"Outbound" is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not, that you can take yourself on for a little vacay. Safe travels!
The first guests were pigs. It was more than 15 years ago, and Li Hanyu, an art student who came to Xidi after growing up in Shanghai, fell in love with the pigpen. It had the high white walls and black horsehead eaves that define architecture in southern Anhui, and after falling into disrepair, the only creatures willing to live there had four legs and a snout. She renovated, called it the Pig’s Inn, decorated with vintage and antique Chinese mirrors, furniture and knick-knacks, and dove into the hospitality industry.
Fast forward to 2017, and she and I are chatting after dinner in her third location, a former oil-pressing factory out in the countryside. Hanyu and I go back. I was married in the area in 2011, mostly because of her and her charm and connections, though neither my wife nor I were Chinese.
“There are some writers here from a Chinese magazine,” she told me, “and they want me to write about the area’s minsu.” Minsu is a vague loanword from Japan and Taiwan that sort of implies an inn with a personal touch, and the concept has spread across China quickly in the last couple years. Her second property, an old merchant’s mansion turned nine-room hotel was probably the area’s first. “But I’m not a writer,” she said.
“How about you?”
And so last month I ended up back in Huizhou, as the area around southern Anhui and into Jiangxi used to be known, crisscrossing Yi and She counties to visit all types of inns, from ambitious collections of houses moved from other villages to disappointing mountain villages done up in Chinese Hotel Room style. Altogether, I spent almost a week on the road and visited 11 minsu. It is an area that holds particularly special meaning to me — the wedding, some vacations with close friends who have since left — but it’s a part of China that usually gets bypassed for Huangshan. And that’s wrong. Now that the high-speed train can take you there in a bit more than four hours from Shanghai, and will supposedly cut that down to two hours next year, you really should go.
Here’s where to stay:
1. Tangmo French House Hotel, Tangmo, Yi County (唐模法国家庭旅馆)
Phone number: 0559-354 8888
Room rates: 398rmb-2,580rmb
Tangmo is a picture-perfect Huizhou village with 1,400 years of history set along a small creek, and, a bit oddly, the site of some serious collaboration between the French and Chinese governments, hence the incongruous name. There is not a single French person within 50km of this place, much less a French house. Instead, it’s a collection of heritage buildings moved from all over Huizhou — dissembled, transported, reassembled from villages up to 80km away — and converted into a hotel. French conservationists helped in the restoration process. That’s where the French-ness ends. It opened in 2012.
The most impressive building was added in 2016: extremely successful Huizhou merchant Cheng Baimang’s 1,130 square meter home. Known as the House of Seven Skylights, Cheng’s house is a sprawling example of classic Huizhou architecture, with elaborate wood and stone carvings, rooms for servants, accountants and private tutors, and a formal sitting room, Shen De Tang, where an inscribed couplet reads “Being an entrepreneur is hard; Building a company is hard: But if you know it’s going to be hard, it’s not hard at all.” Altogether, the property now has 83 rooms.
A five-minute walk away is another minsu by the same owners, this one an original house in its original place, built by Tangmo merchant Wang Yinchuan, who made his fortune as a trader in Zhejiang province at the end of the Qing dynasty. The setting is lovely; the rooms are decorated with wallpaper and carpets.
Skip it. Stay in the old houses.
2. Dongyuan Yizhan, Shuidong Village, Huangshan District (东园艺栈)
Phone number: 0559-856 6188 or 138 6559 6880
Room rates: 880rmb-1,180rmb
Wang Kedong went fishing one day and ended up with a minsu. As he was fishing, which of course is never about fishing, but always about drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and doing nothing —“clearing your mind”, Wang says — he found a really gnarly tree root. He hauled it out of the water, and as one does, he carved the tree root into something that looked like part-tree root, part-sculpture. Tree root carvings are a big thing in China. Big with the walnut-bracelet wearing crowd and those guys. So began his career as a root carver.
It was profitable. Profitable enough that in 2013, he bought the local party meeting hall, a long barn-like space that was used for all the fun political events of the day, but had been recently downgraded into a storage warehouse. That’s now the lobby of his minsu, decorated with root carvings and various Cultural Revolution ephemera, and watched over by pictures of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Stalin, four happy guys concerned with your guest experience. It’s quite cool. It’s Wang’s hang-out place, where he says things like “minsu can’t be minsu without the farmers around” and “I live here, I love here, I use the natural materials to make a living."
The rooms themselves are new and still have the strong scent of pine used in construction. The most photogenic part of Wang’s minsu is the façade, an Art Deco-looking design painted an earthy yellow. But for Wang, it’s not the age of the rooms that define a minsu. It’s him. “If you’re at a five-star hotel, you won’t talk to the boss,” he says. “You check-in, you get your room key, you swipe in, that’s it.” Not so here. If you’re staying here, you’re talking to Wang. That’s no bad thing, especially because there is NOTHING to do in the area.
