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Trip Report Visiting the Huangshan Area Without Climbing the Mountain

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In all the years traveling to China, we missed the UNESCO World Heritage Site Huangshan (sister national park of the US Yosemite Park) until we no longer have the stamina to climb up to the top of the peaks. Instead we decided on a trip around the area with great sights/sites, great food and great weather.

You can go directly by bus from Shanghai to Tangko, the smaller town at the foot of the mountain, or you could fly, train or bus to Tunxi aka Huangshan City. We took a Shanghai Airlines flight from Hongjiao Airport after lunch and landed at the Tunxi Airport in 1 hour and 10 minutes. The owner of the bed and breakfast we were staying at offered to pick us up but we decided to take a cab which only took 14 minutes. On the way we realized in 15 years the small town Tunxi had grown into a good-size city with fancy hotels and tour buses going in every direction.

We were dropped off at the alley to Hui Boutique Hotel, no wonder the owner Ben wanted to pick us up as the width of the alley was barely arms-length between the white walls of old houses. After 30 steps we were at the entrance to the serene courtyard greeted by a friendly cat. Check-in was a breeze and we were shown to our upstairs room right away. The owners bought 2 several hundred years old houses and renovated them into an 11-room B & B. Rooms were not huge but had king-size beds or 2 beds, I also saw family suites. It was great to have modern showers, nice toiletries and towels, tea and bottles of water, flat screen TV, air conditioning and Wifi in a traditional setting. The beauty of the inn is its tasteful vintage furniture/décor and plants/flowers throughout the entire place including the carefully arranged lounging areas upstairs and downstairs. The staff was very attentive, eager to make your visit a success. Ben soon arrived, he speaks good English. He is a wonderful host, listens carefully and makes excellent suggestions for our 2-day itinerary and apologized that he couldn’t drive us but told us Mr Hu was a trustworthy driver formerly drove for the local army commanders. And. Although 15 steps to the bustling Old Street, the inn itself was very quiet.

Dinner was at the #1 Restaurant on Old Street and we certainly agree with its name. Actually there are 2 sister restaurants side-by-side, the less fancier looking one is Mei Shi Ren Jai/Home of Delicious Food. It is widely popular so get there before 6 pm to avoid a wait. The food is genuine local fare prepared in a simple style, and it was absolutely delicious. As you can pick your own dishes from the food presentations lined up on the long counter, you know what you'll get. We tried some excellent vegetables, water bamboo (jiao bai), hollow stalk greens (kung xing cai), one with leaves half green and half crimson (mi xian), wild mushrooms (ye jun), they were added to meat and fish, and soup if you request it.

Breakfast at the inn was good enough for us. For $1.50 I had unlimited rice congee with pickles, peanuts, salted tofu, a fried folded “lotus purse” egg and 3 steamed meat buns. For $3.00 my DH had scrambled eggs, toast with butter and jam plus fresh coffee. The driver was already waiting at the main street for us in a large new KIA. He didn’t speak English but was well versed in local sites, tradition and culture and doubled as our tour guide. We drove through lovely countryside with farmers working in the fields, and the roads were better than I thought. After an hour we arrived at the famous Bao Family Gardens, at one time the largest private garden in China. Generations of successful landowners, merchants and officials of the large family amassed a vast amount of land and fortune. Unlike the gardens in Suzhou, this one was palatially built around a lovely lake. There were several sections such as the library tower, the flower gardens, zodiac signs sculptures in a woodsy area. We were most impressed by the bonsai garden filled with rare bonsai’s some 900 years old and reaching 12 feet tall with amazing shapes. There was a 22 feet long arrangement that was stunning. A 10 minute drive brought us to the seven towering Tangyue memorial arches with lots of carvings along a stone path, each dedicated to an outstanding Bao family member. Our next stop was Tangmo, a lovely small village in the countryside. Hardly touched by mass tourism and tour bus groups, it is the perfect spot to see how old rural china was and still is before it is too late. The village is reached by a path along a shaded canal dotted with picturesque small ponds, pavilions, a huge “wedding' tree” and ruins of ancestral halls. We really enjoyed the peacefulness of the place without the crowds. After a quick lunch we visited the Qiankou Museum, it is free and we quickly found out why. In a valley with several Ming dynasty style buildings up one hill and the Ching dynasty style buildings up the opposite hill, they were all relocated from different villages in the area and left on the hills in no special order. They were not well kepted and there were no explanations. Skip this place and go visit a real working village. Back in Tungxi, we checked out the Hu Kaiwen Chinese ink factory which has a great collection of ink stones, pads and calligraphy, see it if you are interested in this type of Chinese culture. We had a nice dinner of local food at the tiny riverside Fuchunyuan on Bin Jiang Lu between Yi Ma Lu and Er Ma Lu, a block from Bank of China.

We got up early the next day to visit the world famous Hongcun Village featured in the movie CrouchingTiger and Hidden Dragon, it is truly gorgeous and looks like a painting with the Hui style white houses with black rooftops, small winding pathways and ponds. The highlight is when we came to the Moon Pond, a row of pig’s legs and thighs rubbed with salt were laid out to sundry, which becomes the very tasty Chinese ham similar to Italian prosciutto. Do go early as by 9 am we counted 60 tour buses with guides using bullhorns yelling over each other totaling spoiling the atmosphere. Another hour past Xidi, Nanping, Chengkan and several small and pretty villages, we went over a green mountain to Jade Valley, aka Lovers Valley. As you walk up the valley, the word jade refers to the luscious vegetation and trees which provide shade on a hot day, and the clear green waters of the streams and sparkling ponds. Along the way is a Lovers Bridge with hundreds of lovers locks, a Chinese tradition. Our last stop was Monkey Valley, reached after a good climb up some steep steps along a canyon to see the rare wild Tibetan macaques monkeys with no tail but a little stub. About 100 of them make their homes deep and high into the mountains, they come down 3 times a day to a small hut by a stream where the researchers feed them, and travelers can view them. The mothers nurse and cuddle their cute babies, the young monkeys are very playful and curious, the only unfriendly guy was obviously the matriarch who scowled at us after he had his lunch.
When we got back to Tunxi, we spent some time shopping on Old Street. Unlike most old streets, the shopkeepers here try hard to showcase the local Hui culture, food, art, tea and customs without the pressure of hard selling (read easy to bargain), which made it a pleasant stroll. We ended up with a fresh made pizza at Hui Coffee Bar.

Not pressed for time, instead of taking the late flight back to Shanghai, we took the bus from Tunxi back. The bus was air-conditioned with window curtains, comfy seats that recline, nice size flip tables and a western style toilet (no toilet paper). The 5 hours took us through scenic mountains of Anhui and Zhejiang Provinces, the rest stop Lingan was a good place to buy local food stuff such as little walnuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, pastries and candy.

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