Yuanyang, Yunnan Province, China （中国云南省元阳县）
Photo Travel Guide
Main photographic interest: landscape (terraced rice fields); cultural photography (ethnic minorities)
Located 326 kilometers south of Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province, Yuanyang County is home to arguably the biggest and most spectacular terraced rice fields in the world. The fields have been cultivated by Hani people for centuries and constitute a unique self–sustaining ecosystem. On top of that, the area is populated by a number of ethnic minorities (Hani, Yi, Zhuang, Miao, Dai and Yao). Yuanyang thus offers a great opportunity to simultaneously do unique landscape and cultural photography.
Your centre for exploration of the terraced fields of Yuanyang County will be the old County seat, Xinjiezhen (新街镇; altitude: 1500 meters). Xinjiezhen is easily accessible from Kunming Nanyao Bus Station (南窑汽车站)—direct buses to Xinjiezhen leave several times a day; the one departing at 8 p.m. is a sleeper bus and arrives at Xinjiezhen at 5 a.m. the following day.
For your information, administrative centre of Yuanyang County was transferred from Xinjiezhen to Nansha (南沙) in 1991 because of the mountainside sliding risks; Xinjiezhen is roughly thirty kilometers up the mountains from Nansha. You should head directly to Xinjiezhen as stopping and/or staying in Nansha is inconvenient and of no value.
Alternatively, you can take a bus from Kunming to Jianshui (建水, 200km from Kunming) first, then catch a bus to Nansha and further take a minibus to Xinjiezhen. Yet another way to get to Xinjiezhen is taking a bus from Kunming to Gejiu (个旧, 318km from Kunming) first, then catching a bus from Gejiu to Nansha and further taking a minibus to Xinjiezhen.
Main photographic locations and villages are scattered around Xinjiezhen in such a fashion that the most practical way of getting around (as well as lugging all the gear) is hiring a small private car with a driver. Most importantly, chartering a car is the only option for sunrise and sunset photography. The cost is not cheap (approximately RMB200/day and goes up to RMB300/day during Chinese New Year) but the service is certainly worthwhile.
Accommodation and where/what to eat
There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses in Xinjiezhen, and prices range from RMB10/night/bed in a dormitory to RMB160/night for a standard double room. County Government Guesthouse (县政府招待所), Chenjia Hotel (陈家旅馆) and Sanshu Guesthouse (三叔客栈) are among those that offer great value for the money and are worth considering. Most of them have approximate maps of the area if you need one. Likewise, restaurants are aplenty and finding a reasonably clean and cheap place to eat should not be problematic.
You will need at least three full days to explore what Yuanyang County has on offer. Generally, you should get up sufficiently early to arrive at a sunrise photography location (see the Sunrise and Sunset section below) before dawn. Photograph at the location at and after sunrise and, when you are done, move to one of the villages in the vicinity to do cultural photography. Rest at noon, continue with cultural photography in the early afternoon, move on to a sunset photography location (again, see the Sunrise and Sunset section below) and photograph there until after twilight. Obviously, you should choose different sunrise/sunset locations each time. And of course, do not hesitate to stop and photograph at any place along the road that you like.
Main photographic locations in Yuanyang County are as follows (it is likely that you will want to visit some of them more than once):
Qingkou (青口, 8km / 15 minute drive from Xinjiezhen) features large–scale terraced rice fields and a traditional Hani village. The village consists of a number of houses with roofs in the shape of mushroom caps and the houses are consequently called "Mushroom houses" (蘑菇房). Although some of them appear artificial, the view from afar is still quite impressive.
Shengcun (胜村, 20km / one hour drive from Xinjiezhen) and its vicinity boasts a number of great photographic locations including Bada (坝达) and Malizhai (麻栗寨)—while the former is a great location for sunset photography, the latter is a famous and characteristic Hani village.
Duoyishu (多依树, 25km from Xinjiezhen, 5km from Shengcun; altitude: 1900 meters) altogether boasts 400 hectares of terraced rice fields stretching in east–west direction and a number of villages that boast mushroom houses. This is a perfect place for sunrise photography.
