Traveling to Anhui – Index
A little history
The province of Anhui 安徽 – abbreviated as Wǎn 皖 (a character used on car license plates for example) – located in eastern China halfway between the Yellow and Huai Rivers, is one of the three most prosperous provinces of the Chinese coast along with Jiangsu and Zhejiang, though it’s the poorest of the three.
The abbreviation Wǎn 皖 comes from the historic state in this province with the name, the State of Wan, actually; in fact, in Anhui there’s still the Wan River 皖江 and Mount Wan 皖山.
Mount Wan isn’t the most famous in the province; in fact, the most famous is still Huang Shan 黄山, an imposing mountain of granitic rock that inspired many ink paintings in the XVII and XVIII centuries. In effect, it was back in those centuries that the Mount Huang school of painting started, Huang Shan huapai 黄山画派, with the artists Mei Qing 梅清 and Shi Tao 石涛 as its biggest exponents and representatives.
The name of the province comes from An from Anqing 安庆 and Hui of Huizhou 徽州 (now Huang Shan 黄山), two cities in the south of China. The Province of Anhui is considered one of the first cradles of Chinese civilization; in fact, it was here that relics were found going back to the Paleolithic Age and, in particolar, the bones of the so-called hexian yuanren 和县猿人, translated as Homo Erectus Hexianensis.
During the Shang Dynasty 商, the founder of the kingdom established the capital in the north of Anhui, in the city of Bozhou 亳州.
Location and climate
Anhui, with its capital city of Hefei 合肥, has a density of 139,400 km², with 59,500,510 inhabitants (the usual small Chinese city!); with an area of about 140 thousand square kilometers, it occupies 1.45% of China’s total surface area.
Anhui is located halfway between the temperate zone in the north and the subtropical areas of the south. The average annual temperature varies between 14 ° c and 17 ° c (57 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit). The sun shines for an average of 1.800 to 2.500 hours a year; winters are very humid and cold.
The average annual precipitation is between 800 and 1.800 millimeters (31 and 71 inches). The seasons are very distinct, with abundant precipitation that sadly, provokes a lot of flooding (some extremely dangerous) but with an almost always pleasant climate.
The prefecture city of Huang Shan
Located in the south of Anhui, the prefecture city of Huang Shan 黄山市 became called that thanks to the “yellow mountain” found nearby.
This city is divided into 3 districts and 4 counties: the district of Tunxi 屯溪区, the district of Huang Shan 黄山区, the district of Huizhou 徽州区, the county of She 歙县, the county of Xiuning 休宁县, the county of Yi 黟县 the county of Qimen 祁门县.
The prefecture city of Huang Shan has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the previously mentioned yellow mountain (黄山) and the lesser known village of Hongcun 宏村.
Hongcun and around
Thanks to the memories that connect me to the place, I’ll start by talking about the beautiful village of Hongcun 宏村.
The village was founded by the descendants of the Wang family 汪 during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who consulted various fengshui experts so that the village’s shape would resemble the shape of an ox: the head is represented by a hill with two enormous trees that serve as the ox’s horns; four strategically placed bridges make the legs; the village houses make up the body and a system of navigable canals form the interior.
It’s nothing strange if during your exploration of this village you come across oxen lying around in the pools of water spread around the country roads. Hongcun seems like an ancient Chinese picture: little wooden bridges, little lakes, ponds, vegetation, little streets and traditional buildings. In total, there are about 150 residences, going back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The most important building is certainly the chengzhi tang 成指堂 (Chengzhi Palace), which goes back to 1855. This palace, made up of 28 rooms decorated with beautiful wood carvings, was likely built by a great salt merchant of the time.
In the railings on the second floor you can see the holes that women used to spy, unseen, on the men; the tiny alcove in the hall where they played mahjong, was instead used to hide concubines.
The bridge at the entrance might seem familiar: you may have seen it in the film The Tiger and the Dragon!
About 3 km northwest of Hongcun, there’s a little historic village called Tachuan 塔川, where an entrance ticket costs a modest price of about 20/25 Yuan.
The village of Tachuan is really scenic, especially in autumn thanks to the marvelous landscapes that it offers to those who are fortunate enough to visit it. Both the village and the area around it are full of old trees (Chinese Sevo trees, maples and camphor trees) which in autumn change colors, turning the entire area into shades of orange, brown and green.
