I once read a newspaper story covering Zhouzhuang, one of southern China’s most famous historic towns, accompanied by a picture illustrating the bustling local tourism. The picture showed the renowned Double Bridges full of camera-toting tourists led by flag-bearing guides with megaphones in hand. Every boat passing under the bridges was also packed. Actually, such a scene is not uncommon in China’s tourist hotspots during peak seasons.
In the late spring of 2010, I traveled alone to Anhui Province. It was nearing the May 1st holiday when I arrived in Tunxi District, the government seat of Huangshan City. The streets were crowded with noisy vendors and tourists coming to visit the famous Huangshan Mountain. Without hesitation, I fled the boisterous town to nearby Shexian, a small, ancient county that offered a peaceful, comfortable afternoon. The next day, I opted to visit another locale with similar tranquility.
A local friend recommended Chengkan, which was praised as the “first village south of the Yangtze River” by Zhu Xi, a prestigious scholar of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). However, I wondered if the small, remote village still deserved such a haughty reputation.
Despite my doubts, I hopped on a minibus to Chengkan early in the morning. As the vehicle neared it, the road became more and more rugged.
The moment I arrived, the village and surrounding croplands were still shrouded in thick morning haze, which added an air of mystery. I discussed with the driver a time to pick me up and left the car. The air was fresh and wet, and I began feeling as if the old village had been waiting for me for centuries. Although the calendar claimed it was the height of the tourist season, only a few other visitors could be found. I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of souvenir stands at the entrance to the village, which is unlike most of China’s tourist destinations.
Before my visit, I didn’t know much about the historic village which was constructed according to Chinese fengshui theory - except that it was home to many influential Anhui merchant clans and classical structures ranging from the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) to the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty. So, I hired a local girl to be my guide. However, she didn’t seem to know much more than me. While introducing me to the village’s scenic spots, my guide occasionally chatted with other villagers and played with children and puppies we encountered along the way. Perhaps she wasn’t the perfect guide according to professional standards, but I enjoyed her carefree style. My mission was more relaxation than study anyway. If I wanted to gather information, my time would be better spent at home on the internet.