Often Every day I am struck by how things are filtered through the China lens to produce something familiar but also so, so different. For example, the Western-style weddings that take place at our building that I watch from my bathroom window feel very much like a game show, complete with an emcee with a mic and applause lines to deliver to the audience–er, family and friends.
The same performative phenomenon happens with tourism, and Colin and I experienced this when we spent MLK weekend in HuangYao Ancient Town (黄姚古镇), a dot on the map in the next province over with ancient banyan trees, narrow stone-paved pedestrian-only passageways, and a creek that bisects the town.
You pay an entrance fee that grants you access to the town. You get a ticket and a sticker as your proof of payment (about $25). Nice clear signs in four languages highlight the truly magnificent trees (“named Dragon Gate Tree because it looks like a dragon and is next to the gate”), or note significant buildings or viewpoints (“this view was featured on a postage stamp”), or lay out the rules for being a tourist in what is still a community where people live something like a normal life (“don’t be a loud jerk”).
It appeared that everyone who resides within the limits of HuangYao Ancient Town lives and breathes the tourist economy. Shopkeepers mostly sell the same ten spicy, fermented sauces and oils but sometimes clothing and cheap souvenirs. The riverfront is lined on both sides with open-air restaurants. Buildings that aren’t shops do double duty as guesthouse/eatery, but the whole town was so sleepy that when we stopped into one looking for a beer, the elderly woman in charge confusedly asked us, “Beer? What kind of beer?”
We saw the sights on the first day. I read all the signs to Colin while he snapped photos under the overcast and polluted sky. One of the dozen boat captains talked us onto his pontoon by warning that it may be raining the next day, so we took the tour under the charming stone bridge and past the bend in the river that collects so much of the litter. On foot we followed the stone passageways to each end of town, separately coming to the conclusion that HuangYao felt a little bit like Venice, Italy.
Our guest house was right on the edge of the tourist town, and there was a manned post right outside the front door, which we only realized was an issue when a sign on the inside of the door the next morning warned us to go out the back door unless we wanted to pay the entrance fee again. We didn’t, really, so out the back door we went. It emptied us into the middle of what was once a larger compound that had been parceled out–I think.
The architecture in HuangYao is all low buildings walled off on the passageway side that open into courtyards once you’re inside. Thresholds within the compounds are round, and those to the outside are raised and with holes bored into the curb that would allow a door to be barred closed. The building materials are grey and dark stone and bricks, but red-painted wood is fashioned for the windowsills and eaves of the roofs, and red lanterns cover the fluorescent bulbs that light the town after dark. To complete the scene, giant Mao-era advertisements for things like light bulbs and tonics adorn the walls at intersections. I couldn’t tell if they were genuinely historic or added afterward to boost the historic vibe and because they are so arresting as photo backgrounds.
I do believe the food we ate was authentic. There were four or five outfits set up on one side of the river and another across. The women would bring out more folding tables and plastic chairs as needed, and menus were offering identical fare. The specialty was tofu in broth that had bits of pork inside; Colin had it the first night but didn’t order it again. I twice tried eggs scrambled with tomatoes, a combo I really like but was underwhelmed by in HuangYao. Noodles and rice porridge were breakfasts, plus I found a tasty, thicker-than-I’m-used-to soy milk. We definitely dropped the most coin at the chic-for-HuangYao tea shop that had both a snuggly cat and a heater.
We spent four hours of our second day in that tea shop because, well, we’d already seen the town and it was a really wintery weekend and my coat (actual vintage, formerly grandma’s) was way cuter than it was functional because I missed the memo that I really needed to pack a puffer coat. So we sat in this shop and ordered round after round and wrote postcards and read and it was really pleasant.
Logistics: Take the train into Hezhou, walk past the touts at the station to find the bus to HuangYao by yourself in the adjacent parking lot. The bus ride is roughly an hour and drops you right at the ticket window, but then you have to walk maybe half a mile to get to the town itself. This would have been a tough trip to do without at least some basic Chinese or a hardy sense of adventure–be warned.