If there’s one place that evokes the tranquil beauty of Chinese ink painting, it is Wuyuan – a county set in the mountains of Jiangxi Province. Reputed as “China’s most beautiful countryside”, Wuyuan is an ideal place to slow down, wander among old houses and smell the flowers.
Established in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Wuyuan features distinctive houses with black roofs and white walls. The walls themselves are inlaid with black bricks shaped like horse heads, hence the name “horse-head walls”. With the passage of time, rain and moisture have penetrated the white walls and have given them the watered down look of ink paintings.
The buildings are constructed at different heights to prevent fires from quickly spreading. In strict accordance with tradition, the brick and wood structures are decorated with exquisitely handcrafted wood, brick and stone sculptures. And homes are interspersed with ancestral temples, showing the residents’ respect and pride for their community’s history.
Besides its signature architecture, the county is also known for its fields of cole flowers. In spring, their golden petals blanket the horizon. The blossoms cover curved terraces, like luxurious brocade, cascading from hilltop to valley. When autumn comes, the flowers paint the land a fiery red.
The names of Wuyuan’s villages usually include the character “keng”, which means “stream” in the local dialect. This is how residents acknowledge the importance of the rivers that snake through their villages, sustaining communities that have nurtured countless generations of scholars, officials and tradesmen.
Two of Wuyuan’s villages actually have the same name – Likeng – except they’re written in different ways. To distinguish between the two, locals call one “Small Likeng” and the other “Big Likeng”.
Small Likeng is better known and gets more visitors since it’s only 12 km from the county seat. Its accessible location has brought the village both fame and commercialization. Several TV series and films have been shot here. Most homes located on the riverbanks double as shops and hostels. They sell camphor tree products, rice wine and local snacks. The sounds of vendors calling out their wares and tourists bargaining with them create a lively rhythm.
Among all the county’s villages, Small Likeng probably has the widest selection of restaurants, bars and hostels to suit customers of every budget. Big Likeng, on the other hand, is much quieter and relatively untouched.
Situated on a hill 56 km from the county seat, Big Likeng is quite hard to reach. You need to take a car or motorbike taxi to traverse the winding mountain road, which is sometimes blocked by soil that rain has eroded. For people seeking a challenge, a bicycle ride to the village may be just what they need.
Since homes in Big Likeng are made of wood, many of them did not survive the fires that have broken out throughout the centuries. But their ruins, navigable through moss-covered flagstone paths, remain intact. The village has become a favorite destination of art students and photographers, who sometimes stay for months documenting the majestic old architecture.
At the village entrance, you will often find local farmers chatting with each other. They’re usually willing to serve as tour guides at a cost of 20 yuan ($3.20) for every three hours. They’ll take you through Big Likeng’s narrowest alleys, show you the village’s most important buildings and point out the best spots for photo-taking. When finishing their job, they return to their everyday routine of playing with their children, drying vegetables under the sun, repairing shoes or washing clothes in the river.
When night falls, Big Likeng, along with Wuyuan’s other villages, becomes silent, like an ink landscape painting waiting to be viewed for another thousand years.