The province of Anhui 安徽 – abbreviated to Wǎn皖 (character used in car license plates, for example) – located in eastern China, in the middle course of the Yangtze River and the Huai River, represents one of the three most prosperous provinces of the Chinese coast, together to the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, despite being the poorest of the three.
The abbreviation Wǎn皖 comes from the name of a historic state of this province, the State of Wan, precisely; in fact, the Wan River 皖江 and the Wan Mountain 皖山 still exist in Anhui.
Wan Mountain is not the most famous in the province; in fact, the most famous remains the Huang Shan 黄山, an imposing mountain of granite rock that inspired many ink paintings in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the birth of the painting school dedicated to Mount Huang, the Huang Shan huapai黄山画派, dates back to those centuries, with the artists Mei Qing 梅清 and Shi Tao 石涛 as major exponents and representatives.
The name of the province comes from An of Anqing 安庆 and Hui of Huizhou 徽州 (now Huang Shan 黄山), two cities in southern China. Anhui province is regarded as one of the earliest cradles of Chinese civilization; in fact, several relics dating back to the Paleolithic were found right here and, in particular, the bones of the so-called hexian yuanren和县猿人, translated as Homo Erectus Hexianensis.
During the Shang Dynasty 商, the founder of the kingdom established the capital in northern Anhui in Bozhou City 亳州.
Location and climate
Anhui is bordered by Jiangsu Province to the east, Zhejiang and Hubei to the southeast, Jiangxi to the south, Henan to the northeast, and Shandong to the north.
Anhui, with the capital city of Hefei 合肥, has a density of 139400 km², for 59500510 inhabitants (the usual small Chinese city!); with an area of about 140,000 square kilometers, it occupies 1.45% of China’s total land area.
Anhui is located between the temperate zones in the north and the subtropical zones in the south. The average annual temperature ranges from 14°c to 17°c (57 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit). The sun shines an average of 1,800 to 2,500 hours a year; the winters are very humble and cold.
The average annual precipitation is 800 to 1,800 millimeters (31 to 71 inches). The seasons are well distinct, there is abundant rainfall which, unfortunately, causes many floods (some of them extremely dangerous) but with an almost always pleasant climate.
The prefectural city of Huang Shan
Located in southern Anhui, the prefectural city of Huang Shan 黄山市 is so named after the famous “yellow mountain” that lies within its borders.
This city is divided into 3 districts and 4 counties: Tunxi District 屯溪区, Huang Shan District 黄山区, Huizhou District 徽州区, She County 歙县, Xiuning County 休宁县, Yi County 黟县 and Qimen County 祁门县.
The prefectural city of Huang Shan contains two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the aforementioned Yellow Mountain (黄山) and the lesser-known Hongcun Village 宏村.
Hongcun and its surroundings
Because of the memories that bind me to the place, I will start talking about the beautiful village of Hongcun 宏村.
The village was founded by the ancestors of the Wang 汪 family during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who consulted several feng shui experts so that the shape of the village could resemble the silhouette of an ox: the head is represented by a hill with two huge trees which would represent the horns of the ox; four very specific bridges represent the legs, the houses of the village the body, and finally a system of navigable canals represent the entrails.
Nothing strange if, on your way to this village, you come across oxen lying down in the pools of water scattered along the country roads. Hongcun looks just like an ancient Chinese painting: wooden bridges, lakes, ponds, greenery, narrow alleys and traditional buildings. In total, there are about 150 residences, dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties period.
The most important palace is certainly the chengzhi tang成指堂 (The Chengzhi Palace), dating back to 1855. This palace, consisting of 28 rooms decorated with beautiful wood carvings, was probably built by a large salt merchant of the time.
In the railings on the second floor you can see holes that were used by women to spy on male visitors unseen; the very small alcove in the room where mahjong was played, on the other hand, was used to hide the concubines.
The bridge at the entrance might look familiar to you – you may have seen it in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!
About 3 km north-west of Hongcun, there is a very small historical village, called Tachuan 塔川, for whose entrance it is necessary to buy a ticket with a modest price of about 20/25 Yuan.
