“Bu kaifa, bu kaifa 不开发” it hasn’t been developed for tourism. That was our driver’s favourite motto.
So he took us to the “bu kaifa” village of Hongcun 洪村
Hongcun 洪村 (Wuyuan 婺源, Jiangxi 江西省 Province).
The quaintest Village in China might be Hongcun 洪村. Hongcun, is surrounded by drop-dead gorgeous sub-tropical scenery. It is home to some wonderful Huizhou architecture and when we visited; no tourists
From the diary
Is this the quaintest village in China? After a copious and excellent lunch, which was at a restaurant opposite a huge ancient tree and seemed to be a favourite with tourist drivers, our man ( the driver) then took us to a remote and completely ‘undeveloped (bu kaifa 不开发)’ village called Hongcun (not to be confused with its more famous namesake in Anhui near Huangshan), where there wasn’t an entrance ticket or single other tourist in sight.
The place was extremely pretty and peaceful: on the outside, a line of elegantly greying houses stood beside a clear river winding its way through the rice fields.
Stunning Hongcun Village Wuyuan
Contented-looking ducks floated on the water, bamboo poles loaded with washing swayed gently in the wind, while farmers in conical hats tended to their fields.
In the narrow, shady streets towards the centre, local residents sat outside their doorways chatting, playing cards and cutting vegetables.
We found some people busy restoring a spacious wooden community hall. In fact, in spite of its lack of (tourist) development, the buildings in Hongcun were in remarkable shape and had some of the most intricate wooden carvings we’d come across.
A Relaxing Afternoon in Stunning Hongcun village
We sat down on a stone bench in the shade of a drapping tree to enjoy a lukewarm beer, bought from a hole-in-the wall shop without a fridge, and let ourselves drift into the unhurried pace of village life.
The locals, obviously not used to having foreigners in the village, eyed us up with friendly curiosity, often directing questions to our driver about who we were and what we were doing there.
With the hearty lunch now weighing heavy on our stomachs, making us feel both comatose and soporific, we just let our driver exaggerate our importance to the villagers.
We were now distinguished professors from a great overseas university and not merely humble English teachers from a university in Madrid; the locals seemed impressed and nodded approvingly at his every Word. Our driver was lapping it up!
Normally, we would have underplayed our importance and protested our driver’s flattery, but we let it rest and everyone seemed contented. It was a perfect day and even the warm beer went down well!
Update: Hongcun has changed
As with everything in China in this century nothing withstands the changes of time and Hongcun is no exception. The village is now defiantly very Kaifa 不开发 (developed) for tourists. However, it is still beautiful and I am sure that on an off-peak day it can still be a lovely place to visit.
Some of the buildings have undergone tasteful restoration and the ancestor halls and guild halls that were being used for weaving and chili drying are now housing museums and teahouses.
Getting there and away:
Difficult when we visited. A hired car was the best option. Hongcun is located between Dazhang Mountain and Sixi and not too far from the famous Rainbow Bridge.
A kilometre away from Cixi lies the village of Yancun, even less kaifa (developed) than Cixi, and with an equally impressive collection of buildings.
Walking in Wuyuan
It’s a pleasant walk between the two villages (500 meters), either along the quiet road or through the rice fields. Interestingly, both villages have marked a walking route to allow the visitor to explore the best examples of Huizhou architecture.
If you don’t wish to follow the routes it doesn’t really matter, as every turn of a corner and every side- alley provide a new voyage into time.
The style and is characterized by two, sometimes three story buildings; depending on the wealth and ostentatiousness of the person who built them. On the outside, the walls are white and the roofs black tiled with eaves.
Inside the buildings there is a hall /patio that usually has elaborately carved wooden frames hanging above it. Sometimes there is are more than one hall /patio.
Life in Yancun
Yancun’s streets are a rabbit warren of narrow alleyways and passageways that entice the curious vistor to poke their noses around every corner.
Local residents didn’t seem fazed if you politely asked look around a private house and take a few snaps ( might have something to the money they receive from the entrance ticket to the Sixi 思系and Yancun延村 scenic area).
Yancun also offers the opportunity to come across still-in-use, ages old farm implements. These can be seen casually lying around on kitchen floors or hanging off living room walls. In the west, they would be expensive antiques sold in flea markets and rastros around Europe.
Every available space on the streets is used for drying something, especially chilies, which are laid out in large flat wicker baskests while and huge gourds dangle everywhere above your head.
Besides the Huizhou houses, there are a least three famous ancestral halls in Yancun; the Congting Hall, Mingxun Hall and Yuqing Hall.
