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Hillsides of gold, red and white

By Zhang Zixuan | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-02 05:01

 Hillsides of gold, red and white

Above: Baskets of red chilies bask in the autumn sun before they appear on the dining table. Top: Wuyuan, in Jiangxi province, is known for its idyllic landscape and abundance of cultural relics, like this roofed bridge dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Photos provided to China Daily

Wuyuan, a county set in the mountains of Jiangxi province, is an ideal place to slow down, wander among old homes and smell the flowers. Zhang Zixuan checks out the scenery.

If there's one place that evokes the tranquil beauty of Chinese ink painting, it is Wuyuan. The county in northeastern Jiangxi province, dubbed "China's most beautiful countryside", features hills dotted with black and white homes.

Established in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Wuyuan is one of the cradles of Huizhou culture, which was nurtured by booming trade and featured strong influences of clans and Confucianism. The county's distinctive homes, built in the style of Huizhou architecture, have black roofs and white walls.

The walls themselves are inlaid with black bricks shaped like horse heads, hence the name "horse-head walls". With the passage of time, rain and moisture have penetrated the white walls and have given them the watered down look of ink paintings.

In strict accordance with tradition, the brick and wood structures are decorated with exquisitely handcrafted wood, brick and stone sculptures, now considered State-level intangible cultural heritage pieces.

Homes are interspersed with ancestral temples, showing the residents' respect and pride for their community's history. The buildings are also constructed at different heights to prevent fires from quickly spreading.

Visiting Wuyuan feels like going back in time, to an era when the pace of life was slower and people lived closer to nature. Besides its signature architecture, the county is also known for its fields of cole flowers.

In spring, their golden petals blanket the horizon. In Jiangling village, the blossoms cover curved terraces, like luxurious brocade, cascading from hilltop to valley.

When autumn comes, the flowers paint the land a fiery red. In the village of Huangling, the scarlet in the landscape is accented by the hundreds of chilies laid out to dry in wicker baskets, which sit on wooden rods jutting out of homes.

The names of Wuyuan's villages usually include the character "keng", which means "stream" in the local dialect. This is how residents acknowledge the importance of the rivers that snake through their villages, sustaining communities that have nurtured countless generations of scholars, officials and tradesmen.

Two of Wuyuan's villages actually have the same name - Likeng - except they're written in different ways. To distinguish between the two, locals call one "Big Likeng" and the other "Small Likeng".

Small Likeng is better known and gets more visitors since it's only 12 km from the county seat. Its accessible location has brought the village both fame and commercialization. Several TV series and films have been shot here, and this has drawn even more visitors.

Most homes located on the riverbanks double as shops and hostels. They sell camphor tree products, rice wine and local snacks. The sounds of vendors calling out their wares and tourists bargaining with them create a lively rhythm.

One upside of Wuyuan's commercialization is the quality of its tourist services. Among all the county's villages, Small Likeng probably has the widest selection of restaurants, bars and hostels to suit customers of every budget. Big Likeng, on the other hand, is much quieter and relatively untouched.

Situated on a hill 56 km from the county seat, Big Likeng is quite hard to reach. Visitors need to take a car or motorbike taxi to traverse the winding mountain road, which is sometimes blocked by soil that rain has eroded.

For tourists seeking a challenge, a bicycle ride to the village may be just what they need.

Since homes in Big Likeng are made of wood, many of them did not survive the fires that have broken out throughout the centuries. But their ruins, navigable through moss-covered flagstone paths, remain intact.

The village has become a favorite destination of art students and photographers, who sometimes stay for months documenting the majestic old architecture.

At the village entrance, visitors will often find local farmers chatting with each other. They're usually willing to serve as tour guides at a cost of 20 yuan ($3.20) for every three hours.

They'll take visitors through Big Likeng's narrowest alleys, show them the village's most important buildings and point out the best spots for taking photos.

Sometimes they might even help tourists catch a harmless brown bee, and put the insect between the visitors' cupped palms for an instant "hand massage". At the same time, they'll tell them which type of bees can sting without mercy.

When the guides finish their job, they return to their everyday routine of playing with their children, drying vegetables under the sun, repairing shoes or washing clothes in the river.

When night falls, Big Likeng, along with Wuyuan's other villages, falls silent, like an ink landscape painting waiting to be viewed for another thousand years.

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