High society

Peter Nowak

The cries of children, screaming as if being punished by their parents for misbehaviour, break the village's serenity. I pry myself away from the view of the surrounding hills and investigate their shrieks, running to see what horror is unfolding on the other side of the rustic cabin.

When I round the corner it becomes obvious nothing dire is taking place. A group of youngsters is engaged in that time-honoured and universal boys' game: pile on. For the uninitiated, the rules are simple: pick one boy and, as the name says, pile on. It's a lot of fun for those on top and slightly less so for the poor soul on the bottom, but the turnaround is quick and everybody ends up losing at some point.

Five boys, aged about 10, are jockeying for better positions atop another youngster, who is yelping and laughing at the same time. Pile on truly is a sado-masochistic game. It's also a simple form of entertainment in a place where life is simple - something that is rapidly disappearing in China. As the country barrels faster and further into brazen capitalism and its people become more materialistic, the simple life is becoming undesirable.

That doesn't appear to be the case in the hamlet of Pingan, where subsistence rice farming - contemptible to the nouveaux riches - is a traditional way of life. The little village, which comprises no more than 20 stone and wood huts, is one of many that rise up the Longji Hills, 100km north of Guilin, in southeastern Guangxi province. The hills - whose name translates as 'dragon's spine' - are home to thousands of rice terraces stacked like giant shelves on the mountainsides. From a distance, they look like stepped Mayan pyramids, impressive in their sheer scale. Upon closer inspection, they are awe-inspiring: here is a man-made, yet organic, landscape on life-giving farmland that stands as testament to man's ingenuity and his ability to bend nature yet exist harmoniously with it. The best way to reach the terraces is to sign up for a tour in Yangshuo. Although Guilin is closer, the city's travel agents cater mostly to domestic tourists who take cruises along the Li River to see the area's limestone karsts. Yangshuo, 70km south of Guilin, is peppered with travel agents offering all sorts of interesting day trips, including cave-exploration and rock-climbing expeditions.

I sign up for a tour of the terraces at the Seventh Heaven Cafe and Hostel, on Yangshuo's main strip, West Street. The cafe's affable owner, William Lu, is extraordinarily helpful and hopeful: 'If you're lucky, you'll get some sunshine. Terrific views!' he says. Our group meets in front of the cafe the following day at dawn. After picking up fellow travellers from some of the other hostels around town, our minibus sets off.

There's no such thing as a short road trip in China and most of the four-hour drive to the village is an interminable slog through a grey, miserable morning. It looks as though Lu's optimism is misplaced. As we near Longsheng, however, things become interesting. Our minibus slowly hauls its way up a winding mountain road and into the rain clouds. We are gradually enveloped in fog and mist, driving blind, and I start to fear we will soon become more statistics in China's staggering road-death toll. We catch glimpses of the fabled rice terraces - they blanket an area measuring 66 sqkm - through gaps in the clouds and I can't help thinking it would be ironic if they were the last things we saw before dying.

But the tense moments atop the mountain soon give way to wonder on the way down. The clouds clear and we are finally on the Dragon's Spine, the astonishing stepped terraces stretching into the distance. A final bumpy ride along a wooded canyon and we arrive at the hillside village of Pingan, which oversees harvesting on what I later find out is the Jinkeng Red Yao Autonomous Rice Field. Even the rice terraces have impressive-sounding names.

Ravenous after our journey, we are ushered to a makeshift restaurant as villagers reciprocate our gaping looks. A painted sign outside in English proclaims it to be the Countryside Cafe and Inn, and the proprietor furnishes us with English-language menus featuring a cornucopia of western food. But to our disappointment it seems the Countryside Cafe is out of just about everything.

How about a hamburger? 'No.'

A grilled cheese sandwich? 'No cheese.'

Tomato soup? 'Sorry, no tomatoes.'

With that, I head down to the village, where I have spotted a ramshackle store selling various foodstuffs. It turns out to be more counter than shop, but the owner stocks that most Chinese of meals: instant noodles. He even has Coca-Cola. It is a multicultural feast.

I take to the hills after eating, dodging the handful of native women prowling the area in the hope of selling their trinkets and cheap jewellery. The terraces undulate up, over and around the hills. Only on walking between the rice paddies does their true scope become apparent: the Longji Hills are an agricultural project 600 years in the making. In a land where new architectural marvels are springing up in record time, this is a worthwhile reminder that truly astonishing sights take time to build. And it seems Lu back in Yangshuo was prescient - as I near the summit of one hill, the clouds part and the sun bathes the hillsides in a golden hue. It is almost biblical.

I come across the pile-on game while making my way down through the village to the bus that will take me back to my complicated life. For a moment, the poor child on the bottom of the pile and I catch each other's eye and he seems to be inviting me to jump on. If it weren't for the fact I'd probably kill him by doing so, I would.

Getting there: Dragonair ( flies from Hong Kong to Guilin. Trips to the Longsheng rice terraces are most easily arranged at the many travellers? cafes on Yangshuo?s West Street. A full-day trip costs about 120 yuan a person, depending on haggling ability. Independent guides and transport can also be hired in Yangshuo. Because of the distance, groups spend only a few hours on the terraces. To experience the villages and terraces fully, a day or two is necessary and arranging accommodation in Pingan usually requires a Putonghua-speaking guide. The cost of such trips can vary widely, depending on negotiating ability.