At first glance, Wuyuan in the rain looked dismal. This tiny county seat looked like any other Chinese town – a bit grimy around the edges, with a main strip full of neon-lit hotels and tea shops that looked half empty most of the time. The Chinese construction boom has reached Wuyuan and there is heavy development on the outskirts. At night, the town is poorly lit with sometimes the only pools of light emerging from the doorways of shops. It is not a place you’d want to linger in or come specifically to see. Wuyuan works best as a base to visit the lovely white villages. But yet in the short time I’ve been there, Wuyuan’s disarming charm peeks out and it lies in the people we meet.
The Chinese have had a lot of bad press. In the superficial encounters I have with the Chinese in previous visits, reading all the ugly stereotypes you hear about their behaviour have left me with a sense of wary caution. But in a population of a billion plus people, there are bound to be bad apples among the good – just that the bad always get more press. Then there’s Wuyuan – built like a mid-size town but feels like a village community. While the highspeed rail has brought tourism to its doorstep and with it, the influx of tourist dollars, the people there (at least those I met in my stay) have lost none of the warmth and friendliness that is more often associated with a smaller village.
In Wuyuan, I found ordinary folks who were just trying to make a living, not pushy or avaricious but friendly, eager, honest and helpful, who often went out of their way in kindness to help. True that Wuyuan lacks the slick polish of big-city hotels or ‘first world service’ and is in fact quite rough about the edges, but its people will more than make up for this.
There was the receptionist in the 3-star Chinese hotel we stayed in who was busy giving herself a facial at the front desk in the morning (complete with mask!), answered phones in a loud drawl but who did her best to help us purchase rail tickets out of Wuyuan. When she could not do so because we did not give her our passports, she didn’t just shrug it off. Instead she took the effort to ask around for us to ask we could purchase our tickets and then re-directed us to a nearby travel agent used by the hotel and told us to tell the agent the hotel had sent us.
The travel agent, a few doors down the street, was empty save for three young girls barely out of their teens huddled around a desk. Sucking on lollipops, the girls eagerly pored over our issue – getting tickets for the high-speed rail from Wuyuan to Huangshan the next morning. With the ticket counter at the station already closed, the girls tried to book the tickets for us online using their personal mobile phones. When that failed, one girl hesitantly asked if we would trust her with our passports, offering to go to another middleman who could get our tickets for us. Not sure if we were wise to do so but we handed her our passports and she zoomed off on her moped. When she returned with the tickets we offered to pay her for the service but she declined. In fact all three girls declined payment.
Then there was the travel agent at the train station who gave us frank opinions about our travel options and helped us plan a route which was not too expensive, met our needs and best of all, did not sell us what we did not need.
And then there was the generous tea trader in the wholesale tea market who sat with us and patiently shared his knowledge and recommendations on all kinds of green tea for close to an hour. He was happy to keep letting us try different types of tea, and after a while, beckoned us behind the storefront to see his freezer and different grades of chrysanthemum tea. Wuyuan is famous for green tea. If you’re there, head for the large wholesale centre on Wengong Nan Lu.
In looking back, I think my best memories of this town came from the people I met. It’s these encounters that add to the list of reasons why I enjoy travel in China – there are so many sides to this big nation. Yes there will always be those who are aggravating, greedy and out to scam the unsuspecting or naive tourist but there will also be the flip side – like those I met in Wuyuan.
Stay: Jingyue Sunshine Hotel is a comfortable, clean, inexpensive Chinese-run hotel about 10 minutes by cab from the highspeed rail station. It’s right across the road from the tea wholesale centre and an easy walk to the eateries. Note that the hotel accepts payment in cash unless you have a Chinese credit card.
Eat: Online recommendations raved about Cunli Cunwai (村里村外), a restaurant right on the main thoroughfare on Wengong Bei Lu (文公北路). When we asked our cab driver about this, he pooh poohed it and brought us to another restaurant where he assured us the price was reasonable and the food authentic to Wuyuan, where locals hang out to eat. The restaurant is not listed on google maps but it faces a park and the river off Dongsheng Lu (东升路), right next to the brightly lit bridge.
Getting around: Flagdown rates for cabs in Wuyuan start at 8RMB with most journeys in town not costing above 12RMB. We hired a cab for half a day to bring us to the outlying white villages for about 200RMB. The newly opened highspeed rail took us from Hangzhou to Wuyuan in about 2 hours making the white villages a highly accessible and doable option from Hangzhou.