JIANGXI PROVINCE (pop 43 million)
Jiangxi is just east of Hunan and north of Guangdong and Hong Kong. It is an interconnected web of rivers, lakes and rice paddies. At the edges are low-lying hills and more substantial mountains, shrouded in perpetual mist. At the northern border is Poyang Lake, a wetlands area that swells to become the country’s largest freshwater lake in summer.
Nanchang (pop. 2.5 million) is the capital in the north-central part of the province. It is not on many people’s must-see list. All the major attractions are in the mountains: Lushan in the far north and Sanqing Shan (1820m), one of the country’s most underrated national parks, in the north-east corner. September to November may be the best months to visit as there is less rainfall and moderate temperatures.
History. Jiangxi’s Gan River Valley was the principal trade route that linked Guangdong with the rest of the country in imperial times. Its strategic location, natural resources and long growing season ensured that the province has always been relatively well off. It is most famous for its imperial porcelain, although its contributions to philosophy and literature are perhaps more significant, particularly during the Tang and Song dynasties. Lushan was an important Buddhist center, and was with neo-Confucianism from 1130-1200 was the intellectual center of the time. At Longhu Shan was centered Taoism under the powerful Zhengyi sect of the Song dynasty (960-1279).
Peasant unrest swept through the Yangzi River Valley in the 16th, 19th (Taiping Rebellion), and 20th century (Communists).
Climate. Central Jiangxi in the Gan River plain has a four-season subtropical climate. Mountains encircle the plain and locals escape the summer heat with temperatures averaging above 30° in July. Rainfall averages 120-190cm annually, heaviest in the NE, and half falls between April and June.
Transportation. Nanchang is connected by high-speed train to Beijing in the north, Changsha to the west, Shanghai to the east and Guangzhou to the south. Getting around is easy.
I took the bus four hours south-east from Zhangjiajie to Changsha (08:30-12:30), a bus one hour from the Changsha bus station to the Changsha South Railway Station, the high-speed train 1½ hours east to Nanchang (average speed over 300km/hour, top speed 306km/hour. 17:02-18:32), and then a local train 1 hour north to Jiujiang (20:09-21:10), the city closest to Lushan. It was a full day of travel. Total cost 300¥ ($50) to travel across 1½ provinces. The train stations in Changsha and Nanchang are amazingly huge, modern places. We have nothing remotely comparable in Canada. Vancouver’s train station may have 1-2 trains and a handful of bus departures per day moving a few hundred people.
I was hustled by an old guy at the train station and followed him to his budget place (80¥). It was basic to say the least – squat toilet, only one light bulb and junky but had a good bed, wi-fi and a water kettle. What more do you need?
Lushan. One of the great early monastic centers of Chinese civilization, the dramatic fog-enshrouded cliffs of Lushan have attracted monastics and thinkers for 1500 years. The monk Hui Yuan, one of the first Chinese teachers to promote meditation, founded Pure Land Buddhism here in the 4th century. Tao Yuanming, a contemporary, was China’s first landscape poet.
Many writers resided here over the centuries but the Taiping Rebellion destroyed almost everything of note in the mid-19th century. Western colonists and missionaries followed. The Nobel Prize-winner Pearl S Buck lived here. Following the CPP’s rise to power, it was transformed into an infamous political conference center, today a draw for many domestic tourists.
Some of the notable residences are Meilu Villa (Chang Kaishek, 1930s), Zhou Enlai Residence (former premier), and the Lushan Conference Hall (CCP meetings in 1959 and 1970).
Some of the hikes are: 1. Wu Lao Feng or Five Old Men Peak (1358m), 2. Three Step Waterfall and 3. Dragon Head Cliff – a natural rock platform on the NW rim with a huge natural drop and spectacular views across Jiangxi’s plains.
After paying the exorbitant entry of 180¥ ($30) with no price reduction for seniors, it is 23km up the mountain into the cloud. You think you are headed to somewhere remote but there is a big town spread over the top of the mountain. I had no clue where to go without a map and walked around a lake and some forest, went to Villa Meilu and the Zhou Enlai Residence and finally found the Lushan Sightseeing Bus Map that directs you to stops at Five Old Men Peak, Three Step Waterfall and Guilin for the Dragon Head Cliff. But everything was in total cloud and visibility 20m. Lushan is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and to tick one more off may be the only reason to come here, especially for that much money.
From Jiujiang, I traveled by bus 3 hours east to Wuyuan, Jiangxi Province and then north another 3 hours to Tunxi, Anhui. Chinese pack an amazing variety of stuff on buses – 50lb bags of rice, huge duffels, pails, rattan baskets. On the first bus, the cargo bays were crammed full and large suitcases blocked the aisle.
ANHUI PROVINCE (pop 64.1 million)
This province is in east-central China just west of Shanghai. The main attractions here are in the southeastern part of the province just north east of Jiujiang. Huangshan, a jumble of sheer granite cliffs wrapped in clouds is unquestionably the main attraction. At the foot of the mountain are the ancient villages of Huizhou. I came for both. Both these are accessed around the town of Tunxi, well-connected to the big cities that are relatively near.
History. The Qing dynasty brought together two disparate geographic regions – the arid, densely populated North China Plain and the mountainous terrain south of the Yangzi River. Traditionally impoverished, people left here to do business or fill official posts elsewhere, but who fulfilled their filial duty and sent their profits home. Today it is no different.
