From Jianshui it was another three-and-a-half or four-hour bus ride further south to Xinjie; by now we were starting to get close to the Vietnam border. The reason to come all the way down here is that the rice terraces are supposed to be beautiful and – after an initial fear that because of the fog we wouldn’t see a thing – we discovered that yes, they’re beautiful.
There’s only one bus daily from Jianshui direct to Xinjie – quite a small little town, much more “real china” than nearly anything we’ve seen before – and that bus didn’t get us into town until mid-afternoon. When we got in, the town was just socked in by fog, as thick as anything we’ve seen in many years. Not an auspicious start to a little side trip where you’re supposed to be awed by nature and how humans have made their environment work for them.
Still, before sunset, we had a chance to walk around a little to discover a nice little farmers market in town where they sell some of that local produce that makes the food here so great. Beautiful and atmospheric on a 50-degree foggy afternoon.
Dinner choices in Xinjie are really, really limited, at least for fussy Western tourists. OK, we’re not very fussy, but still just not many restaurants at all. Our hotel had a huge, bright restaurant that seemed primarily for the groups of Chinese being bussed in on package tours. Mark went in to ask about a menu and it seemed they didn’t even have one; they just feed the big groups whatever they have. (We later spoke with a British couple who did eat there, but even with a menu it’s not the sort of place we would have wanted to go.)
Instead, we found something approaching heaven. A tiny local place right off Xinjie’s main square, specializing in Sichuan food. Now, I say “approaching” heaven, because, well, it’s not the sort of place we would ever go into normally. Tiny – five tables, I think – and filled with smoke from the other patrons. And when Chinese eat, they just toss any refuse – napkins, plastic dish covers, perhaps even bits of food – onto the floor.
The food, though, made up for it, and the couple running it were just so sweet. It even had an English menu so we could see all the variety of bowels, guts, and similarly unappealing items on offer. There were other great choices, though, so we had dinner, lunch, and dinner again their on our brief stay in Xinjie.
We’d arranged with a driver for the next day and, at the suggestion of the local expert, were scheduled to leave for our tour of the rice terraces at noon when the weather might be getting better. So after breakfast Mark & I just headed off on our own on some country road and, since it only took maybe five minutes to walk out of town, had our own private tour of rural China. The fog was lifting, the temperature was in the upper 50s, we had views of rice terraces in the distance, it felt like spring, and it was just about perfect. If we saw nothing else in Xinjie, if the fog obscured our views of the rice terraces we were supposed to see as tourists, this was pretty good.
But indeed, it got better. A lot better. The fog had indeed lifted, our driver picked us up, we drove maybe 15 minutes, and quickly we were in places where you could pull over and look down the valleys and hills to these amazing rice terraces. Interestingly, there was no rice; it’s harvested here in the fall and not planted again for a month or two. But the water fills them up and the sunlight reflecting can be stunning. Just amazing what humans can do to grow food on steep hills.
At one point we stopped so the driver could drop off some produce at a small inn and when he came back he brought with him a French couple and a Belgian woman whose primary language was also French. They were asking for information about how to get out to tour the rice terraces and, well, eventually they just joined us. They spoke very little English, so Mark spent the afternoon conversing with them in nearly fluent French, when not picking through his much more-limited Chinese with the driver. (At one point, before they’d joined us, we heard one of the French women say to the others about Mark, in French, “His French is really quite good.” Cool!)
And so we drove and stopped for pictures and drove and took more pictures and drove some more. We’d told the woman with whom we’d set up this tour that we wanted to hike, and the driver – in his very limited English – kept indicating that we would, but it didn’t seem as though it was happening. We drove and stopped and drove and stopped. By 4:00 PM I’d pretty much given up hope and was just enjoying the day for what it was. Finally, though, he parked and then we just headed down through some of the rice fields. At first it was a paved little path, but eventually that gave way to a path. It ended up being a beautiful one-hour hike up and down, all on our own, through the great Chinese countryside. That was heaven. At the end of the trail we bade adieu to the French, who were going to stay at the little town we ended at to watch sunset. The driver took us up to the road, waved down a passing minivan, and had him drop us at our car. Kind of a perfect afternoon.
It’s a good thing it was a perfect afternoon, because the price was an eight-hour bus ride back up to Kunming, where we were spending the night before heading west to our next destination, Dali. The only upside was that, knowing the bus ride was going to be pretty crappy, we’d reserved a room at the Sofitel in Kunming. A little luxury – cheap by typical Western standards, but still a splurge – after a day like that would be something to look forward to.
And thus you get a sense of how weird our lives can be. We start the day at a comfortable but strange Chinese hotel in Xanjie where they lay white sheets on the carpet to keep in from getting soiled:
Then we ride a bus where the bathroom stops are like this:
And end up in a suite at the Sofitel (this will be our last year with Platinum status in the Accor chain) where the bathroom looks like this:
And breakfast as we were getting ready to leave may have been the best spread we’ve had in nearly four years of travel. Obviously, life is good.
From here it’s a seven-hour train ride west to Dali as we work our way toward the Leaping Tiger Gorge and Shangri La.