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 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 Ming architecture.
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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. Despite the expansion of highways and railways – not to mention several huge bridges across the Yangzi – Anhui’s economy still trails its booming neighbours, though there are compensations for this underdevelopment. 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.
Rearing over southern Anhui, Huang Shan – the Yellow Mountains – are staggeringly scenic, with pinnacles emerging from thick bamboo forests, above which rock faces dotted with ancient, contorted pine trees disappear into the swirling mists. This magical landscape has left an indelible impression on Chinese art, with painters a common sight on mountain paths, huddled in padded jackets and sheltering their work from the drizzle beneath umbrellas. Indeed, so great is Huang Shan’s influence on the national psyche – it’s said that once you’ve ascended these peaks you will never need to climb another mountain – that 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.
Ascending Huang Shan
Huang Shan barely rises above 1870m, but as you hike up either of the staircases on the trails it can begin to feel very high indeed. You’ll need between two and eight hours to walk up, depending on whether you follow the easier eastern route or the lengthy and demanding western route. Alternatively, cable cars take upwards of twenty minutes to ascend, though queues can be horrendous (there’s usually less of a wait to go down), and services are suspended during windy weather. Once at the top, there’s a half-day of relatively easy hiking around the peaks.
Ideally, plan to spend two or three days on the mountain to allow for a steady ascent and circuit, though it’s quite feasible to see a substantial part of Huang Shan in a full day. Accommodation in Tangkou and Wenquan will store surplus gear: just bring a daypack, suitable footwear and something warm and weatherproof for the top – not forgetting the likelihood of year-round rain, and winter snow.
Sanguo: The Three Kingdoms
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
So, rather cynically, begins China’s great fourteenth-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Covering 120 chapters and a cast of thousands, the tale touches heavily on the Yangzi basin, which, as a buffer zone between the Three Kingdoms, formed the backdrop for many major battles. Some surviving sites are covered in this chapter and elsewhere in the Guide.
Opening in 168 AD, the Romance recounts the decline of the Han empire and how China was subsequently split into three states by competing warlords. The two original protagonists were the villainous Cao Cao and the virtuous Liu Bei, whose watery character was compensated for by the strength of his spirited sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu – the latter eventually becoming enshrined in the Chinese pantheon as the red-faced god of war and healing. A political dispute between Cao and Liu eventually broke down into forthright conflict, their armies fighting numerous campaigns through the Yangzi basin – both sides all the time claiming to represent the emperor’s wishes. Cao was eventually defeated in Hubei at the Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD), after Liu engaged the aid of the wily adviser Zhuge Liang, who boosted Liu’s heavily outnumbered forces by enlisting the help of a third warlord, Sun Quan – a campaign recently brought to life in John Woo’s blockbuster Red Cliff movies.
Consolidating their positions, each of the three formed a private kingdom: Cao Cao retreated north to the Yellow River basin where he established the state of Wei around the ailing imperial court; Sun Quan set up Wu farther south along the lower Yangzi; while Liu Bei built a power base in the riverlands of Sichuan, the state of Shu. The alliance between Shu and Wu fell apart when Sun Quan asked Guan Yu to betray Liu. Guan refused and was assassinated by Sun in 220 AD. At this point Cao Cao died, and his ambitious son, Cao Pi, forced the emperor to abdicate and announced himself head of a new dynasty. Fearing retaliation from the state of Shu after Guan Yu’s murder, Sun Quan decided to support Cao Pi’s claims, while over in Shu, Liu Bei also declared his right to rule.
Against Zhuge Liang’s advice, Liu marched against Wu to avenge Guan Yu’s death, but his troops mutinied, killing Zhang Fei. Humiliated, Liu withdrew to Baidicheng in the Yangzi Gorges and died. With him out of the way, Cao Pi attacked Sun Quan, who was forced to renew his uncomfortable alliance with Shu – now governed by Zhuge Liang – to keep the invaders out of his kingdom. By 229 AD, however, things were stable enough for Sun Quan to declare himself as a rival emperor, leaving Zhuge to die five years later fighting the armies of Wei. Wei was unable to pursue the advantage, as a coup against Cao Pi started a period of civil war in the north, ending around 249 AD when the Sima clan emerged victorious. Sun Quan died soon afterwards, while Shu abandoned all claim to the empire. Wei’s Sima clan founded a new dynasty, the Jin, in 265 AD, finally overpowering Wu and uniting China in 280 AD.
YIXIAN, a county town 60km due west of Tunxi, is not of interest in itself and should only be seen as a stepping stone to the surrounding picturesque villages, two of which have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Accommodation in Yixian
As the gateway to Huang Shan, Tunxi has a decent range of accommodation choices, mainly concentrated around the train station and on the other side of town near Lao Jie and the river.
Yixian food and drink
Tunxi has plenty of good restaurants in which to sample the local huicai fare. As well as the listings here there are numerous small restaurants around the Xin’an Nan Lu-Lao Jie intersection. Near the train station, cheap eats can be found at the string of canteens off Qianyuan Lu on Hehuachi Zaochi Yitiao Jie (荷花池早吃一条街, héhuāchí zăochī yìtiáojiē).
Getting around Yixian
Tunxi’s centre is small enough to walk around, though you might need transport for arrival points.
One of the highlights of a visit to southern Anhui is the chance to see Huizhou houses, whose plan of two floors of galleried rooms based around a courtyard became the template for urban domestic architecture in eastern China. Tunxi’s best two examples are hidden in the eastern backstreets, both threatenend by ever-encroaching modern buildings. The more easterly house is that of the mathematician Cheng Dawei (程大位居, chéngdàwèi jū; ¥30; 8am–5pm); the other, closer to the old town, is known as the Cheng Family House (程氏三宅, chéngshì sānzhái; ¥30; 8am–5pm). Further examples can be found at the new riverside park development of Hubian Gucun (湖边古村, húbiān gǔcūn), where some 40 original Huizhou houses and two paifang memorial arches have been relocated, and you’ll find plenty more at Shexian or Yixian.
Any exploration of Shexian will reveal traditional Ming and Qing architectural features, most notably the paifang or ornamental archways – there are over eighty of these in She County alone. Wood or stone, paifang can be over 10m in height, and are finely carved, painted or tiled, the central beam often bearing a moral inscription.
They were constructed for a variety of reasons, foremost among which, cynics would argue, was the ostentatious display of wealth. This aside, the gateways were built to celebrate or reward virtuous behaviour, family success, important historical events or figures, and to reflect prevailing values such as filial piety; as such, they provide a valuable insight into the mores of the time.