Hike along winding, lushly forested mountain paths. While away hours, transposing misty river scenes to paint and canvas. Get an up-close peek at traditional village life.


It is easy to overlook these simple pleasures from the crowded, modern cities many of us call home. The pressure to succeed drives us speedily through our urban lives and even into our vacations. The desire to see the best or the oldest or the most famous landmarks pack us into planes and trains with thousands of others driven to catch a glimpse and a picture of some site already immortalized in books, poems, art and statistics. In China, this cycle is especially easy to fall into as there is so much to do and see, both at home and at the countless famous must-see destinations that pepper the country.


But there are still places that defy these trends; pockets of quiet nature, rich in their own culture, but overlooked by the typical tourist crowds. The District of Liandu in the modest city of Lishui is one of these. Tucked amidst mountains, rivers and forests, the area has long maintained a reputation for its beautiful views and nature scenes, which the local government has managed to preserve despite Eastern China’s rush to develop over the past few decades. Lishui boasts an impressive array of official ecological titles as a result, as well as unofficial nicknames such as “East China’s largest oxygen bar.”


Despite its picturesque scenery, Lishui is little known outside of China, and even the domestic tourism market tends to overlook it in favor of more famous areas like Huangshan, a few hours’ drive to the northwest. Yet this gem is definitely worth a visit. I recently had the opportunity to spend three days enjoying the city’s villages, parks, museums and food, and I came away from the experience anxious to return—perhaps with a few friends to share it.


Village Life | 乡村生活

It is said that to understand China, you need experience its countryside. For thousands of years, China’s great advances and innovations in art and technology came from the land: paper from trees; porcelain from the earth; tea, silk and alcohol from agriculture. This also happens to be where I began my journey in Lishui: in green fields of the Shaxicun She Minority Village at the base of Dongxiyan Scenic Area.


The She ethnic minority are one of China’s 56 ethnic groups and are found mainly in southeastern provinces such as Guangdong, Fujian, and southern Zhejiang. Most She people use a language, Shehua, that shares similarities with Hakka. Historically an agricultural people, many of their festivals and traditions pay homage to the land and seasons upon which their crops and therefore their livelihood depends. Shaxicun is a tranquil community bejeweled with fertile fields and gardens. While the tourism industry is very much alive here with newly constructed guesthouses sprouting throughout the village and an evening dinner performance that introduces many of the local songs, dances stories and specialties to curious visitors, there is still a strong sense of a close-knit, lively community.


Into the Woods | 进入树林

A visit to Shaxicun isn’t complete without a visit to its 4A grade National Scenic Area, Donxiyan (Dongxi Rock). Hire a guide, and you can enjoy an informative and entertaining hike up a paved path into a chilled forest. Bamboo, camphor trees and evergreens mingle with ferns and other jungle vegetation. Orchids dangle precariously from vines. Occasionally, the path leads to a poetically named cave, rock or view before snaking back again. The park is big enough that it could easily take up half a day if you aren’t the type to constantly stop for selfies.


Oils and Water | 油和水

Less than an hour’s drive from Shaxicun is the Guyan Huaxiang Scenic Area. An old-fashioned ferry carries you up the Da River, past mist-shrouded mountains and fishermen pushing bamboo rafts with wooden poles along glassy waterways to a serene waterfront village.


Huaxiang translates to Painting Village. The story goes that the area around the village is so beautiful that artists flock here from afar to paint. Along the village streets, you’ll find offbeat offerings ranging from cafes and music bars to artists’ studios, workshops and all kinds of handmade items. The village is also home to an impressive number of art schools, and students set up easels in the streets to practice their craft. Museums and galleries show off the works of local and visiting artists. Many of the local studios and artists produce their works for foreign art markets, but it is possible to buy directly or commission custom pieces, or even better, to sit along side them, pull out your paints and make your own.


Beyond Village Life | 超越乡村生活

The further you explore, the more you find. Some enterprising village members in Lishan Village, an endpoint for the Guanling Ancient Road, have set up an imposing adventure park over a mountain creek that progresses in difficulty the higher you get. This is in addition to their spectacular lotus ponds that dazzle during summers and family-friendly recreational farming activities. Jiulong Wetland Park is filled with broad grassy fields perfect for little legs to romp and roll.


The city of Lishui also has an urban core that in many ways resembles a great many moderate Chinese cities. The Lishui Museum is large and impressive and covers a generous swath of natural and cultural history. Zhejiangosaurus, a nodosaurid dinosaur was discovered in Lishui, and the fossils are proudly on display, alongside evidence of the area’s natural wealth: minerals, plant and animal species are all represented. A short walk to the Astronomy Tower offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains as well as an introduction to Chinese astrology within an immaculately kept pagoda. There is also a photography museum in the city, and a surprising street nearby that pays homage to the history of photography in China.


Eating It Up | 吃掉它

Eating in Lishui is a fantastic experience. Food is fresh and crisp, and the options are diverse, especially the vegetables. Flavors tend toward the mellow and the subtle. Bamboo and mushrooms appear often. Lishui mushrooms even enjoy a bit of fame beyond the borders of the city. If you’re a mushroom fan, the mushroom hotpot is light, flavorful and very special.


Where to Stay | 停留在哪里

Lishui has the usual assortment of business hotels, but it also has more interesting and atmospheric places to take a rest. Out in the villages, homestays and family run Bed & Breakfasts are common. I stayed in Shejia Xiaozhu in Shaxicun, a gorgeous old country house. In the city core, Heyin City Bed and Breakfast even pays homage to this culture of countryside hospitality with an atmospheric village-themed boutique inn within a shopping plaza. One very impressive project is Huanting Xiananshan Eco Resort, a beautifully designed restoration of an entire ancient village. Thoughtful accommodations like these all bode well for Lishui’s future as a sustainable tourist destination for those looking for a romantic experience of China that’s accessible, but a bit off the beaten path.