Nestled deep in the Guanxi region of Southern China, surrounded by vivid green karst peaks, sits a small village. It's easily passed by, though those who stop to wander through its ancient alleyways will almost feel as though modern life has yet to touch its faded brick walls and narrow flagstone streets.
Though China is full of beautiful ancient towns, a particular favourite of mine is Huangyao Ancient Village in the northeastern part of China's Guangxi province. Those who have seen the movie The Painted Veil may recognize it as one of the filming locations for Somerset Maugham’s imagined town of Mei-Tan-Fu.
GETTING TO HUANGYAO VILLAGE
From the popular tourist town of Yangshuo, getting to Huangyao may seem to be an impossible task. The hotel that I was staying in told me that there wasn’t any way to get there short of hiring a taxi at the cost of at least 650 CNY. When I went out for dinner at another hotel, I asked their front desk staff if they could suggest anything else and they said it was possible, and booked me on a local bus for 100 CNY.
It sounded legit at the time, but I'm about 90% sure the receptionist just called in a favor to a friend.
The next morning I was met in front of my hotel by a woman in a van who didn't speak a word of English, and she drove me about 40 minutes out of Yangshuo to an unmarked bus stop on the side of a highway. We sat in an awkward silence for several minutes as I prayed that I wasn't about to be held for ransom, then a large bus pulled up. I tipped the woman, grateful to finally have an idea what was going on, then boarded the bus.
There were a handful of locals already on board, who each gave me a strange look as I walked past them to take a seat near the back, and continued to stare at me for the remainder of the journey. I may have been the only foreigner to have ever taken that bus, and it's possible my journey through the Guangxi province may have been as exciting for the locals as it was for me.
We drove for 2 hours past miles of lush karst mountains, which seemed to stretch endlessly around us in all directions.
Though the ride was a beautiful adventure, I may have avoided some stress had I known that I could have taken the train right into Hezhou (pronounced “huh-joe”), and caught a taxi or bus to the ancient village from there. I did however, take this route when I left to travel onwards to Guangzhou. Through the DiDi app, a car from Huangyao to the Hezhou train station cost about 150 CNY and was about an hour drive.
Entering Huangyao's Ancient Village costs an admission fee of 100 CNY (about $15 USD). Once you pay for admission, you will be given a paper receipt. This is your entry ticket. Make sure you keep it handy as you'll need to show it at the entrance to the ancient village. You will also need to show it to the security guards if you accidentally exit the village, which can happen easily as the exits aren't clearly marked (trust me - I did this 3 times!).
You'll also be given a sticker by the staff before you go in, though nobody asked me for mine and I didn't see anyone else wearing one so I still have no idea what this was for.
Once you enter the gates, you'll need to walk about 5 minutes down the road. The first thing you'll see on your right is a sign for the washroom. When I visited, there were both toilet paper and soap here, a rare occurance in China. Just past the toilets is a path leading to a restaurant and the Jiu Hu Shan hotel. If you have luggage and you're not staying in the village, you can leave your bags in the left luggage room here for free.
If you don't need to leave any luggage at the hotel, just keep walking down the main road and you'll see the entrance to the old town on the left hand side of the street (the modern part of Huangyao starts a bit further down the main road).
Before you enter the old town, you can grab a map at the info stand on your right. Or you can go paper-free and take a photo of the one inside the village. Otherwise just do as I did and ignore the map entirely and get wonderfully lost. It's not a huge place, and it's fun to explore the lovely little backstreets.
Huangyao has a history of around 1,000 years, and gets its name from the families of Huang and Yao, who became the main inhabitants of the town. It's a beautifully preserved little village, with buildings that date back to the Ming & Qing dynasties. The locals spend their days watching visitors from their shops and doorways, and were it not for the tourists, you might feel as if you've gone back in time.
Walking through the old stone streets, you can see the townspeople frying local delicacies on the steps of their shops. No one here pressures you to buy anything. In fact, I walked into a shop to look at dresses and was greeted with silence by the shopkeeper, who almost immediately seemed to ignore my presence. It's a refreshing change of pace from the big cities of China.
There are several restaurants and coffee houses around the old town. I had a pretty good mocha at a cozy little coffee shop near the village entrance. You can also rent a bamboo boat to see the village from the water. Keep in mind though, that although it's a beautiful village, you won't find the same breathtaking views from the boat scenes in The Painted Veil. I recommend taking a boat cruise down the Li River from Guilin or a bamboo raft trip on the Yulong River in Yangshuo.
Expect to spend at least 2 hours walking around. I only had 2 hours as I was flying out of Guangzhou that night, but wish I'd had a bit longer. If you'd like to stay overnight, there are a few guesthouses in Huangyao's old town, and some in the new town as well.
WHERE TO STAY IN HUANGYAO
The Mimi Inn is located right in the center of the ancient town, making it a prime location for anyone wanting a peaceful, authentic experience. The hotel offers beautiful views of the town and mountains from its rooftop terrace.
You Yue Inn
The You Yue Inn is a wonderfully authentic accommodation inside the ancient village. Its cozy guest rooms blend together wood and brick for a rustic ambience, and the bright courtyard is a great place to relax after exploring the town.
Secret Garden Inn
This lovely guesthouse near the entrance of the ancient village offers traditional-style rooms and a rooftop deck that has amazing views of the vibrant scenery of the surrounding area.
Huangyao Laocaizhu Kezhan
This tiny boutique hotel tucked away inside the ancient town will make you feel like you've gone back in time. It offers two types of cozy rooms with renovated bathrooms and free wifi.
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