UNESCO World Heritage site, Hongcun lives up to its fame of being one of China’s prettiest villages. Almost all visitors who visit Huangshan nearby will stop by Hongcun and its UNESCO twin Xidi for a visit. Hongun is undeniably beautiful – once you get past the selfie stick brigade, the expensive entry fee and the many shops selling green tea and souvenirs – but there are other quieter villages nearby that are equally worth a look. It is for that reason that we decided to base ourselves in Hongcun for two nights.
Hongcun’s most photogenic spots are the half-moon pond in the heart of the village and the pond at its entrance expansively known as ‘South Lake’. To get a picture of these places without the crowd, it’s worth getting out of bed at dawn. That’s when the still waters reflect the white stone buildings and you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a thread of morning mist hovering slightly above the lake. In my case, there was no early morning mist, just a drizzle and the smoke from early morning breakfast prep rising from the houses.
The Moon Pond is the heart of Hongcun. Literally. The village is believed to be designed according to geomancy principles, in the shape of an ox, with the Moon Pond considered to be the ‘stomach’. Being so photogenic, the pond is where most of the tourist action is. Movie fans may remember it for the location of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
A series of canals criss-cross the town, feeding into the Moon Pond before draining into the South Lake. As it was in the old days, residents still use the water from the canals to clean and wash everything from food to clothes. So yes, by the time it gets all the way out of the Moon Pond, and further downstream, the water really isn’t the cleanest around anymore. Which also means if you’re eating anywhere in town, may be best to find a place upstream. Or better yet, head out to the new town just after the old bridge. Just note that tickets for the old town are checked very strictly.
There is a small hole-in-the-wall shop at the Moon Pond that sells one of Hongcun’s well-known delicacies – the hairy stinky bean curd. It smells worse than it actually tastes and growing on top is a thin furry layer of mold. It’s pan-fried before served with a dollop of chilli. This was on my to-try list after I’d seen it featured on a TV programme on China’s unusual foods.
Because the Moon Pond and the South Lake are the main highlights of a visit to Hongcun, the crowd tends to be thicker there. Hongcun’s alleys further away from those spots are quieter and worth a visit too. We really enjoyed just wandering down the lanes, peeking through open doors and seeing how people live. We enjoyed sussing out the textures of the old towns we saw and Hongcun, while more cleaned up than the others, also provided what we loved most – the faded wood, peeling paint, tiny patches of mould, the cool patchiness of old weathered stone that have stood for centuries.
In Hongcun, the sound of running water is never absent – from the river at the western end of the town, to the streams and the drains criss-crossing the town. It’s not as romantic unfortunately because the water looks murky and in certain areas you do get a whiff of sewage pong.
In Hongcun it’s best to stay in the town itself. There are several old mansions converted into guesthouses and boutique hotels that are worth a stay. When the tourists leave and the lanterns are lit, the town is quiet once more and undergoes a nicely atmospheric change. The streetlights are few and far between and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think you might actually be wandering the streets of Hongcun as it was 300 years ago.
We stayed in a converted storehouse which was part of an old mansion. It came with its own small gate and garden. It’s easy to book local accommodation through Ctrip. Just note that not all places accept foreign credit cards and most prefer cash.
In Hongcun, meals are best sourced outside the old town across the bridge in the new, but uglier side of town. It’s cheaper and even better if you can score a seat at a riverside table with a view of the old town. We ate well and inexpensively there with one of the best mala tofu dishes I’ve had in China. Look beyond the construction debris and the general dinginess of the area and check out the restaurant strip just on the right of the bridge.
You can’t get a more scenic spot for breakfast than the small open square next to the Moon Pond. On the menu, simple but hearty noodles in soup, smoked duck legs, dumplings and soft sweet steamed buns whipped up by an elderly woman operating out of the eatery (extreme right picture) called Pei De Tang.
In the mornings before the busloads arrive, we shared the serenity of the Moon Pond with locals who were doing their washing, opening up their stores, chatting with neighbours. With its tall white walls and dark grey tiles, the houses of Hongcun and the villages of Anhui have a timeless elegance about them. They looked good centuries ago when they were first constructed and they continue to look good today. If anything, the patina of age adds dignity to architecture.
Getting to Hongcun:
From Wuyuan, we took the highspeed rail to Huangshan Bei station (20min away) and from there, found our way to the huge bus station adjoining the station. From there, we bought bus tickets for Hongcun at 30RMB per adult. The bus was big, clean and comfortable and on time. It took about an hour to arrive at Hongcun. The journey was scenic, passing through hills of tea bushes, bamboo groves and villages. The tickets were easy to purchase, especially if you read some basic Chinese and no reservations were needed. We simply showed up and bought them from the ticket window.
The big LED board above the ticket windows give very comprehensive information. Looking from left, the first column tells you the destination – Huangshan Bei to Hongcun, or Huangshan Scenic Area etc. A handy map at the side has English translations of the Chinese locations. The third column tells you the distance, the fourth shows the ticket price, fifth column lays out the departure times. As you can see, there are roughly 9 departures for Hongcun.
I’ve got so many pictures of Hongcun that it’s hard to pick just a few for the blog. But I thought I would just close this post with a picture of the Moon Pond at night.