When we say that we want to “get away from it all,” how much of that do we truly mean? Sure, most of us are able to do without simple conveniences like our cars or televisions for a few days, but what about truly escaping? Forgoing our cell phones, computers, and even the convenience of paved roads, all in the name of “getting away?” I never thought that I was one of those people. I have never had a desire to unplug. Now, this could possibly be due to the generation I come from; I was born during the rise of the computer. I’ve never known a life without a computer or mobile device, so I’ve never felt overwhelmed by them, or felt a need to get away from them. For me, they are simply matters in the facts of life. Luckily for me, I inadvertently put myself in a situation that would change my perspective on what it means to unplug. When I put a visit to the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces of the Dazhai Village in Southeastern China on my agenda, I had no clue what I was in for, and boy do I thank myself for it.
My journey starts in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong. I had an extremely ambitious plan for getting my English-only speaking self from Hong Kong, across the Chinese border to Shenzhen, then on a flight to Guilin, followed by a bus ride to Guilin’s very distant train station, onto another bus to the Longsheng rice fields, ending with an hour-long hike up a mountain to my accommodations in Dazhai… all in less than 12 hours. Sometimes, ambition born of ignorance can make for the most incredible experiences. I didn’t know it at the time, but embarking on a trip like this, all in one day, not knowing a word of any Chinese language, was really a fool’s errand. I, however, was blissfully unaware, and more importantly, unafraid, so I pressed on. My journey started with an hour-long bus ride, from the city-center of Hong Kong, to the border crossing city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. I’d purchased a ticket upon a bus that would drive me to the border, have me disembark for immigration, then re-embark once I’d cleared immigration, and carry me on to the airport. Once I’d made my way to the airport in Shenzhen, it was a short, one hour and twenty minute flight to my hub-city of Guilin. While I was able to traverse this leg of my trip with relative ease, once I stepped off the airplane in Guilin, I became acutely aware of the adventure I had set myself on.
One thing that is unique about traveling to Guilin, which is different from my travels to other places in the world, is the lack of English. Signage baring a familiar alphabet was scarce, and the usage of a familiar word was as almost completely absent. Even with my Chinese phrase book in hand, the simple task of finding the correct bus to the train station was tumultuous. After several rounds of Pictionary with the myriad of bus drivers waiting outside of the airport, I was able to find someone who could understand my scribblings of a Thomas the Tank Engine-esq friendly-faced train, and I was set on my way.
Once I arrived at the Guilin train station, I was set in the center of a parking lot, and pushed into a sea of unfamiliarity. This juncture was different from the last, however. While at the airport I found people running away from me, here I found people pouncing on me! “Longsheng! American!” Hands pointing exuberantly at pictures of rice terraces and happy tourists soon came to encroach upon my bubble of confusion; all baring different prices and different destinations within the rice terraces. I was overwhelmed, so I escaped to a phone booth where I could be alone with my thoughts, and more importantly, my notes. Luckily, I’d been archiving weeks and weeks of research into my Evernote app, and was prudent enough to print them before leaving Hong Kong. I knew that I needed to get on a bus to Longsheng, and I knew how much I should pay, but how was I to communicate this to the drivers? I took a deep breath and decided that I was going to make this situation work. But before I could even cross the sidewalk back into the parking lot, I heard something familiar! “Excuse me sir. Sir! Are you headed to the rice terraces?” I had never wanted to so hug a stranger like I did in that very moment. They were a group of French tourists headed the same place that I was, and they noticed my obvious disorientation and bewilderment, and invited me along. After some haggling with a driver, we crammed our 11 bodies into a 10-passenger van, and set course for the rice terraces.
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you whether the drive from Guilin took us 1 hour, or 10 hours, but I can tell you that it was exhausting. After being mentally drained, dropped in a vastly unfamiliar place, and crammed into a glorified rickshaw, I was just happy to be in-motion. Nothing else mattered. I closed my eyes and awoke to a paradise so majestic, I could have mistaken it for a multi-billion dollar set from a movie. Waking up in the valley of hand-carved rice patties was unlike anything I had ever seen, and it immediately put my journey into perspective. It felt like I was standing at the end of Earth, a place untouched by time; surely my journey, for all of its difficulties, had been worth it.
I began my ascent to the Dazhai Village with an interesting encounter. As I’m rolling my suitcase up the path, a little old lady comes running after me, grabbing my bag! It was not an unexpected experience, but it still caught me off-guard. In my research, I’d found that locals make their entire economy from tourists, and one of their industries happens to be portering your luggage up the mountain for you. Equipped with straw-and-leather baskets strapped to their backs, these women (who could not have been any younger than 50) hike with the agility of a teenager up the mountain with your belongings. At first, being a healthy, grown man, I felt a bit silly relinquishing my bag; but after 10 minutes of climbing a narrow, stone-paved path up a mountain, it all made sense. After meandering through a string of small villages for almost 30 minutes, I finally came to a river crossing that sat in the shadow of the Dazhai Village. I was 15 minutes way from reaching the destination I had dreamt about for months. I gathered my breath, collected my thoughts, and made the final climb to what would be my home for the next three days.
There are no hotels in the Dazhai Village, so I had arranged my hostel online in advance. For a mere $11.00 USD per day, I would have my own room, comprised of only a memory-foam mattress, a small bathroom, an air conditioner, and an incredible view! What more could I ask for? I settled into my private room and began the process of decompressing. Just having made it to such a remote place was a huge boost for my ego. It is amazing how enduring strife can make overcoming that much sweeter. I lay down, closed my eyes, and drifted away for the night.
There is no fancy lap pool here, no breakfast buffet, and no list of tours and excursions to go on. No, this place is quite possibly the most opposite you can get of that. This is where you come to do nothing. Visitors fill their days with hiking the area, reading, and engaging with other travelers. Each morning, I would head downstairs to the common area, where I would sit, order everything on the left side of the menu, and have conversation with other visitors for hours on end. We would then fill our afternoon by hiking to the smaller villages and lookout points situated on the almost endless bounty of terraces. It is the definition of “being with nature.” Aside from sending a few pictures to my friends and family using the horrendous (and extremely governmentally-restricted) internet connection, I never once thought about my trappings of modern culture in America. I did not care about the time, or the weather, or the score from the game, or any of that. I was living in the moment.
Journeying to, and staying in the Dazhai Village is an experience that draws an oxymoron from you when trying to relay your feelings. It was like I did everything and nothing at all. I mean, how can one go through an experience like this and not be changed on some level? In my adult life, there have been few experiences that have challenged me like this trip has, but it has shaped how I view myself, how I deal with and overcome adversity, and how getting away from convenience can make one a better person.
Editor At Large