Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Anhui Antics: Mt Huangshan & Hongcun Village

Tangkou, the gateway to Mount Huangshan
A rather fabulous and drunken final evening was spent in Shanghai at a mini film festival watching documentaries about appropriately, food, at an artsy venue above the Dutch Design workshop. Sipping free beers on the roof and indulging in a gourmet barbecue amidst the hipster ex pat elite, I felt that, had it not been for the low hanging hazy air and the neon lights of the metropolis, I could have been in Shoreditch. Having been suitably oiled up with free booze we spent the night franticly packing before heading off on adventure - out of the city and into the Chinese countryside. The day began with a schlep across town to the long distance bus station. The ride took approximately 6 hours. As a seasoned traveller, this was OK for me - I had my headphones firmly plugged in and could while away the hours with my tunes. Poor Will, however, was subject to the cacaphanous sounds of screechy music over the loudspeaker that screamed incessantly down his ear. Along with that and the not so dulcet tones of the couple sitting behind us (I didn't realise that 'tonal' was synonymous with 'shouty') we were glad to finally arrive in Tangkou, Anhui Province. 

Will about to have his first taste of baijo
Arriving late in the afternoon and having subsisted on very little other than some dubious Chinese snacks, our first port of call was to get some food. We ended up eating at the restaurant of the taxi driver who had given us a ride in: 'Mr Chengs, the only English speaking restaurant in town'. After a decent late lunch (actually more a dinner by Chinese standards) and not having much of the day left to play with, we decided to have some fun by purchasing a bottle of baijiu - 60% ABV Chinese rice wine and kicking back in our characterless hotel room. The baiju came in an imitation porcelain bottle and we poured ourselves a couple of measures into dreary white hotel mugs. Ah the glamour! Will's tasting notes.. on the nose: "some kind of childrens sweets", "like an aromatic chemical", key tones: *cue enormous coughing fit from Will which renders him speechless*  Sophie's tasting notes.. on the nose: "ammonia, urine", bouquet reduced: "bleach, nail varnish remover, horse piss, propynol, confectionery, peardrops." I think that tells you everything you need to know about baiju.  

View from the cable car halfway up Mount Huangshan
The next day we were up and ready to explore Mount Huangshan - the famous 'Yellow Mountain' - a sprawling range of glacially-formed granite craggy peaks, peeping out of the top of fluffy clouds and whose lower summits are dotted with tall pine trees - the quintessential Chinese landscape. Due to ongoing issues with my leg, we purchased a walking stick (oh the shame) and joined the throngs of tourists that were queueing up for the cable car. Had I been match fit I would not have hesitated in hiking up the mountain - still the views from the cable car were excellent - although it felt a little shaky as we ascended higher and higher, our carriage was rocked by tempestuous winds. 

'Lover locks' on Mount Huangshan
Once we had settled ourselves into the cheapest accommodation we could find on the summit, we went walking. The Chinese have wonderfully evocative names for things and have bestowed such on 72 of the mountain's peaks. How can you resist paying a visit to 'bright peak', 'heavenly peak', 'celestial peak' and 'cloud dispelling pavillion'? We took in the breathtaking views and vistas. Whilst we were scrambling about we came across several bunches of 'lover locks' - padlocks which adorn bars and chain fences along the mountainside. Lovers visiting Huangshan together ritually lock these to the mountain then throw away the keys down the cliff side. The little iron bond that remains symbolises their love: immortal, unbreakable, locked. 

Sunset meditation
Despite the many steps and my ongoing battle with my leg, we managed to ascend to a suitable vantage point for sunset and found a quiet place away from the madding crowds to undertake a peaceful meditation and a spot of sun gazing. Although the day had been good, I could not help but pine for the 'natural beauty' of India and Nepal. Mount Huangshan is one of the top tourist attractions in China, but unlike in other countries where mountains would be left as they are, I was unsettled by the fact that the Chinese had taken this thing of natural beauty, paved it all over it with concrete, installed enormous LCD screens and put even a basketball court at the summit. It completely detracted from the whole experience. As we traversed the concrete staircases, gripping onto 'imitation wood' concrete fences, it felt surreal. Will and I joked about being in some kind of nightmarish artificial world, like ITV's The Prisoner. The piped music that would eerily float into our ears just as we were gazing out at the sky only enhanced this feeling. In fact, the landscape of Mount Huangshan is so picture perfect that we began to wonder just what was real and what was fake... Then we would be brought back to earth again by the hordes of people, the megaphones, the matching baseball caps. 