The inhabitants of Tachuan make a living by cultivating rice and tea leaves; the houses showcase beautiful wood carvings that are worth seeing.
Tachuan Village (literally “Pagoda and River”), also known as Tashang (literally “above the pagoda”), was built along the shape of the hill so that the village and hill itself looks like a pagoda; and just like the village of Hongcun, it was built in accordance with fengshui.
So now that we have the “pagoda”, all we’re missing is the “rivers”: in fact, these wind along the entire village, adding their vitality to the peaceful atmosphere that characterize it.
The typical dish of this village is laba doufu 腊八豆腐 “Tofu of laba”: laba means eighth day of the twelfth month of the traditional lunar calendar, a period very close to Chinese New Year, a day where the inhabitants of Tachuan village dry their tofu laba.
Not far from Hongcun and Tachuan, is the labyrinthine village of Nanping 南屏, famous for being the movie set of the film Ju Dou, by Zhang Yimou, and the Ang Lee film, The Tiger and the Dragon. In this very old historic village (more than 1100 years old) there are numerous ancient temples dedicated to ancestors.
While talking about the film The Tiger and the Dragon, a place I definitely recommend is the famous Mukeng Bamboo Forest, mukeng zhu hai 木坑珠海. About 1.5 km southeast of Tachuan, surrounded by a “sea” of giant bamboo, is the village of Mukeng, a tiny typical Chinese village where you can experience absolute calm and peace.
The real experience, however, is walking through the giant bamboo forest: you’ll hear birds signing, find refreshment in the shade of giant green bamboo and relive the duel scene from the film The Tiger and the Dragon which were filmed in this forest!
Tunxi and around
The old merchant village of Tunxi 屯溪 is an excellent starting point for visiting the prefecture city of Huang Shan, since from there it’s easy to reach almost anyplace mentioned in this guide. The city of Tunxi is generally divided into two parts: the new one to the northeast and the old in the southwest.
In the old section you’ll find the Old Street, lao jie 老街: a very peculiar street full of wooden shops that sell Ming style souvenirs. Walking along the kilometer-long Old Street is truly a pleasant experience.
With pavement made of slabs of brown stone and old Ming style houses (between two and three floors) there’s a feeling of old Imperial China: from canonical architecture, the subdivision of spaces, naturalistic decoration to red lanterns.
Interesting are the yantai 砚台 shops, “ink black stone”, of pens and other calligraphy accessories. Anhui, remember, is also famous for the production of the so-called wenfang sibao 文房四宝 “the 4 treasures of the scholar” (maobi 毛笔 “pen”, mo 墨 “ink”, xuanzhi 宣纸 “rice paper”, yantai 砚台 “ink stone”).
Still along the Old Street is a little-known museum: wancuilou bowuguan 万粹楼博物馆. This museum, once the home of a rich merchant, is spread across 4 floors and offers a private collection of very old objects: ceramics, scrolls and religious relics.
Actually, there’s also another museum: the Tunxi Museum, which mostly has furniture from the Ming and Qing eras, calligraphy and ancient pictures.
In an alleyway off Old Street you’ll find the famous gaotang huntun 高汤馄饨, a tiny family-run restaurant that serves delicious bowls of huntun at cheap prices; in this little restaurant you don’t just get to taste these delicious huntun, but can also immerse yourself in evocative Qing era atmosphere.
West of Tunxi (it takes an hour by bus), you’ll find Mount Qiyun 齐云, also known by the name of the “Mountain of High Clouds”.
This mountain, 585 meters high, is mostly famous for being one of the Four Sacred Daoist Mountains, full of temples and Daoist inscriptions. Close to Mount Qiyun, Qiyun Village is a rather common village where you can buy souvenirs.
As was already said, the capital of Anhui is the city of Hefei 合肥, a welcoming city with more than four and a half million residents but few tourist attractions. Called Luzhou 庐州 in the past, Hefei was the birthplace of a famous Song Dynasty magistrate, Bao Gong, described in ancient times as a very capable detective able to solve any mystery.
Of the few tourist attractions, we can count 4 that have to do with magistrate Bao Gong: the fuzhuang 浮庄 “Floating Village”, a small village full of gardens and tea houses, built on an island in the middle of the river.
