Visiting the Rice Terraces of China’s Yunnan Province

“It will just take me a moment,” I say quietly, as I inch past my fellow photographers poised at the edge of the cliff. Their cameras and tripods are already set up. My equipment is still on my back.

When I signed up for this trip to see the Yuan Yang Rice Terraces, I envisioned the rice paddies of Bali, built on gentle rolling hills. Now, I’m edging toward a drop-off that freezes me in my tracks.

I’m afraid of heights.

The weak-at-the-knees, sweaty-palms, afraid-to-drive-over-tall-bridges type of afraid. I kick myself for not doing better research. Happily, I was able to suppress my dread of heights just long enough to get some great shots.

Dating back at least 1,300 years ago (some sources say 2,500), the rice terraces are located in China’s Yunnan Province, just 31 miles from the Vietnam border. They were created by the local Hani people—they carved them out of the sides of mountains. In them, the Hani still grow red rice and raise fish.

A three-hour flight from Shanghai and seven-hour drive into the mountains have brought me here. Since there are numerous permits and licenses required, it’s best to join a tour. Mine is designed for photographers and has only six people on it.

At first, I was intimidated by my fellow travelers. Each one has several camera bodies and numerous lenses. One is even carting along a rolling camera bag, since his equipment is so heavy.

Our local guide, Mr. Ma, is in his 80s and climbs like a young mountain goat. He has led us up and down steep hills in search of the perfect view. A self-taught photographer, his photos have appeared in National Geographic. With the trek underway, I’m grateful for my simple camera equipment.

Mr. Ma knows everyone and is a local celebrity. As a result, we get invited into homes along the way. The invitations come after a long, loud, bargaining session with the homeowner. There are advantages to being in a small group with a local guide!

Our home base is in a hotel in the small town of Xin Jie close to the Rice Terraces. Each night, we eat the local cuisine, which is mostly vegetarian and fried. Following local custom, we eat directly off the serving plates placed in the center of a low table. The fried lotus root is fabulous!

One afternoon, we took time out to visit the weekly market. The streets are filled with vendors selling yarn and patterns for embroidering costumes. The Hani are not the only local minority. The Yi also live here. While the Hani tend to wear subdued, blue clothing, the Yi dress in a riot of color.

As I stroll, camera in hand, I look for chances to shoot photos of people. Since I know I won’t be able to get model releases, I put on my zoom telephoto lens and aim for detail shots. My goal is to sell these photos, along with the ones of the Rice Terraces, on microstock sites, to help pay for my travel. It’s the quick-and-easy way to make money from photographyand anyone can do it.

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