The ancient villages in Huizhou and the scenic Huangshan mountain area transport travellers and film-makers to a lost-in-time China
When I walk into the ancient Chinese village of Lucun in the late morning, its pathways are mostly empty, except for young art students stationed at various intersections drawing houses with high stark-white walls under grey tiled roofs.
This is the architecture typical of Huizhou in the southern province of Anhui.
In a shallow stream that runs through the centre of the village, a woman is cleaning potatoes, her neighbour is washing crockery and a man is gutting fish - all seem oblivious to the frolicking ducks nearby.
The stream is clearly a refreshing meeting place for all the inhabitants of the village, feathered ones too.
Lucun is about 1km from Hongcun village, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and both are part of a clutch of ancient villages at the foot of Huangshan.
This is China's most famous mountain range, admired for its scenery - lush pine forests and granite pinnacles shrouded in clouds and often featured in traditional Chinese paintings and literature.
The Huizhou area used to be synonymous with entrepreneurship and its merchants were renowned for their business acumen and immense wealth. Their legacy can be seen in the elaborate two-storey homes in the villages, which today attract film-makers and artists, and also fee-paying tourists.
These fees can be as low as 20 to 40 yuan (S$4.20 to S$8.40) and are often included in hotel packages.
Fees can rise to more than 100 yuan for larger Unesco villages such as Hongcun and Xidi. With their cobblestone streets, lavish ancestral halls and quaint bridges, the villages, some of them more than 1,000 years old, transport visitors back to old China.
The Lucun houses are typical of those found throughout Huizhou. While their exteriors look plain with high white walls, the interiors can be very elaborate with one or many courtyards, depending on the status of the former owners.
Inside the houses, wood carvings are plentiful and cover beams, handrails and window frames. The designs include animals, plants and figurines based on legends.
The windows face the inner yards rather than the village lanes because it was said that the merchants, who were often away from home on business, did not want people to gaze on their wealth, wives, concubines and daughters.
Of Lucun's more than 100 well-preserved buildings, Zhicheng Hall is the most spectacular. It was constructed in the early 1800s by Lu Bangxie, nicknamed Lu Baiwan (Lu the millionaire), a wealthy merchant who became a politician.
The building has seven courtyards and the main hall has an impressive display of fine wood-carving works.
These carvings vary from geometric motifs to scenes of family gatherings, flora and fauna to mythical creatures such as the phoenix. The carvings, from floor to ceiling, also cover the doors and window panes.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), the wood carvings in Huizhou villages were vandalised by radicals who attacked the "Four Olds" of Chinese society (old customs, culture, habits and ideas).
Many carvings have since been restored in the larger villages, such as Hongcun, but not in Lucun, probably because it is a smaller and poorer village with no Unesco status.
While the faces of figurines in the wood carvings have been hacked off as they represent the "Four Olds", the intricate carvings of animals, flowers, plants and other abstract motifs have been left intact.
Despite the vandalism, the well-preserved Zhicheng Hall has attracted Chinese movie-makers. The well-known Huangmei opera Huizhou Woman, starring Han Zaifen, was shot here.
The Huizhou villages and their environs have been popular with other film-makers, including China's celebrated Zhang Yimou, who shot one of his early movies, Ju Dou (1990), in Nanping village.
Taiwanese director Lee Ang's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was also filmed in the area. In his movie, there is a famous scene where a decisive battle of two swordsmen was fought on the swaying bamboo treetops of the Mukeng bamboo forest, which is about 40 minutes by car from Lucun.
There are large faded banners of the movie as we walk along the scenic path through the forest, which leads to the Mukeng Village.
Here, tourism is again a mainstay: We are led to the home of one of the villagers, who prepares a simple lunch comprising range-free, but tough, stir-fried chicken and rice.
Another place worth visiting is the Feicui or Emerald Valley, which is located to the east of Huangshan. The valley has several clear running streams, waterfalls and colourful ponds of various sizes, all fed with water from the mountain.
The ponds are in hues of greens, blues and some light brown, their varying colours caused by the constant changing of light and the water's different depths and minerals, and also the wooded surroundings.
Among the more famous pools is the Green Pearl Pond, where the Yunchou waterfall cascades into a pool of colourful stones - also one of the locations for Lee's movie.
On the parapets of the small bridges in the valley, there are little love locks fastened onto the bridges as the site, given its romantic vibe, is popular with lovers.
The love theme culminates at the Liandan platform, where there is a gigantic Chinese calligraphic etching of the word "love" in bright red on a boulder.
A sign says it is the handwriting of Chinese poet Su Shi from the Song Dynasty (960 to1279).
The massive calligraphic strokes are almost an incongruous sight in the verdant valley, but visitors are happy to pause for a photograph before leaving the lost-in-time valley.
Certainly, the Huizhou villages, with their beautifully preserved ancient villas, and the greenery of the Huangshan scenic areaconvey what old China was like, especially in the countryside far away from the cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
• The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a consultant in a public relations firm.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.