Who knew growing rice on a mountain could be so beautiful? The Ailao Mountains in Yunnan, China, have been carved into thousands of gradual steps, each a paddy growing red rice. The rice terraces stretch out over some 400 square miles of mountains and valleys.

The Hani people moved into the area and began carving out these terraces 1,300 years ago. The long-term results of their land-shaping actions—now known as the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces—were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site earlier in 2013.

Photos of Honghe Hani Rice Terrace (1) and (2) by Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons

Eighty-two small villages sit right above the rice terraces. A village might be home to 50 to 100 households, each of whom farm one or two paddies in the terrace. Along with rice, the terraces also support buffalos, cattle, ducks, fish, and eels.


Above the villages is the mountain forest, also the terraces' water source. Over fifty inches of rain fall on the region every year, keeping its paddies well hydrated. But the rice terraces have another source of water, too.

Photo by chensiyuan / Wikimedia Commons

Photo by chensiyuan / Wikimedia Commons

Because of the mountain's height, the climate at the top is distinct from the climate at the bottom. Water from the relatively warm river at the foot of the mountain evaporates and moves upward to encounter cooler air, where it turns into a dense fog blanketing the mountaintop forest. The fog then condenses on leaves and branches, dripping down tree trunks into the ground. It's a form of rain, if you will.


The whole terrace is an irrigation system that lets water reach every paddy. A small gap in the wall of each structure lets water flow into the one below, and 400 ditches help spread water between the different valleys.

Why haven't the walls of the terraces worn away after over a thousand years of flowing water? According to this documentary on China's CCTV, scientists analyzed the mountain's soil to find a high proportion of fine clay particles. Instead of dissolving into water, the soil sticks together like cement.

Photo by Takeway/Wikimedia Commons

The existence of these rice terraces is thus intimately tied to the climate and geography of the region—human engineering melding into natural law. The winding, irregular paddies—shaped by human hands but following the contour of the mountains—is visually arresting evidence of that.

Rice terraces have been carved into other mountains as well. Most famous are the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.

Banaue Rice Terraces in the Phillippines by Jose Cabajar/Wikimedia Commons

Rice terraces in Indonesia by Sam Sherratt/Flickr

Rice terraces in Niigata, Japan. Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images