Imagine great icebergs of stone, lightly shrouded in clouds, floating across a sea of rice paddies.
The karst of southeastern China are iconic enough to bedeck the back of the twenty yuan bill, but such frequent and mundane viewing does little to temper the experience of actually seeing them in person. These limestone hills are formed as the stone around them unevenly eroded away and then washed round by rain. They range in height from a few hundred feet to over a thousand and they populate the southeastern landscape in uncountable numbers.
From any perspective, they are simply magnificent. From a river raft or bike ride at their feet, they tower upwards with great suddenness, their sides awash in green vegetation and grey stone. From higher or farther, they fill your field of view, forming congregations like some geologic Manhattan, an expanse of massive stone skyscrapers, irregular and dense, with slivers of valleys running between them. Leaving or arriving, you see them in the distance, amassed on the horizon and forming a pattern surreal in size and shape, like the edge of some fantasy world.
If you can possibly swallow a scene even more spectacular, you can drive only two hours northwest to see the terraced rice fields of Longsheng County. Hillsides thousands of feet in their descent have been hand carved into the service of cultivation. Paddies range from ten yards to barely a foot across. From the side or below, they look like steps fit for a giant. From above, the most splendid vista is appropriately titled the “Dragon’s Backbone.”
We saw them two weeks ago, as they were being prepared for the spring planting. Most were not yet flooded, but were being plowed, as they have for many thousands of years, by a man and an ox. But despite their fame and history, they are a fickle tourist site. We arrived just before sunset and watched them in colorful splendor for about an hour. Then a fog bank rolled in and, after artfully veiling the hills for a few minutes, enveloped them completely and didn’t leave until well after we did.
But I can’t complain. Both sights, even if taken in for only a few minutes, offer the sort of mesmerizing magnificence that makes it hard to walk, talk, or even take a picture. You just want to look back and forth, taking it all in. It makes smile even now, two weeks later, just to think about them.
But we had a full week to explore and saw a whole lot more than we ever expected.
(Part II – The People Live With Their Pigs (And PCs), Tomorrow)