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The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Long haired ladies Huangluo Yao Village Guilin Guangxi China

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“So that was Guilin!” I exhaled, sinking deep into my chair as S plonked a couple of beers down on the table. We’d just returned to our base at Backstreet Youth Hostel, pretty much collapsing at the bar. “Maybe we should have planned two days” she yawned, stretching her arms.

Our flight from Xi’an to the southern city of Guilin was a swift two hours and fifteen minutes. With so much to see and do in the surrounding area, not to mention the clock ticking down on our flight to Amsterdam, we’d decided on just one day in Guilin. Not long enough that’s for sure. Nevertheless, we had certainly made our day count!

We headed out for breakfast shortly after sunrise. From there our first port of call was the city’s premier attraction, Seven Star Park. This 120-hectare stretch of gorgeousness sits on the eastern side of the Li River. It took us over three hours to get through everything, starting with a riverside walk peppered with lush greenery, stone bridges and wooden pagodas.

Map Seven Star Park Guilin.

Seven Star Park, Guilin.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

The further we progressed, the more the path ascended, providing moody, misty views of Guilin’s  signature limestone hills. Elsewhere, we passed through a deserted sculpture garden, stopped to admire a trickling waterfall and crossed a dramatic section of the river via the elegant stone arches of Flower Bridge.

Seven Star Park Guilin China.

Seven Star Park, Guilin.

It was a grey, muggy day, hence our hike through the park soon had us hot and bothered. As a result, we felt relieved to stumble upon Seven Star Cave, a cool, one thousand meter limestone chamber. Inside, we were wowed by razor-sharp stalagmites and a beautiful Buddhist shrine.

Seven Star Park, Guilin.

It was at the shrine that we met a cosplaying Chinese couple doing a photo shoot. They were both in their late teens with catwalk good looks. As per the photographer’s instructions, they channeled an affected melancholia for the camera. The girl wore a simple blue princess dress, the boy an enveloping white robe that came up over his head. Nodding at us courteously, they continued about their business as if we weren’t there.

Seven Star Cave Guilin.

Seven Star Cave, Guilin.

By the time S and I left Seven Star Park we’d built up quite an appetite. Thus we quickly set about hunting down lunch. We found it at a roadside stall, where a gruff man whisked up choose-your-own-ingredients-stir-fries. 

I went for pork, S opted for chicken. Then we stabbed our fingers at the various red baskets of veg. A handful of mushrooms… some grated carrot… a spoonful of bean sprouts and a sprinkling of runner beans. He cooked it all up in front of us and the resulting concoctions were fantastic. 

Chinese meat and veg stir fry Guilin Guangxi China

Stir-fry, Guilin style.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

With our bellies full, we embarked on another long walk, heading across the city for a stroll around Shan Lake. As soon as we arrived we saw the famous Sun and Moon Pagodas, a pair of dramatic twin structures said to symbolise the brightness of Guilin’s future.

The forty one metre high Sun Pagoda is the world’s tallest copper structure and has an elevator to help visitors up its nine floors! The seven-floor Moon Pagoda meanwhile, made of marble, connects to its sibling via an underwater tunnel.

Sun and moon Pagodas Shan Lake Guilin Guangxi China

Shan Lake, Guilin.

It was early evening by the time we got to the restaurant street of Zhengyang Lu. Sadly, the area was very touristy and we were less than impressed with our overpriced fish dishes. Thankfully, we salvaged the night at Central Square, where we joined the crowds to take in Guilin’s nightly water and light show from the ostentatious Lijiang Waterfall Hotel.

A celebrated Guilin landmark, this Guinness Book of Records approved building draws in scores of visitors every evening. At eight thirty the entire length and width of the hotel transforms into a giant, flowing waterfall. It was quite a sight and a fitting end to a wonderful day.

Li Jiang Waterfall Hotel Guilin Guangxi China

Guilin Lijiang Waterfall Hotel.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Some of China’s most impressive rice terraces lie near Guilin among the rural villages of Guangxi Autonomous Region. The most picturesque are those that make up Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) Terraces, a two and a half-hour drive from the city. Leaving China without seeing the rice terraces would’ve been criminal, so we booked a day tour with a local company called CITS.

I didn’t really want to do an organised tour. However, the terraces were an absolute nightmare to reach independently. Moreover, we didn’t have the extra days needed to do the journey ourselves, which would have required an overnight stay. 

