What do Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ have in common? Both were critically acclaimed films that ignited the global imagination like wildfire, and both can be traced directly back to an unassuming province in Eastern China called Anhui.
Anhui, which is characterized by its ancient merchant towns and misty mountain views, hasn’t been on the international radar for long. The golden fields that border the region’s rustic villages belie the fact that Anhui as a whole lacks large swathes of arable land and has never been able to rely heavily on cash crops. That, coupled with the lack of readily available natural resources, inspired the residents of Anhui to seek creative new ways to make a living. The result was an aggressive mercantile culture that flooded the region with novel business practices and a tenacious desire for wealth and affluence. Anhui’s merchants grew richer and richer, consolidating their gains and constructing entire towns filled with spacious ancestral halls, temples, and academies.
Feng shui, the widely marketed but rarely understood system of Chinese divination which was believed to appeal to the natural powers of both Heaven and Earth, was put into practice in determining the auspicious configuration and layouts of everything from individual residences to large-scale water systems and entire villages. The resulting townships were both practical and beautiful, and in 2000 UNESCO officially paid tribute to the region’s legacy by listing the Anhui’s Xidi and Hongcun villages as official World Heritage sites.
Xidi and Hongcun’s status as World Heritage sites means at times they can be more crowded, but they certainly aren’t the only worthwhile villages in Anhui. To experience the province’s tranquil towns as they are meant to be experienced, we recommend a meander through Chengkan, a lesser-known village that is every bit as beautiful as the better-known villages. Framed against a gentle backdrop of cobalt slopes and buffeted by ancient waterways, Chengkan has remained very much the same throughout the centuries, and we mean it—the ornate structures here have not been re-coated in gaudy paints like many of China’s other monuments, and whenever a family slaughters a pig they smear its blood across their front door so that their fellow villagers know where to go for some fresh bacon. Local artisans whittle away at elaborate woodcarvings, and plants adorning the more prominent ancestral halls have been cultivated to resemble traditional Chinese dragons. Feel free to get lost for a while.
But what about Avatar? For a glimpse of James Cameron’s inspiration for his floating mountains on the Na’vi planet of Pandora, look no further than Huangshan, or ‘Yellow Mountains’, just an hour north of Anhui’s merchant villages. As you ascend past the clouds blanketing Huangshan on what may be the most epic cable car ride of your life, it won’t be hard to see how Cameron and his graphic designers ended up finding their muse atop these misty peaks.
Beyond its crowded urban jungles China is a trove of natural wonders, and its magnificent mountains are no exception. However, Huangshan separates itself from the other mountains in that its scenic views are not only breathtaking but also distinctly Chinese, from the swirling mist that never seems to fully recede to the haunting amphitheater of granite pillars and crags. Pop culture aside, Huangshan is deeply rooted in Chinese history and art, and many of the mountainous Chinese brush paintings you may have seen in passing are unambiguous portrayals of Huangshan.
No trip to Anhui is complete without a visit to Huangshan, and although the pathways here can be crowded during peak seasons if you take the time to set out further you will be able to escape the crowds and catch some spectacular views along the northwest section of the mountains. Allow yourself to be engulfed by the same scenes that have enraptured countless generations of artists and poets. After all, rather than spending hours etching out Huangshan’s beauty with an ink-brush you can now catch a breathtaking panoramic on your SLR or iPhone in just a few seconds. Just don’t take it too far—eight centuries’ worth of deceased Chinese artists and scholars turn in their graves whenever an American teenager Instagrams one of Huangshan’s sacred peaks.
Whether you are interested in history, architecture, art, or nature there is no doubt that Anhui is worth your time. The region’s bucolic villages and inspiring peaks offer the perfect remedy for wanderlust, a peaceful way to wind down a long journey or the perfect setting to reboot your system.
If you have any questions about visiting Anhui, or traveling to China in general, feel free to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to assist you.