It isn’t often that a place or an event has the power to change you. Most of the time change seems gradual, the sum of a set of experiences that just kind of creeps up on you, until one day you realize the person you were is just that: the person you were. But. Sometimes something is so singular that you can feel yourself changing, feel your understanding growing. Maybe this thing changes a lot of people, or maybe only a few. For us, the rice terraces of Dazhai was such a place.
At first, when we stepped off the bus in a dusty parking lot in the hilly back-country three hours outside Guilin, we couldn’t see what the fuss was about. The only bathroom was a trough in an open room, and compact, well-muscled, middle-aged women in traditional dress swarmed us at every turn, incessantly hounding us to pay them to haul our luggage up the hills to the village in wicker baskets on their backs. We were tired, and a little nauseous from the needlessly perilous ride the bus driver subjected us to on the way up, but our hopes remained high, despite this slightly shaky start. The ride in had been beautiful when we could muster the courage to look out the window, and we knew the reputation this place had, so we ignored the porters and walked through the gate guarding a lonely gravel track into the hills.
As we began to walk, the country was nice, but there wasn’t much to see. The day was misty and overcast, limiting our visibility to less than a kilometer in any direction, and for a time the crunch of the gravel under our feet and the occasional whicker of a horse were all the accompaniment the silent hills surrounding us offered, blanketed in a muffling veil of fog. After an indefinite amount of time, we passed an ornate wooden bridge and as we stepped over the far edge of the walkway we looked up and at last saw the terraces begin to creep out of the mist. Appearing slowly at first, as we walked, they began to fill our view in every direction, rising up from behind the pine clapboard houses like stairs to some unknown world.
We wandered in among the houses, mostly ignored by the folk going about their business, and felt displaced. Stone stairs meandered up through narrow gaps between the seemingly ageless pine buildings and for a little while we were simply lost in another universe. We climbed stairs until our legs burned, and sweat stuck our shirts to our backs. We paused to look behind us and saw tiny brown houses clustered together at the base of the stepped hills and knew that we had stepped outside the bounds of our previous lives. We had found a place that defied anything we had ever seen before, and as we stood there, sucking our breath in between our teeth, we knew that all we had to do for the next two days was be there. Just be there and nothing else.
The remainder of the hike was grueling, but achievable, for us. We knew, as we dragged our way up the last few stairs, that the us from seven weeks earlier might not have made it this far, and we knew that the people who would come back down these stairs and out into the wider world would be changed. We were proud and exhausted as we wandered into the small village nestled at the end of the stairs, buried deep in the terraces and perched on the edge of a hill. Green paddies, slowly turning deep gold as fall encroached, surrounded us on all sides. We were in a place where everything either came in on your own back, or the back of a steady-footed donkey and we were about as far removed from the world we knew as we had ever been.
That’s not to say Dazhai’s terraces don’t know travelers — far from it, in fact. There were hostels and inns and homestays, and everywhere you looked at least a few tourists wandered, most with the same gobsmacked look on their faces we knew we carried, cameras in hand and bags in tow. New buildings were going up left and right in anticipation of the approaching Golden Week tourist onslaught and a half finished cable car ropeway climbed the spine of the highest hill. Somehow it didn’t matter that it wasn’t just us up there. Somehow, the whole place was so beautiful and so remarkable that it just seemed to absorb everything that didn’t belong, rendering intrusions so pointless as to be essentially unobservable.
When we got to our room, we set our bags down, threw open the window and nearly burst out laughing. The view was so absurdly spectacular there was almost nothing else we could do. Looking out the window of our room was like looking into someone’s dream, and as the crisp air whipped into the room, whistling through the knots in the walls, we just stood there, barely daring to breathe, unable to look away. It was easy to understand how sometimes even the locals would just stop what they were doing and look off into space, out an open window or across a field.
All we had to do was be there. We just had to show up, and for the next two days, we were allowed to exist outside ourselves and live in a place that we didn’t really believe could exist. No need to plan or worry, just keep our eyes open and our cameras ready, and the rest would come. Looking out that window showed us unlimited possibilities. It showed us how little we knew about the world and our place in it, and made us want so much more.
We went downstairs and ate arguably one of the best meals we’d had in China to date, drank a big, cheap beer and looked out the window. Sitting there, well past the edge of our previous reality, we began to realize that we were finally really out in the world, just living our lives as we saw fit, doing things we never knew we could before. We finally felt like we were really traveling, seeing something new and not fighting expectations, just letting ourselves see a place as it is, and accepting how a place might change us. In any case, at that moment it didn’t really matter. Listening to the wind hissing through the stalks of the rice and watching the slow life of the village unfold was enough. Like the rice in front of us, we were changing, too slowly to see, but we could finally feel it happening. We were starting to understand what the world could show us.
We spent the next two days wandering through rice paddies, up and down hills, over and around pine-board houses and across narrow rivulets of water feeding the eternal mud of the paddies. We went from one hyperbolically named lookout (“Music from Paradise”) to another, always marveling at how the same few hills could look so different after five minutes of walking.
At the end of every path there was always a bench or a chair. It was as though whoever was fortunate enough to get there first knew there was no choice but to stay a while, to just sit and listen to the subtle rush of air as it moved through the valleys, the occasional clack of a hammer hitting a nail, or the intermittent barking of one of the many village dogs. Sitting, listening to the clip-clop of hooves on stones as the week’s provisions make their slow way up the hill, or the squeak of a cable hauling tightly wrapped bundles over the trees when the donkey was too slow was, just for a moment, akin to hearing the Earth turn. We felt very small and very lucky.
Eventually our many reveries would end and we got to discover that the walk back down was completely different from the walk up, smiling at the realization that something as simple as turning around could change the way we saw the hills around us. Heraclitus once said you could never step in the same river twice; I think the same must be true for rice terraces.
Walking out of the rice terraces to our return bus was like passing through an airlock back into the rest of the world. Somehow this place exists and we were allowed to see it, and that was, oddly, hard to understand. It’s a fraction of a percent of the world at large and after the first turn in the road it could easily disappear forever, but it changed us none the less. Dazhai taught us that no matter how much of the world we see, we can’t ever lose our capacity for wonder and surprise. It taught us that, no matter how much of the world we see, there will always be something new around the next bend in the road and that the only people who can say they’ve seen it all are liars.