The isolated Huizhou region, 400km southwest of Shanghai, is the perfect place to explore remote villages and hike on ancient routes through terraced fields of rapeseed and tea.

Anyone who has seen a Chinese landscape painting knows about the Middle Kingdom’s incredible scenery: rushing mountain streams, towering peaks wreathed in mist and twisted pines clinging to the sides of cliffs. And in these paintings, you will always find at least one person following a narrow path that winds its way up a mountainside or along a riverbank and off the scroll's edge.

Alas, art does not always imitate life, particularly in the 21st Century. But if you look hard enough, China still has plenty of real life landscape paintings to hike through.

A region of traders
One region that combines well-preserved villages with otherworldly scenery is Huizhou, about 400km southwest of Shanghai. Although quintessentially rural, the region is famous throughout China for its former merchant class and the notable architecture they left behind.

With a landscape covered in a sea of dense hills, the local population was never able to survive off farming alone, and by the Song dynasty (960 to 1276), most residents had turned to commerce. In the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Huizhou merchants began to make a name for themselves for their trading prowess, dealing first in locally produced timber and tea and then expanding into the lucrative salt trade. By the Qing dynasty (1644 to1912), many Huizhou men had consolidated their capital to open a string of pawnshops in major cities such as Beijing, and they funnelled their profits home to fund the construction of lavish residences for their wives and children.

Today the ornate and distinctive architectural style of Huizhou is a major draw for travellers, who come to see the two-storey courtyard homes with whitewashed exteriors, “horse head” walls (stepped walls that rise above the rooftops to prevent fires from spreading between buildings) and black-tiled roofs that slope inwards towards the central courtyard, allowing families to easily collect rainwater. These private residences are particularly notable for their extravagant symbol-laden carvings of dragons, opera scenes, trees and flowers, found on the main entranceways, foundation column stones and intricate lattice windows. Another well-known feature of the local architecture is the particularly small windows, designed not only to keep thieves out, but also to make it harder for lonely wives to take on illicit lovers.

Visiting Huizhou
The most famous villages in the region are the Unesco-listed Xidi and Hongcun. But their location in southern Anhui province, a gorgeous tableau of buckling hills, remote mountain hollows and terraced fields of tea and rapeseed, means they tend to be overrun with visitors due to their proximity to the 1,873m-tall Mount Huang (Huang Shan), arguably China's most famous mountain. For a more bucolic getaway, where frogs chirp under the setting sun, water buffalo rest in the rice fields and wildflowers decorate remote waterfalls, head 35km south to the town of Wuyuan in Jiangxi province in the south of Huizhou.  

From here travellers can explore a number of lovely villages, many of which were once only accessible by foot and a number of which are still linked by time-worn “post roads” (cobbled footpaths). The star attraction is the village of Little Likeng, which is threaded by canals that run down the narrow alleyways and is illuminated with red lanterns at night. There are several interesting buildings here that are open to the public, such as the Qing-dynasty Patina House (home to a copper merchant) and the Li Zhicheng Residence, originally established in the Song dynasty.

To access the villages, visitors can buy a five-day pass to 12 sights in the region or purchase a single entrance ticket at any village. If you plan on getting a little off the beaten track, buying individual tickets is the best idea, as the remote communities listed below do not charge admission.

Walking the post roads
Beyond the region's unique architecture, a major draw for travellers is the opportunity to hike through gorgeous landscapes, past glistening streams in secluded valleys and over the rolling, verdant hills, punctuated with the occasional hidden waterfall or terraced fields.

One of the easiest hikes is in Wolong (Crouching Dragon) Valley, about 20km northwest of Wuyuan, in Jiangxi province. This simple 6km roundtrip hike departs from the bus drop-off point (pick up the bus in Wuyuan) and follows a cascading, boulder-strewn stream upriver, terminating near the base of two cliff-side waterfalls, White Dragon Falls and Large Dragon Falls.

If you have a taste for adventure, however, hiking the old weather-beaten flagstones that link up the remote villages is an intriguing option. Many of these paths have existed for hundreds of years, and a walk along one of these routes will bring you into lush backcountry, where wild wisteria, irises, azaleas and thick groves of bamboo grow along the trail. Some of the longer walks require a guide -- it is definitely possible to get lost -- but there are also some straightforward hikes that are doable on your own.

One of these is the 8km walk from Guankeng to Lingjiao, two tiny villages located further north in the mountains near the Jiangxi-Anhui border. The trail passes over a high ridge before dropping into the next valley, but there are practically no crossroads so you cannot lose your way. There are usually only one or two buses per day from Wuyuan to the villages, so be prepared to spend the night in a local's house once you arrive at your destination.

Just down the road from Lingjiao is the slightly larger hamlet of Hongguan, where there are more regular buses back to Wuyuan and further options for finding a room for the night at a homestay. From Hongguan you can continue on to the riverside village of Big Likeng, though this 15km walk is more complex with numerous side trails -- you will definitely need to hire a guide in the village before leaving.

There are plenty of other possibilities for exploring the area, including the 12km hike between the villages of Shicheng and Changxi which is popular among Chinese hikers for its stunning autumn scenery: imagine red maples shrouded in morning mist with a village nestled at the bottom of a valley. A few kilometres past Changxi is Yuanyang Lake, the world's largest wintering site for mandarin ducks.  

Almost no one in these villages will speak English -- in fact, the region was historically so isolated that even the local dialect varies significantly from valley to valley. Make sure you carry a phrasebook or list of important words with you like homestay (住农家), post road (驿道) and bus [汽车].

Buses run to most destinations, though it is often easier to hire a motorcycle driver or taxi. Drivers congregate in Wuyuan on the main street and are easy to find.

Avoid travelling to Wuyuan in April when the rapeseed is in full blossom, and during major holidays -- such as Labour Day (1 May) and Golden Week (beginning 1 October) -- as the crowds can be overwhelming.