Thursday, January 03, 2013
3 Days in the Photographer Heaven of Hongcun
Whenever I tell fellow travelers that I spent 3 days in Hongcun, the typical reaction is that it's "way too much time" for a small, albeit incredibly picturesque village. To put things in perspective, organized tours rush through in about two hours.
But I'm also the kind of traveler who holed up for 4 days within the ancient walls of Pingyao. I live in Canada, and if it takes so much planning and effort to arrive at my favorite destinations, I might as stay for as long as it takes to soak in everything. After all, these locales are so distant, and the transportation so inconvenient, that it's likely going to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
On my first morning here I purposely woke up at 05:30, rolled out of my warm bed reluctantly (this was in November when morning temperatures dropped to single digit Celcius) and walked to the other side of Hongcun's South Lake for some decent pictures to bring home. There I met another traveler from Taiwan who taught me his own definition of slow travel.
"I've come here several years in a row," said the middle-aged man as he worked on his camera tripod, "and this time I've stayed here for 10 days already." Whoa ... the guy was seriously IN LOVE with this place. I'm sure that if I worked in Asia, I wouldn't spend my free time at the same place over and over again, and for more than 10 days each time.
And it wasn't just one guy -- on this clear autumn morning the entire shore of the South Lake was dotted with photographers, some professional for sure, but mostly amateurs waking up early for a shot of the morning mist hovering over the lake.
What's so mesmerizing about this one little village, hidden remotely beneath the mountain ranges of Eastern China, that causes its admirers to return year after year? I arrived only after dark the previous evening, and meeting this veteran photographer here made me anxious to delve deeper and discover my own favorite photo spots over the next 3 days. After all, that's all the time I could afford.
So where is Hongcun exactly?
Hongcun is a tiny village that, prior to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, was relatively unknown to international tourists. Even now it's still not a household name, and its distance away from China's major cities doesn't help. The closest medium-sized city is Huangshan City, which is still a few years away from having its first high-speed rail station. And even then, Hongcun will still remain in the next prefecture being more than an hour away by bus. You really have to WANT to get here, in order to get here.
But on the other hand, Hongcun's unique location in the shadow of one of China's premier destinations brings in an enormous amount of day-tripping domestic tourists. The magnificent scenery of Huangshan, arguably the most famous and definitely the most visited among Chinese mountains, is a short 40 minute drive to the north.
This puts Hongcun in the unenviable situation as a perpetual afterthought -- it's rarely the end destination for domestic Chinese tourists, but a little diversion during their obligatory tour of the famous Huangshan. One may see this as extremely unfortunate for day-trippers fighting among the sea of people through the narrow alleys and claustrophobic old houses of Hongcun, but on the other hand it's also a blessing to anyone staying overnight in the village.
Anyone who have been here prior to 08:00 can attest -- it's a tale of two villages before and after the arrival of the hordes of multi-national tour groups. Virtually all of these photos were taken either before 08:00 or after 16:30, when the community returned to its unhurried, rustic self. Villagers around every corner could be seen with their face towels and plastic mugs, squatting next to the system of little canals in front of every house. Clothes would be washed and water would be fetched for the day's cooking.
Shortly after dawn alluring aromas start emanating from informal breakfast joints surrounding the two village squares, serving all sorts of deep-fried morsels and smoked poultry to neighborhood kids and early-rising tourists alike. Traditional Huizhou cuisine is all about distinct, time-honed flavors, and there's no better place to sit down along side the locals and have a few pieces of fermented Hairy Tofu.
Among the most popular photo locales is the area around the semi-circular Moon Pond, a Ming Dynasty reservoir that once served as the village waterhole, clothes washer, duck pond, and fire hydrant at the same time. This place is not only a photographer magnet, but also seems to be a mandatory stop for the wandering troupes of art students on annual field trips. Here on a sunny morning I sat-in on an art teacher's impromptu lecture on how to sketch the characteristic Huizhou-style roofline.
But my favorite view was the village's most distinguishable monument -- the picture-perfect Painting Bridge dividing the enchanting South Lake into two. The only problem is that this is also the main entrance into the village, and it's near impossible to get a good shot without random tourists posing their V-signs in the picture, unless you arrive before 06:30.
Also open to photographers are several impressive residences dating from the Qing Dynasty, with the Chengzhi Hall (pictured) being the grandest and best preserved. These places also present perceptive travelers with a depressing lesson in modern Chinese history -- see the fading Mao images and Red Guard slogans still imprinted on the wall panels, and understand how ingenious owners saved these priceless mansions from demolishment during the Cultural Revolution era.
We visited several Huizhou-style villages before and after Hongcun, including the magical Shicheng in Wuyuan and the famous Xidi which, along with Hongcun, is protected as a World Heritage Site. But in terms of overall photogenic quality, IMHO Hongcun far surpasses all others with one insurmountable advantage -- the ever-changing faces of the South Lake with its misty mornings, floating lotus blossoms, resident white geese, and of course reflections of the village on windless days.
But between the peak hours of 08:00 and 16:30, the overcrowding grew so unbearable that we spent most of our time away from village and went off to hike the countryside. Megaphones from tour guides everywhere seemed to babble tirelessly about how Feng Shui masters laid out the village plan in the shape of an ox, which really makes no difference to the visitor unless viewing from a helicopter.