All of them were originally built in the 18th century. What you see now may not be the original structure, as they are reported to have undergone restoration and some rebuilding since then.
When we visited, some these ancestral halls were still being used as spaces for basket weaving and other farming related activities. Nowadays, the halls are a ‘must see’ for passing Chinese tour groups.
The Mingxun hall has become a teahouse (not surprising given it was originally built by a tea merchant) and the Yuqing hall, has become a museum for antique furniture.
However, the real charm in Yancun as mentioned at the beginning, is its idyll rural setting. Yancun is a village set up for gentle strolling and imbibing a fast disappearing way of life.
We stayed at a small family hotel on the edge of Cixi思系, the only brick and white tile building around. At the front, there was an open-fronted grocery shop and a restaurant. The clean and simple rooms with bathroom and hot water (no towels or toiletries though, so be prepared) were in a new building at the back and cost 80 Yuan for a large double.
There were plenty of cheaper options in private houses in the village, and you can expect the offer to increase in the future. It is probably only a matter of time before some of those beautiful mansions will be converted into real hotels.
In 2003 while killing time between classes, I lazily typed into Google “the most beautiful village in China” and up came a few entries, one of which was written by a local girl from a place called Wuyuan. In poor English she raved about the beautiful scenery in this remote area of Jiangxi province. The few photos that accompanied her article showed picturesque white villages of superb Huizhou Architecture and rolling green fields brightened by the stunning yellow of ripening rape seed.
In the next few weeks we will be uploading our photos of the villages in the Wuyuan area. We based ourselves in the bucolic and sleepy village of Sixi 思溪村 and spent several days hiking between villages and occasionally hiring a car to those village further afield.
Among the villages we visited were the undiscovered gems of Yancun 延村 and Hongcun 洪村 (now both very much discovered) as well as more Kaifa 开发 / developed places such as Likeng 李坑 and Upper上 and Lower下 Xiaoqi晓起.
At the Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 we took our first organized Chinese tour since 1989. At first skeptical, we ended up having a marvelous day being led on long walks, carried over the forest on a cable car, rafting on a lake and being wined and dined on 16 different courses of bamboo food products. All led by a wonderful and enthusiastic guide.
To go on a tour or not
Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海: taking a Chinese organised tour or should I go it alone ? There is really only one reason to stop at Yibin and that is to use it as a base to visit the fabulous Bamboo Sea some 70 kms away.
To take a tour or not to take a tour
The first thing you have to decide is: do I visit the Bamboo Sea independently or do I join a tour. We doubted, wrung our hands, fretted and then the heavens opened and a twenty four hour torrential downpour insued; the matter was decided for us. We took a Chinese organsed tour for the first time and It was the best decision we could have taken.
Yibin is a modern city on the confluence of the Jinsha River 金沙江 and Min Rivers 岷江 where they combine to officially start the beginning of the YangziRiver 长江. There really isn’t anything to see, apart from the intense river traffic perhaps. Tourists tend to use Yibin as a base for a visit to the spectacular Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 (or Forest as it is also known), about 70 kilometres away and the nearby historic riverside town of Lizhuang Ancient Town 李庄古镇.
Yibin also has the unenviable reputation of being the largest city in China with the least sunny days every year (we didn’t see the sun). Remember, this is where the Chinese idiom, 蜀犬吠日 (Shu quan fei ri) the Sichuan dog barks at the sun, originates; becuase it is something so unusual.
On the plus side it produces one of China’s best Baijiu 白酒 ( rice wine) Wuliangye五粮液.
Shunan Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海
Shunan zhuhai 蜀南竹海, or the Bamboo Sea covers over 40 square kilometres of mountains and valleys. The landscape is absolutely incredible: narrow paths will take you deep into a dense sea of vegetation, dominated by many different species of bamboo, some of which reaching heights of over 10 metres.
The dense fog that often descends upon the forest contributes to the magic and enchanted atmosphere. Besides the bamboo, there are many waterfalls, temples, sculptures and reliefs in the rock walls to entertain the visitors.
The cable Car
A ride in the cable car is a must; it’s a 30 minute ride during which you follow the side of the mountain up and down, at times almost touching the tree tops, at times sailing high above the undulating sea of bamboo. When the cabin reaches a peak, a valley completely covered in bamboo stretches out in front of you, for as far as the eye can see.
It’s the typical landscape immortalised in famous martial arts films such as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘The House of the Flying Daggers’, many scenes of which were shot around here. The famous fighting scene in the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ where the protagonists fight on the tops of bamboo trees was filmed here.
