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.Read More
Nestled in the heart of the province but generally overlooked in the rush to cross the Yangzi and reach Huang Shan, Anhui’s capital, HEFEI (合肥, héféi) gets few chance visitors. Only developed as a modest industrial base after 1949, Hefei’s sole points of interest are a couple of historical sites and an unusually thorough museum. The street layout retains its concentric ring-roads of yore, which can make navigation confusing, but aside from that, with its concrete highrises and KFCs, there’s little to differentiate Hefei from countless other modern Chinese cities. Nevertheless, it’s a comfortable enough place to stay, can be a handy transport hub and the locals will be happy, if perhaps surprised, to see you. Ringed by parkland and canals – the remains of Ming-dynasty moats – downtown Hefei resembles a suburban high street more than a provincial capital. The few sights worth visiting aren’t too far off that main strip.
The Yangzi (长江, chángjiāng) flows silt-grey and broad for 350km across Anhui’s lower third, forming a very visible geographic boundary – the fact that as recently as 1995 the only way to cross the river was by ferry is an indication of the province’s chronic underdevelopment. It’s now bridged in the east at Wuhu (芜湖, wúhú) and roughly halfway along at Tongling (铜岭, tónglĭng) where a reserve was at the forefront of unsuccessful efforts to save the baiji, or Yangzi river dolphin (白鲫河, báijì hé). Though the animals – 2.5m-long white river dolphins with a long thin snout and a stubby dorsal fin – were common as recently as the 1970s, a 2007 survey of the river failed to find a single one, the species’ demise linked to industrial pollution, river traffic and net fishing. The dolphins may linger on only in Tongling’s Baiji beer, which has their Latin name, Lipotes vexillifer, stamped on the bottle cap.
Most of the riverside towns don’t really justify special trips, but Ma’anshan and Xuancheng offer a modicum of interest for their poetic and herpetological associations, respectively.
A place of worship for fifteen hundred years, JIUHUA SHAN (九华山, jiǔhuá shān; also known as Nine Glorious Mountains, a name bestowed by the Tang man of letters Li Bai on seeing the major pinnacles rising up out of clouds) has been one of China’s sacred Buddhist mountains ever since the Korean monk Jin Qiaojue (believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Dizang, whose doctrines he preached) died here in a secluded cave in 794 AD. Today, there are more than seventy temples – some founded back in the ninth century – containing a broad collection of sculptures, religious texts and early calligraphy, though there are also plenty of visitors (many of them overseas Chinese and Koreans) and some outsized building projects threatening to overwhelm Jiuhua Shan’s otherwise human scale. Even so, an atmosphere of genuine devotion is clearly evident in the often austere halls, with their wisps of incense smoke and distant chanting.
Just inside the village gates, Zhiyuan Si (执园寺, zhíyuán sì) is an imposing Qing monastery built with smooth, vertical walls, upcurving eaves and a yellow-tiled roof nestled up against a cliff. Despite a sizeable exterior, the numerous little halls are cramped and stuffed with sculptures, including a fanged, bearded and hooknosed thunder god bursting out of its protective glass cabinet just inside the gate. Head for the main hall, in which a magnificently gilded Buddhist trinity sits solemnly on separate lotus flowers, blue hair dulled by incense smoke, and ringed by arhats. This makes quite a setting for the annual temple fair, held in Dizang’s honour on the last day of the seventh lunar month, when the hall is packed with worshippers, monks and tourists. Make sure you look behind the altar, where Guanyin statuettes ascend right to the lofty wooden roof beams.
If you follow the main road around through the village, the next temple of note is the new and garish Dabei Lou (大悲楼, dàbēi lóu), which sports some hefty carved stonework; more or less opposite, Huacheng Si (化城寺, huàchéng sì) is the mountain’s oldest surviving temple, which may date as far back as to the Tang, though it has been comprehensively restored. The stone entrance is set at the back of a large cobbled square whose centrepiece is a deep pond inhabited by some giant goldfish. Inside, Huacheng’s low-ceilinged, broad main hall doubles as a museum, with paintings depicting the life of Jin Qiaojue from his sea crossing to China (accompanied only by a faithful hound) to his death at the age of 90, and the discovery of his miraculously preserved corpse three years later.
- Tunxi and around
Rearing over southern Anhui, Huang Shan (黄山, húangshān）– the Yellow Mountains – is among eastern China’s greatest sights. It’s said that once you’ve ascended these peaks you will never want to climb another mountain, and certainly the experience is staggeringly scenic, with pinnacles emerging from thick bamboo forests, above which rock faces dotted with ancient, contorted pine trees disappear into the swirling mists. Huang Shan’s landscape has left an indelible impression on Chinese art, with painters a common sight on the paths, huddled in padded jackets and sheltering their work from the drizzle beneath umbrellas – the more serious of them spend months at a time up here.
As a pilgrimage site trodden by emperors and Communist leaders alike, Huang Shan is regarded as sacred in China, and it’s the ambition of every Chinese to conquer it at least once in their lifetime. Consequently, don’t expect to climb alone: noisy multitudes swarm along the neatly paved paths, or crowd out the three cable-car connections to the top. All this can make the experience depressingly like visiting an amusement park, but then you’ll turn a corner and come face to face with a huge, smooth monolith topped by a single tree, or be confronted with views of a remote square of forest growing isolated on a rocky platform. Nature is never far away from reasserting itself here.