Wuyuan, China's Most Beautiful Countryside
In northeast Jiangxi province lies Wuyuan, a cluster of villages widely considered to be the most beautiful countryside in China. A six hour bus ride from Shanghai, one can easily spend a few days wandering around its ancient villages, swimming in mountain springs, and staying in farmhouses along the way.
Getting around on your own isn't easy here. Public buses connect some of the biggest villages with Wuyuan city but are infrequent. Unless you're driving yourself, motorbike taxis and hired cars are the best option, and there are plenty of both at the central bus station in town. Our local drivers turned out to be great guides, all of them fiercely proud of their hometown and eager to show off the best of the area.
It is easy to lose yourself in the atmosphere of sleepy Sixi village, a cluster of white-washed Hui style houses surrounded by golden rapeseed fields. The air hums, as if time is momentarily suspended. The only movement is found in the rustle of a child's dress on a clothesline, weeds swaying in an overgrown garden.
A highlight of the trip was swimming in a natural spring under a waterfall in Xitou village. I have not seen clearer water anywhere else in China. In the late afternoon when the tour groups have retreated, a dip in the spring can be euphoric.
The food is another highlight. Carp is the specialty here, with roasted red carp and grass carp done two ways the specialty at every farm house restaurant. Villagers have been sustainably growing carp in fish farms dotted along the countryside for hundreds of years. The red carp looks disturbingly like the majestic Japanese Koi goldfish, making it a bit difficult to swallow. It's cousin the grass carp is much tastier, and can be ordered stewed, steamed with glutinous rice, and boiled into a fragrant, milky soup.
Make sure to wake up early for breakfast. Noodles in soup, congee, fried dough sticks, vegetable buns and some of the best stir-fried free range eggs I've ever tasted are standard fare in every farmhouse.
With a couple of days to spare, we took a two hour bus to nearby Sanqingshan, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the most underrated national parks in China. A sacred Taoist mountain, its granite pillars are set against a sea of clouds and almost always enshrouded in the kind of mist you recognize from a watercolour. The ascent isn't easy, but views from the West Coast plank are staggering and well worth the pain for days to follow.
View the whole set on Flickr here.