Pigs in Heaven – my trip to ancient village of Xidi

I’ve long heard about the ancient village of Xidi, a UNESCO site in Southeastern China’s Anhui province. I’ve actually made several attempts to go but failed for various reasons.

During this October break, while visiting my family in Nanjing, I made a side trip (four hours by car) there with my girls and two friends. It was well-worth the effort.

As expected, Xidi was infested with tourists, some on their way to the famed Yellow Mountain. As if not let down the enthusiastic visitors, the heaven above blessed us with a most glorious sunny day with a vast blue sky that we people living in Beijing could only dream of.

We checked in a boutique called Pig’s Heaven Inn. The name says it all: the establishment was converted from an old wooden house, boasting rustic charm and heavenly esthetical, from the wooden antique bed with intricate carving to the rooster-shaped lamp shade to the old fashioned dressing table. Even the grass spurting between grey brick tiles on the roof hints a melancholic charm.

Well-pleased, we then started the tour. The entrance ticket includes a free guide to the village. Dozens of well-trained guides lead the crows through the maze of the narrow streets and into one grand house after another.

The village, sitting on the foot of a mountain, was founded some one thousand years ago. The current houses dated back several hundred years. By then, the village had become rich with quite a few established merchants, scholars and officials. Originally, the village was called Xichuan – west river. The stream coming down from the mountain ran from the east to the west, against the convention, since the eastern side of the village is higher. Di means post since the village served as an inn/station for postal service.

The architectural style is similar to that of Nanjing region, featuring white washed wall and tall roofs, called Horse-head Wall. In Nanjing, the slang term for it is ‘Daughter’s Wall’ – the wall was so tall that young men wouldn’t be able to climb over it to jump into the backyard to meet the girls. The actually function is less romantic – for fire prevention.

We followed the tour half-heartedly and kept distracted by various snacks on sale: gluten cake filled with sweet sesame and yellow beans cooked with bamboo shoots, foods that tasted my childhood.

Before the sunset, we climbed to a pavilion half way up in a hill, which has a commanding view of the village. In the setting sun, columns of smoke snaked out the chimneys. It was a memorable sight.

To truly appreciate the charm of Xidi, you have to spend the night here. Once the sun rolled down behind the hills, the atmosphere changed. With the day-trippers gone, it became much quieter and more pleasant and the villagers carried on their daily life just like in any other village. At one family’s garden restaurant (many locals offer food and lodge for tourists), we enjoyed a meal of local specialties: bean curd on hot iron; bamboo shoots and smelly mandarin fish. The temperature was just perfect and the air was perfumed with the seductive fragrance of osmanthus (guihua).

Back in our hotel, we sat in the courtyard, sipping locally produced green tea, watching the lanterns glowing in the sitting area and stars twinkling overhead, and we felt as happy as pigs in sh…, no, pigs in heaven!

See below an article in NYT about the village.

Also two picture, one street scene and the other having breakfast at the hall of our hotel.

In Anhui, China, Centuries-Old Charm

Justin Bergman for The New York Times

By JUSTIN BERGMAN

Published: October 28, 2011

JUST 250 or so miles to the west of the gleaming high-rises of Shanghai sits a window into a world hundreds of years old. Despite the dramatic upheavals brought by war, the Cultural Revolution and industrialization, the hamlet of Xidi, in the mountainous province of Anhui, along with other villages in the area, has managed to remain largely untouched since the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, starting hundreds of years ago. Wander the narrow, labyrinthine lanes and peek into the open-air courtyards of grandiose homes, with their wooden lattice windows, rock gardens, watercolors and calligraphy scrolls, and it can feel as if you are slipping back in time to the days of the Chinese emperors.

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Justin Bergman for The New York Times

There are no cars in the tiny hamlet of Xidi. More Photos »

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Justin Bergman for The New York Times

Many homes and former temples are decorated with calligraphy paintings. More Photos »

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Justin Bergman for The New York Times

Lattice windows are typical of southern Anhui. More Photos »

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Justin Bergman for The New York Times

Guides give walks through rice paddies outside Zhaji. More Photos »

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Justin Bergman for The New York Times

Chawu, a guesthouse in Zhaji. More Photos »

As more and more Chinese move to cities, the small villages of Anhui offer a respite. And perhaps even more surprising, young artists and entrepreneurs are embracing these spots with a renewed sense of pride in their modest scale and tangible sense of history.

After the sun begins sinking behind the whitewashed walls of Xidi’s houses and the day-trippers board their buses home, the art students, visiting from the large provincial capital of Hefei and other nearby cities, linger overnight or for the weekend. Perched behind easels in the granite-tile lanes or on rocks in the shallow streams flowing through the village, they appear inspired by the classical architecture, which has all but disappeared in their skyscraper-studded cities. “Young people don’t typically like this; they prefer big-city culture,” said Wang Nanyan, an 18-year-old from Hefei. “But I’m different. I’m an artist — I like these kinds of buildings.”

Two reasons these villages — about 20 of which are worth visiting, spread across the southern part of Anhui, an area roughly the size of Belgium — have retained their centuries-old charm are location and economics: they are set deep in the countryside of one of China’s poorer provinces, where residents have lacked the resources to tear down the old and start anew.

