Trekking in Yunnan
From Niujiaozhai to Yuanyang

Yuanyang county, south of the Red River in the province's southeast, is famous for its Hani rice-terraces. With its splendid vistas and ethnic mix it is also a great area for hiking. Here we describe a moderate day-hike starting at the market-town of Niujiaozhai, passing through Yi and Hani villages and ending with stunning sunset vistas over the rice-terraces of Longshuba.

Niujiaozhai 牛角寨 is, after Nansha, the modern county-town on the banks of the Red River, and the old countytown Yuanyang now renamed Xinjie "New Market", up in the mountains, the Yuanyang county's third largest town. But this does not mean very much.

Niujiaozhai Market On most days Niujiaozhai, which means "Ox Horn Village", is a very sleepy place. Only on market days, held every four days (two days after Yuanyang), Niujiaozhai becomes a buzzing "metropolis" in the mountains as mostly Hani and Yi pour in from the surrounding villages to sell their produce, buy clothes, cigarettes, washing powder or other things they cannot make themselves - or simply to have a good day out in town.

By road, Niujiaozhai is 50km or so from Yuanyang - but in Yunnan road distances are always deceptive, as the roads must follow the contours and often trade distance for speed. In fact, as the crow flies, Niujiaozhai is not even ten kilometres from Yuanyang. As a man walks, it is less than 15 kilometres - a good, not too strenuous afternoon hike.

The trail starts at the pond in the centre of Niujiaozhai. Here, where the motor-road ends, a pedestrian footpath leads downhill into what the locals still call the "Dai" section of town, even though the Dai moved out generations ago. After meandering through the lower section of town, the path turns into the countryside, where a pretty stone stairway continues the descent to the river. Crisscrossing a tractor path, soon the large village of Dashunzhai 大顺寨, the "Big Village By The River" becomes visible across the valley.

After a while the path reaches the river. Once there was a sturdy bridge here, but a heavy summer flood washed it away a few years ago and it has not been rebuilt since. Now a rickety bamboo bridge must do. Many trails lead uphill into Dashunzhai, which all of a sudden does not appear so large anymore. A small shop provides refreshments, while pigs and chicken stroll through the village alleys.

Doubling back, the path leads back down to the river where, a bit further downstream, a small stone bridge, known to the locals as the "large bridge", crosses the river. From the river bank the main trail now leads eastwards and up the hill. At first it is ill-defined, but soon the many branches merge into one. Yi Bride From the river, it takes about an hour - the steepest part of the trail - before Yangniuzhai 养牛寨 "Cattle Raising Village" is reached. There the trail widens into a tractor path once again and continues almost level on the valleys southern side with pretty vistas down and below.

The next stages are Panlongzhai 盘龙寨 "Winding Dragon Village" and Longshuba 龙书坝 "Dragon Tree Plain", a larger settlement right in the middle of the famous Longshuba rice terraces. The splendid vistas over these terraces accompany the rest of the walk, as the trail winds out of the valley and towards the old town of Yuanyang.

Trek Profile: The trek is a little over 13km long, with a long climb after the first third. Niujiaozhai lies at around 1350m, the lowest point of the trail, the river crossing at 990m, from where it is a climb up to 1550 m at Yuanyang.

Transport and Accommodation: Many busses and microbusses now go to Niujiaozhai and particularly on market days it is no problem at all to reach the township. For those who want to stay overnight, the choices of accommodation in Niujiaozhai are still very limited, but it is possible to find a bed, if not much more, for 10 yuan.