The first thing we learned on our one-night stay in Wuyuan is that, to truly make the most of it, one night isn’t really enough. Having said that, we sure as hell did reap maximum reward from our day-and-a-half there, and if that’s as much as you have available to you due to time constraints or other commitments, it more than merits a visit. The second lesson we learned was that, with the area’s appeal lying almost exclusively beyond the perimeters of the town itself of Wuyuan, gaining maximum enjoyment from a full day there necessitates hiring a driver.
That we did, the staff at Yunxi Hotel (which, although pleasant, doesn’t come close to earning the four stars with which it is advertised online, while the bath and hammam alluded to in booking.com’s description turned out to be somewhat non-existent) finding an English-speaking friend who agreed to be our chauffeur-cum-tour-guide for the day in exchange for 300 Yuan (the equivalent of about €40/£36/US$44, and a bargain considering the amount of miles he clocked up and his level of flexibility).
The difficulty is, you see, that it’s not Wuyuan as a town that’s worth the visit. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but one would be hard pushed to find a huge array of entertainment and amusement options there. It’s the wider area of Wuyuan that puts it on the Chinese must-see list, with all of its picturesque villages and stunning countryside walks. The sheer amount of these villages, and the distance between them all, is what makes a long stay recommendable, but if the duration of your stay only allows for one of them to be taken in, it’s hard to look past the colourful wonder that is Huangling.
Huangling: Forever in full bloom
Is a scenic stroll through stunning rural fields and valleys your idea of an ideal getaway? Or are you more of a sightseeing type, taking pleasure in the architectural beauty of traditional buildings? Or perhaps you’re a history buff, eager to learn about the ways in which the communities of yesteryear once went about their daily business on the very soil you happen to be treading at that particular moment. Well the good news is that Huangling, located about half an hour’s drive from Wuyuan, offers a rare three-in-one opportunity. One word of warning though: don’t bother with the cable car. As fun as they are to ride in, 100 Yuan (about €13/£12/US$15) will be something of a waste when it merely overlooks a fairly ordinary road and the top can be reached quite easily by car anyway.
Upon arrival at the lofty village’s starting point, the 120 Yuan (€16/£14/US$18) entry fee might seem like a cheeky bit of opportunism, but misgivings will be later soothed with the realization of just how much is included in this price. Turning away from the village at first, we ventured into the countryside, gazing in increasing awe at the valley below in all its tiered glory. As farmers worked away at the tea crops (or at least, I think that’s what they are, but I’ll make no claims to be an expert!) below, the view from the bridge drew gasps of astonishment and wonder. Wonder, not only at the spectacular sight we were experiencing there and then, but at how it must look in spring when all of the flowers reportedly take on a bright yellow hue.
And that’s not the only bright colour on display, various types of flower respectively shining with delightful shades of purple, pink and white. The well-marked-out path took us past various floral treats as we eagerly trod up and down steps and over a second bridge before completing the circle and arriving back into the as-yet-unexplored village. Enough of a hike to whet the appetite, but not too tiring to subsequently enjoy some visual admiration of a more historical and architectural kind.
The buildings which can be perused to one’s heart’s content in Huangling give a detailed account of former ways of life in this part of China, with a quirky touch or two thrown in. Living conditions of peasants and nobility alike are recreated, with some interesting displays on how they kept themselves entertained, while current residents continue the custom of drying vegetables on the flat rooves. And then, alongside the rustic farming equipment, the colourful bedrooms and the shops selling delicious local delicacies such as rice wine and a wondrously peculiar concoction made of blocks of unified rice grains and vegetables, lies the bizarre attraction named ‘Strange House’. The entrance to Strange House brings visitors into an upside-down room, giving the impression of walking with one’s feet glued to the underside of the ceiling, before heading downstairs (or is it upstairs? It’s hard to tell…) into an even wackier room with a slanted floor, where standing upright becomes a challenge and walking up the slope seems on the verge of impossibility. You have to see it to believe it.
Far from my hometown, and far beyond my wildest dreams
I’ve been to the theatre before. I’ve been to see operas before. But I’d never seen anything quite like this. With its title rather crudely translated into English as Dreaming in Hometown, this very dramatic show combines acting, dancing and singing with a continuous musical soundtrack. It isn’t easy to say if it’s an opera or a play, but whatever it is, it’s one hell of a spectacle. The outdoor arena and colossal stage are brilliantly enhanced by the evening darkness and the mountainous backdrop, both of which blend perfectly with the lighting effects and the huge props. The music combines oriental tendencies with traits of Western orchestral repertoire and film soundtracks, while the brightness of the costumes further enhances the mesmerising quality of it all. It didn’t even matter that we couldn’t understand a word of it (although that being said, it would do no harm if the electronic board displaying subtitles in Chinese could also include an English translation), such was the awe-inspiring, captivating effect the show had on its audience.
Tying in with the general theme of a holiday in Wuyuan, the venue is no easy place to get to. Well out into the countryside, the best way to get there is to be driven by someone who knows the local roads. So if you hire a driver for the day, an evening-time drop-off and pick-up a few hours after returning from the mountainous village adventure is the best way to ensure maximum value for money.
When you need to stay local
Some readers may now be exasperatedly thinking that this is all very well, but that they were actually hoping to find out about something to do in Wuyuan town. After all, sometimes a trip simply won’t be long enough to allow for another trip within it. How can one pass some time in Wuyuan itself? Well, there’s no need to despair. If a day in the town is all that’s on offer, or a number of hours before boarding an elsewhere-bound train, the ample restaurants and the Wuyuan Museum should easily keep visitors amused.
The latter is on the edge of the city, but within walking distance from the centre, and is well worth calling into. Free of charge, it contains interesting exhibits on the region’s agricultural and political history as well as abstract artistic impressions of the surrounding rural beauty. With its collections taking up several large rooms throughout two widely-spaced storeys, it provides the perfect conclusion to an inimitable getaway.
To be continued…
Wuyuan has almost certainly not seen the last of this particular travel-loving couple, with Huangling’s springtime habit of turning yellow and several other villages still waiting to be explored. A night really is too short a stay, but if you make the most of it that short trip will still be one that you’ll never forget.