In May 2009, The Wall Street Journal ran a story headlined "Treasures Without Tourists". The article focused on three relatively ignored "gems" in Yunnan province. It advised: "To see some of the most spectacular spots on Earth before the tour buses arrive, visit the sites being considered for World Heritage designation."
The story kicked off with the Hani rice terraces in Yuanyang county, which is not far from China's border with Vietnam.
Covering 130 square kilometres or so, the hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of terraces stack up, physically as well as numerically, on the slopes of the Ailao Mountains. Together, they create one of the most mind-blowing landscapes on our planet. Viewed from on high, Yuanyang's asymmetrical rice terraces - some as large as a playing field, others no bigger than a casually thrown bed sheet, and all individually defined by their contrasting, curving walls of compacted mud - slot together to resemble a gargantuan jigsaw puzzle or a colossal abstract painting. When the light is right, the water-filled ter-races reflect the sky, each becoming a lozenge-like panel in a mighty and swirling stained-glass window.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage submitted the Hani Rice Terraces to the United Nations for World Heritage consideration in 2008, hoping they would be endorsed as what Unesco calls "irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration". However, the terraces are still awaiting the nod. Recognition will eventually come, no doubt, but one wonders if that will be a good thing.
The Hani are one of the mainland's 55 officially recognised ethnic-minority groups. It's said they first visited the Yuanyang area around the third-century AD (nobody seems to know with any accuracy), having migrated southwards from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. The Hani were impressed by what they discovered - fertile land, ample water, a mild climate - and chose to hang around.
More than 1,000 years ago, the Hani began, communally, laboriously and by hand, to hack out the stepped rice terraces that have been maintained, extended, refined and cultivated ever since. The terraces climb from elevations of about 500 metres to 1,800 metres, sometimes on inclines as steep as 70 degrees. The hackneyed "stairways to heaven" description is extremely fitting.
Most impressively, the Hani rice terraces are a shining example of symbiosis between man and nature: terrace-pooled water evaporates to form clouds; clouds shed rain that is collected - along with dew from dense mountain fog - in forested catchment areas high on the slopes; and spring water flows down to irrigate the rice terraces. The harmonious cycle repeats.
In short, the Hani harnessed their immediate ecosystem to sustain self-sufficient livelihoods over generations. "Forests are the lifeblood of water," goes a local proverb. "Water is the lifeblood of rice terraces, and rice terraces are the lifeblood of the Hani." And today, water still attracts outsiders to Yuanyang, if for a very different reason.
Though the terraces shimmer a vib-rant emerald during the summer growing season (the mountains' micro-climate supports only one - if abundant - rice crop a year), the landscape is at its most photogenic through winter and spring, when the waterlogged terraces become natural mirrors that, with sunrise and sunset, glow in shades of indigo and orange, of gold and magenta. Farmers and water buffalo occasionally wander by in silhouette.
November to late April, therefore, draws well-heeled photography enthusiasts - mostly from China's major cities - in their thousands. And with many ravishing Nat Geo moments to be captured in megapixels, even without World Heritage status, nobody can blame them. The views are truly magical.
The majority of visitors appear content to trudge only the most beaten of paths: from hotel, via SUV or people carrier, to the purpose-built viewing platform above the quaint Hani village of Duoyishu for sunrise, for instance; from hotel to similar platforms at Laohuzui and Bada to witness the sunset. Drop by these places at these times and expect a crush of single-minded folk decked out in multipocketed photographer vests and lugging around some seriously enviable gadgetry.
The viewing areas also show signs of Yuanyang's inevitable commercialisation: a few uninterested Hani children, the girls wearing colourful outfits and elaborate jewellery, try to flog postcards and ethnic trinkets, but most punt nothing more fanciful than boiled eggs. (And those eggs are a godsend if you've trekked out early to catch the 7am sunrise - many photographers stake out places with their tripods as early as 3.30am. It's all very competitive and alpha-male. There are squabbles and shoving. It's not much fun.)
Wander 200 metres in any direction from those viewing platforms, however, and the frenzy is swiftly forgotten. Hike the winding trails through the terraces, or even along the terrace walls if you're nimble on your feet, and you will be absolutely alone.
Once the snappers have sped away to the next photo-op, bucolic Duoyishu, along with other villages located in the thick of the terraces, appears as if unchanged for centuries: traditional, squat, yellow-ochre houses - still built the traditional way, from bamboo, mud, stone and wood - sit shaded under the eaves of their mushroom-shaped thatched roofs; massive black pigs and farrows of piglets wander freely; and the trickling of water is the dominant sound.
What's more, most photographers choose to stay an hour's drive away, in the comfort of the concrete hotels in Yuanyang's shabby old town of Xinjiezhen. Come nightfall, the patios of Duoyishu's handful of small guesthouses and family-run lodging houses offer skies speckled with thousands of stars, their kitchens rustling up homely if unsophisticated fare (try fish, fresh from the rice terraces, served with wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms).
Though tour buses have increasingly been arriving in Yuanyang, they're not bumper to bumper, as they surely will be when the notoriously poisonous World Heritage chalice (think Yunnan's depressingly despoiled ancient town of Lijiang) is finally awarded. In short, visit as soon as you can. You won't be the first, but you certainly won't be the last.
Getting there: Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Kunming. Buses to Yuanyang from Kunming's South Bus Station - including overnight sleeper buses - take about eight hours.