Organising a Chinese tour
Normally, we are not really into guided tours, but in the case of the Bamboo Sea we had a great time. You can try and hire a taxi to get there, but the distances are quite large, both getting there and back and inside the park, plus it isn’t that easy to find your way around and visit the best places.
Our tour was organised by the travel agency inside our hotel, the Xufu Binguan. At first they were a bit reluctant to take us, but when they realised we could speak Chinese, our money was happily accepted. We were in good company, a group of young enthusiastic engineering students from Panzhihua 攀枝花 on the Sichuan – Yunnan border, led by a lively and dynamic female guide. She took us to different areas of the park, by bus, on foot, by cable car and finally rafting.
The bus driver, a young and jolly chap, played Sichuan dialect Hip Hop and Rap that had our fellow companions falling on the floor with laughter. The driver later helped us buy the DVD in on arrival back in Yibin.
We also had the opportunity to taste 16 different dishes made of/with bamboo, including the famous and expensive bamboo eggs (which are really rounded wild mushrooms that grow underneath the bamboo trees). It was really delicious. The meal wasn’t included in the tour. We got together with members of the group, negociated a price for 16 dishes, and then split the bill.
Yibin 宜宾 practicalities:
Where to Stay and Eat:
The Xufu Binguan叙府宾馆 in the centre of town is a good option. Spotless modern doubles with a good breakfast are 200 Yuan. There is a wide variety of decent restaurants and supermarkets near the hotel.
Coming and Going:
New high speed trains from Chengdu take just one and a half hours to arrive in Yibin and pass through Leshan. The line opend on 2019 and also connects Yibin to Guiyang in Guizhou province.
From the chaotic main bus station, Beimen北门, there are regular departures to almost all import destinations in the region, though most buses will go through Zigong first.
Nowadays, a network of highways links all the major cities making travel much easier than when we were there in 2005.
Boat services to Leshan appeared to have been discontinued. Some services to Chongqing still seemed to run, though we were unable to confirm this.
Visiting the Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海 if not taking a tour:
Nan’an station, 15 minutes from the centre on the other side of the river, offers irregular services to Shunnan 蜀南竹海 / the Bamboo Sea, most of them with a changeover in Changning 长宁.
The two main villages inside the park are called Wanling 万岭and Wanli万里. Both villages, as well as some other strategic locations inside the park, offer accommodation – with a typical double room costing around 100 Yuan – as well as food for those visitors who wish to stay the night.
In 2005 our visit to the Bamboo Sea was part of a facinating trip from Guiyang to Chengdu via Chishui.
To get to Leshan 乐山 we first had to backtrack to Zigong; all in all quite a tiring ride of over 6 hours, due to the fact that the motorway has not reached this part of Sichuan yet. This has all changed now see above.
Laomeng Sunday Market, five minorities at One Market, that is what we were promised. The hotel owner in Yuanyang had told us to get there early, as many of the hill tribe people have to walk all the way back and the market starts breaking up at around noon.
Laomeng Sunday Market: Arrival
So we got to Laomeng at about 8.30, where we were among the first to arrive. We walked once round the town and had a look at the few stalls already set up by a small number of colourfully dressed Miao ladies and some older Yi women.
Most of them seemed as curious about us, as we were about them. By the time we got back to our starting point, dozens of vans, carts and other vehicles had already arrived, unloading hundreds of passengers and all kinds of goods.
They brought with them a kaleidoscopic mix of colours, as ladies from the Hani, Yao, Yi, Miao and Black Thai ethnic groups spilled out from the back and descended upon the market for a few hours of frenzied buying and selling.
For the next 3 hours we were treated to a visual feast that left us drained and out of film. Our driver had filled us in on some of the intricacies of the local costumes, so we were more or less able to distinguish between the women from the different ethnic groups. However, The men on the other hand were fairly indistinguishable, wearing pretty much the same peasant clothes and large wide-brimmed hats.
The Miao 苗族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Firstly,the Miao. The most colourful group are the Miao. The women of this ethnic group wear short, pleated skirts in electrifying colours such as bright orange, turquoise, yellow, pink or neon green.
The skirts are held in place by tight, embroidered belts and further embellished by lavishly decorated aprons, worn at the back (to protect their clothes when they are carrying loads, or sitting down on their haunches).
Their lower legs are covered by leggings, usually black, although the trendiest young ladies can wear coloured ones, adorned with dangling pieces of silver, or coins. Their outfits are completed by a final, embroidered strip of cloth, wound around the head as a kind of turban, peaking at the front.