The village of Tachuan is truly suggestive, especially in autumn thanks to the wonderful landscapes it offers to those lucky enough to visit it. Both the village and the surrounding area are full of ancient trees (Chinese Sevo trees, maples, and camphor trees) which change color in autumn, lighting up the whole area with shades of orange, brown, and green.
The villagers of Tachuan live by growing rice and tea leaves; the houses, on the other hand, have beautiful wood carvings that are worth seeing.
Tachuan Village (literally “Pagoda and River”), also known as Tashang (literally “above the pagoda”), was built following the shape of the hill so that the whole village and the hill itself look like a real pagoda; moreover, in the same way as Hongcun village, it was built following fengshui.
So we have the “pagoda”, now the “rivers” are missing: in fact, these wind along the whole village adding their vitality to the peaceful atmosphere that distinguishes it.
The typical dish of this village is the laba doufu腊八豆腐 “Tofu of the laba”: laba means eighth day of the twelfth month of the traditional lunar calendar, a period very close to the Chinese New Year, the day on which the inhabitants of the Tachuan village dry the tofu laba.
Not very far from Hongcun and Tachuan, is the labyrinthine village of Nanping 南屏, famous for being the film set of the film Ju Dou, by Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee’s film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this village with a very ancient history (more than 1100 years) there are numerous equally ancient temples dedicated to ancestors.
Still talking about the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a place that I definitely recommend is the famous Mukeng Bamboo Forest, the mukeng zhu hai木坑珠海. About 1.5 km southeast of Tachuan, surrounded by a “sea” of giant bamboo, is the Mukeng village, a very small and typical village of China of the past where it is possible to live an experience of absolute calm and peace.
The real experience, however, is the walk inside the forest of giant bamboos: you will hear the birds singing, you can cool off in the shade of the giant green bamboos and relive the duel scenes from the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that were shoot right in this forest!
Tunxi and surroundings
The old commercial city of Tunxi 屯溪could prove to be an excellent starting point for visiting the prefectural city of Huang Shan, since from there it is quite easy to reach any destination described in this guide. Tunxi City is generally divided into two parts: the new one in the northeast and the old one in the southwest.
In the old area is the Old Street, the lao jie老街: a very peculiar street, full of wooden shops selling Ming-style souvenirs. The walk along the kilometer of the Strada Vecchia is truly a pleasant experience.
The brown stone slab pavement and the old Ming-style houses (two or three floors) exude the charm of the old imperial China: the canonical structure of the architecture and space division, the naturalistic decoration, the red lanterns.
The workshops of yantai砚台 “the black stone of ink”, calligraphers’ brushes and other calligraphy accessories are interesting. Let us remember, Anhui is also famous for the production of the so-called wenfang sibao文房四宝 “the 4 treasures of the scholar” ( maobi毛笔 “brush”, mo墨 “ink”, xuanzhi宣纸 “rice paper”, yantai砚台 “ink stone “).
Also along the Strada Vecchia is a little-known museum: the wancuilou bowuguan万粹楼博物馆. This museum, once the home of a wealthy merchant, spread over 4 floors, offers a private collection of very old objects: pottery, scrolls and religious relics.
Actually, there is also another museum: the Tunxi Museum, containing mostly Ming and Qing era furniture, calligraphy and ancient paintings.
In an alley of the Strada Vecchia you will find the very famous gaotang huntun高汤馄饨, a small family-run restaurant that serves delicious huntun bowls at modest prices; you won’t go to this little restaurant just to taste these delicious huntun, but also to immerse yourself in a suggestive Qing era setting.
West of Tunxi (it takes about an hour by bus), you’ll find Qiyun Mountain 齐云, also known as “High Cloud Mountain”.
This mountain, with its 585 meters high, is mainly famous for being one of the Four Sacred Daoist Mountains, full of temples and Daoist inscriptions. Near Qiyun Mountain, Qiyun Village is a fairly common village where you can buy souvenirs.
As already mentioned, the capital of Anhui is the city of Hefei 合肥, a very welcoming city, with more than four and a half million inhabitants, but with few tourist attractions. In the past called Luzhou 庐州, Hefei was the birthplace of a very renowned magistrate of the Song era, Bao Gong, described in distant times as a very skilled detective capable of unveiling any arcane.
