Next Time You're in ... Anhui

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Historic charm Nine-hundred-year-old Xidi is one of two beautifully preserved villages largely built by Huizhou merchants, who prospered as financiers and traders in Ming- and Qing-dynasty China

If you're an Ang Lee fan, a stroll through the village of Hongcun — one of two UNESCO-protected villages in the rolling hills of China's Anhui province — might bring on a wave of déjà vu. That's because scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) were filmed there — and with good reason. With their narrow lanes and historic architecture, Hongcun and its sister village, Xidi, beautifully evoke a time of upright gentry, sword-wielding braves and brocade-clad maidens.

Both villages lie in the Huizhou region, about 480 km southwest of Shanghai. The area flourished in the Ming and Qing dynasties, when local merchants established a trading and financial network that covered the whole of China. The merchants spent much of their lives on the road, but they built sprawling residences and public gathering places in their home villages to house their families and display their wealth. Xidi and Hongcun are the best preserved of these villages.

While they can be crowded with tourists, especially in summer, the villages' most frequent visitors are art students, who can be found on every corner with sketch pads and watercolors. Li Guoyu, the Shanghainese proprietor of a small, quirky guesthouse in Xidi, went to the area as an art student herself and never forgot its beauty. Today, she and her husband run the Pig's Heaven Inn, tel: (86-559) 515 4555. It's so called because there was a pigsty on the property when the couple purchased it. The place has won plenty of fans with its arty decor, tasty country meals and location, this being a great base for exploring the pine- and bamboo-covered hills. From there, you can also visit the legendary Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), an hour's drive away. And if it looks a little familiar, well, parts of Crouching Tiger were filmed there too.

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