The infamous purple cloud mists around the mountain
Although it is easy to be unkind about groups of Chinese tourists, I learned that there is a lot more to this phenomena than meets the eye. Due to laws imposed by the Chinese government, peoples movements around their own country are extremely restricted. For the most part, the Chinese require visas or special permissions to visit other states. Chinese employment law also only entitles people to very limited holidays per year (a couple of days) so when they do have the chance to get out and about, people like to see things and do stuff. Because people are not used to travelling independently, the standard way to travel is to do it in a big group. When Will's Chinese colleagues first heard about my trip, the first thing that they all said was that I was "brave". I guess that it must appear so to people to whom independent travel is a strange notion. And so, despite the ubiquitous presence of guides with flags and endless amounts of tourists in varying 'all weather' garb from ponchos to sun visors, I tried to not let it irritate me. Instead I focused on how lucky I am that I have the freedom to be able to travel through this world on my own. 

The pathway into Hongcun village
We awoke at an ungodly hour to take in the sunrise from another viewpoint and battled it out with the tourists (most of whom were trying to photograph me, rather than the sun). When we descended the mountain, we narrowly avoided being 'Chenged' again - a phrase we had coined for being ripped off by Mr. Cheng, who - it turns out, we were informed by a travel blog - is the local charlatan and well known for using and abusing his position as 'the only English speaker in the village'. We think that this was about right, given the fact that Will had very probably caught food poisoning from a Cheng breakfast and the extortionate taxi prices that he was quoting us for our onward journey. It took a bit of cunning to remove our bags from his place and slip out unnoticed, but we did it. Before Cheng had time to protest, we had hailed a local cab and squeezed in with a couple of Chinese locals who would apparently be sharing our ride. Cheng came out and had words to say to our nonchalant cabbie who cooly replied, fag hanging out of his mouth.  I think we only saved $5 in the end but Will and I definitely felt some satisfaction as we drove through the beauty of the Anhui landscape - free, at last, from the Cheng! 

The village is built around a crescent moon shaped pool
We rocked up in Hongcun in the glow of the afternoon light and immediately knew we had found somewhere special. Hongcun (a UNESCO heritage sight) is an 800 year old village, built around a pool in the shape of a crescent moon and the shape of it represents an ox - the waterways that run through it, its entrails. It was quiet, tranquil and mercifully free of tourists. With no plan as to where we would stay, we wandered into the beautiful open plan courtyard of an incredibly old house and were greeted by the gappy warm smiles and the clasped brown hands of an elderly man and his wife. 

One of our best meals
If the house wasn't at least 300 years old, they could have been. In pigeon Mandarin, Will managed to get the point across that we needed a bed for the night. The old man seemed to understand but sadly dispatched someone on a bike to find alternative accommodation. Will and I were both disappointed, but we needn't have been. We were instead shown down the whitewashed lanes and around the pool and ended up at a similarly beautiful place -  a homestay belonging to a younger family. We entered the courtyard through stone circular doors. That night we ate what was probably one of the most memorable meals in a courtyard restaurant replete with beautifully carved wooden furniture, Chinese characters painted on the walls and a pool of koi carp. 

Me, checking out the koi carp
The next day was spent exploring the village, which consists of 137 buildings of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). Some of these, such as the Chenzhi Hall were decorated with orante wood carvings and had 'peep holes' through which the females of the house could take view prospective male suitors without being seen! Sadly, we didn't have much time to spend at all in Hongcun... If I were to do it all again I would have definitely stayed there for longer (Will said he could have stayed forever!) There is not much else beyond villagers going about their daily life - sitting outside in the alley way, hanging out washing, laying out fruit and meats to be cured in the sun...just peace - perfect peace. 

Meat hanging up to cure in Hongcun

Hanging lanterns in Hongcun

The courtyard restaurant 

One of the examples of Anhui architecture

One of many cute fluffy dogs we saw

Inside the Chengzhi House

Circular doorways 

Doing a 'Leonardo'

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