Thursday, February 07, 2013
Xidi - Anhui's Other World Heritage Village
When I initially planned our trip I debated whether to schedule our 3-night stay at Xidi, or Hongcun, or perhaps splitting time between the two. We picked Hongcun at the end for all 3 nights, mainly for its famous reflections of Huizhou-style mansions on the South Lake and the Moon Pond. While it turned out to be a good choice IMHO, it made me even more curious about what we potentially missed by not staying overnight at Xidi.
I imagine most independent travelers face the same choice, and likely end up shunning Xidi for similar reasons. That's probably a little unfair as Xidi shares its UNESCO World Heritage Site status with Hongcun and even boasts a larger ancient town compared to Hongcun. In fact one could argue that while Hongcun excels in photogenic qualities (or at least before the arrival of the daily hordes of invaders on tour buses), Xidi offers a more impressive range of architectural examples befitting a town of its size.
This used to be one of the region's wealthiest towns after all, back in the Ming Dynasty when the indigenous Huizhou merchants controlled much of the trade routes along the lower Yangtze River. Even after the widespread devastation of more than half of the heritage mansions during the Cultural Revolution, more than a hundred remains to this date for visitors to gain an appreciation for the glorious heydays of this ancient town on a once-important trade route.
Impressing all visitors ancient and modern would be the towering stone Pailou gateway guarding the village entrance, exuding an air of grandiose with engravings of appreciative idioms endorsed by Emperor Wanli back in Year 1578, or one year after Francis Drake set sail on his circumnavigation journey in the Western World. Impressive ... except this is only one-thirteenth of the whole story.
Most tour guides, especially domestic Chinese ones, may not tell the full story of how there used to be not just one, but thirteen Pailou gates standing inside the village. Or more importantly ... how they were vehemently destroyed, one by one, by the Red Guards at the height of the Cultural Revolution to "Eradicate the Four Olds." It is a painful chapter of history to learn about, but it's also partially why I travel.
Through the lone Pailou today's visitor would enter the town's sprawling network of cobblestone paths and become surrounded by the tall, angular Matouqiang firewalls, originally whitewashed in powdered lime but turned into various shades of grey by centuries of erosion. And just like its neighboring towns in this traditional land of Huizhou, Xidi ornaments its intricate roofline with swerving dark curves pointing at the heavens.
While Hongcun is encircled by riverbanks and lakesides often bustling with photographers and easel-staking art students, Xidi's town walls is surrounded immediately by its acres upon acres of ancestral farmlands, still owned and tended by the original descendents. In this sense Xidi seemed more of a complete and authentic farming community, small enough to retain its rural character and yet less prone to overcrowding by the onslaught of day-tripping domestic Chinese tour groups.
It's so easy to lose oneself inside the town's strangely claustrophobic labyrinth of interconnected paths. In the midst of squeezing myself between these medieval skyscrapers I started to really appreciate the importance of the massive firewalls , especially with these half-brick half-timber building being barely a metre apart. Any little fire would spell the end of the village if not for this ingenious system of Matouqiang.
A sophisticated system of medieval canals flow past everyone's front door, providing running water for each family even after 900 years of fortunes and turmoils. One can get an idea of the town's affluence from the scale of such infrastructures -- Xidi's canals are much grander and better engineered than Hongcun's. I actually dropped my glasses into Hongcun's canal and was able to fish them out on my knees; if it happened at Xidi I would have no choice but to let them go.
On this day a light drizzle kept most casual tourists at bay, leaving the mostly deserted streets to odd independent travelers like us and the ever-present art students with their scrapbooks. As the air smelled of wet decay and nostalgia, it would be impossible for artists not to find inspiration.
While the ginormous Ancestral Temple from the Qing Dynasty still dominates the village centre, its centuries-old ritual of communal worship had ceased materially since the 1940's due to a depletion of participants during the wars. Reenactments are held occasionally by the tourism board according to tourist demand, sadly with actors rather than the genuine heirs of this cultural heritage. For the actual descendents of the Hu Clan, respect to the ancestors is now paid at a little alcove at home, much like the Chinese of anywhere else.
But perpetuation of traditions may not always be a good thing. Statuettes of various deities destroyed during the 1960's have been refashioned in bright colors and placed back into their original niche in some of the smaller Ancestral Temples, though skeptical visitors may question the motive behind all this zealous restoration. Most of these temples now serves a more practical purpose as a tourist draw rather than its original purpose of ancestral worship, and it is sad to see unsuspecting tourists being scammed at the side table for a bunch of grossly overpriced amulets.
Much more charming are the unpretentious dwellings of the locals, passed down through a millennium to the n-th generation descendents. An unwritten rule within the clan still binds the modern day Hu's from selling ancestral property to outsiders, thus preserving the integrity of village ownership within the kinship. Otherwise I actually wouldn't mind spending a couple of lazy sabbath years in this remote corner of East Asia.
Getting from Hongcun to Xidi is straight forward -- direct local buses depart Hongcun's Main Parking Lot towards Xidi sharply at the top of the hour, from 08:00 to 16:00. The ticket cost a cheap RMB 2 for a 30 minute ride.
The return leg isn't so sharply scheduled however as the same bus returns from the local transportation hub of Tunxi an hour away. Buses to Hongcun and to Yixian are scheduled to arrive every hour, though even the receptionists at the Tourist Info Centre couldn't tell me when. There is also no official "bus stop." We had to wait on the road side, which attracted the solicitation of a taxi driver quoting a cool RMB 30 just to get to Yixian (and probably around RMB 50 to Hongcun). Luckily we caught a bus to our planned lunch stop at Yixian after 20 minutes or so.
In terms of food choices, my searches on the Chinese side of the Internet didn't yield any restaurants with enough positive reviews to warrant a longer stay for us. We tried one Shaobing (roasted pastry) vendor next to the Ancestral Temple, which was nowhere as good as the ones in Hongcun. In the end we took the Yixian bus and went to lunch at the excellent Mingqing Huizhou restaurant.
In terms of accommodation, the following are some of the guesthouses that we considered, before we decided to stay in Hongcun instead:
Xidi Travel Lodge
Xidi Gengletang (in Chinese)
Xidi Yanggaotang (in Chinese)