When Less is More

By Sam Braybon 2022-08-14 16:50:59

When it comes to planning a cultural getaway in China, we’re pretty much spoiled for choice. Stick a pin in a map of the nation and chances are you’ll land close enough to somewhere that lays claim to being the capital of an ancient dynasty, the birthplace of a senior statesman or the proud home of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



And as worthy and interesting as such places might be they can sometimes feel a little, well, staged. If you’re anything like us then you might often find expansive museums and vast exhibitions can be overwhelming, and not the most organic environment in which you and your kids can engage with this country’s complex and fascinating cultural heritage.



A recent trip to rural Anhui Province, an easy couple of hours by high-speed rail from Shanghai, reminded us that when it comes to travel, keeping it simple is often the best way to go. The tiny village of Bishan is a good case in point. With no ticket barriers and not even a noodle shop to its name, this is a genuine slice of countryside that feels like a bit of a microcosm of Chinese culture old and new – the kind of place in which, turning a corner, you could encounter anything from a firecracker-laden wedding procession, or a flock of geese being herded home, to the opening of a cool photography exhibition.



Bishan is a part of the historic Huizhou, an area that punches well above its weight when it comes to matters of culture. This once remote region was for centuries known for its incredibly successful merchants who traversed the nation trading salt, tea, grains and other desirable commodities, ensuring the profits were sent back home to places like Bishan and other villages spread throughout the region.


The legacy of this wealth can still be seen today in the incredibly charismatic village architecture, prized as amongst the most unique in China. White-walled mansions line cobbled streets and dramatic doorways give way to glimpses of lofty interiors filled with elaborate wooden carvings. The detailed designs here are filled with all manner of auspicious symbols and elements of feng shui principles have been incorporated. Many of the villagers here seem happy to come across visitors, and will often point them in the direction of especially interesting residences to peer into.



Like most parts of rural China, Bishan has clearly seen it’s share of hard times. Numerous once grand residences are in poor shape, and it’s evident that many residents of working age have moved to areas with greater economic opportunities. But there are really interesting signs of modernity here here too, which are very much worth checking out. The Bishan Bookstore is run by the team Librairie Avant-Garde who, since opening here in 2014, have gone on to set up stores in unique rural locations across China. Stacked with books old and new, it provides plenty of reading spaces for locals and visitors alike, as well as great spot to enjoy a cup of coffee.



Just up the street, the gongxiaoshe is also home to one of the village’s real curiosities. Formerly the site of the local farming cooperative, this building now houses an outpost of Japanese design store D&Department. This hip space could easily feel jarringly out of place in such a rustic setting, but the careful combination of local crafts and international design items do come together in a captivating way. A beautiful courtyard space behind the studio houses a café as well as space for events, and there are even a handful of simple but chic guestrooms for those that want to overnight here.



A short walk across the river, Pig’s Inn is a country guesthouse in a grand old residence that makes another great place to stay. The cosy restaurant here features a roaring fireplace in winter, and with excellent country cuisine on offer it’s easily the best place to eat in Bishan. An adjacent bar, Dog’s Bistro, serves Bishan beer and locally made Mijiu as well as a range of classic cocktails.



The same team operates Oil Factory, another boutique inn a couple of kilometers’ stroll outside Bishan that has an entirely different feel. Set in what was once a canola oil pressing plant, this is a super cool space with plenty of courtyards and lounges to hang out in. Some of the rooms here also include balconies that overlook the bright green paddy fields that surround the building, and it’s the perfect base for long countryside strolls.



For those staying longer there are plenty more cultural highlights that can be explored nearby. The spectacular vistas of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) are a short drive away and need little introduction other than to say they have inspired Chinese artists for centuries. The area’s main town, Tunxi, has a busy old street with a handful of beautiful antique stores that can be browsed as well as a private museum showcasing the area’s fantastic furniture alongside other artifacts.


Good to know...

Getting There: From Shanghai, take a high-speed train to Huangshan North and then a taxi (1 hour) to Bishan, or ask your guesthouse to arrange a pick-up service.

Contacts: D&Department: +86 150 5668 6112; Pig’s Inn: 0559 5175 555; Bishan Book Store: 0559 517 5080