The last stretch of road leading to the small village of Yuyuan is twisting and narrow, typical of mountain areas, and a glittering golden field appears and disappears from view as our bus weaves its way along the route. As we near the village entrance, the field, which lies below ground level, is completely blocked from view by one-story houses. So when hundreds of nodding sunflowers, dazzling in the afternoon sunlight, suddenly appear when the bus driver pulls over, we can't resist heading down the narrow S-shaped path that divides the field in two to examine them close-up.
"Where are you from?" asked an old villager surnamed Yu, sitting near some cattle by a stream.
Even during the National Day week-long holiday, when everywhere in China was said to be jammed with traffic, the large field is dotted with barely a dozen visitors, mostly from nearby cities.
The old man is waiting for his wife, who is picking wild Chinese bitter tea, also known as broadleaf holly leaf, on one of the 11 mountains that circle the field. On one hillside, pumpkins and sweet corn are being grown.
Among the visitors is Jack Liu, a young businessman from nearby and affluent Wenzhou.
"It's mostly old people here. Their children and grandchildren have all gone to the cities. When I found this place seven years ago, I loved it so much that I've kept coming back," he explained.
"Increasingly, more tourist groups visit here, but their schedule is too rushed for them to appreciate the tranquility. They usually just take a quick tour in about two hours. That's actually good as it means the village is still a quiet place, and that is very difficult to find in the area today. I hope it stays this way."
Yuyuan is a little-known spot in the Zhejiang Province, one of the most developed and wealthy areas in China. As in other Chinese provinces, many small towns there that were once quiet agricultural backwaters have been industrialized and modernized into bustling factory or tourist villages.
Yuyuan has somehow retained a serenity rare to find in the area today and has become a great place for a weekend escape from crowds and modern life. For those who only want to take picture at the Great Wall, there isn't much to see in a small place like this. But for visitors who appreciate natural beauty and human wisdom, much is waiting to be discovered.
Visitors can appreciate the village's intriguing layout, designed according to ancient Chinese astrology by a man reputed to be one of the wisest in China's history; examine the ornate wood carvings and stone and brick work created by skilled craftsmen more than 200 years ago; taste the golden sweet corn, sunflower seeds and tea from the mountains; get a feeling of the lives of old Chinese in small towns, so different from life in Shanghai.
"I find peace here," businessman Liu explained, saying he visits every few weeks between business trips and negotiations. "I can breathe here."
He is not the first person to have been beguiled by the area.
The origins of the village come with a tale, recorded in some local family books, of how the area's magical tranquility, beautiful scenery and mysterious feng shui brought such comfort to a traveler on a sad journey that he ended up moving to the area, becoming the ancestor of today's villagers.
The story goes that more than 800 years ago, a man surnamed Yu passed by as he took his father's body back to the family cemetery for burial. In order to get home quickly, he had rushed at full pelt, oblivious to the spectacular mountain scenery. By the time he neared the edges of today's Yuyuan, among mountains and forest, Yu was exhausted.
Bird song and scent of flowers distracted Yu from his weary rush home and he stopped to take a break. His first impressions of the area were so favorable that he decided to bury his father where he had stopped. Impressed by the feng shui of the area and hoping that burying his father there would bring good fortune to the family, Yu decided to move there.
Many elements of Yuyuan's intriguing layout are due to Liu Ji (1311-75), main advisor to Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98), the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhu came from a poor peasant family and had been given away by his parents, and this lack of a family power base made him one of the weakest warlords at the time. It is widely believed that Liu played a major role in ensuring that Zhu stood out from rivals who had more money and soldiers.
A military strategist, politician and poet, Liu was known for his study of classic text I Ching and relevant feng shui and tai chi issues. Considered one of the wisest men in Chinese history, he was said to have left a poem to the emperor in which he made accurate prophecies of what would happen during the 300 years of the dynasty.
Good feng shui
Yu's family book from Yuyuan records that Liu visited the village several times and gave advice to local people on changing the layout of the area to achieve a better feng shui.
At the time, Yuyuan villagers were struggling. They had tried to grow many different kinds of grain and vegetables, but nothing survived. Fish also died and floods were so frequent that they were constantly having to repair or rebuild homes.