Longji Rice Terraces China.

The Longji Rice Terraces, China.

Photo courtesy of Dariusz Jemielniak. 

The bus trip with CITS was spectacularly awful. There were around twenty of us, with perhaps a handful of non-Chinese, including ourselves. Unfortunately, the tour guide spent the entire journey squawking information at us through a loudspeaker. He barely stopped for air, yapping on for about twenty minutes in Chinese. When it finally came to an end, there were perhaps a few seconds of blissful silence before he proceeded to repeat the entire speech in barely comprehensible English. I remember leaning forward with my head resting on the chair in front of me, praying that it would end.

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The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Huangluo Yao Village.

The scenery had been pretty dreary, until we began twisting up a series of mountain roads. Soon enough the views began to improve, although the combination of drizzly rain and thick mist did its best to hamper our views. Furthermore, I was feeling too queasy to fully appreciate the climb. A mixture of motion sickness and that damn guide’s infernal monologue. Consequently, I was delighted when we arrived at the mountain village of Huangluo Yao, home to the so-called Long Hair People. A tribe officially known as Red Yao.

Huangluo Yao Village China.

Huangluo Yao Village, China.

We filed out of the bus into the misty morning, the rain coming down hard as we crossed the wooden footbridge. On the village main street a welcome committee of middle-aged long hair ladies greeted us with much enthusiasm. One of them offered S and I an umbrella, another woman swooped in with a complimentary cup of piping hot green tea.

The village’s entire existence revolves around the ladies and their long hair. Yao girls begin the growing process at twelve years old, the elders treating their heads with secret ingredients made of rice-washed water and herbs. For the people of Yao , long hair represents a happy and healthy life, with prosperity and good fortune. They can grow their hair as long as two meters and it’s only cut once during a lifetime. Usually at the age of eighteen or just before marriage.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao a short story from China.

A Huangluo Yao village elder.

Photo courtesy of yeowatzup.

A few of the women took us to see a village house, a creaking wooden structure with multiple floors accessed by precarious stepladders. All the rooms were sparsely decorated, such as the bedroom we traipsed through that contained just a large bed, a lone dressing table and a massive mirror. The living room was similarly simple. As we passed through, I saw a little girl sat on a small rug watching cartoons in front of a bulbous old TV. She didn’t even look up. 

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Back out on the main street, long hair reinforcements arrived to show off local crafts. They were really friendly, although I couldn’t help but notice the dollar symbols flashing in their hungry eyes. Among their many treasures, I sifted through key rings, soft toy pandas and Yao-themed stationery, complete with wispy hair samples. I must have fired off a hundred bú yàos (don’t want/no thank you) by the time the guide ushered us all into the village theatre.

Huangluo Yao Village Guilin Guangxi China

Huangluo Yao Village.

We took our seats among the rows of chairs in front of a large stage. The set was beautiful, a recreation of a typical village building, complete with functional wooden windows. What followed was a fascinating Long Hair Performance. A dozen or so women danced onto the stage dressed in embroidered, red and black costumes. Launching into a pleasantly lilting folk song, they began slow-walking up and down the stage to the rhythm of the music.

The Long Hair Performance.

As the song progressed, more women appeared at the windows, waving at the audience. Then, Rapunzel style, they unraveled their hair down the front of the facade. The women wore their jet-black hair high, tied in varying states according to their situation. Those with covered hair were single and awaiting a suitor. Married women meanwhile, presented themselves with a flat, tray-like bundle atop their heads. Some of them had coiffed hair, which indicated they were married with children.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao a short story from China.

The Long Hair Performance.

From there proceedings took an odd turn. Approaching a microphone stand, one of the women invited three male audience members up onto the stage. Seconds later, two Chinese men trotted up, along with a bemused Australian. Each of the men were asked to choose a long-haired lady, before being cajoled into a slapstick pantomime act designed to explain the local courting process.

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They asked the first Chinese man to sing a song to his “beloved”. Chinese man 2 had his ass pinched by his lady, a local courting custom. Needless to say the crowd loved this and much clapping and whistling followed. By this point the Australian man was glancing back at his wife nervously, no doubt wishing the ground would swallow him up. Clearly wondering what horror of indignation lay in wait, he seemed greatly relieved when his sweetheart simply hung a large bouquet of flowers around his neck. All he could do was grin at the audience awkwardly while people laughed, clapped and took photos. 

