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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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].
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.
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.