Wuyuan in spring and in the thick of the canola blooming season is packed with tourists who chase the flower trail. The well-known villages of Little Likeng, Jiangwan, Xiaoqi etc are flooded with visitors at this time of the year. We didn’t want to do the conga with everyone else and so we headed for the villages which were not quite on the tourist radar yet. Not too difficult to do since the county is quite big and the villages are quite spread out. In fact, the same scenic beauty spreads beyond Wuyuan across the border to Anhui province as well. With wheels and a driver, it was a beautiful day out exploring the path less taken but equally beautiful.
The day started with a pre-breakfast morning walk. The beauty of staying in Yancun means that the nearest flower fields were just 50m away from the inn. So bright and early, I started exploring the paths the locals used to reach their fields. My companions were residents out for a morning stroll with their cute dogs, women washing their clothes in the river and the occasional farmer heading deep into the sea of yellow.
The day before, we had asked the Skywells team for suggestions on where to go. Pretty much on the same wavelength, Ed suggested places where the footfall was less busy but his in-laws chimed in to say that we must not miss the following places – Huangling and the flower terraces of Jiangling. This, they insisted, was what defined Wuyuan’s beauty in spring. Truth be told in my pre-trip research, both these places popped up – Huangling for its almost Italian hilltown vibe and Jiangling for the canola terraces that seem to stretch into the distance. I wanted both but I also wanted to explore places that were less discovered.
Our driver, the affable Mr Yu, a baby-faced young man driving a bumpy Toyota christened with a Fast and Furious sticker helped us compromise. We would skip Jiangling, but visit Huangling, our concession to the touristy ‘must-see’ by Ed’s Chinese parents-in-law’s yardstick and also see another village that was quieter.
Getting to Huangling was a bit complex. We had to park in a public carpark then hop on a shuttle bus which will take us to the cable car station. Mind you, there are two cable car stations. That alone should tell you how commercial Huangling has become. En route, I even spied a helicopter parked by the road, its pilot waiting patiently for business.
We took the newer cable car up. From its exit, we had to cross a new bridge over the valley, then walk a bit uphill to Huangling, the actual village.
Yes the selfie stick brigade was out in full force. But I don’t blame them and I was glad I at least got to see this:
As far as the eye could see, spread across the valley are stepped terraces of yellow canola. Truly breathtaking. We didn’t need to go to Jiangling to see the canola terraces. They were right here at Huangling.
There were two bridges. We took the upper suspension bridge which had a murky glass centre at one point – not scary compared to the swaying that was going on. The wind was strong and the bridge was crowded and not a few times doubt assailed about whether the bridge could hold all of us. Between stopping to marvel at the view and gripping the handrail when the swaying got a bit much, we got across in one piece.
There was a flying fox ride running parallel to the bridge below us and given time, I would have loved to walk the terraces and taken a ride on the flying fox.
Huangling was packed. It’s beauty was not so much in the canola terraces around it, but the village itself, hugging a hillside and giving off a bit of the same vibe from hilltowns in Italy and France.
The village was also known for its large baskets of herbs and spices left to dry on wooden racks and poles perched on the balconies of homes. I say ‘was’ because we later learned no one actually lives in Huangling anymore. The houses were bought over, residents shipped out nearby and paid to come back to ‘sun’ their spices for the tourists. Sad. The houses you see have been converted to hotel rooms. In fact, all of Huangling was pretty much a giant hotel!
While the main thoroughfare was packed with people, the lower levels of the town were quieter. We passed houses with door numbers on them, aghast and intrigued by the concept of an entire town as a hotel. The idea of spending a night in an authentic house overlooking the canola terraces is tantalising but the knowledge that this is actually a Disneyfied version of a traditional village is appalling.
Net result – is Huangling picturesque? Yes. Worth a visit? Hmm perhaps. But know that it is no longer an authentic working, living, breathing village but a village repurposed for tourism dollars. Can only happen in a place like China where big business buys out residents wholesale and converts an entire town/village into an instant theme park. Huangling is not the first and certainly won’t be the last. Wuzhen is another example. Should I marvel or cry at their sheer chutzpah to do this?
Our next stop couldn’t be more different from Huangling.
Turning off from the national road and wending uphill on tiny turns, there was only one road to access Qingyuan. At first I wondered where we were going – but as Mr Yu navigated the last turn and started to move downhill, I saw the scene below. Tucked away in a valley filled with flowers, a river flowing through it, an inhabited working village that is completely the opposite of Huangling. The river and townscape was very reminiscent of Tongli and other water towns in the Jiangsu area.
Follow the river and it will lead you out to the fields of canola. Lining the river are humble restaurants, grocery stores, open doors to someone’s kitchen, hanging laundry. Residents went about their day. The houses were old, not spruced up and some looked worse for wear but it was certainly lived in. Sure, there were occasional stands which sold souvenirs but it wasn’t a lucrative money-spinner judging from the size of the crowd at the village.
Qingyuan gave off the peaceful vibes of a working class community in this tiny village, so far from the madding crowds of the other showy towns on the flower trail. It was not easy to get to and probably one reason why the hordes have not found their way here is because there is only one road in and out which is too narrow and steep for the big tour buses to access. Lucky for us, but if I were a Qingyuan resident, I might wish otherwise.