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao a short story from China.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

But if Mr. Aussie thought he was off the hook, he couldn’t have been more mistaken! In a final act of staggering humiliation for all concerned, each new husband was told to accept his new wife up onto his back! The men were then instructed to jog around the hall carrying their beloveds.

The Chinese audience went crazy, hooting with laughter and punching the air victoriously when everyone returned safely to the stage. This signalled the end of the show and we all filed outside, getting our bums pinched along the way. “One question!” asked S thoughtfully as we made our way back to the bus. “Where are all the men?”

Huangluo Yao long hair Village China.

The Long Hair Performance.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Back on the bus, we climbed higher and higher into the misty mountains. Rain lashed against the windows as our tiresome guide waffled on and on about god knows what. At long last our vehicle grumbled to a gradual stop. The road had become so narrow we had to change buses! Standard practice our guide assured us. 

So we all disembarked, getting into a leaner minibus for the remaining stretch. From there we had to tackle some hair-raising corners that left our driver with absolutely no margin for error! Eventually, we could make out the faint outline of the terraces through the rain and dense mist. Soon after, we arrived in the ancient village of Ping’an.

Ping'an Village Longji Rice Terraces China.

Ping’an Village.

The whole point of coming to Ping’an was for the hike up to its summit and the breathtaking views of the terraces. But as soon as we got out of the bus I knew the conditions were all wrong. The hike up to the top of the village took about twenty minutes. Along the way, I tried to get some decent shots of the terraces, but for the most part they were hidden behind the mist.

Ping’an Village.

Every now and then the air cleared for a moment, revealing several of Longji’s lush-green, layered staircases. Even then, the guide stepped in to tell me not to take photographs! “Now the path is very slip, is too much dangerous”. I literally had to stop myself from telling him to sod off. 

Longji Rice Terraces China.

Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) Rice Terraces.

There was a big old restaurant waiting for us at the top, which came as a relief. It seemed only right to drown our sorrows with a massive lunch.

“You have one hour!” barked the guide, “then we walk back down!”

Despite the miserable weather, all the choice balcony seats were taken. Resignedly, we parked ourselves in the far corner of the main hall. As far away from everyone else as humanly possible. The food was good, a beef and cabbage dish with sticky, smoky rice served directly in its bamboo casing. 

Restaurant Ping'an Village Dragon's Backbone Rice Terrace Guangxi China

The restaurant at the summit of Ping’an Village.

With plenty of time to kill, we headed out to the restaurant’s balcony. Here, at least, I could grab some reasonable photos of Ping’an’s charming wooden buildings. After that, we quickly grew bored of twiddling our thumbs and waiting for our allotted hour to play out. So I told the guide that S and I were just gonna walk back down ourselves and we’d meet everyone back at the bus. He didn’t seem very impressed with this and began to protest. But we’d already walked off.

Ping'an Village Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces Guangxi China

Ping’an Village.

Much to our delight, the rice terrace views proved better during the descent. The rain stopped, the mist cleared and fragments of sunshine crackled through the grey sky as the landscape unfurled dramatically before our eyes. Suddenly, we were able to get a real sense of why the region was hailed as one of China’s most beautiful. And how sections of the terraced land indeed resembled that of a scaled dragon twisting and turning into the distance.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao a short story from China.

Getting some rice terrace action.

The Long Hair Ladies of Yao, a short story from China.

Back in the car park at the base of Ping’an, we mooched around a few souvenir stalls before settling into the bus to wait for the others. It was gonna be a long, noisy, tedious drive back when all we wanted to do was sleep. Settling into our seats, I spotted a long hair lady coming out of the supermarket across the road. A morose, long-hair teen trailing behind her.

Pausing for a moment to rest her shopping bags at her feet, Mama Long Hair fiddled with her coiffed bun. Then froze as she spotted S and I watching her through the bus window. Recognising us, she started waving with a wide grin before shooting me a playful, bum-pinching action with her thumb and finger. Scooping up her bags, she grabbed her daughter by the arm and headed off for the long walk back down to her village. 

‘The Long-hair Ladies of Yao’ is the seventeenth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • 100 Country Trek

    Loved our time in Yao..brings back memories.

    August 19, 2020 - 4:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Very cool that you’ve also been there! Thanks for reading.

      August 19, 2020 - 4:53 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Seems to me the bus ride was worth it – at least the pics say so.

    August 20, 2020 - 6:54 am Reply

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