A Weekend Haven Culture
By HU JUN
GROWING numbers of urban dwellers, young and old, are taking every chance to escape from the city to enjoy a calm, rural interlude. Nostalgia for peaceful country life motivates senior citizens’ desire for a change from city life, while for younger people and children the green hills and clear waters beyond the city limits are an aesthetic novelty. Urban weekenders generally visit villages that are fast becoming well-known scenic spots, but also flock to little-known hamlets where they can simply bask in a carefree bucolic setting.
One such spot is Xitou Village of Liangkou Town. To get there, drive north from Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, along National Highway 105 for about 90 minutes till you reach the Liuxihe National Forest Park at Liangkou Town of Conghua City. Drive towards Sanyatang Valley for about 10 km till you arrive at the foot of Jizhen Mountain and there you will find unspoiled Xitou Village. Although it has few historic sites, exotic flowers or rare herbs, Xitou was nonetheless named Guangzhou’s most beautiful village in 2010. Known among the hiking fraternity as base camp for hikers in Guangdong, Xitou is the starting point of seven classic hiking routes in the region. In 2011, the nearby mountainous area was named a National AAA Scenic Spot.
The Xitou Stone Alley memorial archway leads to the village’s main street, paved with large flagstones and lined on both sides with old houses. These buildings double as stores, outside of which are local products for sale that their occupants have put on display. At the entrance of the lane flows a brook, whose mill wheels and stone mill are these days pure ornamentation. The main street also features a signpost that guides visitors to spots worth visiting.
Lanes running off the main street feature traditional siheyuan, or quadrangle courtyard dwellings, which is now rare sight in Chinese cities under the onslaught of sweeping urban development projects.
Doors that all face the Stone Alley are an architectural feature of Xitou Village. There are some newly built dwellings along the alley, but most are well preserved old buildings.
On the east side of Jinzili Square is the Jinzili architectural complex – Xitou’s most celebrated scenic spot, which has a history of almost 200 years. The main gate opens on a large open courtyard that leads to a smaller one. Once the largest household in the village, it has long been uninhabited and is consequently in bad repair, but the lineaments of the complex nevertheless retain something of its former grandeur.
A four-story watchtower, whose original purpose was to defend Jinzili against bandits, stands at the center of the courtyard. The observation windows accessed by ladders to the top of the stone watchtower give a panoramic view of the entire village.
A half-moon-shaped pond, 20 meters long and six meters wide, is just beyond the doorway to Jinzili. Originally used as a fire cistern, it is now a goldfish pond circled by a dozen wooden poles from which hang red lanterns that are lit on festive occasions. Senior village residents gather around the pond to enjoy the cool of the evening.
Xitou is at its aesthetic best in the early morning, when flowers in the field are in blossom, and dewdrops accentuate the fresh greenness of the grass. In the distance is 1,175-meter-tall Jizhen Mountain, the third-highest mountain in the province. Enclosed by green hills on three sides and abundant in waters, Xitou Village is a hiker’s paradise. The literal meaning of Xitou is headstream of rivers and brooks.
After breakfast, we dressed in hiking gear and, taking on plenty of water, walked to Jizhen Mountain, guided by the village signposts. The orchards along the way are a main reason why spring, when the fruit trees are in blossom, is the most beautiful season in Xitou.
On the hill behind the village rows of green bamboo grow along the brook and emit a distinct fragrance.
The bamboo grove brought us to a surfaced road that after a few kilometers leads to the broad, gradually inclining road to Jizhen Mountain, which is thronged with hikers on festivals and holidays. A roadside map shows various climbing routes.
Among the many wild flowers and fruits on the mountain is a plant that locals call Shanjianlan (dianella). Its royal blue fruit and leaves are highly toxic, but its root is a traditional Chinese medicine ingredient. After peeling, sun-drying and grinding the root into powder, it is used as a remedy that mitigates swelling and cures skin disease. On the other side of the mountain road is a deep valley through which flows a brook. It’s a good spot for hikers to cool off.
On our way back we found a brook lined with trees and bamboo whose water was clean enough to drink.
We also came upon Ershui Pond, formed from two cascade-like brooks, where we and other visitors enjoyed a swim.
The deep blue pond is rich in minerals beneficial to the skin. One child we met who had been stung with nettles felt instant relief after a dip in the pool.
Situated as it is in a mountainous area, Xitou Village offers a wide range of rural products such as wild nectar, dried bamboo shoots, dried vegetables and different kinds of herbs. Local snacks include mugwort leaf cake, a typical local specialty mainly made of sticky rice, sweetened bean paste and minced peanuts with mugwort leaves added. It removes dampness and coldness in the body and helps stop bleeding. Many ingredients in Chinese cuisine originate in traditional Chinese medicine. Combining herbs and food hence prevents disease as well as offering tasty sustenance.
Xitou Village is also noted for its Shanshui toufu pudding, which is on sale at shops throughout its alleys. Silky toufu pudding with honey is particularly popular. The best-known Xitou specialty, however, is the Sanhua plum. Plum trees grow everywhere in this small village, but those originating in Sanhua of neighboring Shaoguan City are acknowledged as producing the finest plums. Big with deep red skin, when ripe the fruit is covered in a white frost. Sanhua plums are rich in sugar, protein, carotene and riboflavin. Sun Simiao, a prominent doctor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) prescribed the Sanhua plum to patients with liver diseases.
We spent the whole weekend luxuriating in the rural delights in Xitou – old houses and alleys, views from the mountain and the scent of wildflowers, bamboo and tasty snacks.
We had no time to visit other nearby spots, such as the Huju Pavilion and Liu-xihe National Forest Park, but this gave us another reason to escape our urban toil and revisit this haven.
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