The baogong ci 包公祠, a commemorative temple in honor of Bao Gong that also contains a 3 meter high statue of him; the qingfeng yuan 清风园 “Qingfeng Park”, where there is a 40 meter pavilion, built to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of Bao Zheng’s birth; and, lastly, the baogong muyuan 包公墓园 “Baogong’s Tomb”.
In the city of Hefei, you can visit a very cute park, xiaoyaojin gongyuan 逍遥津公园 “Xiaoyaojin Park”: a Chinese style park full of gardens, various vegetation, small lakes and temples where you can watch the Chinese (mainly older ones) intent on doing their exercise and Taiji.
Huang Shan 黄山 “Yellow Mountain” (some prefer “The Yellow Mountain”) is really a mountain chain that is among the top 10 most beautiful panoramas in China; in effect, Huang Shan was always one of the favorite destinations for the poets of ancient China (Li Bai, for example, dedicated an entire composition to it; today there are more than 20 000 compositions about Huang Shan!).
The beautiful landscape of Huang Shan is known worldwide thanks to its popular ancient residences, gates, temples, bridges, streets and the so-called pinus taiwanensis. An interesting fact: James Cameron was inspired by Huang Shan Mountain for the film Avatar!
But why is it called Yellow Mountain? During the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. – 226 A.D.), Huang Shan was known as Yishan; around 747 A.D., an imperial decree gave it its name in honor of the Yellow Emperor who, according to legend, rose to heaven passing by Yellow Mountain.
The mountain is characterized by lots of little rivers with crystal clear waters; moreover, there are also some thermal springs with water flowing at 45 C° all year long, and numerous freshwater springs.
After years of work and restructuring at a Chinese pace, huanghang wenquan 黄山温泉 “the thermal area of Huang Shan” is finally open to the public; in this area there is a series of themed pools: springs infused with coffee, wine and alcohol, those with little fish that clean dead skin off your feet, and so on.
Regarding the general weather situation, there’s a little problem: it rains an average of 200 days a year on the mountain, so keep an eye on when you want to go. A good choice would be the autumn; summer is the rainy season so be careful!
Since the peaks are often located above the clouds (77 peaks are higher than 1,000 meters tall; the highest peak, Lian Hua Feng is 1864 meters tall), you can admire two optic effects: yunhai 云海 “Sea of Clouds” and foguang 佛光 “Buddha’s Light”.
Remember: Capturing the sunrise and sunset above the clouds will be an unforgettable experience. This sea of fog submerges the area of Huang Shan which extends over an area of 154 square kilometers, leaving only the highest peak of the mountain chain visible.
Many of these feng 峰 “peaks” have been given names taken from religious beliefs: shi xin feng 始信峰 “The Peak of the Beginning of Faith”; and dan xia feng 丹霞峰 “The Peak of the Purple Cloud”, just as an example. Besides peaks with religious names, there’s also the “Peak of the Lotus Flower”, “The Peak of the Heavenly Capital”, and so on.
During the Tang Dynasty, the Buddhists chose Jiuhuashan 九华山 as dwelling place for the bodhisattva Dizang, the Lord of the Underworld, whose Sanskrit name Kṣitigarbha, as is rendered in other Eastern languages, means “origin of the Earth”.
Dizang is also the “protector” of the dead (he’s actually depicted with a staff in his hand and a shining jewel in the other to guide the dead through the darkness of the underworld). In fact many of the faithful come specifically to Jiuhuashan to pray for their dead.
Considered one of the sacred mountains by the Buddhists, Jiuhuashan is mostly known for its magnificent temples. There we find the Zhiyuan temple (a yellow-colored temple); Huacheng si, a temple decorated with carved dragons, which contains three enormous golden bodhisattvas 25 meters high.
The nicest of all the temples is the one on the peak, Tiantai si 天台寺 “Temple of the Heavenly Altar”, where inside there’s one of the first statues of Dizang seated in the “Temple of Dizang”; in the hall of 10 000 Buddhas, you’ll find another statue of Dizang seated on a throne that seems to observe people arriving in pilgrimage.
I hope you found this article useful. All that’s left is to wish you a pleasant trip!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/37195641@N03/]