What makes it unique?
History – Cuandixia village is only 90km northwest of Beijing, but when you arrive there you will feel like you are 3000km and 3 centuries away from Beijing. The village was constructed in the XVII century by a family from Shaanxi province.
How it was preserved – The village is hidden between mountains which isolate it and act as a physical barrier to development and modernization. The mountains stand in the path of progress like a sentry. Another factor is that since the 1990s the village has been under government protection, placed on the list of cultural monuments that must be shielded from the waves of new development that were understood, even twenty-five years ago, to be sweeping across China. There is only one road that connects the village with the outside world and that can be used by cars and buses, a branch road coming from a nearby town and ending at Cuandixia. So you can get to the village by bus or by car using the one road which serves it, or if you have a sense of adventure you can hike in by crossing the surrounding hills and climbing Bat Hill, Tiger Hill, or Turtle Hill.
A small population is another factor that supports preservation. Only twenty-nine families still live in Cuandixia.
Appearance and atmosphere - Village is composed of only 75 houses, all with inner courtyards. They all look similar, with facades that are old and faded. The facades are typically decorated with wallpapers of red Chinese characters symbolizing happiness. Walls often have paintings of a smiling boy called Shancai, who traditionally brings health and happiness and decorates many old, faded, unchanged facades. You may become confused when you wander into the heart of the village and have the feeling that you are in a labyrinth. There are no sounds of cars, and there are no crowds. You can hear silence broken only by barking dogs, and occasionally you can hear a rooster. On the streets you can see a few chickens and ducks, and occasionally a passing cat. The silence can make you feel that you are in a remote time and place.
What to see?
Courtyards – In addition to walking narrow streets and enjoying the surrounding hills, you must check out the courtyards. There are at least 20 courtyards open to visitors. They are the places where visitors experience traditional Chinese life in real time. There will be a well to supply water to the house. There will be blue and white porcelain flowerpots, and the sacks of soybeans and rice that are typical in rural courtyards. And there will be a cottage garden where cabbages, onions, and peppers are grown. Peach and gingko trees add a touch of landscape architecture and provide good shade during the summertime. Peaches are a popular fruit in China, while gingko leaves can be used to make a tea that is healthy for bones and blood and is also an effective mood stabilizer. Wooden cages with thrush birds hang on braches, and a recurring sight is an old man with a grey beard smoking a pipe, playing with a cat and resting on a wooden chair. Some of the courtyards serve as restaurants or hotels.
The courtyards in Cuandixia have changed little over the last 100 or even 300 years. You can sleep in one for a cheap price ranging from 30 to 50 yuan per night - between 4 and 6.90 euros.
The temple of Guan Yu. It is a temple devoted to Guan Yu – a courageous guardian and warrior who lived in the third century and was a general in the Chinese army. He came to be venerated as a deity, and his statue serves as a symbol of protection. Traditionally, Guan Yu was the most important figure in this village, and people always worshipped him here. People leave offerings such as alcoholic beverages and fruit in front of his statue. The Temple of Guan Yu is small but unique.
View from one of hills
Tip: Climb one of the hills around the village and you will have a view over the whole settlement.
What to try?
Village food is very unique and distinct from traditional city food. Portions are more massive and food is greasier than in cities. Most frequently eaten are pork, lamb, chicken, and duck. All these meats can be typically eaten with eggplant, garlic, peppers, peas, soy sauce, and a variety of sour, sweet, and hot spices. Particularly tasty are roasted pork ribs and bacon, but very greasy too. Usually rice is eaten with meals in Cuandixia, or soy buns. Don’t miss grilled lamb and pork skewers. And there are many varieties of soup such as noodle soups full of rice noodles and vegetables, and soups made from chicken and duck legs and bones. Very tasty are grilled eggplant, cucumber, and potatoes roasted on hot coals. For only 2-3 euros you can have a very large meal here. And as for beverages, in addition to tea there is Cuandixia’s famous rice brandy. It is a typical village drink and is very strong (around 50-60% alcohol content). It is commonly used to warm the body during the winter.
At night its a bit scary
At night - Join the locals. Forget about the pubs, nightclubs, teahouses, and opera performances I have written about in earlier articles. Nights are very different here. If you want to experience the spirit of traditional rural nights, come here and enjoy. People are much more friendly here, and closer to each other than you will find in cities, even more than in the old parts of cities, about which I have already written. They are keen to help each other out with the many village jobs. In the evening, village people gather for dinner and story telling. Everyone prepares something that he/she wants to share, and they bring tables and chairs and set them up in the streets. A bonfire is usually set, as nights are cold here. The villagers discuss daily issues and problems but make jokes, too, especially after they have drunk some rice brandy. Foreigners are still rare in the village, so you will be evening’s main attraction. Everyone will be kind to you and will invite you to join their table. So don’t reject them, it is simply typical of Chinese hospitality. They will offer you a chance to try all the dishes that they have prepared. Feel free to try everything as they will be happy to see that you respect them and that you are interested in their culture. You can take some pictures with them, but don’t be too aggressive about it. They will invite you to drink as much rice brandy as you wish and may be offended if you decline. If you are not a drinker, take at least a shot or two and tell them that you have a headache and that you can’t drink any more, and that will be fine. Later in the evening, people recite ancient poetry and re-tell ancient legends. A traditional instrument called the erhu is often played and followed by spoken performances that are somewhere between recitation and singing. Among the most popular are poems from Li Bai, an ancient poet who lived in the 10th century. Some of villagers may offer you a place to sleep for free, and this is another gesture of hospitality. Don’t be afraid, and accept it as they won’t harm you or rob you. Don’t offer them any money as they can become offended if you do.
Cup of rice brandy
Finally, before you fall asleep take note of the sky and the countless stars that are invisible in large cities.