We went for a walk one afternoon to explore the town in which we were staying, as well as the surrounding countryside. Leaving town each morning, our bus would drive past an amazing looking set of terraced fields, and myself and one of the leaders from our group made a point of trying to find our way to some of these hills for a photo session. As always, this seemed a bit easier in the planning stage than it turned out to be.
We did a bit of quick guessing on how best to exit town, and began to walk in the direction that seemed the shortest. As a general life-principal, this method almost never leads you to the destination you desire. Case in point, we almost immediately found ourselves blocked by the path of a river, and had to circle back before heading onward. It had been raining for the better portion of the day, but the sun had come out and in the distance I could see wispy low lying clouds hanging in the valleys, a scene that I now associate with the region. It was one of those places that actually looks in real life as it does in the pictures you have seen before visiting. In this case, it was not possible to capture the true essence in any picture; the scale was simply too large.
We spent some time lost in the maze of the village that we had entered. One of the amazing things about large portions of China is the manner in which villages cluster around one another. After leaving one small town or village, chances are fair that you will be able to find five or six others within half an hours walking distance. Navigating between these ancient islands can be a bit of a challenge, as there are not always distinct roads or paths-sometimes a small strip of dirt running through a paddy field is the main thoroughfare, and farmers are not always pleased by camera toting foreigners ambling through their crops.
I would periodically ask a villager for directions to the next village, or if they new a quicker way back to where we came from, and almost all of them answered that they didn’t know. While I found this a bit hard to believe (Chinese often say they don’t know if they are uncomfortable talking to me, or if they don’t want to tell me that that can’t understand my question), it suggests that these communities exist quite independently of one another. This was certainly true for thousands of years prior to the 20th century. Sustainable living indeed. The more interconnected these villages become, the more it seems that the bits of culture specific to a village are washed out, lost with the young generation that has left for a better life in the city.
We drifted from one village to the next, and it became apparent that the great terraces we so desired to see had the best vantage point from the elevated highway, and there was no chance I was getting on that by foot. We continued on, enjoying the unpredictable nature of the course we had chosen. Finding ourselves once again blocked by a river, it seemed prime time to step off of the main path and head more directly into the fields. When walking between a village and the section of land that they will be working, villagers use a system of narrow dirt paths that separate one section of land from the next. These walls are typically a meter high, and at most a foot wide, but very efficient for getting from one point to the next. At one point I had a six foot drop on one side, and a large pool of water on the other. Not a good time to slip.
Our walk led us through the fields for some time, and we eventually found our way back to a road that would lead home. Exiting through what I thought was a public gate, I found myself face to face with two very large, very angry dogs of a nondescript breed. I love dogs, but have had a few poor encounters with them in the past, making me all the more wary of walking past them, especially in rural areas. Fortunately, the apparent owner came running out of the house, probably at first to yell at whoever was in her yard, but then to pull her dogs off of a pair of very surprised foreigners. She was just as shocked as I was, and I was glad to use that momentary surprise to continue on our way.