We spent almost five hours on the small bus we had boarded at Yangshuo station. Despite being one of the unavoidable crossing points of the Chinese backpacker circuit, only two other foreigners were on board, heading for Longsheng, Huang Luo and the longest hair in the world.
Most of the time, they dozed in the back seats occupied by them alone.
We followed the twists and turns of the route: the limestone cliffs for some time after the departure. The surroundings of the typical urban chaos of Guilin, a small city in the center-south, on a Chinese scale, with its almost 5 million inhabitants.
A highway that takes us away from it towards the mountains, and then a much more winding secondary road that climbs to the north of a first slope and runs along it to the east.
The Unusual Arrival in Longsheng
More than three hundred kilometers later, the driver beckons us and the other pair of outsiders. All around, we could only see more and more slopes, converted into verdant rice terraces. Not a single town worthy of record. The driver sketched a point out of the bus and down.
We didn't understand if he simply ran with us to dispatch the freight or if he pointed us to some hidden place on the slope below the asphalt. Anyway, we went down. We crossed the road and took a look.
To the left, dispersed in a sunken area of the slope, between terraces and cedars, was a traditional house with brown roofs, between gray and brown, the structures below, with two or three floors and balconies, all built in dark wood and bamboo. Chinese lanterns lend them some festive red and promise residents happy lives and prosperous businesses.
Ping'an, a village over six hundred years old, sits on the main ridge of the Longsheng rice terraces, a name that translates as "Dragon's Spine Column." It is, therefore, not only in the vicinity of the access road, but on the back of the great saurian.
And, as in the main western tourist cities, residents of several villages in Longsheng but above all in Ping'an rushed to adapt their homes or build additional ones to profit from the visitors. Small inns and rooms for rent now abound in Ping'an, for the most part listed in the usual online intermediaries.
The Terraced View of the Spine of the Dragon
We didn't head there right away. A Chinese flag, as scarlet and auspicious as lanterns, flies over an old earthen roof.
Intrigued as to what was there, light because we had brought only the essentials from Yangshuo for a day or two, we set out on a steep trail that soon widens.
After ten minutes, the trail opens up a terrace. And the terrace, an incredible view of the greenish-yellow and striped vastness all around.
Only Ping'an, Huang Luo, and the occasional village broke the homogeneity of this tortuous agricultural pattern. As only tourism had corrupted the ancestral way of life of the Chinese of Dong, Zhuang, Yao and Miao ethnicities and cultures of these places. And these are just the primordial groups.
In official terms, the authorities identify thirteen distinct indigenous groups in the region. One in particular interested us much more than the others.
If it is true that outsiders began to flock there for the beauty of the rice terraces and the pleasure of long walks, at one point a cultural eccentricity of the Yao women, in particular, began to attract as many or more visitors.
According to various sources in the Chinese press, even though the Longsheng rice terraces are just over half a millennium old, the Yao tribe will be around two thousand years old.
Now, sometime around this time, Yao women consolidated a communal belief that hair was their most sacred and valued possession, a kind of keratin amulet that supposedly guarantees them longevity, wealth, and good fortune.
The Sacred Hair of Yao Women
According to the same belief, a Yao woman's hair is cut twice in her lifetime: at one hundred days, and at eighteen, on the last of occasions, as a ritual of maturity. The cut hair is curled and kept neat. Later, it is offered to the future husband as a gift.
After marriage and childbirth, this hair is used as a curled extension of the current one. It marks the status and differentiation between a married and a single woman.
Until some time ago, with the exception of her husband and children, no one could see a woman's hair down. We are told in the village that if a man saw the hair of an unmarried woman, he would have to spend three years in that woman's family as a son-in-law. Inconvenient to say the least, this rule was abandoned in the late 80s. It won't have been the only tradition sacrificed.
The Yao tribe was already formed by around six hundred people grouped by the nearly eighty families of today. In Longsheng, they form only a small clan of the 2.6 million Yao scattered across various Chinese provinces.
The Yao of the Longsheng region became, there, sedentary and rural. For a long time, they were considered poor by the standards of these relatively fertile parts of China.
The Biggest Hair in the World
When tourists arrived to admire the beauty of the rice terraces, they found that the Yao women had, huddled on their heads, hair much longer than that of the other tribes, the longest hair in the world.
Stretched, most of the tribe's hair measures between 170 and 200 cm. Well, this makes, overall, Huang Luo is the village with the longest hair on the face of the Earth.
In individual terms, the longest ever recorded among the Yao measured just over two meters, even so, incomparable with the personal record of another Chinese woman. In 2004, xie qiuping, had a hair of 5.6 meters.
Yao women began asking for money for tourists to photograph them. First, just for the photos. Later, they started to sell them handicrafts, postcards and other goods.
Over the years and the influx of outsiders, secrets, her hair became a spectacle. Even aware of its heavy commercial load, we took advantage and assisted.
A well-attended Capillary Show
During the exhibition, women dressed in black and red make their hair swirl. They drop us and comb us.
They bring them together and form choreographies with graceful movements in which they still manipulate each other's hair. Finally, they wrap them in the hair turban with which, by habit, we see them on a daily basis.
But men also participate in the exhibition. At first, only locals, therefore, tourists are invited. To both, women apply another of their peculiar Yao rites.
During a certain dance, to prove their simplicity and interest in the other, they pinch their tails. Not all foreigners would be warned. None complained.
After the show, although the visitors do not speak Chinese dialects and the natives know little or nothing of English or other languages, there is a moment of conviviality.
With tickets already paid, spectators are entitled to free photographs but only with the ladies' hair tied up.
In exchange, soon after, the Yao women inflict on them traditional embroidered costumes, suitcases, backpacks, blankets and many other of their wares.
Another theme particularly fascinates foreign visitors to Huang Luo: what do Yao women do to keep their long hair healthy and lustrous, and without white specimens until such an advanced age, in some cases, up to 80 years old?
The secret is in the extraordinary scenery around, in what has been feeding them for millennia and which for millennia they have used to nourish their hair: rice.
Neither shampoos nor conditioners. rice only
For an eternity, fermented water after washing rice has been used in the East by both country women and empresses to achieve exemplary hair. With so much rice around, for the Yao women, maintaining this belief and custom was not a whim, it was practically a lack of alternatives.
Isolated from cities by mountains and valleys and by mere distance, the penetration of shampoos and even modern soaps would have been a phenomenon very late in the XNUMXth century. At the same time, if rice water guaranteed immaculate hair with the added vigor of a tradition, why not use rice?
These days, the women gather in the river that runs through the village and often wash their hair communally. Mix glutinous rice with water and gently rinse the hair until it feels gelatinous. From time to time, they supplement this wash with special “treatments” with fermented rice water.
A study carried out in the 80s in Japan – where women's hair will be similar – concluded that “rice water decreases friction on the capillary surface and improves elasticity”.
Even Hair Experts Praise Huang Luo
Margaret Trey, a health, beauty and wellness expert at the newspaper “The Epoch Times” emphasizes that “slightly bitter, rice water is rich in antioxidants, minerals, vitamin E and another substance that only rice fermentation produces.
This combination does more than bring shine to hair. Makes them smoother, stronger and overall healthier.
Believe it or not, Huang Luo has been appearing for some time on several pages and blogs specializing in beauty advice with images of the village, the women and, of course, their prodigious hair.
If they are better informed about the world of advertising, the hair of Yao women could earn them much more than the entrances of tourists to daily shows, sales of their handicrafts and postcards.
The issue is that the big beauty brands want to continue to sell their shampoos, conditioners and silicones, not risk that Western women start substituting them for some homemade rice water.