Spend a weekend at a restored Ming dynasty house in Zhaji village, Anhui, for some country respite, and you’ll quickly feel as though you are leagues away from the heady pace of Shanghai life. Chawu, ‘The Tea Master’s House’, is a rare and wonderful guesthouse, nestled in the weaving stone pathways of this old village. It has been restored with a great deal of care by its French owner Julien Minet, who fell in love with both the village and house when he first encountered them on a mission with UNESCO back in the ‘90s.
Many of the structure’s historical features are still in impeccable condition, and guests will find there is plenty to enjoy about this house of wooden beams and pillars, traditional slate roof tiles and stone floors.
Evenings and early mornings are the best time to enjoy Zhaji, a very attractive Huizhou village nestled in the Huangshan foothills, with a river running through a sea of grey tiled roofs. It has a history of inspiring painters and calligraphers, with several artists based in the village. Sadly its attractiveness brings the tourists too, including soul destroyingly noisy tour guides equipped with microphones.
Fortunately, Chawu’s location, surrounded by fields of rice paddies and mountains that are devoid of tourists, sets it apart from this hustle and bustle while also allowing you to explore the village during off-peak hours.
The manager of Chawu, Zha Wangwang, has maps and route suggestions to help you get out into the wider area and, although he can also organise trips to Huangshan, the nearby Xuangcheng has plenty of secluded beauty spots also worth a visit. We decide to escape the tourists (and buses of art students) on Saturday by hiking to Qingshan, a nearby mountain with a stunning lake sitting at the top. Part way up and reaching a small hamlet, we meet Yi Yin Chan Shi, a monk from Shandong who is building a Buddhist retreat in the peace of the hills. He invites us in for much- needed tea and food before, fully refreshed, sending us on our way to Qingshan.
From there we don’t pass any other human souls the whole time on the steep mountains except for an elderly farmer hunting for his cows (swiftly located). On arrival at Qingshan, a local woman invites us inside to refresh and we (again) avail ourselves of the boundless local hospitality with tea and chat, overlooking the still calm of the lake.
The next day, we hire bikes (from a shop on the village’s ‘Pedestrian Street’, 20RMB per half-day) and set out on a four-hour round trip to Baofeng, an absolutely glorious village surrounded by fields of rice paddies, chickens, water buffalos and cows. We leave our bikes in the village and set off on another trek to the top of the neighbouring mountain. There, amid caves and waterfalls, we meet the tiny, solitary Buddhist nun who calls the slopes home, and pay respects to her fabulous yellow temple, a re-creation of an earlier Song dynasty temple that was lost to fire. Be prepared to be enlisted in a spot of heavy lifting; she only comes down the mountain three times a year, and has nobody to lend a hand with shifting any heavy loads other than passing hikers.
The fabulous views from the top are worth the steep incline, as is the exquisite, overwhelming peace.And after all the exploring and fresh mountain air, nothing beats returning to enjoy Chawu’s cosy snugness – where of course, we settle in to drink more tea.
There are three bedrooms in the main house, all comfortable and furnished in a way that is sensitive to the building’s architecture and history. Modern comforts have also been added, including power showers and electric blankets, but the greatest addition is undoubtedly a roaring log fire.
You can book the whole house or a single room in the adjacent lodge, and although it is rented out through Airbnb, the house is somewhat nearer to a hotel, with a merry ayi bringing you breakfast, and a stream of other locals popping by to chat. There’s also a house cat, Shanshan, who budges for no guest.
You can arrange food delivery from a local restaurant, although we strongly also recommend visiting the fabulous restaurant of Mrs Zha (there are many Zhas in Zhaji) who, together with her husband, runs a hotel and restaurant in a beautiful traditional-style building with courtyard. Here, you can tuck into hearty local food – don’t miss her exceptional hongshao rou (braised pork) – all using homegrown produce. Sitting at a small stone table, watching the sun setting behind the mountains, the city feels a long way away.
How to get to Zhaji There’s one bus a day straight to the village from Shanghai’s Hutai Lu bus terminal. It leaves at 6pm and arrives at midnight, costing 116RMB each way. More convenient is the bus to Jingxian (118RMB per person; leaving six times daily). From there, local driver Mr Wen (139 6621 9985) can pick you up and take you to the village for 150RMB.
Prices at Chawu start from 279RMB per night for a single room and from 998RMB a night for the entire house. For more details, see chawu.com