Hongcun On a Budget
The backdrop for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not usually on the top of many traveler's lists. This isn't a bustling tourist town with guides offering to show you the sights or carts peddling the latest tacky souvenir. It's a quiet village where you'll see the real Chinese culture. The homes along the complex water canals air their fish in their windows to preserve it for their family dinners. There is no bowing to tourism here.
SightsThe village itself is a sight to see. Simply walk around and note the stunning architecture and you'll have no problem seeing why Hongcun was named as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Many of the buildings here are preserved from the Ming and Qing Dynasties including the Chengzhi Hall. This grand building is known as the Folk Imperial Palace. Built centuries ago by a wealthy salt merchant for his two wives, this building today serves as a stunning piece of architecture with nine open roofed yards and more than 60 rooms. Wooden beams and wall panels are covered in ornate depictions of nature, Chinese mythology or scenes of every day life in the Qing Dynasty. The Red Army used this spot to house troops during the long march so you may be able to spot a few fading "Long Live Mao" paintings on the walls. Luckily, these soldiers left the artwork of the building intact.
Another sight to see is the Southern Lake Academy. Located on the north bank of Southern Lake, this spot was built in 1814 when six family schools were combined into one. This serves as a great example of the family academies of the Qing Dynasty meant to educate children and families in small groups. Visitors will, no doubt, learn much about the social life at that time.
And if you're looking to connect with Mother Nature a bit further out of town, the Yellow Mountains are always a good choice. As the premier scenic area in the entire Anhui region, these beautiful mountains are sure to relax and inspire a bit of spiritual reflection.
NeighborhoodsThe layout of Hongcun is one of the most unique attractions to the area. It was designed based on traditional feng shui, and is said to be in the shape of a cow. You'll find Leigang Hall at the west end of the village acting as the head, with two massive trees as the horns. The canal system represents the creature's intestines with the half-moon Yuezhao pond as the stomach, and the bigger South Lake as the abdomen. The four bridges extending across the stream at the front and rear of the village are the cow's legs.
Food and DiningThe food in Hongcun is heavily influenced by one of China's Eight Great Cuisines, Hui cuisine. Dating all the way back to the South Song Dynasty, this style is known for roasting, stewing, braising and quick-frying. They emphasize the duration and degree of cooking while relying heavily on the use of stocks.
One of the many popular dishes includes smelly mandarin fish, but don't worry, it's not actually smelly. Its name actually comes from the fact that, when living, this fish has a very slimy and smelly skin to ward off predators. This dish is over two hundred years old and served up tender with an ironically sweet aroma.
Another famous treat is the Mao tofu. Also known as the funky bean curd, this truly is a dish with a funky smell. Its taste, however, surpasses its smell. This traditional snack has an acquired taste and is typically served on the street in a container hanging from a shoulder pole. One end of the pole has chopsticks and a pan, while the other is the dangling tofu, sesame oil and hot pepper. It's definitely an experience to have this treat prepared for you by a street vendor.
TransportationFrequent buses provide access to Hongcun from many nearby towns and cities.
Hongcun is relatively small and flat so as long as you're capable of walking along cobblestone paths, walking is your best option for transportation. Don't worry; all roads eventually lead back to the Yuezhao Pons or the South Lake. As long as you use these two landmarks to get your bearings, you should be just fine.