Yellow is the colour of spring in Wuyuan county. From small garden patches to sprawling fields, canola in bloom gives Wuyuan bursts of sunny yellow and its well deserved title of China’s most beautiful villages. The landscape is classic China – ancient stone against the softness of the yellow flowers and the occasional peach blossom. On my first visit to Wuyuan years ago, I did not manage to see this, having come in April when the season was already over. This time, I was determined to see it in all its glory. And so in mid March, I made my way back to Wuyuan county.
We took the train from Hangzhou to Wuyuan county; an easy 2 hour ride on the bullet train from Hangzhou East station. It was all familiar yet different. The bullet train station was new when I first went there a few years ago but in the space of two years, so much in the immediate environment had changed. New shophouses and highrise apartment blocks have sprung up in the suburbs around the station and just behind Wuyuan county town. I could not recognise the place.
The building boom was already apparent two years ago with many projects beginning construction, cranes and bulldozers everywhere. Today, these have been completed with many more on the way. But yet many of the projects did not look occupied. Is this one manifestation of a property bubble in the making?
Our taxi driver looked very familiar. I thought he was the one whose taxi we booked for half a day in my visit two years ago. When I mentioned it, he said he vaguely recalled taking us around. If you’re in the neighbourhood and you need a car and driver, give Mr Hu a call. Leave me a message and I’ll email you his number.
Our taxi from the train station took us to Sixiyancun, about a 20-minute ride away where we had booked two nights at the beautifully restored Skywells inn. Sixiyancun is a heritage site which actually comprises two villages – Yancun and Sixi – linked by fields of canola and a slate stone path.
We stayed at the award-winning Skywells, a restored Hui mansion run by Edward Gawnes and his family at the Yancun end of the site. I’m glad we stayed at Skywells. It was a wonderful comfortable haven at the end of a long day of sight-seeing. Sensitively restored to its original glory but with modern facilities and contemporary decor, it is no wonder that Skywells has won a slew of design awards and has been featured in several magazines. My room had a nifty little surprise too. Like Narnia, the wardrobe doors hid a secret world – in this case, it was a closet-size secret ‘cell’ with a tiny window and a beanbag. Cool place to just chill away from the world.
We were well fed at Skywells too. Breakfast was Chinese style but the fritters and bao-zhi were made by Gawnes’ mother-in-law and absolutely delicious! So much so that on our last day, because we were checking out early and had to skip breakfast, she brought us into the kitchen, and insisted on generously packing us with enough fritters to last well beyond breakfast.
We ate dinner there nightly too for a fixed price meal of 80RMB per head where the dishes on the table depended on what was freshest from the market and the garden that day. A fellow guest who has travelled widely and stayed at many similar properties told us that Skywells had the best food. I believe her. This simple, earnest Chinese cooking would not have been out of place in any Chinese home.
Our first day in Sixiyancun was wet but we were ready for it with waterproof windbreakers, waterproof shoes and off we went for a hike from Yancun to Sixi via the old postal road linking both villages.
The rain gave a misty quality to the surrounding hills. We sloshed through the path, stopping once in a while to just marvel at the surrounding fields of yellow and the occasional family of water buffalo. Sixi was familiar to me, having been there before too so this time I wasn’t caught up in seeing the key attractions, but just enjoyed soaking up the ambience of this village, starting from the old bridge which doubled as the village square where villagers hung out to shoot the breeze and eyeball the tourists coming to their village.
In one of the mansions we visited, we bumped into our host’s parents-in-law who were bringing some guests around as well. They had a guide and kindly urged us to join the group to listen in on the explanations. We did at first but were happier later to just wander down the nooks and crannies on our own. The rain deepened the shadows, the blacks and the greys while giving the green moss and lichen an almost luminous viridescence. In wandering these little alleys, I wondered what life might have been like then and now, and fantasised idly about maybe one day doing what the Gawnes had done – buying a decrepit old house and restoring it with love and respect. There were certainly enough crumbly options around that triggered this imagination.
We made our way back to Yancun by the main road this time, tired but satisfied after a long day out. The next day we would go further afield to discover other white villages amidst the yellow.
One last look at Sixi’s old covered bridge. There is larger version of the covered bridge in Wuyuan county known as the Rainbow Bridge. We visited it on the last day but I think that one is really over-rated. This little one in Sixi had a lot more personality and character partly because it was smaller but also because it was clearly the main thoroughfare to the village and great for people-watching.