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Village Faces, Anji

On our second day in Nine Dragon Valley we took a long ramble to a local village nearby. Leaving the small township of Nine Dragon Valley and a two-lane road behind, we walked gradually uphill along smaller and smaller roads through beautiful tea and farming countryside. The sun was shining, the shrubs were full of butterflies, the wildflowers were in full bloom, and beside the small road flowed a tiny creek. It was about as far from downtown as you can get. For a while I didn’t even hear a single horn, but horn-honking is not restricted to Shanghai, it’s a national characteristic. Sure enough, before long a small goods truck laden with rocks for a building project came honking his way loudly and frequently down the road, just in case we hadn’t seen him. It was a straight stretch, with a clear view of 500m, but it would be really bad luck and a lot of police bother to hit a bunch of foreigners, so he was taking no chances.

Almost at the village, we passed by a group of workmen having lunch in the shade by the roadside. Seeing our hot faces they stood and offered their seats, and a glass of the local white tea. This kind of open hospitality is one of the best things about living in China – the people are genuinely welcoming of foreigners of all guises. 

The workmen had weathered skin the colour of chestnuts from working all day outdoors, and they were wiry and strong. They had heard that Australia was big, but that was the limit of their understanding of a place so foreign and far away, so we chatted while we rested about the house they had been employed to build. It would have air-conditioning, I was told, which would make it easily the fanciest house in the village. We thanked them for their kindness and kept walking, passing their country wheelbarrow with its bicycle tyres and their bamboo work-ladder.

At last we came to the village itself, high up at the head of a valley. There was an old three storey schoolhouse, maybe from the 1950s, but now abandoned in favour of the larger, newer school in Anji township, a 15 minute drive away. Not to be wasted though, the schoolhouse had been turned over to all manner of useful activities – grain was being stored there, the local drunk had taken up residence in a corner, and a lot of washing was being dried on its covered balconies. On the ground floor a woman was cooking a communal lunch for many of the locals in an enormous wok. We climbed up through the washing to the roof, for a fantastic view – a panorama of the whole valley, vegetable plots, rows of tea, and stands of bamboo.

The villagers were surprised to see so many foreigners in one place, but they smiled a lot and tried to work out why on earth we would have an interest in their end-of-the-road village. They were all hoping to move on to bigger and better things, like everyone else in small villages all over the country. Shanghai is full of people from villages just like this one, working as odd jobs men and garbage recyclers, waitresses and cleaners. It’s hard to imagine they could like Shanghai better than this idyllic rural spot, but I was told the winters here are so harsh the water pipes freeze and they have to chip ice to melt for drinking water, and that there are frequent power cuts and no heating. Not so idyllic after all, but very beautiful nonetheless to our ignorant eyes. 

Anji Nine Dragon Valley

Apologies for the short break in transmission but I have been in the wifi-less wilds of the Anji Bamboo Forests for the last 3 days. Escaping from the urban jungle for my birthday, we drove for hours to a remote spot about an hour past Moganshan, through Anji township to the magnificent and sparsely populated Nine Dragon Valley.

This place is incredibly beautiful – lush green bamboo densely covers the steep hills, and between the hills mountain streams run cold and deep, spilling over into small waterfalls. From the top of the mountain to the bottom are nine waterfalls, each representing a mythical dragon with its own story. Dragons figure heavily in the myths and legends attached to natural wonders in China, and this place has nine dragons! Very auspicious. 

Although it was the weekend, it wasn’t crowded. A lot of Anji’s tourists come from Shanghai, and as everyone back in Shanghai was working the weekend to make up for this week’s three day Dragon Boat Festival, we were just about the only visitors. Perfect.

We took a trail walk up and over the mountain top on the first morning, to work up a big appetite for lunch (isn’t that why anyone goes for a long walk??). It’s been a long time since I was surrounded by so much green – as you walk through the bamboo forest the ground is covered with tiny wildflowers of all colours, but around you and above you is nothing but green – as the light filters through the top of the bamboo it becomes the colour of jade, and under the bamboo canopy it feels cool even though the day is hot and humid. 

The bamboo forest looks wild, but all this bamboo is being cultivated for harvest, and every trunk is marked with the name of the farmer, and the age of the bamboo so that it can be cut down at the correct time. Bamboo shoots not intended for cultivation are cut off for food, and many of Anji’s famous dishes centre around fresh or dried bamboo shoots. 

Anji’s hills also produce some of the most famous green tea in China, Anji White Tea (Anji Báichá 安吉 白茶) Every tiny plot of land not given over to bamboo farming is used to plant terraced rows of tea bushes, many clinging precariously to the sides of the steepest hills. The fresh green tips are picked and dried to make the tea – a delicate, light-flavoured and very pure green tea. 

After hours of climbing and clambering over and down each of the Nine Dragon waterfalls we returned at last to the base of the Nine Dragon Valley and cooled our hot feet in the river. Time for lunch!