Perched high above and deep within Wuyuan county is a little village. No bus can negotiate the multiple hairpin turns it takes to get here. As the narrow road winds ever higher, I started to feel mildly queasy, not being one for steep winding car rides. I looked out, the forests below falling away and in the distance, only blue hills and skies. Where were we going? We were searching for canola fields but up this high no one in their right mind could be planting anything. Where would they find enough flat land? How would they transport the crops? Clearly my doubts were misplaced. For the car came to a stop and my breath caught. This is what I saw. An impossible Eden as remote as you could place it. A flower garden in the eagles’ nest. This is the ancient, tiny hamlet of Zhapingtan.
The ride to Zhapingtan was a scenic one that turned off the main road, passing clusters of houses with the ubiquitous patches of canola, running beside a river and tea factory before it started to go uphill. The single carriageway was so narrow that at one point during our descent, we had to stop to allow a stream of cars to pass us.
Zhapingtan was our driver Mr Yu’s suggestion. I had never heard of this and in all our research, this village never came up. Mr Yu knew we wanted somewhere off the beaten path, somewhere few tourists venture. He himself had never been to Zhapingtan but he had been told it was one of the earliest settlements in Wuyuan, one of its oldest villages. Unlike the white Hui mansions which dotted the countryside, the houses at Zhapingtan were much older and were made of red clay and earth. We were intrigued. He turned on his GPS and off we went.
Zhapingtan is tiny. Apart from the cluster of some white houses, the older buildings were indeed made of red caked clay and mud and had stood for centuries. None of the fancy details of the Hui mansions are seen here. Certainly there are no decorative elements over the lintel, in the eaves of the buildings or on their doors and windows. Walk the rim of the village to see a temple in some disrepair, its deity forlornly hidden behind velvet drapes. Beyond that are the terraces of canola.
In Zhapingtan, life still went on pretty much as it did for centuries. The villagers still maintain their crops on the terraces, they still wash everything in designated pools – from vegetables to clothes. Maybe there is no piped water supply this high up?
I asked why the village was established in such a remote location. Mr Yu explained that China had seen much turmoil in its past, filled with the rise and fall of dynasties, wars and revolutions. The first settlers picked this spot principally because it was cut off from the world and difficult to access. As more people fled the unrest of the time and sought refuge here, the community grew. It was hard living to carve the terraces out of the hillsides but it was a livelihood that sustained them for many years.
But the 21st century has caught up with Zhapingtan. While it has escaped the main tourism crowds, the government is urging the residents of Zhapingtan to choose progress. For one, the ancient uneven slate paths were replaced by nicely tiled walkways throughout the village. On several walls, hand-painted slogans exhort residents to consider reform and to choose progress and modernity.
It’s hard to know if the elderly residents of Zhapingtan buy into this directive for progress and development. Zhapingtan is a village depleted of its youth, like many in China. It would be interesting to ask this group, for instance, what they thought.
Or this gentleman, sitting outside his house in the sun:
What would he make of all the calls for change and development? I’m not sure he actually even has a choice. With age catching up, how much longer can this community continue to maintain their canola fields and keep their quiet lifestyles in this eagle’s nest? I’m glad to have seen Zhapingtan as it is today. It may not remain as it is for long.