As its cities modernise at a breathless pace, Ben Rowell finds inner peace trekking amid the emerald rice terraces of Longji.
There’s a face-off between me, a tiny, smiling Zhuang minority tribeswoman, and our Chinese guide, Michael. It concerns a 25kg wheeled suitcase belonging to my girlfriend, Marie. The porter is determined to carry it up to our luxury lodgings on a mountain peak, a half-hour climb over ‘quite steep and uneven terrain’, as the notes from our travel firm puts it. I’m dying with shame at the prospect of this little woman struggling with a heavy bag that’s almost bigger than her, while Michael knows that any other arrangement will only cause more embarrassment.
The weight of our luggage can be blamed on the brilliant shopping we did in Shanghai. China’s most exciting city is full of tempting buys – cashmere, silk, innovative art and Oriental goodies at Shanghai Tang. Then we had a horribly early start to catch our flight south to Guilin, a 600-mile journey that has also taken us back 600 years. This was followed by a two-hour drive through orange groves and tea plantations; then our minibus chugged for an hour up a twisting mountain road, each dizzying turn revealing staggering vistas of luminous rice terraces stacked like contour lines to the very tops of the mountains.
Known as the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’, the complex of rice terraces in Longji is one of the most extensive and beautiful in China. Proper roads only arrived here a decade ago, and the area has gradually stolen the scenic crown from neighbouring Guilin, already known for its impressive rocky peaks, cormorant fishermen and penniless backpackers surviving on banana pancakes. Now, as China develops at astonishing speed, this picturesque region is also drawing hordes of middle-class Chinese tourists, who flock here to enjoy its endless photo ops, superb mountain treks and colourfully dressed ethnic communities.
After the neon whirl of Beijing and Shanghai, we’re having a three-day rural break at Longji’s only luxury hotel. Li-An Lodge is the brainchild of a Chinese-American photographer who fell in love with these mountains while on assignment, and created his dream eco mountain lodge near Pin An. Which brings us back to the hill before us…
‘Would you care for a sedan chair?’ Michael asks. Marie and I burst out laughing. After all, we’ve come on a trekking holiday. Michael looks relieved. Then two women run forward, wrestling our luggage onto their tiny backs. Michael counters my objections. ‘This is how they live,’ he explains. If I dismissed them, they’d miss their place in the porter queue. If I paid them off, we’d still have to find two more carriers.
This is not the first, or worst, occasion on which we have faced tricky social situations. By the end of our 15-day tour we are experts in Chinese etiquette, which is closely tied up with the concept of face. Put simply, this means that the tourist must always lose face, and a key pleasure of our trip – after the food (invariably good even in humble eateries) and every car journey (there’s always something extraordinary to see) – is analysing just how bad we’ve been made to look.
In Beijing, for example, Marie inadvertently creates a furore in our swanky hotel when the wi-fi doesn’t work. It turns out that her homepage, BBC News, is censored – but, of course, they can’t say that. Another time, our guide claims the yellow smog enveloping the wintery-looking capital is ‘humidity’ – and I cravenly agree. And when Marie tells another host she has no interest in the Olympic Games, the room falls as silent as the Terracotta Army.
With only two days to see Beijing, we ignore most of our guide’s official suggestions (the Beijing Opera, the Lama Temple), but you’d be mad to miss the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the vast, paved expanse of Tiananmen Square. Our best off-piste discovery is the edgy art quarter, 798 Space in Dashanzi, 30 minutes away by car. It’s avant-garde and exciting, with clothes shops and cafés.
Shanghai, once known as ‘the Whore of the East’, is equally absorbing, though my personal worst faux pas comes in a smart cocktail bar when I’m repeatedly approached by high-class hookers while innocently thinking they just want to learn English. The city’s fabled waterfront, the Bund, is now opulently redeveloped, and only saved by its views of the absurdly futuristic Pudong district across the river. We love the old French Concession area, though, and stay in a sprawling hotel, the Ruijin, which features mock-Tudor mansions, hyper-modern restaurants and laid-back bars. With its tree-lined boulevards, art deco buildings, curious Surrey-style mansions (think Empire of the Sun) and brilliant boutiques and jazz clubs, we could easily have stayed longer.
China is all about contrasts, so for our last night we head up the 88-storey Jinmao Tower in Pudong for cocktails at sunset, followed by dinner in the divine Lost Heaven restaurant. Then it’s on to a jazz club, and another bar… Arriving the next day in Longji, and finally reaching the serene Li-An Lodge with its vista of rice terraces and mountainside, it’s unbelievably enchanting to fall asleep to the sound of horses gently snorting in the field below.
The next morning, we’re off on our first trek, over the summit to the next village. It’s fantastic walking country, and there’s always something to distract you. From Longji we drive on to the more remote area of Chengyang. Home to a dozen or so villages of the Dong people, this is an absurdly idyllic river valley, like a Chinese willow-pattern come alive: children playing, men fishing or chopping wood, women planting rice or herding ducks. The tourist attractions here are the elaborately carved, covered bridges and drum towers that each village proudly displays. Life really hasn’t changed for five hundred years: pigs live under the stilted wooden houses, fish are kept in barrels by the kitchen, crops hang drying in the living areas. Villagers can remember tiger attacks as recently as the Seventies. This is one of the last corners of ancient rural China left – a true Shangri-La.
Back in Longji, we head for Hong Kong feeling rejuvenated by the mountain air. On the final morning, our two women porters are waiting in the hotel lobby to carry our luggage down. There’s no arguments now, or loss of face. It’s best just to give in and let the experience sweep you away.
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In April, a return flight travelling into Beijing and back from Hong Kong costs from £564, including taxes. Audley (01993-838200) arranges tailormade packages to China. A 15-day trip visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Longji and Hong Kong costs from £2,700 per person, with flights, breakfast, transfers, guides and rooms in a mix of five-star hotels and boutique properties.
WHERE TO STAY
In Beijing, the swish Peninsula hotel offers fine dining and shops. Shanghais Ruijin is a quirky, old-fashioned hotel on a campus of buildings. In Longji, Li-An Lodge is a comfy mountain retreat with fab views, good home cooking and stylish rooms.
Luxe produces guides to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. For info on Beijings 798 Space, see 798space.com.
In Shanghai, Fuxing Road has antiques, knitwear, homeware and tailoring. Check out Shanghai Tang in the smart Xintiandi shopping centre.