April 6, 2010
The rain showed no sign of letting up in the afternoon. Since we had hired our driver for the entire day, we took refuge inside the car and asked him to drive us around the nearby countryside. Our driver recommended Wuyuan (婺源), a county in Jiangxi Province that had become hugely popular over the past decade. Wuyuan is home to the so-called “China’s most beautiful villages”, a dozen or so small ancient villages around the county. From Hongcun, the drive to the closest batch of villages was around two hours. It was not the most efficient use of time, but we decided to go for it.
Unlike province/state crossing in Canada or the U.S., our entry into Jiangxi Province was without any greeting sign at the border. Our car was cruising along a four-lane road, built beside a river that seemed especially thunderous in the heavy rain. There were some subtle changes in scenery since we crossed the border; the countryside was much greener in Jiangxi because of its lower altitude.
The first town in Wuyuan we encountered was Jiangwan (江灣), the birth place of the former Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin, but we bypassed it since the town didn’t appear too interesting.
Next in line was Likeng (李坑), and thankfully the rain finally subsided. One of the most popular village in Wuyuan, Likeng’s fame lies within its bridges, creeks and residences. Obviously, popularity attracts crowds. The tour buses parked at the entrance gave us a forecast of what’s ahead. Likeng and several of its fellow villages in Wuyuan were run by the same private company that was in charge of collecting revenue and maintaining the villages’ upkeep. In return, the villagers were distributed a portion of the generated revenue. With only one choice presented to us, we were forced to buy a day pass that allowed entry to four villages for RMB 60.
The first site of note was the town’s gate, signaling we were within the boundary of Likeng. Likeng is the home to the Li’s, one of the most common surname in China. There were several temples and a long line of souvenir stalls, many closed due to the bad weather. What should be rapeseed field at the outskirt of the village was nothing but dirt at this point. Ten minutes after passing by the gate, we reached the scene – the bridges, the creeks, the residences, and an astonishing number of tourists.
Likeng’s narrow pathways were not designed to hold so many people. It was a little shocking to see every single inch of empty space occupied by people. We lingered around until the masses departed on their buses, which at last allowed Likeng to reveal itself.
After just visiting Hongcun, Likeng was a less enjoyable experience in comparison. Although the village seemed a little mismanaged and not nearly as photogenic as Hongcun, it still retained a certain kind of provincial charm. A very encouraging sign, for both Hongcun and Likeng, was these villages were still inhabited by locals who went on with their lives despite the invasive influence of tourism.
The rain had returned, signaling it was time for us to return to Tunxi for our late-evening flight back to Shenzhen.