Instead it is much more practical to understand how the canal system flows through the village from the northwestern part of the village into the Moon Pond, then through another section of canals into the South Lake. You'll see why this is so important to know, once you've seen the cleaning routine of the locals ...
Watch how villagers tend to wash everything from vegetables to portable toilet urns in the canals. This tells you that eateries upstream (before the Moon Pond) are generally safer than eateries downstream (near the South Lake). Or even better yet ... eat outside of the village!
ITINERARY AND TRANSPORTATION
We placed Hongcun between two other highly recommendable destinations on our itinerary: Wuyuan and Huangshan. With Wuyuan being 3 to 4 hours to the south and Huangshan mountain being 40 minutes to the north, this sets up a fascinating itinerary connecting two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along with one of China's hot new destinations.
Wuyuan is widely advertised as the "Most Beautiful Village in China" and is well-known for sceneries of idyllic farmlands and picturesque farmhouses, and for rapeseed flowers in the springtime and tea-seed oil season in the autumn (see article). Huangshan on the other hand needs no introduction -- dreamlike mountain landscapes has made it one of China's top destinations for decades, if not centuries. Combining the two with Hongcun would easily make a great trip of 5 days or more.
From Wuyuan there is a seasonal bus to local transportation hub of Yixian, a short 15 minute bus ride from Hongcun. The bus currently departs Wuyuan's Long Distance Bus Station around 14:00 BUT ONLY DURING TOURIST SEASON (approx. April to October)! The bus is supposed to arrive at Yixian's Long Distance Bus Station shortly after 16:00, where it's quick to hop on a local bus to Hongcun.
But if you arrive in the off-season like we did, there is no direct bus from Wuyuan as we found out the hard way. We had to first take the bus to Huangshan City (known locally as Tunxi), departing around 13:00 and arriving around 15:30 for RMB 45. Then we transferred to another bus (RMB 17.5) to Hongcun, taking another 90 minutes or so.
On the other hand the connection to Huangshan mountain was very quick and easy. Several buses leave for Huangshan mountain from Hongcun's main parking lot, currently departing at 06:50, 09:50 and 13:30 for a cheap RMB 13. If you happen to miss the bus, a taxi would cost around RMB 150 (CAD$24).
This is getting long, so I'll write a separate Hotel Review article.
Hongcun is one of those rare places where the curious traveler can experience a stay in one of those Qing Dynasty scholar's mansions, formerly resided by government officials and wealthy traders and many now function as folk museums. A number of these remain in private hands and are operated as guesthouses near the northwest corner of the village.
As of late 2012, double rooms with private washrooms generally ranged from RMB 120 (CAD$19) for a nondescript room with two small beds, to upwards of RMB 300 (CAD$48) for a deluxe suite with antique furniture pieces. Even in the higher range this is no more expensive than an average 2-star business hotel in central Shanghai or Beijing.
The occupancy rate of the guesthouses seemed quite low for a nationally famous locale -- for three nights we stayed at one of the best-preserved guesthouses dating from the Qing Dynasty, and there were never any guests in the only other room beside ours. This tells us that, unless you're visiting during peak tourist seasons (eg. Golden Week), walking-in should be possible as long as you're not picky about your room.
Oh the food! Of course there will be a separate article just on Restaurant Reviews. I'm already looking forward to sorting the pictures!
Staying for 3 days afforded us the opportunity to spend more time exploring the immediate area, which is filled with interesting sights.
Our favorite side-trip from Hongcun wasn't the popular Xidi or Mukeng, but a largely unknown and impressively scenic hike from the village of Tachuan, through Xieli, gracing the edge of Qishu Lake, and back to Hongcun. It's a 3.5 hour, 10 km trail that my wife remembers as one of her favorite memories on our entire tour of Eastern China. I'll have to write a separate article for this.
The nearby village of Xidi, also protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Hongcun, is obviously worthwhile as a side-trip. The historical section of Xidi is actually larger than Hongcun's, though one could argue that it's not quite as surrounded by water and thus is less photogenic. Nevertheless the scholar houses are just as well-preserved, and transportation is simple with the hourly departures of direct buses linking the two villages throughout much of the day. We boarded our bus at 10:00 and arrived at Xidi within 30 minutes.
Another popular day-trip is the Mukeng Bamboo Sea, a gigantic bamboo grove on the side of a mountain with a tiny hamlet at its centre. We skipped this place as we've visited bamboo groves elsewhere and this time preferred the wide-open views of the Tachuan hike.
And if you still can't get enough of those quaint Huizhou-style villages and scholar houses, nearby villages such as Lucun, Nanping and Guanlu offer even more traditional architecture to fill your photo albums. Lucun is almost within walking distance from the northwestern part of the village and is easily accessible by those 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis hawking just outside Hongcun's western entrance. Nanping and Guanlu are served by an hourly bus departing the Long Distance Bus Station in Yixian (right next to the bus for Hongcun!), so it's easy to take the bus from Hongcun to Yixian and then transfer to the bus to Nanping.