Laohuzui (老虎嘴, 18km from Xinjiezhen and in the area of Panzhihua, 攀枝花) is arguably the most spectacular and representative among the terraced rice fields of Yuanyang County and is a must–visit place. There is an observation platform at the side of the road that offers an elevated view of the fields; however, the best position for photography is further down the road.
Longshuba (龙树坝, 3km from Xinjiezhen / 40 minute hike) is different from the other locations in that the fields are blanketed (partially or completely) with red duckweed and, as a result, have a different appearance and colour.
As you can see in the map above, most of the places of interest are near the road that connects the villages, with the only exception of Longshuba where you have to take a hike. Please note that most locations also have "standard" shooting positions or observation platforms. There, however, are more than one possible angles of view—I personally found that the "standard" ones are not necessarily the best and suggest trying different perspectives.
If your main interest lies in cultural photography, you should spend more time visiting and photographing in the villages and marketplaces where women and children of the ethnic minorities usually dress up in their traditional colourful dresses. You might also consider going to Laomeng (老猛, about two hour drive from Xinjiezhen) to photograph one of the most flamboyant markets.
Best time of the year to visit
The best time to visit is when rice terraces are filled with water, i.e. from December through to April—you can visit at any time during this period. However, if you also intend to photograph rapeseed flowers of Luoping County (see Other notes below), then you should go in February or March.
Sunset and sunrise
The best locations to photograph at sunrise are Duoyishu and Qingkou; the greatest places to photograph at sunset are Laohuzui, Bada and Longshuba.
Photo and other gear recommendations
Whereas you are likely to use a wide range of focal lengths (wide–angle to standard to telephoto), I personally found normal and telephoto lenses most useful. First, in most cases you will be photographing rice fields and villages from afar, and a normal or even a short telephoto lens would provide sufficient coverage. Second, you will need at least a mid–telephoto lens to photograph landscape detail. This being said, there are bound to be instances where you will not be able to do without a wide–angle lens.
As always, you will need a tripod to photograph at sunrise and sunset; having sufficient recording media (digital or film) is a must. I would also recommend having a plastic bag to protect your camera from possible dust/sand, rain or fog.
Issues to be aware of
January and February in general and Chinese New Year / Spring Festival holiday in particular are the busiest times at Yuanyang. Accommodation is difficult to book (I even saw people unable to find accommodation upon arrival sleeping in hotel lobbies); best sunrise and sunset photography locations are so crowded that you have to be there well in advance to be able to find a place for your tripod. Do not get too frustrated if someone tries to put his tripod too close to yours or gets in front of your camera to get a shot of the terraces!
Prices of food, accommodation and transportation invariably go up during Chinese New Year.
The best photographs of terraced rice fields are generally taken when fog and clouds are simultaneously present (but do not entirely undermine visibility). Whereas about 180 days a year witness fog, there are times when absolute clarity or impenetrable fog dominates for days in a row, so that successful photography is pretty much unrealistic. Nevertheless, the weather in Yuanyang is well–known for its volatility, so I suggest not giving up immediately if you encounter unfavorable weather conditions.
More photographs of the terraced rice fields can be found here.
While in Yunnan province, you might want to consider going to Luoping County to photograph rapeseed flowers. Unless you hire a car, though, travelling to Luoping is far from straightforward—you will have to either go via Kunming or follow the route that goes through Gejiu (个旧) and Luxi (泸西).
Update (November 2013)
Nanyao Bus Station has been closed, so now you need to go to South Coach Station instead. Xinjiezhen apparently is no longer much known and there is a direct bus service to Yuanyang from South Coach Station, so you need to ask for this destination directly.
It is no longer allowed for private drivers to transport tourists within the area. If you would like to enter the area, you have to buy a ticket for RMB180 per person per day. With this ticket you are allowed to enter each of the four viewpoints once. A bus service for tourists has been established, whereby they drive you from one viewpoint to the next with an interval of 30 to 60 minutes.