Monday, February 17, 2014

Hongcun, Anhui: The Day We Traveled to Ancient China's Countryside

The long wall stood five, six feet high, as tall as we were. It was made with packed earth—an untidy stack of dry mud with grass and loose rocks protruding in places—and topped with a mix of terra cotta tiles and iron roofing. Being the serial travelers that we were, we knew the wall was the perfect place to take a group photo. One by one, we lined up, posed with one hand raised (still unsure why), and got ready for the countdown: one...two...

Just then, a horse-drawn carriage rolled in and click: a group photo with horse ass in front of our faces.

That was when I realized, we weren't in a theme park or an outdoor museum. Though this place was a tourist attraction, we were, in fact, in a real, working village in the Chinese countryside: the ancient village of Hóngcūn.

Hongcun, where horses couldn't care less about tourists along its way
Photo by Ron of

Wealthy Merchants, Wealthy Village

Hóngcūn is a village in Anhui province, located about 460 kilometers west of Shanghai, China. The village sprung up during the Southern Song Dynasty, which began roughly after year 1120.

Hongcun, and the rest of Southern Anhui province, is the home of the Huizhou Chinese, a people known for their prosperous merchants who were often away, based in some other region of China tending to their successful businesses. Their profits naturally made their way back to Anhui and were often used to build lavish homes and large ancestral halls.

The small village of Hongcun was one of the settlements in the Huizhou region which benefited from this wealth. It was the traditional home of the Wang clan.

Hongcun today enjoys the status of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Entering Hongcun ancient village via the South Lake

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Moon Pond, located in the center of Hongcun

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Right by Moon Pond is the grand Lexu Hall, a gathering place which date back to the 15th century.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Also beside Moon Pond is this tiny, tiny market.

A Working Ancient Village

The short ride from the foot of the scenic Yellow Mountains, or Huangshan, could not have taken an hour. After having spent a couple of nights in these beautiful, beautiful mountains—one of the most popular tourist attractions in China—and having seen a few other UNESCO World Heritage ancient villages like Hoi An and Lijiang, I really was not expecting much from Hongcun.

Probably just a run-of-the-mill old village, I thought, turned into a touristified theme park filled with expensive cafes, restaurants, and bars as well as odd-ball attractions such as horse-riding or falcon-petting.

I was, of course, mistaken.

Hongcun, not overrun with tourists, which is good
Photo by Ron of

There were only a few other tourists in Hongcun when we arrived. I noticed there were more official tour guides at the entrance gates than there were people coming in at midday.

We walked through narrow alleys flanked on both sides by tall, dirty white walls decorated with stone carvings, as we try to locate our accommodation for the night, Qing He Yue Hostel. For the most part, many of the alleyways here were empty, save for a few locals hanging around.

It wasn't easy getting to our hostel, too. Many lanes led to dead ends, or to clearings from where many other lanes jut out. As it went in small villages like this, locals trying to help us would just point us left, right, left again, not realizing that to outsiders, their village was practically a maze.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Hongcun locals in a lively game of checkers

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Wide lane leading to an open square in the middle of Hongcun. Where are all the tourists? Beats me.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Intricately carved stone accents typical of Huizhou architecture

Horse-drawn carriages, the kind that unknowingly photobomb tourists, occupied the same narrow lanes as bicycles and small motorized carts. The canals which snaked through the village still funneled water from the nearby stream to the ponds, lakes, and even homes here. Buildings, our hostel included, still used a traditional fireplace as a source of heat during freezing winters.

It was not difficult to imagine how Hongcun would have looked like a thousand years ago. I reckoned it would've looked a lot like it did that day when we visited. Perhaps precisely for this reason, this same village became one of the filming locations for Ang Lee's period piece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Messy, yet cozy fireplace in Qing He Yue Hostel, Hongcun

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Looks familiar? Hongcun was used as filming location for Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Dinner, Tea, and Gracious Hosts

By day's end, we found ourselves having a small feast in one of the relatively large family-run restaurants in the newer side of town. Being the only diners in that restaurant that evening, we were treated like welcome guests in a family's home. Apart from dinner, they offered us a heating box, literally a wooden box you stuck your feet and legs into to absorb the warmth of the electric heater inside. Nifty.

For dinner, there was fatty pork belly with bamboo shoots cooked with a lot of oil and soy sauce, a dish we had already fallen in love with at that point. We also had stir-fried greens with strong-tasting, earthy mushrooms; a hot soup with one whole chicken (head, feet, and all); and, a local specialty, pickled vegetables stir-fried with pork meat. The meal was delicious on all counts.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Restaurant row in the "glitzier" eastern side of Hongcun

Food in Hongcun, Anhui, China
A scrumptious meal of pickled greens with pork, pork belly with bamboo shoots, chicken soup, and stir-fried greens with mushroom.

Back at the hostel, and as soon as we entered the small reception area, one of the owners readily waved us into the wooden bungalow outside and immediately set up the large coal-fired heater. The young male receptionist probably starved for the company of people his age came in and treated us to tea complete with a tiny ceremony to go with it. Truth be told, my female travel companions liked having him around.

Hongcun, Anhui, China
Back at the hostel, a tea-ceremony for the books

Hongcun, Anhui, China
It is said that in winter, the sitting area by the heater is the first place you'll find travelers who grew up in the tropics.

The following day, as we were leaving, it became difficult not to feel a sense of endearment to place so quiet, charming, and, dare I say it, authentic as Hongcun. I harbor no illusions that Hongcun will remain this way forever. Perhaps it will suffer the fate of other UNESCO World Heritage ancient villages, bereft of its original inhabitants and existing only for the pleasure of tourists. Or perhaps not.

Whatever happens though, I am glad to have come here, if only to have glimpsed ancient village life in a country growing and developing at breakneck speed like China is today.

What beautiful ancient villages have you visited in your travels?

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