Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Visit to Yujiacun, the stone village

An Italian friend of mine visited Beijing for a conference last week. He had already been to China two times previously, but had only seen the major cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin) and told me that he wanted to see something of the “real China”. I suggested we use the weekend after his conference finished to go on a trip and go see the “real China”.

If you live in Beijing, only have a weekend available, and don’t want to spend a fortune by taking planes, the logical way to see the “real China” is to go somewhere in Hebei. Hebei is the province which surrounds Beijing. It is almost as large as Great Britain, and has a bigger population. The province’s proximity to Beijing does not make it a particularly prosperous or “happening” place. On the contrary, it is relatively backward and agricultural, just like most of Northern China.

Looking through the list of Hebei’s tourist attractions, I decided on Yujiacun (于家村), a village whose well preserved old buildings made of stone have turned it into a minor attraction. I wasn’t expecting too much from the village itself, since many Chinese tourist sights turn out to be tacky and commercialized places with a Disneyland feel overrun by hordes of Chinese tour groups, for whom the authenticity of what they are seeing is of no interest whatsoever. However, I thought that the village’s remote location right on the border between Hebei and Shanxi would at least make the journey to get there more interesting, and might have kept it a bit off the tourist trail.

(the village of Yujiacun as seen from above)

The first step of the journey was taking the high speed train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s provincial capital. After spending the night in this non-descript city, the next day we made off for Yujiacun. To get there, we took two different buses and travelled for two hours. The rickety buses took us through some very poor rural scenery, dotted with coal mines and quarries. What was most striking was the amount of dust in the air, and the amount of lorries on the road. I have literally never seen such a lot of lorries on a single day.

Due to the dust and the dryness of the North Chinese winter, the scenery was overwhelmingly brown. The air was brown, the villages were brown, and the people brown. Although I wouldn’t exactly call the landscape beautiful, it had a certain grandiosity, and it was certainly fascinating for my two friends, who were getting their first taste of the “real China”.

After a last stretch on a bumpy country road, we arrived in Yujiacun. The village was founded by a grandson of Yu Qian (1398-1457), a Ming dynasty defense minister who helped defend China from the Mongols, and was executed by the emperor in return for his efforts. The place’s name means “the village of the Yu clan”, and indeed almost all the inhabitants share the surname Yu, which was passed down by the original founder. “Clan villages” where everyone shares the same surname are common in China.

The village’s particularity is that all the houses are made of stone, meaning that they are well preserved. Winding little lanes take you past courtyard houses built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In a place like Italy a village where the houses all date back to a few centuries ago would be the norm, but not so in China, where old houses are actually quite rare. In the countryside dwellings were often made of wood, and in cities much has been destroyed in the last decades to make way for modern housing blocks.

My low expectations of our trip’s destination turned out to be quite unfounded. Yujiacun was genuinely interesting and peaceful, and the atmosphere was not very touristy at all. The place’s remoteness means that few visitors actually make it there, and even less so in March, when temperatures are still quite low. We only met three other obvious tourists, who were Chinese. Although Yujiacun is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide I am pretty sure few foreigners make it there, and it would take some serious guts to attempt the journey without speaking Chinese.

Unlike other sights I have visited in Hebei, nobody tried to rip us off or charge exhorbitant entry prices. There was a single ticket valid for all the village's sights, at a very reasonable price. Most of the locals happily minded their business in their ancient stone houses, since visitors are too few for them to have turned to the business of milking tourists for cash.

An interesting sight we came across in Yujiacun is the sixteenth century Qingliang Pavilion. The odd structure was built by a madman called Yu Xichun, who wanted to see Beijing from the top. He allegedly built the three storey pavilion on his own over 16 years, working only at night. It was obviously built by an amateur architect, since it has no foundation and its stones are all of different sizes. The building is full of shrines to Guanyin and other Chinese religious figures, and a graphic pictorial depiction of what awaits bad people in the Chinese hell, which is remarkably similar to the hell of Western tradition.

I left feeling pleased with my choice for an outing. It is good to know that there are still some attractions left in China with genuine old buildings and sights, no hordes of Chinese tour groups wearing identical red hats, no kitsch souvenir shops and nobody trying to rip off weary travellers. One just has to go a bit further off the beaten route to find them.

(Scenes of the tortures of hell painted on the walls of the Qingliang Pavillion)

1 comment:

Tang Xiaoyan said...

Ça fait trop long tremp je ne visite pas ton blog.quelle interensent ton voyage a la petite village