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Reaching for the Skywells

The distinctive Hui culture and landscape of Wuyuan has been well-preserved and for the moment, remains relatively undiscovered

By Kathleen Naday Updated Nov.1

The gray-tiled, white-walled local residences are faintly seen in the morning fog, Wuyuan, Jiangxi Province

View of Moon Bay, Wuyuan, Jiangxi Province, May 30, 2021

The farmer, bent over a small patch of land he was weeding, looked up quizzically. “What you wanna go up there for anyway?” he said. “What’s there to see?” Since his patch of land was at the bottom of a series of quite picturesque waterfalls, I thought he would know. “Waterfalls,” I said. He obviously thought that walking up a hillside for mere fun was not worth the effort. I enjoyed it, although I spent a lot of time picking up trash that others had dropped, in some cases just meters from a garbage can.  

The Xitou falls were a relatively easy 4- kilometer walk with a well-maintained boardwalk for most of the way, although in the end, an extended patch of mud near the top put paid to my efforts. When I arrived in Wuyuan, a mostly rural area tucked in the northeast part of Jiangxi Province, not too far from its far more famous cousin, the Yellow Mountains just over the border in Anhui, the rain was pounding down, hence the mud. It turned out this time – mid-May – was low season for tourism. Peak time is spring, when the yellow blossoms of rape fields carpet the fields and terraces.  

Arriving at the impossibly large highspeed rail station, close to the county town of Wuyuan, most people opt to stay in one of the villages scattered around, many of which retain their original houses in the distinctive white and gray colors of the Huizhou culture – literally the “land of the Hui.” The Hui merchants traveled to the prosperous east coast of China – places like Hangzhou – to sell their wares, such as tea and wood, and sent back money to their families to build houses or mansions. The defining feature of these homes is the “skywell” – a rectangular opening in the roof that lets in light and rain, with a pool below. The richer the owner, the larger the house, the more skywells you’d have.  

Less Like Disney 
I was a bit taken aback when I discovered I was the only guest in my hotel – Wuyuan Skywells, a sympathetically restored mansion that dates back some 300 years and was once a tea merchant’s house, among other uses. Later, when some people from Shanghai arrived for the weekend, I was quite put out they’d invaded my space. Turns out I quite like having a whole hotel to myself, along with their nice chocolate cake and killer G&Ts.  

The hotel, in Sixi Village, is in itself a local attraction, as I found out when a guide, towing around a group of officials, announced her presence during breakfast with a loudspeaker, telling her group “foreigners stay here too.” The owners, a British-Chinese couple, Ed and Selina, are unofficial promoters of tourism in the area. I hadn’t heard of Wuyuan until a friend’s recent visit, but with the high-speed rail station and the already under-construction expressway, the area is sure to become as busy as its neighbor, the Yellow Mountains. The mayor of Wuyuan, according to Ed, has big plans, and wants to know how to make it “more like Disney.”  

For now, unlike many places in China, it is possible to hike and bike around without going near a glass bridge or sound and light show. The hotel provides maps and guides to hikes and bike rides you can do, either just walking out the front door, borrowing a free bike or hiring a driver. 

The village of Sixi is connected by a wooden walkway through the fields to its neighbor, Yan Village. Walking around Sixi the first day in the rain, I poked my nose into a restaurant with a lovely garden, to pet their dog. The owner, a local man who had also restored a building to become a hotel, was about to sit down to eat. Although the restaurant was closed, he offered me a free lunch, then played his flute. Sixi is far quieter than Yan Village – while it has a hundreds-year old enclosed bridge, occupied by gossiping locals, some of whom could be almost as old, there is also a man offering boat rides who parks under a bridge and sings bad karaoke. However, there are more guesthouses and food options than in Sixi. There is a well-thought out route around the village, with signs in English and Chinese, giving explanations of historic houses and temples. An entrance fee of 60 yuan (US$9) covers both villages, but it’s good for multiple days. There are guard posts around and they do check.  

The next day, I thought I’d try a circular hike of about 10 kilometers, one of the routes mapped out by the hotel. It passes along rivers, through tea fields and rice paddies, and more distinctive Hui villages. The villages are guarded by huge camphor trees, some hundreds of years old, and many still have their original covered bridges. The walk was in parts just about as remote as you can get in China, although in some areas, road widening and unfriendly dogs, plus an enormous patch of mud that took me a long time to pick through, were hazards. If I’d worn rubber boots like the locals, that would not have been an issue.  

Dropping Out 
There are many more popular tourist attractions, both natural and man-made in the area. There are mountains, caves, gardens, cable cars – it’s quite hard to choose. Hiring a car for a day or a few hours is a good way to get around, and the hotel can hook you up with a driver who knows the routes. After visiting the waterfalls, I stopped by the village of Likeng, entrance 20 yuan (US$9), with its distinctive multi-story mansions, so picturesque that it was infested by art students who occupied every corner of every street and mansion with their easels. Split down the middle by a small river with stone-slab bridges, either side is occupied by small eateries or tea and souvenir shops. I was pleased to find a brand-new coffee shop, mostly because it had lovely toilets and a huge husky. The owner was a refugee from the big city life of Beijing, he said. He used to be a business owner, but now, to misquote a phrase, he was turning on, tuning in and dropping out for the good life of Wuyuan. His coffee was good, the view was lovely, and he didn’t seem to mind I was the only customer.  

On the way back, I stopped by the much larger Qingyuan Town to see the Rainbow Bridge, a 140-meter long covered wooden bridge built on stone pillars still much-used for locals to access their fields, although visitors must pay 60 yuan (US$9) for the privilege. It’s said to be around 800 years old, although the bridge I saw was obviously much restored. Disappointingly, it was not painted in rainbow colors. I showed up as it was going home time for the farmers, which seemed to involve carrying buckets of less-than fragrant “night soil” from one side to the other. 

Although it was a bit rainy and not covered in yellow blooms when I went, to me an off-season visit to Wuyuan is definitely the way to go. Art students aside, the place was relatively tranquil and just what I needed after being stuck in Beijing for more than a year. But it won’t last long. Hotel owner Ed warned he thought it had at most five years before it was just like any other busy tourist region in China.