Knowing my wife, I carefully considered how to break the
news. We had arrived in the picturesque Chinese settlement of Likeng, an
ancient village sitting nimbly on the banks of two Lipton-stained bisecting
streams. It’s not a large settlement, easily covered in thirty minutes, as you
pass by crumbling cobblestone buildings, a few souvenir shops, merchants
selling tea and bamboo handicrafts, and mothers pounding laundry along the water’s
edge. Sturdy wood plank bridges connect the opposing banks, suturing the close-knit
community, while mischievous kids chase along the well-worn paths, and scraggly
dogs seek cool comfort under rock benches worn smooth from years of use.
Intending to spend the night, I canvassed the two main
and ducked down shadowy alleyways, scattering surprised chickens in my
quest to uncover the perfect room. Onwards I searched, mimicking sleep by
tilting my head and placing my hands beneath my face while reciting ‘hotel’. Residents
led me down unidentified streets and hidden passageways to consider possible shelter
for the night. Politely looking at rooms, including a rustic bed in a hayloft,
I smiled and graciously declined, while through the gaps of the buildings, observed
the fields of rice, marking the end of town. Optimistically I pushed on,
hopeful this last block would uncover that hidden gem.
Still, after forty-five muggy minutes, I saw all there was
to see, and humbly reported to my wife that there are no Western toilets in
Likeng – none, zero, zilch, nada, diddlysquat, as in ALL squat toilets. Coincidentally,
the first place I looked at turned out to be our best option – electronic keyed
access locks, brand new pedestal sink, air conditioning, squat toilet – after
all, it is an ancient village.
Tunxi (‘tune zee’), located two hours by bus southwest of
Shanghai, is an underrated yet convenient base for exploring the historical sites
of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces, along with the famous mountainous area of Huangshan.
With wonderful hikes and splendid communities, you could easily spend a week in
this region. Tunxi itself is interesting, with Old Street populated with
merchants selling antique silk paintings, tea, rock carvings and other Chinese
souvenirs. Pedestrian friendly, at night the ancient brick buildings echo the
footsteps of tourists wandering the cobble stoned streets.
A memorable day trip is to the mountainside hamlet of Qiyun
Shan, a forty-minute bus ride outside of Tunxi. After a robust ascent over painstakingly
placed granite steps, past rocky niches highlighting diminutive shrines,
through weathered shelters offering places to rest, you arrive at magnificent pink
Tao temples carved into red sandstone cliffs, with the historic settlement of
Qiyun Shan hugging the cliffs nearby. With picturesque landscapes, unique Tao
temples, and friendly locals, don’t miss it when in Tunxi.
A two-hour scenic bus ride south from Tunxi takes you to the
province of Jiangxi, distinguished for its enchanting
Huizhou communities. Celebrated for their architectural styles – light filled
inner courtyards with elaborate carved woodwork – it’s enchanting to wander
down nameless lanes and peer into long-standing buildings and residences. If
you plan to spend a night or two, there are three villages to choose from –
Xiaoqi, Qinghua (set up in the hills), and Likeng – all small and charming. We
chose the charismatic Likeng since it seemed to have the better choice of accommodations.
Likeng, retains its original charm and is pint-sized, a
refreshing alternative to the large cities so prolific throughout China. During
weekends, the walkways are littered with tour groups, inevitably led by a
leader wielding a tinny megaphone, while during the week and end of day, the
flavor of the tiny settlement becomes evident. Wander around the lantern lit alleyways,
enjoy some local food (although dining options are limited), and absorb the
essence of life in rural China.
A friendly game of cards, a muted conversation on the doorstep, playful kids
running along the creeks, a quiet dinner under the stars.
Returning home, a local was walking through the creek with a battery strapped on his back attached to long metal rod. Curious, we watched as
he probed around the rocks and applied an electrical charge to the rod. Tiny,
stunned fish floated to the surface, quickly netted by his young son. Not too
sporting we thought!