But preservationists have played a key role, too. In 2000, Xidi (pronounced shee-dee) and the nearby village of Hongcun were declared Unesco World Heritage sites. Rather than force residents out, Xidi officials wisely devised a plan to guarantee them a share of profits from entrance tickets to the town (104 renminbi, about $16.60 at 6.25 renminbi to the dollar), as long as they maintained the traditional appearance of their properties. Seeing opportunities, entrepreneurs from other parts of China began to trickle in, snapping up rundown properties to refurbish and turn into shops and inns. The result is that tourism is booming — aided in part by the villages’ proximity to another attraction, the famously striking Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), but mainly thanks to their historical and aesthetic appeal.

Xidi, in particular, has an illustrious history. Founded in 1047 by the Hu family, Xidi began to grow rich as a trading center during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). As the population swelled, the Hus gained power as imperial officials and built elaborate two-story compounds and giant archways, one of which still stands at the entrance to the town. The fortunes of the town began to decline came after the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but signs of Xidi’s former glory still abound. (The name Hu, for one, is shared by about 80 percent of residents.)

The size of many of the former merchant homes still impresses. The most majestic were built in the 1600s and designed in the traditional Huizhou style (as the region was once known). Interior courtyards, filled with gardens and small fishponds, open on to formal meeting halls where portraits of ancestors hang from the highest points on the walls. Nearly every surface, whether wood or stone, is elaborated carved — the door frames, the braces supporting the ceiling beams, the second-story balconies. But perhaps the most distinctive features are the “horse-head walls” that bookend the rooftops, so called because the upturned edges of the multitiered walls resemble horses’ heads.

Li Guoyu, an artist from Shanghai, was drawn to this graceful architecture when she started looking for a property to turn into an inn in the early 2000s. The one she settled on wasn’t nearly as grand as others in Xidi — it was a teacher’s home during the Ming dynasty and was being used as a pigsty when she found it. But Mrs. Li saw potential in the 400-year-old property. “Many people dream of finding a paradise, but they never really find such a place,” she said. “But I did.”

In 2006, she opened the Pig’s Heaven Inn — named in honor of the building’s one-time function. The hotel is modest in size, with five bedrooms, a small courtyard garden and a third-floor lounge with stunning views of the village’s black-tiled roofs. But what it lacks in space, it makes up for in character: Mrs. Li has carefully appointed the interiors with antique chests, chairs and wash basins, as well as cheerful touches like mirrors painted with Peking Opera stars, vintage floral wallpaper, and lanterns and birdcages hanging from the rafters.

A short time later, Mrs. Li purchased a second property in the nearby village of Bishan — a Qing dynasty merchant’s home — which she transformed into a nine-bedroom inn and opened in 2008. She scoured the countryside to find interesting antiques (including a spectacular red and gold Qing-era wedding bed for one bedroom), hung art by her son, Mu Er, on the walls and planted an organic vegetable garden in the back. She believes her restoration work has inspired her neighbors to fix up their properties, too. “Old houses have memories,” she said. “When I’m old and pass this house along to my son, he’ll remember his childhood here. If I go back and look for my own childhood house, I wouldn’t find it because it’s gone already.”

Most tourists focus solely on Xidi and Hongcun because of their Unesco status and proximity to each other, but there are other hamlets in the Anhui mountains that have equally exquisite architecture and, more important, a fraction of the visitors. One is Zhaji, a two-hour drive north of Xidi. The tiny village is also made up of whitewashed homes with black-tile roofs clinging to the banks of a muddy stream, but the houses here are far simpler, belonging mostly to farmers. There are few shops and restaurants and no art students. Locals dry peanuts on giant bamboo baskets in the sun and make their own tofu. Xidi feels like Shanghai in comparison.

This rural idyll is exactly what Julien Minet was looking for when he became a homeowner in the area in the early 2000s. Mr. Minet, a Frenchman, had traveled around Anhui for years writing an ethnographic study on ancient villages for Unesco, and he took such a liking to Zhaji, he bought an abandoned Ming dynasty-era house in 2003 for the shockingly low price of 10,000 renminbi (about $1,570). Needless to say, it was a fixer-upper. “The house had chickens living inside,” he said. “But then I saw all the mountains outside. The panorama is just wonderful.”

After an arduous three-year renovation — which included finding antiques from the area and the addition of a small pool ensconced in bamboo, essential for the region’s scorching summers — he opened his three-bedroom guesthouse, Chawu, in 2006. Catering mostly to French tourists, including the occasional V.I.P. (a French education minister once stayed there), Mr. Minet aims to offer a traditional Anhui experience to his guests, with a personal tour of the village and “country food” cooked by one of his neighbors. His only concessions to the 21st century and his native France: free Wi-Fi and the pastis he serves beneath the chestnut tree in his garden at sundown.

Though he depends on visitors to make a living, Mr. Minet is mindful of the impact that tourism can have on the fragility of the region. In fact, when a Lonely Planet guidebook writer contacted him, he requested that he not mention the village; as a result, Chawu is not listed in the book. “In other places, all the activity is around tourism, but here people still live the way they always have,” he said. “It’s not all about money. That’s very important.”

IF YOU GO

XIDI

Round-trip flights between Shanghai and Huangshan City (also known as Tunxi) start at 580 renminbi (about $93) on China’s leading online flight aggregator, ctrip.com. Xidi is a one-hour journey by car from the Huangshan airport; the Pig’s Heaven Inn can arrange a driver for 200 renminbi each way.

Pig’s Heaven Inn (86-559-515-4555). Staff members speak only Chinese, so arrangements are best made by a hotel in Shanghai. Doubles from 360 renminbi per night.

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