Despite a government vision of Anhui (安徽, ānhuī) as a wealthy corridor between coast and interior, the region continues to live up to its reputation as eastern China’s poorest province. It has a long history, however, and not all of it bad. Million-year-old remains of the proto-human Homo erectus have been found here, while Shang-era copper mines in southern Anhui fuelled China’s Bronze Age. The province later became known for its artistic refinements, from decorative Han tombs through to Song-dynasty porcelain and Ming architecture.
Any success, however, has been in the face of Anhui’s unfriendly geography. Arid and eroded, the north China plains extend into its upper third as far as the Huai River, and while the south is warmer and wetter, the fertile wooded hills soon climb to rugged mountains, where little can grow. Historically, though, the flood-prone Yangzi itself has ensured Anhui’s poverty by regularly inundating the province’s low-lying centre, which would otherwise produce a significant amount of crops. Until recently, a lack of bridges across the river also created a very physical division, separating the province’s mountainous south from its more settled regions. Despite improvements in infrastructure since the 1990s, including the expansion of highways and railways, Anhui seems to remain, rather unfairly, as economically retarded as ever.
For the visitor, this isn’t all bad news. Neither Hefei – the provincial capital – nor the north has much beyond history; yet there are compensations for Anhui’s lack of development south of the Yangzi. Here, superlative mountain landscapes at Huang Shan and the collection of Buddhist temples at Jiuhua Shan have been pulling in sightseers for centuries, and there’s a strong cultural tradition stamped on the area, with a substantial amount of antique rural architecture surviving intact around Tunxi. A riverside reserve near Xuancheng protects the Chinese alligator, one of the world’s most endangered animals, though another local species, the Yangzi river dolphin, is now classified extinct.
Flooding aside (and there’s a near guarantee of this affecting bus travel during the summer months), the main problem with finding your way around Anhui is that many towns have a range of aliases, and can be differently labelled on maps and timetables. Rail lines connect Hefei to Nanjing through Wuhu – Anhui’s major port – with other lines running west towards Changsha, north to Xi’an and Beijing, and south from Tunxi to Jiangxi.