Villages for all seasons

Beautifully preserved villages dot the foothills of Huangshan

In central China, the regal Yellow Mountains, or Huangshan in Mandarin, are well known to travellers, but few take the time to explore the old-world villages that dot its foothills.

My friends and I almost bypassed the villages as well when we made our first trip to the Yellow Mountains three years ago. However, we thought it would be a good idea to check into a nice hotel to relax after hiking in the mountain range before going back to Shanghai.

That was how we ended up in the 900-year-old Hongcun Village - a Unesco world heritage site - about an hour's drive from Huangshan.

It turned out to be such a wonderful experience, strolling through its backlanes, basking in the friendliness of its villagers, seemingly untouched by modern civilisation, and dining in ancient courtyards that I found myself wandering back there another two times after my first trip.

It was love at first sight as I feasted my eyes on the timeless beauty of the elegant Huizhou-style white-washed houses that lined Nanhu Lake in the village. The crystal-clear lakewater was so calm that images of the houses shimmered on its surface.

Like other villages in ancient China, Hongcun is laid out according to the ancient art of fengshui to harmonise its houses with the environment. The result is that the village is constructed in the shape of a buffalo to blend in with Nanhu and the rolling hills.

The old Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses and beautifully preserved countryside look like a classical Chinese painting.

In Huangshan, mist shrouded the mountains and forests and the sight was so much like a classical Chinese painting that I half-expected a fox fairy to leap out of the woods as we walked along the forest trail.

At the centre of the village is the exquisite Moon Pond, which formed the backdrop for some scenes in the blockbuster movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat and then up-and-coming actress Zhang Ziyi, 15 years ago.

What makes Hongcun so endearing is the small eating establishment next to the Moon Pond, known as Pan Yue Lou or Companion Moon restaurant, where some scenes in the movie were shot.

We had been lured to the establishment by the rows of smoked legs of ham hanging on its walls, which reminded us of how villagers must have lived 100 years ago.

The owner, Madam Yu Qunying, turned out to be a great cook, whipping up fabulous dishes such as "smelly" fish in black bean sauce and claypot beancurd with the smoked ham she had cured herself.

The highlight was dining alfresco in the restaurant's courtyard, watching the sun go down over the elegant old houses and bathing the pond in golden hues.

As night fell and red lanterns lit up and a hush fell over the pond, we were transported back in time, enjoying the camaraderie of villagers who had so lovingly built Hongcun.

  • GETTING THERE

    Shanghai is well-connected by international carriers such as Singapore Airlines.

    To get to Hongcun village, take the high-speed train from Shanghai's Hongqiao train station to Huangshan City. The 41/2-hour service, which operates every morning, costs 304 yuan (S$66).

    Alternatively, you can take a high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou costing 80 yuan. From there, take a coach from Hangzhou West Bus Station to Huangshan city for 100 yuan. The journey takes about three hours.

    From Huangshan City, catch the hourly shuttle bus service to Yi county and then transfer to the local bus to get to Hongcun. The journey takes about two hours. A one-hour cab ride to the village costs about 150 yuan.

    The entrance fee to Hongcun is 100 yuan.

    STAYING THERE

    Room rates at the Zhong Kun Hotel, located 5km from the village, start from 500 yuan. There are also numerous guesthouses near the village that charge about 250 yuan a night, but not all are licensed to accept foreign guests.

    FOOD

    The villages around Huangshan feature one of the eight great cuisines in China. Known as the Hui style of cooking, it makes use of the vegetables and wild mushrooms from the mountains as well as freshly caught shrimp, fish and other wildlife in soups and stews. Hui cuisine can be quite spicy as dishes are stir-fried or stewed with chilli.

Perhaps the village's biggest asset is that unlike renowned attractions such as the Great Wall near Beijing and the West Lake in Hangzhou, it draws only local tourists. That has helped to preserve its beauty and charm.

But it was not just Hongcun's village charm that captivated us. Madam Yu's hospitality reminded me of the warm reception I received from my relatives when I visited my ancestral village in Fujian some years ago.

When she learnt that we had problems getting transport to Hangzhou to catch the train to Shanghai the next day, she introduced us to a driver, Xiao Jiang, during our first trip to the village.

He turned to be much more than a driver who took us to Hangzhou. On my two subsequent trips to Hongcun, he also turned tourist guide, taking us to the surrounding countryside to see other beautifully preserved villages.

In April, I had an opportunity to return to Hongcun after visiting the Buddhist temples in nearby Jiuhuashan. Xiao Jiang drove about 150km to pick up me and my friend from the mountain.

As our car neared Hongcun, we were greeted by a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers that stretched as far as the eye could see. Along the Nanhu, budding artists competed with one another to capture the beauty of the landscape on their canvases.

Xiao Jiang took us to a few viewing spots high in the hills to see the village and the rapeseed fields. Our lodging, Zhong Kun Hotel, was 5km from Hongcun. In its sprawling grounds were pink-and-white peach blossoms in full bloom.

But spring is not the only time to see the village in all its glory. Autumn is also a wonderful season to travel there and to the surrounding countryside as the area is teeming with giant maple and camphor trees, planted hundreds of years ago, that turn into shades of red, orange and yellow as the weather turns colder.

So last month, I found myself trotting up to the village with three friends to see for ourselves the autumn colours around the Yellow Mountains that we had heard so much about.

We were not disappointed. A high-speed train service had commenced between Shanghai and Huangshan City during the summer. While travelling still took about four hours, this made the journey a lot more comfortable than before.

Xiao Jiang picked us up from the city's train station and, for the next six days, took us to some of the best autumn viewing sites in the area.

At Tachuan, a small village about 1.5km from Hongcun, some of the trees were a gorgeous red colour, towering over the still-green tea bushes that stretched for miles.

He then took us about 100km to the south to see the autumn colours in a village called Shi Cheng, meaning Stone City in Chinese, in a neighbouring county, Wuyuan.

Along the way, we stopped by the aptly named Chrysanthemum Walk Village and climbed the nearby slope to view it. From afar, the village looked as if it was shaped like a giant chrysanthemum.

As we drove to higher ground, we saw thick layers of mist enveloping the hills below. The scene resembled a watercolour painting.

In Huangshan, mist shrouded the mountains and forests and the sight was so much like a classical Chinese painting that I half-expected a fox fairy to leap out of the woods as we walked along the forest trail. Spectacular waterfalls fed by heavy rain disgorged massive volumes of water.

For an encore, Xiao Jiang took us to two villages which are much older than Hongcun and off the beaten track.

One of them - Cheng Kan - was founded 1,800 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. It had the typical small lake in front and an assortment of houses behind. What fascinated us was the octagonal layout of the village. Without a tour guide, it would be easy to get lost in its maze of lanes.

The other - Tang Mo - featured houses running along both sides of a stream with a beautiful old teahouse sitting atop a bridge. It also had beautiful gardens surrounding a small pond modelled on Hangzhou's West Lake.

Back in Singapore, I recall the rustic beauty of the ancient Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses that dot the countryside. Hongcun villagers have retained a folksy charm that city-weary travellers find enchanting.

But Xiao Jiang said a new railroad is being constructed that will cut travel time between Shanghai and Huangshan to just 11/2 hours. His travel business is booming and he has had to switch to a seven-seater vehicle to cater to the bigger number of visitors travelling to Hongcun.

I must make a few more trips to the village before it is overrun by tourists and loses the charm that drew me there in the first place.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Villages for all seasons'. Print Edition | Subscribe