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March 17-18, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

We were becoming more comfortable with our travels in China as long as we kept one full step ahead and had in hand solid directions and the address in Chinese of our next destination. We arrived in Huangshan City (aka Tunxi) and caught a taxi to our hostel. The taxi diver didn’t exactly drop us off in front of the hostel. He stopped on a major street and waved us out of the taxi, motioning us to walk down a busy pedestrian, traffic-free street and to go to the right. So we wandered into old town Huangshan and easily found the Old Street Hostel not too far away.

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One of our best hostels experiences so far.

What an atmosphere at this hostel! It was one of the rare times since we had been in China that we saw some non-Asian tourists, there were even some US of Aer’s! Where have you guys been? (Not that we missed you…) The staff at the hostel was super friendly, helpful and accommodating to all our needs. It was the first place we had been in China where there was a real adventure vibe, and it was widely felt in the hostel. Like us, most people were in town to see the beautiful rock formations in the Huangshan scenic area, a little over an hour away from Huangshan City.We traded information freely with the front desk personnel and other travelers. We had a few days to work with, and with the weather conditions ever changing on the mountains, we wanted to pick the best possible weather for our ascent up the mountain. It was pretty slim pickings, with day after day of rain forecast, so we rolled the dice and picked what we hoped would be the least rainy day for the big hike.

That left us a free day before the hike, so we decided to take a quick day trip to Hongcun, one of the Huizhou villages known for their distinct architectural style (and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). With the help of the front desk personnel we caught a local bus out to Hongcun the next day. Traveling along the countryside towards Hongcun we were entertained with fields of yellow flowers and tea bushes. The yellow flowers, called rapeseed, is used in the production of vegetable oil, canola oil, protein meal, animal feed, fertilizer and edible greens. And there was an abundance of yellow flowers!

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An entire countryside of yellow rapeseed flowers.

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Miles of beautiful tea terraces.

Arriving at the village we were again the only non-Asian tourists there. We bought our entrance tickets, doubled checked when the last bus back to town was, and walked into this picturesque medieval village surrounded by a moat.

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A village trapped in time.

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Local students trying to capture the charm of the village.

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The village is so unique and visually pleasing, that it has been featured in many films, such as “Crouching Tiger Leaping Dragon”. And this time around we got our own guide!

It was a bit comical as we walked into the village, because we had known (thanks to our trusty Lonely Planet) that guides were available for free if you asked for one — supposedly in English too. Okay, we’ll take one! As we walked up to the entrance, the group of tour guides saw us coming and they quickly panicked around and chose which one would have the unfortunate job of leading us around the village. A shy young girl, with very limited English drew the short straw. So while other guides gave the groups of Chinese a full description at each stop, she just led us around the village and pointed us in the right direction. We were certainly grateful for her guidance –she made sure that we saw all the important buildings and sites that we would have missed. Without her we might never have made it out of there, as there were so many small and winding alleys!

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The one in red is our shy tour guide.

This was no Hollywood set, but an actual real life working village that had been caught in some kind of time warp, and set aside from the modern world. What a absolute joy it was to walk around this beautiful, serene, natural village. There was a feeling of peacefulness here that we had not felt since we arrived in China.

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Up and down the cobblestone alleys, past small village stores, and then into the magical pond area at the center of the village. If you have seen “Crouching Tiger Leaping Dragon” or other Chinese films, you will instantly recognize this place. It’s hard to believe that it’s an actual real life place, not a magical set that some artistic set designer had to come up with to satisfy some director’s vision for his film. No, this is real!

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Then you see the open air meat market next to it, the ladies washing clothes, the ducks and geese waddling by. Okay, I get it. Where are the film cameras? Ang Lee, are you back there some where? Cue the flying sword-wielding Kung fu fighting ninja fighters. Is this the back lot of some new attraction at Universal Studios? No, no, no. This is real!

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It sent chills of joy and amazement up our backs as we walked around this mystical village. My mind was reeling with possible enchanting scenes that could be filmed here.

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We stopped, or were called into, several of the shops that the village had to offer. Tea shops, calligraphy, bamboo carving, some kind of local brew, hand made wood items, and antiques — like the pillow box with the X-rated carving on the inside (you’ll have to ask Kristin about that one), and plenty of hand-made tasty food goodies.

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The guide had done her job and made sure we hadn’t got lost. The tour had ended early enough for us to do one other short expedition — the Mukeng bamboo forest also made famous in the movie “Crouching Tiger Leaping Dragon”. You know that visually fantastic and wonderfully choreographed flying sword-fighting scene. That’s here too! Oh, we’ve got to go see that! But the question was how to get there and back in time.

With our Hongcun tour ending sooner than expected I looked around to ask someone who might have an idea of how to get to the bamboo forest. I noticed another guide that had been leading a high school age group around, and asked her if she knew how to get there. Oh boy! One little question from me to this guide and I was quickly engulfed by the whole group of kids all trying to help and trying to practice their English with me. They wanted to know where I was from. Los Angeles! Shouts of Kobe! Lakers! Oh, man. I had to laugh, but they were all so happy to be able to communicate in some small way with me. It was quite adorable, and in the end we were able to get enough information to help us find our way to the bamboo forest.

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Xavier, instant celebrity!

In the parking lot we arranged a price with a taxi driver to take us to the Mukeng bamboo forest and back in time to catch our bus back into town. We made it out to the Mukeng forest with enough time to only do one hour of a complete two-hour loop around the forest. So we set off to get to the central point of the forest, which was supposed to be the most visually spectacular part.

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From the start it was impossible not to stop and take pictures every 5 or 10 steps. I mean wow. Really WOW!

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Now here’s the mind boggling point about all this. There’s a real village of people living up here in this bamboo forest. What? We ran across several of them as we hike through the bamboo. They were digging up bamboo shoots (we think).

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We got to the midway point of the Mukeng forest and across the valley on the other side of the hill we could see this small forest village. The sounds of the working villagers echoed across the hills as we stood there in amazement.

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On our hike back to our waiting taxi, I’m not sure, but we could’ve sworn we heard the sounds of brushing robes and clashing swords high overhead in the tall mystical swaying canopy of this enchanting bamboo forest.

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