Today, the village has a simple layout, with a river dividing it in two. It is said that villagers carried out Liu's suggestion to change the straight river into a tai chi S-shape in order to keep fortune inside the village rather than having it pouring out.
Following his advice, they also re-arranged the field at the entrance into a tai chi shape -- also the ancient Chinese zodiac sign for Pisces. This plus the locations of the 11 surrounding mountains, represent the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Other changes included drilling seven wells inside the village to enhance the good feng shui and building 28 houses according to the locations of the 28 major stars on an ancient Chinese star map.
Some of these old houses, repaired or rebuilt, still stand in their original locations, though it is difficult to map all 28.
"Old people say that it really worked. We had no more floods and Yuyuan produced among the biggest harvests in the area. We had good crops of grain even when nearby towns saw theirs hit by drought or flood," villager Yu explained.
"We also started having smart people passing the royal court exams. That's why in this remote small town, we have all these huge old houses from more than 200 years ago. They were built by villagers who passed the exams and became important government officials."
Old Yu is a carpenter in charge of the maintenance of some of these old houses including Liufeng Hall - also known as Shengyuan Hall.
The house was built in 1663 and was named Liufeng because it faces Mount Liufeng. The study room in the hall once served as a private school for children from the village and the sound of their voices reciting texts carried a great distance in the mountainous area. In time, the building was renamed Shengyuan Hall, as sheng means voice and yuan means far away.
Like many houses in the town, Shengyuan Hall has fine and detailed wood carvings and ornate brick and stone work on almost every window and pillar.
The main roof pillars in the front hall are carved with auspicious animals: the phoenix flying in the sky; the dragon swimming in the river; and the qi lin - or Chinese unicorn - running in the forest.
One pillar has a carving of nine fish, and their color changes according to the season. They were brownish yellow when we visited in autumn and Old Yu says they turns black in winter, red in spring, and lighter yellow in summer.
"This wood is from an aged camphor tree, that's why the color changes with the temperature," Old Yu explains. "Nobody can make these anymore. I'm among the last carpenters here, and I'm getting too old for the work," he added, with a note of regret.
His sons have all gone to the cities and only visit him every few years. He doesn't even know what they are doing these days, the old carpenter admitted.
To help protect the aged building, Shengyuan Hall is no longer a dwelling, though it is open to tourists.
Descendents of the family who lived there in the past now have a home next door.
However, most of the old buildings - about half of all the village houses - are still lived in, and they welcome visitors who show interest and respect.
Villagers say there are more than 400 tai chi symbols hidden in all kinds of places in the village. On our visit, we found some among the carvings, some in fading wall paintings dating back more than 200 years ago and some in stones set out before villagers' houses.
We found most of the symbols in the Ancestral Hall of the Yu Clan - the biggest building in the village. The family temple was built in 16th century, when five villagers passed the royal exam and became significant officials around the same time. It is a Chinese tradition to build family temple when great people emerge in the family, as a way to pay back ancestors who have protected them and also a status symbol to broadcast the family's success.
The temple has become the major gathering place for the villagers at major holidays and events. The carvings in this hall are also among the best in Yuyuan.
And that's no mean feat in a village that has fascinated residents and visitors alike for hundreds of years, with its natural beauty and rich and mysterious history embodied in its very buildings.
If you go
How to get there
Trains run daily from Shanghai to Jinhua West Station, with tickets priced at 104-125 yuan (US$16.5-19). It takes three hours to get to Jinhua West Station, and there is a bus stop next to the railway station exit. The cost of a taxi to Yuyuan ranges from 200 to 500 yuan, depending on the crowds and your bargaining skills. Or you can take Bus Line K19 or K330 to Jinhua South Station, which takes about 30 minutes.
From Jinhua South Station, buses leave every 15 minutes to Wuyi city. The one-hour trip costs 16 yuan. Then take a cab to Wuyi South Station. From there, a bus to the entrance of Yuyuan leaves every hour until 6pm. Tickets are 3 yuan.
The are no star-rated hotels in Yuyuan, since most tourists go back to Wuyi, a hot spring tourist spot, rather than stay in the village. Accommodation is available in two Yuyuan homes, while Taichi Villa - the local accommodation for students from Hangzhou's China Academy of Art - is tidy and serves food from the owner's farm.