Given the vibrant nature of their attire, it isn’t surprising that their Vietnamese relations are known as the Flower Hmong.
The Yao 瑶族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Secondly,the Yao. In stark contrast with the Miao, the Yao are probably the most fascinating to look at. Their all-black outfits of loose, flowing tunics and trousers, topped by incredible black boxed hats (resembling a Fez) lend them at once a forbidding and mysterious aspect.
The stern black of their costume is only livened up by tresses of fuchsia coloured wool, pinned to the front of the ladies’ tunics, and the heavy silver earrings and necklaces they wear. The proud Yao ladies stride through the crowds mostly unsmiling and they are reluctant to have their pictures taken.
The Hani 哈尼族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Thirdly, the Hani. Hani women also tend to wear a tunic or jacket over trousers, like the Yao, though their tunics are shorter and tighter. And like the Miao, they wear a protective apron at the back.
Their colours are subdued, blue and black are the favourites, but some green and petrol- blue can be seen too. If a Hani lady’s headdress is very colourful and decorated, this means that she is single. On the other hand, if her jacket is decorated with silver coins, she is married.
The Yi 彝族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Forth the Yi, The Yi ladies are almost as colourful as the Miao, but they wear trousers, not skirts. On top, they wear brightly coloured jackets, often with short sleeves. The colours can vary, but light blue, pink, yellow and mauve appeared to be all the rage.
The top part of the jacket is covered with a semi- circle made of embroidered flowers. At the back, instead of an apron, they tend to wear two embroidered lozenge-shaped appendages.
Black Thai 壮族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Finally, the Black Thai were the least in evidence and dressed very simply in black, as their name suggests. Their ladies wore straight black skirts and short-sleeved blouses.
As to location, the market spreads out all over the town, which is small enough to be explored thoroughly in a couple of hours. Like most markets in China, each area or street is dedicated to a different product.
The square given over to vegetables and fruit is one of the highlights, with colourful ethnic women squatting down behind their wares, mostly small piles of exotic-looking vegetables, herbs or spices, spread out on a piece of cloth.
Purchases in this section are usually wrapped up in banana leaves.
Another, larger square combines meat and simple food stalls with stands selling clothes, cloth, wool and other items necessary for sewing, embroidering or knitting. The latter are particularly popular with the younger ladies.
Lunch is a simple affair, with stalls selling noodle dishes with plenty of meat, vegetables and spicies.
On the outskirts of town, there are corners dedicated to selling chickens, piglets, or watch dogs.
It’s a great place to watch and take photos as well, because once the market is in full swing, nobody will pay much attention to you, even though you may be the only foreigner in town, which is what happened to us.
Don’t come to this market looking for souvenirs; there are few things for sale that would interest tourists, which should hopefully keep tour groups away. We had a look at one of the colourful Miao skirts and were a bit taken aback by its price: although it was handmade and weighed a tonne, we thought that 300Yuan was a bit steep.
True to our landlord’s prediction, by midday the market began to wind down and the vehicles filled up again with their multi-coloured cargo.
As we were driving away, we could see lines of people heading off into the forest and up the mountain paths, back to their villages.
Laomeng is situated in the south of Yunnan, not far from the Vietnamese border. As the town lies in a river valley, the climate is hot and humid and the surrounding countryside is extremely green and fertile, allowing for two rice harvests a year.
Regarding its ethnic composition, Laomeng straddles two prefectures, Yuanyang and Jinpin. Of these, Yuanyang is home to many Hani and Yi who tend and cultivate the stunning rice terraces the area is famous for, while Jingpin is home to the Miao, Black Thai and Yao.
The first two live low down near the rivers, in the sub-tropical fertile lands, while the Yao dominate the high mountain areas and ridges and therefore the poorer lands.
As for Laomeng town, there are a couple of basic hotels, small eateries and shops, but not much more, and the buildings are definitely on the drab side.
However, the market converts the town into festival of colours and sounds and it would probably make a good base for exploring the area.
Coming and Going:
From Yuanyang there are plenty of mini buses to Laomeng. The journey can take more than 2 hours, depending on how many passengers the bus stops to pick up and drop off.
You can hire a minivan for about 150 Yuan to take you to the market and back, including several hours waiting time. Buses from Laomeng also go to Jingpin and surrounding villages.
The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山
The Giant Moustached Buddha at Daxiang ShanGangu甘谷 Arriving.
