'Mountains of gold and silver' offer a relaxing getaway
“Clear waters and green mountains are as good as mountains of gold and silver,” said then Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province Xi Jinping during a tour of Anji in northern Zhejiang in 2005.
That certainly is the case in Suichang, a mountainous county in the southwest of the province, administered by the city of Lishui. It is turning its scenery, its ancient gold and silver mines and its traditional villages into a tourism money-spinner.
Suichang has 39 mountain peaks soaring above 1,500 meters. Local residents speak of the area as “nine-part mountain, half water and half fields.” Indeed, 89 percent of its topography is mountainous, with 7 percent in water and 4 percent in farming.
In the past, life in remote mountains generally meant poverty or underdevelopment, but that has since turned into a blessing amid a national commitment to preserving verdant hills and clear waters.
Residents in this part of Zhejiang are now mining their rich historical legacy. Among the assets are traditional old villages that have managed to survive the modernization.
Take Dushan, a village in Suichang County, for example. Nestled on the mountain slopes above a valley carved by the Wuxi River, the village exudes the atmosphere of a Shangri-la.
Our group guide suggested a trip to a mountaintop to get a panoramic view of the village, but we had only enough time to stroll along a 200-meter-long lane flanked by buildings dating as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
They include a grandiose ancestral hall, which was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and dedicated to the family clan that descends from Ye Mingde (1077-1148), a literary scholar. The Ye clan started to settle in the area in the 12th century.
The ancestral hall remains functional today — no longer restricted to the old sacrificial rites of the Ye clan. Rows of desks and chairs in an adjacent room reminded me of a classroom.
Like their famous forebears, the village places a high premium on diligence and hard work. A stone archway, listed as a national heritage since last year, was built in 1569 in memory of clan member Ye Yifan, who distinguished himself in the imperial examination and became a senior royal court official.
The walls of the village buildings today are distinguished by piles of round rocks visible from the exterior. The guide explained their source. “When the river flows at full capacity, you can actually hear the loud rumbles of rocks rolling down the river,” she said.
The river bed in dry season is filled with boulders, and its flow has been curtailed by hydropower stations built upstream. What’s left ultimately empties itself into the mighty Qiantang River.
There is a memorial gate in the village dedicated to a woman surnamed Zheng, who is said to have remained chaste for 27 years after her husband died.
I wondered how such a magnificent structure managed to survive the turbulent “cultural revolution” (1966-1976).
Unlike so many ancient villages, Dushan is virtually free from commercial exploitation. It provides an authentic experience in traditional rural life, right down to its residents. Many who live here — mostly the elderly and children now — are descendants of past generations.
Visitors who stroll the streets see locals going about their business — fermenting wine, feeding fowl, tending vegetable gardens or just sitting around for a chinwag. Although the village has access to natural gas, elderly residents still prefer to cook on traditional stoves, burning twigs and bamboo collected from nearby woods.
Downstream is the village of Wangcunkou. In February 1935, when the principal force of the Red Army was forced to retreat to the north from its base in Jiangxi Province (which Suichang borders), a division led by Su Yu (1907-1984) and Liu Ying (1905-1942) set up the southwest Zhejiang guerrilla base.
This division then waged three years of guerrilla war, and their action succeeded in detaining a sizeable portion of the Kuomintang troops, thus covering the main force in its strategic retreat to the north.
Of particular interest today is Hongji Bridge, a 35-meter-long covered wooden bridge that once served as an assembly area for local people. It was first built in 1686 and repaired in 1927. At the gate to the village is an educational center, where trainees, some donning Red Army apparel and caps, include Party cadres, corporate employees and students.
Another noteworthy stop in this area is Nanjianyan, more appreciated as a gem of natural beauty than as a historical site.
Getting to the scenic spot on the hilltop involves a bus trip through tunnels and around mountains on narrow roads. We arrived in the evening. The area was already shrouded in thick mist, which thankfully dissipated in time the next morning, enabling us to see a photogenic sunrise over a blanket of clouds.
On an after-supper walk, we found the hilltop almost spooky in its quietude. Were there wild animals about, such as the leopards and tigers known to inhabit the mountains?
The rising tourism was certainly having tangible benefit on locals’ livelihood.
While climbing the mountain in Nanjianyan we heard someone singing loudly above. It turned out to be a cleaner, a bachelor in his 40s, who was sweeping tree leaves from the staircase. He spoke with a stammer, but was evidently in high spirits. The job earned him 1,800 yuan (US$277) a month. It is a modest sum, but he mentioned particularly about the social security benefits he enjoyed, suggesting that he doesn't need to worry about his old age.
“One can earn more outside, but then they have to pay for the lodging and food,” he said.
In 2019, permanent rural and urban residents in the county earned on average 18,811 and 44,108 yuan, respectively.
There is direct rail service from Shanghai to this area, and a number of infrastructure projects are underway to improve access to all the scenic spots from the Yangtze River Delta region.
We took the direct D5495 train, which left Shanghai South Railway Station at 2:45pm and arrived in Suichang County five hours later.
The return train D5496 leaves Suichang at 10:22am.
We cut an hour off the return journey by taking the D5492 train to Quzhou and then hopping on high-speed train G1388 to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station.
A weekend escape from tourist throngs
It really is getting hard to tell one ancient water town from another in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Those that easily come to mind include Zhujiajiao, Zhaojialou, Qibao, Zhouzhuang, Luzhi, Tongli, Xitang, Nanxun, Wuzhen, and the list can go longer.
A typical watertown sits on a waterway that once served as an artery of commerce, flanked by antiquated houses and filled with vendors hawking traditional delicacies like sauced pig elbows, stinky tofu, pyramid-shaped dumplings of glutinous rice and local brews.
In theory, one can visit such a town in half a day, but the sheer crowds of people make that a jostling undertaking. A friend of mine who visited one of the towns during the past Chinese Lunar New Year holiday reported that he didn’t walk down the streets. He was swept along by the stream of visitors.
There are exceptions, however.
I recently toured the town of Xinchang in Shanghai's Pudong New Area, which gained some fame after Taiwan director Ang Lee filmed his 2007 movie “Caution, Lust” there.
Unlike other regional ancient towns, Xinchang has yet to be fully commercialized. There are no exasperating crowds, enabling a visitor to stroll around at leisure and get lost in thought.
Embellishments are few, and unlike towns that have one river as their axis, this town is crisscrossed by four waterways. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow lanes.