Likeng is distinctively rare and worthy of an overnight
stay – just don’t expect anything but basic accommodations. You can hire a
local driver and visit the two other rural communities in the area – Xiaoqi and
From Tunxi, a 45 minute bus ride drops you in the
magnificent Huangshan (‘Yellow
Mountain’) recreation region,
a must see attraction.
Settle in the delightful and picturesque town of Tangkou, wonderfully split
by a gin clear stream joyously spilling from the mountains overlooking the town,
and spend a few days enjoying spectacular and unique hikes. This was one of our
favorite destinations in China.
From our base in Tangkou, we planned a long day trip up Yellow
and arrived at the Yungi cable car station soon after 7:00 AM. Whisked 4000
feet in elevation in eight frightening minutes, we bypassed the arduous 3-hour/20,000
step ascent to maximize our time on the summit and conserve our energy for the
exhaustive descent. At the top, we were shocked by the stamina of laborers who
carry supplies every day up these trails, including two hardy souls who lifted
a compressor tied to a thick bamboo branch. You can pay someone to carry you up
in a bamboo chair – maybe next time, if I could weather the ridicule of my
The trails atop Yellow
Mountain are inspiring. We
were awed by the incredible scenery and ingenuity of the pathways that wound
around the many peaks of the mountain, some of which seemed glued to the side
of vertical granite walls hundreds of feet above the ground.
suspended thousands of feet in the air spanned a few of the pinnacles, allowing
visitors to hop from spire to spire. Frequent viewing sites afforded awesome
views, although many seemed to have inadequate safety barriers. Rusty chains
shiny with brass locks, left there for good luck by newly married couples, were
the only line of defense between a long life and certain death.
Finally, after exploring the many poetic formations on the
we began our descent down the Western flank. An agonizing 60,000 steps
straight down to the valley floor, it contoured the granite spires, passing
through slot canyons and ancient temples. A grueling yet awesome four-hour knee
jarring, Achilles burning experience that pained my quads for days afterwards. I’ll
never forget the exhausted gentleman who slid from step to step on his butt
towards the bottom. Or the many young ladies, dressed for a night on the town,
somehow balancing around the rustic trails while wearing high heels. The
descent was magnificent, but the summit has the most spectacular scenery.
We arranged a car and driver, and headed to famous Emerald Valley, a brilliant canyon with
beautiful turquoise pools of water, huge granite boulders, and stunning bamboo
forests. So stunning in fact, that the movie ‘Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger’ was
filmed here. We hiked up to Nine Dragon Pool Waterfall, a spectacular and
thunderous cataract that plunged off a yellow granite shelf into a series of nine
pools on its riotous journey down the mountain.
Again, we hired a car and driver and headed out to Shexian County to visit a couple of ancient settlements
– Chengkan and Tangmo. These two communities are not yet UNESCO World Heritage
Sites, and faithfully retain the look and feel of authentic local communities.
Peering through darkened doorways, visions of a simple life were evident, as
locals socialized over a game of dominos, or contemplated the passing day. We
stopped at the one souvenir shop, bought local apples, and followed an
enthusiastic artist who led us to the roof of his studio for an overlook of the
surroundings. Soon, UNESCO will adopt these towns, and I fear they will lose
some of their charming authenticity. Loved these two places – see them now
before they become commercialized like Hongcin and Xidi.
The historic settlements in the Anhui and Jiangxi
with Yellow Mountain were some of the most attractive areas we
visited in our three-month trip through China. Saturated with history, the ancient
towns provide an intriguing sampling of rural life with glimpses into a bygone
era. A timeless cultural oasis untouched by Western conveniences, where time
evolves slowly, and daily life unfolds in its simplicity.
By the way, my wife loved our room,
the early morning sunrise through the window, and the wake up chorus of the
roosters. For me, hitting a hole the size of grapefruit from a height of three
feet, without making a mess of the footpads, required tremendous eye/hand
coordination. In the spirit of the Olympics, I practiced, rose to the occasion,
and proved my mettle. Proudly, I have moved beyond Western toilets, confident
that my aim is true.