Xidi & HongcunSecret China - Part 1
When people think of China, most people imagine the bright lights of Shanghai, the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors; scratch the surface and you can experience a China of yester-century. Far East expert Josie tells us why.
After a few days in Shanghai, I was ready to leave the fast-paced city behind and see some of China’s famous mountains and ancient villages. A few hours south-west of Shanghai lies Anhui province, famed for beautiful landscapes, green tea and ancient villages of Unesco world heritage status. Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and its surrounding villages are usually the main reason for going to this little visited province. Huangshan is easily reached by train, plane or a scenic drive via Wuyuan, from either Shanghai or Hangzhou. Tunxi, Xidi and Hongcun make for a great side stop when visiting Huangshan and, if you can’t spend the night on the mountain, then Tunxi has hotels to base yourself.
I arrived in to Tunxi train station bright and early and was greeted by a nice deep breath of clean fresh air and my smiling guide, Bruce. From here, we embark on the one-hour journey to the ancient villages of Xidi and Hongcun. As we drove towards the past, the scenery became more striking and the villages became few and far between. We pulled up to the first village, Xidi and I was instantly greeted by a typical memorial archway, now regarded as a masterpiece of the Ming dynasty’s archways. With a history of more than 1,000 years, I knew that I would find something I hadn’t yet experienced in China.
Encircled by green hills and two small streams, all the streets and lanes are cobble paved, the houses are grey and white washed with little archways and beautiful paned windows scattered around the town. As I strolled through the village I discovered traditional Hui-style folk houses, ancestral temples and libraries. The town is full of exquisite wood, stone and brick carvings, you really start to feel that art is a huge part of this town’s livelihood and culture. Bruce spent a while explaining the complex and fascinating history while we weaved in and out of the picturesque village, I wondered why I had not visited this part of China sooner. I was ready for more sightseeing and I had been told that the next village on the list was one of the most beautiful and charming villages in south-east China.
Twenty minutes down the road we pulled up to Hongcun and, having been awarded Unesco world heritage status as well as becoming famous as a location in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I was worried it would have turned into a tourist trap with hordes of red caps, flags and loud speakers. Thankfully, I was wrong. I walked over to the entrance and it was silent, with only the sketching from artists littered along the waterfront disturbing the peace. A beautiful marble bridge is the only gateway to the village and I walked over imagining the scenes from Crouching Tiger, but no matter how many special effects, it can never do the beauty of this village justice. Designed by a feng shui master, the village is architecturally unique as it represents a sleeping ox, I personally could not see how, but I politely nodded in the right places in agreement.
Upon entry into the village I couldn’t help my imagination start to run wild with the streams that line the streets and I couldn’t help feeling that nothing much had changed over the last 400 years. Extremely well preserved and with little or no restoration, the village oozes charm and the winding, narrow alleys allow sometimes unexpected glimpses of village life. Both Xidi and Hongcun are living testament to small old-town life in rural China and the deeper into the village you explore, the more you see life at its most basic. Women washing their clothes in the stream, elderly women selling their tea leaves freshly picked from the nearby plantations and men tending to the mulberry gardens.Take a peek into one of the many houses and you will come across lovely gardens full of bonsai and flowers, you will also see little streams within the walkways. As with Xidi, art is an important part of this village and people will invite you to come and look at their carvings and art work,s and you can buy local handicrafts throughout the town.
After my guide had given me the orientation and historical tour, I spent a few hours wandering the streets, getting lost in the windy streets. I bump into a little old lady selling some of the most beautifully displayed green tea I have ever seen. She invited me in to her house and my bad Chinese got me several wonderful cups of tea and a homemade dumpling. After 45 minutes of scraping together all the Chinese vocabulary I had under my belt, I decided it was time to leave and purchased about a thousand cups worth of all varieties of tea. I continued to explore the town and at each shop I saw, I was greeted with warm smiles and handed teas; I assumed they are not so used to seeing foreigners.
After exhausting not only the guide, but every nook and cranny, I was told it was time to bid farewell to the village foothills and to ascend Huangshan.
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