The most obvious reason to stop in TUNXI (屯溪, túnxī; aka Huang Shan Shi), down near Anhui’s southernmost borders, is for its transport connections to Huang Shan, 50km off to the northwest: Tunxi has the closest airport and train station to the mountain, and many long-distance buses pass through as well. However, if you’ve even the slightest interest in classical Chinese architecture, then Tunxi and its environs are worth checking out in their own right. Anhui’s isolation has played a large part in preserving a liberal sprinkling of seventeenth-century monuments and homes in the area, especially around Shexian (歙县, shèxiàn) and Yixian (黟县, yīxiàn).
An old trading centre, Tunxi is set around the junction of two rivers, with the original part of town along the north bank of the Xin’an Jiang at the intersection of Huang Shan Lu and Xin’an Lu, and a newer quarter focused around the train and bus stations 1km or so to the northeast. If you’ve time to spare, try tracking down two Ming-dynasty houses in Tunxi’s eastern backstreets (neither is well marked). The more easterly house is that of the mathematician Cheng Dawei (程大位居, chéngdàwèi jū); the other, closer to the old town, is known as the Cheng Family House (程氏三宅, chéngshì sānzhái). Both are classic examples of the indigenous Huizhou style, of which you’ll find plenty more at Shexian or Yixian. Their plan, of two floors of galleried rooms based around a courtyard, became the template for urban domestic architecture in central and eastern China.
For more, head down to Tunxi’s historic, flagstoned Lao Jie (老街, lăojiē; Old Street), a westerly continuation of Huang Shan Xi Lu. Here, a long stretch of Ming shops running parallel to the river have been restored, selling local teas, medicinal herbs and all manner of artistic materials and “antiques” – inkstones, brushes, Mao badges, decadent advertising posters from the 1930s and carved wooden panels prised off old buildings. Look out for the characteristic horse-head gables rising out below the rooflines in steps. These originated as fire baffles between adjoining houses, stopping the spread of flames from building to building, but became increasingly decorative.
Yixian and around
Yixian and around
YIXIAN (黟县, yīxiàn), 60km due west of Tunxi, should really only be seen as a stepping stone to the surrounding picturesque villages, two of which have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. One of those, Xidi (西递, xīdì), is the pick of the bunch and hence the most visited; a particularly attractive place comprising some 120 eighteenth-century houses set along a riverbank. There are endless examples of carved gilded wooden screens and panels inside the houses, as well as thin line paintings on front walls showing pairs of animals or “double happiness” characters. Mirrors placed above the three-tiered door lintels reflect bad luck or reveal a person’s true character – a useful tool for judging the nature of strangers. The other, Hongcun (宏村, hóngcūn), is also a fine spot, whose street plan resembles (with some imagination) the body of a buffalo, complete with horns, body and legs, while nearby Nanping (南屏村, nánpíng cūn), another preserved village of similar vintage, was used as a set in Zhang Yimou’s disturbing film Judou.