The drive to Yuanyang was a long one and towards the end of it we found ourselves rising higer into the mountains on increasingly narrower roads, often held up behind large trucks crawling up the inclines. After emerging from one more tunnel the valley opened up before us and there they were - hundreds, possibly thousands of terraced rice paddies, fitted together like irregular jigsaw pieces and stretching far down the slopes. The rice had yet to be planted so each paddy formed an irregular reflecting pool, a cascade of mirrors inverting the sky. It was quite a sight. After taking our first batch of photos we got back in the bus to drive round to a viewpoint that would position the setting sun over the terraces, giving us time to set up for the occasion.
We'd been to some popular tourist spots during the trip but had never had any problems - we were well into the off season and most places were big enough to cope with many more visitors than were there with us. However Yuanyang was a very popular destination and the nature of the place meant that for the prime times - sunrise & sunset - everyone wanted to be in one of the few viewpoints for those iconic pictures. Despite arriving an hour before sunset the vantage point was already thronged with people staunchly defending their positions on the viewing platform. It wasn't quite as cutthroat as it at first appeared, occasionally someone would let you take their place for a couple of shots and we definitely took advantage of our 'exotic foreigner' status, but for the most part it was every photographer for themselves.
Things were even worse the next morning when we set out for a sunrise viewing. The crowds were denser and even less accommodating than the evening viewers, I spotted several people taking pictures, editing them on their phones, sending them to friends and then checking their social media feeds while clamped onto their position on the guard rails. A few drones were launched and a couple of them took up positions in front of the view causing an angry response from the crowd. There was an air of desperation to capture this fleeting moment while never being quite sure if a better moment wasn't coming up to trump it.
Which seemed bizarre in hindsight. Both sunrise & sunset took around half an hour to complete during which time the changes were minimal from minute to minute. If everyone had stepped up to the rail, taken a few shots, then stepped back to give others a chance there would have been ample time for everyone, even allowing for some of the more serious photographers to set up their elaborate tripod assemblies. Clearly most people didn't expect to be given another turn if they relinquished their privileged position, a sad reflection on our times.
This self-focussed viewpoint was further illustrated later in the day. We were driving past a popular viewpoint when our minibus got ensnared in traffic - a long, long line of parked cars at the side of the road had severely restricted the available tarmac and when we met a large coach coming the other way there wasn't room for either to pass. Following traffic had bunched right up so many vehicles would need to back up to free the passage. A weary looking traffic warden walked to the back of the queue to arrange this but as soon as he persuaded one car to back away another would cheekily nip into the vacated space, meaning the whole process had to begin again. Our driver suggested we walk on and it was nearly half an hour before he reappeared, finally free of the snarl up
Our hotel looked very splendid but had an operating style that reminded me of Cold War Eastern Europe - staff were grumpy, unhelpful and seemingly resentful of any request. At one point I'd ordered a beer, then had to go up to the bar to remind them that I'd ordered a beer, then waited, then watched my beer being slowly brought over to the table, then had to take it back to the bar to get it opened, then when my change finally arrived it was ten Yuan short, which was explained with an unapologetic shrug. I'd seen this sullen approach in other places where the local economy had been overwhelmed by tourism and I must say that I didn't see it anywhere else on our trip.
One of the services that the hotel didn't provide was laundry so I found myself washing t-shirts & knickers in the bathroom and leaving them hanging in the room through the day. Postponing my laundry would come back to haunt me later in the trip.
One of our planned excursions was a walk through the paddy fields, led by a local guide. This turned out to be a wonderful three hour wander down through the fields, criss-crossing along paths & steps with the pools all around us. We passed locals going about their daily chores, a group of kids playing Monkey (Journey to the West), and the occasional farm animal, all with the sound of cascading water softly in the background. We passed through a village where building sites were wreathed in celebratory bunting while women in traditional dress carried construction materials through the narrow lanes. At one point we saw a dead chicken mounted high on a pole, a sacrifice for a good harvest apparently (and one of the very few examples of spiritual veneration in anywhere we visited). Working our way back up along endless stairways we finally reached our starting point where we ate lunch at our guide's family cafe. An excellent outing and one of the highlights of the trip for me.
However it should be pointed out that the brochure had said we'd be "learning more about the Hani and Yi minority people of the area" and that the meal would include "unexpected delicacies such as snails and insects", neither of which were delivered. Although we were seeing all the Main Attractions there was a sense that the trip notes were rather more optimistic & hopeful than reliable and that several parts of the tour were being ad-libbed rather than meticulously planned. This was quite different from my previous Exodus holidays and it felt as if this was a rebadged tour from another company rather than something organised by Exodus themselves. I have nothing concrete to base this on but others in the group had similar impressions, it just didn't feel as polished as other trips.
On our last morning we drifted through the local market. There was the usual fruit, veg & livestock section (mostly chickens) along with household goods, repair services, clothing and miscellaneous others. Seeing the golden local tobacco on sale was different and a DVD & comic book stall was unexpected. Lots of the women were in traditional dress - loose dark trousers with almost sci-fi styled tops - and lots of traditional clothing & material were on sale. There were several distinct styles in the clothes & headgear but sadly none of it was explained. I bought a couple of embroidered pieces from a stallholder who clearly had me pegged and made no attempt to barter or to encourage me to look at other stuff, and a headscarf from a shopkeeper who insisted that I learn how to tie it and broke into giggles when I girlishly curtsied. The it was back into the minibus for the drive to Jianshui.