waving at travelers in other rafts passing us by …

I floated down the river without a care
deep in the shade of green hills,
drinking the wine of spring on the breeze …

The hills and water of Guilin are a landscape in a classical Chinese painting. Carved by time, fashioned by nature, the green limestone hills are like pieces of jade skirting the mirror of the Li River. The scenery has inspired painting and poetry in the Chinese tradition for centuries …

I drifted down the river,
gazing at the hills,
leaving time behind  …

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Our raft docked around half past eleven. I alighted onto the bank, climbing the stone steps up to a landing where the greenery had given way to a dusty brown earth and a few mangy trees. Women were crouching over steaming pots, washing clothes in steel basins, yelling after their children, while others were chasing me and other tourists to sell trinkets, flowers and postcards.

I traveled to Yangshou with Stephen, a boy from my hostel. Arriving there around noon, we wandered through the streets and squares of the city, haggling over cashmere scarves and chinaware with vendors and dining on the salty, spicy local “beer fish” over cups of jasmine tea.

By three o’clock, women in parasols were flitting about in the heat and I caught a bus to another pier on the Li. Setting sail on a bamboo raft with a fellow from Jilin Province, we applauded the comorand fisherman who sent his comorand birds to dive, catch and return fish to him. We floated under the old “dragon” bridge, passing inns, restaurants and old men spectating from the riverbanks, while taking a plunge down a small waterfall.

I purchased a photograph of the latter for twenty Chinese yuan, fed and patted some water buffalo for good luck and boarded the bus back to Guilin as the sun began to set.

The Rice Terraces of Da Zhai, Guangxi Province, China – April 15, 2015

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One day, a maid from heaven saw a land on earth which rivaled the heavenly kingdom in its beauty. Leaving her mistress, the Queen of Heaven, the maid descended to that land on earth. While there, she fell in love a mortal, spending many happy days with him. The Queen of Heaven grew angry that her maid had neglected her duties and summoned her back to heaven. The maid was heartbroken to leave her love behind on earth. As she ascended to heaven, her tears fell upon the land around Da Zhai, immortalizing its beauty …

I set off around eight thirty in the morning with six other travelers from my hostel on a three hour van ride to the rice terraces of Da Zhai. The other travellers were a guy from Germany, another guy from the Netherlands, two sisters from Switzerland and a British and Australian couple who were visiting from Shanghai where they were taking part in a student exchange program.

When we arrived in Da Zhai, our driver drew a suggested route for us to follow on our maps. We were to first travel to a spot on the hill toward the north-east (number three on the map), move on to Tiantou Village towards the north (number one) and then to Zhuangjie Village in the west (number two). I set off with the Dutch and German boys, the couple somewhere in front of us and the Swiss sisters somewhere behind.

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We ended up accidentally in Xinzhai Village but a local Zhuang women pointed us to the direction of “number three” which took us along a narrow lane to steps up the terraces. We climbed the terraces when the rest of the group decided to keep climbing to the peak. I parted with them, heading to the number three spot. I arrived around quarter to noon at a wooden rest home from which the rice terraces and villages were spread out like waves on a sea of green.

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Waiting at the wooden rest home, I was approached by a Zhuang woman with a baby boy strapped to her back. On her say so, I placed a little cotton cap on the chubby baby’s head much to his delight. I had told my party that I would wait for them, but as the minutes ticked away, I set off again remembering that we had to be back at the parking lot by four o’clock that afternoon. I got directions on how to get to Tiantou Village from another Zhuang woman, and left the wooden guesthouse with its crowing roosters and the baby in the cotton cap.

I spent much of the day admiring the view from the terraces. The rice terraces were green and dry. A few weeks later and they would have been shimmering full of water. That did not stop me from marveling at these wonders of man and nature. The rice terraces in Da Zhai cascade down the hillside like green waterfalls. They ripple across the landscape like folds in a theatre curtain. I can’t say how many minutes I stood just gazing at them.

I climbed the terraces and followed the trails, through bamboo groves, passing streams and waterfalls and Zhuang women selling embroidered goods, crafts and traditional style jewellery.

I came to the bottom of Zhuangjie Village by three o’clock, where I lunched on egg and tomatoes and rice at an inn. I was greeted by the Australian fellow and we headed back to the parking lot, discussing Asian architecture, his subject of study in Shanghai while the British girl lingered somewhere behind us.

I too would have liked to stay longer at Da Zhai; but thanks to the maid of heaven, it has become immortalized once again.

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