The Giant Moustached Buddha at Daxiang Shan大像山Gangu甘谷 is Situated in Eastern Gansu 甘肃省 province. However, on arrival at Gangu 甘谷 you will quickly discover that this is not one of China’s most attractive towns: truth be told it’s pretty ugly.
However, if you are in Tianshui 天水 visiting Maiji Shan and have a day to spare, the large 23 meter moustached statue of Sakyamuni a few kilometers outside Gangu is well worth visiting and can be easily combined with a trip to the beautiful Water Curtain Caves near Luomen.
The Giant Moustached Buddha or Sakyamuni statue
The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山.
While none of the temples are spectacular, they are quiet and peaceful. You and a handful of pilgrims will be the only people on the trail even in the middle of August. The statue itself is quite special.
The colours are vibrant and the decorations surrounding it unique. But what stands out is the blue moustache, something almost unseen in the rest of China. There are some good views towards the rising Loess Plateau as you climb the trail.
You can get to Gangu from Tianshui 天水by train in just over an hour. The convenient K377 leaves Tianshui station in Beidao 北道 at 8.32 and costs 13 hard seat (buy your ticket the night before, there were plenty of seats available).
Alternatively you can take one of the frequent buses from Tianshui’s twin town Qincheng 秦城.
Hiring a taxi for the best part of a day from in front of Gangu train station costs 200 Yuan after a little bargaining. However, I don’t recommend visiting The Water Curtain Caves until restoration work has finished sometime next year (read the next posting).
One curious feature of the statue is that when you see it close up, the face of the giant Buddha has a contented expression. However, Seen from a distance, he looks quite miserable.
Gyantse and the Kumbum are the beating heart of Tibet and Tibetan culture. We visited Gyantse on a three-day trip by mini-van that also included Shalu monastery and the town of Shigatse. We reached Gyantse after a long eight-hour ride, made even longer by our detour to see Yamdrok-Tso Lake.
From the Kamba-La Pass at 4794 metres, there are spectacular views over the turquoise waters of the lake. However, due to road works (expected to be finished next year), it wasn’t possible to continue along the old road to Gyantse, so we had to turn back and rejoin the new road.
The final part of the journey took us through fertile and idyllic fields, full of grazing animals and harvesting farmers.
Approaching Gyantse and seeing the Fort
The approach to Gyantse is truly spectacular: the ruins of the fortress, the Dzong, destroyed by Younghusband and his British troops, set on a steep, rocky hill, stand out against the azure sky and the golden roofs of the monastery gleam in the sun.
Gyantse itself is rather more prosaic; it is basically a scruffy one-street town (2007: has expanded now) with an interesting, traditional Tibetan quarter.
We had just enough time to visit the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery complex, situated dramatically at the foot of the barren mountains and surrounded by a brown wall.
Gyantse’s highlight is the Kumbum, an 8 storey chorten, topped by a golden roof and umbrella, apparently the best- preserved structure of this kind in Tibet.
The 8 floors contain 108 chapels, all covered in frescoes and many holding statues. The outside is painted a dazzling white and decorated with colourful stucco, as well as four huge pairs of eyes, which survey the surrounding countryside.
Though most of the frescoes are hidden in darkness and many are damaged, we managed to make out some frightening demons, adorned with necklaces of skulls, fine many-armed Buddhas and delicate maidens.
The chapels which are set at the corners are the best, as they are two storeys’ high and contain a variety of large statues.
On the sixth floor we emerged onto an open platform, level with the painted eyes, from which we could observe the other monastic buildings, the walls, the mountains, as well as the Tibetan old town.
The next day we visited the old fortress, or Dzong, and explored the Tibetan quarter.
As we mentioned before, most of the Dzong is in ruins; thanks to Younghusband and his men who came riding in from Sikkim to ‘open’ Tibet to trade… They are, however, quite atmospheric ruins. One of the highlights is a grey memorial stone with the curious inscription ‘Jump off the cliff’.
However, this isn’t an exhortation to visitors, but rather a commemoration of an act of bravery committed by the outnumbered defenders.
Gyantse Old Town
The old Tibetan quarter, lying at the foot of the fortress, is another gem that takes you right back in time.
Along the main street, there are placid cows chewing the cud in front of every household, while pigs and sheep rummage around in the gutters.
People gather at the communal pumps to draw water, wash their clothes, hair or rinse dyed strings of sheep’s wool.
Inside the traditional stone houses, Tibetan ladies work the heavy wooden looms to weave cloth or colourful Tibetan carpets.
A peaceful, mellow village ambience reigns and life continues, unhurriedly, as it always has done.
We stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.
You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. There is a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.