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Yuanyang County, Honghe County, Yunnan, China

GPS: 23.092807634733, 102.80776200193

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Yuanyang Rice Terraces are located in Yuanyang County, which is part of Yunnan Province in Southwest China, about 50 kilometres north of the border with Vietnam. This peaceful mountainous region, with its subtropical climate, is home to the largest rice terraces in the world. Like a large abstract painting from the sky, Yuanyang is one of the most beautiful rice terraces in the country, along with Longsheng (Guangxi region), Jiabang (Guizhou), Gaoyao (Guizhou) and Fengyan (Shanxi). Its fields of rice paddies extend as far as the eye can see and are nicknamed the Stairs to Heaven.

Stretching along the southern bank of the Hong River (or Red River), Yuanyang Rice Terraces form an endless landscape of rice paddies covering more than 160 km² (without including the neighbouring areas of Honghe, Lüchun and Jinping). This agricultural area has been shaped for centuries by the Hani and Yi peoples up to the southern slopes of the Ailao Mountains. Every promontory, hill or knoll is transformed into a terrace cultivation area, whether it is at treetop level at high altitudes or at the river’s edge in the middle or lower valleys. The vast majority of them are used only once a year for rice cultivation and remain submerged the rest of the time. Planting traditionally begins at the start of the monsoon season in late May. In August, the rice fields mature and farmers can harvest the grain in September. Some plots are stacked on top of each other and flirt with 3,000 metres above sea level. The steep slopes of Yuanyang Rice Terraces are up to 75 degrees in places. Several thousand irrigation ditches and canals, which are meticulously maintained every year, supply the rice fields with water. This ancestral know-how, respectful of nature, earns its agricultural engineers from ethnic minorities the nickname of artists or mountain sculptors.

Created and passed down from generation to generation, this method of growing rice in steps was officially recognized during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), although it is already mentioned in writings dating from the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries). It was so successful that it was reproduced in other South-East Asian countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia…) in the Middle Ages as well as in Japan and Nepal.

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  • The scenic beauty of Yuanyang Rice Terraces (the largest in the world); a symbol of traditional Chinese agriculture; a highly photogenic place
  • The ever-changing landscape in misty valleys or hills; the variety of colours depending on the time of year; the reflections of the water and the mirror effect of the superimposed terraces filled with water; the fog adding a sense of mystery to the place
  • The canal network, a prodigious irrigation system born of the ingenuity of the Hani and Yi peoples; a model of human development perfectly integrated into the environment over 500 metres of ascent
  • The sites or villages of Laohuzui, Duoyishu, Bada, Longshuba, Mengpin, Aichun, Dawazhe, Quanfuzhuang, Qingkou (…) overlooking the rice fields on the mountainside
  • Fish and duck colonies in the rice fields; pig, buffalo, chicken and cow farms; locally grown vegetables and fruit
  • The experience of a sunrise or sunset overlooking the rice fields
  • Visiting the villages of the Hani communities (with their mushroom-shaped houses as in Azheke), but also Yi, Dai, Yao, Zhuang and Miao; the rural lifestyle of the inhabitants
  • The many local and morning markets (Shengcun, Laomeng, Niujiaozhai, Huangmaoling, Pangzihihua, Ganiang…)
  • Hiking through the lush forests and Ailao Mountains; the Hani Long Table Feast taking place at the end of November (huge banquets organised by the Hani people to celebrate the Lunar New Year)
  • The first natural irrigation systems, developed by the Hani ancestors from the Tibetan plateau, date back 2,500 years. This nomadic people were forced to leave the mountains of Tibet, a thousand kilometres away, to escape from conflicts. The Hani settled in Yunnan province in the 6th century and began to develop the present rice field system 1,300 years ago.
  • The Hani people are one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. For a very long time, they lived in total isolation from the urban world and only discovered the modern writing system in the 20th century. To pass on their skills and traditions orally from generation to generation, they used songs and poems. Their working methods have remained the same for more than a thousand years.
  • When a member of the Hani community dies, the buffalo that helped him work in the rice fields is sacrificed so that the deceased person can continue to cultivate rice in the afterlife.
  • This traditional system produces only one annual crop of rice in the autumn, but is continuously self-sustaining. Water evaporating from the rice terraces in summer forms mist clouds, which turn into rain. Rainfall and spring water are captured by the forests (mainly deciduous and beech) in the upper part of the Ailao Mountains. The water is first fed to the villages just above the rice fields through a network of gutters. The water is then channelled through various irrigation canals or ditches to naturally water the rice fields from the top to the bottom, in a clever system of sloping cultivation.
  • This perpetual cycle is repeated year after year. To be sustainable, the populations must constantly maintain their plots of land (reforming the dykes, rebuilding the embankments, uprooting undesirable grasses or plants, turning over the soil with the help of buffaloes to fertilise it…). They must also manage the water distribution systems intelligently and equitably so that water flows continuously from terrace to terrace.
  • The Hani people do not use any mechanical systems in their rice terraces. Everything is done by hand in an ecological and sustainable way, taking advantage of the terrain. This work is extremely physically demanding. It is based on a real ecosystem, the result of a balance between man, nature and animals. For example, the Hani raise carp in the water-logged rice fields. These fish not only serve to feed the inhabitants but also to get rid of the harmful insects that damage the crops. Their faeces are transformed into natural fertiliser in the cultivated plots and contribute to the growth of the rice (which varies according to altitude and exposure to the sun). Once grown, this red rice is mostly consumed by villagers who have modest resources (this food source is their main means of subsistence). It has a slight nutty taste in the mouth and can be served with fish, chicken, pig or vegetables from the surrounding villages.
  • Yuanyang Rice Terraces are located around the old town of Yuanyang, Xinjie (not to be confused with Nansha, the new town of Yuanyang). It is accessible by bus from the Chinese cities of Kunming, Jianshui or Gejiu.
  • The most beautiful scenery can be seen between December and April when Yuanyang Rice Terraces are full of water. This phenomenon produces a fascinating mirror effect, much to the delight of photographers and sunset enthusiasts in a romantic setting.
  • The most beautiful scenery can be seen between December and April when Yuanyang Rice Terraces are full of water. This phenomenon produces a fascinating mirror effect, much to the delight of photographers and sunset enthusiasts in a romantic setting.
  • By renting a vehicle with a driver for half a day or a whole day, you will be able to discover places and points of view not often visited by tourist groups (the area of the rice fields is very extensive).
  • If you would like to learn about the ancient techniques and manual methods used during the harvest, visit the area after the summer, from September. By seeking out the kindness of a local family, you may have the opportunity to get up close and personal with these rice-growing farmers.
  • Every five days on average, a market is held in one of the many villages in the Yuanyang area (the location varies according to the Chinese calendar).

Where to eat

  • Hello Cloud
    (English-speaking)
  • Liujun Fandian
    (economical and tasty)
  • Lao Sichuan Canting Guan
    (popular and enjoyable)

Where to go out

  • Jianshui Ancient Town
    (cultural city)
  • Qingkou
    (typical hani village)
  • Xinjie Market
    (coloured market)

Where to sleep

  • Timeless Hostel Yuanyang
    (modern hostel)
  • Sunflower Trekkers Lodge
    (helpful and friendly)
  • Jacky's Guesthouse
    (overlooking rice fields)

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