Climate. Anhui has a warm temperate climate with heavy rain in spring and summer that often brings flooding. Winters are damp and very cold. Raingear and warm clothing for the mountain areas are a necessity at any time of year.
Tunxi (pop 77,000). This town is the main access point for trips to Huangshan and the surrounding Huizhou villages, much closer than Hefei, the province’s capital. The town’s main attraction is Old Street, a pedestrian street full of knick-knack shops and restaurants. The tops of most buildings have gorgeous woodwork. You might think it was cold here as every motorcycle has hand mitts and a “jacket” that covers their legs and middle. I went to the supermarket and found muesli and other basics. Trying to find sugar cubes was an adventure – with a bag of sugar in my hand, I drew small cubes and it took 5 women to figure out what I wanted. They didn’t have any. On my way back to Old Street, I passed several brothels with overdressed women lounging in the foyers.
I wanted to stay not in the main city but close to the bus station, 2kms west. There was a lovely hostel, The Cozy Hostel about a block away (40¥/night). It is joined to the Green Tree Inn and looks like a hotel. It is possibly the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in. When I first looked up hostels for Tunxi in Hostelworld and Ctrip, there were no listings, but later found out they are listed under Huangshan – very confusing.
This was the home of highly successful merchants dealing in lumber, tea and salt, in addition to running pawn shops throughout China. At age 13 men left home to do business elsewhere, sometimes returning only once per year. Their families stayed here in lavish residences with some of the largest ancestral halls in the country. This makes the villages some of the loveliest in China set in hills with bamboo and pine forests.
The villages are divided into Western (Xidi, Hongcun, Tachuana, Nanping, Guanlu, and Mukeng Zhuhai, all Yixian towns), rarely visited Northern (Chengkan and Tangmo) and Eastern (Shexian and Yuliang) groups. Xidi and Hongcun are Unesco World Heritage listed.
Huizhou Style Architecture is the main attraction. Yixian and Shexian towns have the most typical: whitewashed walls with inset stone lattice grills, topped with horse-head gables (originally designed to prevent fire traveling along the line of houses, later evolving into decorative motifs), dark tiles, and high narrow windows (designed to protect the residences from thieves).
Exterior doors are overhung with decorative eaves and carved brick or stone lintels often very costly, but the doors themselves very cheap. Lintel carvings are decorated with vases, urns, animals, flowers and ornamental motifs. The doors are flanked by drum stones or mirror stones. Interior courtyards are illuminated by light wells (rectangular openings in the roof).
Inside, intricately carved wood panels extend two floors. Upper floors are supported on wood columns. Furnishings consist of half-tables against the walls (if together, the master would be home), and mantelpieces with a clock and mirror symbolizing peace and harmony.
Decorative archways were constructed by imperial decree to honor an individual’s achievements (becoming a high official for men or leading a chaste life for women). Archways are common in China and don’t always carry symbolic meaning but in Huizhou they were of great importance because they gave the merchants – who occupied the bottom rung of the Confucian social ladder (under artisans, peasants and scholars), much-desired social prestige.
I caught the 07:00 bus to Yixian and then a local bus to Xidi (entrance 106¥, reduced to 53¥ for over 60), 75 minutes from Tunxi.
Xidi has for centuries been a stronghold of the Hu clan, descended from the eldest son of the last Tang emperor who fled here. It shows the benefit of Unesco status as, unlike all other ancient towns in China, is totally unrestored – a large three-tiered Ming dynasty stone arch, a maze of flagstone lanes, a creek bridged with gigantic stones, homes and halls. The aggressive vendors (a big selection of antiques and Mao memorabilia) keep inside their homes avoiding the jumble of businesses on sidewalks. Walk up to the Observation Pavilion for views down to the boat-shaped town. I then got a 30-minute bus directly to Hongcun.
Hongcun. Dating to the southern Song dynasty, this village was built in the shape of an ox – the central Moon Pond is its stomach and the many canals its entrails. Enter at South Lake and explore the flagstone paths through narrow alleys, bridges, and lakeside views. The most outstanding hall is the 1855 Chengzhi Hall with fabulous woodcarvings on the heavy beams that required 4 years to complete. Two 500-year-old trees form the horns of the ox.
I had planned on going to Huangshan on my second day in Tunxi, but with a 100% chance of rain, I passed, as views would be limited in the total cloud and hiking difficult. With its granite peaks and twisted pines, it may be one of China’s top five sites. But the crowds are usually huge. It rains more than 200 days per year on the mountain – April to June tend to be misty, July and August are in the rainy season, and September and October are generally the best time to visit. It is generally cold on the summit. Huangshan is not one of China’s sacred mountains, so little religious activity is present.
Buses from Tunxi head to Tangkou at the base of the mountain. The dizzying entrance fee is 230¥. Three routes attain the top: the short, hard 7.5km eastern steps, the long, harder 15km western steps, or the very short, easy cable car (80¥, queues can be huge). The summit has a network of trails to the various peaks. A recommended area with fewer tourists is the rugged, exposed West Sea Canyon, an 8.5km hike taking a minimum of 4 hours. It is difficult to see the entire mountain in one day so most hikers spend a night on the mountain. Dorm rooms ranged from 180-380¥. A hot springs (238¥) is at the base of the east steps and cable car. I saved a lot of money by not going.
On the morning of November 30th, I got the 07:40 bus to Nanjing in Jiangsu Province.