Rhythms of an Ancient Life

Huangyao town offers all the charms of Guilin but none of its tourist kitsch and clamor.
Huangyao, a 1,000-year-old town nestled in the mountains of southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, is attracting increasing attention from travelers. They come to enjoy its well-preserved local culture, natural beauty and tranquil rustic life. But day-trippers to Huangyao may be disappointed. It does not take long to cover the 1.1 sq km town. And at first sight, it is very much like other parts of the region such as Yangshuo, in Guilin, already a must-see destination for international tourists.
Only if visitors stay for a night or two will they discover the charm of this ancient town. It looks even better on rainy days when the surrounding mountains are shrouded in mists.
Luckily enough, we arrived on a rainy day, and stayed for several days.
This landlocked place borders the most remote parts of Guangdong and Hunan provinces, and used to be a business hub in ancient times.
Located some 200 km from Guilin, Huangyao is in Zhaoping county, Hezhou.
The most impressive features of the town’s rain-soaked landscape are the banyan trees. They are everywhere, their umbrella-like branches reaching into the numerous streets and narrow lanes.
The other attraction is the almost intact Ming and Qing-style architecture giving the town a poetic feel with its small bridges, canals and wooden houses.
A typical mountainous area of karst formations, Huangyao boasts more than 300 ancient complexes.
Unlike the water towns of East China, Huangyao is surrounded by hills, protecting it from a tourist onslaught.
Even today, people are up with the sun and retire at sundown, much like their ancestors did. There are no pubs and KTV bars blasting loud music.
At night, visitors will only hear the sound of rain and wind, and the occasional bark of a dog.
A walk in the morning is an intensely pleasant experience as you weave your way through age-old houses, temples, shops, theaters and archways. Moon-shaped bridges straddle crystal clear rivers, and the old streets are paved with beautiful blue flagstones, typically associated with 14th century European castles.
All along these flagstone paths we saw the locals, especially women in twos and threes, washing clothes by 3-meter deep wells fed by mountain springs, whose waters ran into nearby rivers.
Reflecting the wisdom of yore, the drinking water is kept separate from that meant for washing vegetables, which, in turn, is separate from the water for cleaning farm tools.
“Although every household has access to tap water, we prefer fresh spring water,” says Pan Yuying, who has lived in Huangyao for 50 years.
Mountain spring water has all the minerals the body needs, she says.
She would know – she is 97.
Huangyao used to be a business hub in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. A number of shops from those times stand to this day.
Mo Xianjia, 53, runs a wine shop selling home-made products such as sweet wine and sealwort wine. Sealwort is a perennial herb with medicinal value.
A complex process is involved in the making of this wine, Mo says, adding that every family in this ancient town has its own secret recipe.
Twenty years ago, the price of sealwort was just 2 yuan per kg. Now, it fetches 100 yuan a kg.
For lunch one day, we tried another Huangyao specialty – fermented black beans.
Along with sealwort wine, Huangyao fermented black bean has been sold in places as far away as the Southeast Asian countries for 60 years. We were told that some of the trademarks for these products are centuries old.
In a 10-square-meter workshop, we saw a huge 1-meter-high cask. A row of dustpans was piled high on its wooden frame.
“We still follow the traditional method that involves steaming the beans in the cask for hours and then soaking it for 20 minutes in spring water,” the workshop owner says.
The beans are then laid out on the dustpans to be cooled before being returned to the workshop for fermentation.
Controlling the humidity and temperature in the workshop is not easy and is central to the whole process.
Today, the town’s annual bean production stands at around 200,000 kg.
Huangyao has abundant tourist resources but like the local wine and tea, it takes time to appreciate the beauty of this ancient town.