Among the few tourist attractions, we can list 4 that all concern the magistrate Bao Gong in various ways: the fuzhuang浮庄 “Floating Village”, that is a small village full of gardens and tea houses, built on an island in the middle of a river.
The baogong ci包公祠, a memorial temple in honor of Bao Gong which also contains a statue of him 3 and a half meters high; the qingfeng yuan清风园 “Qingfeng Park”, where there is a 40-meter high pavilion, built to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of Bao Zheng’s birth; and, finally, the baogong muyuan包公墓园 “The Sepulcher of Baogong”.
In the city of Hefei, you can go and visit a very nice park, the xiaoyaojin gongyuan逍遥津公园 “The Xiaoyaojin Park” : a Chinese-style park, full of gardens, various vegetation, ponds and temples, where you can observe the Chinese (the elderly, mostly) intent on doing their gymnastics and Taiji exercises.
Huang Shan 黄山 “Yellow Mountain” (some prefer “Yellow Mountain”) is actually a mountain range that is among the top 10 most beautiful landscapes in China; in fact, Huang Shan has always been one of the favorite destinations of the poets of ancient China (Li Bai, for example, dedicated an entire poem to it; today there are more than 20,000 poems about Huang Shan!).
The beautiful landscape of Huang Shan is known all over the world for its ancient tenement houses, ancient gates, ancient temples, ancient bridges, ancient streets, and so-called pinus taiwanensis. A little curiosity: James Cameron took inspiration from Mount Huang Shan for the film Avatar!
But why the name Yellow Mountain? During the Qin Dynasty period (221 BC – AD 226), Huang Shan was known as Yishan; around 747 AD, an imperial decree established the new name in honor of the Yellow Emperor who, legend has it, ascended to Heaven passing right from the Yellow Mountain.
The mountain is characterized by many streams with crystal clear waters; moreover, there are also some thermal springs, with water gushing out at 45°C all year round, and numerous fresh water springs.
After years of renovation works at Chinese rhythms, the huanghang wenquan黄山温泉 “the thermal area of Huang Shan” is finally open to the public; in this area there are a series of themed spas: spas with infusion of coffee, wine and alcohol, the one with the fish that clean the feet of dead skin, and so on.
Regarding the general climatic situation, there is a small problem: it rains on the mountains on an average of 200 days a year, so pay attention to the period in which you decide to go. A good choice could be autumn; summer is the rainy season, be careful!
Since the peaks are often found above the clouds (77 peaks exceed 1,000 meters in height; the highest peak, Lian Hua Feng is 1864 meters), two optical effects can be admired: the yunhai 云海 “ Sea of Clouds” and lo foguang佛光 “Light of Buddha”.
Remember: Capturing the sunrise and sunset above the clouds will also give you an unforgettable experience. This sea of fog engulfs the Huang Shan area which covers an area of 154 square kilometers, leaving only the highest peaks of the mountain range visible.
Many of these feng峰 “summits/peaks” have been renamed with names taken from religious beliefs: shi xin feng始信峰 “The Peak of the Beginning of Faith”; dan xia feng丹霞峰 “Purple Cloud Peak”, just for example. In addition to these peaks with religious names, there are also “Lotus Peak”, “Heavenly Capital Peak”, and so on.
During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhists chose Jiuhuashan九华山as the abode of Bodhisattva Dizang, the Lord of the Underworld, whose Sanskrit name Kṣitigarbha, as well as its renderings in other oriental languages, means “origin of the Earth”.
Dizang is also the “protector” of the deceased (he is in fact depicted with a stick in one hand and a luminous jewel in the other to be able to guide the deceased through the darkness of the Underworld), in fact many faithful go specially to Jiuhuashan to pray for their deceased.
Regarded as one of the sacred mountains for Buddhists, Jiuhuashan is mostly known for its magnificent temples. We find, in fact, the Zhiyuan temple (a yellow temple); the Huacheng si, a temple decorated with carved dragons, which contains three huge golden bodhisattvas, 25 meters tall.
The most impressive temple of all is the one on the summit, the Tiantai si天台寺 “Temple of the Altar of Heaven”, inside which there is a first statue of Dizang seated in the “Temple of Dizang”; in the hall of 10,000 Buddhas, there is another statue of Dizang seated on a throne that seems to observe the people who have come on pilgrimage.