DUOYISHU, CHINA — This remote farming community is still blanketed in darkness when the alarm sounds and tells me it’s time to prepare for another early-morning shoot on this photographic pilgrimage.
I’m jolted awake when I step onto the stone cold floor and quickly wrap myself for protection from the bone-chilling air that fills my modest room at the family-run Duo Yi Shu Hotel.
These are minor discomforts I’m willing to endure so I can photograph one of the most fascinating landscapes on Earth — the terraced rice paddies of China’s southern Yunnan Province.
A gruelling eight-hour bus ride along twisty, dusty roads from Kunming has brought me to this remote area bordering Vietnam.
Being the only Westerner on board the rickety old bus results in curious stares, warm smiles and lots of questions from fellow passengers.
“Why are you alone?”
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“Do you have a wife?”
“How old are you?”
Tiny villages flash past my window as the bus heads south from Kunming and soon I fall asleep, my arms wrapped tightly around my camera gear.
When the bus reaches Xinjiezhen, I hire a car that brings me to Duoyishu, my home base for the next two weeks.
The lady who co-owns the Duo Yi Shu Hotel with her husband is also a local farmer who owns a few rice paddies. She’s a tiny woman with three children who never stops moving. Being the hotel’s only guest, the family lavishes me with attention and its location affords awe-inspiring views of the valley and the thousands of rice paddies carved into the hills below.
This area draws many photographers — so many that a viewing platform overlooking the rice paddies has been built to accommodate them.
I walk through the dim morning light to reach the platform and as I near it, I notice the valley is shrouded in a thick cloud. Has this journey all been for naught, I wonder?
But the clouds soon roll back, and I’m left speechless — the retreating fog reveals water-filled rice paddies reflecting the rising sun and the valley is soon bathed in a hue of rich reds, purples and blues. Words can’t do justice to what I’m seeing; the story has to be told through the lens of a camera. I can’t stop clicking.
Above: The area;'s terraced rice fields look most spectacular in the morning light.
I’ve been so focused on what’s happening below, I haven’t noticed that the platform has become overcrowded with photographers. A few try to dislodge me from my treasured perch but I defend my territory with hockey elbows. Later, I learn that a few years ago two photographers got into a shoving match on the platform and one of them was pushed to his death. Thankfully, protective railing has been installed to prevent another such incident.
So inspired by what I’ve witnessed in the morning light, I hire a car and drive through the valley to explore the many terraced rice fields in the Yuanyang area.
Along the way, I stop at local markets and trade smiles with the indigenous Hani and Yi People — the women and girls still wear the traditional dress of their ancestors and proudly show me the delicate stitching that goes into each of the colourful garments.
At Jinping, I tour the Sunday market and sellers try to entice me into buying goods ranging from corrugated sheets of asbestos, to vegetables, tobacco, water buffalo, chickens, piglets and even dogs.
People come from great distances to the Jinping market to buy and sell and I see some locals being fitted for new teeth in open-air dental clinics.
It’s a photographer’s delight — the weathered faces, the beautiful costumes, the infectious smiles all fill my lens with great memories.
After leaving Duoyishu, I make my way to Dongchuan via Kunming and find another collection of rice paddies bathed in brilliant light — one person I meet tells me this area as been “painted by God’s paintbrush.”
The Hong Tu Di Fan Dian, another comfortable family-run hotel, provides me with shelter and spectacular views of the surrounding area during my stay in Dongchaun.
Above: Old men with weathered faces welcome visitors with some different expressions.
While exploring local villages, I meet colourful characters smoking long pipes who, for a few yuan, become willing models. Their wives, who proudly show me their bound feet, struggle with heavy loads while their husbands smoke.
As day turns to night, the area provides even more spectacular photographic moments — the colours change dramatically and the ebony sky is filled with stars the size of planets.
It’s a long and tiring trip to get the photographs, but the rewards, as you can see, are well worth it.