Rite of spring

Great outdoors Shelley Jiang cuts a path through Luoping's rolling fields of gold.

I stepped off the bus and into a cloud of bees. This was not the most pleasant experience, but I couldn't really fault the bees for lingering. Fields of golden flowers stretched out to the horizon, lapping gently at the feet of myriad karst peaks - limestone cast mountains. I had never seen so many flowers at the same time, blooming in such profusion. This is the spring of Luoping, an unassuming agricultural county like many another in eastern Yunnan province. But its crop is far from humble, at least during the early springtime. Innumerable fields of rapeseed burst into vivid blossom for two to three weeks in late February and early March, transforming the earth. This in itself is not too out of the ordinary: rapeseed grows throughout southwestern China, and countless other fields undergo the same golden ritual. But nowhere else does it happen to such an extent, and nowhere else in such good company: jagged karst, waterfalls and mountains all provide a sumptuous setting for the vast oceans of yellow blossoms.

A beekeeper waved at me, eager to show me some of his fat honeycombs and freshly made honeys. Behind him was a tent, his home, and stacked boxes for his buzzing bees. Eyeing his swarm of little friends, I smiled and slowly backed away on to the path that led off the highway. The trodden earth trail plunged into the golden fields, where insects were still present but thankfully much more dispersed.

It was plush territory for wandering. With the flowers bobbing all around me, as tall as my shoulder, I had the exhilarating sensation of walking through a sea of gold. I could have taken more than a few detours and scampers in the fields, but I had an appointment for sunset, at two distant karst peaks. Most people choose to climb one of the karsts next to the highway for a dazzling view of sunrise, for which they would wake up at 6am. I headed for the higher, farther mountains, hoping for a grander view of the entire Jinji Cun (Golden Chicken Village) area, perhaps the most emblematic of Luoping's many rapeseed tableaux. Its calling card is its lush cluster of hills rising majestically from a sea of yellow blossoms. Imagine the Gaudi-esque limestone hills of the more famous Guilin or Yangshuo, but now set them in a much more surreal setting.

I met no one else on the walk save for a few more beekeepers, and a group of Taiwanese people, clowning with a cow cart. About two kilometres in, I saw the karsts I wanted: surprisingly symmetrical, they stood on either side of the path like stern sentinels. I tackled the mountain to the left, going up cross-country style, through brush and sliding scree. (Only on my way down did I see the small track, well concealed by overgrown bushes, that would have offered a much easier option.) The hill was steeper than its brethren, but the views were worth it.

A gorgeous palette of yellows, greens and golds unfurled beneath my feet - a springtime quilt. Slanting afternoon sunlight cast everything in a vibrant glow. The karsts receded into the distance as far as the eye can see, the nearby peaks shadowy, the farther ones just silhouettes of mist on the horizon. And up here, the air is mercifully free of bees. I had initially worried about returning to town after sunset, but no matter: a bus was easily waved down from the side of the road, taking me the 12km back for $0.50 (Dh1.8). Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Luoping is its seeming obliviousness to its surrounding beauty, or its vast tourism potential. But that doesn't mean it is a stick in the mud: like every other small town in China, Luoping is growing and building at an exuberant rate.

Here practicality rules. No one would countenance such enormous swathes of flowers if rapeseed didn't also happen to be a highly versatile commercial crop. The young shoots are delectably crisp, stir-fried with garlic or gently simmered in a clear broth (rapeseed belongs to the same diverse genus as broccoli, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga and mustard). Harvested, the charcoal-coloured seeds are processed into animal feed, vegetable oil for human consumption (best known as canola) and, increasingly, biodiesel. What's left over is recycled into the earth as fertiliser, and the explosion of flowers inspires bees to a delirium of honey.

Timing is everything when visiting Luoping: the rapeseed in the flatlands had already passed their blossoming peak, and I had heard that the flowers in the higher, cooler mountains were just starting to bloom. So, the next day, I stopped first at Luositian ("Snail Fields") whose fields are like so many interlocking, inlaid snail shells. Undeterred by the lack of flat ground, farmers have terraced the hills according to the earth's shape and contour. The result is a series of coils and whorls inlaid into the earth in intricate splendour. No matter the season, no matter the colour, Luositian's terraces are a marvel.

This would be a wonderful route for a leisurely drive with plenty of stops, and a hired car would have been easy to come by at a couple of hundred renminbi. Still, I wanted to walk the seven kilometres, which I thought would be nothing more than an easy walk winding through the mountains. Then reality set in: this would be no pleasant nature hike, but a long, hot walk on the narrow shoulder of a two-lane road. Cars, buses and gritty lorries sped along the curves, veering dangerously close to the precipitous mountainsides and honking all the while. Each passing dilapidated lorry also had to announce its presence with a profound belch of exhaust.

Still, there were bonuses. In occasional villages, children on their lunch break from school would follow me, laughing and giggling, too shy to come close but too curious to let me walk by without an entourage. And of course, there was the scenery. With so many slopes, dips and other bits of oddly shaped land, no two meadows sported the same array of flowers, promising an endless succession of scenic delight. It all read like an enigmatic message, such cryptic symbols and glyphs of gold emblazoned on the earth.

There were no shortage of meadows for picnics, and no shortage of wonder. I left the highway entirely and from a small, rock-strewn hillock, I could see all the way to the horizon: the road curling away, and the rolling valleys in patchworks of green and gold. Marvellously, there were no signs of development, and even no signs of agriculture. From here, it was almost as if the earth had spontaneously brought forth all these flowers on its own.


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