Historic Huizhou Villages

Rapeseed in Anhui

Anhui’s best-known site is Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain. But you would be amiss to skip a visit to the ancient villages of Yixian County. If you don’t have the energy to climb a mountain, the villages may be a good alternative. The villages of Xidi, Hongcun and Guanlu date back as far as 1000 A.D. Now, they are open to tourists — even as people continue to live in the ancient houses. The design and architecture of ancient homes are a window into China’s past. I had no idea that Chinese women were ever subjected to purdah-like restrictions,but the homes in Xidi were designed to keep women on the second floor.

The villages can be easily reached on a day trip from Tunxi, also called Huangshan City. Tunxi is also the gateway for those climbing Huangshan mountain. Yixian County has a fourth ancient village, Nanping, that I did not have a chance to visit. Tunxi and the villages are also close to Shexian (歙县), which is famous for its decorative gates and arches.

Xidi | Hongcun | Guanlu | Getting there

Photos of Xidi, Guanlu and Hongcun

Xidi (西递)

Xidi village

Xidi, the oldest of the three villages, was the clear winner in my eyes. It is a designated World Heritage Site, worth visiting for the many well-preserved homes in the village. Visitors are greeted by the Huwenguang Paifang, a three-tiered decorative stone arch from the Ming dynasty. But the real attraction is the carved stone- and woodwork that decorates the houses and larger halls. As you can see, the homes are beautifully illuminated by uncovered skylights. Beneath the skylights, stone troughs collect rainwater — and a profusion of plants grow out of the cracks.

As you wander the lanes of Xidi, you’ll run into vendors selling quite tasty snacks, along with the inevitable carved wooden knicknacks. Student artists also take Xidi by storm, setting up shop all over town to sketch the old homes, stone streets and rapeseed flowers.

The entrance fee for Xidi is 80 RMB.

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Guanlu (关麓)

Guanlu carvings

Guanlu is most notable for the interlocking homes built by eight wealthy brothers. The Qing dynasty homes share the characteristics of Huizhou — Anhui province — architecture, including interior courtyards and elaborately carved wooden walls. Descendants of the brothers still live in some of the homes, while others were turned over to different families as part of 20th-century land redistribution programs. As your tour guide leads you around the village, you are sure to run into the residents eating lunch, playing cards or simply watching the laowai.

Our guide — whose fee was part of the ticket price — told us an interesting story about Guanlu’s history during the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards were charged with destroying symbols of the Four Olds, including ancient architecture and antiquities. In another village, residents plastered their carved walls with mud, on which they scrawled revolutionary slogans. The Guards came and went, leaving the walls untouched. Guanlu’s residents didn’t follow that advice, so many of the village’s carvings, like that at right, have been destroyed.

The entrance fee for Guanlu village is 25 RMB. A tour guide, who probably will not speak English, is included in the ticket price.

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Hongcun (宏村)

Hongcun, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest and the most crowded of the three villages. This made it, to my mind, somewhat unbearable. There are more shopping and snacking opportunities, but it is harder to immerse yourself in the history that surrounds you. On a sunny day, however, the pond in the center of the village would be beautiful.

The entrance fee for Hongcun village is 85 RMB. A student ID is good for half off the ticket price. The modern town outside the village is a good place to stop for lunch.

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Getting there

You will need to travel to Tunxi (Huangshan City) first. It is about an 11 1/2 hour train ride from Shanghai, or a six-hour bus ride. From Tunxi, take a 9 RMB bus from the Tunxi bus station to Yixian (黟县). Those buses depart every 25 minutes and take one and a half hours.

From Yixian, you can catch inexpensive buses, minibuses or taxis to each of the three villages. Buses and minibuses will cost less than 10 RMB per journey; taxis will cost 10-20 RMB. Lonely Planet reports that you can hire a taxi from Yixian to take you on a tour of all four villages (including Nanping) for 120 RMB if you bargain hard.

According to Lonely Planet (2007), visitors to Yixian County must purchase a 50 RMB permit from the police in Tunxi. I don’t think our group obtained these permits, but we were never hassled. Officially, you are not allowed to overnight in the villages, but a quick survey of the LP Thorntree forum suggests that some travelers have found rooms at small local inns.

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