3. The Anon Hotel, Huizhou Ancient Town, She County (安若酒店)
Phone number: 0559-660 8599
Room rates: 860rmb-1,360rmb
This is a boutique minsu with an unbelievably cool meeting hall. The compound used to belong to the government – part of it was the county’s complaint office – sold to private developers who wanted to keep things the way they are, which is cool, because the space is unique: a colonial-style two-floor courtyard home built in 1953, well after these things went out of style. Like so many of these minsu, this place had fallen into disrepair – the residents here were dogs, not pigs – before being rehabbed into tourist digs. The 18 rooms were done by nine different designers, and some of the themes are really beautiful, like the Japanese room, and some are just tacky, like the one with a wall of boomboxes and old TVs painted white (it looks better in pictures than in real life).
The crown jewel here, and the reason to stay, or maybe visit for an afternoon is the meeting hall. This was the space that would have held all the political rallies in the 1950s and 1960s, that would have shown movies in the 1970s and 1980s, and that had no use and were mostly torn down in the 1990s. It is huge, with a mezzanine floor, and the ground floor is still lined with those fixed wooden benches with fixed armrests, like going to the school gymnasium in 1972. Now there’s a small gift shop, and a little coffee shop, and you’re welcome to just wander and hang out. They tried a folk music festival a couple years ago but there are a lot of ex-officials living in the area, and they quickly put the kaibash on that. Still. That meeting hall. Such a relic. Amazing that it survived. Nostalgic even if you’re not Chinese.
4. Creek Villa, Xixinan Village, Huizhou District (清溪涵月 乡绅别院)
Phone number: 0559-353 5111 or 188 5599 7701
Room rates: 580rmb-1,080rmb
Yu Huai and her husband never intended to run a minsu. Originally from Hefei, Yu and her husband both lived and worked in Shenzhen for many years as executives at a high-tech electronics firm, and with their son gone off to school in the US, they were looking for someplace quiet to retire in 2011 when the Creek Villa project sort of fell into their lap. The government had built 80-plus villas in a small town less than 15 minutes from the high-speed rail station, hoping to attract farmers to relocate, but they made a mistake: the villas didn’t have anywhere to raise chickens or ducks, so the farmers said no way. So the government offered some villas to Yu. The first rooms opened in 2016.
Creek Villa is an attractive mix of modern architecture and traditional ways of living, and what started as almost an accident has given Yu and her husband Du a sense of purpose. Their property, which has 38 rooms and a swimming pool fed by a natural well, is a mission statement about how to grow food and harvest animals responsibly, and to that end they have 150 mu of land where they practice what they preach.
I toured the farm for almost an hour, passing fields of rice, lotus ponds waiting to be harvested for their roots, a peach orchard, melon patches, grape vines, taro, stalks of okra, tall green plants I couldn’t identify until Yu rattled their pods and explained they were sesame, rapeseed for producing their own canola oil, and a complex of modern greenhouses designed to grow with minimal water. Educational experiments for kids sat on the tables. White egrets lifted off and flew across the creek that marks the border of their property. For his part, Du is a strong advocate for composting and for catching fish naturally, not through the use of electric stunning, a common practice in the area, and he says that in the years and he and Yu have been at Creek Villa, they are seeing progress.
“It’s a lifestyle, not a business,” Yu told “We still have things to do but it’s not as complicated as living in the city,” she says. “It’s a nice life.”
5. The Pigs Inn Old Oil Factory, Yi County (猪栏酒吧老油厂店)
Phone number: 0559-517 5555
Room rates: 680rmb-1,280rmb
I have a special affection for the Pig’s Inn. After visiting several times in 2010, I fell in love with the place, and in 2011, I returned to get married in Xidi, with Li Hanyu’s help. It was her personal touch as a host that drew in me, and though no would have called her place a minsu back then, her natural instinct for hospitality and her strong emphasis on heritage and the local environment are practically the definition of the term today. All those years ago, on a cool spring afternoon, Li’s husband led us through the ruins of what used to be the local oil-pressing plant, with crumbling walls and rotting wood. A single, spectacular room remained with 1960s political slogans still vivid on the cross-beams. This, he told me, would be their next project.
Though there is a second Pig’s Inn in a former merchant’s home, also in Bishan, with nine rooms, the best of the bunch is the oil-pressing factory, which they finally completed in 2014. (Construction lasted longer than my marriage. An unpleasant realization right there.)
It is twenty rooms across twenty mu of land – about three acres -- but done in such a low-profile style that even when fully occupied, it gives the feel of having the rustic house all to yourself. This property, clearly their most ambitious, has a full library surrounding the heavy oil press, full of art books, and eating and relaxing nooks are scattered all over the grounds, including a meditation hall big enough for twenty people and a yoga hut overlooking the creek big enough for just one.
Where other minsu in Huizhou feel as though they’ve either been there for centuries or were just constructed in the last year or two, Li’s art is in creating a place that feels neither old nor new, but as if it’s always been there. As at her other properties, vintage and antique pieces decorate the rooms, but so do local fabrics and textiles, and a projector lights up the wall every night just beneath the original painted slogans from the long-gone political campaigns. The cooking is spectacular rural food, done by an informal team of ayis. Much of the food is grown in the backyard or bought from the neighbors, like the sugary black sesame candies that are always out for the taking, and made about 500 meters down the road in the traditional way by a husband and wife team. I’d write an entire article about the food at the Pig’s Inn and how it sums up the soul of Chinese home cooking, but this isn’t the place for that.
Instead, a sign hanging at the Pig’s Inn is probably more instructive, and sums the entire place up: “Coolest House in The World”.