Chuandixia is too small to feature on the Beijing city-state map, which means that few people know about it. Knowledge of the 400-year-old town spreads by word of mouth, and many mouths talk quietly to limit the number of visitors who might otherwise spoil the Scenic tranquillity of its courtyard houses, built during the Ming Dynasty.
This historical spot makes a low-cost weekend trip from urban Beijing. In the Chinese capital, demolition crews are wrecking block after block of the four-room, grey brick courtyard homes that once defined the city's architecture. They will give way to high-rise apartments, which residents find more comfortable than courtyard homes and which city officials think better fit Beijing's image as host city for the Olympics.
Chuandixia offers a welcome contrast. By law, the 70 single-storey courtyard homes cannot be destroyed or remodelled. This striction preserves each home's one eaves, peaked roofs, patterned wooden windowpanes , and unique court rooms around a central courtyard and a doorway leading to a stone street.
Disturbed by last year's destruction of a historically significant district in Zhejiang province, apparently orchestrated by misguided local officials, Chinese cultural relics administrators have lately urged better protection of places deemed not standing in the way of the country's Modernisation drive. Two years ago the administrators bolstered preservation rules written to save places as rich as Chuandixia.
The town gained a name in northern China as a staging-post on the postal route from Beijing to the provinces of Shanxi and Zaanxi to the west. It also produced an unusually high number of people who passed China's imperial examations, according to the Beijing Language and Cultural Centre for Diplomatic Missions. The centre bills the town the best-preserved architectural complex from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Many of the town's former residents died during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s. The few who survive today mostly work as corn farmers or goat herders, and almost everyone has a hand in lodging, feeding or transporting tourists.
To get there from urban Beijing, people usually pack some bottled water and dried food for the road, plus a camera and a change of clothes, then head out as early as possible on a Saturday morning. From the end of Beijing's subway line, travellers board a public bus that winds 90km through gorges rimmed by small farms and near-vertical hills reminiscent of the movie Mulan. The bus stops at the town of Zhaitang, from where travelers hire a cab for a 15-minute trip to Chuandixia. Alternatively, it may be possible to negotiate a ride all the way with a Beijing cab driver, although a return trip is likely to cost several hundred yuan.
Since the town is a historical preservation zone, travellers pay a Yn10 admission fee. An overnight room plus breakfast with almost any resident family, many of whom advertise on the main street, costs Yn20 a head. A room normally adjoins three others in a courtyard-style home, so you will likely meet your neighbours. Each room comes with hot water, a dirt floor and a kang-style hard bed. Toilets are pits of sand outside.
The homes are in a tight mountain valley, which makes them easy to pack into a camera viewfinder. The whole town can be seen by hiking up a stone path to a decrepit Buddhist temple. The Buddha inside is made of polystyrene. Hillside views attract Beijing watercolour artists and photographers. Some people also visit the town museum, which is on Chuandixia's highest alley.
The old dirt postal road leads up a canyon where you are likely to encounter goats being herded to highland pastures. The herders like to talk, but their rural Beijing accent may throw off inexperienced Chinese speakers. A 20-minute walk leads to a road segment where cliffs squeeze the road so tight that those who look up see just `a crack in the sky', as the place is known in Chinese. Watercolour artists perch along bends in the road to paint the cliffs. Where the cliffs recede, a narrower road forks off the main one and leads to a single-file trail heading up a new canyon. This hike reveals more vertical cliffs as well as a variety of flowers.
Back in town, many families offer board as well as a room. A restaurant behind the red lanterns at the north end of the main street serves chicken soup, home-made scrambled tofu and fresh lightly fried wild greens. A meal for two costs less than Yn100. Diners may easily start a conversation with the staff, an original Chuandixia family who attract diners weary of the sodden atmosphere of their courtyard guest rooms.
Back in their rooms, dirt floors notwithstanding, travellers drink beer, play cards or simply savour probably their quietest night in the city-state of Beijing.